An Interview with José Olivarez about “Promises of Gold” – Chicago Review of Books


“I dreamed of writing love letters to the homies,” José Olivarez tells the reader in the author’s note to Promises of Gold,  his multilayered and much-anticipated second collection of poetry, which can be read in English and in Spanish translation. Seeing a bilingual edition of contemporary poetry from a major American publisher is rare, and so is Olivarez’s decision to open the book with a direct note to the reader explaining his process. 

Olivarez writes that he was obsessed with the subject of friendship, but then the pandemic changed his plans—and everyone else’s. “Promises of Gold is what happens when you try to write a book of love poems for the homies amid a global pandemic that has laid bare all the other pandemics that we’ve been living through all our lives,” he writes. 

The collection’s structure mirrors that sense of considering all sorts of subjects; it consists of eleven sections which are meant to replicate waves. Section titles, like “Gold,” “God” and “Glory,” evoke the history of Spain’s colonization of the Americas, including Mexico, where Olivarez’s family is from. Just after the author’s note, readers encounter a wonderful translator’s note from David Ruano Gonzalez, who first met Olivarez in Mexico through the Lit & Luz Festival, which connects Chicago’s literary, artistic, and musical community to Mexico’s. 

Whatever you do, don’t skip the translator’s note. I was especially moved by it, and found it helped put all of Olivarez’s work in context.Ruano Gonzalez explains what influenced his translation decisions for Promises of Gold, and in particular, his choice to translate the term “Mexican writer” in Olivarez’s “Ode to Tortillas,” which appeared in The Atlantic, as “un escritor mexican.” 

I wrote to Olivarez to learn more about how this collection that lives between languages came to life.

Aviya Kushner

Let’s start by delving into language and how this book was made. I’m fascinated by the decision to publish this book in both English and Spanish, the two languages that permeate your life—especially because you write, in “Ode to Tortillas,” that “there’s two ways to be a Mexican writer. you can translate /from Spanish. or you can translate to Spanish. /or you can refuse to translate altogether.” At what point in your process did you decide to ask a translator to translate Promises of Gold into Spanish? What has the experience of being translated into Spanish taught you about poetry, and your ties to both Spanish and English?

José Olivarez

I love this question. I wrote “Ode to Tortillas” thinking about Don Mee Choi’s essay “Womb 861945.” Choi’s writing led me to consider all translation as an inherently political act. You can translate for empire or against empire. I read Choi’s essay when I was teaching high school students at the University of Iowa’s Between The Lines program. Who is asked to translate, I asked them? It occurred to us that translation worked in one direction. If English was not your first language no one cared to translate or make things easier for you. Whereas, if you are from a marginalized community, you are asked to translate all the time: what does your slang mean? Why do you do that dance? How do you eat that food? Why that outfit? Why do you do your eyelashes like that? On and on and on. We have to explain and justify ourselves over and over. I want to be clear that I’m not conflating these ordinary annoyances with the acts of translation and forgetting that Choi discusses in her essay. Choi’s essay made me think about power. 

Apologies for being long winded. In the lines you quoted in “Ode to Tortillas” I was thinking about how the Mexican writer can be complicit in the US imperial project by writing stories in either English or Spanish or Spanglish that further entrench notions of United States superiority or the American Dream and so on. 

I decided to pursue a bilingual edition of Promises of Gold after teaching a workshop in Los Angeles with students and parents. I taught the workshop in English and Spanish and all of the students got a copy of Citizen Illegal. Afterwards, the parents thanked me and told me they enjoyed the workshop and wished they could read the poems alongside their kids. 

The experience of reading my poems in English and Spanish makes me emotional. David Ruano translated the poems and he does an incredible job of capturing the music of my poems. I’ll think more about what it’s taught me about poetry. I haven’t gotten there yet. I’m still kind of enchanted by imagining myself as a child when I only spoke Spanish. To see these poems in Spanish heals a little bit of that inner child. Again, I apologize for being sentimental and corny. 

Aviya Kushner

Despite all their exploration of feelings and the expression of them, these poems also chronicle silence and its strange power. I felt this most in “Most,” one of the shortest poems in the book, which reads in its entirety: 

      the most Mexican thing about me

      is I drink with men

      who don’t say anything about how they’re feeling

      until we’re drunk & almost crying

Does that expectation to “not say anything” affect your process as a writer? How does silence relate, in your mind, to “all the other pandemics we’ve been living through all our lives” which you discuss in your author’s note?

José Olivarez

I’ve been turning over this question for a few days now, and I’m not sure I have a satisfying answer. My instinct is to relate the expectation to not say anything to the volta. I know my tendency as a writer is towards revelation. I love a punchline. I’ve always related that instinct to my experience writing for poetry slam. Maybe it’s also related to those moments with the men in my life where feeling and emotion would come forth all at once. 

Before I answer the second part of your question, I want to get into what I mean by silence. We are in the thick of the coronavirus pandemic. Over a million people have died as a result of covid. There has been no memorial to those who have died. There has been no moment of public grief. Silence. That’s what we’ve been given. For me, silence and amnesia go hand in hand. Capitalism erases history as it happens. There can only be the promise of today.

Aviya Kushner

In addition to silence, you are also interested in erasure—of history, language, and experience. I was moved by another short poem, “Eviction Notice,” which is just three lines long and has a strikethrough in the middle: 

     (there is no poem

     that can unlock the door

     to my childhood home.)

How do you see the role of this poem in the collection? And if it’s okay to ask—how did the experience of eviction shape you as a person and as a writer?

José Olivarez

Perhaps one way to think of my poems are as poems of failure. This poem is a failed poem. It cannot do the only thing I wanted to do which was open the door to my childhood home. It fails. Likewise, I think of all the poems that attempt to gather all my loved ones who have passed away as a type of failure. They can’t do what I want them to do. I can’t hug my grandparents or ride in the car with my uncle. 

There is a purpose to my failures. Just because something is impossible doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying. Secondly, there are moments before the poem ends where it is not a failure. In that moment before the poem ends, there is something real that can be conjured. Maybe writing is a way to extend those visitations. To extend the time we can spend with the impossible. 

Here’s another answer. This poem has a different music than the other poems in the collection. It is unsettling. It lacks the music and figurative imagination of some of the other poems. It doesn’t go on tangents. What is its purpose? To disrupt any flights of fancy the reader might be on and remind them of the material circumstances that surround the book. 

Aviya Kushner

Let’s talk about Jeff Bezos—or in the poem, “jeff bezos.” He makes a cameo in the poem “It’s Only Day Whatever of the Quarantine & I’m Already Daydreaming of Robbing Rich People.” Many of these poems address capitalism, debt, and structural inequality. This poem is also open about the fact that a reader can say, “it’s not a good poem,” and the poem actually agrees with that sentiment. But this poem also takes a swipe at the long history of pastoral poetry, of poems that are about nature, with “I don’t see birds. I see bills. Bills & coffins.” Why is it important for poems to openly discuss money? Do you think contemporary poets are getting more comfortable talking about debt and poverty than previous generations? And who are some poets you think write about money well? 

José Olivarez

I don’t know if writing about money is important for everyone. But it’s important for me. Poverty and proximity to poverty have shaped my life. Even though I am no longer in a financially precarious position, there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t worry about money or debt or how my brothers and I will be able to take care of my parents. My poems would suffer by denying this reality. 

See Also

I think all writing reveals something about point of view. When I read a book of poems that doesn’t mention money once, it tells me something about that writer. 

I don’t know if contemporary poets are getting better at talking about money. I don’t have a solid answer. Two poets who are excellent writers and also write about money well are Morgan Parker and Ariel Francisco. Xan Phillips has an excellent love poem that is shaped by the limitations of money. Natalie Diaz also writes about money well. 

Aviya Kushner

This collection looks at all kinds of homes—old and new. In “Another Harlem Poem,” you write about the strange silence during the pandemic, when the only sounds you heard were “sirens & birds.” Though you grew up in Calumet City and have deep ties in Chicago, and have a poem in Poetry titled “wherever i’m at that land is Chicago,”  I gather that you spent the pandemic in New York, 800 miles away from family. How did New York affect this book?

José Olivarez

I spent the first year of the pandemic in Harlem. After that, my wife and I moved to New Jersey. How does New York shape the book? There is a particular loneliness that I feel in New York. I’ll be walking around the city surrounded by people, and all those people magnify my loneliness. There is also so much beauty in the city. There are moments of awe. I remember clearly walking up the steps of the 125th Street-8th Ave. stop of the subway and seeing the sky in all its glory. It’s also the city where my wife and I fell in love, so all of that filters through the book. 

Aviya Kushner

Since you write that this collection began as love poems to friends and friendship, let’s end on that note. I’d love to know—which aspects of Chicago’s literary community sustained you as you wrote these poems, and perhaps, continue to sustain you as a poet? Shout-outs to writers, translators, editors, bookstores, and all kinds of friends of literature welcome, along with any other feelings or silences or homes you feel are relevant.

José Olivarez

All of the bookstores in Chicago are so important to me. Rebecca at Volumes asked me about my writing and always offered up a space to share works in progress. Women and Children First has photos of Chicago poets adorning their poetry shelf and before I ever published a book, H. Melt put my photo on that shelf. Semicolon invited me to be a part of their first ever literary festival. Ydalmi, at the Poetry Foundation got me into an event with Sandra Cisneros and introduced me to her. Sandra has been so kind and supportive, and that means the world to me. I met David Ruano, my translator, through our work with Make Literary Productions’s Lit and Luz festival. And then there are all of the homies whose open mic snaps, whose light touch on the shoulder, whose hugs, whose poems shape my writing. Diamond Sharp, Eve Ewing, Nate Marshall, and Fatimah Asghar all saw early versions of this manuscript. Raych Jackson, Britteney Black Rose Kapri, Lamar Smith, Shaun Peace & Blacc Kristoff, Araba Appiagyei, Mercedes Zapata, Karla Gutiérrez, Jamila Woods, Kaina, Sen Morimoto, H. Melt, Vic Chávez, and more influenced Promises of Gold with their art and feedback. Sentrock, Yvette Mayorga, Elsa Muñoz, Grae Rosa, Krista Franklin, & MALA HORA are also huge influences of mine. Can I shout out the lake? Can I shout out anybody that ever came to a cookout at Remi Mansion? I have to shout out anybody that ever came to one of my family parties in Calumet City. When I think about Chicago I always come back to these lines from Ada Limón from her poem, “We Are Surprised”: 

Here it is:

the new way of living with the world

inside of us so we cannot lose it,

and we cannot be lost. 

By José Olivarez
Henry Holt & Company
Published February 14, 2023


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