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José Olivarez Books In Order

Publication Order of BreakBeat Poets Books

Citizen Illegal (2018)Hardcover  Paperback  Kindle

Jose Olivarez
Poet, educator, and author Jose Olivarez is from Calumet, Illinois and is the son of Mexican immigrants. He graduated from Harvard University. His work has been featured in The Paris Review, The New York Times, as well as other places. He hosts a poetry podcast, called The Poetry Gods.

“Citizen Illegal”, his debut book of poetry, won the 2018 Chicago Review of Books Poetry Prize and was a finalist for the PEN/Jean Stein Award. It was named a top book of the year 2018 by NPR, The Adroit Journal, and the New York Public Library. In the year 2018, he was named a Debut Poet of 2018 by Poets & Writers and was awarded the first annual Author and Artist in Justice Award from the Phillips Brooks House Association.

In the year 2019, he was also awarded Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg and Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation. He has also gotten a fellowship in 2016 from Poets House Emerging Fellowship.

Jose’s also worked for the educated and writing organizations Urban Word in New York and Young Chicago Authors, which produces the youth poetry festival.

High school was the very first time that he began writing poems beyond just school assignments. He’d have a poetry unit and he might write a poem or he’d have a short story unit and he’d write a short story. Once he was introduced to the poetry slam team during high school, he began writing on his own time. He developed many close friendships with writers and they would trade poems even while they began going off in different directions.

That said, he didn’t know he even wanted to be a poet. Frankly, he didn’t know that it was possible to be a poet as a career. Until about 2005 or 2006, he never met a living poet. If somebody told him that each of the poets had gone extinct, he would’ve believed them.

He got the title of “Citizen Illegal” after writing the title poem in the year 2014. Before he published the book, he shared it with a friend of his and he told him that he should call his book “Citizen Illegal”. At the time, he didn’t have too many poems at that time, but the seed began growing. In his head, he had the idea that he was working toward a book of poems called “Citizen Illegal”, but he didn’t know what the shape of the book would be, or the order, or what poems would be included in it or would be left out.

By 2017, he finally had almost a hundred poems compiled in various stages of completion. When he laid these works out together, he saw he was close to finishing a book he could be proud of and started working toward specific gaps in the project and tried figuring out ways to make this book more cohesive.

For “Citizen Illegal”, he wanted to create a book of poetry that the people Jose loves will be proud of. Many of the poems are about his experience as a first generation Mexican-American Chicano, and his family and he really wanted to write poems that weren’t shameful, not ashamed.

He wanted these poems to be poems that his brother wouldn’t be at all embarrassed to show to his co-workers, that his mother could show the family or her co-workers, and that his students would want to give to their friends. He didn’t want people to look at any of them and think that Jose’s ashamed of them, or that he’s very sad just being a part of them. He really is proud of his people, his community, and where he comes from.

Chen Chen’s book “When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities” is a book Jose finds is incredible. When Jose read it, it felt like Chen Chen was also talking about Jose’s experience. He was able to subvert and investigate the expectations about what immigrant children should be or even aspire to. Its use of humor felt very much like what Jose wanted to do, and it helped him rewrite a lot of the poems that he had already but weren’t moving the way he wanted them to.

Natalie Scenters-Zapico’s “The Verging Cities” is another book beautiful book of poems to Jose. It taught him how to extend an image. There’s one poem that he taught, that he believes is a love poem, with the speaker observing their partner viewing a show on Sunday. And in that moment of observation, you see a tree grow from this person, and since this tree grows, it invites all of the birds that usually live in that tree to come.

Reading her book also made him start thinking about how he could make his own images even more surreal. As well as how if he just planted something in his poem, then it was also an invitation to everything else that lives in that world to enter into the poem.

“Wild Hundreds” by Nate Marshall, is one of Jose’s favorite books. The book, and the way he structured it, was helpful to Jose in figuring out to organize his own book. Nate was the last person to sit down with Jose and spread these poems out and help put the poems into some kind of order.

“Citizen Illegal” is the first book and was released in the year 2018 and was published by Haymarket Books. This is a revealing portrait of life as a first generation immigrant, a shout against erasure, a celebration of Chicano joy, and a vibrant re-imagining of Mexican American life.

The book explores the contradictions, sorrows, tales, and joys that embody life in the spaces between America and Mexico. He paints portraits of bad and good kids, families that cling to hope, gentrifying barrios, life after the steel mills, and everything else in between.

Readers found this to be a moving collection of autobiographical poems and offers a wide-ranging exploration of Chicano identity. This is not just a commentary on complex and timely issues of immigration, race, and ethnicity, but also a celebration, a journey toward a self and a family identity that’s grounded not just in geography but in the veined map of the heart.

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