Alan Chazaro is the author of This Is Not a Frank Ocean Cover Album (Black Lawrence Press, 2019) and Piñata Theory (Black Lawrence Press, 2020). He is currently an adjunct professor at the University of San Francisco, a columnist at Palette Poetry, and is raising money for NBA arena workers during COVID-19. To learn more about his fundraising project, visit Mid 90s Kamikaze at https://gumroad.com/l/KHuQH for more details or find him on Twitter @alan_chazaro.
Alejandro Perez: You write in your acknowledgements page that much of the chapbook was written while listening to a slowed-down version of Blonde on repeat. How do you think listening to music influenced your process? Do you feel like it activates the subconscious part of your brain more? Basically, could you just expand more on your writing process for this chapbook?
Alan Chazaro: I’ve always studied hip hop—specifically the way albums build an arc—and studying this helped me in terms of putting a poetry collection together. With Frank Ocean’s Blonde, I was interested in the feelings created by the album, and while writing poems for this chapbook, I was trying to replicate that same vibe. I think about music not so much in terms of the message but the feeling or vibe it’s creating, so my writing is very connected to music, in the sense that I’m always thinking about the vibrations maybe even more than the message.
AP: I have a question related to the concept of burning, which is repeated throughout the chapbook. In “Leaving Footprints on Waterfalls” the speaker says, “I am a forest that grows after wildfires.” I’m interested in this line because it seems to explore the idea that burning or destruction is what makes growth possible. On a personal level, do you think growth is always preceded by destruction?
AC: I was saying that not only does destruction make growth possible, but that destruction can enhance growth. On a personal level, I strongly believe that adversity leads to growth, and the people I have learned from the most are those who have faced and had to overcome a lot of challenges. When I wrote those final lines, I had read that wildfires actually help forests to grow because they cause them to spread seeds and let other life around them thrive. But I also think it has to be a controlled thing, not a completely reckless destruction, because I don’t think that helps anyone or anything.
AP: In the poem “Self-Portrait as American” the speaker is at a shooting range, but readers get the feeling that he doesn’t belong there, as he says he always “kept [his] eyes shut while [he] curled the trigger.” This line made me think that the speaker isn’t comfortable with violence and feels as if he is out of place. Is the idea of Americanness always tied to some sort of violence? Can you explain more about the speaker’s or your own relationship with the concept of what it means to be American?
AC: My sense of U.S. history is that it is innately violent and predatory. Maybe I’ve been more exposed to this violence because I’m from California, which was a land that the U.S. took by force from Mexico and Native Americans. I started grappling with this history while I was at Berkeley, where I became invested in Chicanx Studies. So I know I’m on a land that has seen violence and bloodshed, and it’s hard to separate violence from the U.S. because of this. In this poem, I’m trying to grapple with what it means to be an American, or a privileged citizen of the United States. Some of my Mexican cousins see me as the American or the “gringo,” or part of the problem; in this poem I’m thinking about what it means to hold the power of U.S. citizenship. And the gun that I have in my hands can perhaps represent the power that I gain from this citizenship. It’s a power that I didn’t choose to have, but that I do have, so I’m exploring the fact that I don’t always feel comfortable with the weight of being an American.
AP: In the poem “Leaving Footprints on Waterfalls,” you write, “The word me lives inside America and Mexico.” With this line, it seems as if you are saying that you contain space for both your American and Mexican identities. Could you expand on the tension between your American-ness and your Mexican-ness? How has your relationship with American-ness and Mexican-ness shifted over time?
AC: Recently I’ve made the effort to live in Mexico. I worked as a high school teacher for nine years in the U.S., and for me, the act of quitting was symbolic. It meant I was willing to risk my financial comfort and leave behind the life I was living. A lot of people say they want to move but never actually do, so I wanted to actually go through with it. I’ve really loved Mexico, and I wanted to go there to get more in touch with the country and with my family that still lives there. I wanted to live there in the most authentic way possible, and I definitely have a deeper sense of what the community and culture is like over there. Obviously, to Mexicans, I will never be fully Mexican; I’ll always be American. And also, to Americans, I’ll always be from Mexico. I think this is something that other people who are Mexican-American can definitely relate to.
AP: You mention Ross Gay’s Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude in your poem “Burning Etcetera,” so I’m wondering, is that a book that helped shape who you are as a poet or person? To what extent do you think gratitude is important for writing poetry?
AC: Usually the references that appear in my writing are from what I’m listening to or reading at the time, so at the time I wrote that poem I was reading Ross Gay. I think he’s a joyful and genuinely happy poet, which is something I appreciate about him. And that happiness that comes across doesn’t feel corny or forced, so I think he’s definitely a person that’s in tune with happiness. And that’s the sort of energy and gratitude that I want to come across in my poems. I think we all need to appreciate the good things we have, and I think it’s an American mentality to complain and think you never have enough. In a way, making us feel like we don’t have enough is the formula for capitalism. But ultimately, I’m grateful for the life that I’ve had, and I appreciate Ross Gay for the sense of gratitude that comes across in his writing. And I think I was trying to capture that same joy that he has, and am still trying to capture joy in the writing I’m doing now.
AP: Throughout the chapbook, the words prayer, worship, and praise continue to reappear. How has your exposure to prayer or worship influenced your writing?
AC: I think the appearance of those words was mostly subconscious. That’s the beauty of poetry—that things appear subconsciously like that. But I definitely was exposed to religion, which probably explains why those words keep reappearing. I had one particular abuelita in Mexico that was super religious. I’d visit her as a kid, and being around her definitely instilled a certain fear of God in me, or awareness of a higher power. Personally, I don’t subscribe to any religion, but I do believe in faith and spirituality, and see myself as a person who is very reverent of life. I don’t go to church to pray or anything, and I’m very against the Catholic institution and their history of violence. But I was surrounded by religion growing up, so that’s probably why these ideas appear in my writing.
AP: I have another question related to religion and God. In “Some of our Boyhoods,” you completely upend our traditional concept of “praise.” Usually, when we think of praise, we think of the Christian God and holiness, but here, you are praising the cousins who introduced you to unholy things such as Lauren Hill’s voodoo. To what extent do you think poets have the responsibility to be irreverent, or to challenge the traditional notions of the dominant culture?
AC: I don’t want to speak for other poets, but for me it’s important to challenge traditional notions. If I hadn’t been challenged through art to challenge my own ideas, I could have been trapped in a box of masculinity, and I may have never broken out of it. Artists like Whitman and Sanyika Shakur helped to break the box of masculinity for me and helped me understand myself. I think writers can help open the minds of other people, and in this sense, I guess, we’re doing important work. I think writers can encourage you to be yourself and help you envision new parts of yourself you haven’t been in tune with. But mostly, when I’m writing, I’m just trying to be authentic, and I’m hoping to encourage other people to embrace their authentic selves, too.
AP: In “Backyard Boxing,” the speaker refuses to fight, and moves away from the performance of masculinity. It’s as if he admits that he isn’t that strong and is weak and vulnerable. Can you talk about your own life, and how your upbringing shaped the way you performed masculinity? Also, how did you get into poetry? Did it give you a space to be vulnerable that you didn’t have elsewhere?
AC: I mainly grew up in an all-male household, with my dad and my older brother. My older brother was like the alpha male of the house; he was very masculine and was the tough one and had tattoos. My dad was loving and not the stereotypical masculine figure, but still—I pretty much grew up surrounded by men. Also, all my friends who lived nearby were guys, and we’d play football, and basketball, and smoke, and do reckless things. At one point, early in high school, I started to realize how reckless and destructive my friends could be. For example, we’d box each other all the time, and at one point I just started moving away from all that. Once I got to community college, I started seeing myself as an intellectual. I think sometimes, especially for young men of color, there’s so much emphasis on physical skills and rarely emphasis on intellectual skill, and sometimes you’ll get made fun of if you have intellectual interests. In college I started occupying a different space, and I started valuing my own ideas and hanging around people who valued my voice. To this day, poetry is still my most valuable outlet.
AP: When reading “A Millennial Walks into a Bar and Says,” I was thinking that it was a self-portrait poem that was also interacting with history and rape and colonialism. So I’m wondering, when you try to consider who you are as a person, do you feel that it’s impossible to remove yourself from the historical context that produced you?
AC: I think it’s definitely impossible to remove myself from larger generational contexts and also social contexts. In this poem I wanted to capture the messy and interconnected experience of being a millennial, and I also wanted to try to place myself within a larger landscape of realities. Ultimately, I do think I have to consider history and look at the larger context whenever I think about myself.
AP: To end, what’s your favorite song on Blonde or your favorite song by Frank Ocean? Do you have any music recommendations? Also, are there any books you are currently reading?
AC: My favorite song on Blonde is “Nights.” I love that the song kind of switches halfway through into another song. This is what I tried to do with the poems in this chapbook. I wanted them to turn and to shift in unexpected ways. I’ve always been a fan of Kendrick and listened to all his mixtapes back in the day. I also love Jay Electronica’s latest album and would definitely recommend it. It’s the best album I’ve listened to in the past couple years. I’m currently reading Hard Damage by Aria Aber. It’s philosophically and formally heavy and has layers and density to it that I really appreciate. It’s masterful. I also recently read Danez Smith’s Homie, which I thought was an overall joyful book.