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 a graduate of June Jordan’s Poetry for the People program at UC Berkeley, a former Lawrence Ferlinghetti Fellow at the University of San Francisco, and co-founding editor of HeadFake, an online NBA zine. You can find his work in SFGate, KQED, The Bold Italic, and more. See what he’s currently up to on Twitter and IG @alan_chazaro.
David Roderick: Congratulations on the publication of Piñata Theory. I read a lot of first books, and most of them feel overwrought or cerebral or both. My first book certainly reads that way. But yours is full of heart. When I read your poems, they feel embodied and instinctive even though the subject matter is often heavy. Can you talk a little bit about the voice we encounter in the poems, and how you landed in what’s obviously a comfort zone?
Alan Chazaro: Thanks for that compliment and for your reading! I’m not sure if I can take full credit for that, but I will say that reaching a point of comfort with this book definitely came as a result of years spent searching and wondering and giving myself the space and time to investigate the layers I’ve been grappling with since I was an adolescent. Growing up as a first-generation Mexican American in an predominantly-male environment for most of my life—with friends whose parents were always working as immigrants or just occupied with other life demands—sort of forced me out of a traditional path and into one of abrupt exploration, independence, and innocent recklessness at a young age. I think for a lot of kids who grow up like we did, it’s not easy to feel a nurtured sense of intuition, curiosity, tenderness, voice, and vulnerability, so a major part of this book—for me—was to reach a point where I felt like I could achieve that within myself, by being unafraid to grapple with subjects and memories that I wouldn’t have given myself the permission to think about as my younger self. I didn’t have the tools back then to do so, and Piñata Theory is very much an ode to that growth and embracing my fractured sense of self. Because of that, this book—and writing poetry in general—feels urgent because it helps me reclaim a sense of rootedness for a complicated and fluid identity. I wanted to fully write into all that space by asking questions through my poems until I felt like I had reached some point of exposure. I don’t know if it was a comfort zone as much as it was a necessity.
DR: You seem to address this personal development in the opening poem, which elaborates on the book’s title but also sets a tone for the poems that follow. These first few lines of the opening poem, “Psychoanalysis of a Piñata,” sound like an overture: “The fault line between me runs north / from south, a zag / splitting my skull and bursting / my edges.” I don’t mean to sound reductive here, but you are that piñata, in a sense. The poems are an exploration of your experiences. This is embodied too, in the book’s structure. The three sections that follow the opening poem are “Body,” “Break,” and “Gather.” When I read straight through I get the sense that you’re gaining comfort in your own identity. You appear, you open up, and then you gather in the world. Or rather the world gathers you into it. While arranging the poems into a manuscript, how did you find this structure? Did it come early or late in the process?
AC: That’s a really interesting and accurate reading, and I’m glad you picked up on those elements. It definitely happened later in my process, once the manuscript’s frequencies started to become more strongly apparent to me. Like any book—especially a debut—I had gone through many versions and was constantly stripping away or tweaking every angle whenever I could feel the voice and work evolving in new directions. Once I landed on the important metaphor of the piñata—after years of writing it—I began to think about the structure and history of piñatas: how they’re assembled from warehouse scraps, filled with things, hung in public celebrations to be battered, and once they’re broken, how everyone sort of witnesses that destruction then rushes to grab whatever has been spilled. It felt appropriate to how I—and many people I know—can feel in society, inside various institutions, in our psyches. I wanted to embody that in the structure of the entire collection and I categorized it into different phases in my mind: building, filling, layering, hanging, swinging, hitting, breaking, collecting. It felt ridiculous and excessive to have that many sections for a poetry book though, so I thought about how I could condense all that energy by suggesting those connotations in three major sections instead.
DR: I admire how you examine the communal and national ills we live with. Even more, I’m impressed by how you work these themes into lyrical modes. A lot of the poems comment on racism, masculinity, gun violence, and economic inequality. Is it hard tackling those topics without slipping into preaching or didactic utterances? Did you have models for those poems? I’m asking about your poetic and musical influences.
AC: I came into poetry through graffiti and hip hop—freestyling, tagging, and writing lyrics when I was a teenager. Historically speaking, those mediums were products of intense social inequalities that were flipped and transformed into expressive arts by young people who felt invisible and mistreated. So, in a way, I’ve always felt deeply connected to that form of activism and resistance through cultivating a voice through community—as well as being politically active throughout the Bay Area since I was a teenager. Once I discovered poetry in community college, I started to think about how I could bridge my growing social and political awareness into my writing. At first it felt very direct and didactic; a young idealist preaching to the choir. But this was a necessary stage for me. Later, I took classes at UC Berkeley as a transfer student in June Jordan’s Poetry for the People program, and their core philosophy was about being a voice for yourself and your people. I was still thinking in a literal and linear sense back then, but my themes were becoming clearer and I started to lean into my experiences even more. It wasn’t until I kept writing, traveling, teaching, listening to hip hop, and reading widely as a graduate student in the University of San Francisco’s MFA program over the next decade that I started to more creatively mesh my identity and interests while taking more risks on the page.
DR: What about your influences or models?
AC: Some artists who heavily inspired me to let my voice wander and be more open were Douglas Manuel, Isaiah Rashad, Kendrick Lamar, Douglas Kearney, Chicano Batman, La Luz, Frank Ocean, Brynn Saito, Doug Powell, Sara Borjas, Joseph Rios, Francisco X. Alarcon, and so many others.
DR: That’s a really broad mix of writers and musical artists.
AC: These were all poets, musicians, and voices who I could feel were addressing real and radical elements in their work about their complex identities, in surprising, genuine, organic, and explorative ways.
DR: Can you elaborate on what you mean when you say “explorative”?
AC: Isaiah Rashad, in particular—who’s a rapper out of Chattanooga, Tennessee—has an ethereal quality about his music in which I don’t always know or understand what he is literally saying, but I can feel his pain, anger, frustration, or joy through imagery and soundscapes that are obtuse and unexpected. It’s more of a vibe he’s creating in his songs—rather than preaching any particular message—and I wanted to do something similar in my poems in which the resonances and vibrations were doing the work, rather than simply telling the reader how to feel in a direct, one-dimensional capacity. But in order to do that, I have to approach my poems with an openness and be willing to explore what emerges. It’s more of a wandering than it is a certainty.
DR: You were attracted to that vibe.
AC: Yup. We are all multi-dimensional, fragmented, shifting people with messy and imperfect selves, and I wanted my work in some way to reflect that wild fragmentation while being directly informed by real experiences in my life as a Mexican American male.
DR: At times the male figures in your poems have to show muscle, at other times they express true tenderness or sympathy. “Some of Our Boyhoods” captures the life of the kid on the cusp of manhood. “Lesson on Manhood” shows specifically how gender roles are defined and passed down: “We learned / how numbers meant the cubic-inch size of an engine— / your manhood throttled beneath a hood.” The kids in these poems are obsessed with sneakers, cars, music, practical jokes, and one-upping each other.
AC: A big aspect of this book was exploring what it means to be a man, especially growing up in the Bay Area and being surrounded by a certain expectation as a boy of color and son of immigrants living in a single parent home. It’s not all toxic—there’s a lot of love and goofiness and just juvenile ridiculousness, more than anything—but there are definitely some ways of proving yourself or existing that, in retrospect, aren’t the healthiest. I had a good upbringing, but I also had the friends or older siblings of friends who were involved in other things, so it was always this indirect pressure of who you want to be as a male—what sort of things you wanted to spend your time doing. I was into music, art, and video games from an early age, so I just stayed in my lane and goofed around a lot, but not everyone had that same experience or privilege. I wanted all that energy to be in the book.
DR: It’s there. Do you feel like you have a poetry weakness, something that you’re working to improve?
AC: I was just telling my students in a workshop last night that I’ve really strayed from my ability to use concrete narrative to deliver a message. I’ve become more obsessed with craft and technique—like playing with line breaks and the feeling of associative disorientation—that I have lost one of my strongest skills from former years: to keep it simple and accessible.
DR: You taught high school English for a long time. Then you walked away from that reliable work to travel extensively last year. What kind of impact did going abroad have on your poems, or on your thinking about poetry?
AC: We are all raised in relation to what’s around us: our homes, neighborhoods, cities, states, nations. We can only grow to a certain limit within each of those boundaries before we sort of hit a ceiling in the way we can think and look and interact with what’s around us. The U.S. is a particularly bubbled and insular experience for this limitation to occur even more rapidly and aggressively. Look at the past four years in our country to see what micro-allegiance can do to a group of people. So to be able to leave and spend extended time in places like Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Chile, Uruguay and Mexico, among other countries my wife and I have been able to experience over the years, it opens lots of doors within yourself about how you think about the way things are constructed, about audience, about possibility, about histories. This all naturally begins to seep into my poems and art. I’m a proud California Chicano millennial, but if that’s the only thing I embrace, I would drastically limit my own growth. I want to be in tune with a wider spectrum of Latinidad and being, in order to better navigate where my voice fits in among the vastness of it all—both historically and culturally. I work, save money, and spend it on things like travel when I can in hopes of it informing my maturity and sense of poetics.
DR: It’s been a thrilling ride for you these past two years, publishing both a chapbook and book from Black Lawrence Press. Tell us what’s next.
AC: I haven’t announced this anywhere publicly, but I just signed a contract with Ghost City Press—a press I’ve long admired for their independent hustle and brilliant range—for a chapbook to be dropping sometime near the end of April. I won’t say too much about it but I’m getting a few California poets and mentors to read it and share their thoughts soon, and I’ll be revealing more in the next few weeks. Of course, you can expect some real Bay Area perspective on what it’s like living out here with all the violences—systemic, economic, social—that are around us, within a different context than I’ve explored before.