José Felipe Alvergue is the author of gist : rift : drift : bloom (2015) and precis (2017). A graduate of both the Buffalo Poetics and Calarts Writing Programs, he teaches and lives in Wisconsin.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
I suppose that depends on what I consider my first book. I’ve moved recently and had to take stock of old things I might throw out and came across some very old projects. One in particular reminded me of a chapbook I made back in the early 2000s. I’d taken a video camera and walked down a particularly busy street in my hometown, San Ysidro. I remember taking the footage and drawing portraits of faces and then writing short prose/poetry pieces. Really just descriptive passages of place and person. If that were my first book I’d think that it changed me by revealing new ways of envisioning a politics. I’d been a political theory major in undergrad and I’d planned on becoming involved with both law and later politics, but writing offered me something that a life in politics wouldn’t have, which is a sort of immediate availability to the symbols through which politics becomes ‘the political’ identity of a group, nation, community, etc. I think I’ve been tracking this throughout. Even with my last book before precis (gist : rift : drift : bloom). On the surface it’s described as a book on the last wild passenger pigeon, but it’s also about gun law, space, and the religio-moral impressions left behind by the various cultures that have settled the Midwest, and their etymologies. I’d say precis feels different in the stability of readership that comes with the publisher. Omnidawn is an amazing press and they work very hard to promote both their authors, but more importantly poetry. And poetry as a plural and diverse poetics at a moment when commodification puts a lot of pressure on various art forms to accommodate to the consumer. I feel like I’m part of a larger community than I’ve ever really been a member of before.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I remember two impactful events. First, reading Leaves of Grass in a political theory course taught by Tracy Strong––I remember reading it at Monument Park, which is a park at the border wall where it recedes into the ocean (where I did most of my reading for school while in college). And second, I remember becoming acquainted with the Taco Shop Poets in San Diego and getting involved in local projects, meeting artists and poets. Even then, however, I understood poetry to be about story telling, even if in a performatic, or non-fictive disclosure. In fact before writing mostly poetry I’d been writing sort of macabre short stories all taking place at the border––both as an actual geography and imagined space. So it’s not so much that I don’t see genre. I do and I think genre is important in many ways, but the boundaries are more porous than we, culturally, recognize. In short, I came to poetry later, but even while writing short fiction, I was I think already writing poetry throughout the syntax and movement of the pieces. I realize now that my MFA advisor, a novelist (Steve Erickson) might’ve been telling me all along to try poetry more concertedly.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
I wouldn’t be able to say one way or another as all of my projects have had different lifespans. I start with research and sometimes this takes a long time, sometimes it takes less time. Then the writing. After, sometimes during, also the arranging. I don’t writ- discrete poems. I work on sustained projects that are from the beginning a ‘whole’ so I think the most time-consuming aspect of how I work is the arranging––the making it all into a book so to speak.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
Definitely the latter.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
For a short period I became really invested in performance art. It was a way of interrogating terms I was also writing about critically, like ‘the body’ or ‘space’, ‘becoming’, etc. So a lot of my work involved my body and temporality rather directly. My readings now continue to think about the relationships between language and embodiment I suppose, and they have involved different interruptions to sonoricity, space, breath. I’d say that I enjoy doing only a few readings because they take a lot from me and each one is very specific. I read differently each time. I basically re-compose or re-arrange the work so that I truly feel like I’m performing the initial response of the poetry each and every time.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I have many. I try not to distinguish between scholarship and poetics, though obviously there are many important distinctions. But my questions pertaining to voice, place, and personhood are always coming from the same place of my experiences with politics, diaspora, alienation, and force.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
I think writing is essential now. Communication is essential and relevant. The problem I think is that we don’t tend to value communication in the moment––as a wide community––yet later we orient ourselves to lasting words and sometimes even make national holidays commemorating their events. I hope that contemporary communicators can change this and we should be open to how communicators use media, for instance, to interrupt the temporality within which intimacy becomes public. Some problems that I see, especially in academia, is a distance between thinking and the community. But this movement towards the public humanities offers an opportunity to re-work the affective binds between what takes place in the classroom and what takes place outside the classroom. We need to “feel (for) each other” as Fred Moten and Stephano Harney write in The Undercommons, and by this I mean to both invest in the reality of the theoretical discourses we create, while permitting ‘the real’ world to trust in the intellectual labor of clarifying authentic histories from the fabricated narratives meant to gloss over historical reality.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I think it’s great because they see or hear what I miss. And they’re invested in aspects of the poetic that as a writer I can sometimes miss while being so focused on certain parts of the project. Gillian Hamel was my hero at Omnidawn in this regard.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
I don’t know about best––I think anything that inspires work is good. Though I think the worst advice I often hear poets give creative writing students is that poetry isn’t about ideas. It’s always about ideas. Even if this is not what we mean when we say it to students, we shouldn’t really say it so carelessly in that it’s utterly not true.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between text and performance? What do you see as the appeal?
See 5. As for appeal I don’t know. It’s a fairly old tradition I think and at many points in literary history readings have signaled the emergence of Community. I think a cool trend that’s come back are house readings. David Hadbawnik re-invigorated this practice in Buffalo while he was there, and Jordan Dunn and Andy Gricevich run a series in Madison called Oscar Presents. I think the appeal of house readings is more authentic for me than bookstore readings, or things of that nature. Then there’s the collaborative events Susan Howe and David Grubbs have been doing, or Cecilia Vicuña readings that disrupt what readings are or have been in many ways. Different readings have different appeals I guess is what I’m saying. What I don’t like are readings that are just sort of impersonal, industry-necessary readings. I think also the kind of stuff Douglas Kearney has been doing for a while, which might explain his turn to experimental opera now, has also pushed out a new space for performance/text to explore each other.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
My day begins with changing diapers, making breakfast, dancing, and singing songs to my child. My routine now is about letting go. Treating time in a less compartmentalized fashion and being present where I am needed by someone else for however long that takes. I’ve been working on a project from my research on casta paintings and casta in general throughout Latin America, and it started before the birth of my son, and from me thinking about his being biracial in America today. So my being present for him I think is an extension of the thinking I was doing in his prenatal absence (though he’s always been present as an extension of his mother’s body). My present as unconditional love is now the impossibility of writing from the same or towards the same unconditionability of love despite the over-conditioning obligation of position, race, body, labor, colonialism, etc. While I haven’t written as much as I’d like to have written, I’ve felt the project in a way that I hadn’t realized I should be during the time when I was mostly writing.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Contaminated water. Seriously. Rotten beach smell, and onion fields.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Always the natural world. But in terms of books, Jean Toomer’s Cane and Theresa Cha’s Dictée are books I teach and think about often. I listen to a lot of music, and a lot of different genres and styles at different stages of writing––reading, composing, revising, etc. From son jarocho to EDM, Argentinian and Mexican punk/ska core to Kendrick Lamar, musique concrete, opera, Richard Skelton, post-rock, and so on. Different tempos are conducive to different moments of thought I think.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
See above I suppose.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I like observing so maybe something observational/conjectural, like a sort of animal biology (though I don’t like extreme temperatures so it would have to be of a rather uninteresting species).
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
An urgency to draw attention to, to understand for myself, to regain myself from capitalistic and nationalistic obligations to give away my self.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
20 - What are you currently working on?
I’m working on something that explores the racialized/sexualized body, land, and the emergence of civil laws pertaining to the governance of boundaries between them I’m calling casta for now. It started from looking into and teaching casta paintings in my classes, and from a collection of ekphrastic poems I had lying around related to baroque paintings I’ve had the opportunity to stand in front of throughout the years.