The Rumpus Mini-Interview Project #196: Alan Chazaro
I met Alan Chazaro four years ago, when we were both teaching in a program for talented, underserved high school students who wanted to attend a four-year college. Alan was compassionate, demanding and warm: think a young, Chicanx Joe Clark, only with a boom box instead of a baseball bat. His students loved him.
The same empathy that infused Alan’s teaching also informs his poetry. Alan writes with a deep affection for the Bay Area, for working-and middle-class communities of color, and he writes the way Frank Ocean sings—he wants to make sure you listen. Alan’s language curls its way through your spirit, reshapes your heart into spirals, and presses lines like “I’ve been taught to never use / umbrellas when it rains, to never / pull from inside your / self for explanation, to never turn / at angles that might expose” into your blood. His chapbook This is Not a Frank Ocean Cover Album, released last month, won the 2018 Black River Chapbook Competition and contemplates men of color as flesh and blood, not the harsh, one-dimensional portrayals haunting us in the media.
This kind of writing—the sensitive descriptions erupting from complex thought—has won Alan several awards. He’s a 2015 recipient of the Lawrence Ferlinghetti Poetry Fellowship, which is awarded to a writer “whose work embodies a concern for social justice and freedom of expression.” His second book, Piñata Theory, was awarded the 2018 Hudson Prize and is forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press in 2020.
Alan attended Foothill Community College and UC Berkeley, where he was a member of June Jordan’s Poetry for the People program, and he holds an MFA from the University of San Francisco. During his time at USF, his poems were selected by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Tyehimba Jess to be featured in the Intro Journals Project from the Association of Writers & Writing Programs. His work also appears in the San Francisco Chronicle, Puerto del Sol, Iron Horse Review, Huizache, BorderSenses, and other publications.
I had the opportunity to interview Alan just before he and his wife Briana traveled to Chile. They will be living in Latin America for the next year and documenting the experience with a column called “Pocho Boy Meets World” on Palette Poetry.
The Rumpus: You have some dazzling lines that make us think about how men of color are forced to perform all these different variations of masculinity. Had you intended to explore rethinking or redefining masculinity for men of color?
Alan Chazaro: I didn’t necessarily set out to rethink or redefine masculinity but as I was writing the collection, I was thinking about what it’s like to be a young black male or young brown male. We can be seen as having these tough exteriors, but we’ve [sometimes] undergone threatening and tough experiences.
Men of color may be more fragile and vulnerable because of the situations we might find ourselves in. I’m exploring the idea of fragility: what does it mean to be tough? That poem “Bricks” is an example. I was hyperaware there were two Black guys and a Mexican guy sitting in a parked car and there was a certain connotation in this space, doing this performance of toughness—and we were just rapping. My friend, a proud black dude, was trying to get us to rap with a certain word [n-word] and would push me to say it. I was thinking about manhood and how you define your manhood in those spaces and navigate that as a man of color. To portray yourself in a certain expected way.
Rumpus: Your poem “About the fierce struggle between civilization and barbarism” ends with a caution or a prayer: “One day, let us all return to ourselves. / One day, let us all become the strange thundering in someone else’s sky.” How are spirituality and science part of your project?
Chazaro: I guess poetry is my form of spirituality and making sense of it all. When I started taking poetry seriously, I wanted to write for somebody like me, and from every aspect of my identity. I’m a Latino male, who grew up in the Bay Area, the son of immigrants, and I grew up in the internet age, when you wake up and see random news on your phone. So many aspects of growing up involved the digital arena and social media, and having a wide array of exposure from random sources—from someone sitting in a bar next to you, to reading an article online. Writing this project, I had my sensors on. Every vibration, I was taking it in. The science references in my poems, I would read them while having a coffee, then they would return to me organically later on when writing. I wouldn’t question it and would just follow it. There’s so much noise in this world, and I was picking it all up, trying to allow as much of it in as I could. I wanted to embody that millennial experience and freedom.
Rumpus: You’re right—there’s a millennial nostalgia embedded in your work. How did you create that effect, where the reader feels almost hyperaware of relatively recent past?
Chazaro: I’m not one-hundred percent sure—part of writing is cementing some sort of memory. I’m a huge 2Pac fan and the collection’s title takes Frank Ocean’s name, incorporates words and phrases from his songs, and incorporates part of what I love about hip-hop. To me, hip-hop is an art of nostalgia. I genuinely love the culture, the mentality, especially with old school hip-hop. I don’t know if you’ve heard of this phrase “sampling”?
Rumpus: [Laughs] I’m old but I’ve heard of sampling!
Chazaro: I’ve always been a huge fan and fascinated by sampling lyrics or verses or melodies from twenty years ago. The rapper would sample from 1970s musical legacy, and the hip-hop tradition of the continuation of sounds—that mentality has been embedded in me. I’ve always been into that, ever since I got my first Pac album in elementary school. So I think it might be my subconscious way of doing this, respecting who came before me. And asking, who laid the foundation? This collection is a head nod to those who taught me something. And as a poet, you’re restitching ideas and voices into the present moment… I’m a poet who always looks back. I look at who came before: What did they provide? Who came before you? That’s very important: these are the things and people who shaped me.
Rumpus: This collection pays homage to the Bay Area, with celebrated Bay Area music (E-40) and poets. Can you talk about how the Bay Area influences your work?
Chazaro: I grew up in the South Bay, a more suburban area, but I went to Berkeley for undergrad ten years ago—we had our ten-year reunion this year. But starting about a decade ago, I’ve spent a lot of time in the East Bay, with my wife’s family who is still in East Bay, even though that’s not the place I spent my childhood. As an independent, liberated teenager, I left home and met my wife at UC Berkeley, which formed this larger East Bay connection, with her dad’s side in East Oakland, and her mom’s side from Hayward and Richmond. My wife showed me the ropes. As an adult I’ve only lived in the East Bay, and since this project was written as I became an adult, it’s really about how I’m interacting with the world around me during those years. I was living between all these East Bay cities and I’d go all over that part of the Bay, observing that energy. The East Bay is that last fortress: it’s still diverse, still has artistic people, and is relatively affordable compared to San Jose and San Francisco.
Rumpus: Some of your poetry seems very specific in terms of geography/culture. For example, “Self-Portrait as an American,” with the gun images and movie references, seems to explore a particular American kind of violence…
Chazaro: I wanted to come back to the experience of the mixtape and hip-hop, how it specifically examines where’s a rapper is from: Detroit, Houston, Atlanta. I wanted to do that for the Bay Area and being Mexican-American is a huge part of my identity. Where my mom currently lives is in southern Mexico. I speak Spanish, but it’s not perfect, and when your family is in another country, it really heightens your awareness of what it means to be an American, the privileges of being a citizen. The collection looks at the pros and the cons of being a US citizen and I’m heavily interested—although, I don’t do it as much in this book, my full-length collection [Piñata Theory] is way more focused on Mexican-American identity… Sometimes I think my life could have been better in Mexico. I could have been a middle-class Mexican. People assume their lives will be better here but people who used to be doctors over there are here washing dishes. So the next books will kind of touch on that. There’s much more of that to come.
Rumpus: Can you tell us more about what’s next?
Chazaro: I’m super-excited because this is the tip of the iceberg. I have other collections that feel sort of ready but I haven’t sent them out because I have a lot to say. It’s been nine years since I wanted to really do this poetry thing, so I got my MFA a few years ago. I went straight from undergrad into teaching. I’m a late bloomer with poetry and didn’t get a chance to explore it much besides undergrad. Being a teacher didn’t give me a chance to explore this work until the Lawrence Ferlinghetti fellowship from USF. Named after poet/activist/anarchist Lawrence Ferlinghetti, one student every two years in the entire student body gets this award, and it was paradise. I wasn’t teaching and had so much time and energy and it was unleashed. The Frank Ocean series, it’s not a rap album, but more like a mixtape, a preview. And everything in this chapbook gets expanded in my next book. Oh, and I was recently picked up by Palette Poetry. I’m going to be writing a monthly column for them, and I’m basically relocating to Mexico, in about a week. I’m going to go to a few countries in South America also, and I’m going to be reading the voices that are native to those cities and countries and documenting my experience. As a Latinx poet, I kind of wanted to focus on this writing, this literary exploration. I’m excited for that. One, I’m getting paid; two, it’s what I always wanted to do. It’s called “Pocho Boy Meets World.”
Rumpus: I’ve seen your work in the classroom; you’re a great teacher. And students left your classes inspired. If your students happen to read your work, what do you want them to get out of it?
Chazaro: I definitely wrote the book for them—readers of all ages but especially those who might not love poetry. I didn’t grow up reading poetry. I knew kids in high school who were super-advanced and already reading and writing poems. They were reciting these lines from memory. I cut class and high school for me was fun but it wasn’t academic. I barely graduated, almost flunked a grade, but when I entered community college and started getting serious about academics…. Walt Whitman was the first thing I read that resonated with me. Free verse felt so liberating and I didn’t understand poetry then because it didn’t always resonate in a conventional academic way. I want young people to understand—there’s no one way to do it, to become a poet. Especially students who know me, they say that’s Mr. Chazaro, that’s who he is. A poet. And then maybe they ask themselves: so what’s my version of being a poet? My poetry can be dark though I’m generally an upbeat person, especially in the classroom. I’ve given my students at Oakland School for the Arts a huge disclaimer: I would love for you to read this, but there’s definitely some graphic content, so don’t judge me. [Laughing] Think of me as the “perfect angel.”
Photograph of Alan Chazaro by Briana Chazaro.