Recently, I spoke with José Felipe Alvergue, whose second book of poetry, précis, was released from Omnidawn this April. José’s work reveals a fascination with place and the meanings that emerge from our relationship with our environment. His 2015 book, gist : rift : drift : bloom (Further Other Book Works) contemplates language, sound and the landscape of the North American prairies. Similarly, précis unearths a language and politics of place by focusing on the US-Mexico border.
José and I met when we were both poetics students at the University at Buffalo. By a delightful coincidence, José and I now both live in my hometown of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, where he and his wife, Stephanie Farrar, teach in the English department at the university. José and I discussed précis and the politics of the U.S. Mexico border in his living room. The view from the windows was green and leafy. Cool summer breezes filtered in through the screens. Upstairs, José’s two-year-old napped in a room that did not require air conditioning. We could not be further from the dry, tumbleweedy images that the phrase “U.S.-Mexico border” connotes for someone who, like me, has always lived in northern places.
But, as précis reminds us, the border is everywhere. The politics of nation know no bounds. Currently, in Wisconsin, dairy farmers rely on immigrant labor to make their iconic cheese and everywhere language cuts us into pieces while suggesting new ways to reassemble the world.
Emily Anderson: Your new book of poetry, précis, revolves around the question of the US-Mexico border and explores how the border gives meaning to human bodies and also landscapes. Parts of the book focus on a young woman, Alma Gonzales, who was hit by a drunk driver and killed near the border. You incorporate newspaper clippings about her death as well as a lot of other documents and texts. I notice that you’re situating this project geographically and politically but I also wonder if there is an element of elegy, or how you feel about that term being used.
José Felipe Alvergue: There was this installation project at the border for a while where people were planting these crosses everywhere. The crosses end up standing in for a lot of things. Obviously the cross is the cross, but they were playing on these makeshift altars that would appear by sides of roads when people died . . . it started to mean a lot of things for different communities.
People were seeing it as significant for lives lost as they were trying to cross the border . . . it also represented bodies that were [politically] absent from the border…some people are present as a population but not as a person so much. Near Texas a lot of people were taking them to also represent the missing women from Ciudad Juarez. So a lot of the meanings started to become attached to [the installation], and it really was contextual to region.
So when you’re talking about the book itself being sort of, in itself, a found object equal to the found objects that are in it—yeah, I did want to evacuate authorial meaning so it could then acquire this other kind of phenomenon meaning. Which is really contextual in a lot of ways. I know that is not completely true, because it’s still a book and people have to go and buy it, so there’s kind of a forced context, but that was the idea of it.
So much of that area [the border] begins to acquire a use-meaning. There’s a park that’s right at the border of where the Pacific is called Border Field Park or Monument Park, it always depends on who you ask. It’s supposed to be a state park but it’s always vacant and there’s usually just a border patrol agent taking a nap in a Bronco…there’s never anyone on the US side.
And on the Tijuana side, the city is called Playas de Tijuana, it’s the beach and there’s people using it. I think things acquire meaning through use, and so many of the things that are found along the border are often either just kind of vacant, so you can take advantage of that, and make meaning happen, or the meaning is overly imposed, over-coded.
The new trend in and along that area just because of the cost of land is to put up these outlet malls…it’s like either outlet malls, or kind of expanse. So I wanted to work between these two things, the over-coded and that which is still open for us to relate to it through meaning.
I like what you’re saying about the over-coded vs. the empty; you make a point in the book about the way that immigrant narratives are often over-coded and immigrant literature is always expected to be this rags to riches, hard work story.
And half of that is obviously our consuming behaviors, the things we choose to label as capital L literature, but any kind of immigrant narrative, it’s always participating in some modeling, it’s always pedagogical in some way.
And that’s what for me makes it a little more scary, it’s pedagogical in nature, you’re not just teaching little brown students how they should be behaving but you’re also teaching a wider readership what they should expect from those little brown students, and that to me is very dangerous…and that shouldn’t invalidate what these authors were originally trying to do, just tell a story, I think that’s fine, but nothing is just that simple.
How has your recent parenthood changed your work?
I haven’t worked! I don’t! But that’s not true. Before Zava was born I was starting work on [a new] book, through my research on casta paintings, paintings from the 17th and 18th centuries that depicted different degrees of whiteness, indigeneity, and blackness. They were anonymous paintings, totally scientific but they were also very baroque. They’re fascinating paintings and I was really thinking about having a biracial child and so I was working on it, and then—I can’t work on it now, I have to be really present now …
I’m making the decision to be present and my relationship to being present is now really unconditional, you’re just there, until you don’t have to be—they go to sleep or school or someone else takes over. And I don’t think I’d fully thought about my engagement with language—I always thought my relationship to language was unconditional in that way, but I didn’t know what unconditional really meant. So I guess it’s changed my work in that I’m having this period where I’m having to really love in a way that I haven’t before.
So, you know, I can’t work now, but hopefully I will again. I don’t mind. Part of what was worrying me was this sense of timeline. Like, who cares? Who cares if I don’t work on it right now? There’s not like a poetry czar that will walk around–
Saying, ‘you are no longer a poet!’
Right, if it’s not two years between or whatever… I think that’s especially valuable right now where so much about poetry has become professionalized by jobs and by the insecurity of labor and debt so, we’ll see what happens.
I’m curious about your use of sources. You have, in addition to the newspaper clippings and other texts, some fingerprints that emerged from some performance and body-art work you were doing.
There’s also a lot of tapes. I made a lot of tapes, with my parents. When I was living in LA, they’d come visit me, or I’d go visit them, and I’d always leave those little tiny tapes for those voice recorders.
So their project was, I asked them on their drives up if they could take the recorder and talk to it, and tell it stories about the times I wasn’t there yet, and the stories would revolve around the moment of them having to leave El Salvador and migrate to the US so they became about this diaspora.
Even before I got to San Diego, I had already lived…you know, after El Salvador we lived in Arizona, then we lived in Utah, then we lived in San Diego, so I always even felt that my being an immigrant wasn’t being as binary as, ‘first I was in this one locale, and then this other locale.’
Even the stories my parents would tell me, they were thoughtful enough to include the stories of migration that took place in Central America, how did we get there, how did my parents both get to the capital (in the sense that my dad’s family was from a different part of El Salvador and so was my mother’s), and when we’d go visit, we’d go and see these different towns, so I always had a very non-binary understanding of what the border was to begin with. I think being Central American and not Mexican, I’d always kind of laugh at border rhetoric that was very US/Mexico because there’s so many other communities that live at the border.
My neighbors were Filipino, the house next to us was rented out by people from the Navy, and they’d just cycle through people, whenever they were off ship, they’d use the house and leave, and there were a lot of Samoans, I had a lot of black friends, and there are white people that live at the border too—they all speak Spanish, so you know, nothing was ever as binary for me as what was made out, publicly… Being attentive to the dynamics of place has always been really beneficial for me just in terms of being a person, and not being locked into a way of thought that is not productive, for citizenship.
While reading your book, I noticed you were looking at newspaper clippings from the late 1990s until 2002.
My focus on those periods had to do with a lot of policy in California. You know California has that referendum that voting thing, so if enough people come together with enough money, they can put anything on the ballot.
So there was a period between 1998-2002 when a lot of really critical legislation was presented in California. It’s really during this period you began to see the way bodies are criminalized, so I wanted to focus on those clippings because of the way that sense of fear, that sense of protectionism, of law and order for some, really pervaded. So I really wanted to focus on those clippings during those years, because the policies were really frightening.
If you look at it now, in our national context, California is trying to right some wrongs, in some ways, so you can see how the same structure, referendum voting, is working in the favor of reason, but at that period—it was just all fear and all xenophobia.
When you think about national policy, do you feel any déjà vu now, or is it a different thing, what’s happening now?
It’s the exact same, static hum of fucking racism. It’s the same thing, it’s the same thing from 1866, it’s the same.
In your book, you talk about how colonization, history from 500 years, now becomes a method for today. There’s a sense of historical compression throughout your book, which is one of the things I like so much about it.
I’ve been wondering about this, as a teacher: is it really truly amnesia? (Which you can’t fault.) Or does that kind of ahistorical mentality hide behind our inherent kindness, so we think it’s amnesia and it’s really just negligence?
Because you wonder about the things that are passed down. I’m thinking here specifically of my students and their generation, and generations don’t exist in vacuums, they’re constantly relating to one another. If one generation can teach another generation to be homophobic, then they can obviously teach them other things. So I don’t think it is amnesia that permits this. And there was a line in the book, while I was writing it, that I did focus on amnesia, but I don’t think that’s true.
I think it’s outright negligence, an intentional reshaping. And this to me is why meaning is so important, because if you teach students how to create meaning, when they do something passive like read (because this is how they’ve been taught to do it, this is their methodology, that they receive meaning when they read, but don’t create it) if you can encourage them to understand that you create meaning when you read because of how you read, than that intervenes in that negligence.
The cool thing about also being an academic and having to write scholarship is I’m really kind of exploring these two poles of pessimism and possibility and I think there was a period, it might have been around when I got to SUNY Buffalo in 2006 when it was really popular to write these essays where you’re talking about possibility, and you’re looking to all this theory and stuff, but it’s not grounded in anything, but now it actually is [grounded] because it’s very scary to say “possibility” now because it’s very obvious that maybe there isn’t one.
So I think it’s really important now to think about possibility, and especially as different communities are facing fascism from different angles, we’re also starting to see, or I think feel possibility as solidarity. I think solidarity is one of the things that’s been missing for a long time, the absence of unions, you know, have made it easier for that to go away, but it’s also created again new possibilities for different sites of solidarity… I think that’s really exciting.
I’ve been trying to write about that, because [solidarity] does then begin to entangle itself with ways that we think about things like ‘the democratic’ or ‘the public,’ all things which are very important to poetry, especially American poetry, which has always been with its eye to those spaces, so I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and there’s a lot of books out there now that are also, looking directly into that mess. I think Rob Halpern does that really well in Common Places and Rankine’s Citizen is doing this, Look by Solmaz Sharif. So I think it’s a great time to be a poet.
Emily Anderson’s writing has appeared in a variety of publications including Harper’s, The Atlantic, and Conjunctions. Her book, Little:Novels (Blaze VOX Books 2015), erases each of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” novels. Emily holds an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and an MA from Bucknell University. She recently received her doctorate in English from the University at Buffalo.