“Un/documented, Kentucky explores the voices surrounding the immigration discourse in the Bluegrass.”
Un/documented, Kentucky (The Rusty Toque, 2015)
What are some of your favorite chapbooks? Or what are some chapbooks that have influenced your writing?
The short books published by ubu editions have important for me for thinking about design, conceptual writing, and poetic performance. In particular, Mónica de la Torre’s Overkill, Jeremy Sigler’s Math, Joachim Georg Schmitt’s Ingredients, Robert Fitterman’s Hi My Name Is. Craig Dworkin’s Maps and Smokes were the most influential for me to think about stretching the chapbook in different directions.
What might these favorite or influential chapbooks suggest about you and your writing?
Without a doubt the experimental nature of these chapbooks attracts me, but I think the short form also pushes for a challenge for readers to decode that doesn’t seem as imposing as, say, a tome like Infinite Jest. The shorter form, however, may limit the potential for some to think about conceptually themed chapbooks. These influences I list above all have infected my notions of form, but also of language play and the possibilities with the chapbook.
If you have written more than one chapbook or novella, could you describe each of them in chronological order?
I have a number of books now, it seems.
- The Pocho Codex (Editorial Paroxismo, 2012), novella in verse
- The Xicano Genome (Editorial Paroxismo, 2013), novella in verse
- Six Poems from the Codex Mojaodicus (Seven Kitchens, 2014), chapbook
- Un/documented, Kentucky (Rusty Toque, 2015), chapbook
- The Codex Mojaodicus (Fence Books, expected 2017), novella in verse
What’s your chapbook about?
Un/documented, Kentucky explores the voices surrounding the immigration discourse in the Bluegrass. The work is based on fieldwork research among the communities around Kentucky, speaking to different individuals and some formal interviews. I have a series of photographs to accompany the larger project as well—I’ve a larger manuscript of over 120 pages in this complete work. The transcripts of interviews form the basis of the poems I shape, which I do not claim are faithful transcriptions. There are points where the recording technology I used failed, for example. Also, lineated and revised language to transcripts, effecting an alternative form of ethnopoetics that examines poetic performances in field sites. Un/documented, Kentucky is a push in this direction.
What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? Or can you name one poem that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?
I cannot say that this description fits any of the poems in this book, but I can say that when I had the “discovery” of exploring field research as poetic practice came from stumbling upon research into writing as research practice. Arts-based research using qualitative methods influences the research I do as an academic, and I also saw how my research influenced my poetry. It was natural, then, when I found intersections in the different styles of writing I do, and I think this book cemented that in how I write, especially now that the chapbook is published.
How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook?
I had the freedom to make these decisions. I update the order a number of times, but I was fortunate to have a great editor, Kathryn Mockler, who was very patient with me and all the revisions I made during proofs. I would also add that Izel Vargas deserves credit for the cover. As I told Izel, the cover is much better than what’s inside the book. Izel is a fantastic artist.
Which poem in your chapbook has the most meaningful back story to you? What’s the back story?
All the poems reach me in different ways, but I think one of the last poems in the book, my homage to Baraka, is my most meaningful. I composed this poem shortly after his death, working from one of his most controversial poems, but reoriented to the U.S.-Mexico border. This poem was my first homage for a writer.
Does the chapbook form have an impact on the politics of the poems that appear inside it?
I think the political in this case happens in two ways. One, the outright politics in the poem, the politics of voices in the controversial subject of immigration. There are alternating rhetorics, arguments, debates happening from one poem to another, across polarities revealing a sort of shading of the issue across differences.
The second political aspect is the form itself. This chapbook doesn’t try to be easy, it makes you work. It makes you work in a short form, but it makes a reader work.
What was the final poem you wrote or significantly revised for the chapbook, and how did that affect your sense that the chapbook was complete?
I revised the Baraka homage poem at the BOAAT Writer’s Retreat led by Eduardo Corral shortly before the publication of the book. That helped me to shape the poem, and really articulate how what I envisioned appeared on the page. I give humble thanks to my retreat colleagues and BOAAT for the opportunity to focus on my work for several days.
Describe your writing practice or process for your chapbook. Do you have a favorite prompt or revision strategy? What is it?
For me, this case was returning to fieldnotes, and also returning to old transcripts from research and interviews among communities in Kentucky. I have much work to generate from different texts, not including memories that I also work from. As I found different forms to represent both the research method and voices, I tried different directions. The different directions are demonstrated in alternating forms from poem to poem in this chapbook. The final poem being the most extreme in terms of experimentation in terms of form.
What has the editorial and production experience with the press who picked up your chapbook been like? To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
The Rusty Toque has been fantastic. First, I’m honored that Hoa Nguyen who judged the Rusty Toque poetry chapbook competition chose my manuscript. The editor Kathryn Mockler helped a great deal to get the book out in a timely manner. She was very involved in production at all stages. Kathryn and Izel Vargas worked closely on the cover design, and I really am pleased with how that turned out.
What are you working on now?
Another manuscript, The Codex Mojaodicus received the 2016 Fence Modern Poets Prize, and will be published in the next year. I also have several other manuscripts that I am sending out to potential publishers. Finally, my writing appears in the 2015 and 2016 Best Experimental Writing (BAX) anthology.
If you could choose another artistic path (painting, music, dance, etc.) what would it be and why?
I would image photography, but I could see myself also focusing more on music. In which case, I would combine the two I suspect.
What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?
Keep writing, always write, and save your writing. You may come back to it at a later date. Also keep a journal. Experience life and write about it, but always practice writing.
What do you wish you had been told as a writer? What wisdom have you arrived at?
I wish I had had more guidance in terms of writing exercises and also the professionalization of writing careers, that is, how to submit work, how to locate journals, how to write a cover letter, a book proposal, how to prep a manuscript. The technical aspects of creative writing.
What advice would you offer to aspiring chapbook authors?
Explore a diversity for forms and experiment with the form.
Whose work helped you in the writing of this chapbook? What inspires you? What gets you to the page?
Ubu.com is one of my places to find writing that inspires my experimental tendencies. I spend days on this site and produce lots of work, some useful, some not. Some so strange I have to idea what to do with.
Steven Alvarez is assistant professor of Writing, Rhetoric, and Digital Studies at the University of Kentucky. He is originally from Safford, Arizona and currently lives in Louisville, Kentucky. Read more of his work at www.stevenpaulalvarez.com and follow him on Instagram at @stevenpaulalvarez and Twitter @chastitellez
yr migra blew up América
for maestro Baraka
0:13the old debajo—
0:20somebody love & of thinking
0:24the hermanita is both domestically & internationally one . . .
0:29used to cover the mierda of her masters—
0:32dole . . . dome . . . dome . . . dome . . . drone . . . O . . . done . . .
0:36the old somebody a—
0:40they sey—is some . . . terrorist’s liability & retina—
0:44gets a head—it wuz in Maricopa County—claro
0:48yes—uh that checks Latinos—how illegal are you you not me?
0:52partner Sunday—tho it wuzn’t sure a lot of . . .
0:56or—presidente—do w/ virtually any partial
0:59mexicharms—yells did the—
1:02it wuzn’t gonna be in the house to the White Sea diseases—that were—
1:07let people terrorized residents anything—
1:10most humanity vomit as they please for
1:14they sey they sd we want walls we want walls—
1:17who do the same—who is this poll—
1:21who’s telling lies w/ the skies that no borders . . .
1:25thoughts out the world’s who got that plantations—that privatized prison—
1:29incarcecide in Ameríca—sideways levels
1:32who all 28—
1:35who cd show that’s all narco bullet shells—
1:39got this far—got sd this week—that matches & fires—
1:43who kill sey they’ve got it—still little
1:47cd be useful—who wuz the nameless brownface
1:51who Jesús is available—who created every day
1:55partner school grades—sey you only have a good look at it—
2:01who define a lot of fun—science to me—bombs away—the guns
2:05Google slaves—souls who call you—if they miss
2:10who sey they always been seying all—
2:14whose solo tengo—who sold me—
2:17met this hemisphere every days or so we only northward gazed—
2:23who all the buildings got the money—thank you—
2:26money . . . lots . . . you up wallpapers all—
2:29slave ship southward—well known army—little
2:32nameless ones—who is the friend—who rules—
2:37who were all older moms . . . wuz a lot you got me
2:43peace we think—the wall—more walls—
2:46altho no toilets—& we want yr oil—let me do it—
2:53who owns sales—who are on the air—along the walls