This interview took place on September 30th, 2020.
Piñata Theory by Alan Chazaro won the 2018 Hudson Prize and is available through Black Lawrence Press. Alan is also the author of This Is Not a Frank Ocean Cover Album, an adjunct professor at the University of San Francisco, a columnist at Palette Poetry, and raising money for NBA arena workers during Covid-19.
We linked up through zoom and kicked off the interview talking about baseball and basketball—their respective playoffs and the feelings associated with watching sports at this time. This interview takes place during a historical moment which is embedded throughout this interview where we discuss about Piñata Theory, craft, process, mixed with sports, masculinity, and hip-hop.
Daniel Callahan: Piñata Theory is coming out shortly, is there anything you want to tell us about it?
Alan Chazaro: This is something I’ve worked on for almost a decade. If not in the actual writing process, in the creative process—allowing my experiences, memories, and ideas to formulate. I’m super proud of it. In a way, I am relieved that it is done because it was such a big thing for me for a long time. It felt like the biggest chunk of my identity that was both joy and a burden to carry. After all the stages of revision between graduate school, working with my publisher, and myself, I knew it was time to let it go. Now, it’s the world’s to interpret it how they will. I have the best intention with it and hope it might change the way people think about masculinity, machismo and what it means to be a Mexican-American in California. At the end of the day, I just hope people get what they will out of it and that it has some positive vibration in our society. With that said, I’m ready to get back to work on the next project. I’m not going to rest on this or celebrate it too much. I had my moment and I’m proud of it but I’m a workaholic with that Bay Area hustle mentality like Damian Lillard. It’s like, “Cool, I made the playoffs. This is as far as we got this time. Now it’s time to get to work on next season.”
DC: In an interview with The Rumpus back in 2019, you talk about how you had other collections that weren’t ready yet. Was Piñata Theory one of them?
AC: No, this was not. Piñata Theory is something I’ve been working on for a long time. The earliest poem is from around 2010 when I was finishing my undergrad at Berkeley. That was the seed of the book, beginning to explore Mexico, being Mexican-American—that bi-national identity—and having immigrant parents while growing up in the Bay Area. What I mentioned in The Rumpus refers to what I hope could be other collections that are currently in the works. While in graduate school, I was in this euphoric state of creation where I generated a ton of work. I often compare poets to rappers and I feel like I recorded potential albums ahead of time while I had the time and energy, and will release them later on when it feels right.
DC: In terms of writing poems, thinking about things, and being able to translate those thoughts onto the page was graduate school the most productive or creative time period of your life so far?
AC: Definitely, man. Before I went to grad school I was teaching high school full time for six years. I taught a few years in Louisiana and Massachusetts before coming back to the Bay. Being a high school English teacher is extremely demanding. I never had the time or the energy to come home after a day or weeks’ worth of teaching 150 sixteen-year-olds for seven hours a day. I was exhausted. Because I had that experience, I understood the urgency of being in the privileged position of grad school. I was like, “Cool, this is about me and my time and my learning.” All the energy and discipline I harnessed from teaching and working in high intensity situations allowed me to thrive in grad school.
DC: Thinking about Piñata Theory as a whole and the process a collection takes on in terms of creating new poems and through the levels of revision, how did this collection change from that first poem to being published?
AC: A lot. It was something I had to break, ironically, kind of like a piñata—the idea of having to break something, smash it, and collect what’s inside. And then rebuild it only to smash it again. There were probably four or five phases where I thought I had something. First, I had the idea, then generated work towards that idea. I shared my idea with people I trusted and they told me where it worked and where it didn’t work. I struggled with seeing what they were saying sometimes but eventually through growing as a writer and holding myself accountable—that I could write better—I revised the work. For example, when I started at USF, I felt committed to writing a book exploring my Mexican-American masculinity, being rooted in a community with undocumented friends, and immigrant parents. In the beginning, I was taking it on super directly, writing about things in a way that was one dimensional or didactic—like “immigrants are good” or “don’t build the wall.” My professors encouraged and pushed me to explore nuance and multidimensionality. I had what I thought was going to be the book until one of my professors said it was pretty weak work. In my head I was like, “What are you talking about man, this is the best thing I’ve ever written.” But once they called me out about it, I sat with it for a long time. I ended up scrapping about 90% of the book I think and started over. Not because they criticized me. But because I really sat with the criticism and thought deeply about what was weak and looking back on that collection, I’m like, “Ya, it’s super flat.” It doesn’t feel as well-rounded compared to what it eventually became and what I allowed it to become through trusting the process.
DC: Just like the Sixers. Trust the process. There is that moment of reflection where they say, “You can do better.” Do you want to put in the work or not? Putting in the work, often you can end up with work that amazes you. Edmond Jabès once wrote, “Writing means going on a journey, at the end of which you will not be the same and the bottom of the page filled.” How did you change while writing Piñata Theory? What did you learn about yourself and what revealed itself to you?
AC: I feel like that’s pretty accurate. My sense of self and my sense of poetic possibility greatly expanded. As a man who grew up in a house predominantly with my dad and older brother, I learned to prioritize my masculine side in stereotypical ways and un-stereotypical ways. In that environment with guys constantly talking football, graffiti, video games, skating and hip-hop all the time you have to put on a certain pretense. There are certain things that are allowed and there are things that aren’t. It wasn’t until I started writing that I started thinking about other things in my life or challenging myself to listen. The way I was raised, poetry can be seen as a feminine thing; just allowing myself to write broke that first wall. After years of writing, I started to allow myself to talk about more things I’m more vulnerable about. For example, there is a poem in the book called “Pretty” and it stemmed from a moment where I was at Symphony Hall and there were these two dudes in front of me and my wife and they were so in love that I remember feeling, “Damn, that’s such a beautiful thing to see, especially with the symphonic background.” Because of how I grew up, and the stereotypes I was pushed into as a boy and teen, there was a part of me that could have blocked that out and not thought about them. But I went home and wrote about why I thought it was such a beautiful moment and explored that space. It’s a poem that I shared with a few of my friends and they jokingly didn’t take it very seriously. I think they were holding me and themselves to old standards—but that was a perfect example of a poem where I trusted myself in writing these moments knowing I’d be subjected to scrutiny from people potentially misinterpreting or disagreeing with me but it’s about challenging myself to go outside my comfort zone. Beyond that, allowing myself to trust in the language and where the language leads me to as opposed to having something I want to say already preconceived in my mind. I used to come into writing feeling like I had all the answers, and that I had figured out what it means to be Mexican-American and was simply going to declare that to the world. Now through my growth, I’ve reached a point where I don’t feel like I have any answers. If anything, I just have hella questions. I now approach a poem thinking, “What does it mean to be Mexican-American?” or whatever it is I’m exploring and I try to communicate that through a lyric or a basketball game and mix in things not commonly mixed to see how that can all alchemize in my work. I never know where it will lead but when it clicks, I feel like I got somewhere for myself.
DC: That’s crazy you mention the questions and writing to explore those questions because that quote is from Jabès’s Book of Questions. You’ve mentioned writing This Is Not a Frank Ocean Cover Album to a slowed down version of Blonde by Frank Ocean. Were you listening to any albums while writing Piñata Theory?
AC: The biggest one for this was Isaiah Rashad’s The Sun’s Tirade.
DC: I love Isaiah Rashad.
AC: Right, dude? He’s amazing. I’m glad you know him because I won’t have to over explain anything about his sound. I’m also a big Kendrick Lamar fan and have always been one since his first mixtapes. I love a lot of underground stuff. I’m always listening to new Bay Area stuff like Larry June and Elujay, another Oakland rapper kind with a kind of R&B vibe, butI try to find stuff that pushes on the boundaries of genre. When you think of a stereotypical rapper, you think of x, y, and z. They’re going to rap about x, y, and z and they’re going to it in x, y, and z ways. But for me, the reason why I like guys like Isaiah and Kendrick is because they’re just weirdos, man. They don’t follow any prescriptive guidelines like what a rap song could be or should sound like. Isaiah Rashad taught me it’s not so much about the lyrics or the words as much as it is about the feeling that is invoked. Most of the time when I am listening to him, I literally don’t know what he is saying but I feel like he’s allowing himself to channel some energy source he is connected with through his mind, body, and spirit. When he raps over a beat, I get the sense that he is transferring energy to me. As opposed to me just nodding my head to every lyric like I do when I listen to a Nas album. I am a big Nas fan, too, and I can see the story very clearly in my head; he’s a narrative rapper. But with Isaiah Rashad, he never really gives me a linear narrative. It’s more like loosely associated images, colors, sensations, and I wanted to harness that energy and it helped me to think about poetry as a non-linear thing where I stopped trying to start at point A to get to point B. Instead, I tried to enter a poem at point L—through an image or sound that was vibrating with me—and tried to see where that took me. Isaiah really helped me to conceptualize what that could look and sound like with language.
DC: In a sense, he helped you to trust yourself. Especially when you’re following those associations—going from L to Z—you have to trust yourself as an artist. Did you feel that your time in undergrad and at USF, you had more trust in yourself? As an artist, you have to trust that what you’re doing is worthwhile, right?
AC: I agree 100%. It’s something that sounds so straight forward, basic and simple that it seems obvious that everybody trusts their art. But the level of trust that I have in my voice and in my process now is night and day from when I first started writing. I credit a lot to my professors and my peers for pushing me out of my comfort zone. They were like, “You’re hitting these targets and you’re good at hitting these targets. But have you tried hitting this target?” The more I was aware of the expansiveness of my identity and what poetry in general could achieve, the more I started to trust more in my ability to mix things, entering here and ending over there. I felt like I had gotten enough of the foundational things down and I had enough confidence in my own self and experience. I had to go through those stages, though, don’t get me wrong. I don’t think anybody can just get to the Kendrick stage without having the mixtape stage. If you listen to old Kendrick, his older stuff is very different. It was more direct and predictable, compared to his later evolution where he started to blur the lines more. He trusted in that intuitive space of creation, and over time, I wanted to allow my own poems to also get weirder and less of what I expected. We are all fractured and we are fragmented and that is kind of the piñata thing. We’re all fragmented people with a lot of little bits of brokenness and sweetness inside us. I just dove into all that to see what I would find. You have to trust yourself that you’re going to find something worthwhile or not.
DC: And if you don’t find it to move on?
DC: You mention going through the process. You didn’t skip a bunch of steps to get to where you are at now. You kept pushing through all the steps or stages. That is always on my mind when watching films that push the envelope or listening to Kendrick’s DAMN or To Pimp a Butterfly, they don’t just manifest out of nowhere. It’s a process of getting there and in today’s society we seem to be so quick to get the end result that we overlook the work.
AC: Exactly, trusting the process. Shout out Joel Embiid. It is definitely a huge part of it. Part of our generation is living through the time of instant gratification and Instagram. Personally, I don’t even have an Instagram because I try not to partake in the immediacy of “I’m going to portray this and always be like this” and all that. I’m not trying to say there is anything wrong with it or that I’m better for it, but I do think it’s a reality that it can be detrimental if you live only in that dimension. There can also be some beauty in it of course. My wife has Instagram and she uses it very well, and she’s always finding new stuff and people and putting me onto things like events to attend. I know people like her who use these spaces in a healthy way. But if you think everything is quick and easy and there is no sacrifice, because of social media, that can become problematic. If you want to become good at your craft, you have to go through those steps and mess up a lot, but that’s not always shown online. You have to figure out your breaking points and how to get past them.
DC: On Instagram, you can create whatever persona you want to create. But also, in writing. What are your thoughts on that persona you can create through what you choose to write about and choose not to write? What poems discuss and where they’re silent?
AC: I think about this a lot. Sorry to overuse the hip-hop thing, but I came into poetry first through graffiti, then freestyling and rapping, then poetry became an evolved form of all these things combined for me. I am aware that poetry, just like any art form, is a highly curated sense of self. I don’t try to act like everything I write is everything that I am. It is one part of who I am and it’s a thematic grouping of something that I am grappling with in that moment. Aesthetically as someone who creates, I have to think about readers and how they can access my work in a universal way or else the work will spill all over the place and I don’t think that helps anyone. I had to choose what things to talk about. I know I wanted to write a book that was grappling with Mexican-American masculinity largely because that was such a big part of my identity but it’s not the only part of my identity. When you alluded to the other collections that I’ve written, but not yet shared, they’re hella weird and look at outer space, video games and being a nerd. It was easier for me to compartmentalize those parts of myself and explore them deeper in other collections while layering those things with being a Mexican-American kid who grew up in the Bay.
DC: We’re complex people.
AC: For example, listening to a Drake album. I can be judgmental of work by rappers like him. He’s not my favorite, but I acknowledge that he is an artist, and I can’t judge him as a man off a song or an album, even the body of his work. Because outside of every hit song he’s made, he’s still a man with his own secrets and own persona, lifestyle, relationships, and life. I tend to view artists with that artistic license. Every creator has a little bit of leeway in my eyes to amplify a certain aspect or reduce a certain volume to achieve that perfect frequency they’re looking for in a song or poem, album or poetry collection where all these songs and poems are singing alongside one another. You’re trying to get harmony and ultimately, you’re forced to exclude or include certain aspects of yourself.
DC: Right now is a difficult moment for millions of people. On zoom calls and poetry readings, some writers have talked about how easy it is to write because of how much is going on right now, as if it’s unlimited fuel whereas others have talked about the difficulty of writing even though they have the time. What’s it like for you as a writer living through this moment?
AC: It calls back to earlier where we’re discussing the multidimensionality of people. Being a “poet” is one piece of the pie for me. I try not to let it be too big of a piece. I’m also a husband. I want to be a father soon. I’m a grandson. I live with my grandma. I’m also a huge sports and hip-hop fan. I’m an educator. I’m a millennial, etc. There’s a lot of ways I try to balance myself out so that I don’t get burnt out with only exists through poetry in this difficult moment. There are so many parts to me that fuel my optimism and privilege—like being a US citizen, for example. I have a lot of close friends that are undocumented and it reminds me of the ease of my path versus theirs and others. I say that because writing poetry has been a gift and I try not to take it for granted. That said, it has slowed down during quarantine, I acknowledged that early on because I allowed myself to steer in other directions. I quit my job last year and went to Mexico with my wife and mom who lived down there. I was there for almost a year and it was transformational in many ways. In Mexico, I started writing about current events and travel, and even the basketball inspiration. I was discovering in the mountains of rural Oaxaca where they had gyms with tin roofs and basketball tournaments. But when I came back to Cali because of COVID, I had to adjust and figure out how to spend my time differently. I allowed myself to stay in those non-fiction places in my writing and it is what’s sustaining me to this day. I even launched a basketball magazine with my friend called Headfake. My homie in Spain is the illustrator and we just write about basketball in a way that explores culture, identity, politics, and hoops. We started it in quarantine as something to do to build community and it’s been a successful side project that’s really grown and I enjoy.
DC: What’s next for you?
AC: I have my basketball zine now, and I want to move into fatherhood, home ownership, and to mentally create that space for my future self and the other collections I mentioned. One on video games, space ships and Star Wars looking at borders, gentrification, and ironically, the apocalypse. It’s really creepy. I read a few poems from that recently, which I wrote last year, and they talk about the end of the world and the universe collapsing and ourselves imploding through the overload of everything. That’s the project I am most excited about and has the most potential to resonate I think. It aligns perfectly with what’s going on today. It’s eerie. Like many of us, I think I was sensing the slow unraveling.
DC: Sounds like you’re going to be busy.
AC: Yeah, dude. I’m a workaholic. I’m always trying to hustle. You never know what’s going to happen in a week or a day, and I try to take advantage of every opportunity in each moment. This is the time I have now, so I have no excuse not to write.
Alan Chazaro is the author of This Is Not a Frank Ocean Cover Album (Black Lawrence Press, 2019) and the forthcoming Piñata Theory (Black Lawrence Press, 2020) – order online! He is a graduate of June Jordan’s Poetry for the People program at UC Berkeley and a former Lawrence Ferlinghetti Fellow at the University of San Francisco. He is currently a creative writing adjunct professor in the Bay Area, and the co-founding editor at HeadFake, a basketball zine. Find him on Twitter @alan_chazaro.
Daniel Dias Callahan is a writer from Sacramento, California, studying poetry in the Master of Fine Arts program at the University of San Francisco. He is currently the Poetry Editor for the online journal, Invisible City, and a data analyst for a consulting firm. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Sonora Review, California Quarterly, and San Joaquin Review among others. In his free time, he enjoys surfing and taking photographs.