DCPLive is a blog by library staff at the DeKalb County Public Library!
Apr 17 2008

Interview with Poet John Olivares Espinoza

by Jimmy L

John Olivares Espinoza was raised in southern California where he worked as a landscaper for his father. He is the author of two previous chapbooks and holds an MFA in creative writing from Arizona State University. He currently teaches writing, literature, and ethnic studies at the National Hispanic University. His first full-length collection of poetry, The Date Fruit Elegies, will be out this year from the Bilingual Press.

John has a website at john-olivares-espinoza.com

John, what draws you to poetry? Why did you choose it? What can you achieve in poetry that you can’t achieve through other mediums?

After twenty years of being repelled by poetry, I was drawn to it because of the emotional experience I received reading it. Isn’t that why we read books, go to the movies, or concert performances—so we can get blown away by the drama and visceral experience? Poetry does all this in 50, 25, 12, or 2 lines. This is some power. But unlike a movie or rock concert that takes hours to get to that point of experience, or books that take weeks, a poem takes two minutes to read. I chose this medium because it can make the reader gasp, sigh, laugh, and relate in just one short shot.

I noticed that your unique background as a landscaper for your father often factors into your poems. Can you tell me a little bit more about this?

When I worked with my dad in high school, I was so embarrassed to tell any of my friends. Only one friend knew about what I did and that’s because he did the same thing. Besides him, I knew only one other person who worked with his dad, but he was just a classmate and no more. That person was actually open about it—and to the girls of all people—and I thought he was committing popularity suicide. Trying to survive in high school is about trying to front coolness, and popularity, and being accepted. Little did I know back then that no one fulfilled those requirements. I was later to discover that the popular kids at high school either had something to be “embarrassed” about at home, or led a more boring life than they led others to believe. At least that’s how it was then; maybe now it’s cool to be uncool.

Being 14-17 years old, and beyond, working with my dad in 100+ degree temperatures, constantly sweating and dehydrating as Gatorade never seemed to help, getting shot in the face with the pebbles the machinery flung at us, having to pick up fresh dog poo from the dewy-lawn before mowing it, all meant something in the grander scheme of life and society. And writing poetry helped me figure some of it
out. I’m glad I wasn’t those kids who stayed home on a Saturday watching cartoons—what would I write about?

We live in a world of CGI graphics and youtube videos. In your opinion, is there still a place for poetry today? What is the role of the poet, and also, what is the role of the minority poet?

Something that constantly gets brought up in the conversation about poetry is this question: Is poetry dead? This question gets brought up now, as it did ten years ago. I’ve even read early writings by poets in the 1920s asking if poetry is dead. And I’m pretty sure that in 1899 someone was asking the same question. Rest assured my friends, poetry is not dead. If poetry was dead, we’d be reading about it in history books, which would state that the last poem was written in 1903 or something.

Poetry is one of humanity’s oldest traditions. It existed before the common era, and one of the oldest poems we read in high school is The Odyssey and The Iliad. And guess what? Last summer we saw the marriage of CGI and poetry—Beowulf. I haven’t watched the film, but I hear the poem was better than the movie. I believe The Odyssey, The Iliad, and Beowulf are a testament to poetry’s immortality. They were primarily passed down orally long before they were written down. I can imagine someone saying, “Dude, Homer, this thing called ‘writing’ is happening and it’s totally going to kill your show, dude.”

With that said, the role of the poet today is to continue this long tradition. If people weren’t writing poems today, then maybe poetry would face extinction. Thank goodness that there are thousands of poets writing today.

As far as the minority poet’s role, it is about capturing and documenting that said minority’s experience living in America today. Whether the poetry is wildly political or apolitical, a reader 25 years from now will really get a sense of what it was like to be a minority or person of color today. I wouldn’t know what it was to be Chicano 25 years ago if it weren’t for the poetry written back then.

What are some of your favorite poems/poets?

I always point my readers in the direction of Gary Soto‘s “Oranges” and “Ode to the Yard Sale,” and Philip Levine‘s title poem “What Work Is” to get a sense of my influences and samples of good poems, period. Aside from them I’d also point readers in the direction of Christopher Buckley, Rigoberto Gonzalez, Josh Rathkamp (Amazon), Terence Hayes, and Kevin Young.

Outside of poetry, what are you reading lately? Any recommendations?

One of the perks of living as a practicing poet is having the inside scoop on who’s writing good books that don’t have the benefit of million-dollar marketing budgets or having their book chosen by a talk show host for a book club. The last two novels I read are February Flowers (Amazon) by Fan Wu, who wrote this novel about the friendship between two women in transitional China—I mean, it’s more than that—I can’t do justice in one sentence for which the book accomplishes in 240 pages. It’s a great book to pick up now considering China’s emerging power. The other novel is Alex Espinoza’s (no relation) Still Water Saints, which you might have seen on the shelves of Barnes and Noble Discover New Writers. It is about the lives of the citizens in the mythical Agua Mansa in southern California who patron a botanica, which is a kind of place some Mexicans go to for alternative medicines and cures. The novel contains some of the most unforgettable characters I’ve read in a while.

Thank you!!!

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Claudia Medori April 21, 2008 at 7:47 AM

Thanks for the interview with John Olivares Espinoza. I love reading good poetry. Not many people seem to or are willing to try it, which is a shame. Hope others enjoy hearing from a poet who is just like many of us and not stuffy, unapproachable, and hard to understand.

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