Alan Chazaro is a half armadillo half chameleon Mexican American poet. His poetry collections, This Is Not a Frank Ocean Cover Album (2019) and Piñata Theory (2020), are available from Black Lawrence Press. He is currently an adjunct professor at the University of San Francisco and writing about the NBA for HeadFake.
Here, Garbriella Graceffo talks with Alan Chazaro about candy, social justice, Frank Ocean, graffiti, and the inspiration behind his debut collection.
Gabriella Graceffo: How long have you worked on Piñata Theory, from conception to the upcoming publication?
Alan Chazaro: The oldest poem in the book was written about ten years ago, when I was an undergrad student in June Jordan’s Poetry for the People program at UC Berkeley. I was a community college transfer just barely figuring out that I had a voice. That poem (“Veracruz”) was the seed I needed to plant for the eventual book to grow from.
GG: Your previous book, This Is Not a Frank Ocean Cover, featured disparate topics and experiences like an eclectic mixtape. Does Piñata Theory do the same with many types of cultural candy all bound into one book-shaped piñata?
AC: I like the way you put that, thank you! I think it has some of that fragmentation for sure, but I also think the body of Piñata Theory is more solidly held together. It’s like the album to the mixtape; there is still a good variety of soundscapes and frequencies of experience, but where Frank Ocean didn’t have the literal space as a chapbook to explore other topics more deeply, I wanted Piñata Theory to pick up where I left off and push further beyond the colorful surface exterior. Just as an example, I really didn’t look at anything regarding citizenship and dual-heritage with Frank Ocean, but Piñata largely lives in that broken in-between space of what it means to be a U.S. citizen who enjoys the sweet privileges of that, while living with many others who only held the struggles of exclusion and undocumentation. You’ll also notice a lot more of Mexico in this one, from my time living there as an adult, and from memories traveling there as a pocho boy and teenager. That’s the kind of stuff Frank Ocean just couldn’t fit.
GG: Since we’re talking about piñatas, what is your favorite type of candy?
AC: I like anything that’s the opposite of chocolate to be honest. So, like, anything chewy, and sticky, and hyper-sugary, and sour, and gummy. Usually when I’m at a party with a piñata I’ll only seek out the Laffy Taffys and stuff like that and just ruthlessly leave all that other junk on the floor.
GG: Do you keep a journal, or do you prefer to write on anything you can find?
AC: I keep a journal but not for poetry. It’s literally to remind me to do basic things because I can be really spaced out, like: follow up on interview; call your pops; pay grandma’s bill; the kind of stuff that I will mindlessly forget or wait until the super last minute to do if I don’t physically see it written down in front of me. With poems, I’m definitely a take-notes-on-the-phone kind of person, then I’ll shift over to my laptop when I can. I like to start with whatever ideas hit me in the moment by just noting it on my phone and writing the first things that come to my mind, usually jotting down the idea of a concept or title if anything emerges, especially if I’m on the move and I know the momentum will be lost if I don’t capture it like a Pokemon in the wild. I’ll just stop walking and type. Before smartphones became universal though I would definitely be the type to write on loose scratch paper, receipts, even my hand if I had to, just because…. I WOULD FORGET. It drove/still drives my wife crazy.
GG: What is a favorite piece of advice from a mentor of yours? How did it help you with your writing?
AC: Bruce Snider was my first professor in my first class, first days at the University of San Francisco MFA. He told us that if the writer doesn’t have any moments of surprise themselves, then the reader probably won’t either. It sounds so simple, but it’s something I actually go back to constantly, because since then, I’ve become better about letting my conscious self slowly erode on the page while I’m writing and entering a more stream of consciousness state, and when I feel that moment of surprise, I know it’s something that will more likely resonate with readers because it resonated with me, and I felt it. Before that I think I would approach poems more literally, thinking I was in control and that I should steer the poem in the direction I wanted to by choosing certain words or aiming for a certain feel, but I realized with Bruce’s advice that I was more of a passenger who could arrive at an unexpected place, and it’s a feeling I’ve enjoyed arriving at ever since.
GG: Besides writing, what other daily rituals do you participate in or feel are important to your writing?
AC: I’m the type to just get up and walk around the room when I’m writing to let my ideas breathe. Need to move, run, or play a sport if I can during the week, too. Anything physical. Being in tune with my body on a daily basis goes hand in hand with my writing for sure.
GG: When and how does inspiration find you? For example, do you go outside to find it in nature, or does it suddenly come to you in the middle of the night? Do you find it in different languages and if so, does translation take away or expand the inspiration?
AC: I try to keep my senses open to everything, which can be a problem, so I could literally be having a Zoom conversation with a former student and he might say something that will hit me in a certain way and then I’ll suddenly wander off into thinking about writing a poem in my head, but I’ll reel myself back in because I want to be as present as possible in those situations. But to answer the question, it really happens anywhere at any time, it’s just a matter of how much attention I can give it in the moment to give it to let it grow into something more. Music, of course, is also a tremendous source of inspiration for me (shout out Frank Ocean).
GG: If given the choice to spend 24 hours in a museum creating something, what medium would you prefer? Or would you make a multimedia piece, something that evokes synesthesia like your poetry?
AC: Definitely visual art. I grew up doing graffiti in California as a teenager, so I still have some muscle memory with aerosol. Graffiti is a cousin of poetry in my mind, and I miss doing it. Random story: the first time I ever met my father-in-law, he asked me to paint a mural in his family’s living room. It was bizarre, since I’d just stepped inside his house for the first time ever, and he’s a traditional Mexican man with rosaries and La Virgen all over the house, but he bought me all the paints the next day and asked me to depict a downtown skyline, so I spent a few afternoons on two ladders, covering the whole surface. I won him over by painting a dope, golden sunset row of silhouetted buildings in the front room above his TV. That was such a son-in-law test moment, but it’s still up in his house after 13 years so I think I won him over.
GG: What are some things you learned from creating both your debut book and your second collection? Do you have some advice you could give to writers putting together a first collection?
AC: Definitely don’t rush it. I feel like there is such pressure these days to have a collection and to feel validated by a published body of work, but I wanted my first collection(s) to be a reflection of where I was at that moment, however long that took me to express. Whatever that looks like for you, at whatever stage you’re at, in a way that honors you, your voice, your community, and your needs, I think you’ll know when you have something that you’re excited about and hella proud to share. It’s not a race to get to that point. It can be fun too, and if it ever becomes stale or feels flat, just give it some space and try something else you enjoy before coming back to get in your groove again–that’s where the patience, sports, and other stuff comes in for me. I’ll go days, even months without writing a poem, but whenever I get back to it, it just feels so unforced and necessary, and that’s my favorite place to be when I’m creating.
GG: If you could describe Piñata Theory in three words, what would they be? Why?
AC: Body. Break. Gather. Those are the three section titles for the book, but also, I think they reflect all of us, no matter who we are or where we come from. We all have to learn how to hold our space; we will all inevitably be shattered in small and large ways; and we will be tasked with picking it all up and seeing what’s inside.
Also, on a separate but not-so-separate note, continue to fight for justice, not just by sending out Tweets but in real, meaningful ways in whatever capacity you are able to. Defunding the police means redistributing the exorbitant amounts of money unnecessarily funneled into the militarization of law enforcement, and I believe we must redirect those funds more equitably into other community needs, like education. Our public schools have been shit for so long, and only less than 3% of teachers are Black or Brown men of color–not because we are incapable, but because the conditions are so unlikely to attract and retain us in this field. We are severely overworked and underpaid more than most other comparable professions, and the few of us who exist in those spaces are pushed out. In Oakland, for example, “about 20% of the city’s entire budget — more than $318 million — goes to policing. That’s nearly double the amount of any other city department”, and barely a fraction of a fraction of this goes into our students. Think about that. Think about how much goes into creating fear and brutality through police officers when we could be creating empathy and understanding in our classrooms. I guarantee that more quality teachers would remain in the classroom–from all backgrounds–if the wages were respectable and districts had more money to allocate. Stay involved in your local community, especially after this moment passes, and keep applying pressure for institutional changes like this by making demands and using your political voice to support however/wherever you can. Much love and solidarity from the Bay.