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Citizen Illegal

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In this stunning debut, poet José Olivarez explores the stories, contradictions, joys, and sorrows that embody life in the spaces between Mexico and America. He paints vivid portraits of good kids, bad kids, families clinging to hope, life after the steel mills, gentrifying barrios, and everything in between. Drawing on the rich traditions of Latinx and Chicago writers lik In this stunning debut, poet José Olivarez explores the stories, contradictions, joys, and sorrows that embody life in the spaces between Mexico and America. He paints vivid portraits of good kids, bad kids, families clinging to hope, life after the steel mills, gentrifying barrios, and everything in between. Drawing on the rich traditions of Latinx and Chicago writers like Sandra Cisneros and Gwendolyn Brooks, Olivarez creates a home out of life in the in-between. Combining wry humor with potent emotional force, Olivarez takes on complex issues of race, ethnicity, gender, class, and immigration using an everyday language that invites the reader in. Olivarez has a unique voice that makes him a poet to watch.


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In this stunning debut, poet José Olivarez explores the stories, contradictions, joys, and sorrows that embody life in the spaces between Mexico and America. He paints vivid portraits of good kids, bad kids, families clinging to hope, life after the steel mills, gentrifying barrios, and everything in between. Drawing on the rich traditions of Latinx and Chicago writers lik In this stunning debut, poet José Olivarez explores the stories, contradictions, joys, and sorrows that embody life in the spaces between Mexico and America. He paints vivid portraits of good kids, bad kids, families clinging to hope, life after the steel mills, gentrifying barrios, and everything in between. Drawing on the rich traditions of Latinx and Chicago writers like Sandra Cisneros and Gwendolyn Brooks, Olivarez creates a home out of life in the in-between. Combining wry humor with potent emotional force, Olivarez takes on complex issues of race, ethnicity, gender, class, and immigration using an everyday language that invites the reader in. Olivarez has a unique voice that makes him a poet to watch.

30 review for Citizen Illegal

  1. 5 out of 5

    Nahid Soltanzadeh

    I just finished this book in one sitting and I'm in awe. I learned more than I have ever learned from a poetry book, in terms of both craft & content. Like, if we each had an empathy score for the lives we haven't lived but have listened to, mine just sky-rocketed.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Kathleen

    My review for the Chicago Tribune: http://www.chicagotribune.com/lifesty... The word “ode” gets thrown around a lot in relation to poetry, so it’s worth taking a look at Merriam-Webster’s definition of the term: “a lyric poem usually marked by exaltation of feeling and style, varying length of line, and complexity of stanza forms.” A cross-check with the Poetry Foundation adds that an ode is “a formal, often ceremonious lyric poem that addresses and often celebrates a person, place, thing, or ide My review for the Chicago Tribune: http://www.chicagotribune.com/lifesty... The word “ode” gets thrown around a lot in relation to poetry, so it’s worth taking a look at Merriam-Webster’s definition of the term: “a lyric poem usually marked by exaltation of feeling and style, varying length of line, and complexity of stanza forms.” A cross-check with the Poetry Foundation adds that an ode is “a formal, often ceremonious lyric poem that addresses and often celebrates a person, place, thing, or idea.” Jose Olivarez’s indispensable debut poetry collection, “Citizen Illegal,” is a boisterous, empathetic, funny-yet-serious (but not self-serious) celebratory ode to Chicanx life in the contemporary United States. In fact, it’s an ode that contains many odes within itself. Take “Ode to Cheese Fries,” in which he writes “say it with me —/ cheese fries please —/ give me everything artificial including cardboard fries,/ the bread fresh/ out of some Walmart cloning experiment —/ throw in/ a cold pop —/ I want a joy so fake it stains my insides &/ never fades away.” Or “Ode to Cal City Basement Parties,” in which he writes, “lovers tag walls/ the deep blue/ of Levis. Hands on/ hips. hips on hips. red/ Solo cups. smoke hides./ touch reveals.” There’s even an “Ode to Scottie Pippen,” in which the speaker declares “Scottie, you made it look easy,/ the way your legs ate air,/ found every escalator up.// i was watching your game. working my own factory/ trying to build my way out.” Moreover, many of the poems exhibit odic qualities, such as “My Mom Puts on Makeup,” where the speaker imagines that “for the next few hours she will not worry/ about me & my brothers,” and instead “all she will have to worry about is the color of her lips/ and the handsome men admiring them.” Admixed with the joy is undeniable sorrow and anger, for the book is an act of emotional and intellectual rigor, one that makes an unsparing examination of race, gender and class, particularly as such categories relate to the struggles and complexities of immigration and gentrification. The opening poem, “(Citizen) (Illegal),” uses the persistent parenthetical repetition of those two labels to invite the reader to see how, like a pair of malevolent ghosts, the categories — and all the fear, confusion and discrimination that accompany them — haunt the lives of those to whom the words are applied: “Mexican woman (illegal) and Mexican man (illegal)/ have a Mexican (illegal)-American (citizen)./ is the baby more Mexican or American?/ place the baby in the arms of the mother (illegal)./ if the mother holds the baby (citizen)/ too long, does the baby become illegal?” The son of Mexican immigrants, Olivarez graduated from Harvard University and lives in Chicago, where he works as the marketing manager of Young Chicago Authors and as the lead teaching artist for the Teen Lab Program at the Art Institute. He is also the co-host, with Aziza Barnes and Jon Sands, of the podcast “The Poetry Gods.” The program’s mission statement declares: “You don’t have to love poetry to love the show.” One could say something similar about Olivarez’s book, which is very much in keeping with how the podcast describes the kind of poets it likes to feature: “joyful and absurd, with stories for days.” Olivarez is far from subtle in his interrogations, as one can tell simply by flipping through his table of contents, populated by such arresting titles as “My Therapist Says Make Friends With Your Monsters,” “The Voice in My Head Speaks English Now,” “I Walk Into Every Room & Yell Where the Mexicans at” and “White Folks Is Crazy.” But this lack of subtlety — this courageous, head-on bluntness combined with exquisite lyrical clarity — feels bracing and apt, given the subjects he chooses to discuss possess such urgent intensity. In one of the eight brief poems all titled “Mexican Heaven” scattered throughout the book, he writes with characteristically cutting humor: “there are white people in heaven, too./ they build condos across the street/ & ask the Mexicans to speak English./ i’m just kidding./ there are no white people in heaven.” There are hard arguments in here that might be difficult for some, but they need to be hard and they need to be heard. Olivarez has just the right voice — compassionate, dynamic and irreverent — to deliver them.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Anna (never_withouta_book)

    Citizen Illegal is a beautiful piece of artwork. This collection of poetry explores what it means to be a first-generation Mexican-American. José paints a vivid portrait of family, love, gender, class, immigration and traditions of Latinx. Highly recommend.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Katrina

    incredible

  5. 4 out of 5

    Eli

    Amazing! I'll be recommending this book over and over.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Em

    This was fantastic. I couldn't put it down--i laughed out loud several times. Olivarez had me swinging between feeling good, sad, and with righteous injustice over the course of a few lines. Then repeat. And repeat again. Haymarket Books has brought me back to poetry.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Violet Muhle Bruce

    Just beautiful. This poetry is so real and vibrant and honest that it left me speechless. The way this book has so many of my favorite types of poetry is truly incredible. I believe there is something for everyone in this book, take a couple hours out of your day and read it.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Elliot

    I don't know a lot about poetry, but there's a lot of good shit in here.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Alana

    (citizen) (illegal) Mexican woman (illegal) and Mexican man (illegal) have a Mexican (illegal)-American (citizen). Is the baby more Mexican or American? Place the baby in the arms of the mother (illegal). If the mother holds the baby (citizen) too long, does the baby become illegal? The baby is a boy (citizen). He goes to school (citizen). His classmates are American (citizen). He is outcast (illegal). His “Hellos” are in the wrong language (illegal). He takes the hyphen separating loneliness (Mexican) fro (citizen) (illegal) Mexican woman (illegal) and Mexican man (illegal) have a Mexican (illegal)-American (citizen). Is the baby more Mexican or American? Place the baby in the arms of the mother (illegal). If the mother holds the baby (citizen) too long, does the baby become illegal? The baby is a boy (citizen). He goes to school (citizen). His classmates are American (citizen). He is outcast (illegal). His “Hellos” are in the wrong language (illegal). He takes the hyphen separating loneliness (Mexican) from friendship (American) and jabs it at the culprit (illegal). Himself (illegal). His own traitorous tongue (illegal). His name (illegal). His mom (illegal). His dad (illegal). Take a Mexican woman (illegal) and a Mexican man (illegal). If they have a baby and the baby looks white enough to pass (citizen). If the baby grows up singing Selena songs to his reflection (illegal). If the baby hides from el cucuy and la migra (illegal). If the baby (illegal) (citizen) grows up to speak broken Spanish (illegal) and perfect English (citizen). If the boy’s nickname is Güerito (citizen). If the boy attends college (citizen). If the boy only dates women (illegal) of color (illegal). If the boy (illegal) uses phrases like Women of Color (citizen). If the boy (illegal) (citizen) writes (illegal) poems (illegal). If the boy (citizen) (illegal) grows up (illegal) and can only write (illegal) this story in English (citizen), does that make him more American (citizen) or Mexican (illegal)?

  10. 5 out of 5

    Allison

    I'm so glad this collection of poetry exists in our world today. Jose Olivarez writes beautifully with love, humor and wit, about his experience growing up Mexican-American, the child of immigrants, about the many intersections of his life & his identity, about his complicated and deep love for his mother, his brothers, his father. Thank you Haymarket for sending me an advanced review copy!

  11. 4 out of 5

    Raunel Urquiza

    Great! I resonated strongly with the works and my favorite poems touched a deep nerve about what assimilation or integration looks like in our culture. We are at odds not only in our society, our homes but even ourselves. I'm left wondering, how do I reconcile my seemingly contradictory identities. I hope Jose Olivarez keeps on writing!

  12. 4 out of 5

    Jim

    I heard Jose Olivarez read his poems at the end of October (2018) and liked him and his poems. He has a very winning personality. Bought the book at the reading.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Ashlee

    Great poems about Family, Love, and Identity. Standouts for me were "Mexican Heaven", "Mexican American Disambiguation" and "White Folks Is Crazy"

  14. 4 out of 5

    Isaly.

    Poetry has always been my favorite genre because of the emotions it evokes from a reader. I have been getting poetry books left and right from the library. I recently was able to get Citizen Illegal By José Olivarez -- which has been released recently. I was immediately drawn to this poetry book because of the synopsis and theme of this poetry. I decided to write a review on this book and break down what this poetry revealed to me. Here is the link to my full review: http://bit.ly/2QyzsVb

  15. 5 out of 5

    Karin Salisbury

    Such a powerful, honest voice. I continue to revisit various poems, each one packed with intensity, thoughtfulness, love, and raw dignity.

  16. 4 out of 5

    krystal

    I just inhaled this book in one sitting. I’m typing this from the bookstore because I haven’t even left yet. It’s perfect. I loved it. I hope you do too.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Page

    Thank you to Edelweiss+ for this advanced eGalley of “Citizen Illegal”. José Olivarez lets you into his world: its pain, its contradictions, and its frustrations. As a Mexican-American his experience is not unlike those whose mixed ethnicity makes it difficult to figure out which “box to tick”: He’s a man with a cultural stake in two worlds—born of Mexican ancestry, but able to claim American citizenship. To identify too closely with one, leaves him vulnerable to the criticisms of the other, but Thank you to Edelweiss+ for this advanced eGalley of “Citizen Illegal”. José Olivarez lets you into his world: its pain, its contradictions, and its frustrations. As a Mexican-American his experience is not unlike those whose mixed ethnicity makes it difficult to figure out which “box to tick”: He’s a man with a cultural stake in two worlds—born of Mexican ancestry, but able to claim American citizenship. To identify too closely with one, leaves him vulnerable to the criticisms of the other, but he still longs for the comfort that comes with simply being accepted as a man in the world—period. Deeply personal, and unflinchingly honest, Olivarez makes it clear his goal is to be heard. If understanding happens as a result, he’ll take that too.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Kent Winward

    The poems were timely politically and accessible, but the universality of the poet's life started to feel like every poet who consistently hits the local open mics: conflicts with parents, conflicts and heartbreak with love interests, concern over where one fits in, cultural and family pressures, etc. All of those were fine, but I wanted something a little bit more, whether more musicality in the words and rhythm or more contradictions within the poet's character, just a little more to make the The poems were timely politically and accessible, but the universality of the poet's life started to feel like every poet who consistently hits the local open mics: conflicts with parents, conflicts and heartbreak with love interests, concern over where one fits in, cultural and family pressures, etc. All of those were fine, but I wanted something a little bit more, whether more musicality in the words and rhythm or more contradictions within the poet's character, just a little more to make the poems come more alive.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Adrian Nester

    Thanks to the magic of Twitter I received this advanced copy from the poet. Olivarez posted the title poem to Twitter this year and I fell in love. My student, Brenda Arellano, followed him as her poet for her blog and I loved reading his poems and her analysis each month. I sat down and meant to read 1-2 poems...but I couldn’t stop. Finished the whole work which is now full of my sticky notes. Put Sept 4 on your calendar to get your copy and #teachlivingpoets ❤ @_joseolivarez distinct voice and Thanks to the magic of Twitter I received this advanced copy from the poet. Olivarez posted the title poem to Twitter this year and I fell in love. My student, Brenda Arellano, followed him as her poet for her blog and I loved reading his poems and her analysis each month. I sat down and meant to read 1-2 poems...but I couldn’t stop. Finished the whole work which is now full of my sticky notes. Put Sept 4 on your calendar to get your copy and #teachlivingpoets ❤️ @_joseolivarez distinct voice and my Ss will too!

  20. 5 out of 5

    Renée Roehl

    O--you *must* read this 66 page book! Preferably in one sitting. Olivarez's glorious titles alone tell the reader where this book lives. A stunning collection of hilarious, tragic, poignant poems about the American, Mexican-American, Méxican experience and all the spirits those entail. The re-visioning of "Mexican Heaven" contained in all the 5 sections skewer the heart of his history and some lightly poke at the culture and then end with an anvil: MEXICAN HEAVEN there are white people in heave O--you *must* read this 66 page book! Preferably in one sitting. Olivarez's glorious titles alone tell the reader where this book lives. A stunning collection of hilarious, tragic, poignant poems about the American, Mexican-American, Méxican experience and all the spirits those entail. The re-visioning of "Mexican Heaven" contained in all the 5 sections skewer the heart of his history and some lightly poke at the culture and then end with an anvil: MEXICAN HEAVEN there are white people in heaven, too. they build condos across the street & ask the Mexicans to speak English. i'm just kidding. there are no white people in heaven. Here some of Olivarez's titles to lure you in: "Getting Ready to Say I Love You to My Dad, It Rains" "When the Bill Collector Calls & I Do Not Have the Heart to Answer" "My Therapist Says Make Friends with Your Monsters" "The Voice in My Head Speaks English Now" "I Ask Jesus How I Got So White" "I Walk into Every Room & Yell Where the Mexicans At" "Poem to Take the Belt Out of My Dad's Hands" "My Mom Texts Me for the Millionth Time" There are no 'filler' poems in this spare collection. Olivarez's poems are fresh to the very last poem. I can't wait for his next book!

  21. 5 out of 5

    Ricardo

    Though I’ve read a fair amount of poetry before, I still feel quite new to it all when I take on reading a new collection. I think with "Citizen Illegal" I’ve finally begun to realize the incredible precision and thought it takes to tell stories in just a span of a few lines. I found much of what Olivarez wrote about to be relatable which made me love his work all the more. One piece that stood out to me was his poem “Mexican American Obituary” (which is a sort of homage to Pedro Pietri “Puerto Though I’ve read a fair amount of poetry before, I still feel quite new to it all when I take on reading a new collection. I think with "Citizen Illegal" I’ve finally begun to realize the incredible precision and thought it takes to tell stories in just a span of a few lines. I found much of what Olivarez wrote about to be relatable which made me love his work all the more. One piece that stood out to me was his poem “Mexican American Obituary” (which is a sort of homage to Pedro Pietri “Puerto Rican Obituary”) that speaks on racial injustice in America, particularly for that of African-Americans. Olivarez is reminding his readers, his people that we are to fight for other people of color too, and not just standby on the sidelines hoping not to die too. Olivarez is an exceptional poet and story teller and “Citizen Illegal” is an excellent debut collection for this Chicago poet that I’m looking forward to seeing more from in the future.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Leah Rachel von Essen

    Citizen Illegal by Joé Olivarez is a poetry collection that builds on its own power, getting better as it goes on. Not all of the poems throughout had the same level of impact, but as a collection, it builds the foundation until Part V is a storm, crackling and booming with the weight of the emotions that we’ve been slowly raising throughout. “I Loved the World So I Married It” brought me to tears (“music, even on the day my grandma died / there were mangos though i tasted nothing.”). “Love Poem Citizen Illegal by Joé Olivarez is a poetry collection that builds on its own power, getting better as it goes on. Not all of the poems throughout had the same level of impact, but as a collection, it builds the foundation until Part V is a storm, crackling and booming with the weight of the emotions that we’ve been slowly raising throughout. “I Loved the World So I Married It” brought me to tears (“music, even on the day my grandma died / there were mangos though i tasted nothing.”). “Love Poem Feat. Kanye West” paired with “Getting Ready to Say I Love You to My Dad, It Rains,” brought questions of what love is, of what it means to say and be in love. “River Oaks Mall (Reprise)” and “Gentefication” are stunning together. Olivarez in this collection addresses the in-between, the struggles and joys of being Mexican-American, neither and both. I received a free copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Olivarez’s collection comes out September 4 from Haymarket Books.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Christina Butcher

    I read this entire poetry collection in one day. I couldn't put it down. Olivarez beautifully captures the cultural-in-between of being Chicano, and he does so without being stuffy or overly romantic. I earmarked almost every other poem in this collection because the writing is honest, humorous and accessible. As a Chicana poet, I'm always on the hunt for poetry collections and authors who delve into the push and pull of immigrant experiences similar to those my family live(d) through and which I read this entire poetry collection in one day. I couldn't put it down. Olivarez beautifully captures the cultural-in-between of being Chicano, and he does so without being stuffy or overly romantic. I earmarked almost every other poem in this collection because the writing is honest, humorous and accessible. As a Chicana poet, I'm always on the hunt for poetry collections and authors who delve into the push and pull of immigrant experiences similar to those my family live(d) through and which i struggle to navigate in my life. I appreciate this collection for the author's honesty, and for his bravery in speaking up about the cultural tension that characterizes so many life experiences. This is also one of the most cohesive and well-written poetry collections I've read in years.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Kandace

    As a Chicana this collection changed my life. The tension between the sorrow and joys of Mexican experience in the contemporary US are expressed in a variety of ways through a beautiful collection of poems. The revisioning of Mexican Heaven through several versions of the poem were a particular joy. I was left in tears and with warmth in my heart and the title poem will leave you with more questions and a further desire to keep reading.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Abby

    A wonderful poetry collection from a son of Mexican immigrants. Explores Mexican identity, the sociocultural landscape of the contemporary US, masculinity, urbanity, and more. I particularly love these poems: "Mexican Heaven" "I Walk Into the Room & Yell Where the Mexicans At" "Mexican American Disambiguation" (reminds me of parts of Anzaldua's "Borderlands/La Frontera") "Gentefication" (a vision of what a gentrified neighborhood would look like if repopulated with Mexicans)

  26. 4 out of 5

    Carla Sofia Ferreira

    Stop. Drop. Read this. One of my English language learners said to me upon reading this book, "The poems feel true, feel real." To José Olivarez, thank you for making my students feel heard, feel celebrated. This book is healing. It also has so many great moments of humor, which I think can often be so hard to do right in poetry. Olivarez does it right. This whole collection does so many things right. So stop reading my review. Go read this book.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Tommy

    Honest, heartfelt, and relatable is how I'd describe Citizen Illegal. I grew up across the high way from Calumet City, far enough away from the problems but close enough to call it a distant cousin I kind of knew. The poems in this book captured how I felt growing up as a Vietnamese-American in the area. And it continues to capture how I feel as a university student away from home. Read this book. It's worth your time.

  28. 4 out of 5

    『 ༚ Jess ༚ 』

    Actual Rating: 3.5 ☆ - I could relate to so many poems and overall this is an amazing collection. There's really nothing wrong with it, my rating is mostly due to my inability to fully connect to or understand poetry as a whole. I'm starting to think poetry might not really be the genre for me, but I'll always, always support a fellow Chicano from Chicago and I'm looking forward to anything Jose cpmes out with next. 💖

  29. 4 out of 5

    Janelle Bailey

    59: Citizen Illegal by Jose Olivarez...pre-Wisconsin Book Festival. This is a smart poet whose work is contained in these pages, Sr. Olivarez. It's agonizing material and story from the get-go but beautiful poetry in all ways. I would have loved to have taught this collection in AP English Literature for its relevance and accessibility and strength of word and phrase. I very much look forward to hearing Olivarez read from and speak to his work.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Delia Rainey

    a book to read in one sitting, late at night and lonely ~ a book to read in one sitting, comfortable in the space where José tells me abt his family & friends like we are having a drink and sharing our most vulnerable thoughts ~ escape to ‘mexican heaven’ and ‘gentefication’, the good news is and the bad news is ~ an important book for our world of hybrid identities, our country of xenophobia and racism and generational hurt ~ people will be teaching these poems ~

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