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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

    Anna |hayinas7

    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.

  3. 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.

  4. 5 out of 5

    M

    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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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!

  7. 4 out of 5

    Elliot

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

  8. 5 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

  9. 4 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.

  10. 5 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.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Kimberley

    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.

  12. 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.

  13. 4 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.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Leah Rachel

    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.

  15. 5 out of 5

    CCtheBrave

    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.

  16. 5 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.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Carla 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.

  18. 5 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.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Mike

    I’ve loved José Olivarez’s work for a while and have been very excited to see his debut collection. It didn’t disappoint. Many of these poems I’d read before, and I loved them all over again. The new ones are sure to become new faves. I love how this book encompasses both fire and tenderness, poems about race and place, but also about love in many forms. Such a great read.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Karla Strand

    Brilliant. Loving the BreakBeat Poets series so much.

  21. 5 out of 5

    David

    Read these poems by @_joseolivarez and take the punch. Be indicted and accept it. Come and meet him in October @oakparklibrary.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Miles

    Fingers crossed for the manifestation of what I hope will be a much longer review in the near future, but let me just say: you really should read this book of poems when it comes out in September.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Mrs.Tucker

    This collection is stunning, a must read. I can’t wait to discuss with #THEBOOKCHAT and with my students.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Mark Pinkerton

    A fresh voice, and worth reading. I recommend this book, and this poet. It's not my heritage, and that's all the more reason to read it.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Ben Niespodziany

    Boy, can Jose Olivarez paint a picture. What a stunning debut collection. One you need in your collection (and the Sentrock artwork is merely icing on the tres leches cake).

  26. 4 out of 5

    Emily Baer

    Note: Rose that Grows from Concrete was my favorite part

  27. 4 out of 5

    Angie

    Read my review of the book here: http://thegatenewspaper.com/2018/09/s...

  28. 4 out of 5

    Leia Penina

    LOVE.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Cathy

  30. 5 out of 5

    Wendy Trevino

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