by José Olivarez

I don’t remember the first time I encountered a poem. I’m sure that the first time was not an earth shattering experience. I did not begin craving poetry until my sophomore year of high school when I got the chance to experience poetry in a new way.

I was part of a group of students given the option to attend an assembly instead of our scheduled 7th period class. The choice was easy: go to chemistry or go to the assembly and talk to my friends. I sat down next to my friends and asked them if they knew what was up. They told me that our school (shout out to TF North in Cal City, IL) had something called a poetry slam team and they were going to perform for us. I should have gone to chemistry, I said to them.

I expected to hear my classmates recite poems about trees and urns. I thought you were only allowed to write about trees and urns, so that’s what I was expecting to hear. Instead, my classmates read poems about their struggles and their joys. I listened to those poems and the world cracked open for me. All of a sudden I saw that the entire world—my classmates, my teachers, and myself all included—had multiple stories to tell. There was an underneath and a behind to the world that brushed its teeth and presented itself every morning. There was more than what is visible to the eye.

It was a particularly powerful experience because the poets were my classmates. These were not professionals. They were great performers and writers, but these were kids I saw in the cafeteria everyday. They were Cal City kids just like me. They were not even all white. Up until that point, it felt like being white was a prerequisite for making art. In other words, my classmates did more than grant me a look inside their lives and the world as they knew it—because of their identities as people of color, they gave me permission to investigate my own life and speak about it.

And when I sat down to write, and I thought about how I really felt, I learned that I was a lot angrier than I realized. I was also a little sad. Later, as I wrote more and more, I would learn just how joyful I was despite all of my anger and sadness. At the time, I expressed all of these nuanced thoughts and feelings with lines like George W Bush is wack (I’m planning to use this as a title for a collection of poems, so don’t steal it).

If the only thing poetry gave me after all these years was the self-confidence to speak and make myself more present, I might have stopped writing and consuming poetry by now. In the end, I don’t know if I can explain why I love poetry so much, but let me try. This past year, I was fired from a job with no safety net. Maybe I would have survived no matter what, but it was certainly easier to attack each day after reading Lucille Clifton’s “won’t you celebrate with me.” Poetry is urgent to me. Maybe I would have survived anyway if I had gone to chemistry class instead of seeing my classmates perform their poetry. But man, I am living now.   

José Olivarez is the son of Mexican immigrants. Originally from Calumet City, IL, he lives in the Bronx. He is a graduate of Harvard University, the Poet-Linc Manager for Lincoln Center Education, and he is an editor at Painted Bride Quarterly. He has performed and taught at high schools, universities, and book festivals across the country, and his work has been published or is forthcoming in The BreakBeat Poets, The Acentos Review, Specter Magazine, Side B Magazine, Union Station Magazine, and Luna Luna Magazine among other places. His work has also been featured on Yahoo’s Ball Don’t Lie basketball blog, Chicago Public Radio, and on Mass Poetry’s PoeTry on the T program. His first book, Home Court, is available at http://homecourtpoems.tumblr.com/purchase