Writers on Writing, Volume 5: Alan Chazaro
Alan Chazaro is a high school teacher at the Oakland School for the Arts, the former Lawrence Ferlinghetti Fellow at the University of San Francisco, and a June Jordan Poetry for the People alum at UC Berkeley. A Bay Area native, his poems have been or will be featured in the San Francisco Chronicle, Puerto del Sol, Huizache, and Iron Horse Review.
Alan's poetry collection, This Is Not a Frank Ocean Cover Album, was the winner of the 2018 Black River Chapbook Competition, and his first full-length book, Piñata Theory, was awarded the 2018 Hudson Prize. They are both forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press. If poetry doesn't work out, he'd like to play in the NBA.
Earlier this year you took your first class at Left Margin LIT. What was your experience like?
I had a blast in my first LML workshop! The instructor—Rachel Richardson—is someone I’ve worked with before so it was nice to receive her useful instruction for a second time. It was basically a space for me and other poets to create, read, play, share, laugh, build, and experiment with our ideas and language; it’s a healthy mix of work and enjoyment. In eight weeks, we produced at least one poem to workshop each session and gained tons of tidbits worth of future material.
How do you overcome writer's block?
The best way for me to get over writer’s block is to read something electric. It can be anything, but it needs to open some part of myself that seems to want opening. Just this week, I came across a do-it-yourself poetry chapbook by a local author (Rebel Elegant by Raphael Cohen). The book is themed around Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, a relatively obscure Muslim NBA player from the 90s. I devoured it in one night, then generated about 10 pages worth of my own NBA-themed poetry in the next few days. “Monkey read, monkey write” is a formula that consistently works for me.
What makes Left Margin workshops different from the classes you took in your MFA program?
LML is community-based, something which people are doing for fun—not for a grade or degree—so this influences what we spend our time doing. It’s a variety of skill levels, backgrounds, and ages, which is refreshing. Surprisingly, or not, the level of instruction and seriousness of the course was comparable to MFA (minus writing essays!), just condensed into a much smaller time and space.
What poems and/or poets have inspired your work?
Walt Whitman, Danez Smith, Martín Espada, Pat Mora, Morgan Parker, Luis J. Rodriguez, Charles Bukowski, David Tomas Martinez, Kendrick Lamar, William Carlos Williams, Brynn Saito, Marcus Wicker, Tracy K. Smith—those are some names that come to mind.
Tell us a bit about your writing projects. You have some publishing news to share, right?
I recently had my first chapbook (This Is Not a Frank Ocean Cover Album) and my first full-length manuscript (Piñata Theory) picked up for publication with Black Lawrence Press. They’ll be released in 2019 and 2020. They are both projects I’ve been developing over the past 2-4 years and I feel really fortunate to get them out on a larger platform.
Besides that, I’ve got a few chapbooks in the works—one that is centered around video game characters and digital aesthetics, another that is about 90s NBA superstardom, and another that is written from the perspective of the eastern span of the Bay Bridge that was recently torn down to make way for the new one. Each project sort of validates a different part of my identity and allows me to explore a broad topic in a way that teaches me about myself and my experiences.
What inspires you to write?
As a young Mexican-American male who was born and raised in the Bay Area with immigrant parents, I feel like there is a void in most traditional poetry spaces that I am a part of. This inspires me to write poems and tell stories that don’t yet exist in order to fill that silence. I’ve had the privilege of having my body and mind split between multiple cultures, and I’m most energized when I get to explore those in-betweens, to bring something that hasn’t really been voiced into the room and onto the page.
Do you have any writing superstitions?
Not so much superstitions, but definitely some rigid habits. For example, whenever I get a poem published or rejected, I write down the date and make a note in the same place to keep track. I’ll leave a quick message for myself for motivation or as a reminder to continue putting my work out and embracing the highs and lows of such an unpredictable and often inexplicable industry.
Tell us about your day job. What else do you do besides poetry?
I’m a public high school teacher in Oakland. It keeps me on my toes; I get to sharpen my energy and passion by being around such a vibrant and unapologetic group of young people every day. Teaching is a demanding career, so it doesn’t always leave me with loads of time or energy to read and write. I’ve learned to jump on any wave of inspiration when I feel it and just write without overthinking it in the moment. This weekend, I have a nice stack of about 150 tests to grade before I can earn some creative writing time. Yikes!