Exploring Boundaries and Identities in José Alvergue's New Book precis

Dr. José Alvergue ( Image via theforeworduwec.com )

Dr. José Alvergue (Image via theforeworduwec.com)

by Jeana Conder

José Alvergue was born in San Salvador, El Salvador and was raised on the U.S./Mexico border.  He is a graduate of Buffalo Poetics and CalArts Writing programs.  José has written other works such as gist : rift : drift : bloom.  José currently teaches at the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire.

His latest work precis, released on April 1, tells the tale of a girl that was killed by a drunk driver in San Diego’s Sidro neighborhood.  José takes the reader on a journey between the literal U.S. and Mexico border and the border between individuals, bodies, and communities.  Below is a brief interview with José on the content of his new book and the thought behind the format. 

CVWG: Precis, by simple definition means a concise summary of essential points, statements, or facts. How do you feel the title of your book reveals itself within your work and impacts the meaning?

Alvergue: The definition of the word was really important for me when thinking about the composition of the book. It’s an indication of knowledge, or knowing when it comes to people, place, and history. But it’s also an indication of genre in the sense that genre choreographs certain cultural expectations, values, and reveal reading practices: for example, the ways a cultural belief around “criminality” or “precarity” forms reading practices related to “border literature” or “immigrant literature.” I want to disrupt the continuity of these expectations with the story/-ies in the book. In many ways this is very similar to the Russian avant garde practice of factography from the 1920s, but it is also influenced by current day postlyric practices that treat language between its concreteness, and its social identity. You can’t summarize the assembly of the social, even if concreteness wants to show ‘the social’ as a static body––this gets even more entangled the more specific we are about the particular assembly in question. In this case, borders. There’s a review of the book I read recently and it sort of frustrated me because it assumed the names in the book are of immigrants, all of them. But this is not the case. There are Americans that live at the border too, yet the narratives concretized around border experiences are of immigrant contexts, which, as an expectation, not only reduces the heterogeneity of lives, but also essentializes one immigrant experience as a summary the many. So I include various instruments of summary: maps, etymological definitions, linguistics, industrial organization flow charts, finger tips, and ‘story’, both invented and non-fiction, but do not allow the gratification of the summary to complete expectation.

From the excerpt I read on the Omnidawn website, precis seems to be different than your average novel. Precis plays with structure, creating different emotions. From newspaper clippings, blacked out text, and more, how do you hope the reader will receive your message from such a unique format?

The first thing I guess is that I don’t imagine it as a novel. There’s a really great description of one of my favorite books, Theresa Cha’s Dictée, by a prominent scholar, who calls the book a recit. I really like this way of talking about books that are conscious of genre only if for the intent of unsettling genre as boundary––or I guess treating genre exactly as that, boundaries that can be approached without destroying what makes them such––a boundary. Like walking along that dynamic terrain where a body of water territorializes and recedes from a terrain. It gets cloudy and one leaves an imprint, but the wash always resets the boundary. That’s the beauty of genre. You can’t break them. I would hope that potential readers understand that. Experimental or conceptual work won’t undo identity, particularly a reader’s identity; they seek to expand the topology or landscape we envision ourselves to inhabit. Poetry is about nuance, not reduction. I think these existential questions related to Literature must also account for area literature, like US Ethnic literature; it’s not just for the big white authors of ‘Western Civilization’. I would hope that they understand the politics of this intervention as well.

Precis focuses on the literal border between the United States and Mexico, but also focuses on the boundaries between individuals and communities. Do you think one has to understand the broader aspects of divides to truly understand the impacts of the border between the two countries?

I don’t know if one needs to understand “divides” but rather be comfortable with the prospect of caesuras that are unbreachable. We can exist within difference without imposing homogeneity. The existentialism of this is important when it comes to considering legislation, because the ‘planning’ or the beliefs undergirding the support for political institutionalisms feeds into the feedback loop, which we experience as phobias. I think these fears, homophobia, xenophobia, and more specifically Islamophobia, are partially existential––a deep fear that the mere acknowledgement or presence of a person that exists in a state of difference to the normative will unrattle the veneer behind which Americaneity often resides. We all experience “divides,” but we also can’t level them as being the same. What we should be thinking about is the way a constructed fear is appropriated as a personal way of being American.

You start off your synopsis of the book by describing the border as "a policed realm, neoliberal market." With the newly founded Republican controlled government, do you hope Precis can make a political stand against the erasure of identity of those effected by the border?

The stand can never be structural to the degree necessary for actual protection against the policies that will prey and are currently preying on the already precarious. The project of conceptual poetry is one of meaning; it’s meant to encourage an enchantment with language in a manner that invites the invention of meaning on behalf of another, another who is not the writer or the lyric persona of the text: in other words, the reader. We often don’t realize that we place meaning back in the world with the ways we interact with representation. It’s not about purely binary, good/bad, do something/don’t do something responses. It’s about nuance. I think the stand against erasure begins with a recognition––as a self-care––of our own capacity to involve ourselves in the making of meaning.