Fugitivity, Sequestration, and Escape: Tactics in the Realm of Language
A Conversation with Alan Pelaez Lopez
Os Collaborator Alan Pelaez Lopez talks about their new collection Intergalactic Travels: poems from a fugitive alien, available now from The Operating System.
Greetings! Thank you for talking to us about your process today! Can you introduce yourself, in a way that feels the most, well, you?
For sure! My name is Alan, and I’m a thinker, writer, lover, and an introvert with a capricorn rising, scorpio moon, and taurus sun. I was born in Mexico City, but both my parents are from Oaxaca, MX, and while I lived in MX, I regularly migrated between Oaxaca and Mexico City. When I left the country, I migrated to East Boston, MA, so I guess I can say that East Boston was the first home I had in the states, but there’s something about the states that don’t quite feel like home, so I tend to joke and say that I live on the internet.
How did you come to see yourself as a creative?
I started making jewelry at the age of six to sell at bus stops and laundromats, so that was my first creative practice. At first, I was using acrylic beads wherever I could find them in the three-block radius of the apartment my mother and I rented in East Boston. As the years went by, the world of materials opened up and I began exploring wood, mixed-metals, leather, and copper. Because I was a child jeweler, most folks around me saw an artist and encouraged my art. At one point, I used to tell my mom that I was going to be a textile designer and would spend hours filling out 8.5’ x 11’ sheets of paper with elaborate designs. I had so many sheets of paper that I started writing bad rhyme poems on them, and you know, I hung on to the bad poems and now I’m here, a dique “poeta.”
What’s a “poet” anyway?
Hmm, ain’t that a question! I believe that every community has poets and that poetry lives in pattern-making, map-making, weaving, songs, gossip, and in any form of storytelling. Poetry, for me, has little to do with pen and paper. In my personal life, poetry has been an articulation (a rendering) that one person offers to the world without the expectation of a receiver, or a witness. So, in this case, poetry is an organic action that one’s body produces. I don’t believe in “training,” for if one needs training to offer without expectation, then what does that say about how we relate to people?
As a poet who is also Indigenous, Black, queer, and gender non-conforming, my role is to attempt to grapple with experiences and sentiments that I don’t know how to describe to others, but desperately want to communicate. For example, my work ventures into multimedia because the singular letter has never been enough. I move in a body that experiences the world through sound, images, color, smell, and taste, so a lot of my poetry centers those affective registers as opposed to the letter. Living at the intersection of these targeted and marginalized identities makes me a poet who doubles both as a creative and cultural organizer. I hope that my work can shift culture, but that’s not why I create. I create so that I can better understand the world that is alive around me, as opposed to assuming I know what and who is alive around me.
Can you say more about cultural organizing? What do you see as your cultural and social role in the literary / artistic / creative community and beyond?
I entered the immigrant rights movement ten years ago, and got sucked into the world of community organizing fairly quickly. I’m proud to say that I was a solid community organizer, but I’m a stronger cultural worker. When community organizers want to respond to recently approved laws through policy briefings and lobbying, I respond with images, cultural commentary, and poems that are more digestible. In order to do this work, I have to study everything around me: I have to read the law, I have to go to the briefings, I consult lawyers, I talk with community members about how their life is changing or is expected to change with the latest legal shift, and then, I create. Although my art appears to be solitary, my art is community informed.
As a writer, I have to interact with the larger literary world, and those interactions are always changing and shifting. I don’t have an MFA, and at first, I was insecure about lacking “knowledge,” which was a sentiment that was produced at literature conferences. Often, the first question someone would ask me after my name, was/continues to be, “where did you earn your MFA?” Now, I immediately say: “I don’t have one.” Before, I use to explain why I didn’t have one, which, to be honest, felt shitty. Yeah, that’s a great word, shitty. I think that the literary world is moving away from the emphasis they have on MFA’s, but I’m not sure what the shift means at this moment. As an experimental writer, I think that my social role is to be in dialogue with artists outside literature. I believe in deep collaboration and I hope that my work can add to the ecosystem of Indigenous and Black migrant artists.
Talk about the process or instinct to move these poems (or your work in general) as independent entities into a body of work. How and why did this happen? Have you had this intention for a while?
Most of the poems in this collection were first conceived between 2013 and 2015. At the time, I was still undocumented and traveling between Connecticut and New York City searching for a lawyer who could find an opening in my story that would allow me to initiate an immigration case that wouldn’t trigger an immediate order of removal, followed by a ten-year ban from the country. For about a year, every lawyer I met expressed no possibility of adjustment. One day, I took a bus to Washington D.C. and a single visit changed everything, and thus, my journey for an adjustment of status perpetually had me on the road. To manage my anxiety on Amtrak, the NYC subway, and the Metro North Railway, I carried a legal notepad and wrote from the moment I sat down until I reached my destination. If I didn’t write during my commutes, I would enter an internal spiral where I continually imagined a judge would deny my application and deport me within the same day. So, the instinct that moved these poems was my need to protect myself from spiraling.
When you were writing in your legal pad, did you envision this collection as a collection or understand your process as writing? How or how not?
No, in my mind, I was writing because I was afraid that if I didn’t, that I would lose hope and shut down. I do remember calling my friends Crystal, Jase, and Heather on several occasions. I would either ask them to meet me in person, or to listen to my poetry. Each time I wrote, I found out more about myself than I previously had not known, and I desperately needed someone to witness me and assure me that none of the violence I had gone through was acceptable.
Some of the poems on the legal pads made it onto word documents by coincidence: I was a bit of an emotional wreck when I was writing and often found myself crying onto the pad. In fear that I’d lose the writing, I would transfer the pieces from damp sheets of paper onto Word Documents. There were times that I felt the poems I had composed laid me bare naked, and because my moon is in Scorpio, I ripped the sheets out of the legal pad and threw them out.
So, no, I never intended to write a book. In fact, that’s why this collection is so experimental.
Ah, will you say more about the experimentation of this collection?
When I first printed all the poetry pieces I had saved, I felt overwhelmed. There were poems about my mother, a few dozen poems written during and/or after direct actions I had been a part of over the years, and quite a few vignettes that didn’t tell a narrative, but served as reminders of the thoughts that would enter my mind at all hours of the day.
During the selection process, I wanted to think through my own story in a way that honored my experience but didn’t reveal too much information about my crossing as an unaccompanied minor or the lives of my family members.
When I put together the first iteration of the manuscript, I was angry; I was angry with lawyers who asked questions without following-up with me about how I was to take care of myself thereafter; I was angry at the fact that I didn’t have the language to articulate to my friends and family what kind of support I needed; and I was angry at all the immigration forms I had to fill out on a day-to-day basis.
My anger needed an outlet, and betraying poetic form felt like a good outlet at the time. So, I took to visual art, writing in forms, and leaning on my PTSD to craft a methodological approach to render a story that wasn’t invested in resolution, but invested in revelation. In all of this, I began to exercise my right to opacity.
I love that you’re talking about a poet’s right to opacity. Were there any teachers, friends, mentors, or authors that helped you think in this way?
Yes, Jaselia Gratini’s friendship and poetic practice informs some of the epistemological approaches of my work. Jase is a Black poet from the Dominican Republic who (over the last ten years) has made me think critically about the practice of storytelling as a tool that can oppress or liberate. Through sharing poems on Facebook messenger, text, and sleep overs, Jase and I have interrogated the way in which U.S. public policy and immigration policy often demand stories of catastrophic violence from Black and migrant communities. Critical interrogations of storytelling with Jaselia have shaped my need to betray traditional storytelling practices of beginning, middle, climax, and end, in addition to betraying the way in which the Western world understands “poetry.”
During the editing of this manuscript, I dived into a deep study of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee; Jennif(f)er Tamayo’s collection of poetry and art, Red Missed Aches, Read Missed Aches, Red Mistakes, Read Mistakes; Evie Shockley’s poetry collection, semiautomatic; June Jordan’s collection of essays, Affirmative Acts; Ntozake Shange’s writings on cultural production, lost in language & sound: or how i found my way to the arts; Christina Sharpe’s In The Wake: On Blackness and Being; and Edwidge Danticat’s magnificent essay collection, Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work. Although I don’t personally know most of these writers, I consider the books they wrote my friends, and I’m so grateful for both the books and their author’s.
Speaking of texts that helped you revise your collection, what does your title represent? How was it generated? Talk about the way you titled the book, and how your process of naming (individual pieces, sections, etc.) influences you.
The first part of the title, Intergalactic Travels, is taken from the title of a poem in the collection that traces six undocumented crossings, five are representative of personal friends, and one is representative of mine. Five of the six crossings described are of Black migrants from Latin America, the Caribbean, and West Africa. The second part of the title, poems from a fugitive alien, indirectly refers to the Fugitive Slave Acts of 1793 and 1850, in which the U.S. legal system marked the running away from a plantation an illegal act in which the enslaved person was to be hunted, returned, and disciplined by their owner. In combining the reality of a historical racialized fugitivity and a contemporary racialized and ethnicized fugitivity marked as “alien,” the title of the book invites readers to question the ethical and moral implications of the U.S. legal system.
If you’ve noticed, the collection is broken down into five parts: “Unknown,” “Undocumented,” “Hyper-Documentation,” “Post-Documents,” and “A Future, Elsewhere,” perspectively. Each section serves as its own world. The “Unknown” attempts to make sense of a history that I, as the author, know little of, but can’t deny. In that section, I posit European colonialism in the Americas, the trans*Atlantic slave trade, and the formulation of the “illegal alien” together. In “Undocumented,” I explore PTSD as both an inheritance and a reality that is alive in my body by virtue of my migration. “Hyper-Documentation” is the section that deals with my (unsuccessful) attempts to apply for a T-Visa, followed by political asylum, and finally, a peculiar case that I reveal little about. In, “Post-Documents,” I attempt to think fugitivity, sequestration, and escape as governmental tactics that exist in the realm of language, and not necessarily in the realm of status. And finally, “A Future, Elsewhere,” serves as an opening, a world of reflection, a world committed to offering a type of holding that breathes outside the hold of the slave ship, the hold of detainment, and the holding cell.
Each section is so deeply personal, why publish this book when you are not yet a U.S. citizen? Can you talk about the risk of being a formerly undocumented poet who can be deported from the U.S.?
I think about this often. This book is more than just a poetry collection, this book is my testimony. As someone who can still be removed from the U.S. at any moment, I can’t assure that whoever is deporting me will actually hear my side of the story, so I have to write it into the archive. The U.S. is obsessed with paper traces, so I am engaging in what they’re good at: the manipulation of words, images, and stories. My body may be deported, but this book will remain here to tell a story that didn’t start with me crossing the border in 1999, but a story that started in the fifteenth century when a group of men-with-no-heart decided that Indigenous people in the continent of Africa were not human and thus kidnapped, transported, auctioned, and enslaved them in what is now known as “Mexico.”
Even in the face of detainment and deportation, I write because I know I can. My body, my heart, my digits produced this object because the object was necessary.
What would be the best possible outcome for this book? What might it do in the world, and how will its presence as an object facilitate your creative role in your community and beyond?
The best possible outcome is for people to believe: believe that the shit that happened to me is true, and believe that the cause of this violence is (and continues to be) the law and those who are in positions to write and push it forward. I want this book to make people uncomfortable with their dependence in a legal system that from the start has been committed to maintaining the structure of settler-colonialism in the Americas.
I also want this book to be an object of possibility. I end the book with a text message because although the law dehumanizes us, we can humanize each other. I want other (un)documented and under-documented community members to know that we are more than status. We’re people who happen to be undocumented, that’s it. There’s more to us. There is so much possibility, but that possibility hurts and I hope that we can explore that hurt in a way that allows us to be compassionate with and to ourselves.
About the Author
Alan Pelaez Lopez is an AfroIndigenous poet, installation, and adornment artist from Oaxaca, México. They are the author of the art and poetry collection, Intergalactic Travels: poems from a fugitive alien (The Operating System, 2020), and the chapbook, to love and mourn in the age of displacement (Nomadic Press, 2020). Their poetry has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and “Best of the Net,” as well as published in Best New Poets, Best American Experimental Writing, POETRY, Puerto Del Sol, Everyday Feminism, & elsewhere. Pelaez Lopez has received fellowships and/or residencies from Submittable, the Museum of the African Diaspora, VONA/Voices, and UC Berkeley. They live in Oakland, CA & the internet (as @MigrantScribble).