Conversations | Desirée Alvarez

Conversations | Desirée Alvarez

“I think it’s an opportune moment to be reading, since we need escape and uplift right now. Sharing poetry and other writing online, whether by recording, video, or in print will find an eager audience.”

Three-time NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellow Desirée Alvarez (Printmaking/Drawings/Artist Books ’97, ’03 and Poetry ’11) talked to NYFA Learning about the challenges of launching a new book during the COVID-19 pandemic. Get inspired by the poet and painter’s optimist approach to the opportunities these difficult times might present to literary artists.  

NYFA: Your latest collection, Raft of Flame, is recently out from Omnidawn. What has your process of promoting and presenting the book been like as we move through this challenging time?

DA: It’s been surprisingly wonderful. My extraordinary publisher Omnidawn rose to the occasion and has been promoting the book and offering free shipping to anyone ordering it from them. They plan to make a video of me reading as well. Poets House and Paolo Javier have been extremely supportive. They created a series called “Poets House Presents,“ with poets reading from their work and offering craft talks where I’ve been invited to read from the new book

The book was lucky to receive a glowing pre-publication review from Publishers Weekly. I’m also very grateful to journals like Massachusetts Review and Poetry Magazine for making poems from the book available online. I’m grateful to Kenyon Review, Alonso Llerena, and Rosebud Ben-Oni for reviewing my book last week. When the world re-opens, I hope to do some readings. I feel a little cursed on the book promotion front. After my first book came out, my mom became ill and passed away the following year. Now I have a new book, Raft of Flame, and the world is ill. Many readings were canceled. But some people have more time to read and listen to poetry right now, so it’s heartwarming to hear that the poems are bringing solace at a tough time.

NYFA: What sort of advice do you have for poets and other literary artists who may be finding it difficult to write or seek opportunities at the moment?

DA: I think it’s an opportune moment to be reading, since we need escape and uplift right now. Sharing poetry and other writing online, whether by recording, video, or in print will find an eager audience. It’s also an extraordinary opportunity to be focused in the studio or at the writing desk. My students are making powerful work— it’s inspiring. I recommend finding a writing partner or starting a group. It’s a good time to take classes online, and to consult Poets & Writers Magazine to see what programs, residencies, or contests there are to apply for in the future.

NYFA: Like many of our readers, you’re a multidisciplinary artist. How does painting inform the poetry you write, or vice-versa?

DA: I tend to work on both painting and poetry at the same time. My painting installations on fabric are often how I begin and develop my poems, so the two processes are fused. For example, I have paintings at Brooklyn Botanic Garden Conservatory Gallery on exhibit now through November with poetry that relates to the poems in Raft of Flame. I like to work through the ideas and emotions in variant scaffoldings. The soil changes, so they grow in different ways. I hope the poems look like paintings in Raft of Flame. Not in a concrete poetry way, but in the sense that I’d like certain phrases, be they images or sounds, to have space and time to breathe and exist in the reader’s eye the way that a shape or color area exists in a composition. Raft of Flame considers a civilization and its culture coming apart, being apocalyptically scattered and then hybridized, so I hope that comes through in how some of the poems look. The art in the book explores legacy on both sides of the ocean. I try to bring that ancestry to life by giving voice to the sculptures of the Aztecs, as well as the paintings of Spanish painters, such as Velázquez. I also hope to summon back the words written by the recorders of this violent history. It’s important to keep these stories alive beyond an academic format.

About Desirée Alvarez

Desirée Alvarez is a painter and poet living in New York City. Her second book, Raft of Flame, won the Lake Merritt Poetry Contest selected by Hoa Nguyen and is published by Omnidawn. Her paintings will be on view at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden Conservatory Gallery through November. Celebrating magical connections between animals, plants, and humans, she has received three NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellowships, as well as awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and European Capital of Culture. Her first book, Devil’s Paintbrush, won the 2015 May Sarton New Hampshire Poetry Award. Her poetry is anthologized in What Nature (MIT Press, 2018) and featured in Other Musics: New Latina Poetry (University of Oklahoma Press, 2019). She has published poems in Massachusetts Review, Boston Review, Fence, Poetry, and The Iowa Review. Currently an artist-in-residence at the New-York Historical Society, Alvarez teaches at CUNY, The Juilliard School, and is teaching a workshop called “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” at Poets House this spring.

– Interview Conducted by Alicia Ehni, Program Officer and Kyle Lopez, REDC Fellow

This post is part of the ConEdison Immigrant Artist Program Newsletter #128. Subscribe to this free monthly e-mail for artist’s features, opportunities, and events. Learn more about NYFA Immigrant Artist Mentoring Program.

Image: Desirée Alvarez, Photo Credit: Omnidawn Publishing

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Amy Aronoff
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