A Conversation with Alan Pelaez Lopez: A Poet of Queer Liberation
Author: Marrion Johnson
March 3, 2020
I first met Alan Pelaez Lopez in 2017 at an Oakland art gallery exhibit celebrating the work of trans women leaders of color in the Bay Area’s trans and queer liberation scene. We shared a brief “hello,” admired each other’s wardrobe selections (you’ll notice that Alan has a striking fashion sense!) and promised to be intentional about reading each other’s work. Nothing too special, but definitely a friendly exchange.
But when I finally got a chance to read Alan’s poetry and learn about their writing practice, to say I was taken aback is an understatement. Alan is one of those freakishly talented writers who churn out work at the drop of a hat. They are always writing–or at least it seems to be that way–even while pursuing a Ph.D. in Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.
What is so incredible about Alan’s writing, is the life they are able to breathe into poems that cover vitally important topics like migration and border crossing, the difficult reality of being undocumented, the fact that indigenous Black folks indeed exist in Mexico and all across the Americas, and investing in true love and self-care in a time where those words are so buzzworthy that one is left wondering if they even mean anything at all.
Needless to say, I am a big fan of Alan’s work, and when I learned that they were releasing not one but two books, Intergalactic Travels: Poems from a Fugitive Alien and to love and mourn in the age of displacement, in the first part of this year (!!), I knew that I had to not only read them but share this innovative work with Lambda’s incredible audience.
So, sit back and enjoy this interview as Alan shares some of their motivations, reflections, and literary aspirations in this exciting time.
How did these books come to be?
Intergalactic Travels, I unintentionally started writing it in 2013, 2014. They were primarily just poems I was writing on public transit because I was meeting with [an immigration] lawyer almost every week and every meeting felt like my world was falling apart. I would just write on public transit in order to digest. And it turned out to become a book, but it was never supposed to.
Can you talk a little about the book titles?
I was at a laundry in the Fruitvale [in Oakland] and there was a little machine, the 25 cent machine, and they were selling plastic aliens. I just took a whole bunch of them and thought “this is kinda cute.”
I started to think about book titles and landed on Intergalactic Travels. But in the second part, Poems From a Fugitive Alien, I’m trying to create a genealogy of the impact of the Fugitive Slave Act in North America because I think that people forget that Mexico is part of North America.
And then to love and mourn in the age of displacement, in the intro of that little chapbook, I talk about how I was really sick in Massachusetts.
I think that entering in and out of disability has been interesting for me. In the sense that when I first became disabled, I didn’t tell any friends except for one person and probably told other people maybe like a year and a half later. That year of just moving through the world really quietly, I realized that I can’t just mourn by myself or grieve by myself, and I also can’t just assume that I can provide myself enough love. I think that that’s how the title of the chapbook came to be.
One of the things that I love about your art is how you’re utilizing the visual arts to tell your story. In some poems, you’re twisting the letters and creating shapes like lips, hands, and hearts. In others, you use memes to convey your message. Can you speak to the importance of imagery and layout in your storytelling, and where these ideas come from?
I guess the visual became really important to me because after I realized that I had a manuscript, the first question that popped into mind was, “Okay, well my mom’s illiterate and so is my grandmother. So what does it mean that I have this book?” I really leaned on visuals to figure out if I could communicate the same thing in a poem as in the visuals so that my mother could receive it. I play a lot with concrete poems, poems shaped in the essence of what the poem is about. So the poem with the heart, that was particularly for my mom to know that it’s about us. The poem with the hands, those are my mother’s hands. The poem with the lips, it’s also for my mother. In many ways, my mother is my only audience. I don’t have any other audience member in mind.
I was really interested in the trajectory of Intergalactic Travels and its plot, so to speak. You go from “the Unknown” to “Undocumented” to “Hyper Documented” to “Post Documents.” There’s such a clear timeline with this transition from your youth to adult memories that it feels like an autobiography. Were you intentionally trying to give this feeling?
Yeah, I paid close attention to how the slave narratives in the U.S. were written. That’s kind of how I found my methodology. In “The Unknown” section of the book, there’s a poem inside an immigration form that reads, “I verify that this is true.” That statement resembles how all the slave narratives start with. From there, I move to describing life as undocumented and fugitive.
I love this connection that you’re drawing between the Black experience in Mexico and the Black experience here. And in your poetry, you touch on so many intersecting identities, from NDNs…and I love the use of “NDN.” I was like, what is NDN?
So here is a funny story. I was at a workshop a few months ago and somebody was like, “Does this mean like not documented or something?” I was like, “No, it’s just Indian.’
Why would you say it’s necessary to speak to these identities in your work, and what is it that you’re trying to do?
Simply put, I can’t escape any of them. I can’t separate my Blackness from my Indigeneity. I also can’t escape my queerness. I think the way the books are written is very queer. I also think it would be really easy for somebody to read this book and just consume Blackness and dismiss Indigeneity.
I know that someone who understands Indigeneity would affirm, “Oh yeah, this is an Indigenous text.” But I felt like I had to hyper insist on Indigeneity because that is the point of empires: to erase Indigeneity and people also forget that Blackness can always already be Indigenous.
I do want to talk about to love and mourn in the age of displacement. It feels like this book is coming to terms with mourning and loss and love.
There’s so much courage in the text. In particular, I’m thinking about the poem “18 Notes on Love” where you say “our love may not be safe but black and indigenous liberation requires risk” and “we create abundance where we thought there was none.” How difficult or easy is it to balance this feeling of loss with hope and courage?
The love poems in to love and mourn are the only love poems I have. That’s it. No other love poems are in any of my body of work. I think that the way that those took shape were more organic: “Illegal intimacy” I think I wrote five or six years ago, it took five or six years to revise it for it to feel, and I wrote it at different stages of my life. The poem “18 Notes on Love” that you mention were literally iPhone notes over the course of two or three years, and then I put them in one page.
These meditations on love are not necessarily poems I wrote, they’re things that were happening in my life that I eventually found words in which to describe them. I think that if I had written these poems in one sitting and then tried to revise them, they would either be very flat or fiction pieces. I think Intergalactic Travels is, I would say, sometimes fictionalized because I often have to ask “did I remember this correctly?”
A lot of your poetry feels like you’re leaning on this queer siblinghood or kinship. The importance of supporting each other, giving each other words of encouragement that you desperately need in the face of these empires. How does the idea of queer kinship impact your work?
In the last poem of to love and mourn, I think through all the lessons that I’ve been taught by my friends, lessons about loneliness and sadness as embodied experiences that we shouldn’t necessarily run away from, right? They are feelings that we should honor because if we’re running away from them, we never know how to be in them and it’s just going to be a continuous cycle that we’re running away from as opposed to learning with and from.
I have to talk about the documents, the legal documentation that you play with (in Intergalactic Travels), the forms. That was my favorite part. I think it’s just so ironic that you’re telling the story of your undocumented experience on these government documents that you need in order to become documented. How did you come to play with these things?
I had applied for DACA in 2012 and it got rejected. I remember getting that rejection letter and I was like, “fuck,” because of several things.
But I remember cutting one [form] up and playing with it. A year later, I saw Jennifer Tamayo’s book Red Missed Aches Read Missed Aches Red Mistakes Read Missed Aches and she takes her green card and sews through it. I was like, “Shit, she’s actually defacing her green card after being undocumented for so long.” And that’s how I started to think about the document in a more intentional way.
At first, I didn’t know if people were going to understand the use of documentation because I took some of the pieces to a writing workshop two years ago and somebody commented, “This is very performative.”
I said, “No, it’s not. It’s literally a critique of form.”
One of the things that strike me about your poetry is that you are playing with so many different languages, sometimes in one poem. Are you thinking about accessibility when you’re writing or is it something that comes in like in the editing process?
I have been a storyteller most of my life. Once I was writing a book, I thought, “Wow, how do I get my brother and sister, who are U.S. citizens, to understand my story?” And they’re still young. My sister is a freshman in high school and my brother is a sophomore.
I think about their access, and also my mother’s accessibility: Can my sister read it to my mom? Will my mom understand it if my sister reads it to her? Will my sister understand it?
How we tell stories matters and who we tell them to matter more. That’s why I’m not invested in literary understandings of metaphors or any of that shit. I think that I can play with those things in other ways outside of the written letter, that’s why the visuals are so important–they create metaphors and similes. The documents are also like people. They become alive, they have a voice, and are, therefore, personified. I think I do all of the literary things, but through a visual aesthetic, not through an aesthetic that’s predicated on the letter. Call this a migrant grammar.
Those are the bulk of the meaty questions. Tell us, what queer and trans others are you reading right now?
I really love Billy-Ray Belcourt. He has two books out. One of them is called This Wound is a World and his second book is called NDN Coping Mechanisms. He’s a Cree poet from Southern Alberta and his books address the questions, what does it mean to see yourself as a ghost because everybody assumes that you’re dead and that you don’t exist?, and what is generative about being ghostly? In This Wound, he goes through his sexual encounters on Grindr to think of what it might mean to become whole in moments of NSA sex. I think it’s powerful work: to insist in a hyper-embodied and experienced queer Indigeneity through sex.
And Lenelle Moïse. She’s a Haitian lesbian writer. Her first book, Haiti Glass, is trying to make sense of what it means to be a child of migrants but not just any migrants, migrants from an island, but an island that is not really whole, like a fragment of an island. In the book, this theory of fragmented children who are actually not fragments at all is explored, interrogated, dissected, and uplifted.
Has your queer literary community been important to you in the process of writing this book?
I think that my literary community is small: it is primarily other migrants who happen to be queer. And sometimes, we don’t talk that much about our queerness. A lot of the conversations I have with my queer literary community area bout our families. I think that being migrant is such a unique experience because international events, like natural disasters for instance, impact us so much because we live in the U.S. and we’re not at home. So with my literary community it is always like, “What’s happening in your country? Are your people okay?”
Last question. What is next for Alan?
I really just want to enjoy Intergalactic Travels. I think that enjoying something that I’ve created is going to be a huge learning curve because I’ve always created out of necessity, scarcity, and urgency.
I’m excited to see how these poems take their own life because these poems were never meant to be a book. I want to print some of [the poems] in silk fabric and a few in transparent paper and have a gallery show. I’m just thinking of another life that this book can take. Because there’s something about the materiality of the object that permanently binds it. This is cool for an archive, but I also want to see it shape-shift.
This interview has been edited for clarity.