Commentary, Events

Interview // Of Service: A Conversation between Paul Hlava Ceballos and Sarah A. Chavez


On Tuesday, August 13, the Hugo House will host a benefit reading, “Poets & Artists for Migrant Justice,” the proceeds of which will go to Immigrant Families Together and Fair Fight Immigrant Bond Fund. Readers include Claudia Castro Luna, Natalie Scenters-Zapico, Raul Sanchez, Natalie Ann MartĂ­nez, and Catalina M. CantĂş. There will also be a silent auction of work by Fulgencio Lazo Arte, Jake Prendez, and more. One of the evening’s featured poets, Sarah A. Chavez, spoke with organizer Paul Hlava Ceballos about the event. 

Paul: First of all, thank you for being a part of the Poets and Artists for Migrant Justice reading at the Hugo House on the 13th. Personally, I’ve felt so powerless in the face of detention centers, raids, the current administration’s language of violence, but the quickness of the poets to support this event has changed that. What made you want to get involved with the reading? And do you see poetry as something connected to, or separate from this politics?

Sarah: Paul, thank you so much for the invitation to participate. While I am looking forward to the exciting line-up of Latinx poets—many of whom I have been a big fan of but haven’t had the opportunity to hear read in person—I am deeply saddened by the need for such an event. Before knowing about the Hugo House reading, I was heartened to see on Twitter that there were going to be connected events across the country all working toward this same goal. This, like other national poetry events such as 100 Thousand Poets for Change, provide a sense of connectedness that reminds people that we are not alone in our concerns, nor are we alone in our desire to keep these conversations around social justice loud and visible.

In the wake of this country’s snowballing inhumanity, I have also felt powerless, which is why when an opportunity like this presents itself, I want to do whatever I can to be of service. “Of service” is actually one of the ways I think about the role of poetry. Even when a poem is seemingly disparate from politics, it is still a reflection of politics, because people, no matter how hard they might try, cannot live outside the political. In writing my own poetry, I struggle to grapple directly with the current political realities. So many poets are writing powerfully and elegantly about immigration and this government’s hateful actions, but I don’t believe every poets’ work can do that effectively. There is value in the borderline approach, that third space poetry which is between the overtly political and the attempted apolitical. Whichever tact, at its best, poetry serves the soul and builds compassion, and that is one of our most powerful political tools.

Paul: Borderline poetics—I like that. Which is really just a writer’s awareness of the space their body inhabits. So much of the poetry that claims to be displaced from politics, which is still the majority and considered neutral, demands the question, “Neutral for whom?” Which body is looking and which is in the line of sight? Maybe what I seek out as a reader isn’t for poets to be overtly political, just good people.

This makes me think of your work, how populated it is. I love how in Hands That Break & Scar there are developed characters, gray areas, complicated relationships. What role do people, or characters, play in your writing? In your Dear Carole series, the most present character is absent, which drives the poems—how did that experience of writing differ from the previous poems?

Sarah: Yes, but not just good people in the sense of some false social binary; good in that they accept responsibility for their [poetic] choices and recognize their level of privilege, that no art is “neutral” for the very reason you stated. Our socio-political positioning (and I’m speaking largely of U.S. politics and poetics) frames how our bodies move through the world. For me, writing starts in the body. I think a lot about body and performance and how the body is read in different contexts. I think in part the divergent experiences I have had living in different states has helped me think about the way people shape one another’s lives. I sometimes joke that I don’t care about paintings without people, but really for me, it is people who shape my understanding (and appreciation) of landscape. I’ve had so many difficult jobs, but I don’t ultimately remember them for the sore feet, achy back, burned, cut hands, but whether I connected to the people I labored with.

Strangely enough, the writing for Hands That Break & Scar and the Dear Carole chapbook, All Day, Talking, happened simultaneously, or at least I was working on both in this particular span of 2 years. While I was revising a section of the poems that would come to be the foundation for HTB&S during my PhD program and really focusing on place and belonging, I wrote an epistle for a forms poetry class. After that, I became obsessed with talking to Carole. Most of the poems came quickly and seemed to build organically. That particular writing experience was like a painful respite from the Midwest academic environment to meditate on this relationship that was so foundational to how I look at the world; also a frightening/astounding realization of how far away I had moved from that time in my life. In a way, I guess both collections are about trying to pay homage to relationships, to the idea and gift of community.

Paul: You wrote those texts simultaneously; I can see how one voice might be a respite from another. I tend to write in different persona and styles, so I’ll often be working on, maybe, four different poetry projects at the same time. Maybe it’s a product of having so many different selves, depending on the place.

It sounds like you and I have had some parallel experiences. After college I moved a lot too. For a while I lived in a small border town between California and Mexico. What’s interesting is that on the border, hard line stances on immigration are not common. Everyone has a relationship with someone on the other side, and people cross the border everyday for work. A certain porousness is a necessity, for the economy, for friendship, for love. And for me, it was leaving and going to big cities and academia where I was really othered. It made me realize how much hard work it is, and how necessary, to let other people in.

The “gift of community” really strikes at it, and what’s so exciting about this upcoming reading. The labor people are doing in groups like Immigrant Families Together, Fair Fight Immigrant Bond Fund, or the artists donating their work—it really disproves the American mythology of individualism. Survival is community. People thrive together. Even on the small, poetic level, I’ve never had a poem published without first saying to a friend, “Hey could you tell me what you think?”

Sarah: Yes, absolutely! To pay it forward (and pay it back in honoring immigrant communities for being the backbone which built the infrastructure of this country) is a loving obligation. This is why when a concrete opportunity to be of service to mi gente, to local community/artistic community presents itself, I feel the drive to do what I can; even if in the daunting face of this political crisis, it feels ineffectually small. Nothing we do is too small to be worthwhile. It is all of our small acts and larger acts together which make significant (and hopefully long-lasting) change. I am grateful for all the work you have put in to make an event like Poets and Artists for Migrant Justice reading happen.


Paul Hlava Ceballos is the recipient of a 2019-2020 Artist Trust Fellowship award, as well as a Poets House fellowship, and a 4Culture Artist Grant. He was part of Cave Canem’s Writing-Across Cultures workshop and has been published in the Best New Poets Anthology. His work has been published in Narrative, BOMB, the PEN Poetry Series, Acentos Review, the Los Angeles Times, among other journals and newspapers, and have been nominated for the Pushcart. He has an MFA from NYU and currently lives in Seattle, where he practices echocardiography.

Sarah A. Chavez, a mestiza born and raised in the California Central Valley, is the author of the poetry collections, Hands That Break & Scar (Sundress Publications, 2017) and All Day, Talking (dancing girl press, 2014). Her most recent work can be found or is forthcoming in Xicanx: Mexican American Writers of the 21st Century, IDK Magazine, & Five:2:One #thesideshow. Her new poetry project, Halfbreed Helene Navigates the Whole received a 2019-2020 Tacoma Artists Initiative Award. She serves as the poetry coordinator for Best of the Net Anthology, is a proud member of the Macondo Writers Workshop, and recently joined the faculty at the University of Washington Tacoma where she teaches creative writing and Latinx/Chicanx-focused courses.