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José Olivarez explores mental health through poetry in a keynote address at UW-Madison Diversity Forum

Poet and speaker José Olivarez addressed attendees of an annual forum themed after ‘Bridging the Divide.’

Author and poet José Olivarez spoke at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Diversity Forum on Wednesday as the second keynote speaker of the two-day event. 

The event was themed “Bridging the Divide,” a nod to the university’s goal of “engaging in constructive dialogue” across differences and creating community, according to the forum’s website.

Olivarez read and performed his poems, which touched on topics such as his identity as the son of Mexican immigrants and his upbringing in Chicago’s southern suburbs. Olivarez also discussed his love of poetry and art as well as his experiences with education and schooling.

Olivarez’s first poetry collection, “Citizen Illegal,” won the 2018 Chicago Review of Books Poetry Prize. 

Olivarez began his talk by encouraging audience members to participate audibly in his poetry reading by laughing, clapping and snapping.

“Poetry is alive,” Olivarez said. “It is not something that you just listen to, but it is something that you speak back to.”

Olivarez’s humorous and emotionally poignant poetry engaged the audience throughout the talk.

Olivarez discussed his relationship with his father and the impact of immigration on his father through his recitation of poems such as “Boy & the belt” and “Getting ready to say I love you to my dad, and then it rains.” 

When discussing another poem about his parents, titled “I tried to be a good Mexican son,” he shared his mother’s disappointment when he did not share her Jesus Christ memes on Facebook, much to the audience’s amusement.

“I went to a good college and learned that depression is not just for white people,” Olivarez recited from the poem. “I never share the Jesus Christ memes she sends me on Facebook. I know it’s terrible.”

Olivarez also discussed therapy and using poetry to analyze and reimagine negative memories. He explained how beginning slam poetry in high school allowed him to take control of his intellect.

“I started to go to poetry slam meetings because I was desperate for community… I was desperate to talk about more than sport,” Olivarez said. “If you’re a young man you understand that sometimes sports is the limit of what you’re allowed to talk about.”

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The second portion of the discussion included a forum with questions from First Wave scholarship recipients at UW-Madison, a group of students with full-tuition scholarships who engage with art, particularly spoken word and hip-hop. Olivarez noted several of his friends were graduates of some of the First Wave program's original cohorts.

Students asked about language and Olivarez’s experience as a bilingual author, the commodification of Olivarez’s trauma as an author, and the role of humor in Olivarez’s writing and life philosophy.

A final student question asked Olivarez how poetry allows him to have difficult conversations with himself.

“One of the things that I hear people say is that art is therapy,” Olivarez said. “What I have found is that is absolutely not true. Art can be therapeutic, [and] it can help you move some emotions around in a way that feels good and useful. But therapy is therapy, right?”

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Noe Goldhaber

Noe Goldhaber is the college news editor for The Daily Cardinal. She previously served as the copy chief. She is a Statistics major and has specialized on a wide range of campus issues including protests, student housing, free speech and campus speakers and campus administration. She has done data analysis and visualization for the Cardinal on a number of stories. Follow her on Twitter at @noegoldhaber.


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