Luke Rolfes: Jose Hernandez Diaz, author on the rise, is out with a brand-new collection of poems from Acre Books called Bad Mexican, Bad American. Diaz offers us his signature blend of pitch-perfect lines mixed with surrealist prose poetry. Bad Mexican, Bad American takes us on a journey where we contemplate the influences that brush past us on a daily basis: family, place, history, culture, landscape.
LR: Congrats on the new collection, Jose! We at Laurel Review have been fans of your work for some time. Can you talk about the genesis of this book and how you went about selecting poems for Bad Mexican, Bad American?
Jose Hernandez Diaz: Thanks for having me! It has been a pleasure publishing in Laurel Review these past few years. The book came about actually as I was submitting my first full-length manuscript, The Parachutist. So, technically, Bad Mexican, Bad American is my second full manuscript. It just so happened to have been picked up before the first manuscript. In fact, I learned a lot about organizing a manuscript from the first one and therefore Bad Mexican, Bad American was easier to put together.
As I was submitting The Parachutist it kept getting finalist status in places like National Poetry Series, Andres Montoya Poetry Prize, Colorado Prize and others. Through trial and error, I realized how to organize my work through this submission and editing process. As I was waiting for the first to land, more new poems started to pile up to the point where eventually I had enough for this current book. I sent it to Acre Books’ open submissions queries and after a couple of months it was accepted.
LR: This book is broken into four sections, all with different themes and techniques employed. Was that always the plan for this book? How did you land on this organizing principle?
JHD: Yes, that was what initially made it difficult for me to organize my work into a cohesive manuscript. I tend to write linear verse autobiographical poems about being first-gen Mexican American in the Los Angeles area and/or surreal prose poetry which isn’t really about identity. Thankfully we have roman numerals or section breaks that can give space to work in different aesthetics or forms. Also, my prose poetry started to mix in more Mexican and Chicano imagery, themes, and settings, so it became more cohesive as a whole instead of the original prose poems I wrote, which were a bit more general or universal.
LR: I’m curious: Was one section easier to write than others?
JHD: Not really. I tend to enjoy writing in both sections or styles. I just approach each day, each word, each poem, one at a time.
LR: The title of the book, along with the first couple lines in the opening poem (“My American friends think I’m too Mexican. My Mexican friends think I’m too American. My Mexican American friends are my road dogs”) all point to an idea of your identity being split between two different places/cultures. I’m curious: Did you come to this theme/title late in your construction of the book, or did you always have this idea as a driving force?  
JHD: When I write I’m usually not thinking in terms of a larger book. I just take it one poem at a time. Some days I feel like writing surrealism. Other days, themes of race and racism and politics can’t help but influence my life and work. For example, when I see political ads by candidates scapegoating immigrants and/or Mexicans/Latinos, it’s easier for me to write about racism and it fires me up. If I’m not watching tv or reading the news, maybe I will drift away into isolation and a surreal prose poem.
LR: You are a writer from Southern California. Do you think of yourself as a place-based writer? At times, your work certainly reflects and ruminates on places and images found in your regionLakers, Venice Beach, Hollywood Boulevard, Dodgers, etc. But then, at other times, the places that appear in your work seem timeless and without realistic boundaries. Talk a bit, if you would, about your conception of place in your poetry. 
JHD: I’m not married to either way. I simply follow the poem and muse of that day. I don’t have larger agendas or axes to grind. I follow my inspirations as they come and my work can come off as varied or conflicted, but as Whitman says, “I contain multitudes.”
LR: I’m stuck on place! I want to know more about this creative space. It’s difficult to describe the plane in which these poems existin some ways surreal; in other ways realistic. Your poems, for instance,  blur the lines between the living and the dead, allowing for encounters with folks who are no longer living: Frida Kahlo, Octavio Paz, James Tate, etc.  How do you balance the surreal and real when you write? Are there rules governing this space you’ve created, or is anything possible? 
JHD: I don’t place limits on myself. Some writers only want to write about place and politics. Others only want to write about dreams and fantasy. I choose both. If others don’t like it, I won’t lose any sleep over that. I’m just being myself…
I grew up in two distinct areas. Northern Orange County in childhood and Southeast Los Angeles in adolescence. One place could be called middle-class suburbia and the other a Chicano Barrio. I love them both, am loyal to both, and my work often reflects this suburban/barrio mezcla I grew up with.
One day I could be at the beach watching diverse friends I grew up with surfing in Seal Beach with a bonfire and craft beer. The next day I could be in the barrios of southeast Los Angeles at a Carne Asada watching boxing with my primos and Raza. Southern California is a mix or mezcla, I very much represent this fusion.
LR: I am especially drawn to your prose poetry. One of my favorites is “Quetzalcoatl In the City,” in which the speaker of the poem encounters Quetzalcoatl at a local Panda Express. This piece comes in a series of surrealistic prose poems in section two. The endings in these pieces are always surprising and fascinating. In this poem, the speaker orders the “meat” version of what Quetzalcoatl ordered, and then drives home at sunset. I’m curious:  Do you think of your prose poems as small stories? What is the difference between a prose poem and, say, a micro-fiction in your mind? Is it entirely how a writer decides to label it? 
JHD: Yes, I see some of my prose poems as small stories, or scenes, or flashes, or windows to a landscape, moments in a day. I don’t get caught too much in strict definition or classification but I can see why prose poems and micro fiction seem similar. Whatever each writer chooses to call their own work is fine with me. I like prose poetry, or hybrid work, or poems. It’s not about the label they are assigned. It’s about the experience of reading it. How it makes you see or feel or the sounds, pace, pulse, flow of it. The imagination combined with craft.
LR: Can you give us a sense of your process on ending a prose poem? How do you figure out the right note/image to end on? Is it entirely organic or is it something you plan out ahead of time?
JHD: It is mostly organic, spontaneous, discovering as I go, do I want to shock? Go in a new direction? Subtle? Understated? Repetition? Rhyme? Image? Sound? Bleak? Joy?
Who knows where we will go.
I’m always stoked af when I land a good prose poem. It’s like when my friend Clyde Aaron used to skate in competitions when we were teenagers. Once taking 2nd place to P-Rod himself. Clyde would nail all these tricks, nonchalantly, like a good prose poem, with his long blonde skater hair flowing in the wind, turning, surprising, and then the final trick at the end: boom, magic. Clyde wasn’t worried about it. When I write it is like when my friends would skate or surf in youth: free and steady like a palm tree shaking at sunset on the PCH.
LR: Section three presents readers with a recurring theme of characters wearing specific t-shirtsRage Against the Machine, Chicano Batman, Mars Volta, Carlos Santana, Pink Floyd, Neil Young & Crazy Horse, etc. I’m struck by this image/theme. Are these characters all different? Is it the same character/identity simply dressed in a different shirt? Talk a bit about your usage of these shirts. What gave you that idea in the first place?
JHD: They are similar insofar as they like subversive, counterculture music. California is a holy place for art and music. However, the Chicano Batman and Carlos Santana characters are from Southeast Los Angeles. The rest of them are a bit more Northern Orange County counterculture.
LR: You’ve been a prolific voice! We see your poems in literary journals all over the country. I’m curious: When building Bad Mexican, Bad American, did you have to make tough cuts?  Were there some poems you wish had made it in that didn’t? 
JHD: Yes, mostly to the first section. My editor, Lisa Ampelman, helped with that. She has a surgical eye and pen. I trust her very much. Couldn’t be happier with what she did with the first section of the book. I was too immersed living the work to be objective. She has vision. She is a terrific writer as well. Go read “Mom in Space” out now with LSU Press.
LR: What’s next for you? I know you have at least one more book coming out soon. Can you tell us about it?
JHD: Next year: The Parachutist with Sundress Publications comes out in January. It is split between homage pieces to family and more Southern California surrealism and absurdism and Chicano imagery. Then, Portrait of the Artist as a Brown Man winner of the Benjamin Saltman Award with Red Hen Press. It is split between odes to the barrios of southeast Los Angeles in the face of being scapegoated by racism and bigots….and the second half of the book includes two new characters: The Man in a “Kafka for President” shirt and The Man in a “Salvador Dali for President” shirt.
LR: Bad Mexican, Bad American is a wonderful collection that I highly recommend to all our readers. Thanks so much, Jose, for sharing some thoughts with us today!!
Jose Hernandez Diaz is a 2017 NEA Poetry Fellow. He is the author of The Fire Eater (Texas Review Press, 2020) Bad Mexican, Bad American (Acre Books, 2024) The Parachutist (Sundress Publications, 2025) and Portrait of the Artist as a Brown Man (Red Hen Press, 2025). He has been published in The Yale Review, The London Magazine, and in The Southern Review. He teaches generative workshops for Hugo House, Lighthouse Writers' Workshops, The Writer's Center, and elsewhere. Additionally, he serves as a Poetry Mentor in The Adroit Journal Summer Mentorship Program. 
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