A Conversation With Natalie Scenters-Zapico
Interview conducted by Sebastián Hasani Páramo
Natalie Scenters-Zapico’s debut collection was recently named a top ten debut by Poets and Writers. Before that, her poetry was featured in American Poets, a publication by The Academy of American Poets, and was introduced by Dana Levin. That issue was my first introduction to her work and I eagerly anticipated her book. Many others have since applauded her collection, The Verging Cities. Dana Levin writes that Scenters-Zapico “engages politically and personally charged material…with signature intimacy and fairy-tale strangeness.” In 2015, her book was featured on several top lists and included in Best American Poetry 2015. When I read her collection, I read it eagerly. Her poems in this collection are dark, visceral, haunting, and will echo for days in your mind. Here’s one of the most thought provoking lines in the collection:
I write of the boy I love gone missing, his father found with no teeth
In an abandoned car. Some say you have no right to talk about the dead.
So I talk of them as living, their bodies standing in the street’s bend.
Throughout, she builds and breaks down the boundaries of love, place, identity, and memory in ways that are unexpected and uses them to great effect to write the political and engage us in the surreal violence of our time. I was fortunate to be able to interview her via email.
Natalie Scenters-Zapico is from the sister cities of El Paso, Texas, U.S.A. and Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, México. She is the author of The Verging Cities, which won the 2016 Great Lakes Colleges Association’s New Writers Award, the National Association for Chicana and Chicano Studies Tejas FOCO Award, was featured as a top ten debut of 2015 by Poets and Writers, and named a Must-Read Debut by LitHub (Center For Literary Publishing, 2015). A CantoMundo fellow, her poems have appeared in American Poets, The Believer, Prairie Schooner, West Branch, Best American Poetry 2015 and more. Natalie lives with her husband, border rhetorics scholar José Ángel Maldonado, in Salt Lake City.
Sebastián Hasani Páramo: In reading The Verging Cities, I loved this idea of “verging” and the many forms it took. Your use of Oxford English Dictionary as a guide for exploring this idea was very incredible. The relationship you created between the speaker and borders seemed to create much tension and conflict. Can you talk about this idea and how it culminates into the title poem?
Natalie Scenters-Zapico: When I started writing about El Paso-Cd. Juárez just about everyone had a reading list for me to take home. There are so many wonderful writers who have come before me who share the same love affair with the border. And yet, the more I read the more I felt that I had a very different relationship with the border than the ones I saw being described. So, I started talking about the border as verging—the beginning of one thing and the end of another in constant cycle. When I looked up the term “verge” in the OED I was fascinated by its long history and deeply masculine roots. So I set out to write poems that addressed the verging cities—being beaten by them, escaping them, returning to them. By the time we get to the title poem, “The Verging Cities” I wanted the reader to get a sense that they are in fact one place, only to turn to that poem and hear two distinct voices, one from each city, in an abusive, violent, insestous relationship. In it I turn to the history of border crossing into El Paso and the use of Zyklon-B, strip searches, etc. I wanted to point to how the use of these things continues. The past and the present are in constant cycle, there is no beginning or end.
SHP: Your poems are described by Lisa D. Chavez as “wildly imagistic and political in the best way.” I’ve been thinking about the political poem lately and how to make it succeed. Adrienne Rich writes on political poetry that “A poem can’t free us from the struggle for existence, but it can uncover desires and appetites buried under the accumulating emergencies of our lives, the fabricated wants and needs we have urged upon us, have accepted our own.” This quote really resonates to me when I read your book. Can you talk about the political poem and what your approach was to writing some of these poems?
NSZ: I have deep feelings about the political poem, what it can do, and our disdain for it in American culture. Recently my husband pointed out the article, “Battle Lines” from the The New Yorker discussing jihadist poetry. I thought the article so very thoughtless because in it the author is very surprised that poetry, this art form we, as Americans, overlook all the time, could have such power to move people. And I thought, well look at just about any revolution or war in the world, and poetry is often used as propaganda.
This is why I truly despise, and I don’t use that word lightly, poetry that is well crafted but serves only to reinforce cultural values that are often materialistic, racist, chauvenistic, fascist, etc. Too often I’ll hear people say something to the effect of, “I don’t really like what this poem is saying, but it certainly is well crafted, so I guess it is a good poem.” Why? I would rather read a poem that is a spectacular failure on the level of craft, but is pushing into that realm of liminoid phenomenon, of overthrowing the cultural values of that moment, than to read a poem that purely serves to reinforce what we already know. Let me be clear, you can have a beautifully crafted poem about an unspectacular topic, but the craft is what makes the piece worth reading. But I don’t think you can have a poem that is offensive and well crafted and call it radical counter-cultural art. I mean, any fascist will tell you that it is of utmost importance that the youth learn the poetry of the nation-state so that they will feel it within them always like a prayer, so that the words of the nation-state becomes their prayer. That is not what I’m after at all.
That being said, in my work, I never set out to write politically. I think I fall into that Lorna Dee Cervantes camp in which what I write, which very often is deeply rooted in my life, just happens to be perceived as political. For example, if I write about my relationship with my husband it’s impossible for me not to talk about the borders that have stabbed us both throughout our lives. If I write about my childhood and adolescence, it’s impossible for me not to talk about narco-violence and femicide. And yet, these things are then perceived of by others as political. I think it’s also important to point out that when my husband and I started dating it was before the dreamer movement. A time when we were all terrified to talk about that which might force us, or the people we love into detention centers, a place most people didn’t even know existed. We’ve come a long way in voicing these concerns, but it’s important to remember that even in a time when we are more vocal about these issues people are still consistently detained and deported, many times to their death.
SHP: I love the urgency that the figure “Ángel” creates in these poems. He seems to add another layer to the surreal realities and politics that you discuss in this book. “How Borders Are Built” is a devastating example of this. Did this impulse to merge the tensions between love and the border come naturally or was it a conscious choice?
NSZ: I think it was a natural choice that I then crafted into something conscious. In the “Ángel” poems I became interested in the border becoming a metaphor for a relationship. That the act of border crossing, which is performed with such danger and risk by the speaker and Ángel could be a metaphor for their love. Addressing poems to the character that I created of Ángel helped me feel like I had a confidant in navigating the geography of my memory, which so often seemed riddled with traps and pain. I think that the poems addressed to him are also about painful spaces becoming less painful when you’re with someone.
SHP: There’s a few poems like “Notes On Ciudad Juarez, As A Play” or “Photos Found on a Dead Man’s Phone” where form plays a role in presenting violence against others in interesting ways. In “Placement” you also play with form and close with saying: “Some say you have no right to talk about the dead / So I talk of them as living, their bodies standing in the street’s bend.” Can you talk about how these forms work for you in writing these types of poems or other poems in the collection?
NSZ: The poems that you mentioned above are interested in the gaze. How does where one look, the context in which one looks, etc. affect the interpretation of an image or event. When I started writing about femicide I set out to read everything that I could on the topic. What I found disturbed me the most was the gaze people applied to femicide. The way in which many people, who are not from the border, would enter my border space for a few months to a year, some not at all, and would write about it in order to commodify this gendered violence in the name of “bringing awareness.” I didn’t want to do this in my poems, and yet, here I was trying to write poems about my adolescence/young adulthood which was deeply marked by femicide. The only solution I could find was to make the reader aware of my discomfort in placing myself amidst all of this. For me, it isn’t enough to name the names of the dead when you come from a place loaded with the documents of death that reduce people to their name and form of death. I was more interested in the way that people live with that violence, how they fall in love amidst that violence, how we place ourselves when we remember that violence.
SHP: Speaking of form and process, I wonder about your process for compiling a collection. Did you set out to write a collection? Or at some point after writing these poems, did you start to see a book forming?
NSZ: I very much set out to write a book. I was very lucky that my studies with Lisa D. Chávez at the University of New Mexico focused heavily on writing a book. Of course, I wrote one poem at a time and had a constantly rotating set of ideas of how the book would look. But I very much became obsessed with a theme and almost purely wrote poems exploring different ways of interrogating that theme for three years straight.
SHP: How long did it take you to write this book and find a home for it?
NSZ: It took me about four years of really intensely working on the book and then another year to find a home for it with the Center For Literary Publishing at Colorado State University.
SHP: What influences were important for you in writing about identity and what writers or things do you say to young writers about feeling more comfortable writing about themselves? As a younger writer, I felt sometimes I didn’t always see myself in the writers I read, but when I started to–I saw many more possibilities for my writing.
NSZ: As a young writer I often made the mistake of looking for myself in the writing of others. As though, only if they mirrored my identity or experience in some way could I learn something from them. This is a huge, embarrassing mistake on my part. Because how could I, with my hybrid, messy, one could argue “pocha” identity see myself in a piece of literature as a complete mirror reflection? This is impossible. I understand that some people have this “mirror” experience in reading the work of others, but I don’t think I ever will. However, when I stopped looking for a reflection and instead looked for refracted moments, or places where I could feel deep empathy, or ways of dealing with and examining trauma that I could apply to myself that is when I felt I could truly learn.
I also have to give a huge shout out to people who are doing great work when it comes to hybrid identity in our field. I’ll never forget when I was nineteen I went to a reading at the University of Texas at El Paso by Rosa Alcalá in which she read from her amazing collection Undocumentaries. Here was this woman who looked like me, who was bilingual like me, who was willing to call herself Latina, and was questioning our traditional notions of that word. I left that reading nearly in tears, because it felt like she was talking to me, it felt like she was making me see the world in a way that both empowered me and made me question my pain. I don’t think I’ve ever thanked Rosa for that moment, but it changed me deeply.
I also love the work that Rosebud Ben-Oni is doing in advocating for people who don’t fit the mold perfectly, people who question the use of strategic essentialism, whose very existence won’t allow for it because it’s just so damn complicated. And of course, I personally am very interested in liminal spaces, and the art that can come from existing in that space. I wrote more about that in my introduction to the liminal spaces interview series I did for The Best American Poetry blog. I think it’s important to recognize that to be Latinx is to be hybrid. There is no such thing as purity in Latinidad, if you even buy into this very American idea of Latinidad.
SHP: You said earlier that your Ángel poems are a means of making painful spaces less painful. In many instances your poems making the terrifying beautiful, in a tragic way. For other writers this is difficult, especially when mining from one’s own experience. Is this something that you’re able to encourage your students to attempt? (When I taught creative writing to high school students, some of their best poems seemed to come from confronting their personal histories. They were either reluctant or were barely scratching the surface when they did try.) This is something I often wonder about with my own work.
NSZ: I’m sure that mining from one’s personal experience is difficult for many writers, because it’s difficult for me! But it happens to be the way that I approached many of the poems in The Verging Cities. That being said, I wouldn’t say that I’m one who writes totally bound to what happened. In fact, I’m much more interested in the varying ways that we remember an event, or in the different ways to explore the emotional landscape of that event, than I am in capturing some sort of “truth.” On the border the more you bind yourself to a form of literal, physical truth the more problematic the writing becomes. A true fronteriza/o knows this because you can hear a story in Spanish and then hear that same story in English and it changes—so how can there be a truth to what happened? In The Verging Cities, and especially in the poems I’m working on right now, I wonder: If as poets we are interested in aesthetic beauty, how does one write about violent experiences without negating the repulsive qualities of violence in an effort to create a thing of beauty like the poem? What are we doing as artists in turning that violence into an aesthetic, palatable morsel for the eye and ear? Is there violence in that very act?
That being said, I try not to teach my students to write like me. Instead, I approach the writing classroom as a space in which it is my job to push students to practice their art constantly, to try new things, and to empower them to become artists. I think that if you approach your job as more of a facilitator, than as a traditional teacher, your students are much more willing to hear suggestions on the level of craft and are more willing to try things on their own. After all, you can be a great poet but if you’re not in love with the process of writing and revising it’s easy to get burned out. I view my role as one of helping them fall in love with that process, of being unafraid to engage with it daily.
SHP: What is a good writing day for you?
NSZ: This depends. My best writing days used to begin early in the morning. I liked this idea of giving the freshest, earliest part of myself to my writing and everything else would get the leftovers. But, when I moved to Salt Lake I was no longer teaching at a university and this became nearly impossible. For my first year I would get up at 5:00 in the morning to write for an hour before getting ready to teach, commute half an hour to work, teach six classes, and commute another half an hour home. This schedule ran me absolutely ragged. Now, I write wherever and whenever I get a spare moment. I’m not as scheduled. Instead, I write in notebooks in the spare minutes I have between classes, I write on grocery store lists, and junk mail flyers, I write all weekend, or in the kitchen while I’m waiting for a pot to come to a boil. Now, it’s not about having a good writing day, but about having a good writing moment. I hope to one day reach a place where I can have whole mornings to write on a regular basis again, but like many writers before me I can’t stop writing just because that’s not possible in my life at this moment. I also hope to one day grow an avocado tree in my backyard, but I’m not going to stop eating avocado because I can’t host a tree in my yard right now.
SHP: Recently you work was highlighted by Poets and Writers as one of ten compelling debuts by poets this year. Are there any collections or books that stood out to you this year?
NSZ: So many! I loved Ladan Osman’s The Kitchen Dweller’s Testimony, Marisol Limón Martinez’s Via Dissimulata, Daniel Borzutzky’s In the Murmurs of the Rotten Carcass Economy, and Ada Limón’s Bright Dead Things. At least those are some that come to mind right now.
SHP: You currently live in Salt Lake City and your husband is a border rhetorics scholar. Your last book dealt with borders and I’m curious to know if SLC has begun to seep into your newer work. Has place changed or given you new ways to think about borders?
NSZ: Place always has a deep, lingering effect on my work. If I felt homesick for El Paso-Cd. Juárez in Albuquerque, I feel destroyed by longing in Salt Lake. My first year in Salt Lake I hardly wrote a single poem and only journaled. I felt so disoriented by my surroundings, and so lonely