Originally the website for the poet, Natalie Scenters-Zapico, content is from the site's archived pages and other sources. The current website for Natalie Scenters-Zapico is found at: www.fountainvalleymagazine.net
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 Jose Angel Maldonado, in Salt Lake City.
2017 PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award for Poetry winner Natalie Scenters-Zapico reads her poem "Because They Lack Country", with musical accompaniment by Ernesto Villalobos from The Villalobos Brothers.
GLCA New Writers Award Winner
THE VERGING CITIES won the Great Lakes Colleges Association’s New Writers Award in poetry!
I’m so honored to have the opportunity to visit many of the member colleges over 2016-2017 to give readings and discuss borders, femicide, and narco-violence. Congrats to Laura Acampora’s THE WONDER GARDEN (winner in fiction) and Shulem Deen’s ALL WHO GO DO NOT RETURN (winner in creative non-fiction).
Thanks to the judges had the following to say:
Natalie Scenters-Zapico’s poems in The Verging Cities travel back and forth across the borders of El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, across the gritty, dangerous realities of border zones, and across the bodily and emotional boundaries of lovers from opposite sides of the borders. But this description is much more orderly and plain than these wildly imaginative poems, whose essential metaphoric and metamorphic gestures keep transforming body, self, soul, and city into each other. Scenters-Zapico engages an impressive and virtuosic variety of poetic forms and rhetorical structures, offering evidence that this poet – and this book – is in search of the right code to express something that doesn’t want to hold still. By turns erotic and ironic, The Verging Cities bears witness to the way both the body and the psyche register what it means to dwell in between. Politics is everywhere implicated in the blood, bones, ghosts of the dead. Scenters-Zapico gives powerful expression to the interweaving of identity and womanhood in the modern terms and landscapes of a border setting. These border poems have duende and they are at once deeply personal and openly public in their provocations.
"In NYC I formed a group informally known as "Lawyers Read Poetry" and you'd be surprised how many of us there are. I still often get giggles when I mention this to those who don't realize that there are some very artistically driven attorneys who crave associations with like minded counselors. Realizing the group could use some endorsements from celebrities, I approached my neighbor, former Queens Assistant District Attorney and now a renown NYC corporate lawyer Benjamin Randall Pred to see if he would be interested in joining our group. I gave him a copy of The Verging Cities and invited him to our next gathering. Although he didn't show for that event, he did express interest. Fast forward a year later and I saw him in the hall. I had kind of written him off and stopped mentioning our group. But under his arm was a beat up book he had obviously been carrying around a while. It was The Verging Cities." Jud Markham
THE VERGING CITIES
Winner of the Great Lakes Colleges Association’s 2016 New Writers Award
Featured as One of The Best Debuts of 2015 by Poets and Writers
Winner of the 2016 National Association of Chicana and Chicano Studies-Tejas Foco Award for Best Poetry Collection
Named a Top 30 Must-Read Poetry Debut by LitHub
Praise For The Verging Cities
“The U.S.-Mexico border and the strained but wondrous connection between El Paso and Ciudad Juárez is the energetic and sometimes tragic setting of Scenters-Zapico’s debut collection of poems. Hers is an insider’s view behind the headlines: the troubled border is also a place teeming with life, thriving with culture and hope. This book is a hard-won love song to one of America’s most misunderstood landscapes.”
—Rigoberto González, “Summer Reads: Top 9 Latino Authors” nbcnews.com
“[I]t is difficult to find a voice discerning and trustworthy enough to share its stories with the scope and passion [with which] Natalie Scenters-Zapico faces the subject in The Verging Cities. . . . The Verging Cities doesn’t rely on the sentimentalism of liberal immigrant narratives or commercials designed to garner donations; it doesn’t feel like a movie. Reading the book doesn’t make me feel better. It makes me weep with anger and frustration. It opens the wounds people try to ignore. It calls the ambulance.”
—Willy Palomo, “The Verging Cities: Micro Review” Indiana Review
“Not for the faint of heart, Scenters-Zapico guides us through dive bars and corpse-ridden gullies, along thirst-inducing border fences, and into bureaucratic hell. . . . The Verging Cities pulls no punches, yet it is also tender and intelligent.”
—D.M. O’Connor, “Interview with Scenters-Zapico” Blue Mesa Review
“…the central drama—and source of beauty—of these poems: love and fear wrestle over the fate of human life.”
—Christopher Nelson, “A Review of Natalie Scenters-Zapico’s The Verging Cities” Under A Warm Green Linden
“…this collection time and again shows the importance of not looking away, of always being able to name and seek out ways to learn us how to go on living.”
—José Ángel Araguz, “The Verging Cities: Review” The Volta Blog
“Scenters-Zapico recognizes…that text is an inadequate form of resurrection. Yet she must try. ‘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,’ she writes. The poet’s words, like flint and tinder, ignite the silence.”
—Sandra Beasley, “Flint and Tinder—Understanding the Difference Between ‘Poetry of Witness’ and ‘Documentary Poetics'” Poetry Northwest
“In these poems, the border is a powerful metaphor, but it is never merely trope; it is actual, political, damaging.”
—Joseph Campana, “The Verging Cities: Micro-Review” Kenyon Review
“The Verging Cities by Natalie Scenters-Zapico left me muttering and shaking my head in disbelief. I was sincerely blown away by this book. As a daughter of Mexican immigrants, I’m obsessed with the border, and Natalie captures the violence of this abstract and physical space in such beautiful, precise, and surreal language. The exploitation of the female body—which the speaker continually interrogates—is also at the core of this book: ‘He wonders when she ate so many / stars, how they stay hidden in the sky of her. Her blood drowns the city quiet.'”
—Erika L. Sánchez, “Reading List: June 2015” poetryfoundation.org
“Scenters-Zapico’s debut collection explores how lives are altered in the verging cities of Juarez and El Paso. The visual layout of these poems is striking and captures the speaker’s concern for both literal and metaphorical bridges. What I found most intriguing is how these poems cause the reader to deeply consider how various types of division, borders, and separation affect identity. This is definitely a must-read book.”
—Melisa Garcia, “Summer Must Reads: Latin@ Poets” Blue Mesa Review
“Natalie Scenters-Zapico engages politically and personally charged material here with signature intimacy and fairy-tale strangeness. . . . There’s often a sense of blood thirst and blood magic . . . a sense that chthonic forces thrum under every border encounter and experience, where violence is ‘greeted with extreme desire.’ The poems and the poet ask, ‘What can art do in the face of such brutality and death?’ It’s a question that threads through all of Scenters-Zapico’s work. Propelled by love and horror, Scenters-Zapico writes a rich, dark poetry of witness: ‘Some say, you have no right to talk about the dead. / So I talk about them as living, their bodies standing in the street’s bend.’” —Dana Levin
“From the Kentucky Club to the Border Patrol, from murder to marriage to Lotería, Natalie Scenters-Zapico’s debut collection is a lush love poem to life along the border, in the ‘verging cities’ of El Paso and Cd. Juarez. Fiercely original, these poems detail life along the border and beyond with a lover’s intimate gaze. While the book ‘sings of murder, all wildness’ it also catalogues beauty in the ordinary and in the unexpected from Antiques Roadshow to the border fence that the dead help collapse ‘link by link.’ Wildly imagistic and political in the best way, this book challenges stereotypes of the border, and is a stunning contribution to literature of the Americas.” —Lisa D. Chávez
“‘Travelers think there’s nothing in the desert,’ writes poet Natalie Scenters-Zapico in this debut collection, an obsessive examination of the seams and scars of borders. Writing about both US/Mexico and marriage, Scenters-Zapico crafts poems driven by visceral images of mass graves, maquilas, heatwaves, sex, and bullfights. The risks and intelligence of this book are stunning, and I can’t wait to see what she does next.” —Carmen Giménez Smith
Poets and Writers Top Debut Poets 2015
For years I’ve followed the Poets and Writers debut poets feature. I’ve always liked this list because it has such a wide variety of presses and writers from different backgrounds. But, I have to admit I never thought I’d actually make my way on there. Perhaps this is why I was so shocked when a month ago I got an email saying that Poets and Writers had selected my book The Verging Cities for their 2015 feature. I’m so honored to be in here next to writers like Robin Coste Lewis, Hannah Sanghee Park, Rickey Laurentiis, Morgan Parker, and more.
This still feels like a real dream and I can’t believe that my little book is featured! I can’t wait to pick up a copy of the issue with family when I go visit them for Christmas.
“There Is a Bird in My Mouth”
—The Academy of American Poets’ Poem-A-Day, 9 December 2015.
There Is a Bird in My Mouth
I found it on your belly, and caught it
with two fingers. I kept the bird
on a little perch behind my ear.
I plucked its feathers, stuffed them
against my jaw like chewing tobacco,
and spit the black threads
into a styrofoam cup. One night
the bird died. Crushed beak, split
bone—we did it. Your heart
jealous, my body disgusted
by the taste of seed and bark—
we didn’t want the bird.
We did it over dinner,
you reached into my memory
by placing a finger
in my ear. I placed a hand
in your mouth to catch the bird
and we smashed it
together. This is simple, we did it
and spoke of it with ease. Through
the memory, we killed
the bird that was never ours. Now we’ve become
bird butchers, you say
and throw the bird’s limp body
in the trash. I reach to clasp
your face, but have lost
both my hands. Each finger
disappeared into your pupils,
our little black cruxes.
“I am with Child” and “On Ash Wednesday”
—HEArt Human Equity Through Art, October 2015.
—The Awl, October 2015.
“Endnotes on Cd. Juárez”
—Best American Poetry 2015 (originally published in West Branch), September 2015.
“Angel and I Are Both Great Pretenders” and “Like Victorian Women”
—The Massachusetts Review, Fall 2015.
“Because They Lack Country,” “Mouth In My Kitchen,” and “Placement”
—American Poets, Introducing Series featured by Dana Levin, Winter/Fall 2014.
“Crossing” and “Broken Initials”
—Prairie Schooner (Winner of a Glenna Luschei Prize). Fall 2013 .
“Notes on Cd. Juárez As A Play” and “Endnotes on Cd. Juárez”
—West Branch. Fall 2013.
“Angels Fall From The Sky To El Paso, Texas” and “Your Mouth is Full”
—Crab Orchard Review. Spring 2013.
“The City is A Body Broken”
—Four Way Review. 2013.
“Bibbed In Paisley He Reads Zizek Instead”
—The Believer. Fall 2012.
“This Bitter Salt”
—The Cortland Review. Fall 2012.
“Dear Angel,” and “La Mariscal”
—PALABRA. Spring 2012.
“I Light The House on Fire and Lie Down” and “A Torero’s Daughter Is Killed”
—Cream City Review. Spring 2012.
“Escaping The Verging Cities,” “The Archeologist Came To Hunt Trilobites,” “The Corner Store Clerk Says Her Name Was Ofelia,” “The Verging Cities Watch Me,” and “The Poem Shows Up”
—As/Us. Spring 2012.
“After I Read Your Obituary”
—Cura. Fall 2012.
—Bellevue Literary Review. Fall 2011.
—The Acentos Review. Fall 2011.
“How Borders Are Built”
—The Minnesota Review. Spring 2011.
“An Interview With Natalie Scenters-Zapico”
— Blue Mesa Review December 2015.
a flier in my hand—
a seventeen-year-old girl I knew
her picture splotched with toner.
Her physical description reads
like an epitaph looking for its grave.
I let the paper fly again. I know
she is dead.
From “In a Dust Storm”
Natalie Scenters-Zapico’s debut collection of poems, The Verging Cities, is a visceral investigation into love and violence in the blurred borderlands of El Paso and Ciudad Juárez. Published by the Center for Literary Publishing at Colorado State University in March 2015, The Verging Cities runs the gamut in form, style, and intensity. A close reading suggests a star-crossed narrative. Indeed, throughout the collection, the speaker anchors many of the lines around her lover, Angel, but this could also be a divinity, an Everyman migrant, or a compilation of partners fighting endless red-tape to construct a sense of home:
And when the border agents come, may people say we made
This fence our home, pushed our faces into its links
And let the rocks bury our bodies—357—89—0861.
Not for the faint of heart, Scenters-Zapico guides us through dive bars and corpse-ridden gullies, along thirst-inducing border fences, and into bureaucratic hell. The images bounce between hyper-realism (“In the New York gallery the shoes hang by red ribbons”) to sweeping surrealism (“I am the city that has come to swallow / the plastic bags of your body”). This is no package tour. The driver has dismissed liability. These poems are coyotes that will leave you waterless in the middle of the desert, where “the river is only blue on the map,” and if you run the right direction, you might just get that working-visa, you might just sleep in the arms of your lover, who will bring you a glass of water when you wake.
The Verging Cities pulls no punches, yet it is also tender and intelligent. The forty-five poems are cunningly divided into sections entitled CON/VERGE, DI/VERGE, RE/MERGE (a single poem), and VERGE. The sections stand alone, but a through-line keeps the pages turning. In retrospect, the journey worked best chronologically. It is easy to see why Believer, Prairie Schooner, and West Branch are among the journals snapping up Natalie’s poems and why Sherman Alexie chose to include her poem “Endnotes on Ciudad Juárez” in the current Best American Poetry anthology.
BMR caught up with Natalie this month to discuss her poetry, publishing, teaching, and influences.
Blue Mesa Review: What brought you to poetry? Who were your early influences?
Natalie Scenters-Zapico: As an adolescent I kept diaries full of love letters to boys I’d never talked to, poets I had crushes on, and of the scent of marigolds in November. I never considered these poems because they existed only in my journals, and at the time I believed what I’d been told: if your writing only exists in your journals, then it’s not serious. This, of course, is an extremely sexist notion with an ugly history in the Western canon. But I was lucky enough to take a creative writing class with Daniel Chacón, who helped me take the things I was writing in my journals and revise them ruthlessly. Many young women who journal are never given the same level of mentorship as young men who journal. Young men who journal are usually seen as sensitive and reflective, while young women are often seen as living in a fantasy world and melodramatic. I was lucky to find people who told me that the writing I started in my journal was worth taking a closer look at, and for that I’ll always be grateful.
I grew up with a mother who read me Federico García Lorca and Miguel Hernández before bed, and a father who would recite T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens after dinner as a form of dessert. So I feel like I’ve always been surrounded by poetry.
I was lucky enough to study with amazing Chicana/o writers like Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Arturo Ramos, and Filipina poet Sasha Pimentel. They made me write in form a lot. This helped shape my understanding of revision because it was so difficult for me that I’d have to spend hours figuring out where the poem wanted to go and then making it fit the form in natural ways.
During this period I was very interested in writers like Naomi Shihab Nye, Adrienne Rich, Elizabeth Bishop, Ai, and Li-Young Lee. I deeply engaged in novels like Les Chants de Maldoror, Hopscotch, and The Savage Detectives.
BMR: What is your process when composing a poem?
NSZ: Many times when I am writing, I am struck by an image. Often it is an image that I’ve never recovered from. I will follow that image ruthlessly. Sometimes that image turns into something else because I’ve refracted it through a mirror, but I’m still chasing the same image—its aura. While sometimes I chase sound, it’s really only if it’s somehow helping me capture an image. As for form, that happens in revision for me. If I obsess too much about form while I’m initially writing, it ruins the poem. Poetry is only ever as good as the poet’s process. The better you get, the more effective you become at that process, and the more willing you are to take serious risks and recognize when those risks are worth taking.
BMR: Do you have an audience in mind when you write? An ideal reader?
NSZ: Never. In fact, I think it’s helpful to rid yourself of the idea that someone might ever read what you’ve written and write with that kind of abandon. In this way, you develop your craft purely for yourself and for your art without worrying too much about what others will think of it. I think worrying too much about an “ideal reader” or “an ideal appreciator of your aesthetic” stunts your growth as artist. Also, if you’re not careful, it can turn your poetry into a commodity. I never want that for my poems, so I write to avoid it.
BMR: Are your poems finished or abandoned?
NSZ: Like many poets before me have confessed, my poems are abandoned.
BMR: Since you abandon poems, how do you get from one poem to the other? How do you know one is finished and when to start another? Do they impact each other?
NSZ: This is very complicated. I don’t think there’s a set answer to this for any artist; it changes from project to project. Sometimes I’ll write something, leave it, and when I return to it, I hate it. Sometimes I won’t see a way to revise a poem for months, sometimes years, and then suddenly I’m given a key, a way in to revise it.
I do often work in series, so there’s a way in which I get obsessed with a topic, write multiple poems about it, and then get tired and move to the next thing. Then I’ll rediscover the series months later and play with the poems some more. In this way, I’m in love with the process of writing more than I am with the finished product. There’s nothing better than a good revision day.
BMR: How do you approach publishing? Do you have a system or just let the poem find a home?
NSZ: When I was in my second year of my MFA, I started sending poems out every semester to magazines that I liked to read or that were publishing writers I felt were necessary in some way. I’ve been told that I should keep a spreadsheet with acceptances and rejections, but I think that this then places too much value on the poem finding a home at all. I’m interested in creating art, not really interested in my “numbers.”
BMR: As a woman of color, do you have any advice or insight into the world of publishing?
As a Latina, I think you have to have a deep sense of self in order to survive the world of publishing. I think it’s also important to love your poems before they’re approved or rejected by the dominant culture, so that your entire sense of self as an artist isn’t reliant on other people’s approval.
You also can’t underestimate the power of finding good mentors and friends in the writing community to guide you. I was lucky enough to have both during my MFA and have thankfully found even more after it.
BMR: Tell me about the process of publishing The Verging Cities.
NSZ: The process of publishing The Verging Cities was an interesting one. My first year out of my MFA, I would get up at five every morning, revise for an hour and a half, get ready, commute half an hour to work, teach five classes, come home, grade and prep for the next day, and go to sleep. This nearly killed me. I don’t regret it because it helped my collection find a good home, but on a personal level it was exhausting in a way that caused me a lot of problems.
The Verging Cities got picked on a cool rainy night in Mexico City. My husband, who is a critical cultural scholar, and I were there for some research he was doing on border simulations. I got the email first from my mentor, Dana Levin, who said that the press had been trying to reach me, but because I had spotty internet hadn’t been able to. As soon as I got the news, I ran outside of the apartment we were renting and screamed. I still think about that wonderful, cathartic scream.
BMR: Where and how did you find the structure of the book?
NSZ: The structure of the book came when I was thinking about how I viewed the border as verging. I was interested in that word. To exist on the verge, to converge with your environment, to diverge from your society. So when I looked up definitions in the OED of the word “verge,” it became very clear to me that I had to follow this idea. However, many of the beautiful choices in ordering the poems were thanks to Lisa Chávez. She has a real knack for seeing what you’re trying to do and helping you create it.
BMR: Can you talk about the difference between reading/writing in English vs. Spanish? How do they work together (or against) each other?
NSZ: I learned English in the loud vocal way of naming everything around me, and I learned Spanish from my mother in whispers because she never wanted to offend anyone with her Spanish. Because of this, Spanish has always been my interior language. For example, I only pray in Spanish or talk to myself in Spanish. English is how I express intellectual thought and the main language I use to write.
BMR: How do you approach teaching?
NSZ: Teaching is about creating community in the classroom, many times for people who would never have had that experience otherwise. I spend a lot of time creating activities that are trying to get students to open themselves up to texts, to make personal connections, and to feel comfortable sharing those connections.
BMR: Are there any specific texts, books, or writers you like to use when teaching and building a sense of community?
NSZ: Well, I think it’s difficult to build community in the classroom only off texts because we all learn so differently, so I try to incorporate music, visual art, sculpture, etc. But I do still use texts as the backbone of whatever class I’m teaching. Some of my favorites are J. Michael Martinez, Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Alberto Ríos, Claudia Rankine, Toni Morrison, Jean Rhys, bell hooks, and Achille Mbembe.
BMR: Who are your current influences? What are you working on now, and how does it differ from how/when you worked on The Verging Cities? Have the issues/themes changed?
I’m currently interested in violence, depictions of violence, and the way that we commodify violence. More specifically, I’m exploring the use of drones, code, and military technology on the border. I'm seeing that technology is a subject that's very hard to avoid these days and it is making inroads into my work almost by default. My best friend is a consultant for Kubernetes deployment, which is a world so completely alien to me. Yet when we discuss what she does, which involves the containerized deployment of software in the cloud, I am listening and seeing possibilities in my ignorance. It's like discovering that the most important aspects of the tools of your trade are using magic that you can't understand yet the need to respect and validate it is irrepressible. Kubernetes is not a word I ever use, yet it will eventually show up in my work, no doubt, even if I can't say exactly what form that will take. My approach to this collection is similar to my first book in that I seem to be very obsessed with this project at the moment, and I’m writing from that point of obsession. However, I don’t have the luxury of time like I did during The Verging Cities. I have to schedule time to sit at my desk and write.
BMR: Will your new book return to El Paso and Juarez?
NSZ: I think so, but under a different lens. I’m very interested in border security technologies, drones, and thano-politics. Currently I’m working on a series that will probably be a part of my next book that deals with the intersection of these subjects in El Paso-Cd. Juárez.
BMR: Do you like Roberto Bolaño’s fictionalized version of Juárez? Do you like his writing?
NSZ: How can you not love Bolaño? The Savage Detectives changed my whole way of viewing my vocation as a poet. However, it is important to understand that in Bolaño’s 2666, though he created an amazing fictionalized version of Juárez that offered important commentary on femicide and machismo, it was still written by a person who had spent little to no time in Juárez. Bolaño created a great metaphorical Juárez, but I’m interested in the ways where that sometimes fails us, where in the process of making the border metaphor we lose the reality of the border.
BMR: Finally, what are your thoughts about the Best American Poetry scandal?
NSZ: Appropriation is a gross and violent injustice. If you want to really make a change, don’t just talk about what a terrible thing this Best American Poetry scandal is. Instead, read actual Asian poets now. Support their voices, their experiences, their art.
Last month, Scenters-Zapico was a finalist for the Newfound Journal’s Anzaldúa Poetry Prize for her chapbook, Lessons in Machismo.
Undoubtedly, one of the best collections of 2015, The Verging Cities.
Utah Public Radio
— “Access Utah” July 2015.
“The Emerging Voice of The Verging Cities”
—The Alibi: Arts Feature, June 2015.
Words on a Wire
—Interview with Daniel Chacón and Tim Z. Hernández, KTEP, June 2015.
Take Down The Clouds
—The Volta, June 2015.
Interview With Scenters-Zapico
—As/Us, Interview with Casandra Lopez.
“As a poet, I’m interested in what art can be created from the anxieties of being from such a place. What can we create from these experiences? I’m a poet, not a rhetorician—it’s not my place to tell you as a reader how best to interpret the world. I want to write about the things that keep me longing and the things that keep me up at night.”
Having read some of your work in workshop I was delighted to read your full manuscript. Can you describe what your manuscript is about. I am particularly interested in hearing about the “twin” element that is prevalent in many of your poems and how place functions in your work.
On a literal level this manuscript is about where I am from, the sister cities of El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juárez, México. It stems from a place of longing for where I am from, both what it is and what it used to be. They are poems about immigration, language, pollution, brutality against women and men, war, love, marriage, weddings, and the hybrid sense of these things that exists in these two cities. The metaphor of the cities being twins runs throughout the manuscript. El Paso and Cd. Juárez were one city, El Paso del Norte, that was then divided by the river into the U.S. and México leaving them forever in a state of longing for each other. In the manuscript, this longing manifests itself in a variety of ways and I became interested in how twins can feel a connection that is beyond that of regular siblings. I also liked that I could write about a relationship between a set of twins and only hint that they might be cities.
Can you talk a little about how you identify both as a poet and as an individual. How or in what ways to do think these identities influence your writing and topics you choose to explore in your work.
This is a very interesting question for me, mainly because I have such a hybrid identity and experience. My father is Anglo, from Wisconsin, and my mother is from Asturias, Spain. My mother came to the U.S. in her twenties after falling in love with my father. I grew up in a fully bi-lingual household, in a bi-lingual city, El Paso, Texas, and went to a high school at a time when over half of my graduating class was from Cd. Juárez and crossed the bridge every day for school. I also married a Mexican man, who was educated in México and the U.S. and is also bilingual. I grew up surrounded by hybridity and a variety of experience. I grew up where multiplicity was never seen as a positive or negative thing, only a fact of existence on the border. I think that all of these things affect how I identify as an individual and then what my concerns are as a poet.
There is a great sense of lyricism in much of your work, which creates a juxtaposition to some of the heavier topics (violence, death, immigration) that are present in many of your poems. Your poems often contain a surrealistic element as well, especially related to the body. For example in one poem a Honda Civic comes out of the speaker’s mouth and in “Escaping The Verging Cities,” there are ant colonies in the speaker’s body. Can you discuss your interests in employing these surrealistic elements in your work, in addition to how you see your poetic style developing?
As a woman, I think t is nearly impossible to escape my body. I grew up with a mother who has severe rheumatoid arthritis and I became aware at a very young age that you could never be confident that your body would always be some infallible vehicle. I saw all the horrible ways your body could fail you. I was also diagnosed at 16 with a thyroid condition, in which my immune system attacks my thyroid gland, and it’s only a matter of time before it kills it all together. I think these autoimmune disorders affected and still affect the way I view the body very deeply. This is perhaps why, in my poetry, I am interested in the ways that the body—such a physical, tangible, common thing—can be used to navigate through a metaphorical landscape in which pain can be explored through the surrealistic image. I am attracted to the idea of making the metaphor a literal space—what happens when we do that as writers? I think, at least I start to understand that there is no difference between the metaphorical and literal space; they are both just different ways to talk about the same over-arching issues.
I also think something that is not discussed enough in contemporary American poetry is how surrealism and realism are constantly in conversation with each other. You cannot understand surrealism unless you have realism to compare it to, and I would also argue, you cannot truly understand realism unless you have surrealism to compare it to. Growing up in El Paso-Cd. Juárez can be a surreal experience—the violence, the pollution, the hybridity, the corruption—and yet, it is all real. El Paso-Cd. Juárez is not the work of a single person’s surrealist free-juxtapositioning exercise. This is why I think of the relationship between surrealism and realism in my work as an act of confusion. Like the snake that eats its own tail—even I, as the writer, am not always sure where the surreal ends and the real begins, probably because there’s not much of a difference in the first place. In this way, I think I’ll always be interested in the confusion between metaphorical and literal landscapes no matter what subject matter I take on. I like existing in that aesthetic border space.
Some of my favorite poems in your manuscript are the “Angel” poems. In the poems, the character of Angel is an individual, but also represents something much more than that. Please discuss how “Angel” functions in this collection.
As I said earlier, this collection stems from a place of longing. Something that became really relevant to me as I began to think about the ways El Paso-Cd. Juárez are always in a relationship of longing for each other, as sisters and as lovers, was my relationship with my husband, Angel. I started meditating on the ways my relationship with my husband, who is from Chihuahua, is like the border and the ways the border is like our relationship. And as I kept writing poems to him, which I approached like writing love letters, the more the relationship became a metonymy for the border throughout the collection. Angel’s name also became a very important point for me to interrogate as a poet because I could play with the angel as an image, but make him very much a man. I could make Angel surreal and real at the same time all by choice of landscape and action.
In the poems that delve into immigration, there are some that emphasize the bureaucratic nature by referencing official documents and other specific numerical details, while others seem to be more interested in exploring the emotional aspects of this arduous process. Was there a specific way you went about selecting which aspects you wanted to explore in these poems?
While Angel and I were going through the immigration process to apply for a green card I kept very careful records of everything and became interested in the way that a stranger would look at this application and see a sort of bureaucratic portrait of us as a couple. It looked very different than if I were to write a sketch of us as a couple. In fact, in the work of art we are rarely interested in biometrics or whether people have paid their taxes. And yet, to Homeland Security this is the portrait they want of people. I became interested in the things we value as a society through this process, the absurdity and seriousness of it. How on a piece of paper we may roll our eyes at the form that marks whether or not you’ve ever had tuberculosis, but to Homeland Security this is a vital question—it can greatly affect your entry into the U.S. And all the while, this process is very emotional and arduous and I also became interested in the ways that this manifests itself in a relationship. The ways that money and distance and language can creep in, the ways that anxiety and government can become a constant stranger in your bed.
For a long time I was afraid of writing any of these poems, so I began writing them in journals by hand. But then, as most writers do, I couldn’t stop revising them so I began sharing them with others. It was important for me to learn as a poet to always be aware of fear, to keep it with me, but to face it every day and ask it questions.
Your poems also explore ideas of language and some of your work incorporates Spanish. Can you talk about your interest in language and how you decide when and how much Spanish to incorporate into your poems.
I’m afraid there’s not a scientific process to this. I think it’s only recently that I feel comfortable code-switching in a poem. Poetry mainly comes to me in English, sometimes a phrase or two in Spanish, and then I make an effort to work it in. I’ve been told that my intonation is different in Spanish than it is in English and I’m interested in how these changes in voice can be employed to create different speech acts within a poem. I’ve also been interested recently in all the beautiful varieties of Spanish. I speak Spanish with a Castilian accent, but many of my expressions are so influenced by Cd. Juárez and Chihuahua, because my husband and many of my friends are from there. I love how malleable Spanish is as a language, the ways that the different people that speak it have individualized it. A similar conversation exists with the current trend in discussing global English(es), which also interests me. But English had and has a decidedly different way of colonizing, and this, I think, affects the ways we discuss it as hybrid.
You frequently tackle issue of violence and death in your work, especially those that occur in Juarez and in the borderland regions. In one of your poems you write, “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.” What do you think are some of the challenges writers and yourself face when addressing these issues in poetry or other art forms?
There are many challenges when writing about violence that is so tied to the movement and trade of goods globally. For one, I think it is intrinsically problematic if you enter any type of artistic exploration of that violence with the sole purpose of, “informing people of the issues.” We live in an era of information overload, a neo-liberal era, where people adopt “issues” purely to take ownership of them. And in turn, the art becomes less about creating something provocative and more about assuaging or agitating people’s egos. Either one of these reactions is problematic because it lets the issue sit on two polar ends of a spectrum and doesn’t complicate anything.
The ways the violence in Cd. Juárez has affected me directly hasn’t been through the strains of femicide that have existed since the ‘90s, but rather, through the cartel violence that turned the entire city into a war zone. I have had friends kidnapped, extorted for money, and some have died. I also witnessed the mass exodus from Cd. Juárez to El Paso, not only in the form of people, but also in the many business that have moved across. And so, I made it a point in this collection to not write about things that were not based in my experience. I’m not interested in the border poem that is inspired by newspaper headlines or the border poem meant to “inform people of issues”. Some poets write about the border from afar because they’ve had little personal experience with it, some poets write from a place of guilt of not understanding it. I’m not saying that there’s anything inherently wrong with this approach, but in the grand scheme of things it can be problematic to the people that live this experience daily.
As a poet, I’m interested in what art can be created from the anxieties of being from such a place. What can we create from these experiences? I’m a poet, not a rhetorician—it’s not my place to tell you as a reader how best to interpret the world. I want to write about the things that keep me longing and the things that keep me up at night.
I Interview Other Writers
A Conversation With Luis J. Rodriguez
—Blue Mesa Review, 2011.
Latina/o Poets On Liminal Spaces: A Conversation with Javier Zamora
—Best American Poetry Blog, 2015.
Latina/o Poets On Liminal Spaces: A Conversation with Erika L. Sánchez
—Best American Poetry Blog, 2015.
Latina/o Poets On Liminal Spaces: A Conversation with Marcelo Hernández Castillo
—Best American Poetry Blog, 2015.
Latina/o Poets On Liminal Spaces: A Conversation with Carolina Ebeid