An Interview with Natalie Scenters-Zapico

By DM O'Connor
December 5th, 2015

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                                    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. 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 can be found here.

Natalie reads four poems for BMR here.

 

 

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 is part of the Mountain West Poetry Series (CLP June 2015). A CantoMundo fellow, her poems have appeared in American Poets, The Believer, Prairie Schooner, West Branch, Best American Poetry 2015, and more. She teaches English and creative writing, and coordinates the student-led literary magazine Tepeyac at Juan Diego Catholic High School. Natalie lives with her husband, border rhetorics scholar José Ángel Maldonado, in Salt Lake City.

DM O’Connor is from a small village on Lake Huron. After many nomadic years, he is based in Albuquerque, where a short story collection is in progress. He contributes monthly to The Review Review and New Pages. His writing has appeared in Barcelona Metropolitan, Collective Exiles, Across the Margin, Headland, Cecile’s Writers, The Great American Lit Mag, Bohemia, Beechwood, Fiction Magazine, After the Pause, The New Quarterly, and The Guardian. Follow him at @dmoconnorwrites