A Conversation With Natalie Scenters-Zapico
The American Literary Review
Sebastian Hasani Paramo, Poetry Contest Coordinator
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. She lives with her husband, border rhetorics scholar José Ángel Maldonado, in Salt Lake City.
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 aforementioned 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.
Sebastian Hasani Paramo: In reading The Verging Cities, I loved this idea of “verging” and the many forms it took. Your use of the 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, incestuous 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: What influences were important for you in writing about identity and what 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…
Read the entire interview here.