As Us

A Space for Writers of the World

Interview with Scenters-Zapico

“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.”

As/Us Co-editor Casandra Lopez interviews poet Natalie Scenters-Zapico

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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 it 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.

 

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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.

 

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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.

 

 

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