Natalie Scenters-Zapico is an El Pasoan and fronteriza through and through, and today she returns for a reading that marks the prominence she has found in the literary world.
The bilingual poetry reading, which takes place at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP), is being hosted by the very program that Scenters-Zapico graduated from. The event is a homecoming for the young poet after having won the PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award for Poetry.
Her next book of poetry, Lima :: Limon, will be released next year via Copper Canyon Press, a prestigious press that has printed the works of legendary poets.
In this interview, Scenters-Zapico discusses her growing up on the frontera of El Paso; attending Loretto High School- a Catholic all-girl school; and the inspiration she found in her mentors of Sasha Pimentel, Daniel Chacon, and Benjamin Alire Saenz while at UTEP.
The interview was done via email. Natalie Scenter-Zapico’s reading will be at Quinn Hall at the University of Texas at El Paso, with a bilingual reading featuring current UTEP MFA student, Carolina Davila. The reading will be at 6 PM.
Question: Can you talk to me about growing up on the border? How did it impact you, getting into writing poetry?
Answer: Growing up on the border I didn’t find it very extraordinary. It was daily to me, the bilingualism, the crossing back and forth, the surveillance. I originally wanted to be a
music journalist. I was eighteen and working at Kinley’s Coffee House and was working alongside all these great musicians. I knew I couldn’t sing or play anything, but I read Chuck Klosterman and naively wanted to do this but for the border music scene. My idea was the travel up and down the border going to shows and write a collection of essays. But then, I took a class at UTEP with Daniel Chacón that forever changed me. It was an introduction to Creative Writing class, but it was only focused on poetry. Suddenly I was opened to a world of poets who write about the border: Alberto Ríos, Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Gloria Anzaldúa, etc. And I fell in love, and never looked back.
Q: What writers/poets were influential on you as a young writer?
A: As a young writer I was very influenced by the Spanish poets de la generación del ’27: Lorca, Guillén, Salinas, Miguel Hernández. I loved their ear for music and was interested in how they used form and then broke form to compose on the page. I was also introduced to poets like Ai who helped me to start playing with one of my favorite forms the dramatic monologue.
Q: I went to Cathedral High School here in El Paso, and for the better or for the worse, in its own way, it led me down a similar career path of writing. Did Loretto do the same for you? Or was writing always in your sight? I’m interested on your take on Loretto, if you miss those days? What was the transition between being an Angel [Loretto High School’s mascot] and a Miner [UTEP’s mascot], like?
A: I would not be who I am had it not been for Loretto Academy. It taught me social skills, networking skills, basic life skills that I think a lot of people have to learn much later in
life. That said, I was not a writer in high school. I got kicked out of AP English my sophomore year, because I didn’t like any of the books we were reading and decided to just stop doing the homework. When I got to UTEP I saw it as a second chance. I had no idea what I wanted to study, but I knew that I wanted to work hard. So I started just taking classes that interested me. I was very close to majoring in History, but Daniel Chacón, Benjamin Alire Sáenz, and Sasha Pimentel convinced me I wanted to take a risk and study writing.
Q: The border has also had a clear effect on your poetry, your first book having a lot of themes and heavy subject matter focused on the border. Do the “Verging cities” [the title of her first book] continue to have this type of impact your poetry?
A: Tremendously. I am very interested in writing about my adolescence and young adulthood in this space at a very fluctuating time, from safe and bustling on both sides of the border to safest city in America on one side and “murder capitol of the world” on the other. I wanted to write a book that showed what all of us know, that this space is not a “hellscape” that people fall in love here and have fun here and often there’s more a sense of danger than actual danger.
Q: You’re still a young writer but have seen a lot of success; what has it been like? What have you felt, seeing the response to your poetry?
A: It has been the most overwhelming experience of my life. I did not grow up in New York or Chicago or LA, so the idea of a “writing scene” is very foreign to me. I went to New York for the first time two years ago when I won the PEN, and took my mom who had also never been. We were giddy just to be in that space. Honestly, I know all this will fade and then I’ll just be left with the poems which is how I prefer it anyway.
Q: Lima :: Limon, comes out next year. What’s been going through your mind to already have a book of poetry with Copper Canyon press, the same press the published Benjamin Alire Saenz’s work, Pablo Neruda’s unpublished work, among so many other great poets?
A: It is a dream come true and a tremendous honor to have my book come out through Copper Canyon. I keep asking my editor Michael Weigers if he’s sure he wants Lima :: Limón, and he keeps saying yes. So I guess that’s all you can ask for.
Q: How long has Lima :: Limon been in the works, so to speak? What can we expect? Why that name?
A: I’ve been working on Lima :: Limón for the last four years. I was really lucky that it found an amazing home quickly and that I didn’t have to wait and keep sending it out. You can expect a book that is about gender roles, violence, and desire. The book takes its title from an old Spanish copla by Conchita Piquer called “Lima Limón” that is about a woman who doesn’t get married by thirty and is an old spinster, all the children make fun of her from the window because she cannot leave the house.
Q: So with this upcoming event here at UTEP, it’s like a literary homecoming. I don’t know if you still come frequently or not to El Paso or Cd. Juarez, but what is it like
coming back to El Paso for this type of event? What runs through your mind at reading your work at this capacity at the university you attended?
A: I was just in El Paso in May, so I come back fairly frequently but this is the first time I give a reading from The Verging Cities here. I am so excited to finally be able to share this work with all of you in person, and am trying really hard to save any tears I might have for after the event. Humbled and grateful to my teachers, my community, my peers—that’s what I feel.
Q: Any additional comments or thoughts you have about the event your work, life in general?
A: El Paso is one of the best cities in the U.S. There is no other place like it. It doesn’t mean it is perfect, but it is great. I love that not everyone sees the beauty in this place like we do. It makes it feel like a special gaze built on experiences and bilingualism and a confluence of cultures must be had in order to appreciate it. And that’s what makes El Paso truly special.
By Antonio Villasenor-Baca