The special guest on this week’s episode of Line / Break is Tufts Poetry Award finalist Natalie Scenters-Zapico. Natalie joins our host, Director of Publicity Laura Buccieri, for conversation about writing in Spanish and English, finding the playfulness in revision, and intergenerational wisdom.ARVE Error: src mismatch
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We’re back next week with beloved poet, teacher, and editor Ellen Bass. Stay tuned!
Line / Break is a new interview series from Copper Canyon Press that goes off the page and into the homes and minds of our beloved poets. We’re hungry to see poets on screen talking shop, answering questions, and taking us behind the scenes of how they do what they do. So we’re giving them a call, and bringing those conversations to you. New episodes, hosted by Director of Publicity Laura Buccieri, launch on Fridays this spring.
Laura (00:00): Hi everyone. I am Laura Buccieri, the Director of Publicity at Copper Canyon Press, and I am coming to you live from Brooklyn. You are watching our new interview series, Line / Break, which goes off the page and into the homes and minds of our beloved poets. I’ve always really had the dream of seeing more poets represented on screen, talking shop, answering questions, and just taking us behind the scenes of how they do what they do. So in this episode, we are speaking with Natalie Scenters-Zapico. Natalie, thank you so much for being here. How’s your day going? Is it going all right?
Natalie (00:38): It’s okay. Yeah, it’s all right.
Laura (00:39): Okay. All right.
Natalie (00:40): I’m hanging in there.
Laura (00:42): Okay. I like starting from that place. I’d love to have you quickly introduce yourself, maybe just name, pronouns, where you live, most recent book you published.
Natalie (00:55): So my name is Natalie Scenters-Zapico. I’m currently living in Tampa, Florida. Pronouns: she/her/hers and my most recent book is Lima :: Limón by Copper Canyon.
Laura (01:11): Awesome. Thank you so much. Before moving to Tampa… You moved there recently, right? Where were you before that?
Natalie (01:19): Mm-hmm (affirmative), in June.
Laura (01:20): In June, okay. You were in [crosstalk 00:01:22].
Natalie (01:22): Tacoma, Washington.
Laura (01:23): You were in Washington, okay.
Natalie (01:24): For a year. And then I was in Vermont for a year and then I was in Nebraska for a year.
Laura (01:33): You’re getting warmer and warmer climates.
Natalie (01:36): I know. This is a kind of warm that’s really different than where I’m from, El Paso, Texas.
Laura (01:44): That’s [crosstalk 00:01:45] humid, muggy. You step outside, your shirt is just drenched already kind of humid.
Natalie (01:53): Yes. Yes. Although it’s really pretty right now at this time of year.
Laura (01:58): Isn’t it hurricane season?
Natalie (01:59): No, it’s not.
Laura (02:00): Oh, it’s not.
Natalie (02:01): Not right now, no. The summer is like, I feel like I need to get out of here in the summer.
Laura (02:06): All right. All right. All right.
Natalie (02:07): Yeah. But right now I feel like I can see why people come here in the winter. I get it.
Laura (02:13): I love it, like a PSA, move to Florida.
Natalie (02:17): Just for a few months, like in January.
Laura (02:22): I love that. Well, as much as I would love discussing the ins and outs of living in Florida with you for 30 whole minutes, I’d love to maybe dive into some poetry specific questions.
Natalie (02:38): Sure.
Laura (02:39): I kind of want to go back to the beginning almost and kind of ask why you started writing poetry. Did you see yourself represented in poems you were reading? Were you interested in language being used that way? Were you inspired by a song or, I don’t know, movie or something that kind of inspired you to make something and then it came out in poetry? How did it all begin? I’m so curious.
Natalie (03:13): So I grew up in a house that had poetry in it, which is not maybe what a lot of people are used to, I think, in the U.S. My mother always loved to recite poems and read poems. It was sort of very much a part of the way that she still speaks, where she’ll sort of put in lines from things that she’s heard.
Laura (03:42): Oh my gosh.
Natalie (03:43): Yeah. That’s very her, in Spanish. And so I always had this real kind of reverence for it, in that there was a lot of sort of wisdom that could be held, I think, in poems, but also kind of emotional distillations. Right? So a way of expressing an emotion that I otherwise could not, that someone else could express that feeling in a way that perhaps I could not. And so I’ve always sort of, I think, turned in that way organically through my mother to poems. I was not one that I sat down, though, and thought myself a poet. Does that make sense?
Laura (04:32): Yeah.
Natalie (04:33): I mean, I think when I think about where it came from, it probably came from that place, but I wasn’t like, “And that’s why I started writing.” No, no, no, not at all. I always kept diaries and I use that word because it’s so gendered in so many ways, because boys journal and that’s cool.
Laura (04:58): Diaries [crosstalk 00:05:00].
Natalie (04:59): And when girls do it, they’re writing in their diary. And so I did that for a long time, for many years. I wasn’t writing like, “Dear Diary,” right? But I was just sort of keeping notebooks and-
Laura (05:14): Were they poems, though, looking back on it?
Natalie (05:16): No. [crosstalk 00:05:16]. They were just sort of thoughts, reflections, observations. A lot of it was observations, like things that I was observing around me.
Laura (05:25): Which is very poetic.
Natalie (05:28): Yeah, I don’t know. That’s [crosstalk 00:05:30] a lot of it. I used to keep a lot of lists of things, like things I would overhear or things… stuff like that.
Laura (05:38): Ooh, eavesdropping [crosstalk 00:05:39].
Natalie (05:39): Yeah, yeah. A lot of that.
Laura (05:45): So then when was it, is it like high school? Is it post high? Is it college?
Natalie (05:52): I think college.
Laura (05:53): College that you turned to kind of more formal, whatever that means, poetry writing.
Natalie (06:00): Yeah. Well, in college I took a class, it was an intro to creative writing class, on a whim, totally, with Daniel Chacón, who’s at UTEP still. And he’s a fiction writer, but he was really trying to dive into poetry and he did his entire intro class, which I think was supposed to be three genres, just on poetry.
Laura (06:27): It was all poetry.
Natalie (06:28): That’s it. We didn’t get to the other genres. We never got to it.
Laura (06:33): Wow. Yeah, go ahead. Go ahead.
Natalie (06:36): And I just more than anything, what I got out of that class that I really liked was that I could use what I was already doing with journaling and that there was value in playing with it and revising it. So I used to just never really go back. It was just always like, here’s all the [crosstalk 00:07:01] forward momentum, turn the page kind of thing. And I really fell in love with going back and looking and looking and looking at something again and playing with the ordering of things and how you could create different meanings with different orders and what that might do to the language, to a moment. And I really kind of became fascinated with that.
Laura (07:34): Yeah. I mean, that’s a form of observation, too, right? Like, the observing how many ways you can make something, one word even, different depending on where you place it, what the lines are like, where you break the line. I don’t know, I kind of like that obsession in going back and kind of playing with form and things like that.
Laura (07:58): I also had a similar experience when I took a creative writing class on a complete whim because it fit in my schedule freshman year in college and it did turn out to be mostly poetry. And I was like, “Oh, this is not what I remember from high school,” which was very much quite boring and quite uninspired, in my opinion, the way it was taught. And I was like, “Oh, the language is kind of cool. The language is kind of like how I think or like how I relate to things.” And so I was shocked. I was like, “Poetry?” But here we are, that’s what I spend my days around.
Natalie (08:37): And one more thing just really quick—
Laura (08:40): Oh, I want to hear.
Natalie (08:42): …that I was saying is that one of the things that I… I didn’t have the language for it then, at that time. But looking back, I think one of the things that I really loved and was really amazing for me in focusing on poetry like that for the first time was that it was the first English class, English-y creative writing class, that I took that was not argument based.
Laura (09:10): Wait, say more on that.
Natalie (09:11):Yeah. So, I look back and one of the things that I love about poetry is that it’s really different than writing an essay or writing a story in that you don’t have to have a set argument in place. Right?
Natalie (09:37):If anything, that makes for a bad poem. Right? When you’re really like, “This is my argument, I know how I feel about…” You’re in a world of trouble if you go into a poem writing it that way. And so that made a lot of sense to me. To me, I’m always very, “I don’t know how I feel,” and that that was valued in some way, that that wasn’t something to be ashamed of. Because, think about it, in so many of our English classes, you’re even forced to take a side.
Laura (10:08):Oh, every time.
Natalie (10:10):Even if you don’t know.
Laura (10:11):The way you’re taught to write an essay is absolutely, “What is your argument?” That is step number one. That’s so true. I never thought about the fact that any writing that we were probably doing in those classes was quite argument based and was very linear in how it was planned. The fact that it was planned. I remember planning my essays out, how they taught you, and you’re so right. I’ve never once planned a poem, to be honest, because it’s so fun to go with it, so fun to have it take you places. And it’s so associative in my mind, too. You use one word and it immediately leads me into another, and I love following that train of thought. It’s so fun. But I never thought about the fact that that was probably the first time I’ve ever been able to do that in a traditional classroom setting.
Natalie (11:08):Yeah, yeah. And that it was valued. That it was like, “Yes, this is a good thing. This can be smart. This can be intellectual.” I was like, “Oh, wow. Okay, cool. Let’s study this.”
Laura (11:19): I kind of love that. But when you were in that class learning about poetry, were you aware of the fact that you had kind of grown up with poetry, with your mom reciting poetry, and kind of around poetry? Or were they two very separate things?
Natalie (11:43): I think they were two separate worlds for me, for a very long time. I think it was more like I would go into these classrooms and they would show a poem by Octavio Paz or they would show a poem by Lorca and I’d be like, “Oh, I know this poem.”
Laura (12:05): Oh, wow.
Natalie (12:06): But I didn’t know I know this poem.
Laura (12:06): So, did the two worlds ever merge? Was that Lima :: Limón? Was that when they merged, or have they not ever merged?
Natalie (12:15): I mean, maybe in some ways. I think in Lima :: Limón, I think I was really interested in showing the kinds of women that I grew up around, also that I am as a woman, and also the kind of women that I grew up… I guess, not just like family grew up around, but also friends grew up around or that were immediately in my community, that I think carried a lot of wisdom and a lot of music and a lot of poetry in them.
Laura (12:54): That’s why I asked, yeah.
Natalie (12:59): It was never viewed as intellectual in a lot of ways, and I think it’s deeply intellectual.
Laura (13:05): 100%. I do get that from your work. How you hold the language, I think is very intellectual. How you even make daily, almost mundane tasks, womanly tasks, as almost heroic in a way I think is really interesting. But I am curious because a lot of Lima :: Limón, it’s English, but it’s also in Spanish. And I think that is quite intellectual, as somebody who has taken Spanish for 10 years and cannot speak a word of it. It is a mystery to me.
Natalie (13:51): I don’t believe that.
Laura (13:52): I mean, it’s a struggle. I am always just in awe. My superpower, if I could have one, would be to be able to speak and understand every language. I think that would be phenomenal. I would just love that. Because it’s so intellectual, the fact that you can hold both in your heart, in your brain, and express yourself, especially in poetry, in both of those, I think is one of the smartest, most… I look up to that so much. And so I wonder, was that kind of a conscious choice of like, “I’m going to show that both of these kind of languages that I hold are equal, are both valued, are both intellectual”? Was there that kind of thought there? Or take me through kind of, I guess [crosstalk 00:14:47].
Natalie (14:47): I don’t know that it was that deliberate. I like that. I think that that’s hopefully there. That’s great. I think I was more interested in capturing how I feel most comfortable speaking and the people in my life feel most comfortable speaking. It’s interesting because I think my first book, The Verging Cities, used a lot less Spanglish, a lot less Spanglish. I had maybe a few poems with some Spanglish in there. Whereas Lima :: Limón, I really sort of made it my task. I wanted to explore it. Right? I wanted to really give it some time.
Natalie (15:26): And I think it’s because in the first book I was interested in… I don’t know what it is, but in my head I was like, “Okay, I’m only going to use Spanish if it’s something that I feel like I cannot express in English.” That was sort of my rule of thumb. And that’s why I think there’s not as much Spanish in it, in some ways. I think I was just always like, “No, but there is maybe a way, it’s just tinkering with it.” Do you know what I mean? Like that kind of thing.
Natalie (15:55): In Lima :: Limón, because it was so overrun by music, I decided to just go with whatever language I thought the phrase or the words sounded better. And so it was all about sound. I didn’t care if there was a way to say it in English, you know what I mean? There wasn’t something so sacred, like, “Oh, this can only be said…” No, it’s about how it sounds. And also the spirit of the word. Right? If it loses panache, then it’s got to go in this language. And then in, of course, doing that, in revising, then it became a game of like, “Okay, well, now…” It also creates, as all Spanglish speakers will tell you, it also then creates its own rhythm, the two languages together. And so then you have to play with the musicality between the two languages and how they sound together. And that was a huge part of the project, of Lima :: Limón, for sure.
Laura (17:07): Wow. I mean, you’re right, because, I mean, there is so much music and it’s based off of song and things like that, the book is. So, I guess that makes total sense in terms of that process. But that’s a big jump to make from your first book kind of having this rule of thumb of like, “Well, here’s my rule, and hard and fast, I’m going to stick that,” to not the opposite, but not not.
Natalie (17:37): Right.
Laura (17:39): That just felt natural to you? Or was that very conscious in terms of like, “I’m going to try this”?
Natalie (17:48): I think it was like, “I’m going to try this.”
Laura (17:49): You’re going to try this. Okay.
Natalie (17:52): Yeah. I was like, “I could try this.”
Laura (17:53): Yeah, that’s so interesting. Well, I wonder, when your mom would recite poems as a kid, was she reciting them musically, like did they have cadence, or were they more content based, when she was reciting them?
Natalie (18:15): I think a lot of them kind of had a lot of cadence. And I think that that was also part of why I was drawn to it, even as a kid, because I was like, “Whoa, what does that mean?”
Laura (18:29): Because it’s music.
Natalie (18:29): Like, “It sounds so cool, but what does that mean?” And I loved that. And I loved the experience of it, that you could just, even doing a really mundane task, [crosstalk 00:18:44].
Laura (18:44): Make it music.
Natalie (18:45): … cleaning the house, whatever, all of a sudden it becomes this experience, just by reciting a poem. Just what comes to mind in that moment? What poems come to mind in that moment?
Laura (19:02): Wow.
Natalie (19:03): I don’t know. I was interested in it already.
Laura (19:05): I’m interested in it. Yeah, I love it. So when I think Natalie Scenters-Zapico, I’m like, “Natalie’s a poet.” You have books out, you’re writing a lot, you’re doing all the poety things, but you’re also doing, I guess… It’s interesting. When I’m like, “Natalie’s a poet,” so you write poetry. But, “Natalie’s a poet,” you also do readings. You also teach, you also do panels. You’re also doing editing, probably, or doing all of these other hats. So I guess I’m curious on if you, one, consider yourself a poet and I guess also, does that mean more than just the writing aspect of things to you? I’m just kind of curious about that. Like, is poetry a lifestyle or is it a craft to you?
Natalie (20:17): That’s hard. I’ve always had, I think, a real… I think now, and maybe still, perhaps it’s an air of arrogance in saying that I am a poet. From, I think, when I decided to get an MFA, I was like, “No, I am a poet.” And it’s because I decided in that moment to dedicate my life to this. And even when I’ve worked jobs that really don’t have anything to do with being a poet, I’ve always said, “I’m a poet.” [crosstalk 00:20:55].
Laura (20:55): And this was before you had books out.
Natalie (20:57): And even when people roll their eyes, people don’t understand, they’re rude to you, all sorts of things. Especially if you don’t have a book.
Laura (21:07): Right. That’s what I was going to ask.
Natalie (21:09): [crosstalk 00:21:09]. They’re really nasty. And I’ve definitely been there, really nasty. I don’t know what it is. You can say you’re a fiction writer. I mean, I don’t know if they have the same thing. But poets, it’s like you get the worst, I don’t know, people are mean. But I think I was always like, “That’s part of it,” is dealing with that kind of idiocy. And I think that’s what it is. It’s stupid. And I get that some people have a really hard time saying that they are a poet because they have a lot of… And I have students like this, that have a really hard time seeing they’re a poet, even though they are poets, absolutely. Because of what that means and all of the baggage that that can create. And they have these ideas of what it means to finally reach a level where you’re a poet.
Natalie (22:06): But I think of Gabriel Celaya, who talked about poetry, “I’m not interested in a poetry for the bourgeois.” Right? Like, “I’m interested in a poetry that’s as necessary as bread. I’m interested in a poetry that doesn’t ask you to deny who you are. I’m interested in a poetry that is the absolutely necessary part of life.” That there’s a part that poetry lends of human dignity, of deep emotional empathy, too, I think, for other people, that it can create, and for yourself, too. I don’t know if that makes any sense, but I think that when I say, “I am a poet,” that is what I’m interested in. So even beyond the writing, it’s about living a life where that is of value, even when people laugh at you. That is what it is.
Laura (23:11): Yes. And it’s a way of seeing the world, of moving through the world, no matter having something published or not, no matter having some type of job that relates to it or not. I think that’s what you’re saying.
Natalie (23:29): Yeah.
Laura (23:29): And I agree with that. I like that, poetry as the bread of life, as emotional residence, as just a way to kind of distill events into a way to digest emotionally. I feel like poets, especially these days, are tasked with like, “Okay, coronavirus, make sense of that in a poem so we can digest it as a culture emotionally.” Because there’s no way to read the news and digest that emotionally without kind of that middleperson of a poet, in my opinion. So, I do agree with you, in that it’s a way of seeing the world, in that it’s a lifestyle and all that. But it’s interesting because I don’t think that’s true of novelists or other types of…
Natalie (24:29): No.
Laura (24:30): Right? Maybe it’s not, I mean, maybe I’m wrong. I could totally be wrong, but I do think that’s very particular to poets.
Natalie (24:39): Well, also, they don’t get treated like they’re a fool for being a novelist.
Laura (24:45): Like, “You want to be a poet? What?”
Natalie (24:46): Right, right. Whereas I think talking about poetry, especially in US context, you’re treated like you’re the village fool, like, “Okay, you’re the poet.” People are so mean. But also understanding that within that position, usually, if we learn anything, the fool is the one that carries most of the wisdom, right?
Laura (25:12): Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Natalie (25:13): … and who observes. So, that’s fine. They can say that, but I’m going to continue turning to the poets.
Laura (25:20): I love that. I am, too. I agree with what you said about, especially in the United States, that is so the way. When you talk to somebody… One of my friends lives in Germany and there it’s treated so… There are a lot of less laughs when you talk about it. And they’ve actually read poetry.
Natalie (25:44): Oh, yeah.
Laura (25:46): It’s actually something that’s not like, “Ugh.” It’s a thing they have knowledge of. That’s a sweeping generalization, of course. But in my experience, that’s, I don’t know, it’s something I’ve experienced.
Natalie (26:03): Well, and if you ask, most people can’t even… If you ask them, “What is their favorite poem?” a lot of them can’t even answer that.
Laura (26:08): What’s their favorite book?
Natalie (26:10): Right. Okay. Yeah, that’s true, too. Regardless, you’re so right.
Laura (26:23): Well, I would love for you to read from one of my favorite books, which is Lima :: Limón. Is there a way you could read us a poem from that, or something new you’ve written? Anything like that. I would love to also hear a shout out, maybe, for a book you’ve been reading and loving so I can add it to my list.
Natalie (26:47): Yeah. I’m teaching right now Abigail Chabitnoy’s How to Dress a Fish, which I highly recommend.
Laura (26:56): I believe Alison C. Rollins is teaching that as well, I think—
Natalie (27:02): Oh, really?
Laura (27:02): I think so. Yeah, I’m pretty sure. So that’s two people recommending that, so I have to read this book.
Natalie (27:11): Yeah, you have to read it. It’s very good. It’s not an easy book, but it’s very, very well done. There’s a lot going on here that I’m excited to talk about with my students. So I highly, highly recommend that book, for sure.
Laura (27:30): Awesome, thank you.
Natalie (27:34): Trying to think… Is there a poem that you’d like to hear?
Laura (27:42): Well, are you really asking?
Natalie (27:44): Yeah, I really am.
Laura (27:46): I would like to hear… Instead of giving you a title, can I give you a page number?
Natalie (27:54): Yeah, yeah.
Laura (27:57): What about page 32?
Natalie (28:00): Okay. So you’re picking this at random? Okay. Here we go.
Laura (28:04): No, I… Which one is it?
Natalie (28:07): It’s “He Finds a Kissing Bug.”
Laura (28:09): Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Natalie (28:13): “He Finds a Kissing Bug”
on my eyelid & says it is a tiny
curse from the nopal. I ask him why
it cursed me & he says, You ate
the nopal’s fruit & licked your fingers.
He smashes the bug between
two fingers & throws it
in a plastic cup. It floats
on half-melted ice. He smashes it
against the cup’s side until
the blood it took from me pinks
the water. The kissing bug is mad,
he says, you stole the fruit from its mother
so it wanted to steal from you.
I laugh & dab concealer to cover
the swelling. I think of the rats’ eyes,
sharp cameras tracking my theft.
They sent the kissing bug to show you,
he says, the smallest theft
is the swelling of an eye. I close
my eyes & run my fingers across
each lid. I imagine the red dot rising until
I can’t see. With a spoon I rescue
what’s left of the kissing bug & kiss it—
the way the kissing bug kissed me.
Laura (29:34): I love that poem so much. Thank you so much for reading that.
Natalie (29:38): Thank you, Laura.
Laura (29:41): Thank you for also just being such a great guest and chatting and bringing all that great energy. I really just appreciate it so much.
Natalie (29:50): Thank you for having me, Laura.
Laura (29:51): Of course.
Natalie (29:52): That means a lot.
Laura (29:54): Of course. And thank you, everybody, for watching. We’ll see you next time for our next episode and do check out CopperCanyonPress.org for all the other episodes. And check out Lima :: Limón, check out Natalie, check it all out online. Well, thank you again, Natalie, for coming and we will see you soon.
Natalie (30:20): Bye.