Poets and Writers - - The Practical Writer -

WHEN I heard the news that Javier Zamora and Erika L. Sánchez, both of whose ca­reers I’d been fol­low­ing, had placed their books with two of the most pres­ti­gious po­etry pub­lish­ers in the coun­try—Cop­per Canyon Press and Gray­wolf Press, re­spec­tively—I knew I had to find a way to visit them and ask them about their work. Both iden­tify as Latino and have close con­nec­tions to a nar­ra­tive about un­doc­u­mented im­mi­gra­tion; they both also re­ceived the Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sar­gent Rosen­berg Po­etry Fel­low­ship from the Po­etry Foun­da­tion, which rec­og­nizes early tal­ent and prom­ise. But their per­sonal sto­ries are as dis­tinct as their voices, as I learned af­ter spend­ing time with Zamora in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., while we were both in town for dif­fer­ent lit­er­ary events, and with Sánchez in the Chicago area, where she was born and raised.

Javier Zamora’s story be­gins in a small town in El Sal­vador called La Her­radura, or “the horse­shoe,” where he was born in 1990. The coun­try’s vi­o­lent civil war was still years from end­ing and the Zamora fam­ily be­gan to frac­ture un­der the weight of liv­ing in the part of the city oc­cu­pied by the mil­i­tary. Zamora was only a year old when his fa­ther, an eigh­teen-year-old fish­er­man, fled the coun­try un­der cover of dark­ness. “The fam­ily myth is that that’s how I learned to walk,” Zamora says. “I fol­lowed him out the door.”

Four years later, his mother mi­grated north to join her hus­band, but Zamora would not see his fa­ther un­til age nine, when he made the treach­er­ous trek from Cen­tral Amer­ica to the United States, un­ac­com­pa­nied by a fam­ily mem­ber, un­der the charge of other un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants.

As we walk along the Na­tional Mall, past the Wash­ing­ton Mon­u­ment and the Na­tional Mu­seum of African Amer­i­can His­tory and Cul­ture, Zamora can’t re­sist a pause in the story he’s told many times but which still moves him.

The small party of bor­der crossers trav­eled through Gu­atemala and into Oax­aca in south­ern Mex­ico, where their “coy­ote,” or smug­gler, un­ex­pect­edly aban­doned them. For six weeks Zamora was lost in limbo, his

par­ents un­able to reach him. A fel­low bor­der crosser he re­mem­bers only as “Chino” be­came his guardian an­gel and guided him the rest of the way, which in­cluded a dan­ger­ous ex­pe­di­tion across the Sono­ran Desert to reach the United States, where he was re­united with his anx­ious par­ents in Tuc­son. The fam­ily even­tu­ally set­tled in San Rafael, Cal­i­for­nia.

That cross­ing left an in­deli­ble im­pres­sion on Zamora, who re­mains haunted by the ex­pe­ri­ence, one he re­lives when he hears about other un­ac­com­pa­nied mi­nors. The U.S. Depart­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity re­ports that nearly sixty thou­sand un­ac­com­pa­nied chil­dren at­tempted to cross the bor­der in 2016 alone.

“I had to write that book, I had to give it that ti­tle,” Zamora says about his de­but po­etry col­lec­tion, Un­ac­com­pa­nied, pub­lished this month by Cop­per Canyon Press. We are now seated com­fort­ably, sip­ping cap­puc­ci­nos in the café of the Na­tional Gallery of Art sculp­ture gar­den, both aware of our humble ori­gins and the for­tune that led us to this present, as im­mi­grants who be­came po­ets.

For Zamora, that meant serendip­i­tous con­nec­tions with early cham­pi­ons, like Tom Ryan, his soc­cer coach, who helped Zamora en­roll in the pres­ti­gious Bran­son School, in Ross, Cal­i­for­nia, just north of San Fran­cisco, on a sports schol­ar­ship. It was here that he met poet Re­becca Foust, who in­tro­duced him to the po­etry of Pablo Neruda. “Becky opened one door af­ter an­other,” Zamora says. She made it pos­si­ble for him to imag­ine pur­su­ing an ed­u­ca­tion de­spite his stand­ing as an alien with “Tem­po­rary Pro­tected Sta­tus,” sim­i­lar to DACA, De­ferred Ac­tion for Child­hood Ar­rivals.

Foust men­tored an en­thu­si­as­tic Zamora reg­u­larly, nur­tur­ing his hunger for lit­er­a­ture and feed­back. But what most im­pressed her was that “his em­pa­thy and aware­ness of lan­guage in those early po­ems were just ex­tra­or­di­nary for a writer of his age,” she says. “Any­body would have seen it. An­other thing that struck me about his work was his sub­ject: po­ems show­ing very sen­si­tive, so­phis­ti­cated think­ing about what it means to be an im­mi­grant in this coun­try to­day.”

De­spite his ea­ger­ness to pur­sue his new­found pas­sion at the col­lege level, he en­coun­tered the lim­i­ta­tions of his sit­u­a­tion: There was no aca­demic fund­ing avail­able for un­doc­u­mented stu­dents—a fact that sowed the seeds for his fu­ture ac­tivism—so he looked for hope wher­ever he could find it.

Haunted by his coun­try’s civil war, Zamora also felt a sense of re­spon­si­bil­ity to be­come a his­to­rian for his com­mu­nity, so he stud­ied the sub­ject as a ma­jor at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia in Berke­ley. But the voices of wit­ness were not in the text­books, and nei­ther were his per­sonal con­nec­tions to the larger nar­ra­tive— like the story about his grand­fa­ther, who once guarded the cell in which Roque Dal­ton was in­car­cer­ated. The celebrated poet es­caped and Zamora’s grand­fa­ther lost his job. “Where was the best place to write and share those sto­ries?” Zamora asked him­self. He quickly re­al­ized that it was in po­etry.

“At Berke­ley I had two life-chang­ing en­coun­ters: one was tak­ing ‘Po­etry for the Peo­ple,’ which made it pos­si­ble for me to imag­ine a place at the lit­er­ary table with­out los­ing touch with my roots,” he says. “And the sec­ond was learn­ing about Sol­maz Sharif, the Ira­nian Amer­i­can poet, an im­mi­grant like me who had also been to Berke­ley. I de­cided I wanted to fol­low in her foot­steps.” Like Sharif, whose de­but, Look, was pub­lished by Gray­wolf in 2016, Zamora ap­plied and was ad­mit­ted to NYU’s MFA pro­gram, and then, in 2016, he, too, moved back across the coun­try to at­tend Stan­ford Univer­sity, as a Wal­lace Steg­ner fel­low, where Sharif is cur­rently a Jones lec­turer.

By the time he was twenty-one, Zamora was cer­tain of his ca­reer path. He had just pub­lished a chap­book ti­tled Nueve Años In­mi­grantes with Or­ganic Weapon Arts, a small press out of Detroit, and to honor his home­land and its na­tional poet, he had Dal­ton’s poem “Como Tú” tat­tooed in its en­tirety along the left side of his torso. The poem con­tains the fa­mous line, “Po­etry, like bread, is for ev­ery­body.” Zamora smiles. “I put that poem on my body be­cause I too was a poet,” he says. “There was no deny­ing it af­ter that.”

How­ever, an­other pos­si­ble com­pli­ca­tion arose: how to ex­plain to his par­ents about his cho­sen path in life. When Zamora was a child, his mother spent most of the day watching other peo­ple’s chil­dren while his fa­ther la­bored long hours as a land­scaper do­ing ar­du­ous tasks Zamora knew all too well, hav­ing helped his fa­ther af­ter school and be­fore soc­cer prac­tice through­out high school. His par­ents had in­stilled in him a strong

work ethic and en­cour­aged him to find a prac­ti­cal pro­fes­sion. Be­ing a poet was not ex­actly that.

“Even though I knew what I wanted to be, I still hes­i­tated telling my fa­ther,” Zamora says. “It seemed like such a dis­ap­point­ing next step to take af­ter all that sac­ri­fice, af­ter such a long road from El Sal­vador to the U.S.” Fa­ther and son were work­ing to­gether, paint­ing a house, when he de­cided to re­veal his plans. His fa­ther sim­ply replied, “You go where your heart is telling you to go.”

This was the per­mis­sion Zamora needed in or­der to move for­ward, and not long there­after, in 2015, af­ter com­plet­ing his MFA, his lit­er­ary jour­ney be­gan to sky­rocket. He served one year as the Olive B. O’Con­nor Fel­low at Col­gate Univer­sity, and dur­ing this time he was awarded a cov­eted po­etry fel­low­ship from the Na­tional En­dow­ment for the Arts. A year later came the Ruth Lilly fel­low­ship. But one ac­com­plish­ment was the most per­sonal: the pub­lic ac­knowl­edge­ment of his work with the Un­docupo­ets.

“When I be­gan to sub­mit my po­etry man­u­script to con­tests, many pub­lisher web­sites stated that only U.S. cit­i­zens could sub­mit. We wanted to change that,” Zamora says. That “we” in­cluded fel­low ac­tivist po­ets Christo­pher “Loma” Soto and Marcelo Hernández Castillo. To­gether their grass­roots ef­forts, in­clud­ing a pe­ti­tion that gar­nered hun­dreds of sig­na­tures, proved fruit­ful, and soon most presses re­moved the re­quire­ment—one that made no sense in a po­lit­i­cal cli­mate in which un­doc­u­mented young peo­ple were com­ing for­ward and be­com­ing vis­i­ble in all walks of life, in­clud­ing the arts. The Un­docupo­ets were rec­og­nized with the 2016 Barnes & No­ble Writ­ers for Writ­ers Award from Po­ets & Writ­ers, Inc., the non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion that pub­lishes this mag­a­zine.

“I’m tired of walking in the shad­ows. I want to be seen,” Zamora says as he ex­plains his pro­fes­sional mis­sion. That fer­vor and bravado is what first caught Cop­per Canyon Press edi­tor Michael Wiegers’s at­ten­tion when he met Zamora at NYU and, later, at the Bread Loaf Writ­ers’ Con­fer­ence. “His gen­er­ous spirit shone through the po­ems,” Wiegers says. “He was and is so ex­cited about the world of po­etry and the work of po­etry—and that is, for me, a very con­ta­gious thing. He ac­tu­ally be­lieves in its trans­for­ma­tional power, and I think he lives that daily. How, as an edi­tor, could I not want to be a part of that?”

Zamora is ec­static about the re­lease of Un­ac­com­pa­nied, though he knows this book is com­ing out amid so much un­cer­tainty about his fate as well as the fate of oth­ers who share his alien sta­tus. The cur­rent ad­min­is­tra­tion in Wash­ing­ton con­tin­ues to send mixed mes­sages that in­ten­sify anx­i­eties and cre­ate mis­trust in po­lit­i­cal as­sur­ances. The threat of de­por­ta­tion re­fuses to dis­si­pate. Zamora, how­ever, doesn’t ap­pear shaken. He has lived through his coun­try’s civil war and a per­ilous ex­pe­di­tion through the desert. He will sur­vive this pe­riod of un­ease as well. At this point in our con­ver­sa­tion we are stand­ing in front of the Capi­tol, tak­ing a selfie. Around us, dozens of tourists from all over the world are do­ing the same.

“These build­ings don’t mean any­thing to me,” Zamora says. “But that I’m walking in front of them, with­out fear, with plenty of hope, means ev­ery­thing.”

FOR Erika L. Sánchez, the daugh­ter of un­doc­u­mented Mex­i­can im­mi­grants who be­came cit­i­zens long af­ter her birth in 1984, Chicago and its work­ing-class sub­urbs have al­ways been her stomp­ing grounds. Sánchez re­mem­bers par­tic­u­larly the black and Mex­i­can com­mu­ni­ties like Pilsen, on the west side of Chicago, and Cicero, a sub­urb far­ther west. “And cheese­cake,” she adds. For many years her fa­ther brought treats home from the dessert fac­tory where he worked.

We are driv­ing through the city streets in her ’99 sil­ver In­finiti as she notes spe­cific points of in­ter­est. “Over there was the Cove Mo­tel, just a block from where I lived. It was al­ways full of pros­ti­tutes.” That im­age stayed with her when she be­gan to ne­go­ti­ate the ways men per­ceived her sex­u­al­ity as she hit pu­berty.

“Age twelve is when ev­ery­thing col­lapsed,” she ex­plains. Sánchez em­braced fem­i­nism and athe­ism, and she be­gan to ques­tion the dif­fer­ences be­tween her Mex­i­can iden­tity and that of her par­ents: “I wouldn’t call my­self a Chi­cana un­til col­lege, when I en­coun­tered that word,” she says, “so in the mean­time I sunk into de­pres­sion— what ex­actly was I?”

As the only daugh­ter in the fam­ily, Sánchez was some­what of a puz­zle— a young woman who re­jected gen­der norms by be­com­ing a tom­boy, her bangs hid­ing her eyes. At one point she even shaved her head. “My mother wanted me to be a home­body,” she says, “but I craved ad­ven­ture.”

With lim­ited re­sources, she sought an es­cape in se­rial books like Ann M. Martin’s The Baby-Sit­ters Club, painfully aware that she was ex­plor­ing worlds so dis­sim­i­lar to her own. Her re­al­ity was street vi­o­lence and poverty and rarely see­ing her mother be­cause she worked the night shift at a pa­per fac­tory. “There was such a dif­fer­ence be­tween what was hap­pen­ing in my ’hood and what was play­ing in my head when I read,” she says. To bridge this di­vide she turned to the writ­ings of Edgar Al­lan Poe and lost her­self in the moody, gloomy lan­guage that more ac­cu­rately re­flected her dis­po­si­tion.

Sánchez zooms through the cen­ter of Pilsen and snags the first park­ing space she finds once we ar­rive at the Na­tional Mu­seum of Mex­i­can Art. We’re go­ing to con­tinue our con­ver­sa­tion in­side. “I rarely came here as a kid even though it was so close by,” she says as we walk in. “But this is where I’m hav­ing my book-re­lease party.” Her col­lec­tion, Lessons on Ex­pul­sion, re­leased in July, is the first ti­tle by a Latino poet pub­lished by Gray­wolf Press.

As an ado­les­cent, Sánchez felt “per­pet­u­ally frus­trated” and chan­neled her thoughts in jour­nal af­ter jour­nal. She was cer­tain that there was some­thing more for her out there, and un­til she fig­ured out what that was, she with­drew deeper into her own mind. “Judy Blume saved me,” she says. “So did Adri­enne Rich and Glo­ria An­zaldúa.” A num­ber of these books were loans from her older brother Omar, who was an English ma­jor at Illinois State. It was his ed­u­ca­tion that en­cour­aged her to ap­ply to nearby Univer­sity of Illinois in Chicago, where she en­rolled in 2002.

As a col­lege stu­dent she be­gan to spread her wings, but it was the year she spent in Spain as a Ful­bright

fel­low in 2007 that re­ally made a dif­fer­ence. “I be­gan to un­der­stand my free­doms, but also my priv­i­leges,” she says. This soft­ened the way she per­ceived her mother—and her mother’s ex­pec­ta­tions of her Mex­i­can daugh­ter—but she also ac­cepted that there was no turn­ing back. She re­turned from Europe with a re­newed sense of pur­pose. What was once an act of per­sonal ex­pres­sion be­came a call­ing, so she de­cided to pur­sue an MFA de­gree.

Her three-year res­i­dence in Al­bu­querque, at­tend­ing the writ­ing pro­gram at the Univer­sity of New Mex­ico, was “a chal­leng­ing time, but it did give me the space to write,” she says. And it was here that she stud­ied un­der Dana Levin, a Richard Russo Vis­it­ing Writer, whom she cred­its with en­rich­ing her love of lan­guage. Levin re­calls Sánchez’s writ­ing fondly: “We throw this word around a lot these days, but Erika re­ally was the epit­ome of fierce—fierce about writ­ing and re­vis­ing, fierce about tack­ling sex and fam­ily and iden­tity and vi­o­lence as sub­jects, es­pe­cially as they in­ter­sected in her life ex­pe­ri­ence, in the world, in her imag­i­na­tion.”

De­spite the vote of con­fi­dence, Sánchez faced a dif­fi­cult ad­just­ment af­ter she com­pleted her de­gree and moved back to Chicago. She didn’t have much luck find­ing a job that could fur­ther her writ­ing ca­reer, so she took a job in mar­ket­ing in 2010, an er­ror in judg­ment, she now con­cedes, that cost her dearly. “I cried in the bath­room all the time,” she says.

There was, how­ever, a sav­ing grace: Oh Hells Nah, a blog she kept for two years, in which she worked through her com­pli­cated emo­tions, much in the way she kept jour­nals as a teenager. Be­cause she used a pseu­do­nym, she had per­mis­sion to say any­thing, “and this was lib­er­at­ing,” she says. The blog ad­dressed the anx­i­eties and chal­lenges of be­ing a mod­ern-day Latina nav­i­gat­ing cul­tural pres­sures and the guilt of re­sist­ing them. She wrote openly about sex and de­sire, with a level of self­dep­re­cat­ing hu­mor that al­lowed her to write her way out of the dark place in which she found her­self.

Then, in 2015, her luck changed. “Re­ceiv­ing the Ruth Lilly fel­low­ship gave me val­i­da­tion,” Sánchez says. “And not long af­ter, Gray­wolf ac­cepted my man­u­script.”

Edi­tor Jeff Shotts ex­plains the ap­peal of the col­lec­tion: “The ex­tra­or­di­nary ways that she in­ter­weaves some­times very per­sonal po­ems about grow­ing up the daugh­ter of un­doc­u­mented Mex­i­can im­mi­grants with larger-scale, even more jour­nal­is­tic po­ems about narco-traf­fick­ers, sex work­ers, fac­tory la­bor­ers, and bor­der vi­o­lence and his­tory make Lessons on Ex­pul­sion an am­bi­tious, rare kind of first book.”

Soon af­ter, more good news: Knopf bought her young-adult novel, I Am Not Your Per­fect Mex­i­can Daugh­ter,

forth­com­ing in Oc­to­ber. Sánchez wanted to mark the oc­ca­sion with some­thing spe­cial and per­sonal but also slightly re­bel­lious, as per the ti­tle of her novel. She chose a tat­too: a sil­hou­ette of two horses on her up­per right bi­cep. The horses were in­spired by the Larry Le­vis poem “Anas­ta­sia & Sand­man,” which in turn in­spired the two horses in her novel. “My mom wasn’t thrilled,” Sánchez says. “But she’s re­signed her­self to my shenani­gans. Very lit­tle sur­prises her any­more.”

Not ev­ery­thing took a turn for the bet­ter, how­ever. As her ca­reer as­cended, her long-term re­la­tion­ship with her sig­nif­i­cant other be­gan to fall apart. The two were mar­ried only a year and a half be­fore but it be­came ap­par­ent that it was best to sep­a­rate. Dev­as­tated by the breakup, Sánchez coped the best way she knew how: by chan­nel­ing her en­ergy to the writ­ing, re­vis­ing with fer­vor her lit­er­ary de­buts.

Nonethe­less, this year will be an­other great one for Sánchez: Be­sides cel­e­brat­ing the re­lease of her books, she has bid farewell to the Mid­west and re­lo­cated to New Jer­sey, where she’ll be a Prince­ton Arts Fel­low at the univer­sity for the next two years, start­ing in the fall.

The emo­tional la­bor and heartache that it took to get to this point in her ca­reer isn’t lost on Sánchez. “It’s ex­haust­ing,” she says. “But it’s also im­por­tant work. It saved my life, and I hope it can save some­one else’s.”

Sánchez makes that state­ment with her sig­na­ture smile. When I point out that we haven’t moved from the en­trance of the art ex­hibit this whole time, she bursts into laugh­ter, and this eases the grav­ity of the mo­ment.

“Af­ter this, I’ll take you to see the Chicago sky­line from Palmisano Park,” she says. “There’s a cir­cle of Bud­dha heads up there, but peo­ple keep tak­ing them. Ev­ery­one wants to have some peace.”

We exit the mu­seum, climb back into her car, and she stomps on the gas pedal. We’re off, full speed and fear­lessly, which ap­pears to be the most com­fort­able way Sánchez moves for­ward.

Erika L. Sánchez

Javier Zamora

RIGOB­ERTO GONZÁLEZ is a con­tribut­ing edi­tor of Po­ets & Writ­ers Mag­a­zine.

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