The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Natalie Scenters-Zapico about her second collection Lima :: Limón (Copper Canyon Press, May 2019), using machine translation to read a multilingual text, transborders, femicide, and narcoviolence.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month the Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts an online discussion with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To join the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, click here.
This Rumpus Poetry Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian S: Before we get into the chat too much, I’ve been wanting to ask, in the piece I wrote announcing this Poetry Book Club selection, I noted that I don’t speak or read Spanish, and so I was working through your poems with a dictionary more or less. Did I get anything horribly wrong in my reading? My copy is filled with little Google translations of phrases.
Natalie Scenters-Zapico: Not at all. It was wonderfully written. Thank you for spending such careful time with it. And the fact that you used Google Translate makes me so happy.
Brian S: Why is that? It’s so not good at translating, in my limited experience.
Natalie Scenters-Zapico: It’s true that it has many failures. But, I don’t like it when people use the excuse not to engage with a text in two or multiple languages simply because they don’t speak one of the languages. In today’s technology-driven world, even if it’s not a perfect translation, we have more capability than ever to quickly decode what someone is saying. I think everyone should at least have Google Translate on their phone.
Brian S: Oh I see what you mean. I’ve had a conversation with other multilingual writers before about this kind of thing. I’ve found that some of the people who are loudest about objecting to multilingual texts are the same people who talk about wanting poetry to be “hard.” They just want a different kind of hard, I guess.
I’d like to start with the title, especially the double colon, which is, I believe, a symbol for the “as” part of an analogy, right? Can you talk some about what went into that decision, both in the title and in the way you used it throughout the book?
Natalie Scenters-Zapico: The double colon started as part of my meditation on binaries. The book is filled with an exploration of binaries of all kinds and how toxic and violent they are on the individual. I liked that the double colon also serves a different function than say the long dash, in that the double colon tells the reader that what is being compared can be read backwards and forwards in a text, which further complicates how to read the poems.
As I was working on the book I started playing with the various ways I could create analogies on the page that were learned, false, true, or culturally understood. So, with the title I incorporated it because the word of what in the US we call a lime is different throughout Latin America. In this way lemon as lime, lime as lemon, Lima :: Limón.
Brian S: I was just about to ask about that! Can you explain that a little more, because when I researched it I can’t say I fully understood. Is it that in some areas the word for lime and lemon is the same?
I was always confused about lemon-lime as a flavor as a kid, even though I loved it, and now I wonder if the combo flavor is related to that.
Natalie Scenters-Zapico: Yes! There’s places where the word is the same. There’s places where the word lima simply doesn’t exist in the context of the fruit, etc. Basically in a US context Latinx people can never agree what we are referring to when we say un limón because it can mean something different depending on which country you’re from.
Brian S: Which is something a lot of US English speakers would probably never grasp, sad to say. Because as a country we don’t value the learning of a language other than English in our schools.
Natalie Scenters-Zapico: It is true that the US doesn’t value learning even a second language as much as it should. Stubborn monolingualism is real.
Brian S: Even geography. I’m thinking of that fucked-up Fox News graphic from a week or two ago which said Trump wanted to cut aid to three Mexican countries.
Natalie Scenters-Zapico: Yes! Wasn’t that amazing and offensive. I can’t say I was completely shocked. But there were some great tweets going around making fun of it.
Brian S: I keep looking at these lines from “Lima Limón :: Decrepitud” and thinking how they apply to what you’re describing: “I wonder / if the stranger imagines lime as green or yellow / as sweet or bitter—or as a city where the snow / collects on your lover’s eyelashes in Mid-July.”
Three possibilities in that set of lines, and then in the next stanza, you write “Say Lima: Rimak & rima & spoken from God,” and when I tried that in Google Translate, it prompted me to Basque instead of Spanish. So you’re taking us to a lot more places than at first glance?
Natalie Scenters-Zapico: Ah yes, so many things here. There’s folklore that the city of Lima in Peru was named after the God Límac, and Lima was a Spanish misunderstanding of the Indigenous word. It is also written in Spanish documents as Rima, of course meaning rhyme in Spanish, which I later do in that same poem towards the end.
Brian S: Also, I wonder how many people are confused by the idea of lemons as sweet. People always make a face when they see me eat one.
Natalie Scenters-Zapico: It’s funny that you say that all lemons are bitter, because I don’t think of Meyer lemons, for example, as exactly bitter. I do think there’s something sweet about them. Sweeter than a lime at least.
Brian S: Oh, I think they’re wonderful and sweet, though not as sweet as an orange. But the faces people make when they see me eat one, like after I’ve fished it out of my glass of iced tea. It’s like I can see their teeth set on edge.
Natalie Scenters-Zapico: I know what you mean. I love citrus and can eat limes and lemons without a problem. Their loss!
Brian S: The other thing I wrote about in my piece about the colllection referenced Rodney Gomez’s wonderful review of your book at Latino Book Review, where he said you were writing “about a kind of dystopia that is too often ignored.” And I mentioned that when we in the US, and I’m mostly talking about white people here, talk about Ciudad Juárez, it’s to make political points and never actually talk about the human beings there, and that your book refuses to let us ignore that.
I’m trying to get to a question here and falling short, I fear.
I wonder if most white Americans can even get close to grasping the situation that exists and has existed for a while there?
Natalie Scenters-Zapico: No worries. Thank you for saying that. It is always one of my goals to write about the border as a complicated place that is also full of people who live out their daily lives there. I think for most Americans there is a sense of what Sergio Gonzalez Rodriguez writes about in The Femicide Machine, of treating the border like a garbage dump of modernity, late capitalism, and globalization. In this way the border becomes a test-tube for modernity and what happens there: surveillance, policing, documentation, violence can spread to the greater countries (in this case, US and MEX) as a whole.
Brian S: Like, the poem “Ixmiquilpan, Hidalgo, Mexico” just made me nod my head and say, “Yeah, that’s probably one of my fucking cousins posing for a selfie after they’ve pretended to cross the border.”
Natalie Scenters-Zapico: My trip to Ixmiquilpan’s Parque EcoAlberto was truly an experience I’ll never forget. It marked me deeply. In this way, the border is never really seen as a part of the US or Mexico. It truly is it’s own transborder space.
Brian S: Yes, complicated.
The end of the poem right before that one, “More Than One Man Has Reached Up My Skirt,” with the speaker saying, “I have been / muy puta, / have been called puta. / Yes. I’d say, very lucky.” The speaker there describes being sexually harassed at work and yet in comparison to the other women she is around, is kind of lucky because it could be worse. I mean, there are dead women in that poem.
Or wait—is she at work? Or is that at home? I’m not sure now that I’m looking at it again. Because domestic violence plays such a large role in this book and we haven’t even talked about it really.
Natalie Scenters-Zapico: Yes, in this book I try to grapple with what is is to be from a place of extremes. I grew up in “the safest city in America” at a time when Juarez was also named “the murder capital of the world” by the New York Times. I often thought of my life as disconnected from femicide and narcoviolence without realizing that in many ways I was deeply connected and complicit in it. I also think of how we don’t view domestic violence as a sign of the disposability of women, but it is.
I don’t specify where the she is in the poem. She is speaking about having had men reach up her skirt many times.
Brian S: Ah, okay. Thank you for that.
Who are you reading lately? Is there anything new we should be on the lookout for?
Natalie Scenters-Zapico: So many people! I’m currently obsessed with Sara Borjas’s Heart Like a Window, Mouth Like a Cliff. Talk about incredible questioning taking place in that book in regards to feeling like an outsider and an insider at all times within Chicanx culture. I’m also enjoying Deborah Landau’s new book Soft Targets. I keep thinking of the way she’s using heavy enjambment to violently force the reader down the page slowly.
Brian S: Oh, I got a review copy of Landau’s book. I’ll need to check it out. And I’ll look into Borjas’s book as well.
Natalie Scenters-Zapico: I heard Landau read from it at AWP and was blown away. Spend time with it, she’s doing something great in there.
Brian S: Thank you for joining us tonight and also thank you for writing this challenging book. It rewarded every bit of effort I put into it.
Natalie Scenters-Zapico: Thanks for inviting me! I loved having this conversation with you, Brian.
Photograph of Natalie Scenters-Zapico by José Ángel-Maldonado.