In late March, Natalie Scenters-Zapico got a phone call that left her feeling “very overwhelmed. It was very emotional for me.”
But overwhelming in a good sense: The call brought the news that she is one of the eight 2021 winners of the Windham Campbell Literature Prizes at Yale University. The prize recognizes her two collections of poetry, The Verging Cities (2016) and Lima :: Limon (2019). It also comes with an unrestricted grant of $165,000.
Scenters-Zapico, 33, recently joined the creative writing faculty at the University of South Florida as an assistant professor. She lives in Tampa with her husband, José Ángel Maldonado, who is also on the USF English department faculty.
She grew up in the adjacent border cities of El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, and that borderlands experience shapes much of her poetry.
Scenters-Zapico talked to the Tampa Bay Times via Zoom a few days after learning she had won the prize. The interview has been edited for length.
How did you feel when you heard about the prize? Did you know you were a candidate for it?
No, I did not. You don’t apply for it. I got a phone call. I’m still very much in shock.
As a writer, the idea that people sat in a room and were talking about your work in that way, much less awarding it something — it’s very dreamy, very dreamy. I feel very humble.
I didn’t know who else had won it until I heard it on the news, and I thought, wow, to be in such company. (Other recipients include nonfiction writer Vivian Gornick and playwright Michael R. Jackson, who won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for drama for A Strange Loop.)
How long have you been on the faculty at USF?
I just got here. I moved here in June. I was hired in March (2020), so I’m very new.
Because it’s COVID, I feel like I really don’t know Tampa yet. I haven’t even been on campus very much. I went in to pick up my laptop, and that was about it.
Have you been teaching remotely?
Yes, I’ve been teaching via Zoom. I’m teaching a graduate poetry workshop and then Poetry 1, for the undergraduates.
The students are great. I was very nervous, because I’ve never really taught in online format. A lot of my writing exercises for my students, I realized, really have to be in person, things like breathing in the body, listening exercises. I’ve had to reinvent them. But the students have been totally open, I’d say enthusiastic. They’ve been wonderful.
How much has the experience of living on the border shaped your poetry?
For a long time, when I was younger, I was not interested in writing border poems, or writing about place. But when I left El Paso to go to the University of New Mexico for my MFA, even though it’s not that far, I felt as if the stories I was writing needed to be more about place.
Another part of it was that I started to become very interested in writing about undocumented life in the United States while I was in New Mexico. My husband, who I’ve been married to for four years, we were living together in El Paso for two years while he was undocumented.
I think I was forced to reflect on it inherently in the process of filing papers for him. There was no path to documentation for him except marriage. So a lot of it came out of our experience living with him undocumented.
I had to think about, what did the border mean to me. I was also a person who grew up crossing the border frequently, which is not always the case. Some people stay very put on the U.S. side.
So did you see your first book, The Verging Cities, as a book about border politics?
As I was writing that book, and as people were reading the poems, it was read very much as a book about place. The book came out in 2015, and then Trump got elected. Immigration was very much in the national consciousness, and the book was read in a very different way.
Lima :: Limon is also a political book, but also about my personal experiences. My body is also read as political; it gets dictated to a lot. Both as a woman and in a borderland space, you’re constantly dealing with outside forces, with borderland politics.
Do you know yet what you’ll do with the $165,000 prize?
I don’t know yet, but I’ll definitely be donating some of it. I wouldn’t be here without my community and my community’s stories. I don’t know what organizations yet, but for sure I know that I’ll be giving a chunk of it back. It’s too important not to be giving back.
Below is one of Natalie Scenters-Zapico’s poems from Lima :: Limon (2019, Copper Canyon Press).
I Didn’t Know You Could Buy
something not for sale until
I walked through Coyoacán
& watched gringos ignore
sign after sign: Casa No En Venta.
Still I watched men knock
on door after door stalking
houses they could paint blue,
just like Frida Kahlo’s. It’s like
the time two thieves knocked me
to my knees for twenty dollars.
I thought the thieves jewelers
as they punched my jaw until
each tooth turned dark amber.
Later, to save my body, I set
my teeth, muddy stones, into a crown
I wore the rest of the summer. I know
how to hide bruises so the earth
won’t get jealous of lightning
produced by simple friction.
My landscape of curves & edges
that breaks light spectral
is not for sale, but men still knock
on rib after rib, stalking the perfect house —
the perfect shade of blue.