Javier Zamora was born in La Herradura, El Salvador, in 1990. At the age of nine he immigrated to the United States. Zamora is a Breadloaf scholarship recipient and holds fellowships from CantoMundo, Colgate University, and the National Endowment for the Arts. His poems appear or are forthcoming in Narrative, Ploughshares, Poetry, and elsewhere. His poem “Let Me Try Again” can be found here. It appears in the July/Aug 2016 issue of the Kenyon Review.
What was your original impetus for writing “Let Me Try Again”?
Teaching Raul Zurita’s INRI. I’d read it years before when I’d just started writing poems; it struck me then, but teaching it, and spending so much time with it the second time, gave me nightmares. One of those nightmares made me remember my second attempt trying to cross the Sonoran Desert. The first drafts didn’t start the way the poem does now; there was more repetition of the landscape, of what “water tasted” like, etc.
After editing and editing, I returned to Zurita. There’s a lot of dark repetition in INRI. The book is about those jailed, tortured, and disappeared during Pinochet’s regime. Zurita himself was jailed and tortured. A lot of his friends, those in the book, were disappeared. If I remember correctly, or maybe it’s how the book made me feel, there’s a point when the speaker in INRI is tired of description. I got tired of description, of trying to make the landscape beautiful. The landscape just was. And the poem got closer to the current form.
The beginning of this poem feels as though it’s consciously addressing an audience, but this awareness of an audience seems to wear off as the piece goes on. Is this an intentional way to hook in a reader and then later explain how this poem is not about them, but rather, about something they most likely have never felt nor experienced?
I believe I borrowed this technique from Zurita. INRI is about trying to describe what occurred in Chile and eventually how everyone and everything, even the landscape, was complicit in the crimes. At times Zurita seems to be speaking to his friends, those gone, at times to the landscape, but you know he’s also speaking to the reader. I believe he does this intentionally, you can feel it on the page; he’s trying to translate something for us, this feeling of what occurred, and this feeling of what it feels like to carry it inside you.
How has your writing or writing process changed since you started out?
When I started out I always carried a pocketbook, a Moleskine, in my back pocket. One of my early teachers told me to do so because “you never know when the muse will strike.” I did this for years. Eventually, I found that I wrote way too much in them and that I rarely returned to them. Though most of my poems in my chapbook began this way, transferred from a pocketbook onto a computer. I still have these pocketbooks stored somewhere, and every year I tell myself that I will scour through them, but I never do.
I think it was my way of practicing techniques, lines, images, etc. Now, I have a bigger book, a page-sized one I keep next to me when I’m reading. If I forget it, I write on scrap paper, napkins, etc. I still try to return to longhand for the very first draft. From then on, my process hasn’t really changed. Once it makes it to the computer, it goes through way too many drafts it’s hard to keep track of them. Every poem is a struggle for me. I have to chisel away until maybe I find a smooth surface to base the rest of the poem on.
Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing?
I like to take hikes and explore nature whenever I can. It’s in nature that I find I’m closest to my childhood: inside the house I was born and grew up in in El Salvador, where there were so many tropical plants I still don’t know the names of, so many wild animals and stray dogs. My present drive to take walks, or to hike, comes from this longing. As is evident in “Let Me Try Again,” my drive to the landscape might also be my way of trying to dig traumatic memories of my brief time at the US-Mexico border. It is a new finding that a constant in my work is nature. It was always there, I just didn’t see it as such. I started hiking before I started writing poetry. I did it to soothe me, to release stress, but I didn’t have the words to state it as such. Now I see that I’ve always been focused on the natural landscape and our relation to it. In particular, in this poem, how laws and politics have made us risk our lives in places where even the animals struggle to survive.
What project(s) are you working on now, or next?
I’m currently revising my forthcoming book where “Let Me Try Again” appears. But I’ve also started to write about the part of my immigrant journey that took place in Mexico. It’s been hard for me to 1. remember what happened there 2. to put it down on paper. My mind has refused to remember the six weeks spent in Mexico. Most of my “immigrant” narrative takes place in El Salvador and at the border, but it’s not out of my choosing, but because it’s the things I have been able to remember and write down. I’m afraid of what my mind doesn’t want to remember. It’s protecting me from something I may not be ready to speak about. But slowly I’m writing it. This summer I’ve spent it all in Guatemala, metaphorically speaking. I’ve written prose and poems about this part of the journey. I hope to continue to retrace my steps. This is an important part of an immigrant’s journey, as most of the violence occurs in Mexico.