Interview with 2020 Poetry Prize Judge Javier Zamora

The 2020 Poetry Prize is open until March 31! In this interview, our poetry editor Soleil David sits down with prize judge Javier Zamora to talk about his influences, the voices in his family, and his forthcoming memoir.


Javier Zamora was born in El Salvador and migrated to the US when he was nine. He was a 2018-2019 Radcliffe Institute Fellow at Harvard and has been granted fellowships from CantoMundo, Colgate University, the Lannan Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Poetry Foundation, and Stanford University. Unaccompanied is his first collection. He lives in Harlem where he’s working on a memoir. Visit his website to learn more about his work.


Your full-length debut, Unaccompanied, includes a number of poems in which you speak in the voice of a family member as a young person, from ages 11-19. What did writing in the voices of children and young adults teach you?

The voices are of my family members. The content came from interviews or stories they’d told me about their lives during the war. I was trying to understand how/why we had fled to this country. Attempting to write through their perspectives, their point-of-view, gave me just a glimmer of what they must’ve felt then. But essentially, it taught me to listen more.

I was listening to your NPR radio documentary “The Return” and I was especially struck by what you said about your grandma, her being the “physical embodiment of what immigration does to a person, and to a family.” I also migrated and left my own family at a young age, and I continue to grapple with the effects of immigration on my own family, so I was particularly moved by your declaration. Can you tell us more about what you meant when you said that about your grandma?

For my family, immigration is the ultimate manifestation of many factors engrained in 1980s-90s Salvadoran culture: domestic abuse, war-trauma, hatred toward women, all stemming from toxic patriarchy. Most of us left. Grandma hasn’t been able to leave. She has not only absorbed all of these daily abuses (my Grandpa no longer drinks but is still verbally abusive), but Grandma has also had to endure us—her loved ones—leaving her side. My cousin has stayed, yet she’s a young woman who has had to grow up in a very toxic environment. They’ve both absorbed it—the environment—and our migrations/abandonment. The mind and the body manifest these traumas in different ways. In Grandma’s case, she has not been able to leave the house in years. I do not mean that as a metaphor. In a very literal way, she has absorbed our traumas and they are manifesting themselves on her body. I take it as her protest. We have left and walked out of that front door and that front gate and never returned. She will not do that. She can’t.

How has the work you want a poem to do changed since you published Unaccompanied?

I had to write the sadness that is so prevalent in Unaccompanied, my immigration status was such that poetry gave me an element of control, of healing. Sadness and trauma as a stepping-stone for other possibilities. In many ways, my first book is narrow-minded. There isn’t much joy. Now, I hope to write a poem/book that touches many emotional notes because, on a personal level, I am not only my trauma and why should my art only be my trauma?

What are you working on right now?

I’m working my way through a memoir about the eight weeks it took me to get to this country. Since I’m tired of exploring my trauma in poetry, I thought prose could allow me to better understand my time through Mexico and Guatemala. A time that was very difficult, more so than my time in the desert, and perhaps the reason it was very hard for me to remember it in Unaccompanied. I don’t really talk about my weeks in Guatemala or Mexico. Prose has granted me that chance.

I’m also working on a second book of poems that are not about my personal life, but still try to critique the way the press (even the liberal press) approaches the “immigration crisis.”

What poetry and prose books have you been reading lately? What strikes you about these works?

I’ve recently accepted that I’m into poetry books that are not your “traditional” books of three sections, strict stanzas, most poems look the same, etc. Look by Solmaz Sharif, The World Doesn’t End by Charles Simic, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely by Claudia Rankine, and Clandestine Poems by Roque Dalton. These are some of my favorite books of all time, but I never really understood why I liked them so much. For right now, I think it’s their direct rejection of what a poetry book must be or look like. Or more precisely, what is allowed to be called poetry and what is not, the answer: anything. 

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