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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Announcing the 2020 Blue Light Books Prize Winner

We are thrilled to announce that prize judge Michelle Pretorius has selected The World of Dew and Other Stories by Julian Mortimer Smith as the winner of the 2020 Blue Light Books Prize! We received a record number of submissions this year and are honored to have read so many beautiful books. Thank you all for your submissions and for making this year’s Blue Light Books Prize possible. The World of Dew and Other Stories will be published by Indiana University Press in 2021 as part of the Blue Light Books Series, which includes previous prize-winning collections Fierce Pretty Things by Tom Howard, Girl with Death Mask by Jenn Givhan, and God Had a Body by Jennie Maria Malboeuf.

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2020 Blue Light Books Prize Winner

THE WORLD OF DEW AND OTHER STORIES

by Julian Mortimer Smith

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And congratulations to prize finalists…

Us Girls by Shasta Grant

They Kept Running by Michelle Ross

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Interested in more publishing opportunities with IR / IU Press? The Don Belton Fiction Reading Period is open May 1 – May 31. Send fiction manuscripts up to 80,000 words for a chance to win $1,000 and publication.

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Announcing the 2019 Creative Nonfiction Prize Winner

We are excited to announce the winner of the 2019 Creative Nonfiction Prize, judged by Hanif Abdurraqib. Many thanks to everyone who submitted their work and made this year’s prize possible!

2019 Creative Nonfiction Prize Winner:

“Lobster Shy” by Keith Wilson

Hanif Abdurraqib says, “I was — very literally — moved by this work. It is a meditation that refuses a stationary angle, winding and breathless. But, mostly, I’m thankful for such an intimate look at the interior of both the pleasure and anguish of existence.”

Keith S. Wilson is an Affrilachian Poet and Cave Canem fellow. He is a recipient of an NEA fellowship as well as fellowships/grants from Bread Loaf, Kenyon College, Tin House, MacDowell, Vermont Studio Center, UCross, and Millay Colony, among others. Keith serves as Assistant Poetry Editor at Four Way Review and Digital Media Editor at Obsidian Journal. His first book, Fieldnotes on Ordinary Love, was published by Copper Canyon in 2019.

Finalists:

“On Girls & Rabbits & Women” by Amanda Goemmer

“Biscuits” by D. Nolan Jefferson

“Relics, Registries, and Other Bastard Things” by Taylor Kirby

“Enough for a Lifetime of Sundays” by Ashley Mallick

“Rubbish House” by Shaw Patton

“An Incomplete, Personal History of Isolation Through Video Games” by Reyes Ramirez

“Noble Silence” by Robert Julius Schumaker

The prize winner will be published in the Summer 2020 issue of Indiana Review. Happy reading!

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What We’re Listening To: Soundscapes Folio

IR can’t wait to read your sound & place writing for our Summer 2020 Soundscapes Folio! Here’s what we’re listening to right now, with some tasteful book pairings:

Mariah Gese, Editor in Chief

I recently finished Kraken by China Miéville, and I haven’t been able to escape the London he evokes—filled with cults, horror, grime, and fear, ever since a taxidermied giant squid vanished from London’s Natural History Museum. A cult of cephalopod worshipers are the suspected culprits, and since their foretold doomsday approaches, London’s magical underworld fears this apocalypse may be the real thing. A war erupts in an effort to stop—or bring about—the end of the world. Chelsea Wolfe is the perfect haunted accompaniment, and a great seasonal mood. Her voice moves between soft flutters and guttural screams of noise, propelled by a doom metal drum line to…The End.

Alberto Sveum, Associate Editor

Whether withering in the sun, finding solitude in front of the television, or asking garden slugs about how they view sociability, Snail Mail’s 2016 EP Habit is constantly balancing both lethargy and fervor. The opening track “Thinning” exemplifies this quite well. While the lyrics are about sickness and a desire to remain languid, the pop of the snare drum and the recurring guitar riff, somewhat reminiscent of Sonic Youth’s “Incinerate,” punctuates “Thinning” with a driving purpose. Lindsey Jordan’s whirring chord progressions and raw vocals, mellow and atmospheric, are present all throughout the six-song stretch, but nowhere do these tunes turn dull or cliché. “Static Buzz,” for example, dwells in a feeling something like sinking, before the drums pick up and Jordan cries out until the song’s end. Though Habit is largely an exploration of coming-of-age monotony and introversion, Snail Mail deftly proves that this does not mean the music needs to be tedious or alienating.

Prada knockoffs, Niles from Frasier, privilege. All of this and more makes up the absurd cultural and political landscape that Carmen Giménez Smith sets her sights on in her poetry collection Cruel Futures. Giménez Smith wields irony much like we see in Habit; rather than couple ennui with gain-laden guitar riffs and drum fills, however, these poems approach the absurdity of our current epoch with a critical eye, co-opting pop culture references to offer scathing assessment of where we are. She writes in the title poem, “We’re so not-naughty, so tweet-missiles against injustice, but smiling / on the outside, waiting to pay dearly, subject to change.” Cruel Futures forces the reader to stop and think about where they are and to turn the corner, away from comfortable pacification, into the tumultuous world.

Soleil Davíd, Poetry Editor

I’m currently teaching Sarah Gambito’s Loves You in my poetry class, and it’s a sardonic, jubilant collection that utilizes recipes—most of them Filipino food recipes—to complicate, contemplate Filipino/Filipino-American identity, postcoloniality, immigration and family, with the consumption of brown immigrants in this country a definite hum in the background.

The poem “Cento: Don’t Eat Filipinos!” uses a Wikipedia article on Filipinos—a sweet snack food sold in European countries, including Spain, which colonized the Philippines for more than 300 years—to make this hum a shout, metaphor turned literal.

Gambito follows the poem with “My Husband’s Lychee Macarons” a recipe-poem that begins with the missive, “Instead of eating Filipinos, make these and enjoy.” The six-page poem details the gargantuan task of making French macarons from scratch, concluding with instructions to serve the infamously temperamental dessert to a theme song of the reader’s choosing. The speaker has recommendations, including Madonna’s “Get into the Groove,” David Bowie’s “Rebel, Rebel,” and Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song.” I love those three songs, and can definitely see myself waltzing into the dining room with a tray of macarons in my hands. But I think I’ll choose The National’s “All the Wine,” to pair with Loves You, because they both capture an inflated sense of accomplishment, a touch of mania that barely covers a sense of utter desolation.

Jenna Wengler, Fiction Editor

While Flynn’s other novels (Sharp Objects, Gone Girl) get more attention thanks to their hit screen adaptations, Dark Places is perhaps even harder to put down. As the novel explores rural America and the Satanic panic of the 1980s, protagonist Libby Day must excavate her long-avoided past in order to solve the cold-case behind the murder of her mother and sisters. Not only does Halsey’s “Control” feel like the perfect moody backdrop for Dark Places, the lyrics echo many of its driving questions: Who should we be afraid of? How do we grapple with the darkness inside ourselves? And who is in control of the narratives that shape our lives?

L. Renée, Nonfiction Editor

The first few seconds of Lianne La Havas’ “Lost & Found” opens with a single piano that I imagine is played in a low lit, cavernous room. At second five, a bass drum knocks on the door of this room and a few delicate acoustic guitar strings answer. The strumming blossoms into the kind of woe that only a shattered heart recognizes as its shadow. Everything, in fact, about this song plays with light and dark. The instruments, paired with haunting vocals, swell and contract. They labor in concert, imploring the listener to face that ever-swinging pendulum between shame and need in the absence of an intimate partner. 

Rachel Eliza Griffiths’ Lighting The Shadow does much of the same, breathtaking work in poem after poem. The collection traverses immense landscapes of trauma, grief and desire, as well as the determination to survive one’s physical and spiritual losses. Repeating images of fire, light and ash are juxtaposed with skin, flesh and blood. “Lighting the shadow, a woman/ crawls out beneath her own war” because, after all, she must persist. Otherwise, as the speaker asks in “The Dead Will Lead You,” “Who will embalm our bones?” This was one of the first books of poetry that both astounded and confounded me in the best way — stripped of artifice, I was frighteningly made visible to myself. Lost and found. 

Austin Araujo, Prize Editor

I just finished Saidiya Hartman’s latest, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval, and am still working to gather coherent thoughts about it. Hartman writes beautifully and rigorously, and capably wields both wide and narrow looks at the lives of black women in Philadelphia and New York at the turn of the 20th century, using the scraps and periphery of archives of that time period. What excites me most about the book, and what makes it hard to be in conversation with, is the manner in which Hartman manages to hone in on particular romantic relationships and carefully consider each aspect of their struggles while smoothly transitioning into an exploration of how what some might consider romantic failure is actually a “revolution in a minor key,” as Hartman writes. It’s a book curious about untangling just how much our notions of what tenderness and the erotic can be are tied up in structural white supremacy and patriarchy, and how black women in particular have suffered and thwarted it.

The song that most often soundtracked that reading experience was Stevie Wonder’s “Maybe Your Baby,” from his 1972 record Talking Book. Basically, it concerns the speaker’s worry that their baby has someone else, namely the speaker’s best friend. Melding lament with a funk groove that rides for almost seven minutes, “Maybe Your Baby,” culminates with a guitar solo that articulates a similar sort of sorrow that Hartman gets at in Wayward Lives, one entrenched in a dread that love is doomed but that one can still push up against it, can outlast that fright. Listen, at least, to this song for its funky synthesizers.

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2019 1/2 K Prize Winner

Indiana Review is thrilled to announce that the winner of our 1/2 K Prize is Emily Lawson for “Coal Hollow Fire, UT.”

The prize was open to any piece under 500 words. We want to express our appreciation to everyone who submitted and made this year’s prize a success!

2019 1/2 K Winner

“Coal Hollow Fire, UT” by Emily Lawson

“The writer really impressed me with how much was built–nostalgia, regret, danger, intimacy–into this short piece that utilized sparse, beautiful language. There was such a contrast in the icy, distant language that they used while describing something so hot, so dangerous that it made me read it several times.” — Megan Giddings

Finalists

“Autopsy,” “Between Hospital Visiting Hours,” and “I Drop a White Pill in My Sink,” by A.D. Lauren-Abunassar

“How to Make Breakfast” by John Paul Martinez

“hymns to the word” by Carrie Jenkins

“Touch” by Eric Burger

Stay tuned for more prize and submission opportunities.