The award-winning poet humanizes the immigration story
October 2021 – Writers@Drew welcomed award-winning poet and literary activist Javier Zamora.
The poet is the author of Unaccompanied, a full-length collection of poems that recount his harrowing journey to the U.S. border from his native El Salvador as a young child.
His poetry examines how his family has been impacted by immigration. Undocumented in the U.S. from the age of nine to 21, Zamora eventually received a green card for his poetry.
“Poetry opened a path to citizenship for me,” said Zamora, who is working on a memoir and his second collection of poems.
Zamora read several of his poems to the virtual audience, a mix from Unaccompanied and his new collection, that took the audience through his journey from El Salvador to Arizona chronologically. Zamora’s newer poems are named using immigration headlines from the media. “It’s a critique on how all media outlets have been covering the child crises at the border,” he said.
Following the reading, Courtney Zoffness, assistant professor of English and director of Drew’s creative writing program, directed a deep dive with Zamora on his past, poetry, prose, and more.
How does truth function in poetry?
“Technically, my dad was a refugee, but the U.S. did not grant refugees status. My truth is directly tied with my family and immigration, but also, this idea of refugees. For me, poetry is trying to recreate a version of the truth in order to prove to Immigration that we were, in fact, refugees.”
Does writing in prose feel more truthful?
“Yes, because my memoir is told by a nine-year-old narrator—starting the week before I left and ending the day I’m reunited with my parents. In hindsight 20 years later, to try to put myself in that place is more truthful in a factual way. Poetry is more truthful for the emotions. When I write a poem, I try to recreate how that memory feels.
“I can see the failures of poetry—it made me want to fill in the gaps. Visually, there’s not that much writing on a blank space and there’s a lot of room for interpretation. I completed this memoir because I wanted to get close to my own truth.”
How do you calibrate the varied and unique ways you incorporate code-switching between English and Spanish into your poems?
“There’s a sonic reason and an educative reason when I code-switch. I want to highlight a difference in the many dialects in the Spanish language. I also want to keep sacred something that was told to me in Spanish, occurred in Spanish, and its emotional truth that can only exist in Spanish.”
How do you translate between Spanish and English so the meaning is not lost between cultures and languages?
“I didn’t think about translation until Unaccompanied was published. I wanted more freedom because I believe there are different choices in Spanish to convey the meaning that words have in English. When translating, I take it as an opportunity to make the poem even better. I’m open to cutting lines or full stanzas, to change the way my poems look in a different language.”
What will readers take away from your work?
“I hope the takeaway is just a feeling. I think a successful poem will spark a feeling in you. If a reader is feeling what I set out to recreate in the poem, that’s success.”
What advice do you have to aspiring authors?
“If you’ve decided that you want to publish, then I would treat it like any other job. Increase your chances of being published—submit your work everywhere and see what happens!”
The free event was co-sponsored by The Casement Fund and the English Department.