Natalie Scenters-Zapico and Dana Levin

Two poets on writing and anxiety

Natalie Scenters-Zapico
Dana Levin

In her two poetry collections, The Verging Cities (2015) and Lima :: Limón (2019), Natalie Scenters-Zapico takes aim at systemic misogyny and America’s violent immigration system while also celebrating deep intimacy and dissident art making. Many of the poems are set in the author’s childhood home, the border region straddling the cities of El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, and like their setting, they churn with cultural contradiction, brutality, and longing. Her newer poems, including those featured in this issue of The Yale Review, lay a path between contemporary anxiety and the dehumanizing local and national policies that fuel it.

Scenters-Zapico’s poems defy categorization not only in resisting easy description (though they do that) but also in posing conceptual challenges to the logic of taxonomy itself. She writes from the perspective of a woman living under inexorable patriarchy whose youth was haunted by the specters of femicide and unhappy domesticity yet who endeavors fiercely to be the author of her own adulthood.

Dana Levin, the author of five collections of poetry and a former teacher of Scenters-Zapico in the MFA program at the University of New Mexico, is a poet of corresponding vividness and urgency. Like Scenters-Zapico’s, Levin’s poetry is animated by anxiety— about neoliberal collapse, personal loss, and climate apocalypse in particular—and teeming with images at once sumptuous and razor sharp. The two poets corresponded in the late summer of 2021 over email, Scenters-Zapico from Tampa, Florida, and Levin from St. Louis, Missouri. Their letters, which have been condensed and edited, probe such subjects as lyric poetry, so-called “hysteria,” and what it means to have a public life.

—the editors

from: dana levin
to: natalie scenters-zapico

How the last stanza of your poem “1,723 Miles Away from Home” speaks to the news from Afghanistan today, the images of people crowding the Kabul airport to flee the Taliban, the fear of staying and the fear of leaving:

Like most people, I fear dying.
Like most people, I fear dying far from home.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the limits of the lyric impulse, in which, in its classic form, the privacy of the speaker touches the privacy of the reader. We need so much collective thought and action to endure and change our current societal and ecological problems that the classic lyric can seem ineffectual, privileged, tone-deaf, self-involved.

Yet the experience of suffering itself is so personal and intimate! Anxiety is intimate. Even though we know there are millions of us in its grip, each of us who suffers it, in the passage of that suffering, suffers alone. We keep our anxiety private: out of shame and self-judgment, out of stoicism, out of care for others whom we don’t want to alarm or upset—

Perhaps this is how the lyric poem offers rescue: by witnessing the essential aloneness each person suffers and saying, I too am here. In this regard, I’ve been thinking so much lately of these lines from “October” by Louise Glück:

you are not alone,
the poem said,
in the dark tunnel.

The dark tunnel of these times!—to which, for me, Emily Dickinson responds, “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,” in my favorite poem of hers. These are the lines of the poem I always think of, at the end of the penultimate stanza:

And I, and Silence, some strange Race,
Wrecked, solitary, here—

These lines solace me because they feel true to my experience of aloneness, of being alone in anxiety. Yet there’s a hint in these lines too that one is not quite alone: Silence is with the speaker—Silence, whom I, at least, have always considered a friend, because it provides a home base for poetry.

Wordsworth’s assertion that poems arise from “emotion recollected in tranquillity” has never felt right to me at all. My own poems flow out of possession: by a feeling, by a perception, by a thought, a rhythm, a moment of language. And when I think of writing, of turning what has possessed me into art, I see images of intense effort: women squatting over birthing mats, a face in the rictus grin of agonized effort, Kali squatting naked over a corpse, shaking her skull rattles.

Poetry has the uncanny capacity to speak without saying, to reveal while hiding.

from: nsz
to: dl

I always write when I feel rickety. Poetry to me is the genre of anxiety, of not knowing, of being torn. It is also for me the complete opposite of the essay, in which we’re trained to always make an argument. Something I think about a lot while revising lately: There’s too much knowing in this poem; how can I convey being split?

This rickety feeling is terrible for my anxiety and wonderful for my writing life. People ask me about my mental health all the time after readings. I’ll confess I find it too personal a question. But in today’s culture the reader insists on knowing, knowing, knowing! And not just knowing, but knowing in a way that offers an answer with a clear argument. “I have x problem, I’ve found y solution. And y solution is The Solution—listen to me!” Personally, I don’t turn to poetry for pragmatic advice, and yet I find that many poetry readers are searching for it more frequently in poems. The poems I’m most drawn to do the opposite of offering solace or comfort or direction. They serve instead to hold pain in a way I’ve never thought of before, thereby making me appreciate my pains more.

As for my heightened anxiety, I think it may also have a lot to do with the publication and attention to my books. My poems are deeply personal; I admit to terrible and dark pains, things I am ashamed of. And sometimes readers, in conjunction with social media, think this grants them access to my whole person. The real violence of my generation is in the constant giving away of ourselves and in the constant consumption of the selves of others.

I first got a Facebook account when you still had to have a .edu email address to join. We were a generation of young college students looking for connection with no sense of safety or future ramifications. It was uncharted territory. Now that I’m in my mid-thirties, I don’t know that I want to continue this cycle of consumption. I want to reclaim the quiet parts of myself.

When I was having a health scare last year, I was posting vague things on social media about being in pain. After one such a post, you texted me these lines by Glück, from “The Wild Iris”:

At the end of my suffering
there was a door.

And I cried because I had been repeating those lines like some hysterical prayer or mantra for days. If Glück, who surfs all things dark and painful, can say something so optimistic, then surely I can find some bright spot. Turning to the wisdom of women who are older than me: Las brujas del pueblo poeta siempre me curan, siempre me curaron, siempre me curaran.

Poems offer me deep solace but mostly when they can serve as a vessel to hold the pain in me momentarily. I’ll confess that the poems I return to most are not humorous or argumentative but those that hold pain in full view. Here I think of Lorca’s duende, which he describes, in his 1933 lecture “Theory and Play of the Duende,” as “those dark sounds [that] are the mystery, the roots that cling to the mire that we all know, that we all ignore, but from which comes the very substance of art.” Duende: that which can only be recognized when you see it. You can’t study it, you can’t practice it. Duende isn’t far away, like the muse, nor does it require a blessing from on high, like the angel. Duende can only be known when you see it, and according to Lorca it makes you say, Olé! Olé.

Neruda had duende when he wrote:

Puedo escribir los versos más tristes esta noche.
Yo la quise, y a veces ella también me quiso.

And later in the same poem:

Ya no la quiero, es cierto, pero cuánto la quise.

Those lines hold me as they’ve held many people. And they hold people because they show that torn feeling, that unknowing that is too often the state in which we spend our lives. Some people spend their lives in search of truth or an answer. I hope to spend my life in the full embrace of not knowing. Poetry, I think, is a way of turning toward indeterminacy.

The real violence of my generation is in the constant giving away of ourselves.

from: dl
to: nsz

“Poetry is the genre of anxiety, of not knowing, of being torn.” Yes! How strange it is that so many poems come from this place, and yet the writing of them offers the anxious poet a peculiar peace. It’s a state beyond happiness or sadness; it’s a state of release, a kind of freedom.

Writing poems offers me this peace because it focuses my anxious mind. Often it allows me to forget my anxiety, and my self, altogether. But at some point the anxiety around publishing builds and destroys this focus, and I have to write, or read someone else’s poems, to feel focused and self-forgetting again.

All our hiding places, our secluded places, have diminished. For writers a lot of this is due to the way market forces and current social etiquette encourage us to live online, to endlessly share and promote and respond: all of this requires self-remembering. Another reason is having a public life in poetry, which I am extremely grateful for! And pressured by, as anyone who has any kind of public life is. And then: we’re all having public lives now, aren’t we, the minute we log on? I think this is a great source of collective anxiety: anywhere you turn, there is an appraising eye: eye of commerce, eye of government, the hundreds of eyes on social media.

But here’s what I ultimately believe about how debilitated by anxiety so many of us are: there are childhood sources, and relational sources, and brain-chem sources, and event sources, and technological sources, and historical sources, but under all of these sources is the Great Source, which is that the earth is in deep peril, and its anxiety filters up through our foot soles.

We’d talked earlier about maybe starting this conversation with lists of what makes us anxious. Medieval scholars had a rage for lists, for making categories and hierarchies—they too lived in a very anxious time. I read a book on this period called A World Lit Only by Fire by William Manchester (1992) that describes the Middle Ages as an absolutely awful time: plagues, crime, people so insulated by fear of travel that sometimes nearby villages spoke entire dialects incomprehensible to each other. And what were the monks and scholars doing? They were debating whether Cherubim should be lower than Seraphim on the Great Chain of Being.

Things that currently make me anxious: viruses, people, and the sixth extinction, which the Aztecs said would come by fire.

Also menopause makes me anxious. Literally. Out goes the estrogen and with it some sheath of calm I didn’t even know I had. I feel it bodily, rather than mentally: it doesn’t often take thought forms, which I’m really grateful for: I get to avoid feeling like I’m going out of my mind while panicking that I’m having a heart attack.

I once spent an intense afternoon with the poet Mary Ruefle talking about menopause. She had visited an old decommissioned mental institution in Vermont and seen in the intake registration books that many middle-aged women had been committed by their husbands because of “hysteria” (which comes, of course, from the ancient Greek concept of the “wandering womb”!). When she told me this, I exclaimed, “They were committed because they were menopausal!” And Mary nodded gravely and said, “I think a lot of them were.”

I started thinking about Jane Austen’s Mrs. Bennet, always upsetting the house with her “poor nerves”—she was clearly perimenopausal! I felt so guilty for all the years I found her character odious.

In this world of ours, the facts of the body are also causes for great anxiety—especially if that body is not male, straight, young, abled, white. And since most of the population doesn’t fit these categories, most people live in various degrees of vigilance and dread. For myself, I think the vigilance I had to learn as a girl child growing up in a house ruled by a bipolar father-god made me a poet.

from: nsz
to: dl

You write of your “bipolar father-god” making you a poet. That your girlhood vigilance in such a space made you a poet. Do you mean that this vigilance has made you careful about what you say and how you say it, and this is what made you a poet?

I tell my students all the time: the order in which things happen in a poem matters. Which is to say, structure, form, prosody matter. I know I learned this, truly learned this, from my time in classes with you. How interesting to think that this might come from your own sense of vigilance, filtered into your aesthetics and pedagogy.

I’ll confess I don’t feel like I’m very vigilant in life. I feel as if I’ve allowed things to grow out of my control and not noticed them enough. My life, my body, and my poems grow like weeds. It’s as though I live in a fertile and unwieldy garden that I consistently allow to grow out of my control until my anxiety peaks and then I have to go in with shears to tame it. I had never really thought about the cyclical relationship I have to my anxiety until my uterine polyps appeared because I wasn’t paying close enough attention.

I had been struggling with very heavy periods, cramps, and anemia for eight years. No doctor ever took me seriously, and for those eight years, like many women, I just assumed I was weak. I thought I could not cope with normal pain that other people dealt with all the time.

Recently I got a doctor who took the anemia seriously enough to see if I had fibroids. I didn’t have fibroids, but I did have polyps big enough that they had to be surgically removed and were initially thought to be possibly cancerous. The doctors found the polyps during an ultrasound of my uterus. I lay down and my uterus felt like a shadowy field where random pale figures would appear on a gigantic TV screen for me to see. The pale figures were the polyps, and I almost immediately wanted to name them. Not “Hairball,” like in the Margaret Atwood story, but “Fili” and “Dorotea” and “Concha.” Now my uterine pains had names.

When I went in for my surgery, the women on either side of me were there for hysterectomies. I couldn’t help but hear them through the thin curtain; they were describing to the nurses that the hysterectomy was a huge relief for them—that it was all over. That the uterus was over. They had been in so much pain for so long and were excited to enter this new phase of their womanhood. I felt as though I was a quiet witness to their moment of liminality and was impressed by their bravery about entering their next phase—which the patriarchy views as most dangerous, I believe, because it’s when women are in their full power.

It is no wonder to me that men would lock these women up for hysteria, at the moment their younger, dictated selves would give birth to stronger, wiser women. I try to remind myself, when I fall victim to anxiety about aging caused by this vapid culture, that the women I most admire are post-menopausal.

It’s been such a strange experience to navigate, because this has all been happening during the pandemic, so health is already heavy on everyone’s mind. I kept having to tell people that I was having medical issues, but I didn’t feel comfortable having conversations about my uterus. Why? My own insecurities, the patriarchy, shame. The uterus: a loaded, erratic place.

from: dl
to: nsz

I loved so much in your letter. Fili, Dorotea, Concha! Like the sister Gorgons, or the Triple Goddess where each goddess is Hecate, the crone mother. I can’t imagine how full of dread this experience must have been for you, especially in light of the pandemic.

Your story reminds me how at twenty-five, I had an ovary removed—and I remember being so disappointed when the doctor told me that I could’ve asked to keep the cyst that crushed it. But this knowledge came too late. What did it look like? I asked. Like all cysts, she replied: a mass of tissue and hair—some even have teeth.

Child of Hecate! The cyst had been the size of a grapefruit.

You’d asked me about vigilance, and if my girlhood vigilance “has made [me] careful about what [I] say and how [I] say it, and this is what made [me] a poet.” To your question: I think it made me careful about what other people were saying. I learned early on that what people said about reality didn’t always seem to be about reality; as a young child, asking my mother, after one of my father’s plate-smashing rages, “Why is Dad so mad?” and my mother, with controlled fury, saying, “What are you talking about? He’s not mad!” I learned to not trust what people were doing with words. And this meant that words were malleable. This meant there were always truer words under the words that were being said; one had to listen carefully. Thus poetry!

Poetry has the uncanny capacity to speak without saying, to reveal while hiding. When Sylvia Plath says, in “The Moon and the Yew Tree,” “The grasses unload their griefs on my feet as if I were God,” she is divulging nothing and revealing everything: her psyche’s entire biography in a single line. She gets to hide the facts of her life and speak the truth of its suffering.

This hide-and-reveal quality of poetry makes it a safe soul technology, doesn’t it, for those of us who need to speak and need to hide…because speaking out loud makes us anxious. Telling truths makes us anxious. “What are you talking about?” My mother’s question was an accusation: I was a girl; I wasn’t supposed to question my father’s behavior.

The private space of lyric, then, became for me a safe space for truth telling, for protest, for defiance. A space where I got to have a freely speaking “I.” And perhaps here too is where the lyric impulse starts to do political work, as well as psychological. I think of the start of Audre Lorde’s “Coal”:

Is the total black, being spoken
From the earth’s inside.

That “I,” alone at the beginning of the poem! The definition of that I, self-proclaimed, in lines 2 and 3! Here the personal declaration is social assertion, and the lyric impulse is what midwifes it into art. Simply to be able to declare “I”—for any woman, for any wandering womb, trying to speak through centuries of social, familial, internalized suppression—this is a release after a hard birth.

To be able to declare "I"—this is a release after a hard birth.

from: nsz
to: dl

Reading about the household you grew up in and how you navigated it and continue to navigate its memory illuminates much of the prosody in your work. The changing speed of the language. The sudden stops and stirs, which feel guided, on the page, by a kind of healing fantasy.

Quarantine has also, strangely, given me the freedom to experience my anxiety without worrying about trying to be likable, or needing to suppress it for public consumption. If I want to stay in my house and not drive anywhere for days, who cares! If I want to spend days reading and watching Poldark and El Manantial (one of my favorite telenovelas from childhood), great! And if I want to be cranky and cry for hours, I can do so without feeling the shame I once did, because we’re all housebound now.

I know Wallace Stevens has been questioned and denounced; I can completely understand why. Forgive me for bringing him up. But I think often of his poem “The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm,” especially the lines:

The reader became the book; and summer night

Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.

The words were spoken as if there was no book…

Unexpected repetitions work like a drum throughout the poem. As readers we often hope to be seen, to better understand ourselves, other people, experiences. Yet as Stevens points out in the following lines, the reader is always searching to find words that are true, thoughts that are true. But in this poem the only truth found is the summer night. And summer nights are fleeting and accessible only in our memories, which are mutable and never constant. We understand the summer night through the mediation of thought, through words, through writing. In this way, Stevens reflects on the certainty and uncertainty of reflection in reading and writing. I wonder, can fixation—repetitiveness, anxiety—be good for the poem? Is obsession the singular drive behind certain poems?

I know I probably would have been treated in the past in very violent ways for my obsessiveness, my anxiety and panic attacks, which would surely have been diagnosed as hysteria in another era. Sometimes these episodes begin with me laughing about something and then breaking down in tears. Such a quick flow of emotions.

Is my uterus wandering too far out? Let her wander out!

And one day perhaps she will wander out of me.

Natalie Scenters-Zapico is the author of Lima::Limón and The Verging Cities. She teaches at the University of South Florida.
Dana Levin is the author of five books, including Now Do You Know Where You Are, a 2022 New York Times Notable Book and NPR “Book We Love.” She serves as Distinguished Writer in Residence at Maryville University in Saint Louis.
Originally published:
December 1, 2021


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