Two poets discuss their work through the lens of race and travel
Javier Zamora and Sean Hill shared their poems and how their personal experiences shape their work.
Poets Javier Zamora and Sean Hill shared and discussed their poetry at a virtual event sponsored by the English Department on Nov. 4, titled “Javier Zamor and Sean Hill: Poets Engaging Travel and Race.”
Both Zamora’s and Hill’s work revolve around similar themes, such as race, culture, immigration and travel. Hill explained that while race and nationality don’t necessarily have to dominate everything about a person’s identity, they often do. “That's the narrative we're given right now, like you're born and you don't know anything, and then what you're told [is] … here's your nationality,” he said. Zamora described this issue as people being put into “boxes,” explaining that people are more than just their nationality, but that they are often reduced to one of their identities anyway. Zamora said this is especially prevalent with regards to the power imbalance that still exists in the United States between white leaders and people of color. He said, “The world is made so small, and it's on purpose. … It's all about power and we're seeing the results of small-mindedness.”
As an immigrant from El Salvador, Zamora explained how he encounters this feeling of being placed in a box in his own life. He started by sharing a poem that he wrote shortly after the 2016 presidential election, describing his experience as an immigrant in the United States when the laws in place make him feel like an unwanted outsider. “More than once, a white man wanted me dead, a white man passed a bill that wants me deported, wants my family deported,” he read. “The road, the trees, the signs, the sky, the car, the wall, the light told me, ‘We want you out, out, out, out.’”
Following a similar theme, Zamora shared two more poems, both titled “[Immigration Headline].” In these poems, he discusses immigration and nationality through the eyes of the media. In the first, Zamora speaks about a reporter taking photos and writing about immigrants without their consent and without depth. He describes the reporter in the poem as, “So full of liberal want, liberal hunger, of needing to bite something down to make himself feel better about his own blankness,” meaning that there are usually no good intentions behind the media sharing these stories.
Similarly, the second poem discusses how the media doesn’t recognize the differences between people from Central America versus Mexico. “It seems that the media is just now realizing that ‘Latinos’ and ‘Latinidad’ are not just one term,” he said. “We are different. We have been different.” ‘Latino’ refers to people of Latin American identity, whereas ‘Latinidad’ refers to traits shared by people of Latin American identity. Zamora explained later that he feels separated into a different “box,” especially during elections, because he cannot vote despite living in the country. In 2016, he didn’t have legal status. Now, while he has a green card, he is still unable to vote in the United States until he gains citizenship.
Hill’s poetry also follows racial and political themes. One of the poems he shared is about a Black man named Sandy Ganaway who left the United States for Liberia. Hill explained that the American Colonization Society first established Liberia in 1822 as a place to send freed slaves, with the intention of sending them “back” to Africa. However, after people were brought to America and forced into slavery, many generations of families, while enslaved, grew up here and had never been to Africa. In Hill’s poem, Ganaway decides to go to Liberia despite having lived in the United States for about 72 years. Hill read, “He thinks he'll realize the promise of freedom over there. Sandy Ganaway, gone away from here. That new freed man's headed across the water to go be free in what they call our fatherland.”
Another poem Hill shared is about Milledgeville, Georgia, during the American Civil War. He explained that Milledgeville served as Georgia’s capital city during the war, and governors would have their slaves work as hand servants in the governor’s mansion. Focusing on imagery of “hands,” Hill describes how the country’s laws were written by white leaders and how they enforced enslavement and discrimination. He read, “Not all Blacks were held in bondage, though bound by the constructive fetters of race, that expedient economic tool for making a class of women and men kept in place based on the color across their faces. A conservative notion for keeping power in the hands of the few.” Hill explained later that he often explores these themes through a historical lens in his poetry, and also through his own family’s history.
Prof. Elizabeth Bradfield (ENG) asked Zamora and Hill how their approach to writing prose differs from writing poems. Both of them explained that they find prose to be more freeing when they want to write more openly. Hill said that he has also been focusing on essay writing recently. “I like the larger canvas that the essay offers me. It can be more scrawly and messy,” he said, explaining later that he found this style of writing to be particularly useful since he has been busy relocating several times in the past few years and taking care of his now five-year-old son. Zamora expressed a similar sentiment, saying, “Poetry used to be a personal thing and it has weirdly turned into work … and prose, it's not work. It's just fun.”
Prof. Stephen McCauley (ENG) asked the two poets how the pandemic affected their writing process. Hill said he was once given advice to “try to anticipate the changes in your life so you can adjust the process,” but that the pandemic was not something he could have expected. Writing more prose and keeping a journal have helped him continue writing during this unusual time, he explained. Similarly, Zamora said he did not write much at the beginning of the pandemic, particularly because he had felt cramped living in a small apartment in New York City. “At the beginning, I was hitting my head against the wall,” he said. Having recently moved to a bigger space in Arizona, Zamora explained that he is having an easier time writing again.
Zamora and Hill offered advice about writing poetry to students. “Be honest with yourself on the page and really do the hard work of doing the internal questioning of the ‘why,’” Zamora said. “I think if we do that, our external world will be much better.” He explained that when writing with a political viewpoint as he does, students should “actively acknowledge” what they are writing about. Hill added, “Be serious, have fun.”