Rethinking Poetic Citizenship

Momo Chang
From the July/August 2015 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

With poems published in several well-respected journals and two prestigious fellowships under his belt, it seems that twenty-five-year-old Javier Zamora is on the path to becoming a successful poet. But until recently, Zamora faced serious obstacles: At age nine, he traveled from El Salvador, across the Sonoran Desert, to the United States to reunite with his parents, who had left several years earlier to escape political persecution and financial hardship in their home country. Growing up an undocumented immigrant, Zamora struggled to get a driver’s license or hold a regular job, and did not qualify for federal financial aid to attend college. As a poet, he hoped to publish his first book but quickly discovered he was ineligible to compete for a number of first-book prizes, as they were open only to U.S. citizens or legal residents.

This spring, Zamora, along with Christopher Soto and Marcelo Hernandez Castillo—the “Undocupoets,” as they call themselves—addressed these restrictions by convincing eleven presses and literary organizations to expand the eligibility criteria for their first-book prizes.

“[We] had been talking about various forms of institutionalized discrimination in the literary community for a few months,” says Soto. In January the three poets took action, publishing a petition on Apogee Journal’s website asking literary contests to open up submissions to undocumented poets. The petition quickly gained traction, with three hundred fifty poets signing on, including established writers such as Rigoberto González, Brenda Hillman, and Laura Kasischke. The petition specifically called on poetry publishers to open grants and first-book contests to people in the United States with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status or Temporary Protected Status (TPS). DACA (or “DREAMers”) are those who came to America as children and who attend high school or have an equivalent degree. TPS is sometimes conferred on undocumented immigrants from countries such as El Salvador and Haiti, which the U.S. government deems unsafe due to ongoing armed conflict or natural disasters.

Over the next few months, the organizers e-mailed eleven contest sponsors—the Academy of American Poets, the American Poetry Review, BOA Editions, Letras Latinas, the National Poetry Series, Persea Books, the Poetry Society of America, the Poetry Foundation, Sarabande Books, Southern Illinois University’s Crab Orchard Review, and Yale University Press—to let them know about the petition and request that they revise their contest eligibility rules. By the end of April, every one of the sponsors had responded. Several updated their guidelines almost immediately. Others said that changes would be coming soon. “We feel like it’s important to reflect the growing diversity of poets living, working, and writing in the U.S. today,” says Jennifer Benka, executive director of the Academy of American Poets. In early March, the Academy announced that it would make changes to all of its contests, including the Walt Whitman Award, considered one of the most generous first-book prizes in the country. According to the new requirements, eligible poets now include citizens, legally permanent residents, those who have TPS or DACA status, and those who have lived in the United States for at least ten years.
  Some prize administrators have now taken the initiative to learn more about the ever-changing laws and restrictions in the U.S. immigration system. And some simply want to find the best American poetry by including more voices in the search. “What really persuaded us is the fact that we did share the desire to find the best poetry out there and help get it published, which is one of the hardest things to do,” says Stephanie Stio, coordinator of the National Poetry Series. Stio says the organization will update guidelines beginning this fall, when its next contest opens.

Aside from contests, undocumented writers face other kinds of hurdles in the literary world. Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, one of the petition organizers, is the first undocumented writer to graduate from the University of Michigan’s MFA program. As Castillo discovered, applying to graduate school can be a process fraught with complications for undocumented students—from presenting the necessary identification to take the GRE, to applying for funding, to simply relocating to another state. Having overcome these issues, Castillo is particularly committed to mentoring other undocumented writers through the application process, which can be as uncomfortable as it is complex for people who have been taught to keep a low profile. Castillo, who became a permanent resident last year, understands how paralyzed undocumented immigrants can feel by the need to stay invisible. When he was five, he crossed the border from Tijuana into San Diego with his father and pregnant mother, both migrant farmworkers, along with his brother and sister, who dressed as a boy to avoid drawing additional attention. “I knew from day one what kinds of things I shouldn’t do, that my father was in danger every time he was behind the wheel, that in the fields there were a lot of immigration raids,” he says. “It made me grow up very quick.”

Castillo, Soto, and Zamora understand that the initial success of their petition is just a start: The changes affect an unquantifiable number of undocumented poets, and only those who have been in the country for a specific period of time, or who qualify for special immigration categories (just around one million of the estimated eleven million undocumented people in the United States qualify for DACA status). “This is a very small fight,” Zamora says. “It is a narrow and small victory, but a victory nonetheless.” At the very least, the Undocupoets organizers say, the recent changes have started a dialogue about which voices are heard in the literary world. “The petition was important because it created conversation and action around institutionalized discrimination,” Soto says. “It brought the community together. It got publishers to start thinking about the people who are and are not allowed to be part of the literary landscape. Next, we should start organizing against the exploitative reading fees that keep working-class poets from submitting to literary journals. The work is never done, when trying to create a more just world.”   

Momo Chang is a journalist in Oakland, California. She writes about immigration, health care, education, and media. Her website is momochang