Interview with Matthew Zapruder

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There may be no writer more deserving of massive attention than Matthew Zapruder, and, thankfully, 2010 seems to have been the year he got caught up to. His latest, Come On All You Ghosts, was named in all sorts of year-end lists, and rightly so: the man’s writing some of the best poetry anywhere, and his stuff’s strange, intent, opening. Here’s what’s magic: Ghosts creates new directions for itself. You’ve read poems like these, yes? You begin, and the next line comes, and you get a feel for how the poem’s built, and so you have a sense of what might be coming? This is a glorious feeling, yes: it’s incredibly satisfying to decode the poem’s world and fundamentally get it. Also glorious? When you cannot decode. When notions of next are so thoroughly undone and reshaped you’re left gasping when, eventually, you’ve been presented with a new path toward connection. That’s what Matthew Zapruder’s done in Come On All You Ghosts (and, not coincidentally, it’s a feature of lots of the books that come out on Wave, the press he’s an editor of), and if you’re not reading Matthew Zapruder, your life’s way less fun than it otherwise could be.

Cutter: If you were writing in another genre, who’d you like to write like and why? Who do you dig in fiction or non? Would you want to write like that? Do you presently want to?

Zapruder: I read a lot of prose, and usually am carrying around at least one book in my bag (right now it’s David Ulin’s The Lost Art of Reading). I recently finished Patti Smith’s Just Kids, and before that Eileen Myles’s Inferno, so I’ve been inhabiting a room in the Chelsea Hotel in my mind. Probably my favorite contemporary writers of fiction are Haruki Murakami, Javier Marias, Jose Saramago and W.G. Sebald. I love their language (though obviously the first two in translation) as well as their mesmerizing plots and characters. I am a great admirer of the translations of Richard Pevear and Larisa Volkhonsky of the great Russian novelists.

All that being said, I never write fiction. I’m just not motivated to invent characters, scenes, plots, etc. Other than poetry, I write critical prose, usually in order to work out and clarify an idea that is bothering me. I greatly admire certain writers in their prose, like Eileen Myles in The Importance of Being Iceland, or Steve Almond in Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life and his fantastic short book of short stories and small essays on writing advice, This Won’t Take But a Minute Honey, because they have so much personality and actuality and also critical intelligence. But I don’t want to write “like” them. I want to write like myself, whoever that is, and discover who I am and what I think in the process of writing.

Cutter: What’s the first sexy or suckering phrase you read which made you point at the page (or whatever) and deep breathe-in and go, shit, that’s what I want to do? And, if you can: what was it about that line?

Zapruder: If I go way back, I remember when I was in 2nd grade, there was a big picture book of Longfellow’s “The Song of Hiawatha.” I used to love to go over the window where it was on the sill, and read it; I remember often I would just get up when the teacher was talking and wander over there. Reading the poem now I can remember that time almost exactly, that classroom hum and all the bright elementary colors. There is a particular passage I still totally remember reading, from “Section III, Hiawatha’s Childhood”:

By the shores of Gitche Gumee,
By the shining Big-Sea-Water,
Stood the wigwam of Nokomis,
Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis.
Dark behind it rose the forest,
Rose the black and gloomy pine-trees,
Rose the firs with cones upon them;
Bright before it beat the water,
Beat the clear and sunny water,
Beat the shining Big-Sea-Water.

When I look at it now it makes me laugh, because of course it is extremely easy to parody. But there are several things in it (at least) that I do in my own poems (which are probably also easy to parody). First, there is the defamiliarization of calling the ocean “Big-Sea-Water” — the imaginative act of convincing yourself you know less than you think you do about something, and then trying to rename it, is for me central to the act of writing poetry. Second, I really like how intoxicated with repetition the passage is, especially at the end lines. It just sounds so solemn and good to me. I probably don’t go that far usually, but I do love the effect. Third, the passage is so rhythmically direct. And fourth, it is extremely clear.

I think in the end though, to answer your question, it is the line “Dark behind it rose the forest” that I love the most, because it creates through the word “Dark” a sensation and emotion, which the forest rises up into. Darkness. Something rising up. A forest. In that order. Almost like a very, very short film. That is so active and strange and powerful. I aspire to that in my own work.

Cutter: What’s a poem of yours which has been published, and it’s out and available, but which you’re still not 100% satisfied with? Why?

Zapruder: A poem of mine “Whoever You Are,” which is in my first book, was first published with one ending I never really liked, mainly because it was kind of a bad rip-off of Rilke, very heightened and emotionally strenuous. As soon as I saw it in print, I knew in my gut it was wrong. I went back to it, and was able to write an ending that was much more “unsafe” in the sense that the poem was doing something I felt resistance towards in myself, in the action described, which is a kind of unprovoked violence. I think I was on some level afraid of being a bad actor in my poem. But that’s what the poem needed.

One other story that might answer your question. After my first book came out I was asked by a magazine to send poems. That had never happened, and I was quite flustered and thrilled. I didn’t have anything that I was satisfied with, but felt like I should send something, because I was asked. Who knew when that would happen again? They took the poems and published them, and when I looked at them, I was in a core way horrified. Because of that experience I have really learned that no matter how flattered I am when I am asked, if I don’t have anything really, really good, I just have to say sorry, even though part of me is always afraid I will never be asked again.

Cutter: On a different/other track: what’s a thing of yours you’re working on which you can’t seem to nail down? Is there some ‘problem’ you’re working at/toward, consciously, in hopes of solving?

Zapruder: I don’t think about writing poems in that way. I don’t try to solve problems, or accomplish some larger aesthetic goal, at least not consciously. I don’t have projects. I have never really understood that word in poetry, and when Dorothea Lasky’s chapbook Poetry is Not a Project came out I thought, even before I read it, yes, I agree (I felt that way after I read it too). I think I channel those ways of thinking through problems into my critical writing, and teaching.

For me, the impulse to write a poem begins with the unformed desire to make something. Usually early in the morning, when everything seems full of promise, anxiety, beauty, silence and danger. For some period of time, maybe a few hours, maybe days or weeks or even months, the poem is not good. I can just feel it physically, it is not right yet.

Often for me it is a matter of clearing out the rhetoric and complexity and poetic parts of the poem, and making things as simple and direct as possible. Recently I was working on a poem that I was asked to write to be published on the date of the fall equinox. I came up with a version that was pretty good, but still too fancy and fake. Something about it didn’t sit right with me. I rewrote it and rewrote it for weeks, and finally finished it. It was more of a struggle than poems have been recently. Hopefully, I will get some easier ones in the coming weeks and months.

Cutter: Can you talk about…not your process, not quite, but here, this: that poem “Dobby’s Sweatshirt” has, at its center, this incredibly small artifact–a guy’s sweatshirt (and, of course, the sweatshirt doesn’t even exist); yet you build around that tiny thing. You seem to do this a fair bit–the cheap way to say it would come close to imbuing day-to-day stuff with extra meaning. Can you talk about how these objects come into focus for you? How these objects shake out, inside?

Zapruder: That poem, like so many I write, is quite literal. I really did wake up with that phrase, Dobby’s sweatshirt, in my mouth, I have no idea why, and it struck me as funny. Partially because of the way it sounds, partially because the Dobby Gibson I know does not seem like much of a sweatshirt wearer, and partially because of the basic hilarity of not knowing why we bother dreaming of any one thing as opposed to another.

In writing poems, I just move from one thing to the next, making connections that feel right to me. Sometimes those connections are pretty direct — like in the poem when I talk about waking up, then what I was reading right before I went to bed. And sometimes they are more elusive and intuitive. I have always thought that the poetry in poetry is located in the quality of those leaps. Coleridge was neither the first nor the last to point out that the language in poetry is just like that in prose, so it must be something else that makes it poetry. I think what makes something poetry is this leaping and association, which I have written about in an essay called “Why I Rhyme,” as well as in a couple of critical prose works in progress.

Cutter: Can you talk at all about coastality? You were born on the right-hand side one and now live on the left-hand side one. What are the differences for you? Is a hot/cold thing (which was how jazz–at least sax-based jazz–got schematized in the 50’s-60’s; hot=east, cool=west), or does it even matter, or what?

Zapruder: Coastality! My spell-checker program does not like that word. But I do. I also like how in your question you are standing over the U.S., with your feet somewhere in Oklahoma and Arkansas, facing Canada, looking down, east coast on your right, west coast on your left. You are very large, and hopefully benevolent. I have heard some people say the current dominant poetic practice here in the Bay Area is more overtly political and experimental than in New York, naturally more influenced by the New York School. That seems true until you spend some time here, and realize there is a lot going on beside that. It’s an accurate truism that the internet age has made the distinctions among different places less important.

I grew up in Maryland, state with the coolest flag. I spent the bulk of my early adult years in Massachusetts, with stints in New York City. Those are the two places I lived most when I was becoming a poet. I also lived for a while in the early 1990s in the Bay Area, living cheap and playing in terrible bands and eventually going to graduate school in Russian literature. That’s also when I became a San Francisco Giants fan (go Giants!). I think honestly for me I have moved around so much that nowhere really feels like my “poetic” home. The poems in my new book are about half written on the east coast and half in California, where I moved a couple of years ago to be with my fiancée.

Now I live in North Beach, in San Francisco. Lawrence Ferlinghetti lives on my block, or rather I live on his. I see him sometimes at the cafe or bus stop. Jack Spicer is a huge presence here, and I go running in Aquatic Park, where he used to sit and drink beer and listen to baseball games. His early book After Lorca had a very powerful effect on me when I read it here, much more so than when I read it back east. San Francisco and New York and Massachusetts have a lot in common actually: they are places with a lot of literary history, at least in the relatively short American time span, so you can walk around and feel you are part of a continuum. I think it is in my nature always to feel like a stranger.

Cutter: I feel like I asked you this at some point in the past, and I’m sure you get it asked plenty, but here, again, the refrain: how does editing and writing conjoin for you? How does one bleed toward/into the other? Largely, helpfully? Also: how overtly political are you cool with poetry getting? You had the poem in the 100 Poems for Obama’s First 100 Days book, and edited that Red State/Blue State Wave [State of the Union: Fifty Politcal Poems] book—do you think we’re failing (we=all writers) if we’re not addressing or at least heading toward these larger issues within our work?

Zapruder: Yes, it is helpful to be an editor, mostly because a lot of the thinking about line edits, and discussions with poets about what they have done and why and what would be best, are good for my concentration, and for enlarging the ways that I think about poetry. I have benefitted greatly from the experience of being an editor in much the same way I have benefitted as a poet from being a translator.

As far as politics, to me it has always seemed like something natural to have in poetry. It’s part of the life of most people, just like love or death or going to the grocery store. So it would be strange for it not to be in poems. Immediately when I start thinking about this I think about two of the greatest poems of the 20th century, “Howl” and “Of Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” both of which have a lot of political consciousness and questioning in them, along with many other things. That being said, in my own work I am most interested in bringing out of myself the hidden and complex feelings and emotions that can almost not be articulated, so that I can see them and others can too. So I do not often find myself drawn towards expressing what seem to me to be very obvious and already worked out political opinions.

I do feel certain that if more people read poetry, and wrote it, they would be less likely to behave badly in the particular ways that are so typical of our political culture. Anger, self-righteousness, idiotic certainty, a disrespect towards the natural environment, selfishness, and fear masquerading as American “values” — to me all these things are absolutely incompatible with true poetry. So in that sense I feel like I am by writing poetry making the world a better place. Wallace Stevens wrote, in “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words,” “What is his [the poet’s] function? Certainly it is not to lead people out of the confusion in which they find themselves. Nor is it, I think, to comfort them while they follow their readers to and fro. I think that his function is to make his imagination theirs and that he fulfills himself only as he sees his imagination become the light in the minds of others. His role, in short, is to help people live their lives.” In that sense I don’t think poets are failing at all. I think the poets I know are helping people live their lives, and that help is readily available, to anyone who is ready for it.

Cutter: A. Just because I’ve never asked this of another writer: what’s the ratio of stuff you begin vs. stuff you finish? When we read an MZ poem somewhere, are we seeing a thing which has three scrap-heapers behind it? If you do abandon poems, do you ever come back? (this may be about the idea of the ‘project’ from before).

B. Is there anything you want to say about self in poetry? You wrote up above that you want to discover who you are, and I guess the honest, scared/existential question I can’t help but hold regarding that sort of notion is: can the self hold up? Is the self vehicle enough to deliver whatever idea/notion you end up trying to deliver in your poems? The arithmeticist in my head wonders: well, if contemporary poetry’s fundamental equation is roughly self + discovery/ah-ha, how does one vet whether the self is fundamentally *enough*? Please know: I’m sure this reads as sniveling and over-arching and ideational, but it really is something I think tons about.

Zapruder: I’m going to answer both of these questions together, since they seem related to me. First of all, yes there are hundreds of terrible drafts behind almost every single poem I publish. Maybe occasionally if I get very lucky I get most of the poem right away, and then there is just a little line editing. But that might happen one out of every hundred times. When I was writing my first book, I was having a lot of trouble focusing (I still do). So I took my mom’s manual typewriter that she had from high school — coincidentally, a Royal portable, not exactly but also not unlike the one Larry Eigner used — and started typing out each new draft. So somewhere in an attic there is for each poem in that book a pile of at least 100, sometimes three or four times that many, drafts of the poems. I work the same way now, just not always retyping each time. It takes that many drafts for me to figure out what I am saying. I do come back to poems I have abandoned: in fact, when you emailed me, I was just taking the few phrases out of three or four awful poems I had written, and writing something completely different, which came out much better. So the whole result of probably a week’s total work on those three poems, each with many drafts, was maybe 7 or 8 phrases that I then built into something completely different. I can honestly say I believe a poet must be prepared to treat his or her own poems with that sort of dispassionate honesty, which can be cultivated. I am completely unsentimental about my ideas, what I “want” to do, my inspiration, everything. All that matters is making the best poem possible.

This seems to relate to your second question, about the self in poetry. Last night, I went to see some films by the brilliant and strange experimental film maker Nathaniel Dorsky at the SF Modern Museum of Art. The films are silent, and have absolutely no narrative: they are strict montage. He films only things that he sees and finds. In the Q and A someone asked him about his process, and he talked about how, over the course of 6 months or so, he will go out and film everything he sees, and that eventually he will by looking at the footage understand what the film wants to do. “The film is brighter than you are.” I feel this way about language. I assemble words and phrases that attract me, phrases that come to mind when I think of those words, and I look at them until something else seems to begin to suggest itself. I write poems not to express myself, but to discover what is there. I learn by writing, and know far more when I am done with the poem than when I began it (in this way, even if no one ever read my poems, they would still be for me an essential mode of thinking). My “self” in the poems is a focusing mechanism, a necessary organizing principle: otherwise it would just be a bunch of words on the page.

Poets often worry if they write about themselves, and the particularities of their lives, they will be perceived as arrogant, or as saying somehow that their feelings and suffering and ideas are special, and should be valued just because they are in the poem. If a poem is good, it is the discovery and not the self that feels important. The discovery of what is common to us, what we cannot quite understand, but must. As I said above, the self is a focusing mechanism, or a necessary vehicle. In one sort of bad poem, one gets the sense that it is mostly about self-expression, and that the writer is more focused on the particularities of his or her experience than on the poem.

Dorsky was asked whether he films only found scenes, or whether he will sometimes build together a little scene and then film it. He said he never builds anything into the environment, and only films what he finds. The films, he said, are about “connecting with the actual little hidden theaters of mystery, rather than constructing them. It’s a hunter-gatherer model, rather than an agricultural one,” meaning, he goes out and gets what he needs from the environment, rather than trying to change the environment in order to make it generate what he needs as an artist. For him, the visible, filmable world is the environment: for me, it is our richest human achievement, language, that I go into in order to find the “actual little hidden theaters of mystery.” The self, again, is a choosing vehicle, that understands itself through that process of selection, both initially and then in a later period of further refinement and understanding. I relate very strongly to Dorsky’s attitude towards art, the self, and the world.

This is Weston’s third post for Get Behind the Plough.