I first met Matthew Zapruder in San Francisco in 2010 at something called the Poetry World Series. We had to read poems back and forth as judges scored us and made witty quips. It was fun, and it was uncomfortable. There was a large game-like concept to it all, and a small, seemingly less game crowd. (It’s grown in popularity since then, and the crowd’s grown too.) Zapruder made that first night easier, however, by cracking jokes, generously complimenting people’s poems and making everyone feel more at ease on stage.
Later, when any new article came out talking about how poetry is dead (again? snore), I noticed he would challenge the author with a lively discussion about poetry’s current vital and expanding existence. While I knew and loved his books of poems, his way of being of service to the poetry community always impressed me. I suppose this is why I’ve often thought of him as a benevolent defender of poetry.
So, when I was contacted to interview him for his new book, Why Poetry, I immediately agreed. He and I had talked about the book before and I was eager to see the finished product. The kicker was that I had to read the book quickly, while I was traveling and teaching. This proved to be undeniably easy. I devoured it. Within hours I was copying whole sections down that I wanted to read to my class. (I did. They’ll attest to it. One student even shouted, after I finished, “Preach!”)
In Why Poetry, Zapruder makes a case for poetry. That sounds simple, but that’s what he does. From a refreshingly honest and personal point of view, he talks about how he came to poetry, how he began to read it, and his own journey. In doing so, he takes the reader deeper into poetry’s mystery and the necessity of imagination (something especially valuable now).
As we were about to begin the interview, in typical Zapruder fashion, he suggested that this become more of a conversation instead. Apparently he had some questions for me, too. What follows is an excerpt from a conversation that is quite possibly endless.
Guernica: I can’t tell you how I excited I am for your book, Matthew. I know you’ve been working on it for a while now, and it must be strange to see it to come to life at last. I think, as poets, we are in the odd position of constantly defending our art form. Which is funny and also sort of invigorating, too. No one really says, “Oh you’re a lawyer? I’ve never understood the law. In fact, I kind of hate it.” Or, “Oh you wait tables? I didn’t know that was something people did.” I say it can be invigorating because, on some level, we have to evaluate what we do and why we do it almost daily. We have to explain ourselves to people all the time. We have to say, “Yes, I am a unicorn, believe in me.” It seems like this is where the idea for the book started. Did writing the book make you even more committed to poetry?
Matthew Zapruder: Ada, I’m so happy you are reading it! Also a little scared. It’s thrilling and terrifying to have poets I love and respect such as you see what I actually did, after all those years of talking about it.
Yes, it is funny, and also a bit sad, that we are so often asked to justify our vocation. There seems to be something vaguely mystifying and even hilarious to people about being a poet, especially in these times. Why would anyone choose to do something so…useless? I wanted to address that larger issue in the book. I personally believe the role of poets as poets (which is something different from our obligations as citizens, community members, humans) is to write poems. I believe this because I am quite sure poetry can do something no other form or writing, or human activity, can, at least not in such a powerful and distilled and undeniable way. And that we need this type of thinking for our survival as individuals and as a species. To that end, I think it is our job as poets to refuse the terms that society so often sets for usefulness. That, for instance, is what Dickinson did: she refused to be a wife, a homemaker, a standard member of her community. She knew she had to in order to have the space and time to write her poems. Thank god she said no!
Writing all this prose—and I wrote so many drafts of it, over the years, and discarded many tens of thousands of words, wrong turns, mistakes—reminded me of how different it is to think in prose. It was, frankly, a grind. I gained an immense amount of respect for people who write prose, and also felt even more sure that the thinking particular to poetry is essential to my life. I need to think, to explore, to question, in poetry. Without that feeling, I am, in some ultimate way, lost. So in a way, the experience of writing this book once again answered for me the question asked in its title.
I haven’t seen you in a while, but I get the impression that you are writing a lot of poetry lately. Is that true? You also travel so much, visiting your justly adoring fans. How do you find yourself affected by the conditions of life, in your own writing of poetry, or anything else? How has it been for you lately?
Guernica: Oh, I’m devouring the book. And I love how you address the “useful/uselessness” idea so early on. I’m drawn to this quote from the beginning: “And that choice to be ready to reject all other purposes, in favor of the possibilities of language freed from utility, is when the writer becomes a poet.” I keep returning of the phrase “language freed from utility.” There’s something that vibrates in me when I read that sentence. A sort of rebellion that sparks in the blood.
And thank you, yes, I have been writing. Even when I intend not to write, I find myself writing. I’m currently in a place where I should be putting together the fifth book, but then more poems are coming. It’s exciting and somewhat daunting. You know how we are when a new book of poems is at last coming together—all frenzy, distraction, and bounty? It’s as if I’ve turned into summer itself. There’s so much rage in the world now and I’m finding poems to be the place where I want to stay. I rage and rage and then write a poem and return to breathing.
I’m traveling too. Currently, I write to you from Cape Cod, where I’m teaching in the summer program at the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center. In fact, I told my students today about this new book you’re giving the world, and they literally erupted into cheers. There’s something so satisfying about how patient you are with the reader, taking the time to describe what’s happening in a poem with such clarity, and without being didactic. Which brings to mind the question, who did you write this book for? (I mean, I’m assuming it was me, right? Please say yes.) Who do you hope will peel back the cover in their local bookstore?
Guernica: Yes, that rebellion! I’ve gotten in a little bit of trouble already for saying that I think poetry is defined as a genre by that freedom to explore, free of all obligations. Some people have seen this as the mark of privilege, as if only someone who is magically free of all societal and personal pressures (oh, how I wish!) could “afford” to think in such a way. Other people have interpreted this as me saying that I think poems don’t have an obligation to communicate or make sense. I hope anyone who reads the book will see that if freedom in the imagination is a privilege, it’s one I believe everyone should have, as a basic human right. I also believe that poems not only make meaning, but are more often than not engaged in some way with our deepest human issues, be they personal or societal or political.
In the afterword to the book, which I wrote after our recent presidential election, I try to explore the idea that it is absolutely vital to preserve a space where the mind, by means of poetic thinking, can move in a free, even anarchic, way. It must do so, in order to find deep truths that would not be otherwise available, ones that we desperately need. Anyone who writes poetry knows what I’m talking about, because they’ve had the experience of thinking this way.
In 2007, when I was traveling across the country reading poems with a bunch of other poets, I suddenly had the idea (in New Mexico!) that I would like to try to write poetry that would do everything I wanted poems to do, but also be readable by any person. I didn’t know if this was possible, but I suddenly knew, in that few-times-in-a-lifetime sort of way, that this would be my life’s search. During that trip I wrote many of the poems that would eventually be in my third book, Come On All You Ghosts. When I eventually sat down to write this prose book, I tried to think of friends, family, strangers I meet along the way, humans. I wanted to write not exclusively for (or against) poets or scholars, though many of them are people, too! But that was not my primary audience. It was that person you like who tells you they don’t get poetry, and you think to yourself, aw man, what can I do for this good person?
But in a way, Ada, I did write it for you. I wrote it for my people. I think our poems bring us all together, because they are, actually, the very things that have connected us. Your poems are the reason I know you, and vice versa. All my closest friends came to me through poetry. My wife, too! Other than my family, poetry is the gravitational force of my life. Even though we have only met a few times, I feel like I know you intimately through your poems, and through our shared commitment.
It’s fantastic that you are writing more poems now! I can feel that loving rage in your recent work. I feel there is rage against our circumstances, and also an immensely powerful deeper existential rage, like when you write about the magnolia that “each broad flower glows like a torch-lit/mausoleum.” Yes! You sound in the poem at least dismayed, if not deeply pissed off, to arrive at that word, mausoleum—though it is also a great word—so as a poet, you must have been so happy to have it appear in your poem. That is the essence of negative capability, I suppose. Your poem reminds me of the great song by Thao Nguyen, “Nobody Dies,” which sounds like it’s going to be a positive anthem, but the chorus is, “We/You/I/We act like nobody dies!” So true. We have a magnolia outside our front door, and I wrote about holding my son and looking at it, and a feeling of pervasive doom, maybe located in the ancient knowledge of the tree itself.
Speaking of ancient, you sent me a picture of the Atlantic Ocean, my beloved cold childhood friend. What is it doing today?
Guernica: I had to say goodbye the ocean yesterday. I waved and took a stone with me. I had all my students take a small stone too, so that they could set it in the center of their desk and only remove it once they have written something. We were trying to come up with a way that we could keep the energy of a generative workshop by the sea churning in our daily lives. But now I’m home and unpacked and have an office freshly cleared. It’s interesting that you brought up my new poem, “Sundown and All the Damage Done.” I wrote that after the massacre in the nightclub Pulse. But it was hard to think of those deaths without thinking of other deaths, too. There are so many of them. I walked by that tree and each flower was lit up by a firefly and it seemed to be a memorial of sorts. At the time, it was so beautiful I just started crying. Of course, that’s not in the poem, but that grief and acceptance hopefully comes through. Maybe it comes through in the sounds of the word “mausoleum.”
It’s interesting that folks have taken “language freed from utility” as a sign of privilege. I can see how that might be misconstrued that way, but it seems to me that you’re saying what C. D. Wright said, “It is a function of poetry to locate those zones inside us that would be free, and declare them so.” The idea that language can also be play and music and beauty and desire and grief and rage and truth without always having to be message-driven or purely functional. Moving away from “useful” doesn’t mean it isn’t necessary. You can still need poetry while also needing money or food or physical health. And one of the many things I admire most about the book is that it does praise clarity while also leaving room for mystery, depth, and sound.
I’m always talking about how the poems I am most obsessed with are like people: complex and unknowable and with a huge capacity for many different emotions. And to my delight, in the latter half of the book I found you wrote: “A poem is like a person. The more you know someone, the more you realize there is always something more to know and understand. A final understanding could probably only begin upon permanent separation, or death. This is why we come back to certain poems, as we do to places or people, to experience and re-experience, to see ourselves for who we truly are, and to continue to be changed.”
Which leads me to the question: How in the world did you pick the poems you wanted to talk about in this book? Of course, the poems I would have picked would have probably been different than yours, but the selection allows us to see your mind at play with poems that have sustained you. It seems like a near impossible task.
Matthew Zapruder: So glad you got home okay. After I wrote that passage comparing a poem to a person, I came across this quote from Auden, in one of his later prose works:
“It has been said that a poem should not mean but be. This is not quite accurate. In a poem, as distinct from many other kinds of verbal societies, meaning and being are identical. A poem might be called a pseudo-person. Like a person, it is unique and addresses the reader personally. On the other hand, like a natural being and unlike a historical person, it cannot lie.”
Too much there to even get into, but I do love how he calls poems “verbal societies!” Neat.
To be completely honest, I tried not to think too hard about which poems to choose, at least not in a global sense. That would have driven me insane. I wanted to make sure there was a variety of aesthetic approaches; this was super important to me, because I did not want to make it seem as if I were making an argument either for difficulty or simplicity. I wanted to see if my ideas about poetry applied to poems that are considered obscure as well as simple, across different times and cultures.
Part of it, too, is that the book began out of personal impulse. I gave a lecture at the Tin House Summer Writers Workshop where I talked about the Ashbery poem “The One Thing That Can Save America,” which was a poem I read right when I was first starting to write poetry, in my early 20s. Then I went back and tried to remember the first poems I read, which is how the book begins. Then, as I wrote through the book, I tried to let myself think of the poems I needed to explore in order to deepen whatever issue I was talking about. The poems in turn started to determine the chapters of the book. I might, for instance, start by writing about metaphor, think of Whitman, and then end up realizing that really what “Song of Myself” was teaching me was something about how to read literally. A new chapter would grow out of that. This happened a lot, so the book was a very real dialogue, or maybe more like a multilogue (or verbal society!) with these poems I loved, some of which I knew intimately already, and some of which I came to know. I really am talking about them like people!
Today is such a strange day. The news is out about the Russians and mini-Donald. This seems like a turning point, but it certainly has felt that way before. Like all of us, I am vibrating with electric uncertainty. How do you manage to concentrate and write poems? I know that for me it is just a relief to be in that sort of thinking, away from the news and all the immense global and personal worries. Is poetry a refuge for you? A way of connecting? Something else?
Guernica: It seems every day is a strange day now. I keep feeling everything is a turning point, but still we remain here in this predicament. I am trying not to grow numb. You are vibrating and I am icing over. In the last two days I’ve read way too many alarming articles about climate change. It’s overwhelming. I keep thinking about that section you have in the book Most of the Stories Have to Do with Vanishing, about Merwin’s work and the idea of the elegiac tone. In my own work, I tend to look toward nature and the animal for a sense of connection to something larger, some reason for being. Now of course, the question becomes, how do we write to nature when the earth itself is in danger? How do we write from a place of solastalgia without losing that sense of wonder? Poems have always been a place for questions for me. Not answers. And I have a lot of questions these days. One of the reasons I’ve felt so connected to poetry throughout the years is because it’s the only art form that has breath built into it. And I need that breath now. I need that breath so much. So, yes, it is a refuge for me. Absolutely.
Reading your book this week felt so necessary; it’s made me feel reconnected to the legacy of poetry. Yesterday, I finished a draft of the new book of poems and was at once full of excitement and self-doubt. Of course, I am worried that it is too self-involved or too political at times, but also, I wonder why would anyone care about this microcosm on the page when so much is at stake in the world. But, near the end of Why Poetry you write, “It may very well be that we have entered another time when most poets will feel compelled to use poetry to stop things from happening. Yet I believe that even if poetry did not do this, it would be vital to our survival.”
Why Poetry is a generous defense of not just poetry, but of imagination and language itself. This isn’t so much a question, but a way of saying simply, thank you for this book.
I know we have to end soon, though I’d rather just keep writing each other. Penultimate question: Now that you’ve completed Why Poetry, are you writing poems? I know you are busy and you have a young child at home, but are poems coming to you now?
Matthew Zapruder: Yes, they are. I am, to be honest, so relieved to be mostly done with writing prose. I found that immersing myself in writing prose, and then coming out of it periodically, and now mostly permanently, into writing poetry again, only reaffirmed the central idea of the book, that poetic thinking is something distinct and necessary.
The question does arise if how and why to write poetry in this time. It feels both completely essential and also quite difficult. But that’s how writing poetry has felt to me my whole life. Everything seems to have just gotten immensely more mortal and tragic and scary, which makes it hard to concentrate, but also, if harnessed, can provide immense energy for making poems.
Guernica: You’ve recently published an article in the New York Times, “Understanding Poetry is More Straightforward Than You Think,” which is an excerpt from the book. While people were sharing it far and wide, there was also some backlash posted on social media sites claiming a poem should never be understood and that’s not what we are after as poets. Or that you were arguing that poems that were “difficult” or “strange” were in fact just bad writing. I read your article differently. I’m always telling my students that the weirdest thing is the truth. I mean, the fact that we get up in the morning and put on clothes is weird. Most poets I love are saying, “White chickens, red wheelbarrow! Weird! Heavy!” Or “Pink dog, weird!” So I didn’t see that take on it, but I also have the benefit of having read the whole book. Is there something you’d like to say in response to those who think you’re arguing for poems to be “easily understood”?
Matthew Zapruder: In general, the reaction to the excerpt was quite positive, both from general readers and poets. There were, as is to be expected, a few pockets of grumbling. I’ve noticed that there can be a visceral reaction to strong statements about poetry, as if anyone who has an opinion and expresses it is shutting people down. It’s funny to see that expressed, and then to go back and read poetic statements by the great poets of the past: they are full of a passionate conviction! It is clearly possible to express strong feelings about poetry while also defending the absolute right of myriad approaches.
My own experience as a reader and writer has been that the more I read, and the more I live, the more different “types” of poetry I grow to love. I might not even believe anymore that there are “types” of poetry at all. I’ve come to love things I once would snootily have dismissed. Of course I still have my likes and dislikes, and there are things I think are just plain old bullshit, but more and more I am far more trusting of my loves than my dislikes.
I don’t think poetry needs to be “easily understandable.” First of all, there are often complexities of syntax, form, unfamiliar absences, etc., that require a deeper concentration than is usually demanded of us. So that, right off the bat, is a little difficult. Then there is the deeper issue of what poetry is really asking of us. I feel it is asking us to read with great, even sacred, care and attention. That, too, is difficult. It requires discipline and the creation of a temporary zone of privacy, which is inimical to our current conditions of life. This, in the end, might be the greatest social good of poetry: to get us to live differently, with a different sort of thinking and concentration, even if it’s just for a few moments.
Finally, what poetry is asking us to accept can be difficult. Our proximity to our mortality, the fragility of our existence, how close we live in every moment to nameless abysses, and the way language itself is beautifully, tragically, thrillingly insufficient…these are some of the engines that drive the poem. It’s natural to want to turn away from these things. But we have to face them, as best we can, at least sometimes. Poetry can help us in that nearly impossible work.
In the end, the whole idea of “understanding” a poem is, in and of itself, a big part of the problem. Near the beginning of the book, I write about Paul Valéry’s comparison of the poem to a machine. He writes that the poem is a kind of machine for producing the poetic state of mind in a reader. According to him, more than to be understood, this is the purpose of poetry, what defines it as a distinct human act. I agree with him, as I do with Joshua Beckman, whom I also quote toward the end of the book. He says, “If you imagine the poem as a question to be answered, once you’ve answered the question, you move on.” I have no desire to ever fully answer those questions. I never want to move on from the great poems.