An Interview with Matthew Zapruder

Dana Isokawa and Allyson Paty, Issue 34

In a Matthew Zapruder poem, you’ll never stay put—the poem will start with an observation about a coin, meander on to a memory of looking out an apartment window, and then quick! swerve to a thought about baseball. His poems move deftly, unpredictably, and are suffused with melancholy insight, conversational lyricism, and casual humor. In his poem “Come On All You Ghosts” he writes that the poem is “a machine anyone with a mind can enter,” and his own poems invite the reader by their embrace of the familiar. They show, as he says below, that a poem can move amongst “mundane as well as exalted things.” We were excited to interview Matthew Zapruder both for his own work, and for his thinking in his essays and interviews on how poetry provides us with a different kind of living. Matthew Zapruder is the author of four poetry collections, most recently Sun Bear (Copper Canyon Press, 2014). He is an editor at Wave Books and teaches creative writing at St. Mary’s College in California. He kindly agreed to speak with us over email to discuss his influences, staying attentive as a poet, and his new collection.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: How do you think your poems or approach to poems has changed since the publication of your first book, American Linden, in 2002?

MATTHEW ZAPRUDER: That’s a big question! I think the biggest thing that has changed for me is a sense of audience. When I was writing the poems of my first book, I was writing for my immediate friends, and in relation to the poets I was reading, many of them dead, none of them accessible in the way that people now are because of the internet. It was a very private conversation, a two-way conversation between me and words. I knew on an intellectual level that at some point these poems might appear in a book to be read by other people, but I wasn’t really thinking about that in a serious way, even after my first book came out. I was still very alone as a poet in a necessary way. Those poems in American Linden and The Pajamaist are establishing an authentic language to my experience. The poems of my first two books, when I look back on them now, seem in a lot of ways to be very internal, which is I think actually kind of a nice feeling. They are more private. The poems of my most recent two books seem to me to be more aware of the moment when a private thought becomes more public, even if that becoming public is an intimate moment with one other person. That has to do both with my life as a poet, and as a person, things that have changed for me as a human being. So that transition was organic and unplanned, but looking back on it now I can see it. 

WASHINGTON SQUARE: Many of your poems seem to start with a speaker in a specific situation—drinking a soda, watching the street from a window, sitting in the airport—and then shift to all different kinds of scenes, expressions, and thoughts. How do you decide where to enter or begin a poem? 

ZAPRUDER: The answer to this might be connected to what I said above, about the energy of the poems being when a private moment becomes public. Or vice versa. I don’t really decide, I just try it over and over again.

Sometimes nothing happens, and sometimes something starts to. If I am living the way I want to as a poet, I am attentive on a daily, moment to moment basis, for those instances when language and thought start moving in that way that only happens in poetry, or at least which is essential to it.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle you mentioned that you try to afford your poems the most flexibility in where they should go. Can you speak more to how you achieve that in writing your poems?

ZAPRUDER: I guess that just means that I try not to have preconceptions about what is “poetic.” The movement itself is poetic. I think enough poets have proved that this movement can happen among mundane as well as exalted things. I’m just as happy to read Neruda’s Odes to Common Things as Rilke’s Book of Hours. So when I write my own poems I try to be attentive to where things could go, and to follow them there, to see if there’s anything going on. If not, I try again, and again, until something real to me happens.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: Who influences and inspires you?

ZAPRUDER: In short, really two main groups. My friends, and dead poets. Thank god those two groups are still mutually exclusive; may it be that way for a long, long time to come. I have been reading the work of my close friends, who are poets, ever since I started writing. Even though I think we write very differently from one another, there is a commonality of purpose. I also edit many of them at Wave Books. These poets inspire me to be in language, and also in the world. There are also some poets whom I don’t necessarily know super well, or hang out a lot with, whom I consider friends, because of how much time I have been with their poems. Terrance

Hayes is such a poet for instance. There are many others. When I read a book that means a lot to me I try to write that person an actual letter, not an email. I want to keep some remnant of the physicality of that unseen private friendship alive. As far as the dead poets, I couldn’t even begin to make a list. Well, I could begin. Dickinson and Whitman of course. Cavafy and Ritsos saved me when I was writing my first book by providing examples of clear structural weirdness. The T’ang dynasty poets, Li Po, Tu Fu, Wei Ying-wu, Li Shangyin. My friends and I talk a lot about the romantics, I am partial to Keats and Coleridge (some of them like Shelley, which was at first impossible for me to understand, though I have come around to some extent). Lately I have been reading a lot of Antonio Machado. And that doesn’t begin to get into the Eastern and Central European poets, Šalamun, Popa, Szymborska, Herbert, Miłosz, Ursu, J.zsef, and others. And so many Americans, it’s impossible to list them. Being out in California I’ve really read a lot of Spicer, which led me back to John Wieners. They seem to me to be great poets. But that’s just something that came to mind, I would think of something different in a little while, and so on. I have also been lucky enough to get to know artists in other fields whom I respect enormously. The painter Chris Uphues (with whom I made a book, of poems based on his amazing paintings) and the brilliant Teresita Fernandez are two artists whom I feel enormously lucky to have met and hung out with. Visual artists work really hard! I envy their studios and their physical stuff, they really get to go to work and make things. I would also say that recently I have been inspired by my contact with two of the most brilliant young American composers, Gabriel Kahane and Missy Mazzoli. Both of them have taken my work and performed it at Carnegie Hall, which is something that had never occurred to me could happen. Music is central to my life, and to have my poetry be helpful in any way to the work of these young geniuses has been most excellent. Finally, my teachers: Dara Wier, James Tate, and the late Agha Shahid Ali. I go back to their poems always.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: Your poems are full of leaps across time and register, while remaining organized around a single consciousness, or speaker. Do you perceive the speaker of your poems to all be the same? Or do you even think the speaker’s identity is important to the poem? ZAPRUDER: Hm. I never thought about it that much. I guess I just assumed in each book it’s kind of the same person, basically? That’s how I would read a book of lyric poetry that has a strong speaking presence, unless otherwise instructed.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: What is the poem you wish you could write?

ZAPRUDER: If I could write a poem that would make politicians stop in their tracks and do a little dreaming, that would make me happy.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: Many of the poems in Sun Bear are “Poem for X,” with X being wine, or England, or the San Francisco Giants, to name a few examples. How did you come to this form?

ZAPRUDER: I was writing these poems, and then at some point after doing so for a while it occurred to me that they come from a couple of different places, or at least the titles do. First, there are the aforementioned Odes to Common Things. Then also these great poems by Wieners, whom I also mentioned earlier, particularly his Hotel Wentley Poems (“a poem for record players,” “a poem for vipers,” “a poem for museum goers,” and so on). And then my friend Matt Rohrer, who has been titling his poems this way for a long time. I think I liked the idea of entering into a poem in a more selfconscious way—it felt honest to me, like, here we are in poetry together, and let’s see what happens.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: Sun Bear includes poems that are often written in shorter unpunctuated lines, which feels like a slight departure from your previous work. The poems seem to maintain your complex syntax, but move in a more fluid manner. Can you speak to this change (if there is this change at all)?

ZAPRUDER: I think I’ve done this intermittently since I first started writing poems. I am fascinated by what happens when various conventions of language—syntax and punctuation in particular—are pushed past ordinary usage. What happens to the line when punctuation is removed? How is meaning communicated? Certain words and phrases have to carry the structure of the language if punctuation is not there to help, and sometimes the feeling of language doing that feels (in a physical way) connected to the work of the poem.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: Many of the poems in Sun Bear pay direct attention to the way our lives are bound up with forces of destruction, particularly environmental. This is subject matter often taken up in disciplines outside of poetry—say, journalism, science, and politics. How do you see poetry extending, enriching, or complicating that conversation?

ZAPRUDER: Honestly, those things are just what I have been thinking about so much, just as so many of us have. It’s a fine line between (to use Stevens’s terms) resisting the pressure of the real, which is necessary on some level to write poetry and ignoring reality completely. We need to resist the pressure of the real, in the sense of distancing ourselves from it enough to not be entirely inside the worry and turmoil of it. But that is not the same thing as being deeply caring and engaged. Brenda Hillman is an example of a poet who is totally engaged, and also able to enter into states in her poems that push back against the pressure of the real. Poems are made up of language, which communicates ideas, experiences, intuitions, and also can be pushed beyond ordinary bounds to touch the unknown (see Dickinson). I believe the pressure of the real can be resisted while also including familiar elements of life. It’s just something that I feel drawn to do as a poet. I don’t know that there’s anything I can say to enrich or complicate anything. Things seem enriched and complicated enough. I don’t think that’s what I’m trying to do with poems. I think poems give us the possibility of a different kind of living, even if it’s just for a few moments, that could possibly mitigate some of the behavior that is so inimical to everything good in the world. When I see a politician yelling about something insanely removed from the lives of actual humans, or some grim businessperson explaining why it’s actually better for us not to have access to affordable excellent health care, or that we need to pour poison in the river or chop people up and eat them, I think, these people should read some Robert Desnos. Maybe then they’d be a little less awful. I know poetry, reading and writing it, helps me be slightly less awful.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: Last fall, you came to the NYU Creative Writing Program for a master class, where you mentioned that the endless inundation of information we face in contemporary culture renders poetry very essential. Could you speak to that a bit more here? 

ZAPRUDER: The more information there is, the more noise, the more we need a different kind of knowledge, only possible in poetry. We need stories and essays and novels and movies and newspapers (do they still have those) articles and sermons and songs for all the things they do. Each type of writing does something essential, along with many other things. But we need something from every type of artistic experience. What is that nameless something we feel so deeply when we are reading the poetry we love, that something poetry does that nothing else can? This is the question that drives me on.