Saturday, January 12, 2008

12 or 20 questions: with Matthew Zapruder

Matthew Zapruder is the author of two collections of poetry: American Linden and The Pajamaist (Copper Canyon, 2006), selected by Tony Hoagland as the winner of the William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America. He is also co-translator of Secret Weapon, the final collection by the late Romanian poet Eugen Jebeleanu (Coffee House Press, 2007). His poems, essays and translations have appeared in many publications, including The Boston Review, Fence, Alaska Quarterly Review, Open City, Bomb, Harvard Review, Paris Review, The New Yorker and The New Republic. He teaches poetry as a member of the permanent faculty of the Juniper Summer Writing Institute at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, and in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at the New School, and works as an Editor for Wave Books. In Fall 2007 he was a Lannan Literary Fellow in Marfa, Texas. He lives in New York City.

1 - How did your first book change your life?

It made me stop thinking every fall about going to law school.

2 - How long have you lived in New York, and how does geography, if at all, impact on your writing? Does race or gender make any impact on your work?

I move around a lot. I've lived off and on (a lot of it off) in NY for about 8 years of so. I've also lived in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, California, and most recently, Marfa, Texas. A lot of the poems in both books take place in various neighborhoods and familiar locales in New York, but also are very affected by the landscapes (urban and rural) of those other places. For me, there's always a very powerful feeling when I return to NY, as if I am caught up pleasurably in some big engine. I usually find myself very excited and wanting to write a lot. Then again almost any change in location or circumstance can produce that feeling in me, which probably explains the peripatetic nature of my life.

I don't know how to answer the race and gender question. Surely I naturally benefit in all sorts of obvious and subtle ways from being white and male in a society that sadly privileges those two attributes. Being Jewish (culturally more than religiously, at least at this point -- I'm not much of a practicing Jew) probably has a lot to do with my writing and who I am, but I have very little insight into that aspect of myself.

3 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

I try to write a lot of poems and hope that eventually the best ones will start to accumulate into an inevitable momentum towards something called "a book." I don't think conceptually about what I am doing: I usually just try to write from my current interests, personal preoccupations, physical surroundings into the most interesting places I can get to. I love the feeling that I am discovering and metabolizing as I move through poems: I have no interest in working on anything like a "project."

Unfortunately probably for me, critics and academics love to be able to talk about projects and concepts. It's more natural to them than simple close readings that begin and end with a kind of humanistic acknowledgment of the pure value of clear mystery.

I think a lot of awful or at least boring poets are discussed incessantly because their work, either accidentally or intentionally, lends itself to highly analytical discussions that subordinate the poetry in the poetry to some "higher" pursuit, like philosophy or ethics. This is usually unintentional on the part of academics, but they just can't help it. Then again, the most famous poet in America is probably John Ashbery, and his work is almost impervious to particular common types of analytical discussions. Which is of course not to say that his work is not serious or valuable: in fact, I think that very imperviousness is central to what makes his work so essential and exhilarating to me and so many others. One awaits a critic who can find an interesting and productive way to address that central quality of his work.

4 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process?

Part of. They are a way of testing out the value and impact of my poems before actual human beings who are not beholden by genetics or common law to profess admiration.

5 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

I am trying to answer the question of what it means for me to be aware and alive, and how my experience can connect with and illuminate and be illuminated by the concerns and everyday lives of others. I'm not even sure what I mean by that, except that I need my poems to be intimately connected with the everyday lives of other human beings.

6 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

I didn't have any editorial guidance for my first book, which I think was good because it had already had a lot of readers. My second book had a great editor, Michael Wiegers at Copper Canyon. He didn't suggest a lot of changes, but he did go through the book very carefully, and asked me to consider certain recurring poetic moves which threatened to become habits or stylistic tics. At the very least, he made me reconsider my tendencies. And there were several line edits he suggested that I'm very happy about. So for me it wasn't difficult, and in fact I guess could be considered essential. I think poets in general can benefit greatly from thoughtful, respectful editors, who can reflect back what happens in the poems, and get poets to go that last way from good poems and books to truly great ones.

7 - After having published a couple of titles over the past few years, do you find the process of book-making harder or easier?

Well, I'm in the middle of writing my third book, which for me just means trying to sustain the daily practice of writing poems. Sometimes I find that incredibly pleasurable and easy; at others, it seems impossible. For me book-making is just writing poems.

8 - When was the last time you ate a pear?

That's kind of a personal question.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

Drink lots of water.

10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

I get up, drink coffee, try to find a good sunny spot (like a kitchen table or a good spot at a cafe), do a little reading (usually of a poetry book), and then try to write for a couple of hours.

11 - Where is your favourite place to write?

I like to write in public, as long as it's not too terribly noisy. I find some tumult and music and ambient conversation to be productive for my work. At some point in the refining or editing of the poem I usually need to retreat to a quieter place to work for a while.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

My own panic.

13 - How does your most recent book compare to your previous work? How does it feel different?

I think the newer poems are engaged in the continual process of finding ways of bringing in more of the world. I think that's the challenge for me, to find ways to keep the poems essentially beautiful and mysterious (without those two qualities they aren't poems -- or so said Keats, and I'm sticking with him), but also to fill them with familiar objects and language and life.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

All those things provide the inspiration, content, catalysts of interest, for me to write poems. Usually it is the language within those other texts or phenomena that interests me, more than the ideas. In other words, the texture of language in wall text in a museum or in nature or science writing or song lyrics can give me new ideas about possibilities of syntax, rhythm, etc., and launch me into speech pattern or vocabulary that I can harness or be harnessed by to move into more intimate concerns.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

Books and writing are so bound up in my life and who I am and what I think that I'm not sure I can really answer that question other than to say what I've been reading recently. I read as much as I can, which is not enough. I've been reading a lot of William Carlos Williams lately, a biography and his collected poems. A recent book that made a huge impact on me personally but had almost no affect on me poetically (I don't think) because the poems are so different from mine is Graham Foust's most recent book, Necessary Stranger. Jose Saramago is one of my favorite novelists, and so is Haruki Murakami. The writings that have been most important to my life, and work, are those of my friends and fellow poets, my contemporaries. They give me ideas and inspiration and the strength and motivation to continue working.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

Be grateful for my life over a long period of time.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

I like being a poet and a teacher, as well as an editor, and feel my life is extremely full and varied. I feel quite lucky to do what I do. So when I try to think of an answer to that question nothing really comes to mind. If I hadn't been a writer I suppose I probably would have been either a professor (of English or Russian, which I studied in college and graduate school), or a lawyer (my father was a lawyer, and there are certain elements of my mind and personality that seem to fit with that profession). But honestly it's very hard for me to imagine doing either of those things and not feeling like a fake person.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

I tried as hard as I could to do other things and I just kept coming back to writing poems as being the only way that I could be a full and integrated person in the world.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

The last truly great book I read .... probably Kafka on the Shore by Murakami. Film, no question about it, No Country for Old Men. Incredible, perfect movie.

20 - What are you currently working on?

New poems, teaching, editing, and being a decent person.

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