ELECTRIC MOMENTS, FLEXIBLE ATTITUDES: an interview with matthew zapruder
JULY WESTHALE: I would like to start today at the origin: do you have a memory or an aha moment that informed you that you loved poetry? Do you have a moment when you started writing poetry?
MATTHEW ZAPRUDER: I was a graduate student at UC Berkeley in the early 90s, studying Russian literature, which was my field in college—I had lived in the Soviet Union for a year. When I came back, I lived in San Francisco for a few years before going to Berkeley for grad school. I knew that I wanted to be a writer, but I hadn’t really written very much. I was always interested in poetry, but I never thought of myself as a poet—I had written a few poems, but when I started really writing in grad school, I wrote mostly poems. I didn’t really know why that was. It just sort of… happened. In retrospect, it makes sense that I was interested in poetry, but I’m not sure there was an a-ha moment. I figured out I wanted to be a poet through writing poems, which I guess was the best way. I didn’t even know what an MFA program was, then. It wasn’t where I came from, academically or otherwise. It took me a long time to write anything that was worthwhile—it was all pretty bad, to start off with. But that’s ok. I tried everything; one of the first things I did was took the Norton Anthology, and wrote my way through the appendix of forms. I tried every form. I wrote sonnets, blank verse, sestinas, all different forms, lots of rhyming. It never felt like me, but I did like it. I was reading, at the time, a lot of 19th and 20th century Russian poetry. Maybe I’ll try it again sometime.
JW: I think writing in form is important. Paul Fussell talks about this a lot, about how prosody, meter, unit—how they create a sense of hypnosis, a kind of dance in the body. It creates a physical reaction in the body—so even if rhyme isn’t your jam, so to speak, I’m sure it informed your sense of sound.
MZ: Oh, yeah! I think the thing about form of any kind is that it makes you say things you wouldn’t otherwise say. I think you can cultivate that same ability to make yourself say things without form, but form is an excellent way to understand what poems do. That was the most crucial part of it, for me. You force your brain to be unnatural. I still read formal poetry. Keats is probably my favorite poet, but writing in form doesn’t really fit me; I have other ways of moving through poems.
JW: That ties in well with my next question, which is to say, I think that your poetry invokes the workings of the mind in a way that is conversational and nuanced and enjoyable to read. I would like to know how process works for you.
MZ: The 10,000 hour rule sounds good to me. It’s important to read and write a lot—I am a big believer, for me and my students, in a daily practice. Though I don’t do it a lot, I make up writing exercises for myself; it beats staring at the blank page, just trying to figure out what to say. That’s daunting. Sometimes it works out, sometimes not, but it’s beneficial for me to have a task. And here, I have my notebook, I carry it most places, I just write down lines. Partially just to be working, and partially because I’ll cull from them over time, just a few interesting lines. I’m more of a believer of a ‘throw things against the wall’ approach: have a flexible attitude and find the electric moments, then pursue them. I have a lot different ways of doing that. As William Stafford said, “There’s no such thing as writers block, just lower your standards.” I keep lowering my standards. This notebook is full of stupid stuff, but it’s just a notebook!
JW: I think of Carl Philips talking about how hard it is to be chicken shit in front of a notebook (or computer, or typewriter).
MZ: Yes, that, and I think we should acknowledge how terrifying it is to be alone with your imagination and the possibility of the poem. I think it’s natural to feel chicken shit. I don’t think one can afford to succumb to it, but it’s natural to be scared. I know I am.
JW: Absolutely. I want to shift gears a little bit and talk about Wave Books and your publishing career. I see you as one of those rare editors who has committed to staying with a writer through the course of their career; there are a few editors and publishing houses that do this (we do a pretty good job of this at Copper Canyon), but I don’t see it terribly frequently in the publishing industry as a whole. I see folks staying with a poet or an author for one or two books before dropping off. My question for you is, how do you see your role as a publisher or editor working over time in the formation a large body of work from an author?
MZ: So Wave came out of a publishing house I started with [poet and editor] Brian Henry in the early 2000s, called Verse Press. The point of the press was that there were many manuscripts out there by poets around our age, mid-twenties to thirties, who couldn’t find a publisher. So we took on that job of publishing those manuscripts. Our interest was to support people as they grew into the artists they could be, and then Wave came out of that, into continuing to support those authors. I’ve always thought of a publishing house as a place where somebody publishes more than one book; and we thought of Wave as a place where an author can feel supported in the larger activity of growing and changing. We do some specific, individual projects, but we are mostly a publishing house that has a broad focus on the life’s work of an author. We stick with our authors, Joshua Beckman [Wave’s other editor] and I.
We are in dialogue with them throughout the entire process and everything we do is in relation to their work as poets. Each poet needs something different. We’re almost a gallery model for all of the artists we’re going to support for the next decades.
JW: That segues into my next question, about literary citizenship. I’m interested in the idea that we are vested with rights and duties as a community to each other; the success of one of us is the success of all, particularly in poetry, where supporting one another is imperative to our survival. How do you feel you’ve been gifted by the literary populace? How do you see yourself as a citizen in that community?
MZ: On a personal level, I found my people when I started writing poems. My friends, my family, my associates. Quickly, it became my life. It became very easy to support and care about other people. I don’t think poetry is a zero-sum game; when you help people and you support them, it comes around. I’m always trying to get better in my writing, so the more people I meet, the better I’m going to be. That is my life—this is how I make a living, but it’s also my everyday life, all my personal and professional relationships are built around this community. I look to my mentors (for example, Bob Hass and Brenda Hillman, as well as many others, as well as dead poets) for guidance all the time. I’m always learning, and this is my community.
July Westhale is a mixed race poet, activist, and radical archivist with a weakness for botany and hot air balloons. She has been awarded fellowships from the Lambda Literary Foundation, Tin House, and the Dairy Hollow Writers Colony. Her poetry has most recently been published in Barely South Review, Hinchas de Poesia, WordRiot, 580 Split, Quarterly West, Muzzle Magazine, ROAR Magazine, and So to Speak: A Feminist Literary Journal. Her poetry can also be found in the recently released anthologies: Conversations at the Wartime Café: a Decade of War 2001-2011, Women Write Resistance, and Contemporary Queer Poetry. She was recently nominated for the Best New Poets of 2012 anthology, an AWP Intro Award, and a Creative Writing Fulbright. july AT litseen DOT com