Matthew Zapruder is the author of four collections of poetry, most recently Come On All You Ghosts (Copper Canyon 2010), aNew York Times Notable Book of the Year, and Sun Bear (Copper Canyon 2014). An assistant professor in the St. Mary’s College of California MFA program and English department, he is also an editor at Wave Books. He lives in Oakland. See him read at City Lights Bookstore on Tuesday, April 15.
When people ask what do you do, you tell them… ?
If in their eyes I detect the usual understandable flicker of disinterest about the conversation, in order to let us both go on our peaceful separate ways, I say “English professor.” If for some reason they seem to really want to talk, I will say “poet.” More often than not something weird happens after that.
What’s your biggest struggle — work or otherwise?
My own distraction.
If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them?
There is a pretty low barrier of entry to poetry. All you need is a brain and something to write with and on. I think most people can write poetry, that is, can start to feel that spark of language doing something it does not ordinarily do, if they want to get themselves in the right mindset.
First, they have to stop thinking poetry is just a way to express deep emotions or feelings through fancy or heightened language: that’s really just bad prose with some decorative and useless line breaks or rhymes. When I teach beginning poets, I mostly just try to use simple exercises and other structures so they will get to feel that thing language can do when it starts to get liberated. Some of them get really interested in it, and then before they know it, they are poets. And if someone is serious about poetry, I can share with them the many things I do (writing and reading) to keep getting to know the material, i.e. language, which takes a lifetime, at least.
What are you working on right now?
Right now I’m working on a prose book called Why Poetry, which will be published in 2015. It’s for general readers, and I really hope it will help people get over some basic fears and misunderstandings about poetry. It’s also an argument for the importance of poetry, not that poetry needs such an argument to be made for it, but it’s interesting for me, and hopefully for readers, to think about.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen?
I’ve seen the Marfa Mystery Lights, and I love that no one seems to really be able to explain them.