Another quick and impertinent Interviews With Poets before scrambling off to more reading gigs. I’ll be schlepping around for my about-to-be-released book Slant Six from now till December (Columbus, St. Louis, San Antonio, Austin, Miami, etc.). I just read the first review--which was very kind--but the reviewer also seems to think I'm a recovering alcoholic based on a satirical poem called "12 Step." (The poem is written from the point of view of a writer vowing never to write another "personal" poem again). I'm always gobsmacked by what people get out of my poems. A total mystery. But mostly not an unpleasant one. I mean, nice of them to care at all, right?
Speaking of poets we care about, today’s is Matthew Zapruder. Matthew is another poet I’ve known for as far back as my adult memory goes. But I didn’t come to know Matthew well until he invited me to join the Wave Press Poetry Bus Tour that he and Joshua Beckman organized in 2006.
Part Electric Kool Aid, part Bataan death drive, the tale of that two month tour with a clown car full of poets (actually, a biodiesel-fueled motor coach)--reading in bars, bowling alleys and barns all across the US and Canada--is one of those rare moments in poetry history that I believe will be remembered (“They did what?”).
My most emblematic story about Matthew comes from that bus tour, when we’d stopped in Salt Lake City to do a reading. The night before we’d had a raucous gig in Boise, Idaho and everyone on the bus was shagged out, content to make an early evening of it. The fine poetry citizens of Salt Lake had another idea.
We were at a bookstore called Ken Sanders Rare Books. The name conjured a gentleman collector of foxed, 1st editions. We imagined a small audience of well-behaved poetry aficionados and then to bed. What we got was the hairy inch from a bacchanal—heaps of amazing food, wine flowing, 60s era, socialist chanting, singing, and guitars. There were also other “refreshments.”
It was after these that I found myself squinting slack jawed in front of a large, framed illustration hanging on the bookstore wall. Made in the 1940s for a pharmaceutical company, the picture is titled “Germ Isolation In Dingbat Land,” and is a highly detailed cartoon of an adorable germ creature being tortured by a gang of tiny space trolls. It is, to use the parlance of the day, deeply fucked up.
Matthew wandered over to me while I was staring (and staring) at it. We had an intense conversation about how very IMPORTANT the picture was, containing ALL the metaphors for EVERYTHING. It seemed obvious that “Germ Isolation In Dingbat Land” was the “Key To All Mythologies” and Citizen Kane’s “Rosebud” rolled into one.
Then Matthew said, “Erin, you must buy this. You have to. You were destined to have it.”
I do not remember purchasing “Germ Isolation In Dingbat Land,” nor do I remember paying $300 for it (though the signed receipt that arrived with the package does make my case harder to prove). But it now hangs on my kitchen wall, a permanent reminder to Adam that I may not be trusted with the debit card.
Which is to say Matthew has a genius for transmitting his deep enthusiasms and passions, both in his poems and in person. I think part of his gift lies in the fact that he’s not pushy about it. More that Matthew offers gentle revelations, as his poems show us this moment, this thought, this scientific theory, this can of Cocoa Cola, this sound that this bell is (not) making—all of these compel our fullest attention.
The world of Matthew’s poems is shadowed with the unheimliche, though his recognition of these disturbances doesn’t forget what is also charming, sly, humorous, and even sweetly wistful. It is this uncanny quality of attention, the exact gradations in shades between states of human being, that make him an irritatingly difficult poet from which to steal. Lord knows I’ve tried.
And knowing his four, critically-admired, award winning poetry collections well, I am simply left with a strong sense of Matthew’s generosity, his willingness to risk sincerity for the sake of meaningful connections, and the potential for adventure he offers if we’re willing to go on the trip.
So, Matthew, I can tell if someone actually knows you based on whether or not they refer to you as “Matt.”
Why do you hate being called Matt? Don’t you think it’s kind of a sporty alternative to the original, like the ultimate frisbee playing version of yourself?
Also, what’s a nickname of yours that you do like? Please share it with us.
I was called Matt in high school, for some reason. I never liked it, and in fact do hate it. It just sounds so ugly when I think of it in reference to myself. Which is strange, because one of my best friends is a Matt, Rohrer. I like it on him. So to answer your question, if someone calls me Matt it either means they don't know me or knew me in high school. Which is kind of the same thing actually.
Maybe I just like the you in Matthew, it seems communicative, and makes me feel slightly less lonely.
When I went to college, there were a few guys there who were from the greater NY area who seemed to enjoy calling me Mattie, which seemed endearing, like I was their pal from hockey practice. That nickname by the way was solely endemic to that region. I have a few friends who call me "Z" which is fine. I want to say you can call me whatever you want, but that seems potentially dangerous. Nicknames are way too revealing, I don't ever want to actually know what people think of me.
Well, that’s reasonable. I think those of us with non-contractible names suffer from a little nickname envy. Though a number of my grad students call me “Tiny E” after the mini Elvis character on SNL. So my jealousy has been assuaged.
But this made me think of Cate Marvin’s essay about being chosen for a prestigious residency, and when they found out she’d just had a baby, some on the committee were concerned she’d waste her time writing “terrible mother poems.”
Are you concerned parenthood is going to make you write “terrible father” poems? Or are dude poets safe in that regard?
Tiny E. That is awesome. I shudder to think what my grad students call me.
And thanks. Your confidence is much appreciated. I am currently surrounded by baby gear as I'm writing this. I have recently been introduced to the existence of many items that address needs I had no idea existed, and I'm sure this is just the beginning.
You know, in fact I am a bit worried about that. Not because of poems by others I have seen, but because I have a tendency to write out of my own experience, and to find the language within it that seems most potentially electric and luminous and to follow it wherever it goes. That's how I write, and it requires a delicate balance of attention to feelings and weird objectivity toward those feelings, if that makes any sense. Sometimes though I have found that the stronger and more immediate the feelings surrounding the experience (particularly with death), the more difficult it is to have the necessary distance to follow what Stafford called "the golden thread."
In other words I agree with Keats when he wrote that in a great poet a sense of beauty obliterates all consideration. And I get the feeling that having a kid is an intense dose of consideration, and mattering. Which is good. I'm sure there will be nothing I will care more about than the baby and his mother and our little family. So I wonder what that will do to the objectivity of my relation to language in balance with said feelings. I want my experience, however personal, to be representative through the mechanism of our collective consciousness (i.e. language) to as many people as possible. To my mind that happens for poets through the pursuit of "beauty," though of course that term means something very different to each poet.
On the other hand, as I think Montaigne wrote (not that I've read any Montaigne), most of my life has been filled with terrible misfortunes, most of which never happened. So odds are I'm as usual worrying about the wrong thing.
Yeah, well it’s probably just as well Keats didn’t have any kids, saving us all from his “Ode On A Diaper Genie.” But I think kids actually do heighten one’s sense of negative capability, as it certainly puts you in a position of GREAT unknowing. You figure out quickly that grasping after fact and reason is an entirely pointless exercise when it comes to infants.
I’m not sure if you remember this, but there was a time when we were reading together years ago and I had a panic attack on stage—wobbling legs, squeaky voice, some hyperventilating—and from the corner of my eye, I saw you reposition your chair near me at the podium in what looked like preparation to break my fall if I did in fact collapse. (This is by far the most gallant gesture anyone has ever made toward me, and is the root of my great affection for you).
But you NEVER seem to sweat behind the podium. Never. Is that because you’re incredibly confident deep down in your soul?
Also, why do you think so many poets are such terrible readers? I mean even poets that you like on the page, and then see them in person and they use the horrible “poetry voice" and mumble, and their poetry patter sucks. Or they natter on for 25 minutes and then read a two minute-long poem. What’s the key to putting on a good performance?
Wow, I totally remember that! We were in Montana, if I'm not mistaken. That was just the insane beginning of what turned out to be a truly insane two months on that Poetry Bus. I can't believe you decided to come along; you are a truly adventurous soul.
It's funny, I think of you as a great reader. You seem to be attentive to the fact that you are in front of an audience. I used to get very nervous when I read, but I did it so many times I think I just got used to it. I still get that feeling of despair and why did I ever leave my house woe, but now it manifests more as a kind of almost total enervation, a desire to sleep for a thousand years that comes on in a very strong way about an hour or so before the reading. Recognizing the feeling and knowing what it is when it's happening helps.
To tell the truth, I think it's natural to have an internal resistance to reading poetry aloud. I think it's a big risk. At first, when I started reading, I was worried about what people thought of me. Now I'm worried about something else. I want something from a reading, a kind of experience, it is probably completely unreasonable, but I want to feel a sort of collective attention, not to me (and in fact when I am reading well the attention really is mostly away from me) but to possibility and to language and to lucid dreaming. And if I am reading and I don't feel that in the room, I have a deep sense of failure. That's a personal thing, it's not really oh they did or didn't like me, but more, I have organized my life around creating this kind of feeling not just in myself, but in others, and if it doesn't work, often for reasons beyond my or anyone else's control, then I get very sad, almost completely depressed.
You are right, a lot of poets are terrible readers. Often they just go on too long, and choose the wrong poems to read. Almost any reading is ok if it's not too long, at least it's interesting. In your example in the question that is a 27 minute reading, which to my mind is pretty long even if there's just one reader. I want there to be a collectively accepted sign to make when someone has gone on too long. Something that starts out gentle, so if someone has just lost track of time they can get a warning and can gracefully call it to a close. Maybe we can work that out at a future AWP. Here's what I suggest: time your reading, and then multiply it times the number of people you are reading with. If the number you get is something horrifying like 190 minutes then you should rethink your set.
As far as negative capability and kids, I think my main task is going to be to minimize the amount of internal irritability with which I reach after fact, reason, and butt wipes. But again, what I think I'm going to have to worry about and what I'm actually going to worry about are surely very different things.
Ah, you are wise to know the difference. And thank you for the compliment on my readings. Once I gave up my last vestiges of personal dignity, it got a lot easier.
And regarding useful signals, I know a writer who ran a reading series who came up with a sure fire solution for willfully long winded readers--she put plants in the audience who’d simultaneously jump up for a standing ovation when blowhard writers went well beyond their allotted time.
It worked pretty brilliantly. Few audience members can resist the social pressure of the standing O. If you wanna try it out at AWP this year, I promise to be the second person on my feet.
Final Question: One of my favorite books of yours is Come On All You Ghosts. Did you watch a lot of Ghost Hunters to prepare for it? Tell us a real life encounter with a ghost you’ve had.
That is a brilliant idea that writer had, passive aggressive standing ovations. And sad that it was necessary to come up with.
I just want to say, I know you are being funny (which you are!), but that thing about giving up personal dignity ... I think there's a deep truth to that. A reading really isn't about the writer. It seems like it is, for a lot of social reasons, but in the end I just don't think that's what makes a really great reading. It is, in a way, about giving up one's own dignity, becoming somehow transparent to the language and ideas. I know that when I have given my very best readings, I feel as if I am just a bit behind the words, almost physically pushing them into the audience, and they arrive there in the room as if they have their own materiality, which of course they do, as sound and then as idea/electrons in the minds of the listeners. I hope when I am reading aloud to be completely forgotten, if I am then I am doing my job well.
I don't watch Ghost Hunters. I've never seen a ghost. I've very occasionally heard voices, which is how I wrote that poem, the title poem of that book: a voice kept saying that phrase in my head, it was as if there was another consciousness with me for several weeks, insisting that I be attentive to something, it took me a while to really listen but when I did the poem came pouring out, not dictated, but as if something had finally been released. That is not how it usually works for me. Which is probably good, because it was more than a little crazy making when it happened. The only other supernatural thing that has happened to me, many times (I would say at least 15 or so) is, I think I see someone on the street, someone I have not heard from or spoken to for many years. Or they come to mind. It's completely unexpected and random, and if I think I've seen them it always turns out it's not them, usually it couldn't be, they live far away. I think huh, that's strange, I thought that was Ben or Olena. And then that person will call or email or something else. It's like a little living pre-shadow, so maybe the opposite of a ghost. As usual, a completely useless power! But a nice one actually.
Thank you, Matthew. This has been a very edifying conversation. And I can’t wait to meet the Li'l Z and see you sporting a BabyBjorn! Very fetching.
Soon to come, as promised, Dana Levin.