A few years back, in the middle of a West Coast tour, my band played a show in San Francisco with a guy named Michael Zapruder (and his band  Michael Zapruder’s Rain of Frogs). Nice guy. Great tunes– one of which, “Haymaker Market,” got stuck in my head for probably 3 months.

For me, the only way to un-stick a tune is to actually listen to the song. So I went on his site to stream the track, and while there I signed up for Michael’s mailing list. Over the years I’ve gotten the occasional seasonal email announcing what he’s up to musically.

One project that really caught my attention was called Pink Thunder, which Wikipedia describes as ”a collection of free verse pop art-songs made from the poems of more than twenty contemporary American poets. Contributors include Noelle KocotJames TateBob HicokDavid BermanD. A. Powell, and Valzhyna Mort.

After a little more Wikipedia-ing, I realized Michael has a brother Matthew who is  a celebrated poet, and a sister Alexandra who is a celebrated author. (As an only-child, talented siblings fascinate me!) I checked out Matthew’s poems online and admired their witty, broken, generous way. Later I bought his impressive, most recent collection Come On All You Ghosts. Then a couple months ago, while communicating with him about his appearance at the LA Times Festival of Books, I had the chance to set up an interview with Matthew Zapruder. Nice guy. Great poems. Thoughtful answers. Here’s the interview:

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YRTEOP: One of the things I enjoy most about your writing is the sharp sense of surprise from line to line. There definitely seem to be echoes of Ashbery in how you make quick shifts in tone, intensity, syntax, etc. How do you think about surprise within your own poems?

And maybe I’m imagining things, but I seem to recall hearing you say once that the resonance of ideas was an important organizing principle in your work. Can ideas rhyme? How? And how do you know when you’re achieving it?

Matthew Zapruder: Surprise is a phenomenon I try to cultivate within myself when I am writing poetry. But I also feel very strongly surprise alone, both as an effect on the reader, and within myself, is not enough. As Wallace Stevens once famously said, to make a clam play the accordion is to invent, not to discover. I need to feel the surprise in my poems of having discovered, not merely invented, something.

I try to be guided first and foremost by the feeling that I have come upon a connection not only that I previously was not conscious of, but which also feels very real and resonant to me, usually in some way I cannot quite articulate, but very strongly intuit. It’s instinctive, and involves a lot of trial and error. That trial and error and experimentation is closely related to the idea of so-called rhyming ideas. So yes, I do believe ideas can rhyme; usually you can’t “hear” the conceptual rhyme until you have put the two words near each other, and your mind understands the chime.

Yankees Vs. Red Sox; Beatles Vs. Stones; Zapruder Vs. _________________? 

His Neuroses.

A favorite of mine is your poem “Pocket.” It starts small enough—“I like the word pocket,” weaves its way through science, asteroid apocalypse, economics, self-doubt, and comes back to the pocket, with one of the best endings I’ve read in a while:

But this time I am thinking about its darkness.

Like the bottom of the sea. But without

The blind fluorescent creatures floating

In a circle around the black box which along

With tremendous thunder and huge shards

Of metal from the airplane sank down and settled

Here where it rests, cheerfully beeping.

Those lines contain a few twists—first, the “without” sets us up to believe you’re referring simply to a darkness like the bottom of the sea. But “here where it rests” switches the image again to being a kind of present reality. And, of course, “cheerfully” is wonderfully at odds with the “tremendous thunder” of a catastrophic crash.

Whatever “Pocket” is doing, it does it well. So,… what is it doing (at least, what were you hoping it would do for a reader)? And how did you do it?

As I most often do, I started writing without any plan whatsoever (or perhaps a plan I was willing at the slightest impulse to jettison, I can’t remember) about something small, and allowed my mind to start making connections. That’s how I write. If I want to get fancy or retrospectively theoretical, I could say along the way I use the aforementioned conceptual rhyme. At the end for instance, in the passage you quote I say basically that the darkness of my pocket is a kind of off-rhyme for the darkness of the sea: that is, it is like it in some ways, but unlike it in that there are none of those super-cool sea creatures that live at the deepest depths. Ultimately, the idea that the darkness of the pocket “rhymed” with the darkness at the bottom of the sea was something I could never have come up with without actually writing the poem and trying out different things.

At the end of the poem I am using the very common and simple rhetorical device of via negativa (that is, saying what is NOT there). That allows me to be simultaneously completely literal (there are no creatures in my pocket, obviously) and also have the presence of the creatures in the poem. I usually find when I am stuck in a poem, I just try to use a rhetorical device of some kind, often a simple one like a negation, or asking a question, and see what happens. I have no idea what I am going to write, and I don’t think of subject matter or plot or anything else as being a determining factor in where the poem will go, though of course those and other things are very much in the poems. It’s just that I don’t use those things to make the decisions about where I go next.

As far as “here where it rests,” yes, you are picking up on something very odd about the poem. After being kind of scrupulously and comically literal all the way through about what I can and can’t know, and other epistemological issues of dubious importance, I end up asserting at the end of the poem the impossible actuality of a literal crashed airplane in my pocket. It’s a real question, whether that’s a metaphor or “real” or a way of describing a certain emotional state or something else. That’s a mystery of the poem, even to me.

But to your question of how it happened, I can tell you there is absolutely no way I would have said that if I had stopped to plan it out, or known I was heading in that direction. I had to stumble into it, intuitively. After the fact we can say all kinds of different things, but really, I don’t think poets ever really know. We are all just trying to put ourselves in positions where language can take us somewhere new, and to be attentive to the associations and resonances suggested by words, so that we can move along to the next place. The characteristics of that movement from one word to the next — whether leap or a nimble stumble or a careful graceful plunge — are a matter of personality, and also what determines poetic style.

I can’t remember if there were earlier drafts of this poems that were a lot different, or if in this case the poem came easily. I used to revise a lot. Mostly what happens now is that I will try something and work it all the way through, and it will either be worth further rewriting (because there is something there) or it will just be an empty exercise in clever inventing, in which case it gets trashed, or small parts of it get recycled. I guess trashing stuff is the one thing I’ve always been willing to do, and hopefully that willingness has saved me from convincing myself that something mediocre is not.

Are you sick of being asked, “How do you know when a poem is finished?” I’ll ask anyway. How do you know when you’ve finished revising a poem? How do you know when a word is adding its bit of magic or just getting in the way?

I wish there was a liquid or something we could dip the end of our poems into that would turn a certain color if we had exactly the right ending. Maybe there is a poet out there with a scientific background who can get to work on that. All I can say, and this isn’t particularly helpful, is that if the poem doesn’t yet have the right ending, I just have a nagging feeling that the poem is not yet finished, or maybe finished in a way that is a little false. I listen to that feeling. It’s easy to write an acceptable ending, and a lot harder to find the one that really feels as if it simultaneously opens and closes the poem in just the right way. Usually if I don’t get it right away, I have to let things sit, keep coming back to it over and over again, until I know I’ve gotten it.

What is your greatest difficulty as a writer and how do you deal with it?

I am very, very, very distractible. Sometimes I deal with it well, by setting up schedules and situations that isolate me (literally and/or figuratively) in a space of writing. But more often than not I find myself looking back on a day, or week, or month, with great frustration, because I can see how much time I have wasted.

I read in an interview that one of your wishes for contemporary American poetry is that poets keep the reader more in mind. What do you mean by that, and how should/would that change the writing? 

How much of your creative process involves conscious exchange (with imagined readers or real ones)?

Or maybe a simpler way of asking this is– how often do you seek feedback from an audience, reader, editor, writing group, friends, etc? Does it help or hinder you to imagine an ideal reader on the other side of those words?

I sometimes find it helpful when I am writing my poems, at some point in the compositional process, to imagine an actual human being listening to them. Sometimes that means having a particular person (like my wife, or a friend, or a stranger) in mind. At other times that means actually writing the poem “for” a particular person. Sometimes as I write, the poem takes on an emotional direction, and starts to seem as if it would be useful for someone in a certain kind of situation, or maybe a particular person: I can end up discovering that the whole time I was actually writing a poem for a friend in need or for some person I don’t know in some kind of situation.

Imagining a reader or listener can be a grounding device that allows me to be very imaginative in certain moments, and very mundane in others. To have as big a range as possible in tones (i.e. ways of speaking to someone), as well as the kinds of object, events, ideas, phenomena, that are in the poems, this appeals to me greatly. So I am always in search of a structure that might allow me to do that. For another writer that might be something different, like a kind of form or rhyme or narrative or something else. Sometimes for me it can be one of those devices as well, instead of imagining a listener or reader.

I agree with (again) Wallace Stevens (almost always a good policy) when he writes, in “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words,” that the role of the poet is to help people live their lives. It sounds very grandiose, but really what he means is just to deepen experience, to protect ourselves against the constant encroachment of what he calls “the pressure of the real,” that is the mundane and the terrifying and the distracting and the monetary pressures that make us feel like automatons. The French Surrealists had a similar desire for poetry, that it would re-connect our daily existence with the world of imagination and dreams that modern life has split from us, so we are in constant deadening pain. I consider myself a humble follower in those footsteps.

I find that in some of the contemporary poetry to which I don’t connect, there is a quality of solipsistic resignation, as if it has never even occurred to the writer to consider that someone might go beyond merely admiring this piece of writing, and actually read it in order to be helped, or moved, or changed. That is what I mean by keeping the reader in mind. Of course on the other hand, there is a whole lot of bad poetry that uses the poem as a content delivery device, usually for a “message” that is not particularly interesting, to say the least. That is another way that writers are not really keeping the reader in mind, because they are not asking themselves, is it worth creating a very fancy container to basically say something silly or melodramatic or obvious. Or nothing at all.

It’s impossible to say in the abstract or theoretically which poems are full of elusive truth that cannot be paraphrased, and which poems are just frothy nothings or obscure boring sermons. But I think a lot of basic mistakes could be avoided if at some point in the process the writer just tried to take the idea of a reader seriously, which perhaps is difficult to do in our culture, where anything that cannot be monetized feels exceptionally useless, when of course the opposite is in fact the case, it is only the things that cannot be monetized that are truly important, because they have a slight chance of saving us.

If a poem represents a connective tissue between writer and reader, what chance does poetry have in our current world of limitless distractions?

I think a great chance. Reading or listening to poems is such a different experience from the rest of our lives, and the more we are colonized by our devices and the “information” and “experiences” that they supposedly deliver (when in fact it is we who are like virgins in some ritual sacrifice being delivered) the more people will respond to a true experience of un-monetized attention. If you just look at the faces of people at a reading where true poetry is happening, you see a kind of relaxed wistful dreamy attention, not necessarily towards the poem, but towards possibility, that is quite moving. Nowhere else in our lives do we have this opportunity, and I truly feel sorry for people who are deprived of the pleasure of occasionally coming into contact with real poetry.

I realize that even asking this question may point to a way of looking at poetry that you’ve long-since rejected (or never wrestled with to begin with), but—

In your poems, you include many references or invocations to the commonplaces of a contemporary life. You write about them with both authority and dark humor:  Diet Coke, Neko Case, blue staplers from Staples, Jell-O, unemployment rates, etc.

Does the inclusion of the everyday give a certain ballast to your poems which allows you to stretch beyond it? Clearly you’re not leaning on the traditional “poetic” images (lilies of the field, wine-red selvages of the West, etc.). Does the presence of modern trivia permit the eternal? Is it meant to stand-in for image? Is there still a place for sunsets and spring and flowers and hearts and souls and ghosts in poetry? 

A better way to say all of this may be: I think you do a great job of avoiding clichés, while maintaining a voice that is generous and oddly inclusive. How?

I’m pretty sure I have  in my poems found places for most if not all of those words. I believe there is a place for all words in poetry. I don’t think about including “the everyday” or “everyday experiences” — I think about including words that come from as many different types of experience as possible. The effect of this of course is that the experiences that these words relate to fill my poems, so in that way there is a lot of the everyday (as well as science, philosophy, dreamscapes, personal history, travel to places I have and have not actually visited, and so on) in the poems.

Regular language can feel very alive, and the simplest words can make up language experiences that do not feel in any way dead or clichéd or received. I learned this from reading writers like Neruda and Ritsos and Cavafy and Bishop and Dickinson and James Tate and Vasko Popa and Czeslaw Milosz and Robert Hass and Mary Ruefle and Dara Wier and many others who use all kinds of “normal” words and syntax in their poems, yet are constantly creating utterly strange poetic environments.

The use of cliché or dead language usually comes about when the writer has stopped thinking about the poem on a word by word level, and has gotten attached to some idea that he or she is trying to get across, or maybe a structure or even ideology that is more important than the effect of the poem itself. Once the poem turns primarily into a content delivery device, you are fucked. So I try not to let that happen to me. On the other hand, if you pay attention to words and let their structures lead you, you will end up saying very vital and meaningful and revealing things, and your poems will be full of many ideas, large and small.

When writing a poem, the poet is in a kind of dialogue with language. You write something down, maybe because it sounds good or is funny or for some reason attractive. Maybe you are just desperate or bored. Then, if you are paying attention, that initial piece of language will suggest more language, something that could not have been predicted. Maybe the first thing gets discarded. Maybe you go on a while until something really good starts to happen. You keep thinking of new things, maybe a bigger idea, or a situation is suggested from the first few lines, or perhaps merely a voice.  You start to choose things that work with that new structure. And then the things you choose suggest new unpredictable directions. And so on.This goes on and on, and if you are doing it right, it is fun, even exhilarating. You can’t believe what’s happening. It’s a buzz like no other drug, I can assure you.

The poem will be full of both mystery and ideas, but only if the poet truly discovers the meaning organically, from the qualities of the words themselves: the poem must be the site of an actual dialogue between what comes to the mind of the poet, and what is suggested by words and language that the poet could not have predicted. This process is different for every poet, and every poem for that matter. Sometimes what is required is almost no intervention by the poet; at other times, constant chipping away and molding and pushing the poem into a certain form or type of speech is essential. That is, by the way, what I believe can be taught or at least pointed out to creative writing students, possibilities for either leaving things alone or moving things in certain directions that they might not instinctively be aware of.

I hope no one gets the wrong impression that I am saying poems shouldn’t mean anything. If you read my poems I think you will see that I don’t believe poems should be just some beautiful collection of images that sound pretty or conjure up some nice pictures in the head of the reader. If the poem is made by the poet attentive to and in true dialogue with the most powerful thing humans have ever created, language, then it will have ideas in it, yes, but also feel like a true poem, because it will be one.

If the last surviving anthology had one of your poems in it, which one would you pick as proof that you were here? (and why?)

I have been sitting here imagining a cataclysm in which there would be only one “surviving” anthology, and it is making me very nervous. I suppose the title poem of my my most recent book would be somewhat appropriate, because in it I directly address someone in the future, which might makes sense to whoever has eventually dug him or herself out of the rubble in order to read a poetry anthology.

What advice would you give to someone who is just starting to write poems, or who says “I wanna be a poet when I grow up?”

Don’t grow up, they’ll make you get a job. And, poems are made of words, so if you love words and get interested in them and care about them and believe in their strange powers over time and logic and space, and if you do not make the mistake of trying to control them so they do what you “want,” they will take you all over creation and beyond. Which is a pretty excellent way to live.

Poet Matthew Zapruder, photo from PoetryFoundation.org

Less than 80 words about Chris Robley

Chris Robley has written 54 post in this blog.

Chris Robley splits his time between the Portlands Oregon and Maine, always longing for the other. He plays music on the West Coast and writes poems on the East—though sometimes that gets confused. His music has been praised by NPR, the LA Times, the Boston Globe, and others. Skyscraper Magazine said he is “one of the best short-story musicians to come along in quite some time.” Robley’s poetry is forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, RHINO, Pacifica Literary Review, Arsenic Lobster, and others.