Matthew Zapruder, Poet

Matthew Zapruder (born 1967 in Washington, D.C.) is an American poet, editor, translator, and professor. He is the author of several collections of poetry, including Sun Bear (2014), Come On All You Ghosts (2010), The Pajamaist (2006), and American Linden (2002). His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Harvard Review, The Believer, and Best American Poetry 2009. Why Poetry, a book of prose, is forthcoming from Ecco Press in 2017. With Brian Henry, Zapruder co-founded Verse Press, which later became Wave Books. His honors include a 2011 Guggenheim Fellowship, a Lannan Foundation Residency Fellowship in Marfa, TX, the 2008 May Sarton Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the 2007 Williams Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America. He lives in Oakland, CA, where he is Director of the Saint Mary’s College of California MFA in Creative Writing, and Editor at Large at Wave Books.

This interview took place over email, in August, 2015.

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José Hernández Díaz: Which poets or prose writers help get your creative juices going? Who are you constantly returning to?

Matthew Zapruder: My guides are the gentle warrior dreamer poets who search for their own particular ways of reactivating language, and therefore us. Sappho, the T’ang poets Tu Fu, Li Po, and Wei Yingwu, and others. Coleridge, Keats, Whitman, Dickinson. Mandelstam, Pessoa, Desnos. Stevens, Neruda. Vasko Popa, Yannis Ritsos, Cavavy. Jack Spicer, Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler, Robert Creeley, Lorine Niedecker, the recently departed Tomaz Salamun, and James Tate. This list is totally incomplete. Among the living: Ashbery, Adélia Prado, Mary Ruefle, Dara Wier, Robert Hass, Brenda Hillman, Juan Felipe Herrera, and so many others I’m sure I’m forgetting, and many of my peers.

As far as prose, I took most of the summer to read Knausgaard and Elena Ferrante, both of whom I thought were extraordinary. I am now reading a novel by the noted psychoanalyst Thomas Ogden.

. . . when a poem is really humming along, it’s because it feels new and also old. New in this particular iteration, old because it’s the deep collective wisdom of language, what we already somehow and for a long time have known.

JHD: What wows you in poetry? What bores you?

MZ: I think when I first read Dickinson’s description of how reading poetry makes her feel as if physically the top of her head were coming off, that felt right to me, I recognized something like that. For me, it has to be something that happens in the body somewhere, an electric charge, not necessarily like being violently shocked, but again, activated.

I don’t particularly like pretension. I’m also not a big fan of the poeticization of things that seem to me as if they really should be said in prose. Lyrical preaching to the converted bores me. I don’t see much evidence that the content of a poem, more or less beautified by poetic craft, has really changed anyone’s mind or made them live better. It seems like those sorts of poems get awfully close to the manipulation characteristic of political speech or advertising. I always find myself bored, not to mention dismayed, when the entire discussion of a poem revolves around its content or message. This seems to implicitly consign poetry to the sad fate of being a content delivery device.

JHD: About how long does it take for you to create a polished piece? Do you have any rituals or superstitions? Favorite music to listen to while reading / writing?

MZ: I don’t try to polish anything. I want the poems to have force. Sometimes it happens right away, sometimes it can take years, or not at all. I just keep going back until I feel it is right.

As far as rituals, I just try to shut off as much of the noise (internet, phone, etc.) as I can. I think of that as a ritual behavior. I don’t listen to music when I write very much, except occasionally Satie’s sidereal music of the spheres, which I am listening to right now, or this amazing band I really love who CAConrad first turned me onto, and then I got to be friends and eventually collaborators with, Victoire.

JHD: Your thoughts on the use and function of non-sequiturs and juxtaposition in your poetry? Is it fair to say Frank OHara and Dean Young are influences in terms of this aesthetic?  

MZ: I want to object to the term non-sequitur. A non-sequitur is a statement that doesn’t follow logically. I think it is the poet’s job (look at me now giving jobs to poets! We already have too many jobs, we shouldn’t have to work at all), whether in metaphor or in the more macroscopic movement of the poem, to find the unexpected yet also retrospectively right-feeling connections latent in language and the brain. Aristotle wrote that people who are poets have “an eye for resemblances.” They can see, or I think more exactly intuit, connections in the language that are not usually there. In other words, when a poem is really humming along, it’s because it feels new and also old. New in this particular iteration, old because it’s the deep collective wisdom of language, what we already somehow and for a long time have known.

Some poets are drawn to violent and dramatic leaps of association, high wire acts. Others are calmer and more meditative. I like poets all along that spectrum, and think I am drawn in my own poetry to do a variety of things. So yes, it is quite fair to say O’Hara and Dean Young are influences (I’d add James Tate in there, since he was my teacher, and I have probably read more of his poetry than almost anyone else), but they and so many others are part of a tradition I mentioned above, one that goes back to the New York School and Bay Area poets of the mid 20th century, and surrealism, and much before that, to the great Romantic poets, the Chinese poets, and so on. Brilliant dreamers, loving appliers of alien names.

JHD: What was the first publication that made you feel you had made it as a writer? Any memorable celebrations following individual poem or manuscript acceptances?  

MZ: When my first book was published in 2002, it was an important moment for me. I had started writing relatively late (in my 20s), so a lot of my peers and friends had already published fantastic first and even second books. So when American Linden was published, that helped me feel as if I were now truly a part of something. At that time, we really were (and still continue to be) a very close tribe. We still write, work, read, travel, and discuss poetry together. So that was really what I was interested in, the respect and readership of my peers. And of the dead.

When my first book came out, it first physically arrived at a literary festival in Staten Island that my close friend Joshua Beckman had organized. It was in a giant old theater called the St. George which I believe has now been renovated, but at that time it had basically been abandoned. It had a huge black stage lit up, and what felt like thousands but were probably at the most a few hundred seats shrouded in complete darkness. We spent all day there, everyone came to read a few poems, bands played at the end of the evening, it was like being inside a giant dreaming poetry and music head. Anyway, the first time I saw my book, it was the morning of that festival: Tupelo Press sent a box directly to the theater! This was something amazing. Thank you Tupelo Press! I remember going to move my car after that and thinking, with the utter seriousness of a young person, ‘Now if I am hit by a truck as I am driving and perish, I at least will feel like I did one thing with my life.’

JHD: I recently read three Wave Books: As Long As Trees Last by Hoa Nguyen, Trances of the Blast by Mary Ruefle, and The Pedestrians by Rachel Zucker. All great books. What other authors can we look forward to Wave publishing in the future? How do you find your authors?

MZ: We publish about 6-8 books a year, mostly single volume monographs of poetry by mid-career American poets (though we do also publish translations and other work edited by those poets as well). Joshua Beckman (the Editor of Wave Books) and I are always reading, looking, discussing, going to readings, etc. We are active editors, and we consider it our job to find the poets who are right for Wave Books. One book I’m particularly thrilled about, and can brag about because I personally did not work on it, is Supplication, a new selected poems of John Wieners, edited by Joshua and CAConrad and Robbie Dewhurst. It’s an absolutely brilliant selection, and people seem very excited about it. I love reading it.

JHD: Any new writers, first or second book, that you are excited about?

MZ: There are so many poets now that I couldn’t even really begin to answer this question. One book I would recommend everyone read is not a first or second book but a third one, by Victoria Chang, called The Boss. I go back to it a lot, I think it is brilliant and very emotionally honest without being merely anecdotal. It takes on some huge issues—mortality and financial anxiety, as well as parenting—in ways that emerge with great integrity out of the material of language itself. It’s exactly what I was referring to above, poetry with a great moral and historical sense that is not just lyricized prose.

JHD: What are you working on now?

Writing new poems and finishing up a book of prose, Why Poetry, that’s coming out next year.

JHD: Can you tell us about your MFA experience? You went to UMass-Amherst. Any writer mentors that were influential to you as a writer, who and how?

MZ: I’ve written about my MFA experiences here and here.

I loved getting my MFA at UMass. I studied with James Tate, Dara Wier, and Agha Shahid Ali, all of whom were intensely formative for me in different ways, and continue to be. I went to school with a lot of extremely talented young poets who have gone on to do amazing things. It was a great time, intensely accelerating, and my experiences at UMass still influence in so many ways my own conception of my job as a professor in the MFA program at Saint Mary’s College in California. I know people say a lot of things about MFA programs, good and bad, and it’s a complicated subject, but I am absolutely sure, from my own experience as a student and as a teacher, that it can be under the right circumstances a great thing for a young writer, exciting and productive and fun.

JHD: Any advice for MFA students?

MZ: Read, experiment, try, change, have faith.

Jose HernandezJosé Hernández Díaz is an MFA student at Antioch University Los Angeles. He earned a BA in English from UC Berkeley. His work has appeared in The Best American Nonrequired ReadingThe Progressive, Lumina, Witness, Huizache, Pilgrimage, Juked, Hobart, Parcel, Acentos Review, Whiskey Island, and others. He has served as an editor for Lunch Ticket and Floricanto Press.