Tonight’s guest, Matthew Zapruder, is the author of four collections of poetry, most recently Come On All You Ghosts, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and Sun Bear, published this spring by Copper Canyon Press. Currently Matthew is working on a prose book for general readers, Why Poetry, which is forthcoming in 2015.
Writing poems is just one of Matthew’s passions. He serves as an editor at Wave Books. For The Figments, an indestructible Western Massachusetts-based rock band, he plays lead guitar. Turn-ons include negative capability, lakes, Knausgaard, Teodoro Anzellotti, Bidu Sayao, and Mac Freedom. Turn-offs: people who take apart manual typewriters and use the keys for jewelry.
The Rumpus: Matthew, welcome to the show.
Matthew Zapruder: Hey, Dave.
Rumpus: Wow, this audience is fired up. Here on Late Nite we don’t let ’em into the studio until they’ve drained a 5-Hour ENERGY.
Zapruder: That explains it.
Rumpus: You comfortable there on our new couch?
Zapruder: It’s like it was built for me.
Rumpus: Cool. Let’s get started. I have a theory that all poets depend on coffee, cigarettes, or beer. I’m a beer man myself. Which of the three helps you court your muse?
Zapruder: Coffee, for sure. Sometimes at night I’m impatient to fall asleep so I can wake up and drink it. I used to smoke cigarettes but not anymore. I don’t really drink beer. Right now I’m drinking bourbon and soda, as a prophylactic measure.
Rumpus: I’m working on a Highland Gaelic Ale here behind the desk. “A deep American amber-colored ale, featuring a rich malty body… This ale is exceptionally balanced between malty sweetness and delicate hop bitterness.” It’s heavenly.
Zapruder: Beer is a young man’s game.
Rumpus: Or a bald man’s.
Zapruder: That description does sounds a bit xenophobic, by the way. Or at least full of American triumphalism lurking behind a kind of Gaelophilic passive-aggressiveness.
Rumpus: Ha! We’re commercial-free around here, so we have to fill the coffers with product placement.
Zapruder: A lot of things are starting to make sense.
Zapruder: Maybe the title poem? That seems as emblematic as it gets.
Rumpus: I was hoping we’d talk about this one. The audience can link to it here. It introduces us to the speaker we’ll follow throughout this book, and his contemporary situation. I pick up on a palpable sense of sadness that the speaker feels the bear must share. “Sun Bear” is also a poem seemingly about thought itself, a theme I found popping up again and again.
Zapruder: Well, I believe that “thinking” is just as real a phenomenon in the world as anything else, and just as worthy of exploration. Maybe even more? So writing about “thought” to me is like writing about a tree or anything else real. And we know all humans have a kind of hum of reverie or wondering going on just below the surface of conscious thought and engagement with others—all the functional shit we have to do—and as a poet it’s interesting to tap into this hum, this very real constant thinking, to see what’s going on.
Rumpus: Yeah, but it’s tricky to discuss the process of thinking without blowing up the magic of the poem, without obstructing the image of the bear in his enclosure. The speaker is obviously very self-conscious, very present, and yet the bear is still the star of the poem, it seems, with its “claws made out of wood” and dreams of its enemy, the clouded leopard.
By the way, if anyone out there hasn’t seen a sun bear before, the Oakland Zoo’s “Sun Bear Cam” is straight out of the Letterman playbook.
Zapruder: When I saw the sun bears at the Oakland Zoo, I immediately was drawn to them. Not to be ornery, but regarding what you said about the speaker identifying with the bear: I’m not sure it’s exactly right to say that the speaker feels that the bear must share his sadness, or whatever else he is feeling. That would be classic pathetic fallacy, which is certainly generative for poetry, but here the speaker appears actually to be rejecting that idea. The speaker tentatively reaches out with that feeling and realizes that it’s kind of absurd, or at least a dangerous consolation, which is what I think is discovered as that longish sentence at the end of the poem comes to its conclusion. But here I am interpreting my own poem, which is kind of like making out with one’s own high school yearbook photo.
Rumpus: Mullet or moustache? Every guy’s high school picture from that era features one or the other.
Zapruder: Sorry, neither. Just a highly airbrushed complexion, an ill-advised haircut, and a confused grin.
Rumpus: Damn. I was hoping we could link to a picture of you with a badass Burt Reynolds-inspired mustache. I had a mullet, by the way, sort of like this guy’s.
Rumpus: Back to the poem…does the sun bear carry no symbolic or metaphorical weight for you, then? I interpret it to be a stand-in or vessel for the speaker’s thoughts and feelings. It’s dreaming about its nemesis and existential threat, the dreaded clouded leopard. The speaker seems brooding, alone, caged inside his own angst. But maybe because this is the title poem I’m putting too much emphasis on the sun bear.
Zapruder: Hm. I guess I don’t really think about things that way. I mean, yes, of course it’s symbolic, in the way that things in a poem can be—that is, pointing to something beyond its mere ordinary meaning, while also retaining all the qualities of that ordinary meaning. In other words, it’s a bear, but it’s also suggesting something else, just by virtue of the attention to it. But it’s not “symbolic” in that way we are taught to think about things in poems. Something can be symbolic without being a mere stand-in or vessel, which just brings us away from the true mystery and dread, into some boring version of what we already know. So what you say is true, in that the bear is a kind of parallel to the speaker, or imagined as such, but also very different. So if it’s a symbol it is—ahem—a polysemous one.
Rumpus: I agree that too much emphasis on symbolism ruins a lot of good poems, and our readings of them. But allow me to push this line of questioning one step further. Does it matter that the speaker focuses his attention on a sun bear? Could a Bengal tiger or wallaby have suited, or almost have suited, the poem just as well?
Zapruder: Do you think so? I mean, without waiting for your answer, I think the answer is really in the language. Of course I was drawn to the sun bears, they’re fascinating. But so are tigers and lots of other animals at the zoo. Probably a big part of the reason I felt so connected to them was because of their name: SUN BEAR.
Rumpus: Yes…that’s what I was wondering and even hoping for, but I didn’t know how to articulate it. That sun bear could be so ordinary and bored in its pen…in fact, it’s initially described as such, but its name, with those two strong stresses, and its aura of warmth, are way more resonant than, say, DUCK-BILLED PLATYPUS.
Zapruder: I didn’t realize it at the time, but that name, SUN BEAR, just sounds like an ideogram to me. Super resonant. By the way, this all might be related to Tomaž Šalamun’s famous line, “Every true poet is a monster.” Or why Richard Hugo writes that the imagination is a cynic. There is all this stuff about how sensitive poets are and how in touch with feelings, etc. they are, but really all we care about is language. At least in the initial stages of the process of writing the poem, though later other things start to come in, and a really good poem usually needs something more than just an interest in the material of language to mean anything to a reader.
Rumpus: I picture a bumper sticker: Don’t brake for poets—all they really care about is language!
Zapruder: That is a horrible thing in a way, but it is the one thing poets can bring back to experience, this intense focus on language, which activates words as a portal back into experience. It’s a mysterious process that’s very hard to articulate, because it’s focused entirely on the material of language in a way, but in the interests not just of language itself whatever that would mean—that’s the mistake, by the way, that so many so-called “experimental” poets make—but in service to human experience.
Rumpus: I think that’s accurate, both your gloss on the title and your take on language’s role in the poet’s process or life. In these new poems you use shorter lines more frequently than you do in your earlier books. You’re sparer with punctuation, too. Tell us more about these developments in your poetry.
Zapruder: For me, form is something I locate in the process of writing the poems. What I mean is, I start scribbling, and then try to form the poem—on a typewriter or on my computer—and, by trial and error, try to find the right shape. I just try to keep forming the poem in different ways until it feels right to me. So for whatever reason those short lines just felt right to me, in my physical self. They were right for the movement of the poems. Some poems in the book have longer lines.
Line length and line breaks are a physical enactment of the movement of the mind. So it makes sense that, depending on how the thinking is going in the poem, there would be a “right” line length, and “right” line breaks.
Rumpus: That makes sense. It’s just interesting to me that the physical enactment of that mind moving has gradually changed for you in the last few years. It made me wonder if the change was deliberate in any sense, or procedural, like when A.R. Ammons stuck an adding machine roll into his typewriter to squeeze his verses into shorter lines.
Zapruder: It wasn’t deliberate. I guess experimental, in the way that word should be used. That is, the result of rigorous trial and error. There are poems in my earlier books that have short lines as well, though I can see that there are more in this book than the last one. Do you write in short lines? What is your experience with these kinds of formal decisions?
Rumpus: I would also say trial and error. But sometimes I get too fussy or tense about it—like I’m trying to pick the perfect outfit for the prom. Recently I’ve been embracing a sense of playfulness when I write, so I’m absolutely in love right now with the illusion of looseness and ease in your lines. I say “illusion” because they also have rhythmic integrity.
The syntax too… it’s as passionate as Yeats said it should be. Here’s an example from “Poem to a Cloud above a Statue”:
Out of what used to be called the aether
very powerful beings
ancient people believed
they knew the names of
breathed instead of air
but now we just call the sky
There it is, in that seventh line, the subject and verb of the sentence! Tell us how you do that. It’s a wonderful trick but dangerous too. It’s sort of like how Milton might have written on speed.
Zapruder: Milton on speed. I am going to need about a decade to think about that. That delay in syntax, the putting off of the click of the sentence into itself, is something that has always intrigued me. I love the emotional effect of it, and never want it to be merely a gesture. Sometimes I try it and it doesn’t work, so I have to put the poem aside, and try again, more simply and more strange. By the way, on this website there is a cool video of clouds over San Francisco and the text of that poem.
Rumpus: Let’s turn the corner on this because we don’t want our audience to fall asleep with all my Yeats and Milton references. Care to play a quick game?
Zapruder: I do.
Rumpus: That’s the right answer. You know the poet Loren Goodman? His book, Famous Americans, won the Yale Younger back when we were probably still wearing our MFA jockstraps.
Zapruder: I’m sorry, I do not.
Rumpus: He wrote this brilliantly weird poem titled “Who Would Win?” It’s basically a list of questions posed like this: “Norman Mailer vs. Norman Bates—who would win???” “Ernie Shavers vs. Ernie Hemingway—who would win???” Of course, Goodman was smart enough not to answer the questions. Maybe you can see where this is headed…
Zapruder: I can see…
Rumpus: You get to answer the questions. Do you want real Goodman questions from the poem, or do you want me to make ’em up on the spot?
Zapruder: Make them up!
Rumpus: Can you tell I’m on my third Highland Gaelic Ale? I hope you’re keeping up with your anonymous bourbon.
Zapruder: I have a pretty generous pour.
Rumpus: Good. Here goes: Al Franken vs. Frankenberries—who would win???
Zapruder: Al Franken, because he would eat them.
Rumpus: Jerzy Kosinski vs. The Real Housewives of New Jersey—who would win???
Zapruder: Jerzy went through some pretty heavy shit but those Housewives seem completely indestructible, so I’m going to have to go with them.
Rumpus: Bingo. I think you’re two for two. Allen Tate vs. James Tate—who would win???
Zapruder: You’ve been in workshop with James Tate. What do you think?
Rumpus: No-brainer. Down goes the Fugitive in the first round.
Zapruder: James Tate FTW over basically anyone. Except maybe Tatum O’Neal.
Rumpus: Yeah. Anyone who was married to John McEnroe must be pretty tough.
How about this one? Larry Bird or Larry Bud Melman—who would win???
Zapruder: Oh, I am not a big Celtics fan, but Larry Bird doesn’t lose to anyone.
Rumpus: Oasis vs. Mimesis—who would win???
Zapruder: Hmm. Mimesis has longevity on its side. But Oasis wrote two of the greatest pop songs of all time, each with lyrics that mean less and less the more you think about them. So I’m going to have to go with the Gallagher brothers.
Rumpus: Well done, sir. You may ace the test. A couple more…
Zapruder: Let me ask you one: PJ Harvey or Harvey the Rabbit?
Rumpus: They’re both imaginary romances of mine. But who in their right mind wouldn’t take PJ over a furry from the 1950s?
Here’s one for you: Mario Van Peebles or Mario Brothers?
Zapruder: Oh, wow. A race to the bottom, but Van Peebles is such a fabulous last name I’m going to have to go with him.
Rumpus: Last one: Lady Gaga vs. Lady Foot Locker—who would win???
Zapruder: Until I see the employees of Lady Foot Locker wearing meat suits, it’s Gaga.
Rumpus: Hey, I think that worked! Who knows what the Rumpus execs will think, but the audience loves it. Look at them out there. They’re moshing.
You know, most fans of your poetry don’t know that you also play a mean-ass guitar. How long have you been playing?
Zapruder: I’ve played lead guitar in the same band since the mid-1990s, when I was living in Northampton, MA, and going to the UMass-Amherst MFA. I’ve also played on some other records, including a few songs on In Pursuit of Your Happiness, a record by the remarkable Mark Mulcahy. I was definitely by far the worst guitarist on that record—J. Mascis plays on a bunch of tracks—but I think I contributed my particular brand of cough syrup-y, melancholic, melodic sleepiness where it was appropriate. There’s a hidden track at the end of that record, at about nine minutes, after the amazing last song “He Vanished” ends and the track continues, which is just me playing my dad’s old guitar and him singing into the same microphone.
Rumpus: Which were you first, a poet or musician?
Zapruder: Well, I don’t know if I would have called it a “musician,” but I’ve played guitar ever since I was a kid, and always loved it. I come from a musical family, with a lot of singing and playing. My grandfather’s aunts on my mother’s side were vaudeville singers. My father’s father was one of those musicians who could pick up and immediately play any instrument. My dad played guitar all through our childhood, and taught us young. Music and songs have always been a constant part of my life, and still are. My brother Michael, who is a songwriter and composer, is the one who most fully inherited the musical legacy of our family, but I got some part of it—mostly the feel.
Rumpus: I’m not going to ask you the most annoying obvious question, how does your music affect your poetry? Instead I’ll ask the second most annoying obvious question: how does your poetry affect your music? Is there anything you import from writing poems into the composition of these songs?
Zapruder: I was thinking a little bit about this very thing—poetry and music—the other day when I was listening to Lucinda Williams. The way she sings is very emotive, and there is a kind of drag to her articulation: she sings behind the beat, sort of like she’s being pulled along by the song a little, or is in resistance to it. It’s a kind of de-familiarization in relation to the song: if she were to sing absolutely straight, right on the beat, because of the richness and intensity of her instrument—her voice—I think it could actually feel a little inhuman, too good somehow, separate from our concerns.
Not that I play guitar anywhere near as well as she sings, but I think I have always had a tendency to play solos the same way, in emotional relation to the structure of the song. I choose simple lines, and only play what seems emotionally relevant, and often express that emotion in time, that is in play or resistance to the set time of the song. I guess my poems feel to me a bit like they are doing something in relation to experience, i.e. time.
Rumpus: Well, they’re very aware of time, I’d say. Not only long-term time, years into the past or future, but also time’s passage within the utterance of the poem. Like when you delayed that subject and verb in the first sentence of “Poem to a Cloud above a Statue.”
On that note, I’ve been thinking about the titles in Sun Bear and how direct they are, how they’ll even risk sounding glib or dull. “Poem for Japan,” “Poem for Giants,” “Poem for a Coin,” “Poem for Fluffy,” etc. The titles slyly catch the reader off-guard by delivering the poem’s context in clear terms. In a lot of contemporary poems I feel like I have to hunt around for the situation or occasion. You come right out of the gate with it—a smart tactic. Can you tell us more about those titles?
Zapruder: I’ve always been more than a little mystified by poets who seem to think talking to people as directly as possible is a bad thing. I mean, I don’t want to set up a straw man here: I understand that for many poets—and for me, at times—writing truly means writing in a way that is difficult, simply because the poem is trying to grasp for something elusive. So the difficulty of the poem is just unavoidable, and not in any way artificially imposed. So “as possible” is the key part of the phrase above, I suppose. Mahmoud Darwish wrote that “extreme clarity is a mystery.” That sounds right to me. I don’t want anyone hunting for anything ancillary to the true mystery. If that means risking being thought of as glib or dull or banal or stupid or whatever, I guess that will just have to be the way it is.
I also want to say that I am intrigued and even moved by the idea of being right with the reader in the actuality that she or he is reading a poem. So the titles are an acknowledgment of the reality and value of that act in the world. Somewhere back a whiskey or so ago I wrote that thinking was a real thing in the world, just like anything else. I mean that very literally, materially. And it’s true about poems, too. Reading a poem is a real thing, a worthy thing. So to be there right with the reader at that moment is part of the effect of a title like “Poem for” something or other. Matt Rohrer does this a lot in his titles, and I think I might have gotten some of the idea to do this, or at least been reminded of how it can work, from his recent amazing books.
Rumpus: Do you think of those poems as odes? They put me in mind of Kenneth Koch’s New Addresses, in which he writes poems to many real and abstract things.
Zapruder: Yeah, I love that book. Keats’s odes are among my favorite poems ever. As are Neruda’s. So yes, I think my poems are odes, though I really just see those titles as ways of more or less orienting the poem. I’ve never thought about this until now, but I guess you could say that one effect of all the titles, their pervasiveness in the book, might be to once again, as so many other things do, put into question the meaning of the word “for,” which I suppose is one of the great human questions: what is all this for? Why, and for whom, are we doing whatever we are doing?
Rumpus: You’re making me feel like I need another dose of these guys. Is humor in your poetry important to you? Do you consider yourself a funny poet?
Zapruder: I was at the Juniper Summer Institute many years ago, sitting next to Grace Paley, and listening to Matt Rohrer read. The audience was laughing a lot at his poems, which were admittedly funny, though there was some serious dread there as well. The humor was a small part of something much bigger and more amazing that was going on. At some point, to my great shock, Paley hit my leg pretty hard with her fist, and whispered in my ear, “If they don’t stop laughing I’m going to have to punch someone in the face!”
Rumpus: Oh, man. What I wouldn’t have given to be smacked by Paley!
Zapruder: I get why she was having that feeling. I’m more than a little suspicious of humor in poems, because I think it can at times be a way of getting a reaction out of a reader, or an audience, that is something closer to relief: i.e., thank god this isn’t poetry, but stand-up comedy. Some poets are really funny, but more often poets are fourth rate stand up comics at best. But they benefit from the sheer relief of the audience.
That being said, some of my favorite poets are extremely funny. The aforementioned Matt Rohrer, for instance. Mary Ruefle. James Tate might be the best example of someone who is systematically misread because he can be hilarious. In his poems, as in all great funny poems, the humor is one very appealing version of the surprise and associative movement that is at the heart of all poetry. So for me, while I like to find the humorous possibilities when I’m writing a poem, I only keep those things in my poems when they seem to be serving a larger purpose. Except when something is really funny, just too funny to cut, then fuck it, I just keep it.
Rumpus: I understand your reservations about the role of humor in poetry, but don’t you think that quality can be a gateway for potential new readers? Here’s why I ask. In my education, all the way through college, in fact, I couldn’t stand poetry, to the point that I avoided classes that had poetry on the syllabus. Then, near my college graduation, a friend handed me Tate’s poem “Deaf Girl Playing.” That poem broke the ice. It was the first time a poem had ever made me feel, to quote Dickinson, “as if the top of my head were taken off.” Male pattern baldness began to set in soon after that moment…which I totally blame on Tate. Anyway, I was drawn to the weird associative movements you pointed to, but Tate’s humor had a lot to do with charming me.
Zapruder: Yeah, I agree that it can be a great gateway drug. Tate’s poem “Goodtime Jesus” is a great example of this, too. But, and I don’t know if anyone has ever mentioned this, we need to be careful with drugs! They’re not just all fun and games! And of course poetry would be immeasurably worse without humor. I just know from experience that reading a funny poem aloud, especially at the beginning of a public reading, can have a certain effect. Somehow narrowing the spectrum of possible emotional reactions. So while I like it when people laugh at my poems, and I definitely enjoy being funny in them, I don’t really think that’s the most important thing that’s going on, at least not to me.
Rumpus: Good words of wisdom. I hope you don’t mind us ending the show on a light note. Ready to play The Three Obstructions?
Zapruder: I am ready to be obstructed.
Rumpus: Have you seen the Lars von Trier/Jorgen Leth documentary called The Five Obstructions? von Trier basically tortures his mentor with a series of what seem to be Herculean cinematic tasks. In other words, we’re going to shove you out of your comfort zone.
Zapruder: I feel because I am never in my comfort zone I have an advantage. Let’s do this.
Rumpus: Our live audience is hungry for verses and must be fed.
Here are your three rules (I also challenge our Rumpus Late Nite audience to do the exercise and post the results in the “Leave a Reply” box down below):
- Write a poem about this YouTube clip.
- Twenty lines or less.
- In the poem or its title, refer to a living poet you admire.
just a few days after my 8th birthday
in November a real old time troubadour
maybe the last of them woke
in Canada and thought that ship
went so beautifully under the silver
Lake Superior waters I will write
a song to make that sweet mad dog
Time lay down at the feet of a widow
sleeping in a chair that sits
in one of those shadows Whitman
said the dark on all of us throws down
it was the year little J.A. looked
at a painting someone who had
for a long time into a convex mirror
looked and painted himself painting
painted and also Bobby Fischer stood
and returned to his gloomy chambers
so some called it a good year for poetry
others the Year of Refusal
but now we know the Khmer
led by He with a Gun we might
or might not have helped had quietly
at least to us begun the first
of the Five Years of Blood
so friend I have not seen for a long time
or friend I have never met let us watch
the video of that little demon of Kiss
spitting blood against the total black endless
cheering and think on a different communion
Rumpus: Right off the bat I see you’ve broken one of the rules here. But who cares? It’s good.
Zapruder: “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” is such a great song. On some level it seems impossible that it was happening at the same time as this Blood Solo, and also completely appropriate. I think Gene Simmons knew he was doing some kind of reverse communion blasphemy with that spitting blood trick. That’s a pretty resonant symbol.
Rumpus: I hope a version of this appears in your next book of poems.
Zapruder: I’m just happy amid all the obligations that you gave me a reason to write a poem, so thank you for that.
Rumpus: Thanks for joining us tonight, Matthew. It’s been fun.
Stay tuned for Episode #3 of The Rumpus Late Nite Poetry Show, with guest Katie Peterson.