Matthew Zapruder

— How does a poem usually begin for you?

I should know how to answer this question by now! There are at least several different ways. Sometimes it’s just with a word or a phrase that feels kind of weird and interesting to me. Or even a rhythm that I start to feel. Often a poem begins with the desire to address someone. Or some weird writing exercise someone gave me, or I made it up. If I haven’t written in a while, I will just sit down and stare at the page or the screen and just think, what can I do to get something started? And write a few words, that start to tell a little story or set a scene or work with some idea that’s been bothering me. No matter how bad and clunky and boring the beginning, I have learned if I stick with it something will start to happen. It doesn’t mean the poem is going to be great – usually it isn’t—but at least I’ll be writing poetry. And if I do that often enough, some poems that are worth someone else’s attention will eventually appear.

— What is your understanding of the role art plays in the creation or manufacturing of history, meaning the memorialization of events, ideas, and feelings beyond their initial quickening? Is the “past” always a presence on the page?

I like the phrase “the manufacturing of history,” even if it feels a bit relativistic. It’s probably old fashioned of me but I think history isn’t just created. It’s shaped, and responded to, and, yes, also manipulated, as choices are made about what is and is not significant. And of course art, and poetry, participates in that shaping.

Language is an artifact of consciousness, of the decisions people have made about what words mean, usually without intention. Which makes it a highly accurate historical record of consciousness. You could even say that it’s the least manufactured and created memorialization of the history of thought that we have. Like a primary source. Emerson calls language fossil poetry. And that history in poetry is located just as much in the meanings of the words as they appear in the poem, as in what the poem is “about.” I can learn more about a certain moment in culture by looking deeply into certain words in a great poem from that time than I can from reading a hundred newspaper articles. Or at least something different.

— “Elegy for a Small Metal Artifact” deals in history, both personal and shared. Do you find it challenging to relate the personal to the “global?” As a poet, do you feel charged with proving “authenticity’” through personal experience?

I don’t find it challenging to relate the personal to the global. I find it a terrifying obligation. How could I not? What I think I find most challenging is how not to be overwhelmed by the “global,” which in my mind I think of as the reality of our world. I don’t believe that I alone can effect change through writing a poem. I am not that kind of narcissist. But I also can’t escape my moment in history. I feel responsible. I mourn the present while also being deeply attached to it, on an almost moment-to-moment basis.

In Northern California, you can go for a hike and see green hills that you know will soon be desiccated again, or burning. You can ask yourself why this is, what decisions led to this ongoing catastrophe, and what we need to change inside ourselves.

Today I saw an astounding exhibit of the sculptures and paintings of Kehinde Wiley, art which, according to the catalog language, “confronts the silence surrounding systemic violence against Black people through the visual language of the fallen figure.” It was a deeply disturbing, gutting, gorgeous experience. Wiley is a master artist who is responding in a very personal way to the global (literally, given that he made this work in Africa, and is exhibiting it here in the U.S.) and finding a bridge where his personal vision channels and represents and reflects and challenges and illuminates and moves us.

I think most poets writing today are trying to find ways to engage with the world and all its pressures, while still staying loyal to the beautiful, whatever that means. All personal experience is authentic. If I am true to myself in my poems, I trust that others will locate themselves there too. But my job is not merely to be truthful. It is to contribute to the ever growing corpus of poetry that glows with an unearthly, magical authenticity that any human can recognize.

— One of your poems is titled “Rainer Maria Rilke.” Do you find yourself reading biographies of poets? Or rather, how do the lives/stories/works of past poets play into your understanding of your own work, or poetry more generally?

I do like biographies of poets. Of course it’s fascinating to hear how people survived, doing such a reckless thing with their lives as writing poetry. I like thinking about how a particular poet’s work is made up of everything that happened to them, all the objects and events around them, intermingled with thought. The way that nearly nameless feelings that we all more or less share find their way into the concrete, into the objects that happen to surround a person in history and circumstance. It’s amazing how these same feelings become at least partially concrete—how emotions and thoughts and experiences become stuff. And how we are able to recognize and relate to those specific actual symbols across vast distances of time and space, which, as Whitman writes, “avails not” … we feel him under our boot soles. This communion is the endless lure of poetry for me. And this is what I learn from the lives of poets. I see what they made of their lives, and it teaches me what I can make of mine.

Rilke is as much a poet of abstraction as of the concrete. When I read his especially abstract and conceptual passages, I often find myself understanding what he means on an emotional level without necessarily being able to explain what the actually sense of the sentence is. Which is why he can be such a dangerous example for emerging poets! The end of this poem is a glancing, summery reference to some lines from the Sonnets to Orpheus, which in Stephen Mitchell’s translation reads: “For among these winters there is one so endlessly winter / that only by wintering through it all will your heart survive.” I remember first reading those lines when I was just starting to write poetry and being completely thunderstruck. Which surely led to some bad writing. I am sort of mad at him in this poem, but it’s tender, because he was a true poet.

— If you could suggest one writing exercise to our readers, what would it be?

Think of a single word that intrigues you, and which you are not sure you know the full meaning of. Then take an hour or two to do as much research on it as you can, particularly from the Oxford English Dictionary, but going everywhere you can (preferably you are in an actual library when you are doing this), to find out everything you can about the word. Where did it come from, when was it first used, where does it most notably appear, what are all of its definitions? Take as many notes as you can, handwritten. Do this for at least an hour. Then write a poem with that word in the title, which should be at least 8 words long. Address someone directly in the first line. Write for one hour. You will have a draft. Put it away for one week. And then the real poem can begin.

Matthew Zapruder was interviewed by Emily Yaremchuk via email on May 8, 2023.


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