Talking Craft with Matthew Zapruder, Author of Why Poetry
Why Poetry was released in 2017 and has remained since a passionate and plain spoken blueprint for both experiencing and writing contemporary poetry. We are so pleased to share with you a wonderful conversation our editor had with the author, Matthew Zapruder—where they talk craft, the classroom, and the necessity of courageous listening.
In your introduction you write, “To learn to read poetry is first a matter of forgetting many incorrect things we have learned in school.” What would you say are the biggest culprits in this regard? What particular beliefs do folks need to take off when sitting down to read or write poetry?
All of us, as readers and writers, bring very firm, yet unexamined, views of what poetry “is” or “should be.” Getting ourselves in a position to clarify, reexamine, contextualize, expand, those views is my main task as a teacher. When I write about poetry I have a similar thought usually: that by digging into poems, looking at them slowly and thoughtfully and with maximum attention, I will see far more about what is possible in language, and life. If I had to say what some of the main misconceptions about poetry are, I would probably include ideas such as: you need specialized knowledge to understand a poem; poems are always about big ideas and moments; poems are written to get a “message” across, rather than being an experience in and of themselves; poems are made primarily of coded language that we need to decipher to “get” the poem; poets don’t really mean what they say, but have some other idea or experience that they are for some reason deliberately hiding; poems are a record of a completed, totally worked-out thought, and not a record of a process of exploration and uncertainty.
How does that process of “looking at them slowly and thoughtfully” play out in a classroom of yours? Because trying to “decode” a poem could resemble that same feat—where exactly do we insert differences into the process of reading for “possibility” vs reading for “message”?
I would never say “decode a poem,” unless I was describing what we should definitely not do. Poems are not, except in rare circumstances, messages written by spies to evade detection. They don’t need to be decoded, they need to be read. My main method in class is to get people (myself included) to slow down, first by asking us to read, together, what is actually on the page, and be attentive to it. And to ask questions. This seems too simple and dumb to be necessary yet most definitely is. The “dumbest” questions about poetry are always the best ones. There is a slightly cheesy remark by Simone Weil, “attention is the purest form of generosity.” If we can cultivate that attentive generosity toward the poem, we can really get somewhere. Coming up with outlandish unsupported theories based on speculation about what a word “really means” or “stands in for,” and ignoring the actual text of the poem, is antithetical to real attention. It’s a form of not listening: maybe poetry classes are really in the end about becoming better listeners, better friends. In the course of this collective close reading, which is not about coming up with exciting theories or big ideas, but again just noticing, the students always, every single time, say something I have never thought of about the poem. Then, once we’ve done that, we can dig deeper into the moments we do not understand, which feel different and strange and mysterious, not in order to “figure them out” necessarily, but to be attentive to them, to see what they suggest in relation to what we know about the rest of the poem. What are the limits of understanding? What does the poem seem to be singing towards? Finally, there is a place for big speculations, ideas that may or may not be evident in the poem. A conversation about what all this makes us think of, what it “means.” Of course this is an ideal process, that cannot always be maintained, but it’s a general procedure towards which my teaching aims.
You take real inspiration from the Paul Valéry quote, “A poem is really a kind of machine for producing the poetic state of mind by means of words.” Could you expand on that some more? What does that view of poetry reveal about how we should approach writing poems?
It means that poems (by definition, that is, by nature of their genre, their intention) are designed to do something different from prose. They must, right? Otherwise why would they continue to exist? Prose is designed above and beyond all else to communicate. Poems are designed to change consciousness. Poems do so, of course, by communicating, but the semantic “meaning” of words is only one element of that communication (Olson’s “Projective Verse” is an example of an essay that attempts to explain how this works). In prose, meaning (the communicative function) always ultimately subordinates all other qualities of language. In poetry, that is not so, and in fact, the definition of a poem could be said to be a language act where that is not the case (Wittgenstein: “Do not forget that a poem, although it is composed in the language of information, is not used in the language-game of giving information.”). As far as what that means about writing poems, it opens up the possibility, if not the necessity, of following the impulses of language (associations in meaning, sonic resonances, obscure echoes, lost historical memory, dream sight, etc.) to guide us toward a type of lyric meaning-making exclusively available in poetry, rather than the mere communication of ideas, which can usually be accomplished more directly in prose.
A tangent: communication’s good is inherently clear, but what good is lyric making? If we’re not communicating information, what are we communicating? And why does whatever that is seem to be so necessary for a healthy society?
Without our imaginations we are monsters of cruelty and injustice. And we are doomed to accept the worst possible version of our future. I don’t know if the good of communication is “inherently clear,” there are a lot of things you can clearly communicate that are not good at all. The good of the imagination is not inherent either, but without it, as I said, we are doomed.
There’s much you say about form in Why Poetry—“the creation of the poetic state of mind in poet and reader is inextricably connected with form”—how would you describe the current relationship between form and contemporary poetry today? How should the new voices in our community seek to engage with it?
Form is a physical manifestation of a consciousness coming to be in the poem. Auden said something like, a poem is a kind of pseudo person. I think of form as the way that consciousness comes to be in the world. It’s impossible for that consciousness of the poem to exist without that form. So if you look at it closely, you learn things about it, and if you change it as a writer, you change not only what the effect of the poem is, but its nature.
This is really intriguing, the form as body. So many celebrated newer voices in our community write vividly of our bodies—I’m thinking Ocean Vuong, Kaveh Akbar, Tarfia Faizullah, Jericho Brown—do you see a return to form eventually happening, perhaps coinciding with a renewed interest in imagery and language of the body?
Not really. First of all there is already so much interest in and focus on form in contemporary poetry, just not so much on the received and frankly arbitrary “forms” we read about in textbooks. I think the idea of the body, and the physicality of the poem and its voice, can be literal or metaphorical/allegorical, with equally powerful results. If I had to guess, I would say that as ideas of the body, gender, sexuality, and so on become more fluid, we are more likely to see new forms in poetry than a return to old ones.
In my conversations with poets, I often recommend that they allow their associative mind to steer in the poem, to find that “generated subject” as Hugo describes it in Triggering Town. In Why Poetry, you write, “By moving associatively, from subject to subject, the poem is asserting something about the fundamental nature of the world…” Could you explain what this looks like as a writer of a poem? How does the process of moving associatively unfold during the practice and process of drafting a piece?
It relates to what I said above, that you have to train yourself to prioritize other things. For some people this is completely natural. For others, who bring other strengths to the writing of poems, they might need to learn to trust that inner part of themselves, the dream impulse that exists in everyone, that wants to make poems, and wants to read them. People think they want poetry to act more like prose (to always be clearly “about” something, to communicate a big message or idea, to require no residence in murky Lake Irresolvable Contradiction, with its scarily accurate tides). But beneath that superficial desire is a deeper desire to read true poetry, to be sung to, but as something more than a child, as the adult who knows what grown people know, but also remembers what we knew when we were little. It is that self that is spoken to by poems, and that speaks when writing it.
As a matter of practical advice, how do we overcome the natural resistance to putting that “dream impulse” down on the page? What does it feel like to overcome that fear of letting the child coexist with the adult?
I find, as a practical matter, that submitting to certain procedures, often arbitrary ones, can open up the mind to deeper knowledge. I’ve come up with a million writing exercises that do this, and they all have the same goal: to trick the poet (me) into learning something from the world, the one outside and the inner one too. Lorca writes that the imagination does not invent, but discovers. Poetry is an act of discovery, of going deep into places not immediately noticed, and not easily accessible to the conscious mind, and bringing back that knowledge, so that it can interact with what the conscious mind knows, and the poem can begin to be written. This idea is of course ripped off directly from the surrealists, so probably reading them is better than listening to me go on about it. I would only add that once you have opened yourself up to what can be brought back from the unconscious, from the dream world, you then have to make the conscious choice to take that knowledge at least as seriously as you do what the waking mind knows, probably even more so. It’s an act of will and courage, essential to becoming a poet.
Matthew Zapruder’s most recent book is Why Poetry (Ecco, 2017). His fifth collection of poetry, Father’s Day, is forthcoming from Copper Canyon in fall 2019. He is Associate Professor in the MFA at Saint Mary’s College of California, and editor at large at Wave Books.
You can unravel more of Matthew Zapruder’s thinking on craft by reading the book at the heart of the interview: Why Poetry, available from Ecco.