Monday, January 18, 2010

Farrah Field Interviews Zachary Schomburg

Farrah Field: You write, paint, and have a knack for photography. (And film making). How do you balance and nurture all of your varied interests?

Zachary Schomburg:
Thanks for noticing, and for assuming these interests are balanced. To me, they feel awfully messy, overlapping one another, getting in each other’s way. Poetry is the only thing I’ve formally studied, so the painting, photography and film-making are made out to be indulgences. I try my hardest to get book-making, editing Octopus, and translating in there somehow too. There are certainly waves of interests for only one thing—every few days I have a new aspiration. Every few days I’ve figured out I want to dedicate my life to film-making (for example)—so a lot of these other projects get back-burnered for a few months until I re-aspire.

For whatever reason, we’re under a lot of pressure to be and do one thing and do it well. I’d rather do a bunch of different things passionately. Though, really, these projects you mentioned are really born from the same impulse—they’re manifestations of the same need to make art. My paintings, photos and films are all saying the same things. Regardless, these projects are what keep me moving forward. Ye old carrots on a stick trick. I’m a donkey.

Scary, No Scary begins with a prologue poem. Was this your publisher’s idea or did you intend for the book to be prefaced this way?

“Scary, No Scary” was the first poem I wrote for this manuscript. It is that world’s big bang, so it seemed natural to make it the book’s prologue (it was my idea—all mine!) It establishes something: the walk through the woods, the attempt to find Home, the night, the loneliness, the ambiguity, the choices.

FF: In Scary, No Scary, you work and re-work the idea of smallness (spiders, hummingbirds, eyelashes) and feeling small juxtaposed by gigantic things. I thought it was pretty funny to see this indexed at the back of the book, “Tiny, the idea of being (see also Gigantic.” Will you tell me more about the indexing process? Who’s idea was it and was there a different approach for both of your books?

Yeah, being gigantic and being very tiny is essentially the same thing. Both indexes were quite a blast to make. I stayed up late for this last one, after the page numbers had been set, and I went through poem by poem to catalogue all the repeating images, all the repeating concepts. Both times, I was surprised by some of the things I found had repeated. In the Suit, for example, I remember thinking, “I have a gorilla wearing people clothes twice?!” It is a great exercise for anyone completing a manuscript. You’re able to see your invisible crutches and then kick them out from under you. “Why are all my characters crying?” you’ll say. “What is wrong with me?” Or “why are all my characters miniature or gigantic?” you’ll say. “Why can’t things just be normal-sized?”

With the Suit, the approach felt much more accidental. I had indexed it for fun when I had a bad case of the Block one night. Janaka and I joked about including it. This second time around, I wrote more with a potential index in mind. I knew the hummingbirds were there. So whenever I needed a bird for a poem, I made it a hummingbird. In this world, all the birds are hummingbirds. It’s much simpler that way.

FF: The Pond and Abraham Lincoln’s Death Scene are longer poems/sections from both of your books as well as separate chapbooks. Did you write these two particular pieces before the rest of the manuscripts? How did you determine that they would make great separate pieces (both of them are beautiful chapbooks) and how do you feel about them now that they are folded into the whole of it all?

ZS: These are two poems I am really proud of. They were both written like any other poem in the manuscripts, right in the middle of the process. They are both firmly a part of the worlds of their respective books. In the chapbooks, they seemed a little lonely, a little out of place.

Tell me more about your poem-films. How did you come by way of the footage? Which arrangement do you prefer for the poems to be read by a speaker in the film or by the viewer alone? When did you begin making these and what was your goal for adding images and music to the poems? How did you pick the poems you made poem-films for?

ZS: I traveled to St. Petersburg, Russia, during the summer of 2008 and started taking a bunch of footage on my new little pocket camera. I didn’t have any idea how I would use that footage, but it felt important that I record something. I had this vague notion that I would make some sort of documentary. After Russia, I continued to collect footage of patterns, things moving, during my walks around Portland. Once, I was on the internet-less train between Portland and Seattle. I was a bit bored so I clicked on that iMovie app at the bottom of my laptop and I freaked out a little. I clicked on all the buttons to see what they would do. I made that one about the airplane first, in about 45 minutes (can you tell?). I didn’t write a new poem for about two months after that, but I made about 12 poem-films on iMovie.

The footage is all mine. This steers which previously written poems will be used—they need to somehow marry the footage. I don’t take footage to accommodate a poem.

Also, I just got a new camera. I’m going to get pretty serious this year.

FF: On your blog you often write about the film classes you teach. What is your approach to teaching these classes? Does the school tell you they need a such-and-such class to be taught and you come up with a syllabus or do you come up with a class based on some films you’d like to teach? Furthermore, what is it like to experience the text together with your students, watching a film together, versus discussing assigned reading with which students have engaged prior to class?

ZS: I love teaching film. The department at Portland State gives me the freedom to design my own classes how I see fit. I’ve taught 1950’s Cold War Hysteria films, Feminist Film Theory, some Introduction courses, and now, The Outsider in Independent Cinema. For the most part, I build a class around a group of films I’d like to teach—a group of films that somehow speak to one another.

These classes really don’t operate any differently than a lit course. We watch great films each week and then discuss the socio-cultural implications (in Intro, we discuss the film’s cinematic devices). In some ways, I suppose, film in the later half of 20th century is like the novel of the 19th century. It is quite easy, through film, to set the appropriate groundwork for a historical conversation about who were then, and who we are now. Regardless, whatever we encounter in my classes, we ask “how does that make you feel/think?” and then “so what?”

Most of my students have no idea that I write poetry. Though, when watching some experimental films last term, we watched the surrealist films of Buñuel, and Maya Deren, and then some Brakhage and Lynch. I said that we’d been watching novels all term long, and now it was time to watch some poetry. I had them all write poems instead of taking notes. I think there is a pretty natural bridge between the two art forms. In a poetry class, I’d like to show some films.

FF: The last time we spoke we both reminisced about our elementary schools in Omaha. Last summer I revisited mine and thought it was really weird to not see it during winter, as most of my memories are of walking to school in snow and playing on the ice outside in the school parking lot. Have you been back to your elementary school? Furthermore, how has Omaha changed or how is it different now that you’ve left it?

ZS: You did? Which school was it again? I went back in December while visiting my family. Lewis Central. My dad is the swim coach, and he let me in to the pool with his keys to do some swimming. I think I was afraid I was going to put on some blubber while back in Omaha, eating chicken wings all day long. I took a few pictures of the locker room.

Everything is so small. The urinals are so low. I was pretty much just peeing on the ground. I remember getting in my first and only fight in that locker room. Nathan Okerbloom was saying some mean things about a friend of mine and I had just about had it, so I pushed him and he fell over one of those benches. He hit his head on the other bench and it looked like it hurt pretty bad. I was shocked at the violence I had caused. It scared me. So I ran out of the locker room and tried to reason with Nathan once he caught up with me.

Omaha is still the same, but I have changed. I have so much nostalgia for that place. I love it. My relationship to Omaha feels like Alexander Payne’s relationship to it. I’m drawn to it endlessly. My heart is from there. It is a place that is so simultaneously strange and comforting, lost and familiar. My heart, then, is born from that dichotomy.

It reminds me who I am and who I am not. It is the place I can go to see myself in a mirror. We’re starting to get at the heart of SNS.

What is your Omaha like?

FF: Thanks for asking--I went to Golden Hills. My family lived less than a block away from school, so we always ended up spending most of our time there with all the neighborhood kids. The playground equipment was made from large tractor tires and my sister taught me how to ride a bike in the schoolyard. When I went back last summer, there was a kid sitting on the playground, bored and lonely looking. He climbed to the top of a fence in front of a kickball field surrounded by a great expanse of land. He slouched. I wanted to ask him where all the other kids were and how come the hill leading up to the school looked so small, why the neighborhood looked so run down. When I drove away, he was lying on top of a table where teacher-smokers used to sit during recess.

So, you and I are in our thirties. What’s something that you’d like to do that you’ve never tried in/with/on your poems and what’s something that you hope would never happen?

ZS: I’m almost 33. Are you around there too? I’m writing a very very long poem, and I would like to finish it while I am still in my 30s. It is called Asteroid. I’m writing it alongside two other manuscripts, but I’m in no hurry to finish it. It is currently about 50 pages long, but it is in its infancy. I’ve never tried anything like this before. It sprawls and seeks out new pockets of light. I’m trying to let go of my need for tight narrative, trying let go of my need to get out of a poem in some strange way. I’m trying to teach myself to stay in the poem, to look around and hold my breath.

I hope I keep writing things that surprise me, instead of falling into the trap of recreating old surprises.

Zachary Schomburg
is the author of The Man Suit (Black Ocean 2007), Scary, No Scary (Black Ocean 2009), and several chapbooks including three forthcoming collaborative chapbooks with Emily Kendal Frey: Team Sad (Cinematheque Press 2010), Feelings Using Wolves (Small Fires Press 2010) and Ok Goodnight (Futuretense 2010). He co-edits Octopus Books and Octopus Magazine. He lives in Portland, OR.

Farrah Field's poems have appeared in many publications including the Mississippi Review, Typo, Harp & Altar, La Petite Zine, Eklesographia, Effing Magazine, and Ploughshares and are forthcoming in Mantis and Cannibal. Rising, her first book of poems, won Four Way Books' 2007 Levis Prize. She lives in Brooklyn and blogs at

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