Wednesday, December 1, 2010


ALISA HEINZMAN: What words or sentences are most important to you lately? I'm thinking of maybe a poem, some text you've read, or something you've heard. Is there anything that has been taking over your mind?

I don't know if anything has been taking over my mind exactly, that sounds a little scary but also exciting. As far as words, I like to go in search of strange ones. This weekend I was at the bookstore in Fort Mason in SF, and they have a cafe with bookshelves which they have stocked with all sorts of fabulous old books, most of them not exactly literary masterpieces. It's great to pick up some obscure novel from the 1920's and see what crazy words they used. Someone is always standing on a cliff about to jump, or looking at a lake where there is an obscure figure wandering, or sitting on a divan and having a hilariously unintentionally erotic conversation. Saying words like "irrefragable" and "oculist." Also, those books are very beautifully bound, and often they have lovely drawings inside them. I have to stop myself from buying them. They are too dusty.

I always like to read a wide variety of writing, not just because I find a lot of different things interesting, but also because I feel I really need to get inside as many different textures of language as possible. in order to keep moving forward in my poems. The rhythm of that sort of prose, not to mention the unexpected weird vocabulary in a book about some kind of esoteric subject, can be inspiring to me. For instance when I was writing my first book I was really into John McPhee, books like The Survival of the Bark Canoe and The Pine Barrens, and those books resulted in a few poems at least. Lately I have been reading Moneyball by Michael Lewis, don't know if that's going to result in any poems but it's fun to read. Baseball has been on my mind a lot lately (Giants!). Also, I have a little blue Oxford World's Classics edition of Keats's letters in my office, and I have been reading it, and writing down every time he mentions a Shakespeare play (which is a LOT).

A: I love your poem Schwinn, and its final lines are a part of my asking this question:

I will / never know a single thing anyone feels, / just how they say it, which is why I am standing / here exactly, covered in shame and lightening, / doing what I'm supposed to do.

Other people feel things, and you feel things, and they do or do not, or may or may not, correspond. Really, there's no knowing. This strangeness or separation comes up in your poems. Can you say something about why this is important to you? Also--if this is a different question--how this situation affects you?

Z: I really mean the end of that poem very literally. I don't think we really know much, if anything, about how people are feeling, beyond what they say and the way they say it (all sorts of non-verbal cues we get when someone is speaking), which is why I say "how they say it" and not "just what they say." I guess that could be sort of depressing if you look at it in certain ways. But for me personally this is the reason I write poems. Yes I am "interested" in language and excited by messing around with it in all sorts of ways. That's why I'm a poet and not some other sort of artist, because I am interested in and good with language, and not paint or cameras or something else.

Language by its nature contains great reservoirs of crucial knowledge, and when I write poems I am entering into our collective human knowledge by activating language in certain ways that can only happen in poetry. I feel this is good. When I say it is "what I'm supposed to do," that is an assertion of a feeling of purpose for my life which I feel more and less at different times, usually in direct relation to how much I am actually writing instead of wasting time.

A: In Come On All You Ghosts, the reader--or listener--is addressed often. The title poem feels to me like, among other things, a love poem to the reader. Through your poems, what do you want your relationship with the reader to be like?

Z: I feel like what I (hopefully) have in common with the reader is a faith and trust that what the poem is doing is, contrary to everything we are told and therefore everything we fear, really important. We are together in a place of meaning, the sort of meaning you can only have in poetry. I believe that is true, that there is something poems can do that nothing else can, and that this is an absolutely vital aspect of the human experience. I agree with Williams when he famously writes "it is difficult/ to get the news from poems/ but men die miserably every day/ for lack/ of what is found there." Die in that case surely is meant literally, but it also can mean I think to be dead inside to what is around us, which is also a great danger. I am trying to keep myself and people who read my poems from dying in that way.

A: The words love, death, and loneliness are in your poems. Not just the words, but they're often subjects. Are you ever afraid to use these words?

Z: Afraid in what way? In a literary sense? If so, no. Or a superstitious one? If so, a little!

A: I guess I'm thinking of fearing these words, in part, because of the number of connotations each has. Now that I write that, though, I'm not sure they have more connotations than other words. They just seem like really big words and big subjects, and I'm wondering if you ever hesitate to address them in such a direct way? Do you pause longer before including the word death in a poem than, say, before including the word Tuesday? Do you ever fear that the poem can't support these subjects?

Z: I am inclined to say Tuesday is as complicated as death and frankly a lot more difficult on a weekly basis, but I think that would not really be answering your question. You are of course right, those are big words and big subjects, and there's obviously a way they can be just stuck into a poem as sort of a placeholder. That would, I suppose, be the sort of not very good writing we have all seen. I think the reason why I at least would call that not very good writing is because there's a lack of energy or urgency or commitment or necessity there. But I can also feel that lack in poems that carefully stay away from anything big as well.

I think the proof is in the effect on the reader. If the reader feels when she gets to that part in the poem when a big word like that, loneliness or death or love, appears, and she feels like that is authentic, then it's the right thing. Sometimes those big words, in their very overwhelming hugeness that threatens to escape particularity but also does not, are just right. Feeling like "loneliness" is the right word even though it's a big word that you almost don't understand, that's a feeling too, isn't it?

If I am genuinely encountering some big concept like that, I think it can work to let it come into the poem naturally. It doesn't feel honest to me if it's not really what I'm thinking about, but maybe a stand in for something else I'm not quite ready to face, or heaven help me a way of manipulating the reader into sympathy for me. I really don't want sympathy from the reader. I want connection. After my father died in 2006, it took me a while to be able to honestly allow that fact into my poems. It was just too painful or big or something for the first couple of years. And when I was able to start really thinking about it, it seemed absurd not to call his death what it was, especially when it was something I was actually remembering. Then again, I was very aware when he was sick and then after he died of how common my experience was. It's also very common to feel lonely, and also common to feel in love. Of course these emotions are all subject to infinite gradations, and that's really if anything the true purpose of my poems, to honestly examine those gradations, in all their forms.

A: What is it about looking out a window that makes the poem-writing-impulse happen?

Z: That is a great question. To look out a window is to experience the world in a frame, in which we see certain things surrounded by at least a subtle darkness. There is a certain element of arbitrariness to what is in view of a window. And also an element of choice: you have chosen to look out this window, and not another, or to look at all.

This is what a poem does too. It selects from among the universe of things that could be brought into the poem, and brings these things in, leaving others out. We feel both what is and is not present. Some of what is present feels like a choice made by the writer, and some of it feels fated. Whatever is in the window, or poem, by its very nature -- as an object destined, or chosen -- glows with significance.

I get excited and moved by the combination of chance and intention in poetry, maybe because in some kind of way that can never quite be articulated, that combination reminds me of what it feels like to be alive on a daily basis, choosing and also responding to what is given.

There is also usually a lot of regular life happening in what you see out a window: you could look out your window for a long time and not see anything really dramatic. And therefore everything becomes kind of dramatic. I like this too in poetry. There is a wonderful painter Jane Frielicher, who was friends with many of the New York School poets, Frank O'Hara and James Schuyler among them, who to this day apparently only paints scenes that she sees out of her window in her house in Long Island and her apartment in New York City. I have always felt very happy imagining that she never gets tired of looking out her window. I think Schuyler was the same way, though I think he might have gotten very tired sometimes come to think of it. But he still kept writing great poems right up to the end.

A: What do you wish would change?

Z: Well, this makes me think immediately of politics, and of the growing inequity in our society between the small number of people who have so much, and the great number of people who don't have enough. And how angry everyone feels they have a right to be. But I will leave that aside. One thing I wish I could change is how distant so many people feel from poetry. It seems sad to me that people are so willing to accept strangeness in film, music, television, and so on, but have so little tolerance for it in poetry. It's ironic really, because humans are so good with picking up on the subtleties of language, it seems as if people would actually have an easier time with poetry than some other things.

A: Do you like living in San Francisco? Of the places you've lived, which have you loved the most?

Z: I do like San Francisco. It's the second time I lived here, and it's changed enormously, but that's a different subject (if you are interested about this you can read the fabulous and harrowing work of Rebecca Solnit). I don't know if I can answer the second part of your question. I miss New York and many other places I have lived, like Massachusetts which is so beautiful and sad at this time of year, and Maryland where my mom, and my sister and her family, still live. A lot of the time in poems I start thinking about a place, but really what I am thinking about is a feeling I had in the place, which probably had much more to do with the people I cared about there than anything else. So for me poems are a private way of going back to those lost times and being once again part of the mundane and marvelous because of their ephemeral nature situations that, for better or worse, once were home.

Alisa Heinzman lives in Chicago. She received her MFA from Saint Mary's College of California, co-edits CALAVERAS along with Sara Mumolo, and is the Managing Editor for Octopus Books. While living in Oakland she would sit at the book table during Studio One Readings, and now she misses it an awful lot.

Matthew Zapruder is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Come On All You Ghosts (Copper Canyon), recently selected as one of the top 5 poetry books of 2010 by Publishers Weekly. His poems, essays and translations have appeared in many publications, including Open City, Bomb, Slate, American Poetry Review, Poetry, Tin House, Harvard Review, Paris Review, The New Republic, The Boston Review, The New Yorker, McSweeney's, The Believer, Real Simple, and The Los Angeles Times. He has received a William Carlos Williams Award, a May Sarton Award from the Academy of American Arts and Sciences, and a Lannan Literary Fellowship. Currently the Holloway Lecturer at the University of California at Berkeley, as well as an editor for Wave Books and a member of the permanent faculty in the low residency MFA program at UC Riverside-Palm Desert, he lives in San Francisco.