blackbirdonline journalSpring 2013 Vol. 12 No. 1
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A Conversation with Dana Levin and Matthew Zapruder
captured April 6, 2012

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spacer Dana Levin and Matthew Zapruder

Greg Donovan: I’m very happy to introduce Dana Levin and Matthew Zapruder. Dana Levin, as you may know, is the author of three wonderful books of poetry, all of them scintillating and engaging—deeply engaging. All of them came from Copper Canyon Books: In the Surgical Theatre, Wedding Day, and most recently, Sky Burial, which I believe most of us at this table have been reading. And Matthew Zapruder is the author of American Linden, from Tupelo Press, and then he went to Copper Canyon and produced The Pajamaist and Come On All You Ghosts, which is his most recent collection. He is a poet, editor, and translator—so you may have some other questions of sorts that you might want to ask him. And so without more introductory comments, Dana and Matthew. I’ll start one. Matthew, we had some discussion earlier this semester—Dana you may also want to chime in on this as well—we talked about the phenomenon of this new definition of poetry, elliptical poetry, and I know that your work has been associated with that, and I imagine you probably have complex feelings about that. And I just kind of wanted to see: what do you feel about new poetry, new sorts of lyrical poetry, the changing landscape of contemporary American poetry, and maybe focusing on that term that’s been bandied about lately?

Matthew Zapruder: Well I know—well first of all thanks for having us. It's an honor to be here. I know Dana has lots to say about this, because she’s written beautiful prose about it, so I’ll take a stab, and she has developed thoughts on the matter.

Dana Levin: They won’t sound very articulate.

MZ: Yeah, so that term comes from an essay that Stephen Berg wrote—God, it’s been, ten years ago? That appeared in I think the Denver Quarterly if I’m not mistaken. And yeah, it was sort of one of those things that critics do, when they try to make a name for something that’s going on in contemporary poetry. And then that immediately takes on its own kind of gravity, and then becomes a thing people talk about, whether to what extent it’s actually real. I always found that term a little weird—“elliptical.” I wasn’t sure whether he meant this kind of ellipse or an ellipsis—you know, like the dots—I wasn’t sure. It seemed not how I think of my work. I don’t think of my work as being “around” or deliberately oblique or talking in any way around anything. That actual word—I’m a literal person, and so when I hear the word “elliptical” or “ellipses,” I don’t associate that with my own work, in terms of either going around something, or leaving the—using an ellipsis is when something is left out, that's when you use an ellipsis—I have the opposite feeling about my poems. I think I put everything in—there’s nothing that isn’t in there. So my first reaction is to not identify with that particular term. And what I think about contemporary poetry—you know, I have a lot of thoughts, again, none of them organized. But I haven’t heard a term, really, that feels authentic to me to what people are doing right now. Maybe it’s just too big—too many different kind of poets, too many different things. But I haven’t heard anything really stick.

DL: Yeah, I just got done judging the Norma Farber First Book Award for the Poetry Society of America and one of the things that was really wonderful was the aesthetic diversity of these books. Because these are all books that you might consider to be pre-vetted in a way—because they’ve all been published, or they’ve won publication prizes. And they ran the gamut, in terms of approach. Some were even completely formalist. There was a great book that was sestinas and villanelles and were exceedingly well done. In terms of this idea of ellipticality though, I always tend to think historically, and I tend to have a Hegelian idea of things: that something emerges, and it’s new and exciting, and then it kind of gets mainstreamed, and then it becomes the current thing, and then it kind of moves into what I would call the decadent phase, and then some other thing arrives as a corrective. So I’m always thinking in terms of thesis and antithesis and synthesis. It can be a little reductive to think that way, but it’s how my brain works. So, maybe what’s elliptical is that it’s in reaction to what was considered straightforward. If you think about a sort of narrative, autobiographically sourced—or seemingly autobiographically sourced—poem, that was prominent in the mainstream in the ’80s and early ’90s. And yet, even those poems—like Ai, you guys know the poet Ai? A-I?—and her persona poems. I mean those poems are brilliant and I would not necessarily consider those to be straightforward or autobiographically sourced poems, even though they work in an available narrative mode. So I guess what I’m trying to say is that these labels end up just being pretty reductive and pretty general. And I don’t think there’s a way to talk about what is happening right now, unless you want to say “diversification.”

MZ: Yeah, the label elliptical poetry—and now I’ve had a chance to think about it, but Dana immediately made me think of a bunch of things—but that actually, when you look back on it, in retrospect, I think that it applies to a lot of poets whose work, in some kind of way incorporated literary theory of the ’80s, I'd say. And so it’s work that is—let’s say—work where the notions subjectivity or the “I” speaker of the poem or whatever, or single voice in a poem, those things are kind of destabilized. They become poetic tropes almost. And I don’t know that that is currently as dominant a mode as it was—I mean you probably have thoughts on that as well—but I would not say that is a dominant mode in the way that it might have been more dominant a decade ago, from my perspective as an editor and reader. I’m also just not sure how helpful that label is. Does it help me write poems? Or does it help me read poems? I don’t know. I mean, it’s kind of interesting table talk, but I mean maybe, I haven’t tried to read certain poets through that lens—so maybe it is helpful. I don’t know—was it helpful to talk about the term?

GD: I thought that it generated discussion, just like you say. That’s really its main usefulness. But in fact, Stephen Berg, the poets that he brought forward to be representative of that work, were not that interesting to me. And so I thought there were other people you could nominate for being in that movement that would be much more interesting.

David Wojahn: Well it’s almost always the case that the label that sticks for a school is usually one that doesn’t adequately describe it and really is pejorative. Like, you know, Lowell, Berryman, they hated being called “confessional poets.” And you know, Deep Image poetry seems a silly kind of term. Another term that Tony Hoagland uses, instead of “elliptical,” is what is called the “skittery poem of the moment”—and you hear the skittery poem being talked about a lot, too. And none of those labels seem to adequately express what a kind of literary mode would be.

DL: Yeah, I think part of the problem is that it’s when you’re inside of something, it’s hard to see its contours and kind of understand what it is. And so attempts to create broad names, I think probably inevitably fail. And I think we have to be careful about them because they can prejudice your reading. Instead of really taking on an individual poet and seeing what they’re up to, if you automatically decide, “Oh, well this work seems really ‘confessional-y.’” How’s that? I had a student go, “Well I didn’t know if I should include this because it seemed really ‘confessional-y.’” And then of course, my response is, “What’s wrong with that? Let’s have a conversation with what you think ‘confessional’ means.”

MZ: Right, that’s a great point, because I feel like these labels—from the perspective of our work as poets; I mean our work as poets is to write great, beautiful, mind-blowing poems—and I feel like these terms can often, for poets, become locuses of shame. Ways of projecting your anxieties as a poet onto these . . . So like that example you’re talking about—I've often heard that from my students too, like, “Is this too . . .” and then a term. And so they become this reaction formation, the terms become like—listen to me throwing around a bunch of Freudian stuff I don’t even know what I’m talking about—they become invested with all this significance because they become good places to stick your anxiety. So that skittery poem—Tony Hoagland mentioned that off-hand in an essay I think, and people become locked on to this idea because it is the locus of anxiety about a poem not having enough of a center of gravity, and being too superficial, or too scattered. And so it’s a way of people short-hand referring to that anxiety, let’s say, that we all have, I think. That’s an anxiety many of us have when we write a poem. Like, is there enough here? Is there enough force, is it worth anything, is it valuable, is this going to move people, or whatever. So the extent to which it’s like a term applied to other people’s poems or other people’s books is not—that doesn’t help me as much as thinking, well what is this saying about what I’m afraid of writing, what I fear my poems might be.

DL: I do the same thing; I totally read it psychologically. I mean in terms of, “What are the poets anxious about?” This is a generalization, because it’s not going to be all poets. But “the poets” seem to be anxious about narrative, they seem to be anxious about writing about their families, they seem to be anxious about the first-person speaker.

MZ: Oh my God, you’re like, listing my poems right now. “Being Jewish . . .”

DL: But what’s interesting to me about that, you know as you were talking, I was thinking, what’s so ironic about this, is that probably I would get labeled confessional, way before Matthew would, and yet, your work is much more directly engaging the things I just talked about than mine is. So, how do these appellations come? Like how do they get applied? But anyway, you’re afraid to write about your families, you’re afraid to have hot emotion other than irony, anticness, sort of a Dean Young-quality kinda anticness. But hot emotion, hot sincere emotion. I think we’re okay with melodrama, actually, though some of us might have an allergy—not me, love melodrama. I think we’re okay with melodrama, especially if it’s coming from women writers, and we’re okay with a kind of antic, humorous thing that often is coming from male writers. Again, these are real vast generalities. But in terms of hot emotions that are sincere, again, there’s a little bit of anxiety.

Kathleen Graber: I wonder if it’s changing. I kind of feel that I see less and less irony, as though there’s a, not a tolerance, that things are too serious and too brave, and we seem to be moving away from that. I don’t find either of you ironic, for example.

DL: Yeah, no. Situational irony might happen.

KG: Yeah. And I think there’s also a sort of gesture of self-consciousness, which is a way of letting the reader know that you know what you’re doing. But I don’t think of you as overly ironic, or I don’t think either of you is ironic at all, but I see less and less new poems coming out that are that way.

DL: I think you’re right, actually. Even from just looking at the Norma Farber books and seeing the aesthetic diversity, and there were so many voices doing so many different things, and I even think this moment that we’re talking about is starting to move. Or even, there was a moment even five years ago where I would have said, “Man! Everybody’s just kind of writing their Dean Young/John Ashbery mode poem.” Even that—I think things move really fast with this kind of stuff.

MZ: Well, irony and sincerity—those are effective modes, right? They’re stances towards the world basically, they’re not in and of themselves “language acts.” So I think that one thing that has happened right now—I’m going to try and make a point, if you don’t understand what I’m saying, ask me and then together we’ll figure out what I mean, but—I read, I go to a lot of readings of poets who are ten or fifteen years younger than I am and read a lot of work by poets that age, and I have noticed recently that there is a big shift in the effective mode from irony to sincerity that’s happened. A kind of flatness of tone, almost like a sort of very direct statement of strange experience that is not weighted with any attitude towards the description of the experience. All the lines are end-stopped, every single line is end-stopped. God forbid something should run or have any rhetorical or syntactical elaborateness that’s extremely unusual. But that’s an effective mode, it’s a mode. It’s not a language act. It manifests as a language act because it’s a poem. But so I’m concerned a little bit when I hear some students talk about sincerity and irony as, that’s not—we’re not fiction writers. Where is the attention to what’s happening with syntax, and where is the attention to what’s happening with the kinds of words that we can use in our poems? I don’t hear that much talk about that, and it worries me a little bit sometimes, because I feel that’s a more productive conversation to have. I get lost when I’m talking too much about effective modes, I guess. Because people say, “Oh you’re being sincere in your poems,” and I’m like, yeah.  But I’m not saying it’s not true, that’s just not how I think.

DL: It’s not like you woke up in the morning and were like, “I’m going to write a sincere poem.”

MZ: Right, but see, what worries me is that, and I know people want to ask, what worries me is I feel like if that’s what people, how people think people should write poems, they’re not going to be able to write very good poems. Because it’s not about, “Am I going to write something sincere or ironic?” It’s about “What word am I going to use, and what’s the next word I’m going to use, and on what basis am I going to make those choices?” And I’m not sure it’s so much about creating an effective mode, a mode, like sincerity or irony or whatever. That would seem—I could be wrong, but that seems like that might not be the most helpful. Kathleen, when you talk about your work, that’s not how you talk about making your work. I don’t think. I think you talk about being interested in words and language and what could happen with them and moving them around and stuff. But I’ve heard you talk about it.

KG: I think I think about all that stuff. I think I do make a conscious—it’s always been a sort of ethical act, maybe, to write a poem, and you make a decision and so those modes are actually ethical stances in some weird way for me. Somebody may have to help me understand what I’m trying to say right now, but I know what you are trying to say and I definitely compose that way too, right? You sort of stumble into a lexicon and the lexicon advances itself across the body of the poem. And so I know what you’re saying there.

DW: You know, one of the things that’s interesting, though, is you talk about modes, then you talk about diversity, and one of the problems I often perceive of seeing students in their reading habits is that they sort of figure that, “Okay, I’ve established my characteristic mode, and I’m going to read a lot in that mode, I’m going to read everything in that mode. I sort of associate myself with New York School poetry, so I’m going to completely familiarize myself with that tradition, but not read in any of the other traditions.” If you read James Schuyler, you’re going to say, “No, I don’t want to read James Merrill.” And so there’s not a lot of catholicism, I think, among people who are starting to read contemporary poems, and that often irritates me, that they don’t read around the spectrum.

Audience: I also think though, people write the sorts of things they like to read. Right? So those two things kind of feed into one another. But it’s not necessarily, like, “You say I write this thing, and I’m only going to seek out these poems” so much as, you want to write the things that you love, and when you find new things you love and, you know, new poets you love and want to read all of, they kind of fit in with what you’re doing. I'm not saying I don't agree with you but I think we should seek out things that are different from what we’re used to, but I also think it’s not, like it doesn’t go from “I want to write this” to “I want to read this.” I think they are inextricably linked.

MZ: What sort of problems or issues or concerns do you all have as people sitting down to write poems that we might be able to talk about or address in a direct way?

Audience: I have a question for Dana. I’m really interested in your “Letter to GC” poem. I’m kind of working on a project where I’m writing letters and trying to extract poems from the letters and that’s pretty much exactly what you do with such a thing. So I guess I’m a little concerned about how to condense prose and how to arrive at images and ideas through prose and then somehow turn them into poetry?

DL: Yeah, well you know, with that poem, mainly it was sparked by being really sick of how I sounded on the page, and needing to trick myself into different—not even tonal, but diction. And diction leads to tone, right? And depending on the word choices a new tone can get created, so I wanted to see if I could—and then I'll also say that like, if you’ve read my work, I mean, sometimes when people actually meet me they’re shocked that I have a sense of humor, they’re shocked that I’m earthy, they’re shocked that I cuss a lot. I’ve had people say, “Oh, I thought you were going to be this sort of ethereal goth girl.” And so something that’s always on my mind is wanting to figure out how to get more of my complete—no, not “complete,” that’s a bad word—more of my current total self, which is always changing. The current total self on the page. If it’s possible. I’m always thinking about that. So, with “Letter to GC,” I have this correspondence with the poet G.C. Waldrep and I really liked some of the things I would write to him and I would also notice that, just as a language moment, a sentence, a phrase, and I noticed that often they were not things that I would normally put in my poems. So all I did was take my half of the correspondence, as it stood, twenty-five pages, and I just started going through it with a highlighter pen, and I just highlighted any language moment that was interesting to me, especially if it had a diction or tonal capacity that was not like . . . I mean just like how that poem begins, right? “I say most sincerely and desperately, HAPPY NEW YEAR!” Would I ever write a poem that starts that way? No. But now I might. Because we learn, right? Every time we do this new thing, we’re like, “Huh, I could do that again.” “I say sincerely and desperately ‘screw you.’” So I got those twenty-five pages down to ten, and then down to three, and then down to the lines that are in the poem. And then what happened is, I started to create linkages that were mostly prepositional phrases. So that we could move from one line to the next in a way that sort of seemed like it made sense. And then I didn’t want to have punctuation because I wanted the lines—you know, line two could go up with line one or it could down with line three. So, and then what was the best discovery was realizing that it was a perfect distillation of all the things we talk about to each other in writing. So it doesn’t sound like it’s exactly your process, but perhaps what I would say is that the beneficial thing is that I had all of this found material, even though it was material I generated. I considered it found material because the impulse for it wasn’t to write poetry. And very often now, for my own compositional processes, I’ll go back through my journals in that exact same process. Finding phrasing—and you know it might end up in a poem that has nothing to do with the original journal entry. So basically, like, developing this process where anything you write is material, and available, and to view it as material that you can excise from its original source point and plug in somewhere else and to just develop an immense flexibility. And the minute it’s on a piece of paper you can do whatever you want with it, and it doesn’t matter what the original intent was, it’s just, “Is this a phrase that’s doing something? What is it doing?”

GD: I think that poem functions in exactly the way you’ve described. I really felt you doing that, but at the same time it also has a function in the book, because you’re debating Waldrep, and because you’re debating him, you’re actually offering people a glimpse into some of the intellectual and technical backgrounds to your own poetry.

DL: Yeah, it is kind of like an ars poetica.

Audience: I’m wondering, among the range of topics and things that you guys work with in your poetry, you take on highly personal and potentially dangerous things, and I’m wondering are there things that either of you feel you can’t or shouldn’t write about, and if so, how do you either combat that instinct or honor it?

MZ: Well, what do you mean by dangerous?

Audience: In the sense that you’re exposing a part of yourself or a part of your life that others may take issue with?

MZ: So you mean the writer would be revealing something intimate that could then be, what, criticized? What would be the bad thing that would happen to that intimacy, do you think?

DL: Or is it dangerous because it just makes you feel incredibly vulnerable?

Audience: Yeah, I’m thinking about it from an internal way.

MZ: Oh, I see. So you’re saying that as you’re writing there is a kind of fear of exposure of something that you personally would not want other people to know or, only the closest people to you you’d want to share those kinds of things with.

DL: Well, I’ll just say—read “Howl.” This is a person who wrote this poem because he was certain that his father would never read it. Ginsberg’s “Howl.” And he’s writing about getting fucked up the ass with a broomstick and doing tons of drugs and being in jail and being insane, and I mean, it’s exhilarating. But he only did it because he was absolutely certain that his father wouldn’t read it and he thought he was only writing for his friends. He never imagined this poem would—I don’t even know if he thought he’d survive, you know, being an adult at the time that he wrote this poem. So I think you have to trick yourself—only if you are feeling like you must address this material in some crucial way, it will not leave you alone no matter what you do, you keep coming back to it, and so I think you have to find a way to trick yourself into doing it. I think for Ginsberg it was because he just assumed only his friends would read this poem. That it was a poem for his friends, and that was it. And he just felt like he could be honest.

MZ: Yeah, I mean I’m not sure—just to quickly answer—I’m not sure that anything I would do—I’m not sure anything I write is that dangerous in the sense that I think there are people who have dangerous, for one reason or another, are in dangerous situations where they have things about themselves or kinds of, you know, experiences or identities that in certain situations would be genuinely actually dangerous, in a kind of psychological sense, or else like actually dangerous to write about. I don’t feel that anything I write about rises to that level, that term. In this book that you have in front of you, one of the many things I’m writing about is the death of my father, but I mean that’s like, yes, that was an incredibly painful event for me personally, but it’s not like it’s dangerous in that sense to write about it because, if anything, it’s dangerous because it veers towards being a hackneyed topic of poetic consideration. But again, I didn’t sit down and think, “Oh I’m going to write a book where some of the poems mention that”—I wrote the best poems I could write and because that was so much a part of my experience at the time when I was writing the poems, that inevitably filled many of the poems. So what’s filling the poems now is something different. So again, I don’t think of it in that way, I just think of writing the most powerful, beautiful, strangest poems I can, and maybe I’m naïve—maybe that’s a trick I perform on myself just so I can make them work. I feel like when you said “danger,” it made me think—and I could be misinterpreting you—that there’s a little bit of an element of, like, it’s dangerous because you’re not supposed to write those kinds of poems, because they’re clichéd or something? Was there a little bit of that idea? Like, that it’s cheesy to write about some big emotion like that or something? Or maybe that’s not what you meant.

Audience: No, not exactly.

MZ: Okay. I mean I didn’t take it personally, I’m just trying to—because I do think there’s that idea too, like people when they read my book were like, “Oh my God I can’t believe, it’s like somehow you managed to write about the most important things in your life, how did you do that?” I’m like, “What do you mean?” It would be impossible for me to avoid writing those poems, I’d have to—even if I was like I’m only going to write about rocks, like somehow it would still be about—I’m such an effing narcissist that it would be about myself anyway.

GD: There’s some subjects, though, that do inherently and automatically take you out beyond yourself, I know Ross’s work so I’ll just say, what about politically charged or racially charged materials? What about things where you recognize that as soon as you address these subjects in any way, they have a kind of public dimension?

MZ: Well I write a lot of political poems.

Audience: I was just going to say, Dana mentioned something about an abortion poem earlier today and how she felt, maybe having a hard time—

DL: I feel like it’s unpublishable; I feel like it won’t get published, but now I’m going to show it to her for Blackbird. It’s about one of those abortion displays, and actually to me, the thing about it the most is, the stance I take is like, “Oh man, I just wanted to go get a cup of coffee.” You know? Do I really have to look at this? Do I have to really deal with this? But, I’m nervous about that poem. I wrote it. I’m nervous about it being published, but I’m not nervous enough about it. And maybe that’s just age, where you’re like, “Okay, well, somebody wants to get upset about this. That might be interesting.” Maybe there could be a conversation about it, and as G.C. likes to say to me, “Well, you know, really? The worst thing that could happen is no one will care. No one will care, no one will say anything, no one will care.” And I realized, that actually is the scariest thing, for all of us as writers. Not that there is a bad review, not that there’s a good review, but the fact that there’s silence. That’s probably the most terrifying. But I think you have to write it, and then you have to decide if you are ready psychologically to handle the ramifications of it being public. If you’re not ready psychologically for those ramifications, then hold onto it. And if you are ready, then great, and have a good support system if you feel like you put yourself in a position where you’re going to get attacked. But you do have to write it, because if you don’t, you’ll get sick.

Audience: My question could follow up on that. I guess my question is how can poem writing sort of enter into other discourses or other dialogues? You know, just in general, how can other kinds of reading influence our poem writing and how can we engage the larger world?

MZ: Well, I mean my poems—one of the things that I really like about being a poet—is that anything can provide the language for a poem to begin. So I don’t make a distinction among all the different types or manifestations of language. I’m going to insist on talking that way as opposed to human behavior, because human behavior does me no good if it doesn’t take place in language for poems, because I need words to write down. So, as far as language goes, I listen to sports talk radio, I read novels, and I read crazy scientific journals, and if some term interests me, I try to do what Dana’s talking about with her “Letter to GC.” I try to find the language that shines, and I try to stick it in the poems and make the poems work. That’s my job, I don’t have another job. So I think that part of having that attitude about poems means that inevitably and inextricably I’m bound up in all kinds of other activities. Which is a great thing about a poet. I always joke about it. I saw Jorie Graham read once and she was like, very dramatically, said, “I was doing this research on World War II.” And I was like, “Research? You read like a third of a book.” That’s research, you know? But the thing is, then she read these great poems. Research is getting, starting to get some texture of language. You can get as deep into that as you want, or as not deep into it. And so as far as how I can engage with other humans, activities or whatever, I think people are constantly drawing poems into their lives and poets into their lives. I mean I see it all the time—people love poems. They love hearing poems, and a lot of the time, they don’t know that’s what they love, but as soon as you do it, they need that silence, they need that attention. They need that kind of thing that only a poem can give. I’m not some evangelist for poetry or something, but I’ve seen it over and over again. I mean, people need that. I don’t need to convince anybody of anything, I just need to read them a great poem, and then my job is done, you know? And then they can ask for more if they want it. You know what I mean? I think people do need it. So I’m not even worried about it. I think and weirdly, we live in this world now where the kinds of experiences that aren’t poems are so dominant in an everyday way in our lives, that when somebody does hear a poem, it’s so different from the way they’re usually used to dealing with language or experience that actually, we’re in great shape as poets. We’re becoming indispensable. It really is different. And it really is a relief—a huge relief to hear language used in that way. I guess it’s my nature, but I don’t worry so much about that. I mean, maybe I should, but I don’t.

DL: I don’t either. You always hear conversations like, “Well in Russia, or in Brazil, they’ll fill whole stadiums—20,000 seats—to come hear the great poet!”

MZ: Sounds like a nightmare. Who wants to be upstage in front of 20,000 people . . . I mean, can you imagine?

DL: Yeah, I know. And also, when somebody says that I always think, because I am an egotist myself it’s like, “Okay—how much is that statement based on the fact that you would like to be the person who that is happening to?” Rather than a statement about American poetry and all this kind of stuff. Now, you can, I suppose, make arguments about, are there any great poets, in the way that one used to consider T.S. Eliot to be a great poet. Right? I think it’s really difficult to do that while you’re living in your age of poetry. It’s rare for that to happen while the person is alive. People will tell you that John Ashbery—to me, I’m interested in Ashbery as a historical . . . he has captured something about the zeitgeist. And in many ways, he was the first to do it. And in many ways, he was pressing it. Because when I read him, I feel like I’m searching the internet. And he was writing this way before the internet was even invented. So I’m interested in him from that perspective. But is he my personal great twentieth/twenty-first century poet? Absolutely not. Because I go to poetry for things he doesn’t provide me. If my friend John Gallaher was sitting here next to me, he could talk beautifully about the importance of Ashbery, how moving he is as a writer—something I always find fascinating when John talks about this. John finds what he needs from poetry by reading Ashbery. So, I mean, William Carlos Williams thought Eliot’s “The Waste Land” was the most disastrous thing to ever happen to American poetry, because he wanted to create and uphold this American vernacular. When I teach my undergraduates Modernism, I have them read “The Waste Land” and then I have them read “The Red Wheel Barrow”—and the discussion question is, “How is ‘The Red Wheel Barrow’ a cure for what is diagnosed in ‘The Waste Land’?” It just drives them around the bend. But, you get what I’m saying, right? The whole great poet thing. There’s always going to be somebody who doesn’t agree. There’s going to be somebody who thinks Shakespeare is full of shit.

MZ: That person’s an idiot.

DL: No, I definitely agree.

MZ: No, but can I say one thing about Ashbery? Because I can’t let this quite pass. I will say this about Ashbery, is that he has written—I will say—that he has written more great poems than any other living American poet. Like I could pick out, between let’s say, fifty to sixty lasting, great poems that were written by him that are really—I’m not talking about like New Yorker, they were published in The New Yorker—I mean great poems. And we could sit here and read these poems and our minds would be completely blown. They’re so beautiful. He does write a lot of this driftier stuff, and I can see there’s a lot of people who feel, I’m glad you said that—because I think those people are afraid to say that about Ashbery. All that being said, there’s a core of Ashbery’s work. I just wanted to say that—not to start an argument about Ashbery—but to just say that he is a truly great poet. In my personal opinion, that’s what I’m saying—I think he is.

DL: I want to read your selected Ashbery.

MZ: I will be happy to give you a list.

DL: I need a selected Ashbery! What is there, twenty-five books? I need a selected Ashbery.

MZ: I’ll take care of it for you, Dana.

DL: No, seriously!

MZ: I will. I will give you the list of poems.

DL: Right on.

GD: [To Zapruder] One of the things that your work has in common with Ashbery—that I only discovered recently about Ashbery—is that he employs a surprising sense of humor in work that, when you first encounter it, you’re mesmerized by what you call the driftiness of it. But I think afterwards, when you stay with it for a while, it begins to emerge that he’s actually pulling your leg a lot of the time.

MZ: Well kind of. So his first book is called Some Trees. And the first line of the first poem in Some Trees—it’s called “Some Trees”—is “These are amazing.” I mean, that’s funny, right? “These are amazing.” I mean, I don’t know—to say that about trees, I actually find that pretty funny. Like I think that’s kind of humorous. And yeah, I totally agree—there’s a sweetness to the humor. There’s not a meanness in it. And I do think “The Waste Land” was a disaster for American poetry. I think it’s a great poem, and I love “The Waste Land”—it’s a beautiful poem. But it also was a disaster. It really has created a lot of problems, you know, in the way that people think of poems, because it’s a terrible . . . it deliberately encourages a certain way of reading poetry, which is not useful, almost all the time. You know what I mean: the footnotes. You know that poem was originally called “He do the Police in Different Voices”?

DL: That would have been a more helpful title, actually.

MZ: Much more helpful. It’s not as good a title as “The Waste Land”—“The Waste Land” is an amazing title—but the elusiveness of the basic structure of that poem, and the idea that you have to have a book to help you read the poem—that has not been good for American poetry. Now, that’s not Eliot’s fault: he wrote a beautiful, amazing poem. I’m not blaming him. But I think Williams had a point when he said that. It's like, there has been a lot—I mean maybe you all don’t agree—But I have some sympathy for that point of view of Williams’s. It’s frustrating that now everybody thinks every time you say something in a poem you actually mean something different.

DL: So he’s the original elliptical poet. Eliot’s the original elliptical poet.

MZ: He kind of is. He’s not responsible for that situation. He’s a good example of it, anyway. But you had your hand up.

Audience: Yeah. I just have a question, talking about great poets. If both of you had to come up with a list of five poets each, that you guys feel like somebody should not graduate from an MFA program without having read?

MZ: Like from the history of time?

DL: Yeah, I was just going to ask: is there a time period?

Audience: Yeah, you can . . . in the history of time, whatever. But who comes to mind, somebody who is important for a developing poet to read?

DL: Well first of all, you have to realize that, whatever we say, if you asked us this tomorrow, the list might be different.

Audience: Absolutely. I know. But just, who as you’ve been developing as poets, who were the most important and influential people that you’ve read, or who, like, are your students not reading that you’re surprised they’re not reading and you wish that they were?

MZ: The name . . . I was just going to say Algernon Swinburn but I’d be kidding. Yeah, that makes me think, makes me wonder what you’re reading, what you all are reading, ’cause I bet that most of what I’d say you’ve probably read. I mean, if you really asked me like, who are the five poets that you need to read, I’m sure you’ve read them. You don’t need me to tell you to read Emily Dickinson. But it also brings up the kind of interesting question of like, how does our reading relate to our work as poets, and I think that came up earlier also, like how can our reading be helpful to us as writers. And I’m going to take a little bit of a cop-out and say, when I teach I do try to listen to the individual person’s work and try to give them particular things that I think would help them in a technical way as they operate. Like, Dana’s answer about the question about letter-writing was so helpful—that’s the kind of basis upon which I would like to make a reading suggestion to a person, so it would like actually help them do their work, rather than like, “You should read more blah blah blah.” But, I mean, I do feel that way, I will shake my finger at people sometimes, but it’s obnoxious and it’s a bad quality that I have. So, I know that was like the world’s biggest cop-out . . . James Skylar!

DL: Especially the poem “The Crystal Lithium,” that is an amazing poem.

MZ: Yeah, that’s great. Or “A Few Days.” His long poems are great, cause they teach you how to read. Those long poems, they’re a great way to . . . my favorite poems are the 20th century, wow—

DL: Oh my god! What is it?

MZ: —is “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower” by William Carlos Williams. I kind of insist that my students read that, I guess, before they graduate, so . . . See, I actually gave an answer.

DL: You did! You know, I sometimes think that it’s not even necessarily reading something that’s unfamiliar, but reading it through new lenses. So, when I was an undergrad, I was blown away by William Blake’s “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” but it wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I was reading something that said that when Blake was alive, political tracts were some of the most popular things being published, and that the form of “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” owes itself, a little bit, to those kinds of political tracts. And so then it’s interesting to read “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” as a political document, but it’s about having a revolution of the soul. I mean, you know, when Blake was alive, you know, this was a revolutionary time period, he was very enamored of the revolutions that happened in America and France, there were bread riots in London, I mean, it was a very tumultuous time. And I think for Blake that revolutionary spirit did not take a political form for him, it was really a spiritual form, but when you read “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” it’s very interesting to see those modes come together. So—

MZ: That’s great, that’s cool.

DL: —Yeah, so . . . I mean, I love that poem.

MZ: Blake’s amazing.

DL: He’s amazing. Blake. Read Blake.

MZ: You know what else you made me think of? I made a twentieth century recommendation; I’ll make a nineteenth century recommendation. I find that many graduate students are not familiar with Coleridge’s conversation poems, particularly like “Frost at Midnight,” “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison,” “The Eolian Harp.” Those are actually, it could be easily argued that those are the first examples of the kind of lyric poem as we understand it. I mean, they’re not the first examples of lyric poem, but kind of like a modern lyric poem. And first of all, most importantly, they’re amazing poems. The end of “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison” goes something like this: “Of which no sound is dissonant that speaks of life.” That’s the end of it. It’s so good. But, anyway, those are great; they can teach you something about what we’ve been doing in this weird activity of writing lyric poems for the past, let’s say two-hundred years, basically. So, I mean anyway, I guess I would maybe recommend that as a thing. Yeah, cause that’s an exciting thing, to go back and read those poems and see how modern they feel.

DL: You know, from a craft perspective this might seem like a very hum-drum answer, but Louise Glück is going to have a collective come out later this year.

MZ: That’ll be cool.

DL: And if you track her writing from book to book, and really notice what is going on from a craft perspective, I think the achievement is actually pretty phenomenal with extremely minimal means, cause she’s an extremely minimalist, she has a very minimal palette. Constantly, sort of, changing up how she approaches the page while still having a poem be recognizably a Louise Glück poem. And I’m not a big fan of all of the books. I have favorite books, but from an achievement perspective you can learn a lot from her, in terms of just constantly shifting up, and it’s simple things—Oh, in this book she decides to use really long lines, and this is what happens when she does that. In this book she decides to never speak from her own voice and it’s all persona. Well, oh, that’s interesting. This book, actually if you pay attention takes the form of an opera. Oh, that’s interesting—so from, you know, an architectural standpoint you can learn a lot just from tracking her body of work, especially from Ararat forward. And for me, also, at this point, I read for architecture, and I’m not reading necessarily out of “Am I moved, am I not moved?” It’s more like, “Oh, when this poet does this, this happens. That’s fascinating.” It’s late. This is a late thing for me. When I was in my twenties, I absolutely was reading out of my “Am I moved, am I not moved?” “Am I learning about the human soul or not?” Those things still matter to me, but I can read past them. Right now I’m just interested in what kind of a house has this person built, you know, do I want to build that kind of a house?

MZ: Can we help you solve any particular poetic problems?

DL: Or personal ones! No, I’m just kidding.

Audience: This is for Matthew, but I think you guys might both be able to help me. In your essay, I think it’s the one on Merwin, you talk about, I think you say, “the disembodied phrase,” you know, as the phrase that comes out of the context of the poem, and I think that’s something, in my poems, is a thing that means a lot to me. I guess that kind of like partial understanding on the part of the reader that keeps the mystery . . . So, I guess, could you talk about what those kinds of phrases mean to you. I mean, if I’m not just completely misinterpreting what you’re saying.

MZ: You’re not misinterpreting. Yeah, I think I was talking about how Merwin manages to, in his poems, that these utterances will kind of appear that seem so oracular and amazing, but couldn’t be predicted through the events of the poem necessarily, and that that’s one of the great pleasures of reading Merwin, is that these beautiful things get said that aren’t directly related to the events of the poem, or they are, but then they take on this other significance, and the point I was making in the essay is that, it’s a very crude point in a way—which is that it’s easier to allow those things into the poem or to stumble upon them when you have a really strong structure of the poem, whether it’s—When I was talking about Merwin, I was talking about how he uses anecdote, stories, basically, as a way of grounding the poem so that these other things can come in and get said that are so surprising and beautiful and amazing, but it doesn’t have to be narrative or anecdote, it can be a rhetorical structure or a physical structure on the page. You know, like in Dana’s poems a lot of the time. So I think I guess I would say that I’m in search of those moments, you know, and I love when they come upon me unexpected, and that’s the reason I write poems, is to have those things happen to me. And the extent to which they are able to survive in the poem, it’s often when I’ve written a poem that has some kind of very solid structure or basis of some kind, and often for me, it’s often kind of a narrative or situational grounding. That just feels good to me, but I don’t do that because I think it’s the right thing to do. For whatever reason that just works for me, like it makes it easier for me to do those other amazing things, like—that’s a horrible thing to say, to call my own work—but these things that amaze me when they happen—

DL: These are amazing!

MZ: These are amazing, yeah. So I guess I would say that you gotta give yourself some place to stand, whether it’s formal or situational or anecdotal, whatever, and then that will let you, if you love making those things, and you’re always paying attention to them when they’re possible, you’ll be able to draw them in and put them in and it will be very exciting. But it’s hard when the whole thing is all that stuff and there’s no place for the reader to have any place to stand—that’s tough. You know, and that’s a lot of the problem in workshop, right? It’s like somebody brings in a poem and you’re like, “Well, that’s a beautiful line, that’s a beautiful line, that’s a beautiful line, but . . . what the hell’s going on?” And the person’s like, “Oh it’s actually that light over there talking.” And you're like, “No, ‘That light over there talking’ would be a great title for this poem, and then we would know and then you could say all of the cool things the light says.” You know, but if we don’t know that, then they’re just a series of lyric utterances that have no relevance to our lives, and I don’t generally respond to poems that are like that. But I could imagine someone saying, “No, no, no that’s the best thing of all in poems,” and I’d be like, “Well okay, then you like your poems and I’ll like mine.”

DL: It just made me think about C.D. Wright—that’s another poet you should read. And actually I love her book One Big Self. I know originally that book with the poems were in relation to photographs of visiting the Louisiana prison system, and Deepstep Come Shining is also a beautiful book. But she came to visit the school where I teach and I asked her a question about . . . to me I would pose this as groundedness versus ungroundedness, I guess is one way to think about it. And I said to her, “One of the things I love about your poetry is that I always know where I am; I always know where I’m standing.” And there’s different ways that she communicates that to me, because the work could be considered to come back full circle—elliptical, I suppose. It definitely could be viewed as fractured; it’s not a kind of poetry that says, “One day my friend Deborah and I decided to go on a road trip and I wrote some poem.” Instead, she communicates groundedness through repetition, through refrain, all of these kind of sonic markers. But anyway, I said to her, “I’m always grounded,” and she said, “Oh. Location is so important.” And she didn’t even necessarily just mean geographically, she just meant knowing where you stand in the poem, like understanding where you’re situated is so crucial. And I was so delighted to hear her say that, because she’s often considered an experimentalist, right? And for some reason, often when we’re talking about experimentalists in poetry, we are referring to a kind of poem that someone else might consider to be ungrounded. And I just think that that’s a dumb way to be thinking about experimentalism, and also we’re all experimentalists; it doesn’t matter what kind of poem we’re writing. The minute we’re trying to approach the page, we’re experimenting. So even that label is unhelpful.

MZ: So, what you’re saying I think is so important. Let’s get down on the ground here and say, okay, a lot of the time, when I read a poem and I don’t know what’s going on, a lot of the time a person has deliberately made it that way, because they are afraid that if they say exactly what they mean to say that people are going to think they’re stupid or not poetic, or not sophisticated—you know, they’re ashamed. Basically, it’s about shame. And it’s not very often that I read the twenty-first century Breton—who’s like a true surrealist, who’s like, “I’m just writing these vatic utterances that come from the air, and I'm just putting them together in this way. There is no event, there is no situation, I’m just putting them together.” I mean, yes, one can write those poems and they can be beautiful. But ninety-nine percent of the time, it’s a flaw, a basic flaw in the writing. It’s either deliberately hiding what you’re saying, or not realizing quite how much you’re hiding, but sort of knowing it. And I don’t think that’s good. I don’t think people should do that. I don’t think it helps the poems, at all, to be cagey like that. I think you’ve got to come out, and be open for your readers, you know? And I do think that’s important. And I know that I get a lot of pushback from my students about that. But that’s how I feel. And so that’s why I think when we’re sitting together in a workshop, a lot of my task, or whatever, is to get the group—or the individuals in the group—to reflect back to the writer: what are they actually reading, and where are they confused, and where are they not—in whatever way. Because I feel like that’s often something that the writers of poems feel like they don’t have to address those issues, basically. That somehow that’s not pertinent to poetry. I don’t mean—please don’t get me wrong—I don’t mean there has to be a situation in every poem, or there has to be a narrative. It’s just, whatever it is, it has to be there.

DL: Yeah, like the title. “That was the lamppost talking,” or whatever. As long as there’s some kind of place, from which to view.

MZ: Something. Some place. Yeah, I mean, how many great poems have nothing—just don’t have any of that? I mean, even “He do the Police in Different Voices” has that. And the poems get so much better when someone’s like, “Oh.” They’re so much weirder in their actuality than they are in their potentiality. It’s like they turn into this—instead of this vaguely, kind of somewhat resonant group of phrases—it’s like the person shyly admits how the actual thing that’s going on, it’s so weird and awesome, it’s like, “Yeah that’s my grandmother’s cedar chest, inhabited by spirits,” and you’re like “That’s so cool!” Like, why not let us have that? So, I’m a big believer in being open in that sense, in the poem, but I know it can be misinterpreted as me saying, oh, “Everything has to be an anecdote or a situation or story,” and my own poems aren’t like that.

DL: I think I would bring it back to architecture again. To me, sometimes the best way to handle that is a simple title that immediately can locate or orient the reader, and then you get to do whatever else you want to do in that poem, as long as that’s the right title that just helps people understand where the poem takes place. I mean, my titles are pretty—I always think my titles are pretty boring, but that’s because I’m not looking for linguistic oomph, I’m really thinking about the title as a functional helper.

MZ: Yeah, you could be really crude about it. Also, again—for some reason I keep saying that—if you have a crazy poem, where you want to be totally liberated, sometimes the title, you can straighten everything out right there. And vice versa, if you have a poem that’s very straight, and everything is right in there, there’s a lot you can do with that title space, rather than, like, restating the obvious thing that becomes clear in the first few lines of the poem. So you have opportunities either way to use that space of the title, and again, that sounds very programmatic, what I’m saying, but most of the time it’s kind of one or the other situations you’re in, and it’s a good idea to be smart as a writer and think about what you’re doing.

DL: Yeah, you know a great example is Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons. Right? “Cup and Saucer.” “A Petticoat.” “Water Raining.” And then you read this thing and you’re like, “Uhhhh.” But, because the titles are so concrete and available, I’m willing to hang out. I’m willing to engage. I mean if she had called the poems—

MZ: Yeah, then they would have just been language—word salads.

DL: “Larry wears orange socks.” Now I feel like that’s an Ashbery poem title. So, you know, you should all call your poem “Apple.” And it should begin, “I say most sincerely and desperately ‘screw you.’” And then see what happens.

MZ: I don’t know, it all like comes down to these basic decisions. What are you going to do, how are you going to make this as awesome as possible?

DL: That’s really the basic question.

MZ: I wish you luck with your work, with your own poems.

DL: I mean I know sometimes, you’ll be like, “Why am I doing this?!” Because it’s awesome. It’s amazing. You are amazing. We’re all amazing.

GD: Thank you very much.  end

A reading by Dana Levin and Matthew Zapruder appears in the previous issue, v11n2. Work outside of this issue opens in a separate window.

   A Reading by Dana Levin and Matthew Zapruder

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