Tin House Live: Matthew Zapruder on Story of a Poem
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The last time Matthew Zapruder was on the show was for his book, Why Poetry?, a book that pulls off a magic trick of sorts, insofar as it is a great book for poets, a celebration of poetry, and an exploration of how poems do what they do, and why what they do is important to the human experience. And at the same time, it manages to be a great book for people terrified of poetry, or allergic to poetry, or who love to read but can’t find a way into poetry. His latest book, Story of a Poem, likewise creates a similar magic. On the one hand, you could say, and you would be right, that the book follows the making of one poem. Matthew dilates the moments of creative decision-making to demystify the revision process and/ or to orient us to the mysteries of revision, the things that can’t be anticipated, one draft to the next. So, this book is an incredible gift for poets. But really, the book is also as much about story and narrative. Not just the story of this poem, not even primarily the story of this poem, but the stories that make up our sense of self, our sense of the world, and what happens when our world changes so much and in such a way that it challenges those stories, that it demands we show up differently to the world. How does one revise oneself? And this book becomes the story of a poet who has to do just that. And these two revisions of poet and poem each suggest paths forward to each other. And magically, somehow, this becomes a book both for prose writers and for poets and also for people who need to find a new form in their lives, and perhaps, if they’re writers, as an extension of that, need to find a new form for their writing. People really showed up for Matthew in Portland. The room was full and full of a lot of love. Poets showed up from Annelyse Gelman to Mary Szybist; prose writers from Leni Zumas to Kevin Sampsell, Sampsell who introduces Matthew at the beginning.
Before we begin, Between the Covers is listener-supported. If you enjoy what you hear today, consider joining the community of people, of writers, of poets, of translators, of artists, of readers, of anthropologists, of social scientists, and others who make the show possible. Every supporter gets the resource-rich email with each episode and can help brainstorm who to have on the show going forward. And then there are just simply a ton of other things to potentially choose from, including the bonus audio archive, which includes readings by such iconic poets as Jorie Graham, Alice Oswald, Dionne Brand, Rosemarie Waldrop, Major Jackson, Forrest Gander, Victoria Chang, Arthur Sze, Nikky Finney, Ross Gay, Ada Limón, and more. Or the Tin House early readership subscription, receiving 12 books over the course of a year, months before they’re available to the general public. You can check it all out at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. And now, for today’s conversation, live at Powell’s Bookstore with Matthew Zapruder.
These stories are about to get unleashed. They’re about the wildness contained in all of us. “I think stories have some magical effect in the world. I think it’s really hard to live without stories and if somebody tells you this is the way you’re going to end up, you’re lucky if you can forget that.” “There’s me and then there’s writer guy me, and then there’s me working, which is the absence of me. It’s just a story.” “I had no idea how to write a novel. I didn’t know if it would ever come to fruition. I was working at a vet and lint-rolling puppy hair and cat dander off myself.” “They’re almost like really shy animals. They will come out of the woods, but you have to stay very still, and you have to pretend like you’re not interested in them.” “Artists tend to put their fingers in the wounds in the silences.” “I believe in the role of literature as a catalyst for dialogue and new forms of thinking.” “All the stuff I’m interested in is thrown into the washing machine that is my brain and it’s put on a spin.”
Kevin Sampsell: Hello, hi, everyone. Thanks for coming out tonight. Before we get started, a reminder to please silence your cell phones and devices. And you can always keep up with who’s coming to Powell’s by looking online at powells.com. You can also find our event calendars around the store by the information desk, and you can follow us on the social medias such as Facebook, Instagram, TikTok. Tonight, we’re excited to welcome back Matthew Zapruder in conversation with David Naimon.
That’s right. Matthew is the author of several collections of poetry, including Father’s Day, published by Copper Canyon in 2019, as well as Why Poetry, a book that celebrated the beauty and accessibility of poetry to the common reader. He has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, a William Carlos Williams Award, a May Sarton Award, and a Lannan Foundation Residency Fellowship in Marfa, Texas. He was co-founder and now editor-at-large at Wave Books and was the guest editor of Best American Poetry 2022. Matthew’s new book, Story of a Poem, is a memoir that further explores the intricate details of the making of a poem and the true thoughts and lives behind the lines, specifically his own son. Citing the works of Celan, Merwin, Whitman, Hugo, O’Hara, and others, Story of a Poem becomes a multifaceted revelation. Matthew is joined in conversation tonight by David Naaman. His writing has won a Pushcart Prize and has appeared in Best Small Fictions, Boulevard, Black Warrior Review, and elsewhere. He hosts the literary broadcast and podcast Between the Covers, which is being recorded tonight. You can find the archive of his excellent show at tinhouse.com/podcasts. After tonight’s talk, Matthew will be up here to sign books for you, and we ask that you line up right over here, on the side of the room, when that time comes. You can pay for your books after they are signed downstairs in the green room or the orange room by the exits. A reminder that we do close at 8:55 p.m. Now, please welcome Matthew Zapruder and David Naimon.
David Naimon: Hey there.
Matthew Zapruder: It’s good to see you.
DN: You, too.
MZ: With your whole face! Because you were wearing a mask before.
DN: [laughter] yes.
MZ: Yeah, it’s been a while since I saw you in person, I think the last time we saw each other in person at Tin House, but I remember doing the podcast at the radio station.
DN: That’s right.
MZ: I just remember the overpowering smell of marijuana.
DN: Was there a smell?
MZ: Yeah, it was great. It was great.
DN: Well, Ursula Le Guin used to call it “The great, funky station [inaudible].”
MZ: Well, she’s a huge stoner, Ursula Le Guin, huge stoner.
DN: Huge stoner.
MZ: Anyway, thanks everybody for coming. And I’m so happy to be on the podcast again.
DN: Well, you’re going to start with a reading, right?
MZ: Yeah, I’m going to read a bit from this new book, Story of a Poem, but do you want to say anything first?
DN: Well, the only thing I wanted to say is, I think we’re going to look back at this book in ten years and it’s going to be one of those books that people read and immediately want to give to somebody. Just in my announcing this on social media, so many really accomplished writers and poets who’ve encountered your book already, like I think of Alina Stefanescu, the poet and critic, raving about it on Twitter when I was tweeting, and then Sabrina Orah Mark, who’s been on the podcast for Happily, mentioned she wished she lived here so she could be here, but that she’s teaching your book next week. So, I have a feeling we’re at the beginning of something that’s gonna happen, hand-passed, person-to-person through the enthusiasm that the book generates.
MZ: Like, like crypto? (laughs)
DN: Like cryptocurrency. You’re going to get Larry David involved.
MZ: Destined to be successful! Well, thanks for saying that. Yeah, I’m happy to share with everybody here, and I’m so happy to be here with you talking. I love the podcast, and really amazing to be at Powell’s, and thank you, Kevin. And I did want to mention the employees at Powell’s are organizing and I believe that on Labor Day, they’re walking out, correct? And just to mention that there’s lots of ways we can support the workers here at Powell’s who are amazing and make this place go.
MZ: I know there’s a strike fund. There [are] things you can sign, but probably the most obvious thing is maybe not to cross the picket line and shop on Labor Day. So anyway, I really hope it works out and that it just strengthens this great institution.
I’m going to read a few things from the book. And I guess I should just say before I begin, I started writing this book in fall 2018. I live in the Bay Area, and a lot of things were going on in fall 2018. Remember? A very bad time politically, and also, it was the first really terrible fire season in Northern California, or at least in recent memory. And that was this year of the Paradise Fire that killed, I think, nine people. And so, it was just a lot. We were all walking around wearing masks, and it felt just super apocalyptic and was. So, that was going on and I started doing a daily writing practice. I have a friend, who lives in New York, a great poet whose name is Catherine Barnett, and we started writing each other every day, at least 500 words a day. And we would just send each other this writing and not to workshop. All we were allowed to say back to each other was, “Thank you for this writing.” So, we did this for months. And so that was the material. The basic material of this book was generated that way, and then, of course, it took me years to go back and figure out how to put it together. I made every possible mistake one can make in writing a prose book. Even though this was not even my first prose book, but still I seemed to find all sorts of new mistakes. The one idea I had was to try to write a single poem and write about the writing of this poem. So, in the book there are drafts, like facsimile drafts of this poem that I was writing, and then I sort of show the draft, and I talk about the writing, but also talk about what was going on in my life. I think that’s all you need to know. So, I’ll read a bit from the first chapter.
[Matthew Zapruder reads an excerpt from Story of a Poem: A Memoir]
I’ll read a bit more. This is also kind of like a parenting book about parenting a neurodivergent child. I write a bit about that, and we can talk about that, too.
[Matthew Zapruder continues reading from Story of a Poem: A Memoir]
DN: Well, it’s a little strange that the two times we’ve talked now, we’re talking about books of prose, given how many books of poetry you have. But I think, for me, and I know this is different for you, the two books of prose share a similar spirit. Why poetry? I don’t know why. I’m glad you brought up music because I don’t know why it feels like a particularly American [thing to have a] weird relationship to poetry: a fear of poetry, a fear of what it means to not understand it or to understand where you are in asking these questions around orientation that you wouldn’t ask if you were at the symphony; you wouldn’t ask, “What does this mean?” But you did this really remarkable thing in Why Poetry of inviting us very slowly and gently into what it means to go into a place of unknowing and what other things you can discover in this place of unknowing. And I feel like you also do this in the new book. For instance, here’s a line from the Story of a Poem:
[David Naimon reads an excerpt from Story of a Poem: A Memoir]
DN: And I know the new book is more personal and vulnerable and intimate. It could be called as much as the Story of a Poem, the Story of a Father, the Story of a Story, the Story of Revision. But I also think it could be called Why Poetry, like your last book, but I know you feel like it has an inverted relationship. So maybe, you could just speak to the ways you feel like the book is the same or different. Because in this book, you are inviting us into an intimate creative space, among other intimacies around how a poem is composed, which also is about abandoning and rewriting and a whole bunch of things you might never have anticipated on the second draft or the fifth draft. And we get that. You get, we get that slowness and then also the unknowing of where it’s gonna go next.
MZ: When I said it was inverted, I meant that Why Poetry was almost like an experiment. It was sort of like, what would happen if I, as a poet, took the questions that people we call civilians, you know, non-poets, ask about poetry, and instead of being sort of eye-rolly about it, or like, “Oh, I can’t possibly be bothered to explain what I mean,” to say like, “Okay, well, where are these questions coming from? Why do people ask them?” Let’s really dig into it. So, it was almost kind of like an outside-out idea. Like there’s this thing happening in the world, I’m going to deal with the thing and sort of bore in deeper and deeper into poems and see if I can find some answers. This was a different project in the sense that it emerged from the desire to just make language, which is more of a poetry-type of impulse, I think. And then to see what it is I needed to write about. I mean, I knew there were some subjects, obviously, that were concerning me that I could predict the book would circle around: my parenting experience, the environmental catastrophe that we’re all living in, our political situation, et cetera, and writing poems. But I just didn’t know, I didn’t have any agenda except just to make writing and see what I learned from it. But it’s kind of funny that it ended up, in a lot of ways, in some of the same places. And it was important to me, also, in this book, I call it a process memoir, which is unattractive language, but I wanted the process, the making, the sort of gears, the machinery, to be really visible in this book. I thought that would be cool and hopefully feel like it could connect with people. That was another way of maybe opening up the same sorts of things about poetry, but sort of by displaying the making of it, instead of more like coming from the outside and talking about poems that I love, which is more what Why Poetry is.
DN: When your son is diagnosed with autism, you invite us into the unknowing of you becoming unmoored from your own sense of self, and you say that your life needs a new form, and that because your life needs a new form, your writing needs a new form. And you say that the new form can’t be poetry or prose or needs to be both in some way. And my question for you is around that. Not that you need a new form, but you so persuasively argue for poetry, for instance, saying, [reads from Story of a Poem: A Memoir] “Reading a poem, entering another’s imagination, is a recognition both of a difference and separateness, and the demonstration of the possibility of communion.” So why the prose part? Why did you feel like the form needed—
MZ: Why prose?
DN: Yeah, why prose? Why do you feel like the new form needed narrative? Why did it need story, as the story of the poem and the story of you, juxtaposed and interwoven with the poetic form?
MZ: I mean, it’s a great question. I’ll do my best to answer. I think, to be honest, again, a lot of it was instinctual. It was just sort of like, I felt like I needed to do something else. I didn’t have like a conceptual reason, I just had this impulse, and I’m sure most people in this room are familiar with this feeling. Many writers in this room, I know, they, you, feel the impulse first in the making, the desire to make something. And then after you’ve made it, you understand why you needed to. But in this case, I did think, it had to do with time. I talk about this in the book, that a poem is an instance in time. The lyric almost always, it has an imminence to it, like a singularity of time. And one thing that happened was, this happens sort of in the parts that I was reading from, I wrote a poem, and it was a pretty intensely personal poem about finding out my son was on the autism spectrum, and my wife, and other stuff. And it was, published in the New Yorker, so it was widely read. And it was just a moment of my life. It was a very true moment. It was a real thing that happened, but it was just one moment of my life. It was one thing that happened with me and my son. It was one thing. And I had this terror that that’s what people would think was everything about my experience, so I thought, I need to do something different with time. And narrative, I mean, the prose writers know this already, but narrative allows you to do different things with time. But I thought, “Was there a way to do both? Can I make a new form?” Sounds a little grandiose, but I thought, “Is there a new form, which is a poem in its making and the prose around the making of it, and can this become a new form?” And that was the form I needed. I didn’t need just prose. I didn’t need just poems. I needed those things, too, but I needed this new form, which is this book. And I feel like anyone could write a book like this about their lives. They could do different things with time to show us how things unfold and emerge. So that was the idea. I mean I was terrified it wouldn’t work, but I wanted people to feel time and my encounter with time.
DN: Well, let me ask you a question about time, and push back if this feels forced, but you say about your son that he always seems to be in a slow conversation, not in the moment seeming to be listening, but then maybe responding to something you said a week before or a month before. So, it’s a different relationship to time. Could we look at this as, like, a new form, the slow poem, that’s matching that in the sense that we’re seeing this poem, you’ve dilated the moment, and so it’s operating within time, but it’s operating in a different time?
MZ: I think that’s very accurate. I mean, I think the reason I started thinking about this was because I was spending so much time with my son. And again, this is an example of this. I didn’t have this as a concept, but I thought, “Oh, there’s something about time that’s going on here that I’m learning.” I’m a very impatient, impulsive person. I had to just totally recalibrate myself, as most parents do, I think, in any circumstance, or most people probably have to do in different ways. But in this particular case, I had to really shut up and listen and be patient and rethink how I operated with language in order to be able to relate to this person, this new person, who I loved more than life, itself, but I just wasn’t listening. I also just like love process. Like I will read a process book about anything. Like, somebody’s a knife-sharpener or grows gophers or something, I don’t care—anything. I’m interested in process, and so I actually found it kind of interesting to think about the making of a poem and to try to explain it. Like, how do you explain making a piece of writing? It’s weird because you’re writing when you’re doing it. [laughter] But it was fascinating. It was fun and interesting. So that, too. Let’s not leave the fun out of this. There’s a lot of unfun things going on in 2018, but it’s fun to write, at least.
DN: This book is as much about revising a poem as it is about revising oneself. And it feels like how you decide to ultimately see your son will determine how much you can preserve and defend your familiar self. For instance, the question, “Are you going to see him in relationship to the norm and measure him in terms of aspiring towards normal metrics?” And if you do, or if you did, which you don’t, I think you could probably preserve your sense of self in a certain way as the representative of the norm, even though your son starts in a place of insufficiency, essentially. Or do you look at your son on his own terms and in his own way? I was thinking, you have these great moments in the book. I’m going to quote from a different book because Naomi Klein also is raising a neuroatypical son and writes about it in her new book, Doppelganger, which is a lot about mirroring. But there’s also mirroring in developmental terms, whether you mirror what you see, and she says in her book, “Does your son mirror?” she’s asked. And then she says, “Do I want him to? Maybe we need a few people who are tuned into their own inner music, who are portals, not mirrors.” But if you go that route, which is so interesting in this book that you go that route, that requires you to unlearn a lot, to sort of strip down and rebuild your own sense of self. So, when you’re talking about process, one of the processes we go through is you inviting us into the unfinished-you and the drafts of fatherhood. I was hoping you could speak more into that. It’s incredibly, I don’t know if generous is the right word; it’s very intimate. We see you in a very unfinished state in various ways, and I would just love to hear about rendering yourself on the page in that way.
MZ: It’s funny. I mean, I’m happy to talk about my kid, but I don’t really even think this book is that much about him, actually. Of course, he appears a lot in it, but I guess another alternate title for this book could be like, “How Not to be an Asshole,” maybe?
MZ: Because, honestly, I think that I just didn’t realize what an ableist jerk I was until I had a kid who was different. And, I mean, not to put too fine a point on it. And that made me think of other things, all the other ways in my privilege, the way I embody those things. And I just had the sense of the only way to even start to change was to write through it. And I had to write it down. Elizabeth Bishop has that great last line from “One Art,” you know, “though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.” Maybe it felt like a disaster, in a way, but when I started writing, it didn’t feel like a disaster. It just felt like change. And I think that I thought, “Oh, why when we write do we feel like things need to be perfect? Why does the end result of a poem need to be perfect?” That’s madness, you know. It’s an illness. I wanted to just open all these things up because I feel like that’s the trouble of this world. And so, you know, the trouble in me is the trouble everywhere. It’s the trouble with all parents who, even if not through any inimical intent, they do violence to their children by not seeing them. This is something that all parents do. All parents have this struggle to see their kids, and not, you know, run roughshod over them or whatever. And I think that same thing true for making art. I don’t know if I’m really answering your question, but I just had the sense that I needed to do this to survive. And I did not know what was gonna happen. I didn’t know if I’d make a book. I mean, this book looks great. It’s great. It’s a book. But I wasn’t like, “Oh, I need to make a book.” I was like, “I need to fucking live. I need to survive. I need to live up to who I am with my kid.” You know, all these things. And that’s what I need. And I didn’t know if it would be a single poem, or a book, or an essay, or nothing, a bunch of notes that I threw away. But this was about surviving. So, making myself bare on the page, as you’re saying, or showing myself in process, it felt completely like there was no other way through, like there was no other way through. I could have made a decision at some point to just put this thing away because I was too ashamed or whatever. But I also think that people like me, who live in bodies like me, have an obligation, I think, to show themselves in process. I walk around the world looking a certain way, absorbing all this privilege. And it’s talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, unless you just start to give yourself up a little bit. And I’m not trying to paint myself out to being anything I’m not. I’m just saying that that felt real to me, as opposed to a lot of talk about it. And that felt necessary to me, too. Because my kid’s got to live in a world with people like me, so if I can do a little thing to make it better, like I’m going to, I’m going to do that, obviously.
DN: I want to ask about naming and about the mysteries of naming and language. Because of the Crafting with Ursula series I did last year, I thought a lot about naming in the last year because it was an obsession with Le Guin in her writing, both the power for good and bad of naming and removing names. And so for instance, [in] Earthsea series, you had the name that was given to you at birth; you had the name that people would call you, who just witnessed you in the world; and then you had your true name, which, often, you don’t even know and sometimes is given to you by someone else at some sort of crucial juncture. It’s like a reflection in being seen by another. But it’s this mystery around when it’s one or the other with names. And I’m thinking about it in your book, too, because I think about the ways a diagnosis can sometimes be liberating, like I’m thinking with Asperger’s becoming officially a diagnosis. For some people, that was a moment of great recognition and a sense of being able to find community and legitimacy. But labels can also be a way of, of reducing or not seeing somebody behind the label. And that’s one of the things that you already touched on [in] the reading that you did. But I’m going to read a couple of other things that you also said in the book.
[David Naimon reads from Story of a Poem, A Memoir]
I’d love to hear more about it in relationship to your son, but also more generally, in regard to poetry and language, about how to write in a way that doesn’t shadow the world that evokes the word, but without casting a shadow of the word over the world.
MZ: I’m glad you’re giving me an opportunity to talk about this because I do want to stress that in the passage, I hope it’s clear that that’s for me that word is a problem. I don’t think that word is a problem for other people. I think that people should use that word as much as they want. I don’t think it’s an inherently problematic thing. I just meant in my situation and that point in my life, it was not helpful. It might actually be more helpful now, frankly. These words were written many years ago. I just want to make sure I say that. I’m not saying, “Don’t use that word,” or something like that. I don’t feel that way. I mean, when you were reading that, I was just thinking, “God, in a way, I always say the opposite thing about words and about language.” I talk about their power, their multiplicity, their ability to illuminate things. So, I don’t know. I think that it’s like most things. It just mostly depends on how something, a word, is used, and I think for me, at that moment in my life, that word, it was a shadowing word. But, again, that’s not so much true now. Sometimes I read this book, it’s terrible, I’m gonna admit this, sometimes I read it, and I think, not that I don’t know what I meant, but that it was so in a time of something that I think now, “Oh, I’m a little bit of a different person now.” I don’t know if other writers have that experience, but I think, because of the intensity of the personal stuff that was going on, too, I had very strong feelings about that particular word in my own writing, I guess. But it’s kind of [a] funny passage, too, because I repeat it over and over again as I’m saying I don’t say it. [laughter]. Which is like, “You actually are saying it a lot, dude.” But yeah, it’s just interesting to open those things up and try to think about them. And as far as words go, for me, if I’m pulling them apart and looking at them and examining them and turning them and seeing them in a different light, that’s a joy for me with any word. And that’s, I feel, is my basic job. And then to put them in some structure that will illuminate them, or bring them back to life, or make a communion or something, as a poet, particularly in poetry, I guess.
DN: This is going to sound like a wild aside, but I think it’s related. You have this strange and great meditation on Rupi Kaur versus Bashō. [laughter]
MZ: That doesn’t sound like a fair fight, does it?
DN: She, Rupi, is that how you say it, Rupi, is it ROO-pi-CAR?
MZ: Rupi co-ER? I’m actually not sure, but yeah, co-ER, I think.
DN: She’s one of the most successful poets.
MZ: She keeps this store in business, basically, right, Kevin? [aside to Kevin Sampsell, referring to Powell’s Books]
DN: Yeah. [laughter]. She’s one of the most successful poets. She’s an Instagram poet. Her detractors would say her poems look like Hallmark-card-like poems. And you contrast her to Bashō, the haiku master, but it feels like this questioning, which is, I think, generous—you’re very generous on both sides as you go into this juxtaposition—is about naming and language. It’s about the general versus the specific. And it’s about norms versus diverging from the norms. And I was hoping, maybe, you could spend a moment with what that meditation is doing in this book.
MZ: I’m very bored with this industry of poets condemning Rupi Kaur. I find it tedious, like these articles, 15,000 words explaining to me why she’s not a good poet. And I’m like, “Well, what do you say the millions of people who actually like her poems?” So, it was much more interesting for me to try to think about what it is that she’s doing in her poems that is so meaningful to people. And this is, again, like, one of those things I just started writing to my friend, Catherine. I don’t know why. I probably saw some article, you know, the 9 millionth article explaining why Rupi Kaur wasn’t a good poet, and I was like, “Ugh,” and then I probably just started writing, and I was like, “Have I ever actually read any of her poems? Like, I’m not sure I have.” And so, then I read them. And in the writing I do about her, it’s related, actually, to your question about the word autism, because I think a lot about public language and the public nature of language and the way that language can create these communal spaces that our people so desperately need, and I think that’s the kind of thing that she does as a poet. Which is why I think that a lot of poets whose interests might be a lot more in the private nature of language, the private as it becomes public, are—and her interest is more in just the public nature of language or the public experience of language, the communal experience—I think that’s why a lot of poets can’t relate to what she’s doing or they think it sounds bad or it’s not well-written or whatever because she’s doing something different. And I was just thinking about what I’m trying to do in my own poems. Like, “Who am I writing for?” “What am I writing these poems for?” “How public do I want them to be?” “How much of my inside-self, and how much of you all…” You know. All those things. And I thought it was just super interesting to look at her writing and actually close read the poems. I mean, I could have written much more about her poems. It’s kind of unfair to compare her to Bashō. I mean, it’s unfair to compare anybody to Bashō, but they are similarly short poems, I guess. So, I won’t mention that. But I like thinking about her. Later in the passage, I compared her to Stevens, Wallace Stevens, which seems really, almost perverse to do that. [laughter] I don’t know, I think Stevens comes off worse than she does in my comparison, I would say. He was kind of a jerk.
DN: He was a jerk.
MZ: Yeah, big-time jerk.
MZ: Good poet.
DN: I want to spend a moment with the prologue, which is your life before your son’s diagnosis, I think, up until your son’s diagnosis: the meeting of your wife, going to San Francisco, starting a doctoral program, dropping out of the doctoral program, becoming a poet. But it’s all told in the third person, unlike the rest of the book. And I mean, on a given day, I have a different idea why, but why? Why do we get this?
MZ: Oh, I want to hear some of your ideas. You tell me. [laughter]
DN: Well, I just wondered if it was related to a sense of distance from how you’ve changed, you’ve transformed since then, so you’re looking back at a different self. In a sense, you’re looking back at a character, would be one thought.
MZ: Yeah, character. Definitely. Well, I can just say in a process sense. So, I explained when I read what this book was, that I was writing this single poem and writing about my life. I gave you some information, right? And so, in the book itself, I knew I needed to do that. I couldn’t just start with me writing a poem and this draft from the typewriter. It’s like, “What the hell is this guy doing?” So, I knew I had to say something first. And every time I tried to say anything, it was awful. I have like at least 50 drafts of this preface or introduction or whatever, and they’re…so bad. It’s almost like a taxonomy of mansplaining. It’s like, I didn’t know there were that many different ways you could mansplain, but apparently there are. I mean, like everything I tried to do felt terrible. I couldn’t get out of this. Something was wrong, and I didn’t know what it was. It was just bad. And then I was at a talk somebody was giving, and they said something about how every story begins with “Once upon a time…” Whether it’s said or not, that’s, like, every narrative, every story begins with that. And I thought, “Huh, okay. Well, I’ve run out of ideas.” So, I just typed “Once upon a time…” on my screen, and then what came out was the third person. I started telling the story in the third person, and it was incredibly easy to tell the story in the third person. I mean, I could come up with reasons why. I think your explanation is probably as good a reason as any. Some distance, a little bit of an opportunity to kind of be funny without being mean-funny. Because if you’re funny about your own experience from the first person, it can feel a little bit sort of, like, fake. You’re actually, like, humble bragging. But somehow being from the third person, it was a little easier to be a little jokey. I mean, I was like a 90s—in San Francisco with dyed hair, in a terrible band. I mean, there’s a lot of material to be funny about. And this is the last thing I’ll say about it, there was a way that I could also be compassionate to this younger person by using the third person in a way that [was] almost, dare I say, parental to them. To be like, “Yeah, it’s okay. You were acting like a bit of a goofball, but that’s what you’re supposed to do when you’re in your 20s.” Not to be mean to myself, in a way, I guess. I once had a diminutive personal trainer. If I was saying something self-deprecating, which happened like nine times a session, she’d say, “Don’t be mean to my friend, Matthew.” (laughter) So, you know, I thought, “Don’t be mean to my friend, Matthew.”
DN: As a way to end before we do, Q&A, I wanted to end with the Paul Valéry quote and the ways you use it in the book, the quote about the tree and then building a world around the tree. And I’d have to say, this is my favorite part of the book. And also, something I know I’m gonna be repeating on the show with guest after guest because of it. And I’m just gonna read some of the ways you’ve taken this quote and made your own thoughts. So, here’s one: “What is the relationship between making poems and learning to be the father of an atypical child?” And then at this point in the book, you suggest that they seem like the same struggle: “To search out what was strange, beautiful, mysterious, and new in language and trying to make a place for it.” But my favorite one is around the writing advice, “Kill your darlings.” So, people who don’t know what “Kill your darlings” is, particularly with prose writers, I think, is you have this precious sentence or sequence of sentences that have been safeguarded from all editing because they’re so wonderful, but they’re typically overwrought, and you’re supposed to kill all of those—
MZ: Yeah, it’s like this idea that you have to, like, slaughter your darlings—I always say Faulkner said it, but I don’t know if that’s true—you have to. That’s the only way you’re going to get to the real draft, the end draft, is by giving up the thing that you love the most, or whatever in your own writing, or something.
DN: And you say, in Poetry, “Don’t kill your darlings. Instead, burn everything else, and keep the lines you love without reason and rebuild a world for them to live.” I love that. And it, I feel like it applies to a whole bunch of things because the book has, looming in the background constantly, the wildfires and Trump. Like, you could say, “I want to have a city that’s beside a river that I could go down to and drink the water from the river. How would I build that city? So, start from there, and then build the city up from the river.” So, I was hoping, with this notion back to story where you say, “The fragility of the story is the true story [,]” if maybe we could end with you going to visit Merwin near the end of his life. You’re not sure he’s gonna accept meeting you, and what he’s doing in Hawaii, and the way you see his life having a sense of unity, and then maybe in the ways in which that unity sort of reflects back on the sort of unity that you’re looking for in your own life.
MZ: So, for those of you who don’t know, the late W. S. Merwin, he lived in Maui for, I think, 30 years, and he basically turned this little valley—he lived in a town, believe it or not, called Haiku—which is in the center part of Maui, and he turned it into a sanctuary for rare palm trees. So, he would get palm trees that were going extinct from all over the world, and he planted them and built this whole thing. And so, he spent the last 30 years of his life, in addition to making his poems and meditating, preserving these trees. And I did get to go there and meet him before he died. And it took me a while to realize that trees were like sort of a leitmotif of this book. Perhaps it’s obvious, but I didn’t really realize how they connected things in that Valéry quote about the tree, and, like, Merwin, the trees, and of course, you know, the burning of the trees, and the wildfires, and all these things sort of formed, kind of like this musical through line. The thing I guess I’ll say just to end is that the strange thing that happened with this book is, I was writing a book of prose about writing a single poem, and then I kind of get to the end, spoiler alert, I finish the poem. And then I realized that all along the way, the prose writing I was doing was actually seeding a new poem, which, actually, my friend Gabriel Kahane is here, a composer. He had asked me to write a poem for a piece of music that he was going to write. And so, during the time that I was sort of making and finishing this book, the prose was generating this new poem that’s at the end of the book. So, it’s kind of this like endless cycle of the poetry makes the prose, and the prose makes the poems. And at the end of that poem—a lot of it’s about being in the Bay Area during the wildfires—and the end of the poem talks about the Redwood trees that won’t return, that were burned and won’t return. And I have to say, I had a lot of trouble ending the poem, and Gabe, Gabriel, made me use those lines at the end.
[Matthew Zapruder addresses composer Gabriel Kahane, in the audience]
I don’t know if you remember that. Yes, you did, you like did a good edit there, cause I’d written them, but then I was like, “Ah, it’s not a good ending,” and you were like, “Yes, it is. It’s a perfect ending.”
So, that’s how the book ends, as well. With these trees. And it’s a little depressing, because it says that they won’t come back, but I think also, you know, it’s like just one…again, one moment. One terrible moment of losing something and then other things come from that. So, yeah, I think that that’s just how it is. I mean, you could wish it was different, but it isn’t.
DN: For the question and answer, if you’re willing to be on the podcast, since we’re recording, you can come up, and I’ll hand the mic to you, and if you don’t want to be on the podcast, you can ask the question from your seat.
MZ: It’s a big decision you have to make. I say be on the podcast! The podcast is great!
Audience Member: So, you say how having a neurodivergent kid made it so you, and let me just make sure I’m getting it right here, you felt like you had to reject some of the, perhaps, ideals you previously held. Is that correct?
MZ: Yeah, or just cultural kind of training, maybe. Yeah.
Audience Member: So, do you feel like now that you deconstructed those ideals, that you have reconstructed new ideals? Or do you feel like it’s still just existing in this amorphous space that you just continue to move forward with?
MZ: I’m a work in progress, I would say. I mean, I grew up in a certain way, in a certain place and I kind of am who I am. And so, I have to continually check myself. But I think things change a lot. So yes, I think new things have arisen, for sure. And everything is so much better when I let go of these very narrow ideas of achievement. And I just, I feel much better. And I feel just a lot more appreciation and love for people, basically. Honestly. And then a kind of tightness or a sort of lack of generosity starts to dissipate. That’s a weird thing to say. But a selfishness, maybe, or a narrowness expands or grows, and it feels like there’s more room to breathe, I would say. And it’s just a better way to move through the world. I’m sure of that. No doubt about it. So, thank you for your question.
Gabriel Kahane: Hello, Matthew.
MZ: Hi Gabriel
GK: So, I want to follow on that question. Earlier in the conversation you said that “[p]erfection in poetry is a kind of illness,” and I’m curious to know, specifically, vis-à-vis process, how does [the] sort of evolution of your cosmology around achievement change when you’re in the room writing? Like, you talk about the end of “Final Privacy Song,” the poem that ends the book, and feeling like the ending was terrible. What becomes the new metric for knowing when something’s done if perfection is no longer the ideal?
MZ: Maybe it wasn’t terrible enough was the problem. I mean, sometimes I think that, you know, fortunately, I’m of an age, and of a kind of artistic age where brokenness and unevenness and roughness were aesthetically foregrounded. And particularly in the music I was listening to and playing to, so I went into writing poetry already with this idea, that I wasn’t trying to make these perfect objects. What I think about now a lot, and, I’ve thought about this for years, is that I really don’t think a poem is finished for me until there’s something in it that I don’t understand. I need there to be something in there that genuinely mystifies me. That, like, I know it’s true and like it’s real, but I couldn’t say why it’s there, exactly. If I know too much about how to make it, it feels over-controlled or something. So, I think that’s how I think about it. And so, when I think about a poem, for me, I hate all these euphemisms because they’re always like weird, totally late-capitalist euphemisms, but like, “Poem it’s not working?” Good! Poem should never work. They should be lazy! [laughter]. But the poem that’s not fulfilling itself or whatever, it’s because it’s not failing at a certain point. It’s not making enough mistakes, or it knows too much, or I know too much about it, or something. And again, I think that comes from my parenting, also. My son does something different or unexpected. If I’m in the right mood, I really enjoy that. I’m like, “It’s great. I love him. I love the stuff he does. And I don’t care that it’s like not what every single other kid on the playground is doing the exact same time or whatever.” I mean, I do sometimes care a lot about that, and at those moments, I’m not living my life in a way that is getting everything you can out of life. And then when I can let go of that and just, like, laugh or get into his play or something, it’s awesome, so it doesn’t hurt anybody. So, I think the same thing is true for poems. They have to be bad, a little bit bad, a little bit naughty. [Laughter]. I don’t know if that answers the question or not.
Audience Member: I just wanted to follow up on what you just said. And I’m wondering, when you’re writing prose versus poetry, how that experience of finding the thing that’s the mysticism, the mystification, because it’s a little bit different with prose and poetry, so how do you experience that? You know, fumbling through a topic and then the failure sort of experience between one genre and the other.
MZ: That’s a great question. I think you’re quite right. It’s like sort of easier to slip into a kind of like lecturey space with prose, especially for me, sadly. I think, again, just always, for me in the rewriting process and the re-rewriting process, the re-rewriting process. I think of the opposite of what people, some people might think of as rewriting. I’m not trying to make it perfect or impervious or faultless. I’m trying to do the exact opposite. I want it to be present in the prose, so that it’s clear that I’m a person who’s thinking through things, and it’s provisional, and it’s questioning and, you know, I tried to infuse this book with that spirit. I’m sure there are moments when I slip into a kind of certainty that I don’t really believe in. It requires a lot of attention for me in writing prose to not. And in poetry, it’s just a little easier to manage because it’s just less real estate. It’s just fewer words. So, I think that’s a very perceptive question. And it’s exhausting. It’s why it took so long to write this book. So long, my poor wife, I mean, she was like, “You have to finish, you’re gonna—” because I would just complain all the time. So, she was just like, “You have to finish this, I can’t stand hearing about it anymore.” My loving, lovely wife. But, anyway, so that was the rewriting process more for me, was to re-infuse myself as a human in the lines.
Well, thank you for your questions, and thank you for your questions, and thank you for including me.
DN: Let’s give it up for Matthew Zapruder.
Today’s program was recorded at the volunteer-powered, non-commercial, listener-sponsored, full-strength, makeshift home office of me, David Naimon. You can find more of Matthew Zapruder at MatthewZapruder.com, and you can find out more about transforming yourself from a listener to a listener-supporter at Patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Every supporter can join our brainstorm of future guests, and every listener-supporter receives the supplementary resources with each conversation of things I discovered while preparing for it, things referenced during it, and places to explore once you’re done listening. Additionally, there are a variety of other potential gifts and rewards, including the bonus audio archive, the Tin House Early Readership Subscription, and receiving a bundle of books selected by me and sent to you. You can find out more at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Or if you prefer a one-time donation, you can do so via PayPal at tinhouse.com/support. I’d like to thank the Tin House team: Elizabeth Demeo and Alyssa Ogie in the Book Division, Beth Steidle in the Art Department, Becky Kraemer and Jae Nichelle in Publicity, and Lance Cleland, the Director of the summer and winter Tin House Writers Workshops. Finally, I’d like to thank Imre Lodbrog and Barbara Browning for creating the outro. Their album Imre Lodbrog et sa Petite Amie can be found on iTunes and Barbara Browning’s trove of ukulele covers can be found at soundcloud.com/barbarabrowning.