“Language waits to be released in poetry. Poetry enacts the possibilities and powers that lie dormant in the nature of language itself.”
For our December Book Club selection, I chose Why Poetry by Matthew Zapruder. Part memoir, part analysis and part argument, Zapruder explores why we read poetry and why it is so fundamentally different from other genres of writing.
He argues that most academic curriculums are teaching students to read poetry with an almost weary eye, teaching that poets leave vital information out to trick or confuse us. I can only speak for myself, but that was very much my experience in grade school and as an undergrad. I think that is why I wasn’t attracted to poetry at all, skipping right to fiction which made much more sense to me.
Zapruder explains the importance of language, how creating a mood with that language can create the connection and experience poetry gives us.
The “poetic state of mind” that poetry makes happen could be described as something close to dreaming while awake, a higher, more aware, more open, more sensitive condition of the consciousness. The poem makes this happen for us by placing our mind as we read or listen in consonance with the associations being made by the poem: its “discoveries, connections, glimmers of expression.”
I learned so much about language in this book and started thinking about why I use certain words in my own vocabulary. No matter what type of writer you are, this book is for you. As writers, language is our lifeblood, or sole way of self and creative expression. The more we understand how to use this language, or how others in different genres us it, the better we can become.
Matthew Zapruder is the author of four collections of poetry, most recently Come On All You Ghosts, a New York TimesNotable Book of the Year, and Sun Bear, 2014, as well as Why Poetry, a book of prose, from Ecco Press/Harper Collins in August 2017. An Associate Professor in the MFA at Saint Mary’s College of California, he is also editor at large at Wave Books, and from 2016-7 held the annually rotating position of Editor of the Poetry Column for the New York Times Magazine. He lives in Oakland, CA.
I had the honor of interviewing Matthew Zapruder and asked him some questions on his writing journey, why he felt compelled to create this book and his own experience as a poet.
You speak a lot about people having been taught poetry the “wrong” way. “Yet so many of use have been taught to read poetry as if its words mean something other than what they actually say.” I was also taught this way, and it definitely kept me at a distance from the genre, until very recently. Why do you think poetry is still be taught this way?
I think there are several different reasons. Some of them have to do with the history of teaching and scholarship, the way that education has developed in this country: about this I am far from an expert, so I won’t try to speculate! But I do think there is a deeper reason, which is that poems operate on a different frequency of knowledge. They communicate, and present knowledge and understanding, in a way that is different from other forms of writing. They ask us to try to understand language for a different purpose than we are used to: not primarily to convince, or communicate necessary information, or tell a story, argue, and so on. They are trying to make a different kind of space in our minds. This is a difficult thing to talk about, and a difficult thing to accept. It threatens the functionality of the classroom, and asks for a kind of freedom that is not compatible with taking tests, obeying, sitting still, and so on. So I think it’s easier to turn poems into prose, so that they, and the students, behave.
In your opinion, is poetry important for all types of writers? What do you think can writers learn from it that can transfer to different genres?
I think poetry is important for all types of people. You can learn so many things from poems that you can’t learn any other way, except maybe by climbing a jaguar or petting a mountain. As far as what writers can learn, generally speaking poets are extremely attentive to the micro-decisions of language, and how all of its material — not just what the words mean, but how they look and sound, as well as their histories, etymologies, hidden usages, etc. — can be put back into active use. So that’s helpful for any writer to remember.
At Write or Die Tribe, we will be reading your book for our Book Club this month and I'm sure your book answers this questions but… Why did you feel so compelled to write this book? Can you speak about how your desire for others to know poetry the way you do inspired you to write an entire book about it, as opposed to something shorter? (P.s I'm grateful that you did!)
I write about this a lot in the preface, but basically what happened was, I was (like so many poets) constantly having some variation of the same conversation over and over, which is basically: I don’t get poetry, can you explain it to me? After being annoyed by this, I came to realize that it comes from a genuine desire to understand, so I thought I would try to meet that genuine desire with a sustained explanation.
As a poet, can you speak about your writing journey? What brought you to this moment in time as a writer?
Oof, that’s a big question Kailey! I also write about this a lot in the book. I did not think I was going to be a poet. But in retrospect, I realize that my love of language and words, both English and other languages, as well as my desire to look for meaning in language that is beyond the superficial, as well as other things (a fascination with the music of all sonic phenomena, that is, music made by instruments and the human voice, as well as by trees and wind and the sound of so-called “ordinary” words, and many other things), were the basis for my eventual love of making poems. It took a while for me to figure this out, and a lot of struggle, but I kept being drawn back to making poetry. Eventually I got an MFA and learned a lot and started writing books. Now the process of learning is continuing.
What is your writing process like? Has it differed with each poetry collection?
That’s a difficult question too. A lot of it depends on my life circumstances, in fact most of it. Lately I have been on sabbatical, so I have been able on most working days (not weekends) to devote several hours to writing. I sit down and try to work. I shut off as many of the distractions as possible (one thing for instance I do is use a program called Freedom to block all social media, seven days a week, from 8am to 5pm … this is beneficial not only to my work life, but to my general sanity). When I get busier, I often find myself waking up very early in the morning, before my four year old, and sitting down at my desk for an hour or so. Usually I have several projects going at once, and I allow myself to drift into whatever one seems the most appealing at the moment. I am a big believer in slow and steady progress, in putting the time in, in placing one’s ass in the chair. That’s really the only writing advice that really matters: you have to actually write, in order to be a writer.
Do you think it is beneficial for writers to spend time with other writers or be part of a creative community? Do you have any experiences where being with other poets or like minded artists improved your creative life?
Yes, of course it’s beneficial. Other people have read things you have not, have had many thoughts you have not. It’s accelerating, not to mention fun, to be with other like and unlike minded individuals. Of course it can be disturbing too, people can say things that are distracting or hurtful or hard to hear, and maybe they are right and maybe wrong. But at some point you have to go out into the world with your writing and ask the world, and yourself, whether what you have made is the best you can do. Probably it isn’t yet. The first time I did this in a sustained way was when I got my MFA at UMass Amherst, where I studied with great poets (James Tate, Dara Wier, Agha Shahid Ali) and just as important, great fellow young poets who were trying to figure things out. I learned an immense amount, and still carry that experience with me to this day.
What are some of your favorite pieces of writing advice to give to young poets and aspiring writers?
Try to do it every day and try not to have too many expectations or plans, or at least have a looseness and sense of humor about your intentions. The writing itself will change you, and it will keep changing, and you will discover in doing it what really matters and what your hidden plans were all along.
If you could speak to your younger self, what advice would you give him?
Can you share with us three of your current favorite poems?
W.S. Merwin, To the Book
C.P. Cavafy, Waiting for the Barbarians
Bree Jo’Ann, Taking A Nap In A Pile Of Vintage Clothes
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