Life of a Poet: Matthew Zapruder

>>From the Library of
Congress, Washington, D.C.>>Eli Campbell: We’re so glad
you could join us this evening and we hope that you
will do so again. We have a great venue going
here with events all the time. We do this Life of a Poet series
four times a year in conjunction with the Library of Congress but we do a lot of
other great stuff. Coming up this weekend of special interest we have our
Annual Emancipation Day Forum named after the hospital’s
first patient, an African American sailor
named Benjamin Drummond. And so we’ll have lectures
going on starting tomorrow night and throughout the
rest of the weekend about African American
history and struggles. So it’s going to be
a lot of good sort of in-depth educational
stuff this weekend if you’re free to join us here. But now I will turn
it over to Rob Casper to introduce our guests.>>Rob Casper: Thank you, Eli. Ooh! Hey! There’s
a new sound system. Doesn’t it sound great? [Laughter] I’m so excited. I’m also turn off my
phone and you should too. Let me move out of the way. Hello, everyone. Thanks for coming out. We’re so excited to see
you here at the Hill Center where we’ve been doing
this quite a few times. This is, yeah, our 17th? Seventeenth. [“Whoa” from audience]
Very exciting. Thanks to Eli, who’s manning
the sound in the back, and to Charlotte and to the
rest of the Hill Center staff for continuing to have us here
hosting this terrific series. Of course I want to thank
the Washington Post, too, and Ron Charles. Every event I try to say
something new and wonderful about Ron but I decided
I was just going to say I really cannot say
enough good things about Ron. [ Laughter ]>>You can try. [ Laughter ]>>Rob Casper: Yeah. So yeah, that’s what
you’re in for tonight. [ Laughter ]>>Rob Casper: The Poetry and
Literature Center at the Library of Congress, we are home
to the US Poet Laureate. Our current Poet Laureate
is Tracy K. Smith. She just got renewed
for a second term. It’s worth checking her out. If you want to know more
about the events that we do — most of which take place at
the library down the street but a few which take place
here and around the country — you can go check out our
website Now I get to introduce
one of my dearest and oldest friends,
Matthew Zapruder. Matthew was born here and in
fact he went to school just around the corner
from my apartment. And Don, he went to the same
high school that you teach at. So he wants to talk about some
teachers you may have heard of back in those
days [laughing]. Our paths first crossed, though, [inaudible] when we were
both graduate students at the University of
Massachusetts Amherst. Matthew was literally the first
student I met at the program. The appointed greeter for
incoming MFA students, he shook hands with
anyone who — as still slightly
lost as I was — wandered into the
grad student lounge. I can argue that in the years that followed Matthew would find
new and ever more powerful ways to welcome writers and
readers to the art. There is his work as an editor
of Verse Press Wave Books and as last year’s editor
of the poetry column for The New York Times
Magazine as well as his work as co-director of the
Bagley Wright Lecture Series which we’ve hosted
at the library. All this work has
done much to get poems and poetry criticism
out into the world. Matthew has also written his own
collection of poetry criticism, Why Poetry, published
last year by Echo Press. It has received all
sorts of praise but let me just say I’ve never
seen someone who’s given more of his time and effort or has
spent as much of that time and effort worrying over ever
detail in arguing for the value of poems in our lives. And I’m impressed by how Matthew
weaved his own story of coming to poems as part of
the book’s argument. Finally and most importantly for
tonight, Matthew is the author of four terrific poetry
collections: Sun Bear, Come On All You Ghosts, The
Pajamaist, and American Linden. He also collaborated with painter Chris Uphues
— is that how I say it? — Chris Uphues for
You In Full Bloom and co-translated Romanian
poet Eugen Jebeleanu’s last collection, Secret Weapon:
Selected Late Poems. Matthew’s honors include the
William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of
America, the May Sarton Prize from the Academy of
American Arts and Letters, the Tupelo Press Editors
Prize, and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation
and the Lannan Foundation. He currently lives all the way
across the country in Oakland, California and is an associate
professor at St. Mary’s College. I have so many stories I
could tell about Matthew but for now let me say something about his last book
of poems, Sun Bear. I read the whole book
in one fell swoop on a subway train back home
to Brooklyn after a long week in D.C. I’d been traveling for
hours and was pretty sapped yet I’ll never forget how I
floated page by page and stop by stop as if in a
vehicle of another kind. It was a perfect way
to experience his book, among a car full of traveling
strangers, each easy to ignore, but Matthew’s poems
made me think of how connected we all can
be, how much we desire a way to speak and see
and know each other. It’s this great empathic charge that I think makes
Matthew’s poems so necessary and I can’t imagine a better
person for him to engage with on poems and connection
and, frankly, on how to live, than our dear Ron Charles. Please join me in
welcoming them both. [ Applause ]>>Ron Charles: Well
thank you very much. Can you all hear me? We didn’t get a chance
to test our mics. Are they on? [ Variety of “Yesses” and
one “No” From Audience ] Matthew’s?>>No.>>Ron Charles: Your mic on?>>Matthew Zapruder:
I don’t know. Is it? I think mine’s on.>>You’re on, you’re not.>>Ron Charles: I’m not on?>>Yours isn’t on.>>No, but I can hear you.>>Well, we can hear you.>>Ron Charles: That’s
because I project. [ Laughter ] [ Background Discussions ]>>Rob Casper: Now we’ll see. Mine’s off. [ Background Discussions ]>>If it’s on mute.>>Ron Charles: Is it on mute? There you go.>>There you go.>>Ron Charles: OK. How’s that? [“Whoa’s” from audience]
Now you can hear me. OK. Now I will not project. [ Light Laughter ]>>Ron Charles: Thank you so
much for doing this with us.>>Matthew Zapruder:
Thank you for having me.>>Ron Charles: And it’s
wonderful to meet you in person. I read your book of
criticism, Why Poetry, last year when Elizabeth Lund
reviewed it for The Post. She loved it. And then I had the pleasure
of reading all your poems and they’re brilliant and
humane and very provocative. But you’ve said as a young
person you could never have imagined yourself being
a professional poet. Why was that?>>Matthew Zapruder: Oh, I just
don’t think I knew any poets or just, it just wasn’t even
in my realm of possibilities. I mean, I think I
was more interested in being a wide receiver
for the Washington Redskins at that time. [Laughter] That probably —
so yeah, I just didn’t think of that in any kind
of way as being — I didn’t think of writers as
being really living beings. I just — they were people
who had written books and they were either dead or
functionally dead [laughter] because they were away from me. And then when I got into
music that was different because I really got into music
and playing music and then got into the music scene
here in D.C. And then then I met
all kinds of people who made music and
played in bands.>>Ron Charles: Were
you writing lyrics?>>Matthew Zapruder: I
didn’t really write lyrics. I’m not a very good songwriter.>>Ron Charles: OK.>>Matthew Zapruder:
I play guitar. And so musicians were real
people to me but who were living and making the art now. But poets I don’t — I just
don’t think it just entered into my head that that was
like a thing that people did.>>Ron Charles: In one poem you
write, “I grew up a wonderful, sullen boy close enough to
the capitol building to dream of hitting it with a
stick but did not.” [ Laughter ]>>Matthew Zapruder: Yeah. That sums it up. [ Laughter ]>>Ron Charles: I wonder
if you’d read a poem.>>Matthew Zapruder: Sure.>>Ron Charles: A poem called
Tonight You’ll Be Able.>>Matthew Zapruder: Yeah. Sure. Tonight You’ll Be Able. Can everybody hear me OK? Or is it — yeah. Tonight You’ll Be Able. It may feel good to go wherever. Desires lead you into old,
destructive awareness. Going a thousand miles away
seems to be keeping up. Unsettled and anxious signals
— they’re so microscope. Be a sleuth. Tiny sparkling under those around you sees you
feeling and waiting. Life today is slow-moving
coworkers. Respond by giving your
profile a new sense of clarity and feel ready to
share your outlook, even if they may
not be as excited. It makes you good
to spread your joy. People, it’s harder
to be yourself. A series of role-playing
opportunities appeases. Showing the authentic,
you won’t hurt anything. Focus on your lovely find, that
there are many more things. Tonight you’ll be able to
talk to anyone about anything. Make all the loved
ones muster up. Chat with character. Keep alive the conversations. You feel you’re getting
something someone gives you. The key to a series of coincidences you
play matchmaker to. An odd couple — the present you
and the future and a big suit, a new haircut, or better
than anticipated funds. A few minor changes to June. Love partners — your
lucky numbers are 4, 7, 18, 21, and 32. Ask yourself what would I do
if I knew I could not fail?>>Ron Charles: It’s a
lovely, hopeful poem.>>Matthew Zapruder: Thanks. Do you want to know a
secret about that poem, Ron?>>Ron Charles: Yes, I do. I won’t tell anyone.>>Matthew Zapruder: All the
language is from the horoscope. [Laughter] It’s from
two horoscopes in The Chicago Tribune. I was traveling — [ Laughter ] And I was sitting with my friend
Joshua Beckman and we were in a Polish kielbasa
place [laughing] and we decided we were
going to write a poem and I had this newspaper. I had The Chicago
Tribune or Sun-Times, one of the two Chicago
papers in front of me. And they had two horoscopes
which struck me as very funny that you would have
two horoscopes. It seems like that
creates immediate chaos. [Laughter] Like, why not one? You know? It’s hard enough
as it is to know what to do. So I just started cutting out
all the language of those things and rearranging it and
made the poem out of those. So it’s all, all — that’s
all language from horoscopes.>>Ron Charles: A found poem.>>Yeah. But that —
not really a found. I mean, I moved them
around a lot.>>Ron Charles: Right.>>Matthew Zapruder: But
yeah, but it’s all — I think that’s probably the
only poem I’ve ever written like that that’s all
found language like that.>>Ron Charles: Oh. That’s amazing. [ Laughter ] Well now you’re a poet but you’re also a
critic and an editor. How did that transition
come to be from music?>>Matthew Zapruder: Well,
I tell the story about this in the Why Poetry book,
but what happened is that I played music
for a long time. I was in different
bands and sort of always secretly
wanted to be a writer.>>Ron Charles: Yes?>>Matthew Zapruder: But I hadn’t really
ever written anything. [ Laughter ] And I figured out — I
went to graduate school for Slavic languages
and literatures. I had been a Russian major
in college and then I went to UC-Berkeley to get a PhD. And I knew pretty
much right away that was not going
to be my career path. I wasn’t going to be a
big success as a scholar. But I thought, well, if I want to be a writer I
should start writing.>>Ron Charles: Yes.>>Matthew Zapruder:
I better write.>>Ron Charles: Poems?>>Matthew Zapruder:
I didn’t know. I just knew I needed to write
so I just sat down at a desk and basically just
started writing everyday. You know, I’d try to write. And I wrote poems. It was very strange. I was studying Russian
poetry at the time and getting — but
it was very odd. I didn’t, you know,
I didn’t think that was necessarily
what was going to happen. And then I started writing
poems and then once that started to happen then I tried to figure
out what was going on, you know, what was happening with
poetry and what it all meant and everything to
educate myself.>>Ron Charles: You’ve got a
poem called This Handwriting.>>Matthew Zapruder: Mmhmm.>>Ron Charles: I wonder
if you’d read that.>>Matthew Zapruder: Yeah.>>Ron Charles: It seems
to have a lot to do –>>Matthew Zapruder: This is
all very exciting, by the way, because I have no idea what
he’s going to ask me to read. So it’s [laughter]
really like –>>Ron Charles: Well,
they’re all yours.>>Matthew Zapruder:
Well, yeah, that’s true. So I have –>>Ron Charles: Come on, now.>>Matthew Zapruder:
Yeah, I have some idea. But yeah [laughter]. So This Handwriting. This afternoon I heard the
small voice speaking again, though no one was there. I could not hear the words,
though from the helpless, complicated tone I
knew it was something like someday you will realize
you already know you must go elsewhere to be free. Maybe the white island with just
a few necessary buildings you saw once from above
as if you were flying. All your friends in gentle, laughing disputation
are already waiting. For now I settle for trying
to picture each of their faces but when I close my eyes I just
keep seeing this horrible actual sunny floor I’ve scattered
pages of my handwriting on, searching for a pattern. And also this table. Upon it lies a yellow book
containing a translation of the half-burned gospel that says often Jesus
kissed Mary on the mouth. Reading it makes me feel as if
the true future, like the son of a dethroned king long
ago hid in a cave trying to silence his breathing. The great, black indeterminate
stallion pounded implacably by. Now there’s only silence,
like an auditorium after a modern composition
has just finished perfectly destroying our foolish,
cherished ideas of music. When I think very hard about
my thoughts, they seem to me to be very small horses attached to invisible reins
attached to facts. And what of my memories? Like sleeping in daylight. A decade ago I lived in
Massachusetts, a shallow, terrible installation leaking
smoky versions of myself, each in turn emitting
weak, soluble ideas like people care only because
they do not even know they feel they must. And now I’m here in California
happy to be, though always part of me is thinking of my friends and their shadows
patiently waiting for my shadow to join them.>>Ron Charles: That seems
like a poem about your writing.>>Matthew Zapruder: Mmhmm.>>Ron Charles: About
searching for an identity.>>Matthew Zapruder: Mmhmm.>>Ron Charles: Pretty critical. Self-critical.>>Matthew Zapruder:
[Laughing] Yeah.>>Ron Charles: “The small
horses of your ideas.”>>Matthew Zapruder: Yeah.>>Ron Charles: “Searching
for patterns” and your “weak, soluble ideas.”>>Matthew Zapruder:
[Laughing] Yeah.>>Ron Charles: Is that –>>Matthew Zapruder: Yeah,
well [sighing], I think. You know, one thing about
writing that’s a terrible truth that I’m sure you must
— I suspect you also — know and a lot of people in this
room know is that, you know, often you’re not very
interesting to yourself. Or you have to go through
a lot of kind of self-doubt and self-criticism and
just feeling kind of not like you’re particularly on your
mark before something starts to happen. That’s just part of that. I mean, maybe there are
writers out there in the world who don’t have to
go through that. I’ve never met any. So that bringing that experience into the poem seemed
more honest to me.>>Ron Charles: Mmhmm.>>Matthew Zapruder: And
also a good opportunity to, like, make some jokes.>>Ron Charles: Yes.>>Matthew Zapruder: You
know but [laughing] –>>Ron Charles: At your
own expense, right?>>Matthew Zapruder:
You know, I feel — and I think the thing
about writing is that it can feel very lonely.>>Ron Charles: Yeah.>>Matthew Zapruder: And so I
was feeling lonely in that poem and then I was imagining my
friends where they keep kind of going away from me. You know, like, they’re
not really there actually. All that’s there
is my crummy poem that I’m working on [laughing].>>Ron Charles: Right.>>Matthew Zapruder: You know, but I just have to
work through that. That’s the thing you learn. I think that’s the
thing you learn about writing is you’ve
just got to grind it out. A lot of it is just
grinding it out. I mean, that’s been said
many different ways before but it’s true.>>Ron Charles: It taxes your
confidence so dramatically and yet it takes so much
confidence to publish.>>Matthew Zapruder: Mmhmm.>>Ron Charles: To put these
things out into the world and then have them be critiqued,
sometimes cruelly, tritely.>>Matthew Zapruder: Yeah. [ Laughter ] Yeah, I mean once they’re
done and they’re gone, I mean it stings
to get criticized. But the first part — the feeling of going
through that self-doubt and self-criticism. That’s a million
times worse to me. That’s in my experience. I mean, I don’t — you
know, a bad review? I mean, you can shake
it off, you know? But –>>Ron Charles: Right. Because you’ve already done
so much worse in your mind.>>Matthew Zapruder: Right.>>Ron Charles: In a poem
called Schwinn you write, “I will never know a
single thing anyone feels, just how they say it, which is
why I’m standing here exactly covered in shame and lightning,
doing what I’m supposed to do.”>>Matthew Zapruder: Yeah. [ Laughter ] That’s like a dramatic
end to the poem. That’s kind of like
the poem starts out with my bike getting stolen,
and then sort of wanders around and then laments, like, the
Redskins losing the Superbowl and [laughter] —
to the Dolphins. [ Laughter ] And then — but by
the end of the poem, I mean that poem
surprised me because the end of it is this almost
statement of being. It’s a statement of my
purpose as an artist.>>Ron Charles: Yes.>>Matthew Zapruder: And it
shocked me when I wrote it. You know? I didn’t think that’s
where the poem was going. I wasn’t — I didn’t say,
“oh, I must write a poem in which I assert my right
as a poet to do whatever.” But I think I just — I
think that’s just true. I don’t actually
know how people feel. I only know what they say. Like on some kind of literal
level, I mean, you know, for the most part except if
it’s your intimate partner or something and you have
physical contact with them. But I mean, otherwise
I don’t know anything about you expect
what you tell me. And that distance is
both tragic and exciting. And so the recognition of that
fact led me to this belief that, huh, that’s why I do this
because I think that distance and that possibility
of transmission is so exciting to me as a poet.>>Ron Charles: And for us
as readers, to read it –>>Matthew Zapruder:
Well, hopefully.>>Ron Charles: When it
speaks to you and to realize, oh my gosh, this person
feels the same, strange, inexpressible thing that I feel.>>Matthew Zapruder:
Yeah, that’s the hope. That’s the idea. I mean, you don’t know.>>Ron Charles: Yeah.>>Matthew Zapruder: You don’t
know but you throw it out. You know, at some point
you have to stand. You know, at some point you
have to be really honest with yourself as a poet. You know, you can’t bullshit. And then you’re just yourself and your naked, ludicrous
humanity. And like, and saying the things
that you’ve seen true to you. And then if anything person
makes contact with that, it’s this amazing experience.>>Ron Charles: It
is for readers, too.>>Matthew Zapruder:
Yeah, well, I hope so. I mean, I’ve felt that so many
times on the other end of poems.>>Ron Charles: Right, right.>>Matthew Zapruder: For sure. So.>>Ron Charles: You’ve
written this book recently, your latest book
called Why Poetry — which I highly recommend,
by the way. It’s very smart but very
humble, very well-informed. It includes lots of poems. And he talks about how to read
poetry in a way that anybody who is beginning or
experienced would profit from. I’m sure it’s for
sale out in the lobby. I really recommend
that in addition to the poems themselves. One of the the poems in
your collection begins, “People say they don’t
understand poetry.” [Matthew Zapruder
chuckles] And it seems to me this essay collection
you published is in response to that oft-repeated
statement, right?>>Matthew Zapruder: Mmhmm. Yeah.>>Ron Charles: Yeah. “People carry so many
incorrect ideas about poetry into their reading of it, ones that ruin the
experience before they even get to have it.” [ Laughter ] What are those incorrect
ideas we have about poetry? Just off the top of your head
from your experience teaching?>>Matthew Zapruder:
That the words in the poems don’t mean
what they seem to mean.>>Ron Charles: Yes.>>Matthew Zapruder:
That’s a problem.>>Ron Charles: Yes.>>Matthew Zapruder: That
the language is coded.>>Ron Charles: [Laughing] Yeah.>>Matthew Zapruder:
It’s like — which is problematic
because some of the words really do mean
what they usually mean. But then if some don’t,
which ones are which? And what do they mean? And who knows the
answer to that? That’s bad. That’s not helpful. That seems like a pervasive
idea that people have about poems, I’ve noticed. It’s totally wrong. Also that — yeah, the
poems are always sort of about some big idea at the
end and there’s some payoff of like deep wisdom
that the poet has. That’s also usually
not the case. They’re an experience of
something that happens to you and I think that
people know who read — if you think about the
poems you really love or maybe even an experience
you had with a poem you loved, it’s more like a process. It’s an experience of
being changed by it. It’s not just valuable because
of what comes at the end. You know? So I think
those are two, like right off the
top of my head.>>Ron Charles: That’s good. Let’s think about that last
one and what you just said, that the poem is not
something that you wring until something valuable
comes out of it.>>Matthew Zapruder: Mmhmm.>>Ron Charles: Right?>>Matthew Zapruder: Yeah. That does sound unpleasant. [ Laughter ] It’s like, yeah,
torture the poem until it confesses [laughing].>>Ron Charles: Right
[laughing].>>Matthew Zapruder: Isn’t —
I think somebody has a poem. Is it Billy Collins has a poem? Yeah.>>Ron Charles: Yeah.>>Matthew Zapruder: Yeah. Good old Billy.>>Ron Charles: You
talked about the poem as being an experience
with language.>>Matthew Zapruder:
Yeah, or like a process. I mean, I compare it in the book to like a friendship
or a conversation. Especially maybe with a new
friend sometimes a poem can feel that way.>>Ron Charles: Mmhmm.>>Matthew Zapruder: Like
you meet someone interesting and you go out for coffee or
beer or with them or whatever, a walk, and you’re not,
like, oh I can’t wait until he says the one
thing that’s really going to be — [laughter]. You’re sort of, I don’t know. I don’t think. I mean, maybe some people do. [ Laughter & Inaudible
Comments ] Yeah! Or like, just
like, I hope. You know, I guess you could hope that the person says one
interesting thing, I guess. But I mean, it’s more like, oh
I’m joining with this person. I’m feeling changed. I’m interested in
what they’re saying. They’re revealing themselves
and I’m not going to sit here and say that I understand
everything about them and I’m completely done
with this experience just after this one cup of
coffee or beer or something. It’s like the opposite
should feel true, right? You should feel like,
oh, that was great. Let’s do that again. You know? And so I think poems
should make you feel that way. They shouldn’t be like, OK,
now I know death is scary. [Laughter] Or like, you know,
being alone is a bummer. You know? Thanks
for the information. I mean, that’s what I
think about poems is like the information in
them is just so banal. You know? Like, when
even, like, my favorite, you know, Ode to a Nightingale. Death is scary. Like, thanks, Keets. I mean, that’s not like — [laughter] that’s one
of my favorite books. That’s not why I like that poem, because of the big
reveal at the end. You know, like, it’s not that. I mean, and so that’s why the
teaching of poems is so annoying if you look at the
standardized tests. You know, where they ask you
for the theme of the poem and it’s the list of possibilities is usually
just such a stupid list. I mean, like, that’s the
big message, you know? I mean, like, nature is worth
preserving or something?>>Ron Charles: Right.>>Matthew Zapruder: You
know, I don’t think I need to read a poem to know that. You know? But like,
but the feeling that nature is worth preserving,
OK, that’s different. Like, that’s a feeling
that that’s kind of cool if I read the poem and it
makes me feel that way. OK, that’s a whole different
— or if it could make, if I could feel like death
is, you know, brought closer to that fear of death
in some interesting way. I mean, that’s useful. You know, for me.>>Ron Charles: What goes wrong? Because all of us begin life —
I think this is largely true — reading and loving poems, right? As children people read to us
and they’re mostly poems –>>Matthew Zapruder: Yeah.>>Ron Charles: For
a couple years. And we like them. And then it drifts
away pretty fast.>>Matthew Zapruder: Yeah.>>Ron Charles: By high school and college we’re not reading
collections of poems anymore. Most of us never go back. Why?>>Matthew Zapruder: Well,
I wrote about this a lot in the book and then cut it out because I’m actually
not a historian of education and I don’t really
know the answer.>>Ron Charles: But
you think you know. [Laughter]>>Matthew Zapruder: Well,
I have some ideas about it but I don’t — and I actually
read a lot of textbooks. I don’t know how many of you all
— this book by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren
called Understanding Poetry. Are you familiar with this book? It sold like five
million copies. It’s the most popular
poetry textbook. I’m sure there are
people in this room who had it in high school.>>Ron Charles: Yeah.>>Matthew Zapruder: There’s
absolutely no way there isn’t. But anyway I read this book
and then I wrote 15,000 words about the problems with
it and then realized that this was the most
boring thing [laughing] for the world to read. [Laughter] So I cut
the whole thing out. In the book I did say these
textbooks are problematic, trust me. [ Laughter ] And like, and so — but yeah,
I think they replicate a lot of the problems that
I’m talking about there. And plus no one likes to be — I mean, who wants to
be made to feel stupid? You know, I mean,
that’s another problem with the way poems are taught.>>Ron Charles: Yes.>>Matthew Zapruder: It’s
like people don’t get asked. You know, there’s a way to talk
about them that pushes people to read more deeply and carefully that’s
more respectful.>>Ron Charles: Of their — ?>>Matthew Zapruder: Yeah! Or just like, what
do we think about it? I mean, there’s nothing more
exciting in a classroom for me than dealing with this little
square area of the text.>>Ron Charles: Yes.>>Matthew Zapruder: And
kind of digging into it and figuring out, OK, what’s
the poet actually saying, and what’s the next thing? And why do you think they
went from here to there? That’s so exciting and
it’s this collective kind of exploration of the poem. It’s such an amazing experience. But I’ve also seen poems taught
in this way where it’s like, well, what does it mean? And if you don’t figure
out the big secret and repeat it then you’re
wrong and you’re made to feel stupid or whatever. And that’s not a good feeling. And I think that
people don’t like that. So — and they transfer
that resentment to poetry.>>Ron Charles: Yes, I agree.>>Matthew Zapruder: So
that’s one thing that happen but probably other things
happen too, you know.>>Ron Charles: You said when you were young you
had the vague impression that poets used poetic
language and techniques to express important thoughts
or ideas in a more beautiful or complex or compressed
way than prose.>>Matthew Zapruder: Yeah. I think I thought
that’s what poems were. I mean, if you would have
asked me I would have said, yeah, it’s just wisdom. It’s wisdom in pretty
language, I guess, you know?>>Ron Charles: Yeah. So what does poetry do
better and specifically than other forms of literature?>>Matthew Zapruder:
[Laughing] That’s what a lot of the book tries to,
you know, account for. I think one thing it does is
that it takes the material of language that we’re
all so familiar with and it doesn’t submit
to any need that we usually have
for language. We usually have the
need for language to communicate information
like I’m doing right now.>>Ron Charles: Mmhmm.>>Matthew Zapruder: Or
to give us information that we really need or to
convince us of something.>>Ron Charles: Yes.>>Matthew Zapruder:
Or to whatever. Poems are — I think
they liberate themselves from all those obligations
and explore what the material of language itself
can do when it’s freed from those obligations. If I were going to define a
poem, that’s what I would say. So but that doesn’t mean that poems don’t
communicate information.>>Ron Charles: Right.>>Matthew Zapruder: Or
convince or tell stories. They do, of course. I mean, you can see that
in the poems that I read. They sometimes do it.>>Ron Charles: Right.>>Matthew Zapruder: But it just
means they only do it as long as they feel like it and
then they do something else. There’s this famous — I’m
sure you know this principle of Chekhov’s Gun. You know, this idea in
playwriting or fiction writing. Like if the gun is on the wall
in the first act then it has to go off by the
end of the play. Well, poets don’t
care about that stuff. [Laughter] The gun doesn’t
have to go off in a poem. Like, we don’t live
by those rules. We only do what’s beautiful. And if it’s beautiful to mention
the gun and never say anything about a gun that’s
what we’re going to do. And if you want your plot
you can go somewhere else. You know?>>Ron Charles: [Laughing] In
one of your poems you write, “I’m thinking about the hidden
reasons I love something small.” [Matthew Zapruder laughing]
This seems like a great line about what a poem can do,
to think deeply and clearly and cleverly about
something small we might not consider otherwise. In another poem you refer to
your father playing the guitar and communicating many
contradictory things.>>Matthew Zapruder: Mmhmm.>>Ron Charles: Which also
seems like you were talking about what a poem can do.>>Matthew Zapruder: Yeah. And I mean, that poem, you know,
it’s like I’m thinking back to my dad and that mystery of
another person that you’re close to but like suddenly
you see them as if from a great distance.>>Ron Charles: Mmhmm.>>Matthew Zapruder: Like
all the things you don’t know about them, especially a parent.>>Ron Charles: Right.>>Matthew Zapruder: You
know, you have those moments where you’re like, god, I
don’t know my parents at all. Like, I have no idea
who they are. They’re these people who
have these whole lives that — so that thing. And I guess maybe the
contradictory nature of that, of their feelings that might be.>>Ron Charles: Right. I want you to read a
poem called Pocket.>>Matthew Zapruder: Yeah. Sure. These are all
really good questions. I want to ask you questions. [ Laughter ] It might happen. Pocket.>>Ron Charles: Because I wonder
if a poem is like a pocket. That’s what I’m going to
ask you when we’re done. [ Audience Giggling ]>>Matthew Zapruder: Yeah. [Laughing] Well, I think that
is maybe sort of the kind of –>>Ron Charles: Point
of the poem?>>Matthew Zapruder: Not
the point of the poem but the sort of like the –>>Ron Charles: The secret!>>Matthew Zapruder:
It’s a secret meeting! [Laughing] If you can pass on the test you can get an
A. [Laughter] OK, Pocket. I like the word pocket. It sounds a little
safely dangerous, like knowing you once
bought a headlamp in case the lights go
out in a catastrophe. You will put it on your head and
your hands will still be free. Or standing in a forest
and staring at a picture in a plant book while eating
scary-looking wildflowers. Saying “pocket” makes me feel
potentially but not yet busy. I’m getting ready to
have important thoughts. I’m thinking about my pocket which has its own
particular geology. Maybe you know what I mean. I mean, I basically
know what’s in there and can basically
list the items, but also there are little
bits and pieces made of stuff that might not even have a name. [Ron Charles chuckling] Only a
scientist could figure it out. And why would a scientist
do that? [Laughter] He or she should
be curing brain diseases or making sure that
asteroid doesn’t hit us. Look out, scientists! Today the unemployment
rate is 9.4%. I have no idea what that means. I tried to think about it harder
for a while, then tried standing in an actual stance of mystery and not knowing toward the
world, which is my job, as is staring at the backyard and for one second believing
I am actually rising away from myself which
is maybe what I have in common right now with you. And now I’m placing my hand
on this very dusty table and brushing away the dust. And now I’m looking away and
thinking for the last time about my pocket but this time
I’m thinking about its darkness, like the bottom of the
sea but without the blind, fluorescent creatures floating
in a circle around the black box which along with tremendous
thunder and huge shards of metal from the airplane sank
down and settled here where it rests, cheerfully
beeping. [ Laughter ] That is so not — it’s so
immoral to end, like, just — [ Laughter ]>>Ron Charles: Why?>>Matthew Zapruder:
[Laughing] I don’t know! Just like — it just, like,
imagining that huge plane crash. It doesn’t even mention all the
people that died and, you know, it’s like just interested in
the beep of the black box. It’s really — yeah,
it’s terrible.>>Ron Charles: It’s terrible?>>Matthew Zapruder: Yeah,
Richard Hugo is the poet who, he has this great line where he
says the imagination is a cynic, which I think is a great — you know, I think there’s
a way that, you know, artists is like a magpie. Isn’t magpie the
bird that just –>>Ron Charles: Picks things up?>>Matthew Zapruder: Yeah! Like just, like, oh,
that’s interesting and that’s interesting.>>Ron Charles: Right.>>Matthew Zapruder: And like,
doesn’t really care, you know, that much, like, about the
bigger picture somehow — that there’s some way you have
to be like that a little bit when you’re making art. You just have to be interested in what’s beautiful
on some level. Like and that just
cracked me up when I read that because I was like,
oh god, it’s so like — I mean, no actual planes
were harmed in the making of this poem [laughter]. But like I mean, still. It’s like a little bit, you
know, like [laughing] –>>Ron Charles: [Laughing]
That’s such a humble image when you talk about, basically
I know what’s in there. I can even list the items. But it’s also other bits
and pieces made of stuff that might not even have a name. I mean, it strikes me as a
metaphor of the poem itself.>>Matthew Zapruder: Mmhmm.>>Ron Charles: That you know
basically what’s in the poem but you don’t know
everything that’s in the poem.>>Matthew Zapruder:
[Laughing] Yeah.>>Ron Charles: The poet
doesn’t entirely understand his own creation.>>Matthew Zapruder: Yeah. Well, that’s true. That’s for sure true. I mean, I don’t think — I think
that’s when it gets exciting when it starts to get a little
bit out of your control. Rob and I were talking about
this downstairs a little bit. But when you feel the poem
start to escape your control. You know? And then if you’ve
done it for a while you can sort of let it go farther and farther and let it still
maintain some kind of — you know, there’s
probably some analogy with other different
human behaviors here. But like, you know, like you can
kind of let it go more and more and still keep it together.>>Ron Charles: Right.>>Matthew Zapruder: And
how far you can let it go. And so keeping it
together is exciting.>>Ron Charles: But you
know there are parts of the poem whose implications
you are not controlling.>>Matthew Zapruder: I think that that’s the point
of the poems for me. That’s why I write them
because I want the poem to provide a space for
those moments to exist — when I don’t understand
what’s going on. You know, I need that. I don’t mean to understand
like in a semantic way.>>Ron Charles: Right.>>Matthew Zapruder: I mean, I
understand what the words mean.>>Ron Charles: Yes.>>Matthew Zapruder: But why
they feel significant to me.>>Ron Charles: Right. Toward the end of
your book, Why Poetry, you talk about the danger
of trying to use poetry for overtly political purposes.>>Matthew Zapruder:
Yeah, I mean, well — and? [Laughter]>>Ron Charles: And –>>Matthew Zapruder: Stalling. [Laughing] [ Laughter ]>>Ron Charles: We have seen
since the election a lot of very overtly political
poetry. Some of it is obvious and bad. Some of it is very
emotionally powerful.>>Matthew Zapruder: Mmhmm.>>Ron Charles: What
is the dividing line between when it works
and when it’s just kind of everybody preaching
to the choir about how horrible
such-and-such is?>>Matthew Zapruder: Rob and I have a very ongoing
conversation about this. I mean, first of all,
I think when I said that it was horrible,
I think my point was is that political material is
difficult to manage in a poem.>>Ron Charles: Yes.>>Matthew Zapruder: Because
it can swamp other things. I think that was sort
of what my point was.>>Ron Charles: And
it becomes obvious.>>Matthew Zapruder: Right. I mean, for me obviousness
isn’t such a problem.>>Ron Charles: Right.>>Matthew Zapruder:
Like, I don’t mind if things are obvious,
actually, and really direct. It’s more that that
becomes ugly. And again, I mean, it’s
not that I want everything to be fancy language
or beautiful but it’s somehow lifeless. And so it has no movement
and it doesn’t move. It isn’t alive for me.>>Ron Charles: Right.>>Matthew Zapruder: And I think that when the poem just
becomes just this inert thing on the page of mutual
agreement –>>Ron Charles: Yes.>>Matthew Zapruder:
I think part of — OK. Do you want to really know
what I think the problem is? I think the problem is that in
a lot of these political poems that I’ve read that aren’t
good, they start from a place of certainty and they don’t — that in and of itself
isn’t a problem. That could be fine. But they don’t change. They’re just reiterations of the
same idea over and over again until you get to the end and
they are just, there’s no — they’re static, basically.>>Ron Charles: Yeah.>>Matthew Zapruder: Like,
that’s more the issue that I have with them,
like that they –>>Ron Charles: Yeah.>>Matthew Zapruder: So
it’s not the certainty. It’s not the subject matter. It’s not the passion
or commitment. In fact, those things can
be really great in art. It’s that they don’t move. You know, they’re lifeless. I don’t know. That’s what I think.>>Ron Charles: I want you
to read the poem, Canada.>>Matthew Zapruder: Yeah,
speaking of political poems. It’s a good political
poem [laughing]. Yeah. I think this poem –>>Ron Charles: It’s
one of my favorites.>>Matthew Zapruder: Oh. [Laughter] Thanks.>>Ron Charles: Are you about
to say how you don’t like it?>>Matthew Zapruder: No, no, no. I was going to say that I think
I wrote this during the –>>Ron Charles: Or you got it
off the back of cereal boxes?>>Matthew Zapruder:
[Laughing] Yeah, yeah. No, no, no. This is all me. It’s written during the
George W.’s presidency and I think there
was a lot of talk at the time about, you know –>>Ron Charles: Going to Canada?>>Matthew Zapruder: We
should all go to Canada or Canada is so great. Canada has a health care system. You know, so I was feeling a
little resentful of Canada. [ Laughter ] Canada. By Canada I have
always been fascinated. All that snow and acquiescing. All that emptiness. All those butterflies
marshaled into an army of peace. Moving north away from
me, Canada has no border. Away like the state, its northern border
withers into the Skydome. In a world full of mistrust
and self-medication, I’ve always hated Canada. It makes me feel like
I’m shouting at child for letting a handful of pine
needles run through his fist. Canada gets along with everyone
while I hang a dark cloud above the schoolyard. I know we need war, all the
skirmishes to keep our borders where we’ve placed them, all the
migration, all the difference. Just like Canada, the
Dalai Lama is now in Canada and everyone is fascinated. When they come to visit me,
no one ever leaves me saying, “The most touching thing
about him is he’s so human.” [ Laughter ] Or, “I was really glad to hear so many positive
ideas regardless of the consequences expressed.” [Laughter] Or, “I could
drink a case of you.” [Laughter] No one has peddled
every inch of thousands of roads through me to raise awareness
for my struggle for autonomy. I have pity but no respect for
others, which is not compassion, just ordinary love based on
attitudes towards myself. I wonder how long I can endure. In Canada the leaves
are falling. When they do, each one rustles, “maybe” to the white-tailed
deer of sadness. And it’s clear that whole
country does not exist to make me feel crappy
like a candelabra hanging above the prison world
condemned to freely glow. [ Light Laughter ]>>Ron Charles: The
anti-Canada poem is small –>>Matthew Zapruder:
[Laughing] Sentiment? Yeah. [Laughter] But
deeply, deeply powerful.>>Ron Charles: [Laughing] Yeah.>>Matthew Zapruder: Yeah, it would be a very small
anthology of anti-Canada poems. [ Laughter ]>>Ron Charles: That
was a very witty poem and it does what you were
just talking about — the way it challenges certainty,
disrupts our certainty, disrupts path, political
attitudes and ideas in very complicated –>>Matthew Zapruder: Can
I tell you one funny thing about that poem?>>Ron Charles: Yes.>>Matthew Zapruder: I read
that poem once in Canada. [ Laughter ] And as I was leaving the
room where I’d read it, I heard one person
say to another, “Did he say white-tailed
deer of sadness?” [ Laughter ] It’s like, no. You heard wrong,
completely wrong. I would never say
anything like that. [ Laughter ]>>Ron Charles: Let’s stand
up for just a few minutes. Turn around and sit back down.>>Matthew Zapruder: Alright. [ Light Laughter ] [ Background Discussions ]>>Ron Charles: The
chairs are a bit hard.>>Matthew Zapruder: I like it. I like a little yoga.>>Ron Charles: OK. Let’s sit down. It’s not really an intermission.>>Matthew Zapruder: Did
you get that from your wife?>>Ron Charles: I did! From my wife, yes.>>Matthew Zapruder:
Because she’s a teacher? Yeah, I bet you did. That’s like a subtle
teacher trick.>>Ron Charles: The kids
cannot sit this long! Right?>>Matthew Zapruder: Yeah. The kids cannot sit this long.>>Ron Charles: You’ve
got to stand up.>>Matthew Zapruder:
That’s right. She’s a model teacher.>>Ron Charles: She’s
a master teacher.>>Matthew Zapruder: Alright. At least [inaudible] is
not making you do yoga. [Laughter] You know,
sometimes they’ll do that.>>Ron Charles: As far as I can
tell you’re the first poetry editor — or at least, we’ve had
other poets who edited things but the first person who actually does
this professionally. And I’d say the idea of editing
a poem just sounds completely mysterious to me. I mean, I edit all day
long and, you know, I take people’s reviews
of books and I, you know, just make them smoother
or clearer or try to bring out their voice. But it seems to me that
any editing you would do to a poem would be
real violence to it. So how do you do that?>>Matthew Zapruder: It can be. You have to be careful. It’s easy to go too far. I mean, the kinds of suggestions that would be totally
appropriate to make in a piece of prose would not –>>Ron Charles: Right.>>Matthew Zapruder:
Be good to — you know. Because the particular
choice of the words is so intimately related to
the effect of the poem that you can’t just say, “well,
you can’t say candelabra there. Why don’t you just say
candleholder or something?”>>Ron Charles: Yes.>>Matthew Zapruder: I mean,
it’s like because those. But there are — when
somebody writes a book of poems, you know. I edit books of poems so I’m
looking at a group of work.>>Ron Charles: Right.>>Matthew Zapruder: So there’s
conversations you can have about, well in this poem you — you can compare this poem to
the other poem and say, “see, in this one you do such a good
job of this, this, and this, but here you lose
focus in this line.” Or you just, this is a
little confusing or you seem to miss what you’re
getting at here. Can you go back and clarify? Can you make it better
or whatever? Like that.>>Ron Charles: Can
people do that?>>Matthew Zapruder: Yeah! Oh yeah! Absolutely! So because what happens
when you write poems is that you get lost. You know, you don’t know what
you’re doing anymore and they go through so many different
revisions and there’s so many different things. And so you can forget that in
earlier drafts it was totally obvious that you were
sitting in a restaurant but it’s not obvious anymore. You forgot. So just you know it because
you’re writing the poem but you forgot to mention
it so you’re in the poem and you’re like, where is this
happening and they’re like, oh, it’s in a restaurant. And you’re like, well,
you don’t say that. Well, nobody’s going
to know that. They’re like, right. Maybe I should call
this, In the Restaurant. That would help. [Laughter] Stuff like that. Yeah. You know. So it’s things like that. Or also just sometimes, a
lot of times poets will go on a bit long in their poems. Or take a bit of
time to get started. And so you can say, you know
— I mean, it’s very annoying. Anybody who’s been in a poetry
workshop knows this is the most annoying thing anybody can — one of the top 80 annoying
things people can say about it: “I think the poem
really starts here.” Or “It should end up here.” But that is actually
true sometimes.>>Ron Charles: It’s certainly
common of the stuff I edit.>>Matthew Zapruder: Right.>>Ron Charles: We often see
the lede really is several paragraphs down.>>Matthew Zapruder: Right. So the same thing with poems!>>Ron Charles: There’s
a lot of coat-carrying.>>Matthew Zapruder: I always
say it’s like the Flintstones. You remember the
Flintstones and like where he does the
thing with his feet? He’s in the car and
then the car goes?>>Ron Charles: Right.>>Matthew Zapruder: It’s like
that with poems sometimes. Like there’s a little bit
of this and then, schwoom! So yeah. And you know, you
can just say to the person, like, “Hey, it’s up to you. I’m not going to
tell you what to do. But, like, just put your
finger over the first, like, three lines of this
poem and just see that, what that looks like.” You know? And sometimes,
especially they’ll trust me because I will have
read a lot of their work and I know what I’m
talking about. So if I suggest it then
they might actually — I might just go home
and sit with it. You know, see what
I see with this. And also with books of poems
poets often don’t realize that there’s a couple
that just aren’t as good.>>Ron Charles: Right.>>Matthew Zapruder: So
you’re like, you know, you should take these out. They’re just not as good.>>Ron Charles: Or one is really
a revision of another poem.>>Matthew Zapruder:
That happens a lot too.>>Ron Charles: Yeah.>>Matthew Zapruder: And the
interesting thing about that is that sometimes individually
they can be great but when you put them in the
book you realize they’re kind of the same poem twice.>>Ron Charles: Right.>>Matthew Zapruder: And
they might have been fine when they were separate.>>Ron Charles: Right.>>Matthew Zapruder: But together they
can’t both be there because they’re basically
the same thing. So it’s like you’ve
got to make a choice.>>Ron Charles: Right.>>Matthew Zapruder:
Sophie’s Choice.>>Ron Charles: In one
of your poems you write, “I’m at my desk pushing against
one word feeling its hinge creak like wind would a gate if it
could feel anything at all.” That is a great description of
writing or editing, I think.>>Matthew Zapruder: Hmm.>>Ron Charles: That
just pushing on one word.>>Matthew Zapruder: Right.>>Ron Charles: Seeing
what it can take.>>Matthew Zapruder: Yeah.>>Ron Charles: What
it opens up.>>Matthew Zapruder: Yeah. I mean, I don’t know if prose
writers do the same thing. Is that that they do the
same thing like that?>>Ron Charles: The
good ones, yeah.>>Matthew Zapruder: Like even
with a single word like that?>>Ron Charles: Yeah. Yeah.>>Matthew Zapruder: Yeah.>>Ron Charles: You frequently
write about sleep in your poems.>>Matthew Zapruder:
[Laughing] Yeah.>>Ron Charles: And I’ve
read all your poems in a row.>>Matthew Zapruder:
Did it make you sleepy? [Laughing]>>Ron Charles: No, not at all. [ Laughter ] But it — [Laughter]
I’m sure you’ve never.>>Matthew Zapruder:
Read them all in a row? No.>>Ron Charles: All in a row. Have you?>>Matthew Zapruder: No.>>Ron Charles: Yeah. So it gave me a perspective
that I think is somewhat unusual and sleep is a recurring
theme in your work. Why is that?>>Matthew Zapruder: Hmm. Well, more recently it was
a recurring theme in my work because I have a young
child [laughter]. But I think I’ve always loved
the surrealists and I think that their whole idea
that the dream space and the liminal space
between waking and sleeping –>>Ron Charles: Yes.>>Matthew Zapruder: And
the movement from waking into sleeping and
that transition, what starts to happen
to your mind. Like that’s intimately
connected with the experience of both writing and reading
poetry so I think I’m interested in — but you know, I also
joked about Keats earlier but Keats is my favorite poet
and you know for him sleep and death were so
closely aligned too. You know, so I think that’s
probably part of it also.>>Ron Charles: Right. Yeah. No, I would say that’s
true for my experience as well.>>Matthew Zapruder:
But the honest answer to your question is I
don’t really know why.>>Ron Charles: There
are several poems that begin waking up.>>Matthew Zapruder: Yeah.>>Ron Charles: Or
falling asleep in that transitional,
liminal moment there.>>Matthew Zapruder: Right.>>Ron Charles: Where you
seem to be saying something about getting away from their
conscious mind, getting away from your own anxieties
to something freer? Or more mysterious to yourself?>>Matthew Zapruder: Yeah. Or an associative space. Like a space where you can
connect ideas that, you know, you wouldn’t connect
necessarily if you were busy in your conscious, like
trying to function.>>Ron Charles: Right.>>Matthew Zapruder:
And do things. You know, you have to be logical
and keep your act together. But like once that starts to
slip a little bit there’s a lot of truth that can be found
in that type of thinking. And that’s the thinking
of poetry for me.>>Ron Charles: Right. Without opium.>>Matthew Zapruder:
Without opium. It’s totally opium-free,
these books of poems.>>Ron Charles: Yeah. Because that’s a
dead end, by the way.>>Matthew Zapruder:
That is what I’ve heard. [ Laughter ] But I’m just going to
trust you on that one.>>Ron Charles: I want you to
read the Poem Without Intimacy.>>Matthew Zapruder: Uh-huh. Yeah. This is going
to prove your thesis.>>Ron Charles: Yes.>>Matthew Zapruder:
Poem Without Intimacy. The other day I was shopping
in one of those giant, incredibly brightly-lit
stores you can apparently see from space, wheeling a
massive, empty cart thinking, “This is a lot like
thinking, ‘why do I go to sleep not having
brushed my teeth?’ and dream of the giant failure
known as high school again?” On the loudspeaker
was a familiar song by Quicksilver Messenger
Service. There were no lyrics
but I remember it says, “We are all skyscrapers
under one blue rectangle that never chose us to be these
sentinels who imperceptibly sway and watch people far below like
tiny devices no one controls, enter our various sunlit
glass conversations.” The world is old and full as
it always will be of commerce and its hopeful nonprofit
mitigations. Future products from the Amazon
will cure ailments we have and also ones not yet invented. Looking down I saw my cart
was full of a few boxes of some cereal I do not
recognize, four flashlights, and a pink plastic water bottle
made of some kind of vegetable that will eventually like me into the earth harmlessly
decompose. And then I passed an entire row
of plastic flowers and wanted to be the sort of person
who bought them all but really I am a
runway covered in grass and all I truly love is sleep.>>Ron Charles: Yeah.>>Matthew Zapruder:
I wrote that poem for Juan Felipe Herrera,
the former Poet Laureate.>>Ron Charles: Mmhmm. The most striking
strategy in your poems that I observed is this sudden
shift from very ordinary details to something very profound
without any warning at all. You see it in this poem all
the time moving from the things in this, you know, the shopping
cart to some much larger idea. How conscious is that?>>Matthew Zapruder: I think
not very but I just think that I like — I think that’s how
people think in general.>>Ron Charles: Mmhmm.>>Matthew Zapruder: I think if
you were to just somehow be able to see into someone’s mind I
think you would see them rapidly moving between, you know,
mundane thoughts or observations or visual impressions
and big thoughts.>>Ron Charles: Right.>>Matthew Zapruder: You know? Or just scary thoughts or
some kind of, you know, emotional impressions
or something. I think that’s kind of how
people — and for me the poem, like, replicates and attempts
to, like, implicate the reader in that process so that
we can experience it in a more conscious way. And like, yeah. I compare it in the Why
Poetry book to lucid dreaming which I’ve never been
able to actually achieve. Apparently there are some people
who can wake up in their dream. There are probably people
in this room who can do it. Can you do it?>>Ron Charles: No, but
I’ve read about it too.>>Matthew Zapruder: Yeah. You can wake up in your
dream and move around and fly and everything on purpose.>>Ron Charles: Yeah. Yeah.>>Matthew Zapruder: But like
poems are kind of like that. They’re, you know — I
mean, or they can be.>>Ron Charles: Right. You have a poem called
White Castle where you describe thinking
major feelings such as longing for purpose while eating
little square hamburgers with dots in them [laughing].>>Matthew Zapruder:
Yeah [laughing]. Yeah.>>Ron Charles: Watching
dragonflies mate. Yeah. It’s often charming
and funny the way you move between those two things. Read a poem called
Erstwhile Harbinger Auspices.>>Matthew Zapruder: Mmhmm. That’s the first poem
about the — yeah.>>Ron Charles: That’s
a tough title, too.>>Matthew Zapruder: yeah. Well, do you want to hear
a story about this one?>>Ron Charles: Yes.>>Matthew Zapruder: Do you guys like hearing the
stories or is it like — [ “Yes” From Audience ]>>Matthew Zapruder: OK. Well [chuckling], if you insist. [Laughter] This poem — I had gone to a party
with a bunch of writers. I’d just moved to San
Francisco and I didn’t know them but it was like the first,
like, fancy writer part that I’d been invited to. So I felt it was high stakes. And somebody used
the word erstwhile, or I think I used
the word erstwhile and someone corrected
me and my usage of it.>>Ron Charles: Mmm.>>Matthew Zapruder: I know. And I was this — I took umbrage
and defended my usage of it but because everybody has
phones now they can look up what it meant. It turned out I was not
correct in my use of erstwhile. [ Laughter ] Which I thought —
well, whatever. It means it was a long
time ago that it happened but I did not use it that way. I thought it meant it
was continuing to happen. It just — I was
wrong, basically. Must we go into it again? [Laughter] But anyway, and
so then I started thinking about other words
whose name that I use that I don’t actually
know what they mean or I am incorrect [laughter]
and then I just kind of constructed the
title of the poem out of three of those words. So the title is called
Erstwhile Harbinger Auspices. [ Laughter ] Erstwhile means long time gone. A harbinger is sent before to
help and also a sign of things to come, like this blue
stapler I bought at Staples. [Laughter] Did you —
[laughing] it’s hard when someone’s laughing
next to you. It’s great, actually. [Laughing] Like this blue
stapler I bought at Staples. Did you know in ancient Rome
priests called augers studied the future by carefully watching
whether birds were flying together or alone,
making what honking or beeping noises
in what directions? It was called the auspices. The air was thus a
huge announcement. Today it’s completely
transparent of [inaudible]. Inside it, a flower is flower. Thus, a little death sent. I have no master but always
wonder what is making my master sad? Maybe I do not know him. This morning I made extra
coffee for the beloved and covered the cup
with a saucer. Skeleton, I thought,
and stay very still. Whatever it was will
soon pass by and be gone.>>Ron Charles: You know, the
juxtaposition of the ordinary and the profound is
funny in that poem.>>Matthew Zapruder: Mmhmm.>>Ron Charles: And creates
a kind of tension and mystery that keeps drawing us through. So many of your poems,
the words are quite clear and we all know the words, but
the sense of them escapes us. In a poem like that,
for instance. By the end you’ve taken us
somewhere very, very different. It’s become very
intimate suddenly.>>Matthew Zapruder: Mmhmm.>>Ron Charles: Take
us through that poem.>>Matthew Zapruder: Yeah,
well as I mentioned before, the structure of it is just
kind of examining those works. I mean, it’s almost
crude, the structure of it, because just sort
of define the words.>>Ron Charles: Mmhmm.>>Matthew Zapruder: You know,
I just say what they mean, like in the dictionary. And then I say it and then I
think, oh what does that suggest to me or can I — the blue
stapler I bought at Staples. I just wrote that and
thought that was funny. I mean, that was,
you know, kind of — and the idea that that
would be a harbinger. You know, like that that’s
— because it kind of is. You’re in Staples
and you’re like, you will buy a stapler
[laughing]. It seems ordained because
of the name of the store. [Laughter] But anyway,
but you know. And then I just would
sort of, yeah. Kind of going through what these
words mean but then looking for things that that suggests —
you know, doorways or pathways or whatever like
you were saying. So that’s really
just how I write. I’m just looking. I’m looking for that other
other place I can go. I mean, when I taught
composition, I remember saying to my students, you know,
the thing is is your papers, they’re just a hallway. And you’re just sort of
charging down the hallway as fast as you can go.>>Ron Charles: Yes.>>Matthew Zapruder:
But you’re moving, you’re rushing past
all these doors. And why don’t you stop and,
like, open the door and go in and see what’s in the room
and then go down a little bit and see what’s in the room? Stop. Think. Think, think, think, think. You know? Don’t just
go charging through. And I think that for the
poem’s exciting because I out of the corner of my eye see
a door and I’m going to stop and open it and go in. And a lot of the time I go in
and there’s something in there. And then I go back out
and those lines go away. You know? It’s not like that — I mean, most of the
time that’s true. But in the poem it’s got this — the times when there’s something
interesting in that room, you know, then that’s so I think
it has this quality of moving and then stopping
and then digressing but not losing the forward
momentum totally, you know?>>Ron Charles: Right.>>Matthew Zapruder: And
always the ends surprise me. I mean, the ends
always surprise me. I don’t know where
they’re going. I have no idea where
they’re going. And then that — yeah. And I don’t know. I just — the word “skeleton”
just appeared in that poem and then I thought, oh
well that’s a strange thing to have happen. It’s a little scary. And then maybe if I just wait
a little while I won’t feel scared anymore. [Laughing] You know? I mean, that’s all. I mean, I don’t know
if that’s — that might either be a very
small thought or a big one.>>Ron Charles: Yes.>>Matthew Zapruder: Or
somewhere in between. I don’t know.>>Ron Charles: Could you
read the poem Prelude?>>Matthew Zapruder: Yes.>>Ron Charles: That’s a pretty
weighty title to give a poem.>>Matthew Zapruder:
[Laughing] Yeah. Well, I’m an English
professor as Rob mentioned. And you know, but I don’t have
a traditional training in — which just means I’ve
barely read anything. And so I decided at some point
that should read Wordsworth. Because I’m an English professor
it seemed [laughing] like –>>Ron Charles: Yeah,
you should.>>Matthew Zapruder:
[Laughing] Yeah. And so I start reading The
Prelude, which is really good by the way — [Laughter]
and but it’s hard. It’s really hard to read it. I don’t know. Has anybody read
The Prelude in here? It’s hard. You know? It’s — really, the
language is very complicated. So you’ve got to,
like, really grind through it or at least I did. And so over a few days of
trying to read the beginning of The Prelude, his language
really started to, like, seep into my own brain.>>Ron Charles: Yes [laughing].>>Matthew Zapruder: And then
I just decided to write this. I decided, oh I should just
write a poem with the same title which kind of takes on
his diction a little bit. But it was almost involuntary
because after reading it for a few days I was just
— I couldn’t stop thinking, in these words, were
they in, like, sentences which sound absurd if
you don’t pull them off exactly? So and the first line of
this poem is an imitation of the first line
of The Prelude. The first line of
Wordsworth’s Prelude is, “Oh, there is blessing in
this gentle breeze.” That’s how his poem begins. So this is The Prelude. Oh, this Diet Coke
is really good. [ Laughter ] Though, come to think of it, it tastes like nothing
plus the idea of chocolate or an acquaintance of
chocolate speaking fondly of certain times it and
chocolate had spoken of nothing. [Laughter] Or nothing
remembering a field in which it once ate the
most wondrous sandwich of ham and rustic camembert cheese
yet still wished for a piece of chocolate before
the lone walk back through the corn then
the darkening forest to the disappointing village and its super creepy
bed and breakfast. [Laughter] With secret
despair I returned to the city. Something seemed to
be waiting for me, maybe the chosen guide
Wordsworth wrote. He would, even were it nothing
better than a wandering cloud, have followed, which
of course to me and everyone sounds amazing. All I follow is my own
desire, sometimes to feel, sometimes to be at least a
little more than intermitently at ease with being loved. I’m never at ease, not with
hours I can read or walk and look at the brightly colored
houses filled with lives, not with night when I lie
on my back and listen, not with the hallway,
definitely not with baseball, definitely not with time. Poor Coleridge, son
of a vicar and a lake. He could not feel the energy. No present joy, no cheerful
confidence, just love of friends and the wind taking
his arrow away. Come to the edge, the
edge beckons softly. Take this cup full of darkness
and stay as long as you want and maybe a little longer.>>Ron Charles: It’s such a
clever and provocative response to Wordsworth and to
that romantic tradition. It starts off pretty caustic
and sarcastic and funny. And then it ends in a much more
tender and much more accepting and much more personal way. But there is a lot of your
poems are about nature in that romantic tradition. You write about nature
all the time.>>Matthew Zapruder: Mmhmm.>>Ron Charles: In a way
that is clearly, you know, you could draw a
line from Wordsworth to some of your poems. You’ve got a poem
called Tiburon. I want you to read that.>>Matthew Zapruder: This
is from my first book. Tiburon, which is
the name of a town across the Golden Gate
Bridge from San Francisco. How sweet to lie just once like
a painter, propped at the top of that hill on my elbow, considering the conundrum
of breath. Grasses blow among my limbs as
if wisdom had been withdrawn for safekeeping into the
library of fragments. I have no purpose
except to return back down towards a eucalyptus
I love. Its petals are filled
with the terrible weight of careless reversal,
grief without consequence. It burns with such ease. Just to stand there below it
dreaming of union, all trembling in scent and colors
of the moment, is like living inside a flower
while making a study of winter. Blue span that leads
to a gleaming city, you cannot be crossed
by longing.>>Ron Charles: And another
one from that collection.>>Matthew Zapruder: Oh.>>Ron Charles: Called
American Linden.>>Matthew Zapruder: Mmhmm.>>Ron Charles: This is the
title poem of the collection.>>Matthew Zapruder: American
Linden, which is a kind of tree as you probably know. American Linden. When you’d like to remember
the notion of days turn to the barn asleep on its hill, a red shoulder holding
the weight of clouds. You could stand still
for so many moments. So little is over
and over-required, letting the wind
brush your crown, the laze of tobacco
swing into autumn. Swallows already
discuss the winter. I know you are tired
of imagination. All that clumsily
grasping the sunlight. Aren’t you tired of bodies too? Whenever it rains they fall from
the sky and darken your window. Clutching each other they
call out names while you sit in the circle thrown by a lamp
and pretend they are leaves. The potatoes cringe
and bury their heads. Do you see them? They know where to return
when hoofbeats come. Like you they were
not born with pride. They where born with
skins made of earth. Their eyes are black and
they sing out of tune, quietly under the snow.>>Ron Charles: What do
you think of that poem now?>>Matthew Zapruder:
[Sighs loudly].>>Ron Charles: Years
after writing it.>>Matthew Zapruder:
That’s a great — that’s exactly what I was
thinking when I was reading it. Like, I mean, I was, you
know, a different person.>>Ron Charles: Yeah.>>Matthew Zapruder:
When I wrote that poem.>>Ron Charles: It is not
a poem you would write now?>>Matthew Zapruder:
No, but I like it. It’s because it’s
I think it’s brave. I think it’s like it like has
a bravery of a young poet, you know, where I
just say stuff. And I say these big
pronouncements and then I move on to the next thing and
it feels very sincere.>>Ron Charles: Yes.>>Matthew Zapruder: Actually, like super sincere,
which I really like. And I think it’s — I’m
not a person who goes around liking my own poems,
you know, or whatever. But like –>>Ron Charles: No, we –>>Matthew Zapruder: But we
just like — I mean, I kind of, I’m surprised that
I like reading that in front of
other people now. But yeah. I don’t know. I think it’s — another thing
about it is it is remind me of eastern and central European
poets who were very influential and important to me and
the sort of animation. You know, the way that
I animate these –>>Ron Charles: Potatoes?>>Matthew Zapruder:
Pototoes and leaves and trees. You know, whatever that sort
of pantheistic like animating of the landscape is something
that came to me from this, you know, this European
tradition. It’s more than an American one.>>Ron Charles: There’s
no sarcasm in that poem.>>Matthew Zapruder: No.>>Ron Charles: Really.>>Matthew Zapruder: No. Yeah.>>Ron Charles: Again and again
we see trees in your poems. We see bees. We see lots of birds. How does nature function
in your work, do you think? Or how did it?>>Matthew Zapruder: Well,
I mean, that poem I wrote when I was in graduate school
at Amherst in Massachusetts. I also was an undergrad
at Amherst too. So that –>>Ron Charles: It’s
a beautiful setting.>>Matthew Zapruder:
Yeah, and it’s old. America is very young. Our civilization of America is
obviously very young compared to other places.>>Ron Charles: Right.>>Matthew Zapruder: I mean, the American south is not
young either but the landscape of that — that feels like
an old part of America to me.>>Ron Charles: Yes.>>Matthew Zapruder:
Compared to some other places. And so I felt the history
in that place a lot. Of the landscape. And so I think that for me
I also am scared of nature. Like, I’m not a big — I get
scared when I go out into that. And you know, like I don’t
understand what’s going on a lot of the time. And I feel like I didn’t
grow up camping or going for hikes and stuff like that. So for me it’s a very, like, weird experience
to do that stuff. So I’m very aware of, like, all the way that the
landscape feels alive to me.>>Ron Charles: Interesting. You once told an interviewer, “a lot of poets are
terrible readers.”>>Matthew Zapruder:
[Laughing] Yeah.>>Ron Charles: Often
they go on too long and they choose the
wrong poems to read.>>Matthew Zapruder:
Yeah [laughing].>>Ron Charles: But
you’re a great reader of your own poetry [laughing]. I have to say. Could you quickly close with
a poem that I just love. I mean, I’m not fitting
it in thematically here. I just think it’s a
great poem to end on. Called Letter to a Lover.>>Matthew Zapruder: Yeah.>>Ron Charles: Where is that?>>Matthew Zapruder:
That’s in here.>>Ron Charles: There? There it is.>>Matthew Zapruder: Yeah. This is a love poem that I wrote to my wife early in
our relationship. So and there’s actually a — I have a friend whose
name is Gabe Kahane. He’s a young composer,
a brilliant composer, and he did some musical
settings to my poem. And actually he and this band, this chamber orchestra called
Brooklyn Rider did this amazing recording of this. And the best recording of
it is on YouTube and they’re in a hotel room just doing it. And they’re playing and
he sings it and plays it.>>Ron Charles: Oh wow.>>Matthew Zapruder: So
if you like the poem, you can go see the [inaudible]. Letter to a Lover. Today I’m going to pick you
up at the beige airport. My heart feels like a
field of calves in the sun. My heart is wired directly to the power source
of mediocre songs. I’m trying to catch a ray
of sunlight in my mouth. I look forward to showing
you my new furniture. I look forward to the
telephone ringing. It is not you. You are in the kitchen trying
to figure out the coffee maker. You are pouring out the
contents of your backpack. I wonder if you now
have golden fur. I wonder if your arsenal
of kind remarks is empty. I remember when I met you
you were wearing a grey dress that was also blue, not
unlike the water plus the sky. They say it’s difficult to
put a leash on a hummingbird. So let us be no longer
the actuary of each other. Let us bow no longer our heads
to the tyranny of numbers. Hurry off the plane with your
rhinestone covered bag full of magazines to check up on
the downfall of the stars. I will be waiting for you at
the bottom of the moving stairs.>>Ron Charles: It’s
just so lovely.>>Matthew Zapruder:
[Laughing] Yeah. Thanks. And then I
ended up married. [ Laughter ]>>Ron Charles: I would
marry you [laughing].>>Matthew Zapruder: So
be careful [laughing]. I do.>>Ron Charles: It’s been such
a pleasure talking to you.>>Matthew Zapruder:
Thanks, Ron.>>Ron Charles: Thank
you so much for coming.>>Matthew Zapruder:
Thank you so much. [ Applause ]>>This has been a presentation
of the Library of Congress. Visit us at

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