Saturday, March 28, 2009

Why Would You Lie to a Field?:
An interview with Zach Savich

Zach Savich received a BA in English from the University of Washington and an MFA from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop; he is currently in the MFA Program for Poets and Writers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he is a teaching assistant. His poems and essays have appeared in such venues as the Colorado Review, the Beloit Poetry Journal, jubilat, Court Green, the Denver Quarterly, and the anthology Best New Poets 2008. He is an editor at Thermos Magazine and author of the book of poems Full Catastrophe Living, which recently won the Iowa Poetry Prize.

GL: In your appended “Notes” for Full Catastrophe Living you explain your reasons for choosing the book’s title as follows:
The title of the collection comes from Jon Kabat-Zinn’s guide to mindfulness and healing of the same name. I used to attend poetry readings at Prairie Lights Books in Iowa City. Kabat-Zinn’s book was often on a shelf near the reader’s head, like a caption. I love the phrase—how full is the catastrophe, how full is the living that follows?
In essence, then, your book poses—albeit, often ironically—as a guide for mindfulness and healing! But these concepts in self-help literature usually function as something of a mirage: they suggest a means to recovery but often seem to be used as a kind of hypnotic cue that actually avoids the pain and difficulty of reflection and transformation. Does your work try to perform the real difficulty of interpreting mindfulness and healing in a poetic context? And does your book pose as a kind of renegade instance of self-help literature or, forgive me, as lyrical self-help?

ZS: First, let me point you to this clip from Zorba the Greek, which moves this “full catastrophe” business from books to the deck of a ship, a conversation with dolphins breaching. I have been told that “young family men” of an earlier generation quoted these lines to one another (“Am I not a man? And is not a man stupid? I’m a man, so I married. Wife, children, house, everything. The full catastrophe.”). What a syllogism! Like Kabat-Zinn’s book (which I have not read all of), Zorba’s resume rests on a sort of behavioralism. I’m sympathetic to such approaches, partly because I have a “background” in chronic pain, for which reflection and psychoanalytic grappling have been less useful than taking a walk, eating a sandwich, concentrating on a poem.

That is, when healing itself is a mirage – pain just singing out like a bird without a mate, not signaling something to fix – behavioral change precedes transformation; it can be as good as healing. So, you focus on surfaces, do the coffee thing, move your feet for the dancing thing, follow the instructions printed on the food thing. I like poets – Sarah Manguso, Henri Michaux – who treat poems as such behavioral acts. There’s a wonderful Michaux piece in which the sounds of his own suffering keep him awake, so he extracts an orchestra from his head, and, in the greater din, finds a kind of silence, a kind of joy.

A poem is a behavioral act: an actor friend recently taught me the difference between gazing at an imaginary castle and looking precisely at your surroundings while imagining a castle. You can see the difference in the actor’s face. I want to say that poems provide that kind of actual looking. And that this is self-help of the best sort. In an intellectually defensible sense – we learn new ways of seeing, thinking, speaking; ways to be imaginatively/mindfully in the world without shrinking to truths less complex than our lives and language demand; ways that bring to mind, for me, Roethke saying “at times, reality comes closer.” But also in the Don Quixote sense. And in the hypnotic sense, as in lullabies. I like all three.

What is a self-help poem? 1) You are in prison. 2) Here is a fabulous cake. 3) Here is a kit of dynamite, ropes, and crowbars I have baked into it. Let’s say, good self-help poems need all these dimensions.

GL: Your poems are often haunted by mid-western atmospheric details in almost the same way that Ashbery’s poems are haunted by the snowstorms of his Rochester childhoods. Could you tell me a little about the impact that Iowa’s landscape(s) had on these poems, and how place/landscape affects your work in general?

ZS: I moved to Iowa from the Pacific Northwest, where mountains and water determine buildings and roads. I panicked. Why was anything where it was? You could walk all day and no geography would stop you. I lived (with you, Greg) in a farmhouse four miles outside of town. After we left, they detached the house from its foundation and moved it a few miles away. All this gave me two thoughts about poetry. One, in such a landscape, one becomes like the heroic poet figure Stevens presents in The Necessary Angel, cursed/blessed to hear only his own voice; that is, without mountains and water, you decide where you build. Two, what’s really permanent is not what you build, no matter what you build, but the fields around it. In a city, pretty talk and lies can be functional; they, like a city, show the pleasure of invention and collective interchange; they keep things going. But why would you lie to a field? I stared at one outside my window that whole first year. I still think of it when I want to be more honest.

All this connects to place more generally through Rome, which is the other major landscape in the book and in my life – a Rome way of seeing and an Iowa way of seeing are stilts I sometimes put other boots on. In Rome, permanence and possibility interact differently. Is that fountain permanent? Well, not exactly – this year they’ve covered it in scaffolding and a scrim painted with the fountains’ figures so scientists can chisel off bits. What’s permanent is more the motion through things, not an underlying field but an overlying sort of light. It makes a piazza move like a clock, through market hours to siesta to nightlife. You can’t stop it. It doesn’t care for you. The tomato, at its height of ripeness, goes rotten as soon as you touch it. Ah, but what tomatoes! I find all this very relaxing. The chaos, the grime, the obstruction of the sublime that people dislike about Rome – they calm me. You could be stabbed in the street and it wouldn’t matter. I’d hardly mind if I was stabbed in Rome.

And yet, you are in the definition of civilization. A man crams a cell phone into his scooter helmet so he can shout over the traffic. A postmodern mime sits with her postmodern juggler boyfriend outside ancient baths. These are not juxtapositions but fullnesses. These two forces – time moving bodily through Rome, its scrabble, elevating and depersonalizing human invention; time paused in an Iowan field, diminishing and singularizing the human figure, in humid and freezing silences – seem to be through the book, relating, I think, to the different positions its poems take on fidelity and the passions.

Also, snow fascinates me. It is the marble of the midwest. It is skin. In Iowa, I spent so long drinking coffee and watching snow, whenever I see snow now, I taste coffee.

GL: There are a number of relatively short poems in this book that seem to hinge on a single observation, whether about experience or language, that take no more than a breath or two to bring to conclusion. Here’s one called “Hotel”:

The ledge stops

before the air
       pressed in

its calmed longing
       which feels like snow,

as though the body
       or soul

would have any part
       aside from


Could you tell me a little about how these shorter poems function in their own right and how they compliment or balance the longer poems in the collection?

ZS: I thought of these short poems as pure atmosphere, analogous, perhaps, to the photographs in Wright Morris’ The Homeplace (from which my book’s cover photo is taken). Morris’ photo-novel has a continuous narrative on the right-hand page and photos on each left-hand page. The photos do not correspond to the text directly – they are not illustrations – but function as the lyric does in my prosaic life. You are going on with your story, and then you look to your side and notice something. There is the need to keep listening attentively to your boss, but also a sudden comet or bunched up flag behind him. I hope the shorter poems offer such pauses, letting some air in (or out?) and giving a particular consistency among the book’s varied poems. They also frequently remove the “I,” attempting to serve more as seeing itself (linked via language to thought, than posed images). So often, images in poems seem posed for rhetorical ends, while the actual experience of seeing is disturbingly digestive. I imagined these poems as wind-up toys that would stutter a couple steps, stop, stutter some more, though clearly all of the same motion. I was thinking of Carl Phillips and H.D. when I wrote them and looking at still photographs of the most famous ballerinas in history.

The poems are interested in a distinction Cole Swensen has made among fragmentation, compression, and distillation – compression preserves the same mass in a smaller space, fragmentation takes a piece of mass, distillation has less mass across a broader field. This happens, for example, in their out-of-context use of material from Yeats (“every tatter in”) and from Dante (“I turned the color of a man” – taken from the beginning of an idiom that runs, e.g., “I turned the color of a man ashamed at sunrise”). Language as knobby bits.

GL: The book’s final poem, “A Dedication,” begins as a meditation on seeing. The poem contemplates the degree to which visible phenomena are inherent in the person perceiving the world. It’s a wonderful poem that explores the classic boundaries between subjective and objective realities, but it takes what I think is an emblematic turn near the end, by suddenly addressing a mysterious “you” to whom the poem is presumably dedicated. In the poem’s penultimate stanza, you write, “…the secret of poetry is cruelty, / said a poet who used to live in our town, / but I would rather sleep inside with you.” Could you tell me about the impulse to turn the force of your mediation toward a single (apparently intimate) listener/reader? Why do you end the book by inviting the reader intimately into your musings and cognitions? And could you tell me how the “you” generally functions in your poems?

ZS: Maybe it’s because my girlfriend and I have spent half our three years together in separate countries, existing in letters, kissing like people in novels (that is, only in words), but I’ve begun to see less difference between poems and letters. Each is a piece of time, given and received with delay in the middle, made of words, implying some drama merely from the need to write it. The title of that poem is stolen from James Merrill’s poem of the same name. I like the idea that the occasion of every song, or poem, is the desire to dedicate it. Why else write a book but to dedicate it to someone you love? In that poem, I see the boundaries you mention occurring also in the boundaries between individual and shared experience. Are you with me? Are you me?

More honestly, I thought it was a love poem the entire way through, until a friend pointed out its intimate turn. That is, I was writing to Meg all along. The function of the ‘intimate you,’ then, seems to be in providing constant, underlying desire that sometimes turns explicit. The poem is important to me for positing one version of writing what James Wright called the “poetry of a grown man.” After the collapse of “but I would rather sleep inside with you” – that domestic retreat – it expands back into the final stanza’s attempt at vows, at staking something. These attempts, I hope, are more complicated than the blustery swagger imagined earlier in the poem, more true to the feeling I have, increasingly, that life has made my feelings simple, solid, few. I love you. We should never die. I know little else. We’re in the realm of psychology again. What follows the initial adolescent rush, the romantic tinge, the resolved dedication to another despite difficulty? Gratitude, unknowing, more.

GL: I’ve asked you a lot of specific questions about the book, but I’d like to back up a little bit and ask about the poet you were both before and during the writing of this book. How did you get started writing poetry? Who were your early influences? And how did your influences and sensibilities change while you were working on the poems in Full Catastrophe Living?

ZS: I came to graduate school and was blown away. Everyone was older, smarter, and had read more. I aimed to write a very different poem each week. I took on all schools. I believed, in a way I realize now was tied to a historical period interest, a period style, but also to my personal sensibility, that all techniques should be available to a poem, formal tendencies with plastic expressive language, deep imagery with wacky voice, etc. All techniques available, but with specific technical and associative consequences. I actually believed I was writing to save my life. Then I started to realize that, even as I tried to escape myself, certain reflexes of temperament and conviction remained inescapable. More limber gravities pulled back the satellites I tried to fling from orbit. I then tried to focus on those reflexes, indulging in and resisting them – impulses toward humor, questions, intimate address, proverbial utterance, elements of song, straight up sentiment. The book shows both stages of this work – the varied lyrics, the longer pieces trying to explore my emergent instincts. Then I started working non-academic jobs, writing for an hour in the morning, reading only at lunch. What I wanted from poems shifted. I wanted poems that could stand to a half hour lunch, to thinking about during the rest of my day, rather than ones that merely explored or demonstrated poetic possibilities that might seem trivial, smaller than either what’s possible or what’s permanent. I then wrote the more formal, measured pieces in the book, such as “A Dedication” and “Outside Santa Maria in Trastevere,” which became its third aspect, a more settled position. This connects also to being in a good relationship, which made me more invested in – order, a less reckless world. Hopkins, Rosmarie Waldrop, Dean Young, The Changing Light at Sandover – these were all revolutions.

GL: Describe the poems you’ve been working on since your book came out. Are your poems headed in an entirely new direction? And, finally, what is the future of Zach Savich? Continue poeting? What’s the plan?

ZS: Gratitude, unknowing, more. I think the secret is staying in motion, though sometimes at slower speeds, sometimes at breakneck. “Nothing lasts and nothing ends,” says Merrill. Most days I honestly don’t know what a poem is or if I have ever written one. As soon as I understand that I have, and how I have done it, I can’t do it that way anymore. Everything begins to seem like convention. I grow less interested in my own impressions or even in articulating the state of being someone who is less interested in his own impressions. I’m trying out the idea that we don’t know what we are building; I’m trying to stay in motion, keep writing, and trust that patterns will come out, that something will emerge from the matter. Pragmatically, there’s a question of how long to continue playing the academic poetry game – tied to institutions, building a resume, if with the haphazard and inefficient ways I’ve done it, for the benefits of fellowship and intellectual succor, despite the bouncing around it requires – and when to take on another life. My poems grow closer to epistle, mixed with a continued interest in proverb. Both are about transmission, but with a different relationship to time, to the context they occur in. Epistle is to proverb what Rome is to Iowa? Hmm. I feel that I know less and less. Has our collapse been economical? I’ve continued reading widely but have been loving books less widely. I used to pride myself on finding a way to love any book. But now I am hewing more. I imagine a great swelling out will follow. (This is half-true, shrill weariness: I’ve recently been humbled by and loved books by Geraldine Monk, Dan Beachy-Quick, Kevin Goodan.) One of the first poems I loved was by Denise Levertov, whom I haven’t read in years. Speaking of April, she says “each will astonish you.” Can that be the plan? It’s nearly April.