An introduction to the author of the poetry book The Number Before Infinity, translator of Colette and George Sand, and editor of The Face of Poetry anthology. Rogow is the author, editor, or translator of eighteen books and plays, including six collections of poetry, a novel, three anthologies, four volumes of translation, and a children’s book. The Number Before Infinity (Scarlet Tanager Books, 2008) is his most recent poetry book.
Quick Facts on Zack Rogow
- Rogow’s blog, Advice for Writers: zackrogow.blogspot.com
- Home: San Francisco, California
- Comfort food: Matzo ball soup; it’s like eating the essence of Jewish history. It connects him to the love of past generations.
- Favorite authors: George Orwell, June Jordan, Pablo Neruda, Federico García Lorca, Bernard Malamud
- Current reads: Anne Marino’s The Collapsible World. Rogow is excited about Ben Leyb’s upcoming novel, The Countess de Mondeau (Eirelander Publishing, 2010).
- Baseball team: San Francisco Giants
What are you working on?
Two poetry books. One collection has sections with themes like motherhood, love poems, writing and literature. Tentatively, I’m calling this book Evil Sex in French Cars. The title poem explains that phrase.
The other book, called Talking With the Radio, is about popular music in the US (popular meaning anything from jazz, doo-wop, to the ghazal).
Who is the ideal reader of your work?
I really hope my work can also be enjoyed by people who don’t regularly write poetry. Poetry tends to be too much of an insular art form. I’d like to see it reach people outside the community of poets.
Are there any writers who strongly influenced you?
June Jordan, a mentor when I was starting out, was enormously influential, partly because she was a mesmerizing reader. She’s a fantastic example of what you can achieve as a poet presenting your work to an audience. June is also inspiring because of how she combines the personal and political in her poetry.
I’ve seen George Orwell as a role model. He had so much integrity, and cared deeply about keeping the language accurate. He used language as a real tool for communication. He only used the freshest, most surprising language.
I admire the French experimental writers, like Surrealists and Dadaists. They were willing to break the rules and start over if they felt the rules constricted them. It’s important for writers to be willing to do that in order to say something meaningful in a world where words and lyrics are continually being challenged to be relevant to people’s lives.
Writers I’ve translated, like George Sand and Colette, have been teachers for me. I translated their work because I wanted to learn how they did what they did. I wanted to understand how they put books together, and used the book to move readers from one place to another.
Is there a quote about writing that motivates you?
André Breton: “The imaginary is what tends to become real.”
What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Follow your own interests. Write the book that you are passionate about. Don’t be too concerned with whether it fits current trends in literature. Give yourself the benefit of the doubt. Be patient with yourself. It may take your whole life to reach the point where you can write the book that you want to write. Rainer Maria Rilke wrote much of his most famous poetry in his last few years before death. He spent his life preparing himself as a writer to be the vehicle for those poems.
I believe in the ancient idea of the muse; I think the work we do as writers comes through us, not entirely from us. It’s important to be attentive and open to work that wants to come through you. Allow yourself time to develop the ability to receive the work that you are meant to write.
Larry Rivers, a painter of the New York School, once said he paints because there’s something he wants to see. I try to do that with writing: to write the next book that I want to read.
What’s the best advice you’ve been given as a writer?
Don’t let anybody talk you out of what it is that you want to do.
The young adult fiction writer Marilyn Sachs told me not to try to tie up all the loose ends; it’s not realistic—that’s not how life is. Readers feel a little cheated if you make the work too neat.
I’ve heard that Tom Barbash, a colleague at California College of the Arts, tells students to put everything they know in their books. I like that, too. You have to draw on every facet of your personality and your interests in writing.
When not writing, what do you enjoy?
I’m sort of ashamed to admit I really care very deeply about baseball. I feel baseball is a self-contained world that is like literature. It reflects this world in many ways, and has many personalities. The challenges of baseball are similar to the arts: you constantly have to make adjustments to do well in your career. Say you’re a hitter who likes a low inside pitch. You hit that out of the ballpark and the pitchers learn pretty fast. They’ll throw high outside fastballs until you prove you can hit those. Writing is like that. You can’t repeat yourself. You have to keep evolving, changing your shape like an amoeba.
I like to travel. I like to learn languages. Studying a different language makes me aware of my own language in a completely different way. You become more conscious of the music of words, and of other possibilities for structuring sentences. In Latin, you can put any word at the beginning or end of a sentence. We never think like that; we think subject, verb, object. Opportunities exist in literature to bend or flex syntax.
About Zack Rogow
Zack Rogow teaches at California College of the Arts and University of Alaska, Anchorage. He is the editor of a critically acclaimed anthology of U.S. poetry, The Face of Poetry (University of California Press). His translations of George Sand, Colette, and André Breton have won numerous awards, including the PEN/Book-of-the-Month Club Translation Award and the Northern California Book Award in Translation. His children’s book, Oranges, was a Junior Library Guild Book-of-the-Month.
(Interview first published on Suite101.com in May 2010.)
[Toffoli, Marissa B. “Interview With Writer Zack Rogow.” Words With Writers (2010), https://wordswithwriters.com/2010/05/11/zack-rogow.]