Marissa Bell Toffoli

Interview With Writer Matthew Zapruder

In books, editors, poetry, writing on September 25, 2011 at 9:49 pm

Matthew Zaprduer

Matthew Zapruder. Photo by Marissa Bell Toffoli (2011).

An introduction to the author of the poetry books Come On All You Ghosts, The Pajamaist, and American Linden. Poet, editor, and teacher, Zapruder does it all. When asked about why he writes, he concluded: “I think that people are most happy when they do things that are deeply connected and integrated with who they are, and that fulfill that need in themselves to feel connected to others and productive.” Zapruder is interested in communicating by harnessing the power of language to share thoughts and moments in beautiful ways, in talking to people about poetry and what poetry can do in the world.

Quick Facts on Matthew Zapruder

  • Matthew Zapruder’s website
  • Home: San Francisco, California
  • Comfort food: I love a really good green apple, like a Granny Smith.
  • Top reads: Frank O’Hara, Javier Marias, Robert Desnos, Haruki Murakami, and one of my favorite books is The Lost Domain by Alain-Fournier.
  • Current reads: The Javier Marias trilogy called Your Face Tomorrow; I’m rereading O’Hara; rereading Fernando Pessoa’s The Keeper of Sheep; Listen to This by Alex Ross; and Wendy Lesser’s new book Music for Silenced Voices: Shostakovich and His Fifteen Quartets. I’m always reading a lot of journals and looking up people’s new poems. I try to read a lot of different things—anything that gets me writing poems or gives me more language to use, makes me try to go in a new direction.

What are you working on at the moment?  

I teach in this low-residency MFA program at UC Riverside. I spent most of today working on recommendations for former students and peers who are applying for jobs. I work for Wave Books so I read a lot of manuscripts. But, you know, I’m always writing poems. I’m somewhere between a quarter and halfway through a new book of poems. Usually, what I do is I write for a few years and then look and see what I have. Am I close to a manuscript or am I not? I don’t write with a plan. I just try to work continuously over a long period of time.

“I don’t write with a plan.”

I’ve also been writing essays recently. I just finished an essay on W S Merwin for this book that’s coming out on his middle period. I wrote about one of my favorite books of his, and one of my favorites in general, called The Vixen, and how I started to be a poet. Lately, I’ve been writing more critical prose trying to work out my thoughts about poetry, and how people read it, how they think about it.

So, when did you begin writing poetry?

I didn’t start writing poems until I was in my twenties, in graduate school at UC Berkeley. I was getting a PhD in Slavic Languages and Literatures because that’s what I did my undergraduate work in. I met all these really brilliant, super talented people who had a lot of focus and really wanted to do this. I knew right away, basically, that it wasn’t going to work for me because I didn’t have the same focus or dedication.

What I really wanted to do was write—to be a writer, but I hadn’t really written anything. I remember, I used to sit down and just try to write, but I had no plan or anything. Somehow I ended up writing poems.

I decided to get an MFA. There’s a lot of bullshit about MFAs, and people complaining about them, but the fact of the matter is that I’m the perfect example of someone who really benefited from it. I would learn something in a day just by talking to someone, or by being in a bookstore when someone happened to be there, or having someone put a book in my hand that it might have taken me months or even years to run across on my own. It helped me start to become an artist; I had a long way to go, but it got me from being a complete ignoramus to beginning to have some sense of what was going on.

People go to graduate school in writing and they want to know what to do for their lives. The only people they see who are professional writers are teachers. They don’t meet anybody who isn’t doing that. And so, they get the idea, understandably, that the only way you can live as a writer is by being a teacher. They don’t meet the people who are working in businesses or other trades and also being writers. It’s a structurally misleading situation. My friends who are writers do all kinds of things.

“My friends who are writers

do all kinds of things.”

You talked about writing until you felt you had enough for a manuscript; how did Come On All You Ghosts come together? When did you know the book was done?

I spent about two years, off and on, writing the book. In fall 2008, I had just moved to San Francisco, but I was actually teaching at the University of Houston and flying back and forth. I had written a lot of poems, and thrown away a lot of poems. I knew I had something, and then I wrote the title poem of the book.

I was on the airplane coming back from Houston, in probably November. I’d had the refrain, that title, in my head for about a week or so. And then, I just got the rhythm of the poem in my head. I knew what it was going to sound like, how it was going to start. It’s not complicated, the way it starts. It starts the way every single poem has started since Coleridge: you’re just sitting there, freaking out, looking at what’s right next to you. I knew it was going to be in sections. I could see the poem; I could see it happening. And I was freaking out on the plane because I just wanted to get home to write it.

I wrote for the whole weekend, and banged out most of it in just a few days. When the opportunity came, there was a lot of momentum behind it. There were a lot of ideas, emotions, thoughts, and concerns that had been in my mind for years. I used some things in the poem that had been failed poems before. I’d get to a point and realize, oh, I could use this thing from before, so I would pull it from the other poem. Sometimes I would try something like that and it wouldn’t work, but for the most part I was in the zone for a couple days.

As soon as I finished the poem, I knew that it was going to be the title of the book, the last poem in the book, and that the book would be in sections. It didn’t take me long to put it together and send it to my editor. That was after years of work and periods of not being able to write and a lot of difficulties. That one moment that was relatively focused and productive came at the end. That’s why when I write, I have to trust that I need to keep going, and it will get where it needs to go.

“When I write, I have to trust

that I need to keep going,

and it will get where it needs to go.”

What do you hope readers will take away from your book?

First of all, I hope that people are in such a frame of mind or an emotional state that they can read the poems, that they’re open in that way. I know what this world is like, and how much it resists imagining things and thinking about the space between things. I hope that my book participates in this larger force of creating a space for people to have those feelings, conflicting ideas, and emotional experiences.

I’m not trying to make people think certain ideas; if I want to do that, I’ll write an essay. That’s not the space that poems come out of for me. I don’t think that’s really what poems are for.

Who do you picture as the ideal reader of your work?

When I imagine an ideal reader, I don’t imagine necessarily a poetry enthusiast. I think about regular people. I want my poems to function for everybody. Sometimes it helps me when I’m writing to think about a particular person; it can help focus my imaginative act. I do well when I’m given a task, like writing for an event or an occasion.

Where and when do you prefer to write?

I’m pretty flexible. I don’t have a preferred time of day, and I don’t even have a preferred place. I can write anywhere if I’m in the mood. I just need to get going. Once I get going I can kind of work on the poem while I’m doing other things. At some point, I need an hour or two of serious concentration. A lot of the time I can sneak up on it, or sneak up on myself, and try to find the right thing by chipping away at it. Change a little here, change a little there to see what I can get out of it. I try to be patient. I try not to be hard on myself. Poems can go through times of just being really crappy. I try to tolerate that suckiness for as long as it lasts.

Do you listen to anything while you work?

I don’t listen to music. I find music distracting emotionally. Sometimes I listen to talk radio. I’m interested, and maybe there’s some language that comes up that I can sort of pull into the poem—in the same way that I might go to a café to be around people.

Where would you most want to live and write?

I think I need to be around people. That’s all I really need to say.

Do you have a philosophy for how and why you write?

Philosophy sounds so grandiose. I think it’s a way of being in relation to experience. I’m attracted to the making of the poems. I could come up with some reason why it’s good or right to do it, and maybe I’d even believe it, but that’s not why I do it. The reason I do it is because I feel like a productive person who’s doing what I’m supposed to do when I do it.

 “It’s a way of being in relation to experience.”

How do you balance content with form?

I think that poems are, by their very nature, formal. They are different and distinct from other types of writing in their structure. It doesn’t matter if they’re free verse or not; you look at them, you start reading it, and immediately perceive that there’s a formal difference. The thing that makes a poem a poem and not a story, essay, letter to the editor, article, whatever, is something about its structure—the way it’s built and made.

I search around for the right rhythm, form, and feeling in the poem and I will always prioritize that over content. The location of the poem, the action, the speaker, the facts of the poem—what color things are, what time of day—I will change any of that if I see the opportunity to make the music of the poem feel more true to me. You have to feel like it’s real even if it’s made up.

In Keats’s “Negative Capability” letter he says, “With a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.” I believe that if you’re writing along and suddenly the poem doesn’t feel quite right and you change something of the content of the poem, and it can be changed to be more beautiful, there’s only one responsible decision: to change it and make it more beautiful. It doesn’t matter if Mary’s hair is red instead of blue, or whatever. That being said, I’m a big believer that poems should feel real and connected with everyday life.

I recently wrote a poem where I realized once I was in the poem that I had people saying one thing, but it would be stranger, more interesting, more beautiful if they said something different. It didn’t make any difference what they’d said in real life; I wasn’t writing a memoir, I was writing a poem. There was a deeper theme to the poem that I wasn’t even going to be aware of until I let the poem go where it wanted to go, and be as beautiful as it could be. So Sarah didn’t actually say what I have her saying, the sense of it was more true, more accurate to life. Nobody cares what the fuck happened to me. So what? People care about life, meaningful things—that’s what I think poetry should make available to them.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

I tell my students that we’re all in it together. We all have to do the same stuff, which is to keep struggling and trying out things. Eventually, something catches and we have to be honest with ourselves, forgiving of ourselves, but also work really hard.

Remember that poets are part of a holy tribe. Our egotistical and individual need to be praised is not more important than the greater good of writing poems, and being part of this ancient tradition of being the self-designated lucid dreamers of society. Nobody gives a fuck who wins what prize, everybody forgets who won about five minutes later, nobody gets any money from being a poet, nobody gets any real praise, and you turn to dust just like everybody else, but along the way you get to be a poet. You get to be a member of this tribe. That’s what you get.

If you’re ready for that, you want that, and that’s your fate, then you are welcome to be part of it. Nobody can tell anybody they can’t be part of it. The dead will take care of you. You future readers will love you long after you’re gone, but you don’t get anything for being a poet now. None of that matters when you’re sitting at your desk writing a poem. You have to find a way to live like a decent person.

What’s the best advice you’ve been given as a writer?

It’s not so much what I’ve been told as what I’ve seen. I’ve been lucky enough to spend time with some really great poets. They take very seriously the fact that they’re poets in the sense that they work hard, but they don’t take themselves seriously as poets. They know that the only thing that makes them poets is that they write poems. The poems make you a poet, nothing else.

“The poems make you a poet,

nothing else.”

What do you find most challenging about writing?

I find starting poems really hard. Going from the space of what Wallace Stevens calls “the pressure of the real” into the imaginative space of the poem. It’s a difficult transition for me, and I take the beginnings of poems seriously. Once I’ve found the right way to start, then I can usually get through the poem pretty easily. It’s hard with all the things in our lives pressuring us; it’s hard to sit down to write and make the poem begin. It interests me, all the different ways people begin poems.

When you’re not writing, what do you like to do?

So many things. I like to live.

About Matthew Zapruder

Matthew Zapruder is the author of three collections of poetry. His most recent book, Come On All You Ghosts (Copper Canyon, 2010), was selected as one of the year’s top five poetry books by Publishers Weekly, as well as the 2010 Booklist Editors’ Choice for poetry, and the 2010 Northern California Independent Booksellers Association poetry book of the year. His second collection, The Pajamaist, was chosen by Tony Hoagland as the winner of the William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America, and by Library Journal as one of the top ten poetry volumes of 2006. The recipient of a 2011 Guggenheim Fellowship, he lives in San Francisco, where he is an editor at Wave Books and a member of the permanent faculty at the low-residency MFA in creative writing at University of California, Riverside Palm Desert Graduate Center.

Buy Come On All You Ghosts, or one of Zapruder’s other books, preferably at your local independent bookstore.

[Toffoli, Marissa B. “Interview With Writer Matthew Zapruder.” Words With Writers (September 25, 2011),

Come On All You Ghosts cover

Matthew Zapruder's Come On All You Ghosts (Copper Canyon Press, 2010).

  1. […] If you haven’t been to Words with Writers yet, go now! Check out the recent interview with Matthew Zapruder. […]

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