Thermos editor Zach Savich’s fourth book of poetry, Century Swept Brutal, will soon be released from Black Ocean Press. For the next week, the book is available at a discount via this link. Below, Zach talks to himself about the book, illness, death, friendship, marriage, and NPR.
Where could I even have written Century Swept Brutal?
David Bartone rented our cabin in New Hampshire, on a lake. Maybe you know David and/or know that his fantastic first book, Practice on Mountains, recently came out from Ahsahta, winner of the Sawtooth Prize. Although David wrote Mountains before we were at the lake, I like to think he finished it there, while I wrote most of the first draft of Century Swept Brutal. Consider: in some ways David is better at being places than I am. During our stay, I went for one run, one bicycle ride, and one excursion to town; otherwise, I stared at the lake and wrote. David climbed several mountains, swam with vagabonds, met hitchhikers, caught fish, etc. He also bought a horribly loud Casio. Good sunsets, a grill. We read Gustaf Sobin and John Taggart and Alice Notley and James Wright. One night we borrowed a rowboat and entered the lake using fragile branches for oars. We made it back, after a fashion, and so I dedicated my book to him.
I wrote its final section in the San Juan Islands during Jay and Cait’s wedding. If you’ve been there, you might recognize a certain kind of flower that, if you forgot your glasses, appears to be made of a single, circular poem, I mean petal; or else you can find it in my book. I offer that flower, or poem, to Cait and Jay. This was when we stayed in the little house owned by Cassie’s aunt, which Cassie and Jay and Melissa and Andy and I had stayed in about a decade before, being poets.
I wrote the book’s first section in Maryland, when my father first had cancer again, a year or so before he died. He saw me read poems in public one time, at a college near my parents’ house. I was excited, revved up, and spoke incredibly quickly during the reading. I worried afterward that I had spoken too incredibly quickly. He said, “It wasn’t too fast for me.”
I think he’d rather be alive again for a few minutes and talk incredibly quickly with any of us than read an elegy. If I say the first section of this book is “instead of elegy” I don’t mean “instead” is any kind of avoidance.
What are my further thoughts concerning this book and the death of my father?
Several. For example, in the first weeks of his final dying, we read the poignant texts. And then, being so caught up in daily poignancy, its bodily flagging, we turned to texts of comedy, absurdity, joy. Beckett understood. You shit your diaper or take a drug or lament our mortal fate or shift your grotesque swellings and go on reading. It was just like getting an MFA.
I wondered what books would we have needed—after poignancy, after absurdity—if he had lived another month.
And then I found one, after doing a reading in Virginia, in a beautiful apartment I could have stayed in for another life: there was Donald Revell’s Tantivy by the bed. I have since found others.
I needed this information three months after he died, when I was diagnosed with the same cancer. I’ve lived. Much remains complex. I am grateful.
He was 60. I was 30, the year he’d been when I was born. A kind of perfect math.
More about this can be said, another time. For now: I’m remembering everyone who ever, knowing nothing about me, said that my interest in interesting literature would wither once I’d suffered more. As though experience erodes discernment, and weariness is a noble aesthetic, is wisdom. Now, having officially suffered more, being daily more weary than at any of my previous weariest moments, I can confirm that I want even more from writing and art. I am happy to find it. I hope this book stands to that. To both the want and the happiness and the want.
Finally, I’ll note my joy at finding that this book, Century Swept Brutal, written when my father was only first dying, written before my diagnosis, has lines that have offered me more after those experiences. “The dying dog could barely walk but lunged / like nothing had happened,” I wrote. It’s true.
What else can one say about a book of poetry, like if I was on NPR?
When I said I wrote Century Swept Brutal staring at the lake, I lied. I wrote some of it that way, but I wrote most of it at a McDonald’s nearby, drinking McDonald’s coffee, eavesdropping, looking across a parking lot at a Walmart. My writing required a professional setting, David said, and he’d know—he used to work at McDonald’s. When I submitted the book to Black Ocean, I had the idea that it was about that kind of interstitial landscape, of sprawl, that I’ve known in Coralville, IA, and Lacey, WA, and Hadley, MA, and throughout MD and PA and so forth. Not quite of any region, and yet, one must conclude (because of heavy usage patterns), also intently expressive of each region. Places made of passing through, outside most stories one would tell about one’s life, and yet—here’s a life. Purgatorial, which is another mode, and also not. I wanted to sit there, be comparable to the harmonic hum sometimes achieved by the air conditioner. Thinking of everyone hearing such a tone—is that sound less present than the passing-through place itself, even less a part of consciousness/official experience? But now I think the book is less of those places, more of the harmonic ping.
I also said I imagined that these poems, more than others I have written, were written for my friends who do not read poetry but are hip to other arts. I am grateful to Black Ocean, as for so many things, for understanding or overlooking whatever I meant by that. I hope it is true, but, clearly, it must be a matter of spirit within the poems, not of any concessions to preemptive, condescending weariness, or trying for a type of communication other than the type I believe poems are best at giving (that only poems can offer, and so should). I have written elsewhere about how offensive I find it when people talk about writing poems for “the people” as though “the people” can’t read; they really mean they are writing poems that justify their own impoverished imaginations, their own uninteresting relationships to language. When anyone who has worked with children or whatever population knows anybody can discuss the strangest art and also remember it.
At another point I thought that this book, compared to my other books, was equivalent to The Muppet Show, but with crystals in place of puppets. I love how, in the early seasons of The Muppet Show, the Muppets are all played by poets and are fairly grungy. But I trust them.
Beautiful to have lost anxiety about intelligence, its calculated remainders. If I say I believe in Poetry, now, more than in poetry, I understand myself; whereas in the past I would have been suspicious. I have read as much as possible for long enough not to mind.
At another point I said that this book re-applied my earliest poetic influences, poets of the Pacific Northwest, my formative home, many first found in Copper Canyon’s excellent anthology The Gift of Tongues, which was my gateway. A mood of mists and ponderous passivity that I think has something to it, but that I wanted to approach without its (to my ears, now, when I remember the poetry scene in Olympia, WA, in the 1990s) elements of self-satisfaction, self-mythologizing, simple-mindedness, suspicion of modernity, indulgences…instead supplying my own indulgences.
Hilary, my wife, was at the lake, as well. We would be married in a few months, standing in the Fort River outside Amherst, MA, our friends reading poems from the bank. David read a wedding poem that was published in the latest jubilat, Pam read, Kyle read a poem about watching us do pilates in Jeff’s old room just that morning, we swam, and then we went to Jensen’s going away party. Paid the justice of the peace with the proceeds of a scrapped car: a kind of perfect math. There’s at least one day a week I can’t sleep for the luck of it, astonished at how much better life can be than I would have known to imagine, I say this still healing, I say this grieving, I say this pained. But before that, on our way home from New Hampshire, we stopped at an Indian restaurant in, let’s say, Concord. It reminded me of this Indian restaurant I went to once (alone, with a book of poems) in Seattle, a decade earlier. Where, in my memory, I found a large metal staple in my curry. And I pulled it out, set it on the napkin, and continued eating, paid, tipped, left. I don’t think I was proud or thrilled at the adventure of finding a staple in my curry or that I enjoyed witnessing myself being the type of person who found one, did that. Rather, I think I found it, ate, paid, tipped, left. I remember also that the sauce was fairly salty. Could a poem be such a meal.
The book is in interwoven sections, each a distinct sequence.
Themes include: water, the senses.
Two sections are written in a form of dialogue between a “he” and a “she” that may be of particular interest.
What about the publishing side of things?
People sometimes worry about what will happen with publishing. Don’t worry. Black Ocean is happening with publishing.
Anything else I want to say?
When I was sickest with and after my cancer, I had many friends—poets, many of them—who offered to do anything they could to help, and they meant it. Many would have left their lives and come to where we lived and done anything. Many more whom I know, and probably many I don’t, would have also, had we asked, and many, many more said things (knowing my state or not) that meant a world. Let’s yawn at those who clearly write mostly from an anxious hope for prestige or a particular success or hoping to replicate parts of celebrity culture and media cycle and commerical renown that don’t matter, that aren’t what any intelligent fourteen-year-old or cancerous person or ardent reader of Sobin and Taggart and Notley could care about, and let’s yawn at those who say that’s all contemporary writing is. I have a thousand friends who prove that what we are doing is advancing better values, in complicating opposition, or caring, in art.
I’m sorry that I couldn’t always reply when you wrote or called. I hope to call you or help some way if you are ever in similar days. Because it meant a world to come to and hear your messages. If this new book can say thanks for that, I hope it will, or I hope I will.