Posts Tagged ‘Zach Savich’

A Brief and Casual Self-Interview with Zach Savich

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.


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Zach Savich & Hilary Plum on Paul Killebrew’s “Ethical Consciousness”


Zach Savich: Let me start personally. Remember when my dad died? I read Ethical Consciousness shortly after. One thing grief granted me was the advent of weeping as an aesthetic response–I mean weeping in a way that isn’t linked simply to grief. Why do you think Paul’s book made me cry?


Hilary Plum: Yes, I read this book in the weeks before, while pacing the floor of your parents’ living room. At that time everyone slept on different schedules, which is to say, your sister and I sometimes slept, but you and your mother and father didn’t. I can’t answer your question, but I know what you mean. For instance, the poem “To My Enemies,” which ends, “the scene where / the technology / of society’s disenchantment / startles at the sound / of dishes crashing / across the restaurant, / only to find itself / in the gaze / of racialized desire.” Those last lines have been in my head for months: it’s their motion, which I can’t explain and which keeps presenting itself to me as possible explanation for a dizzying range of phenomena.


At the time I tried to say something to you of sentences that suggest, that create, (that intone?), an emotion or quality of thought, even as one could not parse their syntax to find that emotion or thought within, or could not parse their syntax, properly, at all. Since I already knew something about Frost, you tried to explain to me John Ashbery. Tell me more about this? Or, another way to ask a different question (“only to find itself / in the gaze”), if emotion can rise like a ghost out of syntax (is this tone?), can an “ethical consciousness” do the same, and what should we call this?


ZS: I love you for suggesting that to “intone” can mean to evoke or incite tone (rather than corresponding to a particular tone, an intoning tone). When I finished crying, I thought, “People will read this book and think of Ashbery and Schuyler. But only as much as they always should.” Schuyler because of the short lines, at once tense and poised, exacting in their depiction, but also conjuring the complementary absence of a surrounding context from which the depiction was exacted, which one can feel as loss (“Two street lights / pulsed orange / flowers through / a dull fog”). Ashbery because of the attentive drift of syntax, ruminative, so epistemology spins from the casually authoritative musing of phrases, often around a general yet intimate “you.” Take a sentence like this: “Could you also / pass through entirely, or is that / one of those / axiomatic falsehoods / upon which so / little of existence / finds any footing and / that yet / persists?” The tender persisting reminds me of Ashbery, as does the creation of tone (is this what I was trying to say about Frost/Ashbery?) through sentence patterns that amount to half of meaning (“Could you x or is that y upon which z…”—a good Mad Lib!).


I suppose that, as a pattern of thought and thus of behavior (if only the behavior of language), this kind of syntax could suggest a form of “ethical consciousness,” not only in its meditative concern, but in its phrasing alone, a posture akin to the postures through which one is “ethical” (a judge’s reflective slouch, a protestor’s raised hand)? Let’s return to firmer ground. In this book, “ethical consciousness” also crops up overtly—through what we could call thought experiments into the nature of the self and its relationships with varied sorts of society. The virtuosic long poem at the end of the book, “Muted Flags,” has one of my favorite examples of this, when its narrator realizes that “it seemed likely” that people around the world happen to say some of the same words at the same time, which forms “an incidental choir” that also accrues into a kind of lovely, collective exquisite corpse. There’s an app that tracks this? Soon enough. If you were making other apps inspired by Ethical Consciousness, what would they do?


HP: You know very well that I have never seen an app. Or, in the words of Killebrew’s “Blind Preference”: “You / are like a ditch / feeding itself / to the lawn, / a regular guy / making his way / through the ocean. / States are built on / promises like you.” By you, I think I mean I. And this inability to distinguish ourselves from our interlocutors, to tell our speech from the incidental choir’s, is another chord that “Muted Flags” makes resound. I want to splice these thoughts together to make a proposition like this: it is the “tender” persistence of the I amid the looming absence of surrounding context—note here, now, the soft threat of loss—that allows or demands our ethical consciousness. Like the scene in “Muted Flags,” in which the speaker—an I whose identity permutes, or loses and finds itself while still speaking, throughout the poem—is mugged and says of his mugger:


I must have
looked at him
so strangely,
not, as he might
have expected, shocked
or frightened, but
as if I’d
just walked out of 
a dark theater
into the daylight,
and he were
soliciting strangers
for bit parts
in the inevitable
apocalypse.


Here even the theater won’t stay put; we can’t say when we are and aren’t in it. The speaker has twenty bucks and splits it with the mugger, who waits for him faithfully when he goes to make change. And so you and I float on, and later in the poem, in a leap that gives me a joy I also cannot explain, the speaker abruptly addresses “your recently successful / run for Congress. / Or, more precisely, your sudden disappearance / as a recognizable self / during the campaign.” This Ashbery-ish attentive syntactical drift, which in Killebrew becomes a breeziness of understated intelligence—aren’t we all regular guys? is this not the ocean?—is a means continually to implicate everyone on any side of this speech. We’re caught, unsure if we’re accuser or accused. So that lines like “States are built on / promises like you” both affirm and condemn us. Maybe another way to say this is that I become momentarily aware of the posture of ethics as posture: as we raise a hand, prosecutorial, righteousness blooms then fades and speech tumbles on: “All / we have seen / is fifteen feet / of road, and yet, / here we are, / the Treaty of Versailles.” If there could be an app this self-aware, one of these days in some poem Killebrew will simultaneously design, critique, and dissolve it, as he does with other conceptual art projects others would be thrilled just to dream up (e.g., the excerpt from his new “Negro Yachtsmen I Have Known,” just published on Thermos). But given all this, what makes Ethical Consciousness so funny?


ZS: Probably the same quality that has caused me, in the year I have known Paul outside of admiring his books, to present him with the following gifts: a set of Alf trading cards, a pair of spy glasses (with mirrors to let you see behind you), a bottle of bourbon chosen for the rad eagle on it. In the book, there are several kinds of humor, many of them played straight (that is, no pause for a laugh track):


a) There’s the humor that emerges from the kind of intricately whimsical concepts you mention. In “Experiment,” for example, the speaker of the poem—let’s call him Paul Killebrew—tries to pass through a wall  by tuning “the particles / in my body / to align / with the empty / spaces between / the particles / of the wall.” This is stoner science presented soberly, as though any such experiment will, even in failing, reveal something about the nature of the world, and so it does. 


b) There’s the humor of one-liners, often tinged with pseudo-profundity, foregrounding not just the punchline but the point of view of one who takes the joke seriously. Like the start of the first poem in the book: “My disease, if I / have one, is life / in its entirety.” Which is both funny and not at all. Or the start of “Deliveries,” in which a few one-liners stack up: “Does the vacuum cleaner / mind / that it’s in the lake? / What am I today, the news?”


c) There’s the humor of discombobulation. Which can come from gentle blips in expected or conventional usage (“The dominant / palette was / 1961”; “Now everyone has his eye”) or from larger deviations (the end of “Actually Present,” e.g., which goes “Something / something something, something / something something”). In that poem, and others, this perspective can turn the represented world into geometrical configurations that recall the unfinished landscapes at the edges of video games; thought becomes similarly configured, programmatic and disoriented (“but I wanted to rearrange thin bars of thought / into a ladder-like system of total devotion”; “I lived mostly as a walk / through frozen iterations of a neighborhood”). Still attentive, but trippily so. So that “flecks of consciousness / bending along / contours of the soul” reveal “never more surface, / just more tension / as the surface / spreads.” That isn’t funny, exactly. But it tilts your head like a joke might be in the works. But then the set-up continues past the point of any bada bing… 


One could go on. Another type—or related aspect—of humor in the book is a kind of exuberant glee that is present in even moments of graver reflection (“Just simmer down, silverware,” begins “Teach Me to Box”). I think this glee is similar to the fabulous painting by David Rathman on the book’s front and back covers. It’s worth mentioning that while you and I were living in a place in which we were lonely, I often enjoyed watching this video of a Neil Young performance. My theory was that everyone we knew and missed had a corresponding avatar in the crowd shots, so watching the video was a way to hang out with them. This cover is a lot like that, and perhaps humor in the book is, too, offering a way of looking that reorients things, and then extends beyond comedy. Or emerges from a kind of—should I call it sadness?—emotional need that makes the concepts, the one-liners, the discombobulations feel necessary.


HP: They do feel necessary, and beyond comedy, so that I laugh when I’m reading but not when I’m remembering. Because—and this too is a quality these poems’ share with the best comedy—there is a way (tilt your head and you’ll see it) that these poems are indictments and the charges serious. I don’t mean that this is their sole or lasting function. But it is a function: gleefully, amiably enough, we indict and are indicted by ourselves. But who’s we, who is in these poems? I agree with you and Neil that it may be everybody. I wish I could say how Killebrew does this, how diverse speech acts, welcomed into this intimate, tricksy voice, become diverse people, people who then encounter each other in a society as troubling as the one we live in. What I mean is something like: “the implacable now / takes me back inside / the government compound, enveloped / by its pressed brown gravel and humorless / architecture, an architecture that anticipates me / like a fact anticipates being buried.” Or that I too am waiting “for someone to stand up and insist that I, / for all my faults, am really just a compendium, / not blameless, exactly, but also not worth calculating, / past the decimal” (from “For David Park”). 


Really all I’m saying is that I’ve been living in these poems since last winter when I first read them, and I think you’re in there too. And I want to live in his new work, which—we’re in luck—Thermos published yesterday. Meet me there?


PXP 2013: Schedule of Events

THERMOS’s editors will all be in New Orleans Nov. 7-9 to host the second annual Poetry Exchange Project Symposium at Tulane University and at other locations in the city. All events are free and open to the public. If you’re in the area, please stop by. — AS



Friday, Nov. 8 (Tulane campus, St. Charles Ave. side)


11:30am: PXP presentations, Norman Mayer Hall, Rm. 125
            Students from Tulane, University of Georgia, and University of the Arts deliver
            presentations of completed PXP projects.


1:00 pm: Panel A: Poetry Beyond the Classroom (Norman Mayer Hall, Rm. 200B)
            Moderator: Dan Rosenberg
            Panelists: Nik De Dominic, Melissa Dickey, Anne Marie Rooney, Jay Thompson
1:00 pm: Panel B: Poetic Lineage (Norman Mayer Hall, Rm. 125)
            Moderator: Andy Stallings
            Panelists: Peter Cooley, Robert Fernandez, Carolyn Hembree, Laura Walker


2:00 pm: Panel C: The Life of Contemporary Poetry (Norman Mayer Hall, Rm. 200B)
            Moderator: Zach Savich
            Panelists: Matt Hart, Mary Hickman, Paul Killebrew, Teresa Villa-Ignacio

 

3:30 pm: Ian Zelazny Memorial All-City Student Reading (Norman Mayer Hall Rm. 200B)
            25-30 students from schools and universities around the city and region read poems.


6:00 pm: PXP Keynote Reading (Rogers Memorial Chapel)
            Robert Fernandez, Matt Hart, Mary Hickman, Paul Killebrew, Anne Marie Rooney and Laura
            Walker read new poetry.


9:30 pm: Party and Concert (2433 St. Claude Ave., Entrance on Music St., byob)
            Students and symposium participants are all invited!



Saturday, Nov. 9 (Buddhist Community Center, 623 N. Rendon St.)


12:00 pm: Hunter Deely Memorial Reading
            Brief readings by Carroll Beauvais, Megan Burns, Carrie Chappell, Peter Cooley, Nik De
            Dominic, Melissa Dickey, Cassandra Donish, Maia Elgin, Rebecca Morgan Frank,
            Elizabeth Gross, Michael Jeffrey Lee, Kay Murphy, Brad Richard, Dan Rosenberg,
            Zach Savich, Shelly Taylor, Jay Thompson, Afton Wilky, Mark Yakich