Matthew Zapruder: Revising a Poem is Like Revising Your Life
In Conversation with Brad Listi on Otherppl
Matthew Zapruder is the guest. His new memoir, Story of a Poem, is out now from Unnamed Press.
Subscribe and download the episode, wherever you get your podcasts!
From the episode:
Brad Listi: I was reading about the point at which you arrived at an understanding of what Story of a Poem is ultimately about. I think that’s often a process for people who are working on any book-length project: you’re working your way to an understanding of what it is you’re up to.
And you said that this book—and it made a lot of sense to me when I read it—is about “changing and revising my life and a poem.” That’s it. That’s the elegant one-liner. It catches it all, but it takes so long to get to that elegant one-liner.
Matthew Zapruder: Yeah. I had an instinct about this book, and it was very different. You mentioned Why Poetry—that was a book that began with a particular sort of motivation. I was like, can I explain poetry to people who are interested but feel shut out of it somehow? What would happen if I took on that task seriously? So it almost began from the outside in. It was like, I have a thing I want to do, let’s see if I can do it.
And then this book is the opposite. It comes from the inside out, in a way. It came from an inchoate, almost vegetal, being drawn towards an idea that there’s something here I need to figure out, so I’m just going to start writing every day and put it down and put it down and sort it out later.
So it did take me a long time to know what I was trying to do with this book. And along the way, at times I wasn’t even sure that it was a book. Maybe it was just writing to get to something else. I didn’t know.
Brad Listi: I think I read you were writing every day, and you were exchanging pages with a friend, right?
Matthew Zapruder : Yeah. So Catherine Barnett is a poet who lives in New York, and I agreed to send each other 500 words a day minimum. Just each day, every day. And the only way we were supposed to respond to each other was to say thank you. It’s not workshopping, it wasn’t evaluative. The only task was to sit down each day.
And it became this incredibly pleasurable act. I just loved it. I was joking with someone the other day—it was like when you start exercising or meditating, and you’re like, oh my god, this is the best thing ever, I’m never going to stop. And then of course you do. Maybe you don’t, but I do. When you’re in that thing, you’re like, why don’t I always live this way? Why don’t I always cook at home? No more takeout!
That process lasted four or five months of daily writing like that. And I loved doing it. I would write about whatever was on my mind, and it ended up being about 125,000 words at the end, just this huge pile of stuff. And then I had to go in and be like, what is this?
I did have the idea of starting a very rough draft of a poem and writing through it to see what would happen. That was something I kept touching on during those months. So I had a little bit of a thing I was trying to do, but other than that, I had no idea. And I also knew that I needed to write about some things that were difficult in my personal life and just the difficult time we were in. So I just threw myself in.
Brad Listi: I was going to ask you, because this book is obviously about poetry and there is, as we’ve been discussing, the craft element, but it’s also a very personal book about parenthood, and in particular, what it means to be the parent of a neurodivergent child, and all of the fear and anxiety and heartbreak and crushing love that happens to a person, as I well know, when your child is atypical. So you had that on your mind clearly, and you knew you were going to write about it.
Matthew Zapruder: Yeah, I think I had the instinct, the feeling. I knew there was something in me that needed to change. I’m a big fan of therapy, I’m a big fan of talking with friends and meditating, all those things. But I also knew that I had to write my way through it. I just had an instinct, and I didn’t know if I was right, that there was something about writing the arc of a single poem and understanding my own life better that were connected.
I didn’t know how or why or how that was going to work out, but I just thought that feels right to me. And I just knew the only way to figure it out was to do it. And if I was wrong, well then I would have just written for months and something else would happen. The very vague idea that there was a connection and something to learn and something to change in myself and also in a poem, and that those things were related—that vague idea was inside me. And the only way to pursue it was just to write my way into it.
Matthew Zapruder is the author of five collections of poetry, including Come On All You Ghosts, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and Father’s Day (Copper Canyon, 2019), as well as Why Poetry, a book of prose. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he teaches in the MFA in Creative Writing at Saint Mary’s College of California. Zapruder has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, a William Carlos Williams Award, a May Sarton Award from the Academy of American Arts and Sciences, and a Lannan Foundation Residency Fellowship in Marfa, TX. His poetry has been adapted and performed at Carnegie Hall by Composer Gabriel Kahane and Brooklyn Rider, and was the libretto for “Vespers for a New Dark Age”, a piece by composer Missy Mazzoli commissioned by Carnegie Hall for the 2014 Ecstatic Music Festival. In 2000, he co-founded Verse Press, and is now editor at large at Wave Books, where he edits contemporary poetry, prose, and translations. He was the founding Director of the Bagley Wright Lecture Series. From 2016-17 he held the annually rotating position of Editor of the Poetry Column for the New York Times Magazine and Guest Editor of Best American Poetry 2022.