Matthew Zapruder | February 2015
Last fall at the MFA in Creative Writing at Saint Mary’s College in the Bay Area, I taught a craft course called Everyday Creativity. It was about dailiness, and everydayness, both as a subject for poetry, and a process of writing it. Form, process, and regular practice were a big part of it, as was the idea of being open to language and experience not usually considered “poetic” as part of poetry. This is a familiar concept in American poetry, reminding us of the good doctor William Carlos Williams, who famously wrote the beginnings of his poems on scraps of paper and receipts as he drove around New Jersey at all hours of the day and night, on his way to and from delivering babies.
But really, of course, the idea that the daily can, through the very act of inclusion in the poem, become charged and mystical, goes in American poetry at least all the way back to Dickinson and Whitman. Retrospectively the things those two wrote about seem to us poetic now. But at the time, dogs, grass, workers, life in taverns and in kitchens, humblebees, scientific and economic and political language, and all the words that come out of thinking about these daily parts of both of their lives, were not necessarily considered “poetic.” A deliberate version of this effort to make the everyday “poetic” of course was Neruda’s project in writing his great odes: he wanted to, and did, reanimate and charge with the symbolic the most regular of all human behaviors and objects that surround us. The New York School poets were excited as well by this possibility, and the poets that studied and followed them (Berrigan, Notley, Mayer, Padgett, Myles, etc.) took these ideas about everyday life and the poetic and pushed them even further, with various and often glorious results that continue to this day in their work and the work of those who follow them.
Last semester my students read and wrote in response to poems that engage, in their process and form and subject matter, in all sorts of ways with dailiness. They wrote new poems every week, but without showing them to anyone. They also engaged in a daily creative practice. There were some particularities to all of this that I am not going to share here, it seems private to our particular work. We were trying to get haunted, and still are, and there’s only so much you can say about that and still have it happen. We had one of those special classes going, one where each student seemed charged with a private mandate to do what was necessary to take their poetry to the next level. I was mostly there to hand them poems that they might not otherwise read, and to help shape the discussions in class that will lead to further individual work. But really, they did all the real work, the work of making the new poems.
In addition to this class, they were also in workshop with my brilliant colleague Brenda Hillman. I am a believer in poetry workshops, my own experience with them was formative, for better and of course for worse, which was also necessary. But I am quite sure that in addition to the necessary public nature of a workshop, showing work to peers and to a teacher and seeing how it is when read and discussed by other readers, it’s also essential as a writer always to have some focus purely on process and the private nature of writing.
In our lives today (he says climbing gingerly up on a soap box, whatever that is), as we all know almost everything can easily become immediately public. This is true for philandering politicians, for public figures who have an inexplicable and unfortunate propensity to not only photograph themselves in the nude but to text it, and for regular non-famous people as well. And it’s true of course for writers. Writers (even poets!) are told they need to have a “platform,” to have lots of “friends” and “followers,” to “build their brand.” Everyone is always “sharing” everything and saying how we need to IMMEDIATELY read this BRILLIANT new work. It’s basically sweet when this sharing is of the poems of friends. But also kind of awful, all this sharing, however well meant, because it is contributing to the very noise through which we have to shout ever louder to get the things we care about seen and heard and read. And the shouting itself is antithetical to a way of thinking, and being, that we so desperately need. Terribly, it all makes sense, and probably all this noise is just an unfortunate consequence of being alive in the 21st century at the heart of global capitalism.
When I think about being a young poet twenty years ago, mostly now I remember how quiet it was. There was the Internet, but no real website yet. No social media, and email was pretty clunky. We still used landlines, and even the mailbox. It took a while for anything to get anywhere, and there was a lot of waiting, which was really not-knowing, but it didn’t feel like waiting to us, it felt like just being alive. Of course that’s gone, probably in the end for the better, but even if not, it doesn’t matter. When I first started being a public poet, that is publishing, it was right at the time all those things were changing, so I felt them change along with me, and noticed, it wasn’t just the air I was breathing the whole time. So many great things have happened to poets because of all this speed of communication and availability of everything, but all this knowing has, unavoidably, taken something away from us, too.
I feel one meaningful thing I can do as a teacher is to give my graduate students a distilled echo of that not-knowing and not-saying time, a little bit of space/time to be poets privately, to truly experiment, to fail better, to despair and hope in their own space, physically and mentally. Which is why in the future I will keep teaching this class, tweaking and adjusting it to make it hopefully more conducive to the poetic necessities of these young poets. I guess I think that the extent to which one does this every day, or as close to it as possible, is the extent to which one will be a writer one’s whole life, through whatever circumstances come. If that’s something I could teach, or even just raise as a real issue, then I feel like I will have been doing my job.
Matthew Zapruder is the author of four collections of poetry, most recently Come On All You Ghosts, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and Sun Bear, Copper Canyon 2014. Why Poetry, a book of prose, is forthcoming from Ecco Press in 2015. He 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. An Associate Professor in the St. Mary's College of California MFA program and English Department, he is also Editor at Large at Wave Books. He lives in Oakland, CA.