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Matthew Zapruder: Confessions of a Secret Formalist


Both poets, editors and ghazal aficionados, Matthew Zapruder and Rob Winger first met at the Vancouver 125 Poetry Conference in fall 2011; the conversation continues in the pages of Arc 68 and here, on, Zapruder and Winger wax formal and (song) lyrical.


Matthew Zapruder: One of my teachers when I was a graduate student at UMass, the inimitable late Agha Shahid Ali, is primarily responsible for the resurgence of the ghazal (in its true form, a poem in couplets, with lines that all end with the same sound phrase, and include the mention of the poet’s name in the penultimate line) in American poetry. What was it about that form that intrigued you, and what do you think is its relationship to negative capability?


Rob Winger: Uh oh—my interview of you is turning into your interview of me! Agha Shahid Ali’s work on what he calls “real ghazals in English” helped me to understand a lot about the traditional form. I especially appreciate his disgust with those who say they’re writing ghazals without really having any idea of the form’s history or cultural roots. But Ali and I are also interested in what I think are pretty different versions of the form.

When the ghazal was first introduced into mainstream North American poetry in the late 1960s by Aijaz Ahmed, Adrienne Rich, W.S. Merwin and others in their translations of Ghalib, after all, it became something else, where the old rules of the “real” ghazal, which were steeped in an Islamic culture that didn’t translate well into 1960s American counter-culture, were sort of abandoned. The result, I think, was that Rich and company created a new form that remained stringent, precise, and considered, but that didn’t obey the old “rules” that Ali found essential to the form (and, I should mention, Ali never thought that these new kinds of poems counted as ghazals at all).

I originally discovered ghazals via another source, the English-Canadian poet John Thompson’s book Stilt Jack, which was the first to introduce the form in Canada. In his introduction to the book, Thompson talks about the kind of poetic leaping you’ve mentioned. “There is, it seems to me, in the ghazal, something of the essence of poetry,” he writes, “not the relinquishing of the rational, not the abuse of order, not the destruction of form, not the praise of the private hallucination. The ghazal allows the imagination to move by its own nature: discovering an alien design, illogical and without sense—a chart of the disorderly, against false reason and the tacking together of poor narratives. It is the poem of contrasts, dreams, astonishing leaps.”

The idea that a form could be illogical and nonsensical but still lyric rather than linguistically avant-garde seemed like a magic elixir to me at the time.


MZ: I can imagine someone who writes in a lot of forms might (if they are still reading this) be thinking, these two bozos are reinventing the wheel. Everyone who writes in forms knows that the greatest benefit of writing in forms is the creation of a complicated, unpredictable collision of the requirements of the form and the impulses of the poet. This situation creates the unexpected music that must be taken into account, responded to, etc., in a continual system that extends the poem. And that is what helps the poet get outside of her- or himself, and write the things she or he never expected.

When I first started writing poems, I systematically wrote my way through all the traditional forms. I felt I should train myself, and get to know the “basics” of poetry. I spent about a year or so (when I was at Berkeley) doing that, and I’m glad I did, because it taught me a lot about poetry, and because it also helped me to understand that writing in those traditional forms was not going to lead me to be the kind of writer I wanted to be.

However, I am a big believer in bringing the same (let’s call it) “outside force” that forms can create in poetry into free verse as well. This is why I use a lot of process-based, formal structures to begin writing my poems. For example, I might choose a list of words (based on their attractiveness to me, for reasons I cannot explain) and require myself to write a poem where I use them all in the arbitrary order in which they appear on my list. Or I might require of myself a particular process, like going outside for five minutes and writing down everything that is a certain colour that I see, and then using those lines in the poem. Of course in the so-called “revision” process I will most likely end up changing or moving those things around, which I guess is the difference between me and a sonneteer or a dedicated rhymer. But I think of myself as a secret formalist.


RW: I think that’s probably true for most of us if we really think about it, especially since people tend to forget that even the freest of free verse is a formal choice that has rules, even if they’re as simple as telling yourself not to rhyme or use meter or whatever. What about music, as in guitars-and-drums music? Do you still play? Does that creep into your writing somewhere?


MZ: I do play music. But I’m not sure it really affects my writing that much. Most of the recording I have done has been as a lead guitarist (mainly for a band called The Figments, as well as on records by Mark Mulcahy and others). I have worked with a couple of brilliant songwriters, and developed a great respect for that craft, as well as a conviction that poetry and songwriting are different genres. My brother is also a fantastic songwriter and composer. He just released a recording of twenty-two poems by contemporary poets set to music, called “Pink Thunder.” Those sorts of things usually don’t work out too well, but his compositions are amazing, thoughtful, respectful of the poem, playful, and (this is extremely important) through-composed, which means that the poem is sung straight through, without turning any of it into an artificial “chorus” or refrain or whatever, which is most often where poems set to music go wrong.


RW: It’s funny, too, that these things tend not to work in reverse either, as in someone reciting, without music, the lyrics to a song someone else wrote. Are there any musicians out there that you consider to be fine poets?


MZ: If we are talking about songwriters who are also poets, and not songwriters whose lyrics are amazing (and there are so many), then I would have to put at the top of the list David Berman, whose songs are terrific and whose book of poems Actual Air is a classic. I am really hoping he publishes another one. Joe Pernice, who now lives in Canada, is a really good poet, though he has most recently published a novel. Leonard Cohen of course started out as a poet, and is a good one, though in my personal opinion his songs are so elementally and inarguably essential that it is hard even for his best poems to measure up to them. I am totally just speculating, but I bet Neko Case writes poetry. And I’m sure there are many more.

I think it’s hard to do both, though, because they really do require activating similar parts of your brain or imagination or whatever that are also fundamentally different, in a subtle way. So keeping those things separate would take a very particular mind.

I have written just a couple of songs that I would consider good; they have some aspects of good poems, but they also come from a different place. In theory, a song lyric taken out of its musical context could function as a poem, but that would almost be a coincidence, in the same way that there are passages of novels you could remove from their context and put line breaks into and then call poems. In a very obvious way, in a song, the words are leaning on the emotional information of the music, and vice versa, which is just not something that poetry does. Song lyrics take place in the context of musical information; poetry always takes place in the context of silence.


Rob Winger is the author of the poetry collections Muybridge’s Horse and The Chimney Stone. He was Arc‘s 2012 – 2012 Poet in Residence.

Want more figments of Zapruder? The other half of the interview will delect you in Arc 68: summer 2012.