Life Imitates Art

In Story of a Poem, Matthew Zapruder gets at the heart of everything.

story of a poem, matthew zapruder, memoir, poetry
b.a. van sise

Matthew Zapruder’s second book of prose, Story of a Poem, interweaves craft and memoir, poetry and essay, to make something that defies form and genre…or better yet, reimagines them. Relying, for a spine, on the process of creating a single poem, the book features drafts and critical commentary as a way of opening to a deeper, more elusive narrative: the author’s experience as the father of a neurodivergent son. It’s not the first time Zapruder has approached such material; it emerged in his 2019 collection of poetry, Father’s Day. In that sense, Story of a Poem is a book in conversation—with itself, of course, but also with the whole of Zapruder’s writing, which is remarkable for its sense of movement and discovery.

Zapruder and I are old friends; we have been talking about life and literature for many years. Recently, we corresponded over email about Story of a Poem; the poet’s first book of prose, Why Poetry; and the overlapping and related questions that emerge throughout his work.

Story of a Poem begins in third person before shifting, for the most part, to first. Can you talk about the decision to start that way?
People who read early versions of the book found it very confusing without some kind of introduction. So I knew I needed to set up the premise: that I was going to start writing a poem from a first draft and write about that process, and my life. I tried to write that preface so many different ways, each uniquely terrible. But I could not figure out how to explain what it was I was going to do that was not either pompous on the one hand or too personal and obscure on the other. I wrote at least 20 different versions of the introduction, each worse than the last. In despair, I remembered I had gone to a craft talk by the novelist and memoirist Rachel Howard where she said that every story begins with “once upon a time,” even if that is most of the time just implied. So I thought, OK, I’ll just write that down and see what happens. When I did, I finished in third person. Once I wrote that, everything came with ease. I wasn’t sure whether it would feel off-putting or odd, but it was clear this was the only way I could write a preface to this very personal book. Also, pronouns are a big subject of the book, so putting that issue right up front made sense.

Much of this book involves your relationship with your son, which recalls your father’s presence in Why Poetry.
Why Poetry, which I finished in 2016, turned out to be unintentionally memoiristic. I didn’t set out to make it that way, but as I wrote, it became clear that there were some ideas about poetry I could only explain by giving context in my life. This surprised me. For temperamental reasons, I am resistant to foregrounding myself and my experiences. Also, I realized I had to write, in Why Poetry, about the death of my father, which had informed a lot of earlier poems. Even after the poems, something about his loss still felt unresolved. Why Poetry ends with an afterword about the 2016 election, so it is anchored in time. The next book, Father’s Day, ends with a prose piece about parenting a neurodivergent child and is a bridge to Story of a Poem. I think of these three books as an unplanned autobiographical arc. I never would have thought that was the sort of writer I would be, but it turns out I am.

You confess to having trouble with your son’s diagnosis. It’s moving to see a writer be so open in this way.
I started writing what became Story of a Poem in 2018. I didn’t know what it would be. I wrote every day, back and forth with my friend Catherine Barnett, for many months. I tried to write about whatever was going on in my life, or what I was thinking about, without judgment. A lot of the writing was raw and emotional. Some of it was about poetry, or literature. Sometimes I would write about daily stuff, a thousand words on some domestic task. I loved writing every day. And I kept writing this single poem, and coming back to it, and writing about writing it. I was really struggling with my kid not being neurotypical, and I thought, The only thing I can do is to try to write through it. The book started out being a project of seeing what would happen with writing a poem, but I also had the sense that this was intertwined with trying to grow and change as a person in necessary ways. And just as I was led forward in my writing by a deep, intuitive sense of connection to certain lines or images or moments in the poem, I was also led forward in my life by my love of my son. So the book was an attempt to figure out what that connection was, between life and writing, and how to grow and change.

At one point, you reframe Auden’s line about poetry making nothing happen through the lens of making nothing happen, rather than doing nothing.
I don’t know what Auden intended in that line. It’s from his elegy to Yeats. I have the intuition that he was making not a negative but a positive statement about what poetry does, which is to take the elusive and unnameable feelings and experiences that make up the vast majority of our lives and put them into words, so we can find commonality. Nothing in this case is what we otherwise would never see. This is what follows that statement:

For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

Obviously, he is making the point that poetry survives, in secret. The lines are so active, it’s hard for me to read them as a criticism, even an ironic one. They remind me of the famous line by William Carlos Williams that it is difficult to get the news from poetry but people die every day for lack of “what is found there.” It’s very easy to sound cheesy or addled if you say poetry can save us. It’s much more effective to write or read a poem to someone and have them feel it for themselves.

In addition to all else, the book reveals your process—how you became a poet and also the specifics of creating one poem.
Revealing my process, all the starts and stops and foolish mistakes, felt like the least risky aspect of the book. I hate the mystification of artistic process, because I think it is a pretentious lie and also because I think it misleads readers (or people who experience any art). If people think art can only be made by singularly gifted individuals, then the work becomes isolated from common human experience. If we think of a poem, or any other work of art, as like any other worthwhile outcome—that is, the hard product of effort, thought, experience, a lot of mistakes—then it becomes connected once again to all of us. It’s like marriage, or parenting, or anything else. There might be certain aspects that come easily, but most of it is the good, difficult, challenging, exhausting, interesting work of being alive.

I know you had difficulty writing Story of a Poem. What do you think of it now?
Writing it was the easy part and an immense relief from whatever else was going on in my life. It was like that thing where you start exercising each day and are like, This is the best! It’s great for a while, and then we all know what happens. Back to the lament of the couch. Putting it into a book, organizing all these disparate parts that were generated without any plan…that nearly wrecked me. It took a long time to realize what the book was about: changing and revising my life and a poem. Anything that wasn’t about that had to go, including an earlier essay I had written about Walt Whitman and race. Cutting that chapter opened the book up a lot.

I don’t know what I think of the book, other than that it is the only way I could have made it work. While writing it, I read so many memoirs I absolutely adored, but this feels like its own thing, which I am happy with. I am generally uncomfortable talking about myself and particularly wary of conversations in public that veer into generalizing about neurodivergence or disability of any kind. Those are extremely complex issues, and I am no expert. But I also think there is an opportunity for me to share my growth, which is ongoing, in order to open these issues for people who might not have had an opportunity to think about them.

One of your key takeaways is that we can’t count on anything—except death and despair. You describe being isolated from other parents, but that isolation stems from what you know that they don’t yet. There is a generosity there.
Ha ha, yes, death and despair! But I also think we can count on love. I have seen so much generosity and love, from my son, my wife, our friends and family. Yes, I have felt isolated, but I think that’s something all of us feel at times. It took something dramatic to make it clear to me how great people can be, how they have behaved, even as I sometimes disappeared or spiraled into intense self-doubt.

You cite one of my favorite lines from Susan Sontag: “Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick.” How has that changed the way you think about writing? How has it changed the way you live?
Just like everyone who sticks around long enough, I had the experience Sontag had. Privilege and good fortune can protect for only so long. Sooner or later, things happen, and then you find out who you are. These experiences changed everything about how I write and live. Everything got very clear to me. I don’t care about a lot of stuff I used to, which is good. Kindness matters to me a lot more than it did.

Throughout the book, you frame poetry as having an intelligence, or intention, of its own.
I believe our minds and bodies know things that manifest as melodies, as language, depending on our proclivities. These fleeting intuitions are connected with the deepest truths of human experience. This isn’t some kind of fuzzy or radical idea. Humans have known this forever. My job as a poet is to follow and trust those intuitions, as they produce language in a way that feels spontaneous, intuitive, playful, strange. This doesn’t mean never changing or revising. I don’t believe in “first thought, best thought,” or that there is something sacred or precious about the way something emerges into language. These initial apparitions can and should be refined, questioned, reconfigured, deepened. To show how that happens is one of the main projects of this book.

What happens, you ask, if everything I consider bad, or a mistake, becomes a prerequisite for something truly interesting? That seems central to the book.
You must change your life, writes Rilke. That has never felt truer, to me as an individual, as well as a member of the human race. We cannot permit ourselves merely to perseverate in our mistakes or find fault in each other. We have a limited amount of time to get it together as a species. We also need right now to start holding ourselves accountable for unconscious cruelties and biases. So revising myself as a father, a husband, a friend, a son, a brother, a teacher, a person walking around in the world…this is a constant process, which requires forgiveness of myself, and of others. In a way, this book was an attempt to forgive myself for being in process, not only for my own sake but also for everyone around me.•

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David L Ulin is Alta Journal’s books editor.
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