Talking with Matthew Zapruder

The poems in Father’s Day examine the complex ideas of parenthood, citizenship, and existence.

Poet Matthew Zapruder sees in his works “the constant question of the role of the poetic imagination in a time of crisis.”
Poet Matthew Zapruder sees in his works “the constant question of the role of the poetic imagination in a time of crisis.”

Matthew Zapruder’s poems ask readers to hold intense, sometimes disparate ideas simultaneously. For Zapruder, who writes in clean, almost punctuation-free verse, a poem is as representative of the human experience as it is a portion of that experience. He invites his readers to pay greater attention to words and the world, to listen and observe. Topics of his poems range from nature to politics to the contracts we construct between souls. Zapruder interrogates the intricacies of parenthood, citizenship, and existence. “[D]espair is a privilege / we can’t afford but really / a few of us totally can,” he writes in “Today,” a poem about Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement from the Supreme Court and the privileged liberal squawking that followed. “[W]hich is of course precisely / what creates the vacuum / this continual impervious / self-satisfied classic righteous / American malice.” In “Paul Ryan,” he critiques the former Speaker of the House and the culture of political antagonism that enabled his actions to thrive, writing, “I love you / I kiss / your dry lips / to defeat you.” 

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Zapruder’s work is always direct, always clear and raw. “[D]ear committee of the future,” he writes in “Generation X,” “I could tell you I am almost / sure you will find my poems // unacceptable because / they appropriate the common / human experiences of fear // and desire.” His work is rooted in the idea that “so much of what makes art interesting and human are its particulars. Everyone comes from somewhere, in time and place, and it is both inane and gross to pretend that this does not matter, when it matters more than almost anything.” 

Alta discussed Zapruder’s latest collection of poems, Father’s Day, with him recently via email.

What central question does your work ask?
William Carlos Williams wrote, “[I]t is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.” My poems are always asking, How can I discover the news of poetry, and help myself and hopefully others not to die every day, miserably or otherwise? 

EXCERPT (from “3:14 PM”):

I often wonder
whether anyone
from the kitchen where
we used to talk all night
about the freedom of the future
is still alive or have they all
like me gone into the business
of naming breezes
I named one sorrow magnet
and another dangerous agreement
like a tree I cried to the sun
I am your lost child of gold
but the sun said no
inch your way back
to the forest
in a thousand years
the shadows will tell you
who you were green one 

Do you listen to anything as you write?
I find listening to music very distracting, whether or not it has words. Sometimes I listen with intention to music (without words) or other sounds, to see if I can hear something speaking, and make out some fragments. If so, I will write them down and build a poem around them.

What obsessions, coincidences, or connections made it into this book?
Besides the obvious one of fatherhood, both literal (my own experience as a dad and a son) and figurative (our paternal role in relation to anyone who is vulnerable, as well as our responsibilities to the earth), I see in the poems the constant question of the role of the poetic imagination in a time of crisis, as well as ongoing non-systematic investigations of racial and economic privilege. 

What, in other disciplines, inspires you to create?
Basically anybody making or doing anything is interesting to me. I worked for a while in an office in downtown Oakland, and across the street a giant building was gradually being constructed. For hours, I would watch the workers assembling it upward. Like Frank O’Hara, secretly I went to work on it. 

What’s on your to-be-read list?
Oh, basically everything. Next to me right now on my desk are two books by Alejandra Pizarnik and a book about Max Ernst, Paul Éluard, and Gala Éluard, called Ghost Ships: A Surrealist Love Triangle, and a book of letters by Alain-Fournier, who wrote my favorite book, The Lost Domain: Le Grand Meaulnes. Also some things I am rereading: a book of essays by Marina Tsvetaeva—Art in the Light of Conscience: Eight Essays on Poetry—and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. 

Give us the elevator pitch for your book.
My son loves elevators. He draws them all the time, and has an unerring sense for where they are, even if we take him to an unfamiliar place. We often pretend to be in elevators, now that we are unable for the time being to enjoy them in person. He has a book about elevators that he pores over with religious devotion. If you read my book, I absolutely guarantee that you will, if only for a moment, love something unexpected as much as my son loves elevators. That is my elevator pitch. 

Heather Scott Partington is a writer, teacher, and book critic based in Elk Grove, California. She most recently interviewed Peter Orner for Alta Asks.



  • By Matthew Zapruder
  • Copper Canyon Press, 96 pages, $17
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