Tell Me Something Impossible: an interview with Zach Savich
conducted by Gregory Lawless
…then tell me something impossible
for me to know. At this distance, every direction is toward.
From The Firestorm
GL: For Russell Edson it’s “the.” For James Wright it’s “dark.” For
Richard Hugo it’s “grey.” And for Zach Savich it’s “as.” This word
appears, as a logical or a comparative bridge, over and over in your
poems. Could you explain your affinity?
ZS: Oh, I’m aware of that tic, its sleight of hand, slide of tongue. I
just cautioned a student against it, the way Elvis always cautions his
students against having great hair. He knows the risks: “you gotta be
careful with hair so fine.” I love how “as” hoists the beach ball of a
poem back into the air, just a little, but also keeps it near one’s
fingers—that’s an idea about poetic momentum from Tyler Meier.
Consider its range: “much as” (for the beginning of a poem), “almost
as” (for nearing a poignant end?), “as soon as” (sudden shift). It
keeps things going, sounds like a shot lighter you keep striking, that
keep sparking a little—better than a steady flame, the smudge it
leaves on your thumb.
This seems like a decadent question, in some ways (in light of, like, today’s news) but I think how “as”—as time, as logic—blends depiction, metaphor, and cognition can allow hardy connections. One feels that whatever follows “as” may complete the thought, though that thought can spool out, becoming the presence of time itself, as thought turns to event as one walking turns to catch his breath as a bus goes by as any good proverb would…
GL: Your book Annulments contains a thirty-six-page poem, comprised of
113 numbered vignettes, called “The Mountains Overheard.” The poem is
both mountainous and fragmented, a colossal heap of brief linguistic
constructions/contortions, often pairing an introductory elliptical
observation, or image, or phrase, with a pointed and demanding
Have fun, we said for goodbye.
These poems within the poem seem to fuse your occasional + minimalist
sensibilities with a more sweeping, ambitious poetic mode. Thus, all
the fragments add up to an epic. But I’m wondering about the origins
of this project. Could you tell me why you elected to confront these
poetic shards with one another? What did these mini-poems gain from
this sui-generist approach?
ZS: I wrote this poem as a single, continuous, strophic thing, then added
the numbers in. I wasn’t trying to write a poem. I was trying to write
the most beautiful lines, ones that would make a person who didn’t
love me anymore love me even more, but also to hold that whole loss
in. I was thinking about song: how plain the lyrics are
when you see them printed, but they’re more heartbreaking for that, the failure for language to hold the whole orchestra (“I
saw you”) which is itself held in language. I wanted to allow myself to be sentimental, something I had
taught myself to avoid. I wanted to write lines that did not
erode—that was the word I had in mind, thinking that so much I had
written before simply eroded, couldn’t stand to the simplest air. This
was late summer and autumn of 2005, around the time I took a seminar
with Cole Swensen about poetic sequences and long poems. Kat Factor,
Andy Stallings, Kristin Hatch, Kiki Petrosino, Mary Hickman, Heather June Gibbons, Robert Fernandez, John Craun—these were a few of the great poets in that class.
I think (hope) the shards move between fragment and essence, their
cut-to-the-chorus lyricism grinding against the mechanical progression
of the numbered sections. I’ve always loved, against how things come
apart, how they cohere, something I talk about in a poem from Full
Catastrophe Living, “Poem for My Wife If We Are Married.” You can have
a collage or a mosiac that makes a shape from separate parts or the
face of Aphrodite merely used as a brick in a new wall.
GL: Often times you (or your speaker(s)) pause to title something, as
though claiming a snippet of language or a burst of sense experience
as a kind of found painting: “The church, the church in the snow; the
hills, and their sides. ‘Study for a woman walking.’ ‘Nocturne without
moon.’” Could you tell me about your impulse toward titling the world
and how and why it informs your poetry?
ZS: Isn’t this how we see? The lines I like the most, most lines that have
stayed in poems, have come from times when seeing felt no different
from saying, when I actually “saw” the whole line as soon as I saw
what sparked it, so description isn’t an elaboration after the fact
but one-to-one perception. There isn’t frost in a creekbed, then: “OK,
poem time. What do we call it?” But a Thing you see and see phrasally: “the creekbed frosted like it isn’t dry.” Maybe this is what inspiration is. A way of titling the world as we go—“look. The Hawk’s Eye Has Three Lids”…
But it’s also how we read. I see the title but I don’t really “read” it until
I’m a couple lines into the poem and look back up. I look between the
painting and its name. Etc. Like the intertitles of silent films, which interrupt but also give further continuity, these phrases re-name as we go, letting me go forward and back at once, echoing how we come to summarize, categorize, understand, say what a thing amounts to, provisionally, as sensation comes into sense, before new sensation scatters it. And where does that leave us.
GL: Your latest book, The Firestorm, begins with ten-page poem called
“Pryocumulous,” which means “a fire cloud,” or “a cloud produced by a
fire.” Of this phenomenon you write, “Pyrocumulous: the firestorm
constructs its own weather,” and I have thought, often, since reading
this line just how accurate an model it is for your poetry. Since your
first book, Full Catastrophe Living, your poems have sought more and
more to “construct their own weather,” or their own manner of speaking
and making sense of how the mind receives the world. Could you tell
me about why the pyrocumulous was an attractive subject for you? And
could you tell me, also, to what extent it appeals to you as analog
for your poetic mode?
ZS: Jeff Downey told me about this kind of cloud. He also told me about a
prairie near his house in western Nebraska that they burn every five
years to keep it natural. These fires combined: I picture a prairie
fire, though of course a firestorm is also, you know, the bombing of
Dresden. Dresden sky lighting over a prairie. I love it as a metaphor:
how horrifying a pyrocumulous cloud is, but also with order, symmetry,
to that horror, and the feeling that because such clouds can produce
their own lightning, they could produce rain, which could extinguish
the initiating fires in places, so we can find a kind of calmness
within the conflagration, via extremity.
The term provides a frame for my poems, too, I think, since I don’t
write “about” subjects but—let’s say—as a result of them. But I can
describe to the curious taxi driver that my poems are about how
coherence emerges from—actually, I don’t think I’d say that in a taxi.
But the firestorm is a figure for process, or perception, that can
pretend to be a figure for content, similar to Emerson’s description
of multiple peaks forming a continuous globe. Multiple tones, tongues,
strikes—you come to see the bell they’re in.
I need to credit Michael Dumanis, also, for, among many things, pushing the book away from
its original title and Dan Torday, the novelist, for pulling out a
single elbow hair and saying, simply, “How about The Firestorm.”
GL: What are the intellectual/artistic preoccupations that have
brought you from Full Catastrophe Living to The Firestorm? How has
reading/travel/daily life led you from one to the other?
I want to answer this question with an evasion. How have they led me? By the nose. I can honestly (evasively?) say the only real subject for me is not knowing and how to keep not knowing, even as you come to know things, and know how to say them well, and know when they can be heard, and know that no one else is likely to say them. But to focus not just on what repetitions bear repeating—which kinds of form, poem, utterance, pose, convention or conscious break from it—but what we want repeating to bear. The other thought is about moving from longing/desire as the prime cohering force and toward larger positings of those things, beyond personal emergency. Is that what empathy is? Or is it more what seeing is.
GL: What’s new for Zach Savich these days? What new projects are
afoot? Where are you going next? What is your quest? And all that…
I just finished a Midwest tour with Daniel Khalastchi, saw Kat Factor
(mentioned above) in California, met a bunch of great people at
Colorado State University in Fort Collins, have been helping organize
the Juniper Literary Festival at UMass Amherst—I feel lucky that
poetry has led me to this strange and lively life. I feel like I’m
name dropping but you should know I have always been suspicious of how
people use the word “community,” suspicious of art that seems mostly
social or about a particular lifestyle that people wish to consume or
take a break from consuming by producing more of for others to
consume. And anyone who has seen me read, I think, can feel I’d prefer
to be reading someone else’s poems, alone with coffee and a window, or have my voice sound more like the voice in your head,
but I like how we talk afterward and stay awake. But I do believe I have been composed luckily by these friendships, the ardor and candor and folly, their language marking my brain so that when I imagine speaking to someone now, for example writing this, it is not memory or nostalgia but present. Rescue Press has just released an odd and exuberant book of prose that tries to touch artfully on such underwires, of what lyric vision or an artistic orientation actually is. It’s called Events Film Cannot Withstand. I think it is the youngest thing I’ve ever written. I’d like to not betray it but also I’m 28 not 19 and wouldn’t wish to be again, not even in a poem.