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Tell Me Something Impossible

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

turn/departure:

 

               9.

 

               Star exhaust

 

               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.

 



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