Interview with Zach Savich on Daybed — January 14, 2018
Zach Savich is the author of eight books, including the poetry collection Daybed (Black Ocean, 2018) and Diving Makes the Water Deep (Rescue, 2016), a memoir about cancer, teaching, and poetic friendship. His work has received the Iowa Poetry Prize, the Colorado Prize for Poetry, Omnidawn's Chapbook Award, and the Cleveland State University Poetry Center's Open Award, among other honors. It has appeared in journals and anthologies including American Poetry Review, Boston Review, and Best New Poets. He teaches in the BFA Program for Creative Writing at the University of the Arts, in Philadelphia, and with the NEOMFA Program via Cleveland State University. In summer 2018, he will teach a graduate poetry workshop at the University of Iowa. He is an associate editor with Tupelo Quarterly and co-editor of Rescue Press's Open Prose Series.
Christopher Nelson: When writing Daybed, how were your interests and concerns different from your previous books?
Zach Savich: I suppose I am older now, and I trust my taste more, since I can say, with some certainty, that I have spent more hours of my life weighing phrases, and preferring some, and finding a sensibility through that, and weighing other phrases in light of it, and reading to inflect it, and trying to service particular rhythms, and revising my ideas as a result, than on any other activity. I feel like my previous books show that labor more, as in The Orchard Green and Every Color, which I wrote over seven years, which achieves, I think, a kind of clarity through refinement (“I have been practicing a knot so complex the rope goes completely straight at times,” reads one of its poems), or else they show my deliberate attempts to rupture into a rangier mode, or my anxiety about wanting to show that I can write in lots of different ways. There are many forces that tell us poetry is insufficient. Or that a thing is flawed because it is not some other thing, or not an easily sortable thing. I hear those voices, but, while writing Daybed, mostly in the summer of 2014, I tried to ignore them and to believe, humbly (even fatalistically), that devotion to poetry, to the lyric, is worth something. For me, that meant returning to basics. So, I wrote these poems by observing the world—my neighborhood in Philadelphia—and by allowing myself to follow the primary rhythm that runs through how I see—adapted iambic pentameter (though it might not be apparent on the page, and dutiful formalists might scoff, and I hope my mentioning it doesn’t turn off readers who aren’t into form). Reading the book almost four years later, in print, I think that process helped me write poems that are smarter than I am.
Nelson: I love that paradox: that through the making of poems—maybe the making of art in general—we can be smarter than we are: see beyond our misperceptions and illusions, and be something other than our socialized selves. Given that power, I’m always bewildered by, as you say, the “many forces that tell us poetry is insufficient.” Are there poems you return to when you feel that those forces are seeming convincing?
Savich: For me, that reading list has stayed fairly steady, and it’s no surprise that it includes some of the poets who first brought me to poetry. Adrienne Rich. George Oppen. Dickinson. Hopkins. James Schuyler. Alice Notley. I can read them when I’m sick of reading, sick of hours, mind, world. I also rely on poems by close friends, like David Bartone’s Practice on Mountains, Melissa Dickey’s Dragons, Lauren Haldeman’s Instead of Dying. With the exception of parts of Melissa’s work, I don’t think I write like any of those poets; influence is probably about more than aesthetics, more than style.
Nelson: You mentioned that the poems of Daybed come from observing your world. I love how these quotidian moments are interwoven with the larger themes—the spray-painted bicycle, the neighborhood dogs, a singer in a subway. One of my favorite recurring images is the raking of leaves. How early in the book someone is too old to rake, “but it’s alright, it’s summer,” and later it is the speaker who is “like one too old to rake, waiting for wind.” I like how you’ve effectively brought the external world to bear on the speaker’s interiority.
Savich: Thanks for noting those moments. I think, initially, the book had two variations on that image. I realized it was tending toward refrain, added a couple more. The poems cycle through seasons, with some recurring elements, so it seemed right, in the neighborhood of their landscape, to have this hint of character, and then to have that character become, well, character in the sense that you mention—a quality, not just a person. I wrote and revised this book while in some relation to cancer, four or so years of it, during which time Edward Said’s On Late Style was one of the most helpful books to me. It’s great if (like me) you aren’t interested in the too-easy narratives of redemption, triumph, gratitude, recovery, healing, hope that one finds in a lot of writing about illness; he focuses on what one can’t reconcile or solve, what remains difficult, chronic. Following Nietzsche, he discusses “untimeliness,” its presence for lives that, because of death or illness, might not follow normative arcs of, you know, “the seasons of life.” And so, in a very literal way, I was sometimes what I appeared—thirty or so, passing for fit—and helping neighbors shovel or rake or carry some shelves or whatever. And other times, I’d be in a state in which strangers on the street would ask if I was all right, and I couldn’t imagine holding a shovel, or I’d find myself at the market in the middle of the day, drugged and in sweats, among a bunch of older people from the senior community down the block, also buying small loads of groceries—light enough for us to carry, a main outing of the day. So I think that flexibility of character—of character merging with environment—happens both inside oneself and across selves. I’m glad that came through
Nelson: Thank you for sharing that, Zach. I appreciate your willingness to talk about your illness, and I admire your courage to face it. With the exception of one line about a hospital bed, there is little to suggest that these poems were written while ill. As a writer whose subjects are often autobiographical experience, that surprises me. Can you talk about that choice?
Savich: Oh, this could go in a lot of directions! Most simply, I like that poetry can be a place for aspects of life and language that are often excluded from other cultural forms—aspects that a lot in culture can even be hostile toward (e.g., delicacy, fragility, intricacy; insights that don’t have obvious purpose or conventional meanings; perceptions that seem peripheral; thoughts suggested by linguistic leaps; things we don’t know how to talk about; etc.). Overt personal narrative can explore those aspects, sure, and many poets do that admirably. And, of course, many sorts of overt autobiography—many types of narrative and historical experience—are among what US culture most actively excludes. But for whatever reasons, with no slight to poets of autobiography, I’ve focused elsewhere. With illness, this is partly because—having narrated my condition often, to doctors and friends and myself—I’m aware of how far narration can be from experience. “Cancer” isn’t cancer. This feels especially true because illness can alter one’s sense of self, one’s ability to have a story that feels sufficient—or to have the ability to speak, write, remember, relate to a timeline. Most people admit that it can be hard to narrate, when you’re in the thick of things; perhaps, I don’t hope to triumph over that, but to see illness as an invitation to think about types of precarity that are ever-present, and to speak toward that difficulty? In ways both (differently) narrative and non-narrative? A more environmental approach? Perhaps Daybed does that, some; but I think it also shows my desire to get out of my own story, since illness sometimes felt like my only subject, and I missed being more actively in the world. I’ve explored this in other ways in a memoir, Diving Makes the Water Deep. I should also add, for anyone currently in the thick, that if I have had courage, or the appearance of it, I’ve more frequently had fear—and I’ve been in states in which things felt too dismantled for me to have “courage” or “fear” or anything except an (often frustrating, little wisdom or positive spin in it) experience of living moment to moment to moment. Many people are in states like that longer than I was.
Nelson: That’s an amazing answer. … The book begins with an evocative epigraph from William Blake, “But does a Human Form Display / To those who Dwell in Realms of day.” How do you see this idea in relation to the poems that follow?
Savich: I love Blake—how affirmation and annihilation mix. That couplet concludes “Auguries of Innocence.” The lines before it read, “God appears, and God is Light, / To Those poor souls who dwell in Night.” In other words, Blake contrasts the daylit manifestation of “a Human Form” with the pure “Light” that may appear during visionary darkness. You can interpret that human form as Christ’s, but it’d be a very human Christ (marked with dirt, like a fresh tuber, in my imagining). I am not a Christian, but I appreciate the emphasis—on the particulars of earthly existence, rather than on being beyond things, whether through theoretical sophistication or spiritual surety. But I also know the temptation to want to get past the earthly churn, and part of my exercise, while writing Daybed, was to try to imagine what it would mean if this world—with all its horrors, the news and situations we live among, the pains of a human form, hungers and suffering, despair—were paradise. That’s not a logical thought, or a purely “positive” one; I tried to hold the feeling of it (as reality, as fallacy) in my mind while I wrote. It’s suggested in the opening poem: “say this is heaven / And there is no heaven / So only this remains.”
Nelson: I think Blake would approve—how his Songs of Innocence and of Experience suggest that heaven and hell are human states of mind, that paradise can be a reality not just a fantasy. Is there a poem or section in Daybed where your “exercise” is particularly effective or surprising for you?
Savich: There’s a strain of emotional experience that’s familiar to me, but that I know doesn’t hold up as a premise, to logic or politics and so forth, which this relates to: a feeling, more than an extrapolation of momentary joy, that I probably first saw summed up in a poem by Richard Jones, that goes (this is from memory, I don’t have the book with me, am not sure of the lineation): if there is such a thing as suffering, in the garden of the world, I have never suffered. The statement is ridiculous, as philosophy: of course there is suffering. And he knows it, and the world is not just a garden. The initial conditional is brazenly tenuous, frail. But I don’t think the statement is simply, like, fantasy, denial, because poetry isn’t just assertions, but assertions wed to motive, tone, uncertainty. You hear the hope in his “if.” You hear that this is someone who needs reassurance—or wishes to offer it. That doesn’t signal denial or deception, but care and the desire for language to offer more than it can, logically speaking. I love you, we say—knowing that exceeds us, its meaning changing even as we speak. To reassure someone—it doesn’t mean you are confident, or have authority, but that something unsettling has happened, is happening. Looking back at Daybed, I see lines where I tried to do that, and maybe they’re where that notion of a contradictory paradise comes in: “I say spring is our first evening together and if there are no others all right.”
Nelson: Most of Daybed is composed of short eight-line poems—a single line followed by three couplets then another single line. What attracted you to this form, and how did its constraints affect your thinking and feeling?
Savich: The question, for me, is often how to foreground compression, the proverbial, distinct glimpses, without things becoming too collage-y or itemized, each line sealed in a glaze. A set form helps, even such a simple one. You can see the poem will end soon; it needs to get somewhere. I liked that particular configuration because of its dramatic flexibility: couplets often aid continuity (as in the Blake poem mentioned above, or Pope, or contemporary essayistic poems in couplets), but in such a compacted frame, each stanza break also offers an opportunity to veer—or, as at any volta, to continue straight, past the apparent end of the road. Similarly, the first line can function variously as headline or dateline or initial field note or trailhead to a continuous statement. The final line can sum things up or ricochet or refract or ruin it all. How much narrative time or psychic mulling happens in each stanza break? It depends. The poems of Julie Carr and Gillian Conoley and Ralph Angel and John Taggart helped inspire this. But I owe the form, especially, to Robert Bly’s My Sentence Was a Thousand Years of Joy (2005), which is composed of fifteen-line poems, modified ghazals. I found them at just the right time. They showed me a way of using the line as a distinct unit, while also responding to preceding statements with a kind of wild, insistent innocence (“Just come over here and help me / Burn my books so we can move to Argentina,” Bly writes).
Nelson: I like that: “wild, insistent innocence.” That wildness—that surprise and uncertainty—in your lines, or in the relationship between the lines, makes me think of Bly’s notion of the deep image (“leaping image” as he preferred): how what makes an evocative image is its connection to the unconscious. There is a delightful oddness to your poems; they feel very much rooted in the everyday, as we’ve discussed, while also being dreamlike or having their own consistent illogic. Examples abound, but I especially like this one: “Shirt hung for a curtain // Having washed it in the sink each night / My ship will be the turning one // Its sail is shining rain.”
Savich: The everyday is dreamlike and illogical, I suppose? Or, perhaps, its particulars start to call to one another, which reveals other structures, beyond those of narration, of an official version. But what’s interesting, probably, is that the illogical, the alternate structures, can become “consistent,” and I’m glad they come across like that—they aren’t random, but various. I think it’s true in the book—I can see it now—but it didn’t happen by having a program, while I wrote, as much as by proceeding with a very literal, almost sculptural regard for the materials at hand, and then being attentive to moments when that leap can happen. For example, that shirt was a real shirt, a real sink, a real window it hung from. So that’s just reportage. But then (how to explain this?) I was reading John Clare one morning, and I remember standing across from a diner, waiting for a bus, in Philadelphia, remembering the ships in the harbor at Annapolis, and a sky that resembled armor, with a feeling of—what’s the ship I’d like to carry me into another world, if I have to go? It’d be that one. A turning one, made mostly of sky over water, sail of shining rain. Another kind of poem would include all that dramaturgy and title the poem something like, “After Reading John Clare I Remember Annapolis and Imagine My Death Outside a Diner.” I suppose I like the distillation more (it intoxicates also), maybe because I otherwise can feel too caught up in the whole rush of things? Of course the sail rhymes with the curtain, the rain rhymes with the sink, and that’s why this isn’t random, but intuitive—intuition made material. I guess this resembles a thought about the unconscious, though maybe it’s important, for whatever relationship my writing bears to that, that I don’t often think about the unconscious, and if I did, I wouldn’t imagine that it’s separate from the everyday, from the actual. If it exists, it’s all of this.
Nelson: Thank you, Zach, for your beautiful poems and for the insightful conversation.