Piedmont author Zapruder’s new book explores literary creative process
By Lou Fancher
If a memoir is a structural exploration of a person’s mental and physical architecture and poetry on a most basic level is viewed as a science-minded investigation of language, it’s fair to say poet/writer Matthew Zapruder is an architect and a scientist.
One month before the release of his new memoir, “Story of A Poem,” the Piedmont-based poet, writer and associate professor at Moraga’s Saint Mary’s College in conversation says he writes to learn, grow, change and to reveal the next best questions. If the gems that writing uncovers help not only his humanity but that of his books’ readers to evolve, even better, he says.
Zapruder says he wrote his new book to understand and publicly share the complex and sometimes convulsive creative process that gave birth to a particular poem. It’s a narrative journey he hopes is applicable and informative to anyone seeking personal growth or overcoming life’s challenges.
More personally, he says he wrote it to explore his role as the father of Simon, the 8-year-old neurodivergent son he celebrates throughout the book for his “joyful spirit, his fierce affection for those close to him, his sensitivity to music, his astounding memory, his joy and facility in building … .”
During the four years spent writing and editing the book, Zapruder found himself forced to contemplate his ideas deeply — ideas about poetry, listening, parenting, sobriety, white privilege, ableism, racism, xenophobia, asking questions, designing a world in which all people thrive, the irony of the “queasy oval” shape of a geographic path that led him over a period of years from Oakland to points east and decades later back to nearly the same exact location in Oakland. He thought and writes in the book about relationships to family, ancestral history and the work of poets such as W.S. Merwin, Li Bai, Celan, Rapi Kaur, Whitman, Federico García Lorca and others.
“When you write a book, you can’t just say a couple of casual sentences and toss them off. Writing the book made me make connections I had not made before,” he says.
One section that took him months to write was immensely difficult but also “super-cool.” He says writing about his son was particularly challenging and leaves him with ongoing anxiety or at least, admitted concerns.
“It was hard to give the whole range of my experiences and feelings. I hope and pray that it does that. I’m nervous about reducing my son (to a character in a book). He’s his own person. This book is not a portrait of him. It’s about me; I just want him to be his own person. I don’t ever want to overstep.
“That’s why I showed it to Sarah (Karlinsky, his wife). I trust her, and it’s important he’s OK. When you have a child who’s neurodivergent, you have deprogramming to do. In the same way, it’s true that we all have our stuff and need to work on it.”
Zapruder suggested that working on “it,” or one’s self, is similar to the process involved in writing poetry or any art-making.
“A lot of the time with art you’re trying to find out what’s authentic. Poetry is like a sculptural model of writing; I start with a lot of material and chip away at it, adding and subtracting until it feels true. I was definitely trying to let go of some things and was not writing about things I’ve already figured out.
“Any artistic or personal growth, if you knew how to change, it would just be a matter of willpower. The only way to figure out how to find a new form was to write through it. (After figuring it out), now that means going on to the next thing.”
Instead of identifying the next unanswerable questions he might consider writing about while still on the runway leading to his new book launch, Zapruder agreed to speak broadly about lessons learned, insights affirmed, the writing environment in the digital era and where he finds hope.
Utmost on his mind is the importance of listening over speaking, Zapruder says, noting that he didn’t grow up in a house with a lot of listening.
“There was plenty of arguing and talking, but little time spent asking questions. To write poems I had to learn to listen, be patient, hear and be open to experience, to not think of a poem as an opportunity to tell people right or wrong.
“It’s a place to ask better questions. What do I hear when I stop talking? What do other people say? Poetry keeps teaching me how to do that. Reading and writing it, I had to get better at metaphoric and literal listening.”
From a practical viewpoint, being a parent overrules any writing project, he says.
“Simon is always the first priority, and my writing is organized around my family life. Being a parent, a father, is so important it works its way into my writing life, as does being a husband and community member in this distractive culture. They all are preoccupations and mix together.
“The more I understand what I struggle with and what I get joy from, that all deepens the experience I bring back to my parenting. Writing helps me to be a better father, less reactive, more responsive. I certainly hope so. Sarah says I’m more fun to be with when I’m writing. It’s a basic thing I need to do to feel like a real human being.”
Asked about the digital era and the new ChatGPT artificial intelligence chatbot, Zapruder is as succinct as expected.
“We are immersed in text. On one hand, people are surrounded and engaged by language more than ever before,” he says. “They’re texting, commenting, emailing, using social media — people are writing in the way they were talking on the phone 20 years ago. But the quality has gone down, and it’s commercialized now.”
And about machine-written poetry: “Machines can write bad poetry, but to write good poetry, they have to achieve human consciousness. If they ever can, we’ll have bigger problems than ChatGPT writing terrible sonnets.”
Zapruder insists that poetry has the potential to remain free from destructive forces.
“By reading and writing poems, I feel liberated from the way language is used generally,” he said. “William Carlos Williams in his poem ‘The Greeny Flower’ wrote, ‘It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.’ ”
Zapruder believes that poetry in general can steer people away from cruelty and cause them to think about and ask better questions that lead to compassionate, loving, humanitarian thoughtfulness — questions such as ‘What world can we imagine, and then make, where we all can live?’ ”