Parenting the world with East Bay poet Matthew Zapruder
By Lou Fancher
Meeting in an East Bay coffee shop with poet, editor and St. Mary’s College Associate Professor Matthew Zapruder to discuss his new collection of poems, “Father’s Day,” the concept of individual fathering unfolds, a metaphor for parenting the world.
Along with roughly five of the collection’s poems centered primarily on Zapruder’s experience as a father, are poems about the responsibility of adults to care for future generations and the environment; the impact on society of cultural heroes and villains; privileges and obligations related to citizenry; racial or gender privilege in literature; the influence of a poet’s ancestral history on the work created; literary and cultural appropriation; and gender bias and racism in the work of iconic poets, including Walt Whitman and others.
It’s a hefty package that nonetheless, illuminates without softening the powerful themes. Occasional self-deprecating humor and the Piedmont-based writer’s signature style — direct language, straightforward syntax and shorter lines — combine to strip pretense and make bold statements.
Zapruder is the author of four collections of poetry and “Why Poetry,” a thorough, fascinating prose book on the topic. The editor-at-large at Wave Books, Zapruder served from 2016-17 in The New York Times Magazine’s annually rotating position of Editor of the Poetry Column and teaches in the MFA program at St. Mary’s College in Moraga. History buffs will note he is a grandson of Abraham Zapruder, who recorded the famous “Zapruder film” of President Kennedy’s assassination. Zapruder has noted he was just 2 years old when his grandfather died and said he would like to have known him.
Speaking about becoming a father nearly five years after actually doing so, his words and voice are a mix of exuberant joy, awe and the kind of wonderment typically reserved for newborns.
“Having a kid radically changes anyone. I’m interested in how narrow my view has been of what matters. My son has beautifully opened that up, but I’m wary of talking about my kid because he’s a separate human being from me. I want to let him be his own person.”
This means Zapruder, in presenting several of the new poems and an afterward in which he shares personal information about his experience as a father, is thinking deeply about the separation between his public/poet and private/father lives.
“I think about being a parent every single moment of every day, so I can’t write anything without thinking about him. But I have to do that in a way that’s loving, respectful and about me, not him.”
Most often, Zapruder considers — and writes in response to — existential questions; poetry’s place and importance in contemporary cultures; the trends, traditions and, recently, the impact of politics on the art form; and ultimately the roles and responsibilities of practitioners and parents.
Without poems, Zapruder says intuitive, associative, dream knowledge and “that meaningful moment in a poem when you cross over into another understanding” would be lost. He contends that writing poetry involving public and private concerns — political movements, truth, authenticity, relationships and more — requires sensitivity to the universal connections.
“How to do that in a way that’s interesting artistically is an ongoing concern. It’s easy to drift into the banal and polemical. I want to know and discover new things for myself and bring them out into the light.” On social media, he says people get entrenched, shouting at each other. “I like to be in different places, not yelling or lecturing, but in an open space, saying what I know to be true.”
Contemporary poetry, he observes, is at a dynamic time, with young people producing intriguing work.
“Over the past five years, it’s really blown open stylistically. The population being published — it’s less white, male, straight; and that’s reflected in the subject matters. It’s not super-traditional, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. It’s a time of great change, great flux.”
Zapruder admits that reading the latest collection of poems at book signings and public events leaves him feeling exposed.
“It’s difficult. It’s not like ‘Why Poetry,’ which was somewhat autobiographical but wasn’t laceratingly personal. You write what you can write, then deal with the consequences.”
Writing with the purpose of “entering silence and making something out of nothing” and pursuing language as powerful as the songs he loves best — Zapruder in a sideline for 25 years has been a guitarist in the rock band The Figments — he seeks to craft poems with the emotional equivalent of “Bulldog Skin.”
The tune offers, “I took a car, drove it far/I dug the quality of steel/I crashed my nerve, I made it swerve … I got … bull-dog skin.” He recites a few more of the lyrics and says, “I don’t have any idea what they mean. What does it mean? Nothing, but in the context of the song, it feels like the most important thing in the world.”