A Renowned Poetic Voice: An Interview with Matthew Zapruder

Matthew Zapruder is an American poet, editor, translator, and professor who was born in Washington D.C.. He studied Russian Literature at Amherst College and then received an MA in Slavic Languages from the University of California, Berkeley as well as an MFA in Poetry at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. His works are very well-regarded as many of his poems and essays have appeared in publications such as The Boston Review and The New Yorker.

Matthew Zapruder has also published many books such as “Why Poetry”, “Come on All You Ghosts”, “The Pajamist”, “Sun Bear”, and “American Linden”. His first collection of poems, “American Linden”, won the Tupelo Press Editors’ Prize. “The Pajamist” also received rave reviews because it won the Williams Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America and was one of the top ten volumes of 2016, according to the well-respected Library Journal.

One poem by Matthew Zapruder that caught my attention was “Graduation Day.” It describes a student graduating and reveals his inner thoughts while “watching young expectant spirits one by one with dread certainty pass before me, clouded in their names.” I thoroughly enjoyed hearing a description of a student’s thoughts while he sits on stage in his cap and gown because it is an experience that I will have for the first time very soon. I gathered that the subject of the poem had a pessimistic and spiteful view on school mainly due to the last line: “go forget everything we told you so you can fix what we kept destroying by calling the future.” It is apparent that this specific individual thinks that school does not prepare us for the future in the proper way. I believe that school has taught us to not be as creative as we should be and I think the subject of the poem has the same thought process. School has taught us many valuable things but I believe that the rigid structure and demanding schedule has caused us students to lose a sense of creativeness. I felt a strong connection to this poem because I wanted to hear a student’s thoughts at graduation.

CD: What inspired you to write a poem about Albert Einstein?

Matthew Zapruder: As I say in the poem, my dad was obsessed with Einstein. Well, maybe not obsessed, but very interested. He was a lawyer, and one of those very smart people who likes to understand things completely outside his field, like physics. For some reason I was just thinking about this, in the way that sometimes we remember random, or maybe not so random things, and it struck me as kind of a hard and possibly even slightly funny problem to try to write a poem with that title. So much has been said and written about Einstein, and he’s such an iconic figure, that it felt like an interesting and ridiculous challenge to try to write a poem into that already well-traveled place. Maybe, and this just occurs to me now, my feelings about Einstein as a public figure mirror the ones I have about my dad as a person in my own personal life: that it’s a hard but necessary challenge to write something honest and new about someone who is so close to you, like a parent.

CD: What are you trying to communicate through the lines “I have placed my plastic plant in front of the window its eternal leaves sip false peace”?

Matthew Zapruder: I’m just trying communicate the idea that I put a plastic plant in front of the window which, when you think about it, is ridiculous, since plastic plants don’t need sunlight. Why not just put it in the middle of the room? I guess it’s a bit childishly ironic. Maybe you are referring to the phrase “false peace.” That’s just how things felt to me at that moment, full of false peace, both in a personal sense (my life is not really peaceful) and in terms of the bigger world outside, held together by fragile truths and agreements that could disintegrate at any moment. Don’t you feel that way sometimes?

CD: Do you draw inspiration from your birthplace of Washington D.C.?

Matthew Zapruder: Yes. It’s a weird city for many reasons. Quite beautiful but also full of giant white public buildings and monuments that can easily be seen as hypocritical or downright sinister. It’s literally built on a swamp so the weather can be atrocious. But springs and autumns there are sublime. It’s a racially and economically fraught place. Most of the art it has produced locally is at the margins, like for instance the punk rock of the 80’s and other DIY art projects and forms of resistance to the dominant culture. I haven’t lived there since I was 17 but I will always consider it my first home, and every time I go back there I am filled with the sorts of personal and public contradictory feelings that can, under the proper conditions, begin to produce poetry.

CD: As a Professor, what is one piece of advice that you always give to your students when analyzing poetry?

Matthew Zapruder: Read what is on the page and don’t immediately leap to giant ideas or conclusions or statements that are not supported by the text. Wait as long as possible. Stay in, and get deeper into, the words that are there, that a poet gives over their life to choose. The poems are way more interesting and weird and fun and dangerous if you just stay with what they are actually saying.

CD: How, if at all, is writing poetry in other languages different from English?

Matthew Zapruder: I’m sure it would be completely different. Though I know Russian and French and some others well enough to translate, it seems like to write poetry in any of those languages would require a level of fluency I do not have. I think you’d have to be able to dream in another language to write poetry in it.






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