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Zach Savich & Adam Clay: In Conversation

During March 2016, Zach Savich and Adam Clay (a former and current editor at the Kenyon Review, respectively) discussed their new books, The Orchard Green and Every Color (Omnidawn, 2016) and Stranger (Milkweed Editions, 2016).

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Dear Adam,

Let me start with a risk: I want to ask you about an aspect of Stranger that I struggled with. We have some friends in common, and I’ve known your work for years, but we don’t know each other, so this could feel impolite, or negative; but I’m aware of some things our poetry shares, and I could probably guess a few poets we both consider models, so I’m interested in several moments when, selfish reader I am, I thought, “Oh, I wouldn’t say it that way.”

Chiefly, this had to do with the “plainly spoken” quality announced by the first words of the book. These words are said with a wink, I think, to a reader who most plainly encounters them on the page, but they highlight the many ways in which the book is conversational, easy-going in its language, though it often depicts scenes that are hardly placid. In the second poem, for instance, a “scale” is “tipped” and a “balance” is “perfect,” very familiar, conventional pairings. I’m not saying this is a hallmark of all the poems, but it makes me think of how, for other poets, the “plainly spoken” might interrupt another poetic mode, as when Robert Lowell declares “why not just say what happened,” or is an achieved effect that supports another type of formality, which is how I read the colloquial aspects of some poems by, say, Adrienne Rich. Or it offers a way to blend tones and favor performativity, as in the talk-poems or talkier poems of Donald Antin or Alice Notley.

In Stranger, though, I’m wondering if plainspokenness does not emphasize candor or incisive poise or tonal variety but a kind of receptivity or even—and this word will sound negative, but I mean it complexly—passivity. Perhaps, conventional phrasing is used in the way you describe in “Disruption without Shrapnel”: “you clip a word from the mind / until it forms its own kind of mind,” a grammatically passive construction that leads to active epistemology. Or maybe it reflects the desire to “maintain a consistent voice,” as you write later in the book, or to make private experience public. How do you think about plainspokenness and the conversational, or its illusion? What makes a phrase like a “scale tipped” seem fitting to your ear, when often your poetry emphasizes less familiar phrasing?

I ask this with awareness of how, in The Orchard Green and Every Color, utterances can sometimes have an off-hand quality, as though, I think, they were blurted out or overheard on a walk. (Some of them were.) A similar effect?

Zach

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Dear Zach,

No need to worry: it isn’t impolite or negative at all. It’s a great place to start. As I began gathering poems for the book (my process usually involves printing off everything I’ve written since the previous project to leaf through and consider), I looked to see what I had, if anything. I don’t know what the process looks like for you, but I lean away from consciously thinking about the “book” as an object when I’m writing poems. There’s little thought of what’s coming before and what I want to do next. I usually work on a micro-level and step back after a few years to see what’s there.

After I trimmed and cut, I realized it was a book about personal transformation in light of a life-changing experience (i.e. the birth of my child). In some ways the “Stranger” of the title is my daughter, but it’s also myself and it’s also my partner. With this idea in mind, I looked over some of the “conventional pairings” that you mentioned and considering changing them, but the book was slowly becoming more and more about the quotidian moments of life and I wanted to include these expected turns of phrases, at least in places, because I wanted to set up a view of the world early on in the book that could be unpacked or uncovered more throughout it. The conventional choice-of-wording became a place to begin, a starting point. I revise chronically so there’s a chance the poems in the book will continue to change as I read from the book, but the choice to leave these moments in was a very conscious decision.

I did direct the opening line of the book to the reader, but it’s also for myself. And also for John Ashbery, a poet whose work has always struck me as layered on so many levels, though it might seem simple on the surface.

In thinking about how my book came together for me, I’m wondering about The Orchard Green and Every Color, which is divided into two sections. The book very much felt like it was written as a book, as opposed to a series of poems that congealed as finished object. Can you talk this process and about how the book might have come together in a different way from your previous work?  I also wondered about (and loved) the “off-hand quality” found in many of these poems that you mentioned earlier. “Scrap Gold” in the second section of the book does some really interesting things with juxtaposition and jumps. I feel like the poems are mimicking the mind’s movement:

Then all was vineyard, all was grape
Kept a bone in the oven so the heat learned depth
The implosions have been slow and restful ever since

Can you talk about how these poems were formed and how the book itself came together?

Adam

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Hi, Adam,

I thought of Ashbery there, too, of his work’s suggestion that common phrases (“as we know”) are what we share. His poems can integrate almost anything into a ruminative gaze. In contrast, one poem in Stranger announces the desire to “unapologetically” apply a “gaze of sentimentality” to catastrophic loss. I was thinking about how this can lead to types of euphemism, which maybe fits the imagined audience of a child. For example, that poem reports “twenty children / taken away in Connecticut,” and I thought, “Not ‘taken away!’ ‘Slaughtered!’ ‘Murdered!'” But maybe saying “taken away” is more moving because its “conventional” phrasing is so obviously inadequate, so one feels the effort and desire to make language stand up to an impossible situation, the “formal feeling” that Dickinson says can follow pain.

The Orchard Green developed through some related thinking about inadequacy: if my first four books were each in some ways a first book, all written more or less during the same years, all restless to show their work and announce the range of what (“check me out!”) they could do, this book was made more by delving. I say that wishing I could still write the kinds of poems I used to write. In part, this had to do with pace. I wrote this book over the course of about seven years, which translates to less than one page a month. It began as my thesis while I was studying at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Dara Wier and Caryl Pagel and David Bartone and Andy Stallings and others commented on many early versions, leading to a draft that Rusty Morrison accepted for publication. Through Rusty’s generous and insightful comments, the book became almost wholly different. She helped me see the instincts in it that were most significant. They are ones I hope to hang out with for a while longer.

This also had to do with a feeling that my earlier work couldn’t stand up to the impossible situations of illness and dying that have been central to my life during the past seven years. Ah, that’s not true! Those old poems were sufficient, but the new days needed new poems. Well, somewhat new: the lines you quote include an adaptation of a line from Rilke and a concluding phrase (“ever since”) that I borrowed from a favorite line by Donald Revell. Are there places where other writers echo, for you, in your new book? Or times when the poems, which often feel refreshingly conversational, emerged from conversation with family and friends?

Zach

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Hello Zach,

Yes, that poem about Sandy Hook and Jake Adam York was written in Kentucky a few years back shortly after those two tragic losses—it was indeed written with that sense of numbness or helplessness, which might explain some of the phrasing. I wonder a lot about that: where does the mind go when words don’t suffice? We fall into stock language as a way of coping. I didn’t change that poem up much from the first draft—I preferred the facade that language provided to the risk of being too sentimental. I wasn’t fearful of being political with regards to Sandy Hook, but it seemed like too great of a loss for even poetry to grapple with. Some losses are too great for words but attempting to find words is what we do, right?

The poems in the new book are definitely in conversation with a number of other poets—I often write with a book open next to me. I also do a monthly exchange with Michael Robins in April and I find that many ideas from his poems find their way into my work. I’ve fallen for the idea of writing a poem a day for a period of time each year. It changes the way you view the world but also the way that you read books and even converse with people. Everything becomes material or a seed for a poem. I also write a lot of poems based on exercises I’ve given my students. The idea of simple exercising can allow for so many possibilities and ideas–it gives me hope that there are no limits to what one can write about and what one can do through poetry, however lofty that idea might be.

It’s fascinating to hear about your book developing over the course of seven years—it’s a long time. Do you feel like this new book was happening in a space entirely different from your others or do you see elements that are in conversation with the other books? I guess I’m wondering, too, if you sit down to write a book (as a thing) or if you’re writing poems and eventually the like-minded poems find each other? I tend to use the latter approach, but I like the idea of a cohesive collection that’s written (or willed) into the world. Maybe it’s time to mix things up.

I wonder if you can talk a bit more about illness and dying as a force in the book—it’s there, yes, and the poems are exploring notions of mortality in such interesting ways. The line that comes to mind for me is: “I’ve traded my instruments for a song.” How did you come to terms with writing about mortality through an art form that, well, explores death almost as much as it explores love? Were you thinking of particular poets or a tradition that you found yourself a part of as you crafted this collection?

Adam

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Adam,

I sometimes think death is redundant, as a topic, since it’s so clearly in everything: the lessons of dying are lessons that anyone who has loved or read a little already knows, that things are fragile, brief, joy senselessly tempers through, we contend with unknowing in ever increasing ways. I’m also aware that the insights people often focus on in, say, simplistic memoirs of illness and dying are insufficient because, when you are in the thick of it, you can have any insight you want, and that might help things for a minute, but you are still in it. What insight will help with the next minute, what fragment of story can help when you can’t keep anything down? I think these are some of the reasons that the poems in The Orchard Green rarely refer to illness directly, since I’m more interested in how one might stare out a window looking for some lively evidence that thinking can accrue around, or that might serve as evidence that oneself and the world and thinking still exist and are worth existing in, beyond illness—I’m more interested in that continual moment and movement, which, again, seems to be more about lyrical experience in general, of the “mind in the act of finding what will suffice,” a “momentary stay against” (or within) “confusion,” than about a particular narrative state.

I’m not sure this is the best route. You mentioned Jake Adam York, and during the time that my father was dying, when I was first diagnosed with the same sort of cancer, I had one of those dreams distinct from other dreams, in which Jake, recently dead, was waiting by a campfire in the afterlife, to welcome my father. I woke crying not because I thought that was going to happen but because of how much the two of them would have enjoyed meeting in this life. Why am I not a poet who writes that anecdote and reflection into a poem? There’s a line in the book that is sourced in that dream, or in the residue it left, and I suppose I’d rather try to write a poem or line that has the feeling of such a vision, rather than one that reports it. Like you said, this probably comes from a feeling, more basic to me than many other beliefs, that most of the ways we have of talking about things are insufficient–that our talk about a topic like this could be best if the transcript included a lake we stared at in pauses, some moments of stammer, fiddling with the label on a beer bottle, a necessary stop when a child wakes or one grows too tired–and it’s this human dimension that I miss in, like, much political speech.

Maybe that sense of conversation is central to my writing, though it shows up differently than in your book, I think. I mean, no, I don’t typically sit down to write a book start to finish, or with a vision of the book, but I trust an observational process–you go for walks, you talk to friends, you make notes in the margins of a book and a life–through which significant bits, recorded, begin to group together, to reveal unexpected symmetries of sound or posture or idea. Much of my “writing” process feels like a sculptural arranging and excising of that kind of material. Friends see the same lines in many drafts. I think of a middle school science class, trying to build a structure that would protect an egg in its fall from a roof, with nothing but a haphazard selection of items to build with. You find the way the oven mitt can be bolstered with some balsa wood. The poem is those materials, when they delicately hold, if only for the duration of the fall. The poem is the egg inside. Or is the poem the falling?

Maybe I’ll ask one of my classes, make that the quiz question? You’ve mentioned teaching. Beyond the completion of assignments, how does your teaching impact your writing or your thinking about poetry? Or maybe even—your thinking about being a person in the world. The longer I do it, the more I realize that good classes, perhaps, aren’t the ones when I assert myself as a charismatic choral leader/genius/poet/thinker, but ones in which I more or less disappear. I’d say that differently in a job interview, but let me leave it ambiguously here!

Zach

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Zach,

I like the way you pose two approaches to illness and death between the lyric and the narrative. It speaks to the range of possibilities that poetry offers and the choices one can make when approaching any subject matter. Nearness to death (whether it be because of illness or another near-death experience) can color the world in a certain way. George Saunders talked about this in an article from some time ago—he was on a plane that nearly went down and he talked about the way the world looked so beautiful right after the experience. As he moved away from the moment, the world became less stark, less beautiful. Nothing changed but perception, but it changed nonetheless.

I love the thought of Jake around a fire, waiting, for your father. I’ve been thinking about the loss of poets a lot lately (we’ve lost so many) and what it means—the person is gone, but so, too, are the poems that they won’t write. It’s a huge loss, though we have the work that was written.

In your poems I see the gathering of the daily moments and what they mean. Sometimes the periphery is more important than what we’re looking at. I talked to my students about the scaffolding we build to write poems—(similar, I think, to Richard Hugo’s notion of triggers). Sometimes we have to keep the support structure and sometimes they go away. Sometimes, though, parts of them remain, and that’s where it gets interesting: what to keep and what to remove? It’s not a science, but it is a science—we trust where the mind goes and follows. I feel that throughout your book—I don’t always know where I’m going, but there’s so much pleasure in the images and the turns of phrases that I’m happy to go along. Negative capability, perhaps?

I’m not really sure I can separate my writing life from my teaching life. So many of the poems in Stranger have come from exercises I’ve done with students. I also find that their work influences me—each student is at a different place and is trying different things, so much so that the classroom becomes a place where there are infinite possibilities based on life experiences, reading experiences, and everything else. Teaching also keeps me on my toes. I don’t ever want to feel like I know what I’m doing—the thought of that scares me, actually. I want to be constantly surprised and confused by where my poems take me. It’s what attracted me to poetry in the first place and what will keep me writing it: “a momentary stay against confusion,” yes, but also a pathway to new types of confusion. It seems strange to welcome confusion, but so many of my poems start with a lack of understanding. I don’t know if my poems always arrive at a place of sense, but there’s something to be said for an attempt, for constructing a scaffolding around an object we might never even be able to see.

Adam