Zach Savich [photo credit: Lisa Wells] was born in Michigan in 1982 and grew up in Olympia, Washington. He received degrees from the Universities of Washington, Iowa, and Massachusetts. His work has received the Iowa Poetry Prize, the Colorado Prize for Poetry, the Cleveland State University Poetry Center's Open Award, and other honors. His fifth collection of poetry, The Orchard Green and Every Color, was published by Omnidawn in 2016. He is also the author of Diving Makes the Water Deep, a memoir about cancer, teaching, and poetic friendship. He teaches in the BFA Program for Creative Writing at the University of the Arts, in Philadelphia, and co-edits Rescue Press's Open Prose Series.
1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first book was published in 2009 by the University of Iowa Press. I’d been writing poetry seriously since 2001, submitting manuscripts since 2006. I got the call and was in a daze for a week. I remember driving fifteen hours to a job, totally blissed. Understand I was a person who had made a lot of decisions, some of which I wouldn’t advise, in order to try to write poems; I was probably too fixated on publishing a book as a kind of proof, a justification that the relationships I’d failed at, the leases I’d broken, the jobs I’d quit—all that led somewhere. Where did it lead? I met many people I’m glad to call friends. I got to leave those poems behind and write new ones.
The main difference now: it was useful for me to believe (and I probably still do) that a first book should show one’s learning, many types of poem tried. For over a decade, I tried to read and write as variously as I could. That was also a way of covering my ass, and matched ideas that were current at the time about hybridity, experiment. Now I don’t want more ideas about poetry, more fluency, more formal ability, more proof of accomplishment, but more time.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I first wrote prose: heavy praise to small town public libraries and their fiction shelves. But my interests were poetic; the best story I ever wrote started, “For a dime, a yard sale book.” I walked around for weeks repeating that sentence, for the rhythm, its shuffle and stomp.
Then a teacher read some Hopkins and I stared at his mouth like it was the source, like how could we stomach language that was less. Then I realized that poetry might be an interest that let me stay interested in many things, and (in contrast with philosophy, which I thought I was interested in), allow types of unknowing, emotional and astonished reasoning, away from insufficiently conventional phrases and ideas, a way for language to find itself or us.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
Yes, it starts with making notes, as one does when reading—to be marginalia to many things. At some point the notes start to stick together, and at some point some of them stick together less than others, and I begin to revise: from collage to compost. The poems in my latest book, The Orchard Green and Every Color, are often composed of distinct statements with a semi-proverbial tinge. I think that style can slacken unproductively if it starts to seem merely notational, so I try to revise to convey/enhance a notational sense, of momentary perception, while also cutting a lot. Leading to kind of hyper-realism, but with a hush? The writings of George Oppen and Lisa Robertson helped me think about this.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
Yes, as mentioned above, it comes from notes. You walk and remark on things to a friend, or to a phrase. For books, I tend to have a title first, one that serves as a kind of tuning fork, and then I fit or adapt or construct material to preserve the tone and meaning that seem hovering in the phrase. I do think of many things in terms of books—friends are familiar with my advice to extend an essay, to try to make something into a book. That unit’s meaning means more than its status as literary artifact, clearly. Maybe I’m a person who loves reading books but “works” to write poems that let me look up from them, or feel like I have. That way of staring while turning a phrase around.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Health has prevented me from giving or attending many readings in recent years. This has made me more aware of all the readings I attended or gave that could have been different—when I would have rather talked to a friend who was in the crowd, and didn’t get to, or when we all mostly wanted to have a party, or to say hello and then get back to a babysitter, or when I was too self-conscious about the reputation of the university I happened to be reading at or who was there or wishing I had already written the next poems that I was sure would be better. Or was blown away by the first poem and should have gone for a walk to think about it. I suppose I’ve always liked most reading aloud with friends—others’ work, more than my own—in kitchens and campgrounds, when it also feels fine to put down the poems at any time. I like hearing my students read. I like when a reading becomes—officially or not—more of a discussion. I remember where we went after the readings, more than anything I said. This one time at Al’s in Seattle, or on that roof in Lincoln, swearing I had once been a roofer.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
Can I say my theoretical concerns are life and death? I hesitate to say that I’ve been, say, “dancing around an overtly terminal state,” because I’d rather be wrong, and aren’t we all dying, and Keats alive is better than Shelley’s “Adonais,” all the sentiment of the imminently (eminently? immanently?) mortal scribbler. And I’m lucky, in a way, to be able to think about this state, with healthcare and friends and a supportive job and a house I like, with relative ability, relative time. But it drives my questions, which I suppose are more acute versions of ones that anyone has: how to be past certain things but not beyond Things; how to “appreciate moments” while not romanticizing diminished capacity, the frayed receptors that still slightly light from time to time, which once interwove, beamed, met others; the limits of language/ability/will/resolve; how little “understanding” or “wisdom” changes things; courage, folly, empathy; how to at once give in and insist. To be astonished each day (no choice but to be), by what can be lost or found again or lost again and how much.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
I think there’s value in the continual insistence on what literature is especially good at exploring, and which many aspects of culture tell us we should ignore: mixed emotions, experiences with multiple or unclear “meanings,” intuitions that don’t fit conventional narratives or phrases, absurdity, desire, transport, candor.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I love it. And I find the dedication/friendship/intelligence of my editors to be one of the most heartening parts of my life—I don’t mean their commitment to my work, except as it’s part of a larger commitment. Rusty Morrison at Omnidawn spoke with me for hours about an early version of The Orchard Green and Every Color, helping me not just revise the manuscript (into something very different than she initially accepted) but understand where to go next with my writing. Carrie Olivia Adams and Janaka Stucky at Black Ocean have at once supported the wildness of some poetry I felt unsure about and made it more precise; when I was in one period of bad health, Janaka offered to drive several hours and edit with me in person, an especially beautiful generosity that I think is indicative of the spirit of the press and of so many poets. The editors I mentioned are all poets whom I admire; it’s a gift, to have their eyes on time on my work, when I also hope they have time for their own.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
“This way is north, unless this is.”
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
I sometimes write reviews. I favor a critical style that is more journalistic than academic. I’m disappointed when I read critical prose, especially about poetry, that focuses on books I’ve read and discusses critics I’m familiar with in a style that conveys mostly (I can grumpily feel) the sociology of the academy, of types of discourse that gain authority by all they leave out or argue away—I’m eager to say that I feel equally grumpy about anti-academic postures. For a long time I felt like it was a responsibility to try to review new books of poetry—especially poetry that some people wish to consider “difficult” because it doesn’t tell a little story of little feelings in little words—in a clear style, with reference (maybe too much) to poets some readers might be familiar with. More recently I’ve felt that responsibility in other ways: I wrote a review of Keith Waldrop’s Selected Poems, for example, because I’ve loved his work for years, but I felt aware that the book wouldn’t get too many reviews, and maybe I could write one as someone who has read a bit both in the experimental lineages his work is often associated with and in some poetry from the mid-century that might at first glance seem separate from his. The appeal, I guess, is in how critical prose can make an appeal: to affirm that what we do in poetry matters, and can be discussed in terms that are comprehensible to interested readers who haven’t already signed on to the scene or downloaded this season’s favored jargon, while also advancing those thoughts through the types of flight and recklessness and intuition that poetry loves.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
Illness is redundant, a sorry excuse for an excuse, but it’s true: in recent years I organize my days and energy around small tasks. I cook elaborate things that take a long time. I respond to work emails and read student poems and papers. I hold and stare at stones and shells and bits of wood. I read newspapers and listen to news programs on the radio. I sometimes find some notes I have taken and sometimes get excited about what they start to suggest. I try to stay calm. I say this wishing I had more time to think or read or think or read better about this state, but it’s a part of it, that you can’t.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I listen. I cook elaborate things that take a long time, I read newspapers, etc…
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
I’m lucky to teach in an art school, where my colleagues and students work in many media, and my courses include ones on collaborative practice, so I’m frequently finding sustenance in other arts and in the conversations artists in other fields have about questions like these. In recent years I’ve been especially glad to work with composer Jacob Cooper on several projects; his work, which is wonderfully atmospheric and playful and surprising and precise, has helped me think about how contemporary poetry can offer comparable experiences. His recent album, Silver Threads, features collaborations with poets including me and Tarfia Faizullah and Dora Malech and others. It’s out from Nonesuch Records.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I want to mention some books by friends whose work has run through mine, and my mind, for years, excellent books, the pleasure of feeling floored with respect for people you’ve known through many situations, a syllabus and seminar to be near: Andy Stallings (To the Heart of the World), Melissa Dickey (Dragons), David Bartone (Practice on Mountains), Hilary Plum (Watchfires). The poets I never tire of, who I can read when I’m sick of reading and poetry (that is: when I need poetry the most), include Oppen, Hopkins, Niedecker, Schuyler, Rosmarie Waldrop. I’ve spent a fair amount of time with Cervantes and Dante, think about them daily. I’ve come to love the late books of James Tate in recent months, think he really perfected some things in his last years.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Write one more book.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
This is what I’ve wanted.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I grew up in a house with books, in a place that was removed from some things and had a lot of some other things, with parents who were very creative and would have liked to do more with the arts, and I always took language very seriously, as though it were real.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Ivan Vladislavic’s Double Negative (novel; fans of Sebald will love it) and Portrait with Keys (nonfiction, of Johannesburg). Just read them. I haven’t felt like such a fan in a while.
20 - What are you currently working on?
Brining a thing I mean to sear.
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