I was first drawn into Zach Savich’s work when I learned he was born in Lansing, just a short drive from where I spent the whole of my childhood. His new book of poetry, Daybed, was released earlier this year from Black Ocean Press; when I began reading the collection, I smelled mowed grass and strung-up laundry. I tasted summer fruit in my mouth, I felt the sun splashing through me, warming all the bones in my body. “I’m alive,” the poetry collection whispered. “I am, too,” I whispered back.
The author of six books of poetry as well as a memoir on cancer, teaching, and poetic friendship, Savich is the recipient of the Iowa Poetry Prize, the Colorado Prize for Poetry, the CSU Poetry Center’s Open Award, and Omnidawn’s Chapbook Prize. He has taught creative writing and literature courses at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand, the University of Washington’s Creative Writing Seminar in Rome, the University of Iowa, and elsewhere; currently, he is an instructor at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. He is also the co-editor of Rescue Press’s Open Prose Series.
Below, we chat about bicycles, the meaning of the word “enough,” free books, the language of landscape, and the dreamlike quality of small, mundane things.
Daybed begins with an epigraph from William Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence”: “But does a Human Form Display / To those who Dwell in Realms of day.” How do you see your book, your poetry, and your obsessions in conversation with this quote?
That quote, in the (potential) misreading I prefer, emphasizes the human — the earthly — in contrast with realms that strain beyond the daily round. One thing I did while writing this book was to try to imagine what it would mean if this world — with all its horrors, sufferings, reasons to turn away — were Paradise. That’s not a logical thought or a purely “positive” one. Among other places, it took me to Blake, in whose work affirmation and annihilation often mix. It occurs to me now that the epigraph resembles some lines from Stevens, which draft a similar notion, though he casts the “dwelling” in evening: “We make a dwelling in the evening air, / In which being there together is enough.” Perhaps the compiling of quotations, that impulse toward essay, is a comparable display of form.
Your previous book, The Orchard Green and Every Color, also dealt with perceptions of landscape representative of the speaker’s present emotions. What other thematic and stylistic concerns did you carry over from The Orchard Green… into Daybed? Was there anything you deliberately changed or experimented with in Daybed?
I wrote The Orchard Green over seven years, revising strenuously, figuring out how to chase certain breezes by charting the patterns they left in varied surfaces. While both books are concerned with the transitory, its landscape feels closely gone over, whereas Daybed is, I think, more of a stroll; a book of the breeze itself. Perhaps Daybed emphasizes the “present emotion,” whereas The Orchard Green highlights the “representative” rendering of those ecological links, the sporting of their greens and roughs. The new book is more playful to my ear, warmer in its stoicism. It embraces a steadiness of formal approach, devotedly servicing particular rhythms and aspects of composition, which repeat with variation compared to the often-shifting configurations in The Orchard Green. I suppose I wanted to see what would happen if I trusted those consistent qualities as sufficient, or insufficient in revelatory ways: what world would form from that? That’s probably partly about being older and feeling that significant range can be had in steady glances.
The structure of your poems is fascinating. The majority employs a form made up of eight lines — a single line followed by three couplets and then another single line. What attracted you to this form, and how did it shape the way you think about and describe the world?
I think the form appealed to me because of some dynamics Robert Hass discusses in A Little Book on Form. The opening line can serve as title or headline or opening sally that slides into the rest; the final line can sum up or swivel; the couplets do what couplets often do, offering both continuity — as in an essayistic poem paced into couplets — and the opportunity for each additional pair to deviate. Or for deviation between the first line of each couplet and the second. Is it call and response or continuing call? These poems have a lot of neighborhood in them, a kind of ambulatory pneumatics, which I think the form suits and helps shape. First one foot, then some other foot. Look both ways. Cross.
We see the word, “daybed,” appear for the first time in the last third of the book. When did you write this poem after which the book is titled? Did it change what you were working on at the time?
I often treat titles like tuning forks. They usually come early for me, and suggest qualities of tone/theme/mood that I compose and edit and revise to match. It’s like titling a blank canvas, and then trying to make the most of that caption. A painting called “Daybed” shouldn’t just show the sofa, but should luxuriously convey a sense of repose that is full of light — ah, to sleep in the sun! — and a step away from “sickbed” — to need to sleep in the day. I had the word in mind before writing the poem. I do love a compound that seems both clear and compacted, of juxtaposed sheen like a moonstone.
I wrote these poems mostly while between bouts with cancer, in a period I was trying to believe in as “recovery,” despite its continued dismantlement. The poems’ posture — of rest, of receptivity — seemed like it might help me recast how frustrated I felt in that compromised state. Donald Revell’s Art of Attention was helpful at the time for thinking about how a glitch of light ghosting through the blinds could be a pinhole camera to vaster views, and how variable the self that sees its relationship to the world (and language and memory and future and time) catches in the swirl of the daybed’s paisley.
I love that your poems are so grounded in this world — revealing everyday objects, such as bicycles and coffee and laundry and blueberries, and observing emotional circumstances with tenderness and honesty — and yet they also have one foot rooted in a dreamlike and illogical space. It makes me wonder what compels you to write these kinds of poems.
I believe the world is smarter than I am and that poetry offers a way to “think” via its stuff. That feels like the most honest project for me. And a bicycle is totally dreamlike, don’t you think? Its contours, its shadows, its brambles in a stairwell, its dignity grafted to a parking meter. And that’s before one even considers it lives in landscape, traffic, childhood, etc. I’m thinking of Beckett’s tender regard for a bicycle, “green like so many of your generation.” Those textures become types of thought as they reveal patterns, proportions, relationships, and sensibility.
Where do you find the seedlings for your poems? At what time of day and in what kind of environment can you commit them from mind to paper?
I told my friends I was writing an epic — Daybed is clearly not an epic, not in a traditional sense, but that let me feel like each oar dip might be rowing somewhere. This was mostly summer 2014. Philadelphia. Standing desk on the third floor of a rowhouse, no air conditioner, view into the neighbors’ yards, view of a parking lot behind our house. People pacing there, on the phone, fighting, trying to get a kid into a car.
My findings are simple, and I believe in them. You notice things as you walk, as you live. You couldn’t say what they “mean” or even why you notice them, not always. Or you could, but only after you’ve been noticing a while. It’s most clear in a museum. Aren’t you interested in a painting if somebody else in the gallery is sketching it? Aren’t you more interested if they are sketching it on a receipt, or their wrist, as though moved to that? In the person who flees the gallery, as though they might see something else just outside? And so moving through a city, and especially through the “natural” spaces that crop up in a city (woodsy lots, overgrown alleys), we might see things that help us see ourselves differently. The things you’d say “look at that” about, which isn’t just about cultivating a picturesque sensibility but about offering a kind of pictorial criticism of the mixed media assemblage one lives within. The specific sights of one’s site-specific life. There’s a vent patched with foil. A comb dabbed with paint. Neighbor watering an herb garden with a coffee mug; rinsed it first with the hose. Old person sweeping leaves into a storm drain. Is “old person” a character or a mood, or a way to signal something about time? Ladder leaning out a high window. Guy drinking on a stoop wishes me, “Happy Father’s Day, my man, if you are one.” Somebody on the phone describing a “big vanilla envelope.”
I hope my poems have that quality of seeing, of conversation, of sight cutting through the official exposition of a day — to offer another story than the stories we know how to tell most facilely. I tend to note observations, and then see which ones stay solid, which don’t erode right away, or which can be made more solid (without losing fleetness). If you do that for a while, it will lead you new places, even as aspects repeat. An art of adaptation to landscape, perhaps.
I noticed that the word “enough” appears repeatedly throughout the book, in at least fourteen of the poems. The scenarios of its usage in Daybed range from “when bare wood in sun / Is more than enough,” “The window closes only enough,” “There is an early train, or early enough,” “I find all the books are not enough,” “You’ve looked at the waterfall / long enough,” to name a few. This seems to display a constant desire for something that is always either more or less than its current existence; a state of longing.
Thanks for noting this. Maybe the key is in the first occurrence, when “enough” rhymes (internally) with itself: “Can delicacy be enough / If insistent enough to endure,” since that highlights the gentle contradiction in the term: “enough” is plenty; “enough” is finite, limited. Enough is sufficient; sufficiency is merely sufficient. Have you had enough? Is nothing enough? I suppose that has something to do with longing, yes. But I wonder if it also has to do with treating more abstract things as though they are of knowable quantity: “early enough” is a measure of time, which otherwise passes. I was probably also drawn to it because — is it transitive or not? In the phrase “all the books are not enough” — not enough for what? Blake’s probably in here, too: “Enough! or Too much!” That’s clearly an inclusive “or.”
Books play a large part in this collection, especially the notion of free books and the act of reading. What role have books played for you in your development as a poet?
You know those little free libraries that crop up in certain neighborhoods, those well-crafted hutches? They make me miss finding a stack of books on a curb, pages warbled by weather. So, you’re right to note “the notion of free books.” I’m always more interested in what’s on a friend’s shelf, or by a bed when I’m housesitting, than on a syllabus. As far as development goes, probably the most important books to me early on were W.S. Merwin’s The Second Four Books and Adrienne Rich’s The Dream of a Common Language. Then Hopkins. Oppen. Rosmarie Waldrop. Michael Palmer.
In the section “Instead of Reading,” the speaker describes “Half-built places in a landscape assuring currency better than / a bank. / So much invested in the elements.” Could this be taken as a sort of goal of the collection? To provide little snapshots of a nature-meets-urban hybrid life for readers to linger in, to help build and flesh out with their own imaginations and experiences?
That seems like a wonderful figure for what these poems are up to. A snapshot, to most people, doesn’t seem like a “fragment”; though a poem with the same framed emphasis might. The picture, we understand, implies a world. You can tell where the sun was, what the photographer was thinking, there’s often a poignant impression of time and era embedded in the intangibles. In a specific sense with those lines, I was thinking about construction that serves as a tax shelter, or a dodge against inflation, which people might leave unfinished, or keep adding to as they have more funds to shelter, putting off the point when the construction is finished, and so the structure will become merely a stable expense. I like your reading though, that a poem can be a half-built place we linger in. Rain and stars through the space that’s not yet a roof. Yet we know we’re inside. A certain kind of critic might distinguish between poems that feel half-built — like a house that has been framed — and ones that have been indistinctly built: the materials piled up. I’m not saying I wouldn’t like to live on that pile.
Who are you reading/watching/listening to now?
I’m trying to think about the image in recent poetry—its lineage, psychology, and role. What does it mean to “see” by “saying”? How little a lot of writing about “Imagism” or the “Deep Image” really tells us about how complex that is. So I’m reading around in art history and optics. In literary sources, what you’d expect: Sontag, Barthes, Benjamin. Hejinian on Stein. Hopkins’ journals. Then poems, as ever. Recently, I’m loving Farid Matuk’s The Real Horse, Lindsay Turner’s Songs & Ballads, Ghayath Almadhoun’s Adrenalin (translated by Catherine Cobham), Henk Rossouw’s Xamissa. Preparing an upcoming lecture on poetry and gratitude (in connection to experiences one is perhaps not—or should not—be grateful for), an upcoming class on poetry and the news (how can poetry complement, critique, and counter journalism), converting a graduate class I taught on the contemporary essay into a contemporary essay. A lucky range of activities, with friends who escalate and correct and encourage them. Lucky to be able to work, be alive.
What’s the next thing in your life?
This dog to walk. Light through trees. Risotto.
Find out more about Savich’s work at zachsavich.com.