Matthew Zapruder tells us this is what he wants engraved on his tombstone.
“At least, occasionally, he put his ass in the chair and did some work,” is how he embellishes it, later.
I’ve arrived late and not a single empty chair remains around the table. I sit for several long moments on the concrete floor as a kind of penance. Eventually, he says: “I can’t have you on the floor for an hour,” and a kind woman sitting up near the front of the room finds another chair, drags it over. Now I am up close.
“Writing is not about ideas,” he tells us. “Writing is about language. Do not worry about the what. Worry about the how. The what always emerges from the how.”
We talk about language. Word by word. We talk about Ezra Pound’s translation of the Chinese poet Li Po. How he transcribed the notebooks of the Portuguese scholar Ernest Fenellosa, who had been studying the Chinese poet with Japanese scholars. How Pound knew no Chinese, but word by word and with literal dictionary meanings, created a work that is both a textual and cultural translation.
His translation of “The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter” is likely familiar to any English major. These lines, their beautiful rhythms, the quiet longing, return to me as I read:
If you are coming down through the narrows of the river Kiang,
Please let me know beforehand,
And I will come out to meet you
As far as Cho-fu-Sa.
“You don’t start with a feeling. You start with language. You may begin with a feeling that generates the language. The language is what moves you into the poem.”
He tells us that trying to begin with an idea is the surest way to writer’s block.
“And it’s so unpleasant,” he says. “Life is so unpleasant already,” he says. “Must writing also be unpleasant?”
I suppose I have a little crush. I can say that, can’t I? A 40-year-old married woman can have a crush (and can use the word “crush”) once in a while? I follow him on twitter, where he talks about poetry and writing and music and occasionally, his political leanings.
I picked up Come On All You Ghosts at a bookstore in Paris last fall and I read it as my husband and I waited for a table at a tiny creperie in Marais. It was early evening. The light was just beginning to fade. There was a park across the street from the restaurant and we thought we could sit there on the benches, but when we approached we saw that the gates were locked. So instead, we sat on the low stone wall that encircled the park and read.
I won’t pretend to be able to talk about all the poems here, but these lines from the title poem have lingered in my head since then and emerge from time to time like a bit of memory or an image from a dream:
I hear a billion workers
in my skull
hammering nails from which
all the things I see
get hung. But poems
are not museums,
they are machines
made of words,
And so to hear him say: “Get interested in the how, in the mechanisms of language,” calls to mind those lines, too. Machines made of words. Yes, of course. Of course.
“The least of your problems,” he says, “are the ideas.”
He gives us a little exercise. Take a line (we begin with the title of the Pound translation: “The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter”) and break it down into its basic units.
What is the first word of the title? he asks.
And the second?
Two nouns functioning as an adjective.
And so on.
Then create a new line using those units: Start with an article. Then two nouns functioning as an adjective. Another noun (a person, perhaps?) Colon. An article. Another noun (a type of communication?)
He gives us a few minutes and I want to make something dazzling, but the best I can come up with is:
The Donut-Eater’s Despair: A Lament.
He says: “When you focus on language, trust that your preoccupations, your humanness will emerge.” Clearly, as the above indicates, this is true.
We try more lines, more titles. We talk about rhetorical terms and their usefulness as tools to generate language.
“Just to get you to a sentence. Which will get you to the next sentence. So that you can say that you are working. So that you’re not just sitting there fretting. I organize my whole life,” he says, “to minimize fretting.”
He paces a bit in front of the whiteboard. He leans forward with his hands on the desk. He scans the room. “You can tell your mother, your partner, your lover, that you are working. You can say, at least, that you worked.”
We are approaching the end of the hour and he begins to collect the papers he has brought with him. “At least you can say that you worked.”