Monday, November 16, 2020

Interview with Poet Kip Zegers

For this blog, I interviewed the poet Kip Zegers, whose new book, A Room in the House of Time, was recently published by Dos Madres Press. I first got to know Kip when he was the coordinator of the Park Slope Food Coop in the late 1970s. Later we helped start a writing group together, the Slow Motion Poetry Collective. I’ve always found Kip’s thoughts eye-opening. 

Kip Zegers

Q. What craft issues do you feel you are still learning about as a poet? How do poets continue to polish their craft once they find a style that feels natural and authentic?
Kip Zegers: My sense is that techniques are what we figure out in order to write the next poem. After we have read a fair amount, and written, there are ways of going forward that we figure out to solve a problem. Some of these come from reading, others rise from the moment that drove us to work. One morning I was writing in my journal, and was holding a book in my other hand as I worked. Then I looked at what I was doing. I thought, Why am I holding Frank O’Hara in my otherwise empty hand? On that day, it was obvious that I had a question to answer and the style of that poem was new to me, as part of a brand new question. The poem turned out to be the final poem in A Room in the House of Time, and the book ends with O’Hara saying, “from here you find your own way home.” 

Q. You write movingly about your childhood and your family in A Room in the House of Time. It seems there were many silences in your family, going back generations. How do you use words to write about an absence of words, and how did that feel as a writer and family member to touch some of those previously unspoken stories? 

KZ: I began, in the 1970s, with family and neighborhood. There is a way that our lives spiral up and we see, climbing, or aging, the same material from a new angle. A line from a poem in this book imagines my parents, somewhere out of  time, having once more been the material for poetry. After my father says, “‘Is he finished with us, at last?’ She answers, ‘Still so wordy, such a talker,’ and now I see them sleeping, at rest.” These lines could not have come forth 10, 20, or 30 years ago. The poem seems to have let the parents go, and those last lines were a great pleasure to discover. But it turns out I was not finished, and now I have a new poem imagining my father in heaven. So to write about quiet folks, write about what they did, then find that there are after all a few quotes that come back to you, and finally, invent what you need to find out about. I learned that last from Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior

As to how it feels to write of this, I think of a line from George Oppen, whenever the mind rises even a little it is flooded with happiness. (I don’t know where those words are to be found; I live with them as true.) 

Q. Many of these poems evoke an older generation that has passed away. What can writers learn about their families and themselves by talking about elders who are already beyond hearing the author’s words?

KZ: If we are  not writing what we already know, if we are working with valid material, we may learn a long-elusive truth. And Emerson says in his essay “The Poet,” “Genius is the activity which repairs the decay of things.” I like that he is not talking about “a genius,” he is talking about such repair as part of an action, the action is genius. My first published poem, 1975, was about my uncle Aaron, family dentist who would not use Novocain, it was about trauma. I was stepping out of being the victim, and there was my own poem standing with Marge Piercy and Lucien Stryk in a magazine called New American and Canadian Poetry. One learns to be among the dead, to see the real shadows they cast, and be alive. I learned that I had an uncle who was both deeply flawed and a good man. 

Q. Some of the poems in your book deal with the current of emotions under the surface of the everyday, such as the poem “Daily.” Since there is a quality of sameness about everyday life, how do you as a poet make daily life resonate? How do you choose which details to highlight?

KZ: My own notion is that one does not choose details, one distrusts the abstract and goes on one’s nerve, as Frank O’Hara advised. “Daily” imagines a day in the life of my wife, who is a doctor/researcher at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. I was here on the porch while she was getting started for the day, something made me listen to the sounds from two rooms away, and I just began. Somewhere along the way I thought of praise, of the house and its things helping: “Home she finds / rice and chicken waiting, warming / as best they can.” Then I thought, all that is here is alive. My memory of this is that once I got the notion of praise, I had the details, they rose up, but lines like “as best they can,” or “when she leaves the garage closes its one eye / and waits,” are both false as realism and true to what I feel about her presence in our place. In this case, and often, choosing was not the issue: paying attention is what matters, and the poem became a gift to work with. However, I believe that if I invented the details the poem would have been false. 

Q. Some of the most moving poems in your collection relate to your career as a teacher of high school English and creative writing at Hunter College High School in New York City, where you were on the faculty for 33 years. How did your teaching deepen and provide material for your own writing? 

KZ: I have always been interested in daily life, in the ordinary, for if we want folks to love poetry, it helps if poetry loves them. The hard part is to get past copying, or as William Carlos Williams put it, “Plagiarizing nature,” to seeing, to perceiving.

What I care about in the work of Thoreau is the unity in his life, the staying home because home is the true place, and his endless desire to know. You can learn in a place where you belong. 

Once I’d been teaching for a while, I made a poem about that work, that grew into work about life in that building, and both in New York City. I have a full length book, The Pond in Room 318, that explores this work. The poems of school went from portraits, to poems of place, to poems of deeper questions. As I did my teaching. I like to think that the poems and my teaching grew up together. They went from Wow, these kids, to These kids in New York, to Look what we are doing here! There is a piece in this book titled “Up,” which remembers a girl creating out of math anxiety, and the words of a boy writing about his weird family and his weird life as a middling student. What still moves me is the words, “these / of those who stood inside the difficult / and spoke.” “alchemists for real / making precious from the raw.” I was lucky to have a job to grow in; it might be that one's own growth makes new possibility for the kids. I was fortunate in meeting kids who stood up inside the difficult.  But maybe not. 

My bedrock is best expressed by George Oppen in his long poem, “Route” part 2: “There is a force of clarity, it is / Of what is not autonomous in us,” the idea that we are each part of all, that part of us and part of things (here of certain kids) connect. I did not really know the secret lives of kids, I did know our connection.

Much of who we are is autonomous, our fears and neuroses, but part of us is also warm and alive and connects. I like best the phrase of the philosopher Jacques Maritain, we have an “Illuminating intelligence,” a kind of intuition that makes it possible to connect to the things of our world. 

Kip Zegers is from Chicago, educated in Catholic schools, and later at John Carroll University, Northwestern University, Union Theological Seminary (he dropped out to be a conscientious  objector), and Hunter College (teacher training). Zegers has published numerous chapbooks and full-length poetry books, the last three from Dos Madres Press: The Poet of Schools, The Pond in Room 318, and A Room in the House of Time.

Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies

Zack’s most recent translation, Bérénice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris by Isabelle Stibbe

Other posts on writing topics:

How to Get Published

Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration
Types of Closure in Poetry