Over the summer, Andy Fitch interviewed 60 poets about their latest books. Ugly Duckling Presse will publish these collected interviews in 2013. This interview focuses on Schomburg’s book Fjords Vol. 1 (Black Ocean). Recorded June 22nd. Transcribed by Maia Spotts.
Andy Fitch: “Fjord” is one of the best words. But do you think of a fjord’s sheer surface as somehow analogous to these compacted prose poems? Also, from what I remember, fjords now have disappeared in some places and popped up in others. Do you envision a Volume 2 following this one? Or does your title Fjords Vol. 1 make just as much sense on its own? Should there be more room in life for Volumes 1, just Volume 1 of something?
Zachary Schomburg: That title has little to do with literal fjords. I love the word’s sound, and wanted to say this word for the rest of my life when I talk about my poems. A fjord emerged in one of the manuscript’s earliest pieces. That poem appears first in the book. I wrote this poem knowing its first-person subject would experience death, but unsure where this death might come from. I think I wrote it late at night, and wanted to finish, and the phrase “from the fjords” sounded funny to me. It seemed such a strange place for this death to come from. So I first titled the book “From the Fjords.” Then the concept of fjords became much more interesting—not for those fjords actually receding across the world, but as this word that means “from where the death comes.” I listened to a lot of black metal at the time, and “fjord” seems like a part of the metal dictionary. It also sounded analogous to how poems, or prose poems, look and feel to me. I wanted to say, these poems are fjords. A chapbook came out called From the Fjords, and I liked already knowing that the full manuscript would get titled just Fjords, straight up. The idea of adding Vol. 1 came right before publication. I didn’t want to stop writing fjords. I knew for my whole life I could write these kinds of poems. Unlike my first two books, Fjords offers a distinct formula. I wrote each poem in one sitting. I have several ways to plug in information to make these poems exist. They resemble each other. So when we added Vol. 1 I definitely thought I would write a Volume 2 and a 3 and 4. Or Volume 3 could come next or whatever. It interests me how books fit together and accumulate and fulfill their own role within a catalog. I have this fantasy of putting out books in volumes.
AF: Well for me the word “fjords” conjures scenes of vast landscapes stretching beyond the horizon. So I appreciate that you don’t give us just one fjord. We pass through fjords into more fjords. Perhaps it makes most sense to start with the index. How does your inclusion of an index change this book’s disciplinary or genre status? Did particular books or types of books prompt you to add an index—here and in your previous collections? For Fjords, did these short poetic sequences (clustered around overlapping topics) emerge before the index, in response to the index, in conjunction with the index? Would the name “Barbara” have repeated if you had skipped the index? Or did you find yourself recycling words like “Barbara” and think, I should keep an index?
ZS: All three of my books have an index. For The Man Suit I decided to add an index while assembling the manuscript. I used this as an exercise—to catalogue which images repeated, so I could get rid of those that only happened once, and play with those that happened two or three times, allow them to appear five or six times, and create more themes. Originally this idea came from Joshua Clover’s The Totality for Kids, though that book’s index operates differently from mine, more like an independent poem. And I didn’t know if a publisher would allow mine to stay, but needed to do an index just so I could know my book, know what it contained. I found I had many crutches. I’d used the word “cry” a lot in that first manuscript, for example, which I’d never noticed before. Then I didn’t plan to add an index to Scary, No Scary. I thought, that’s The Man Suit’s thing. But it seemed helpful as an exercise again, and I think the book became better for it. My books have turned into (though this wasn’t a plan) projects that offer a few themes or images that recur throughout. With Fjords, I wanted the project to feel more like James Tate’s Memoir of the Hawk, where the same formula, not the same image, moves through the book. I expected these poems just to share the same form. And most include death. Or many offer some kind of death which becomes synonymous with the word “fjord” in a way. I thought an index for Fjords would just have the word “death” and say, pages 1-60. But again, when it came time to publish, drafting an index provided a way of reading slowly, one word at a time. For the name “Barbara”: I’d wanted to use it much more. I discussed this with my editor, Janaka Stucky. Originally many women’s names appeared because these poems respond to dreams (both other people’s and my own), and the names come from those dreams. But as I finished the book I wanted to change all names to one name in particular. I had at least four or five Barbaras. We ended up switching some to just the word “woman” or whatever. Still I like the idea of “Barbara” returning in part because an index exists.
AF: Of course Fjords’ index points to the subjective, interpretive nature of all indices. The poem “Fjords of Deaths,” for example, gets filed under neither “Fjords,” nor “Death,” but only under “Killing.” Can you discuss the index as a perspectival, analytic project? And also, more generally, your indices help to clarify my thinking about your poetics. I sense that these poems could get translated relatively easily—without serious hang-ups concerning local details or idiomatic phrasings. They seem, as you’ve suggested, image- and theme-driven to a large extent. Does an index foreground this thematic nature of the project? Does it gesture toward the way that our encounter with (or projection of) themes constructs meaning?
ZS: Yeah. This index does remain functional, but not in the way it would in nonfiction or a science textbook. Because I don’t necessarily want these poems read or understood for their images alone. I don’t want to say, hey, you should turn to this particular poem since it contains blood, or sexual intercourse. Again, each index started with me trying to understand my poems, trying to understand their themes. I wrote Fjords’ poems separately, without considering how they might add up thematically—other than the major tropes that we die and fall in love and have our hearts broken. But this time around, I’d wanted an index that traced how these poems do touch each other. Once again the index taught me a lot. Of course this index contains many flaws if one wants to read it that way. I arranged it in a couple sittings, and probably missed many images. And it does become, as you say, interpretive. The way “Fjords of Death” gets indexed suggests both a mistake on my part, and a fact about the nature of death and the nature of fjords and what this poem tries to do. Then you asked about translating these poems. Yes they can seem extremely simple in terms of language—still I think of them as emotionally complex. A third-grader probably could read and understand them, which does make them easy to translate. Some of my favorite poets work like this, and I try to carry on that stripped, limited and oversimplified relationship to language in a poem. Of course I also love to read linguistically complicated poems. But for my own poems I don’t want language to get between (to present this artifice between) myself and a reader. I want to offer specific emotions and metaphors and themes without any static at all, in part so that sense of innocence can become abstract and complex and confusing.
AF: Last index-related question: given these themes of death and of fjords, this particular index surfaces like the afterlife of the poems, the burial of the poems, the debris at the bottom of a fjord or glacier which provides traction so its icy crust can move forward. Again this fjord metaphor plays out both topically and structurally. It hints at geological friction, at subterranean movements taking place—hard to isolate within any single instant or line or poem. But then another repeated trope, though I couldn’t find it in the index, was “beach.”
AF: “Beach.” When ice appears in movies or literature, I often think of beaches. Also I’d recently read Matvei Yankelevich’s Boris by the Sea, which you published with Octopus Books, and which builds or beaches its themes in a similar fashion. Any thoughts on why “beach” doesn’t make the index?
ZS: I want to answer that, but first I like what you said about an index resembling the debris beneath the fjord, which helps create friction between themes or concepts. In the index, when I say “FJORDS (see also Death),” this offers another way for readers to sense how these terms get built on top of each other. And then that’s funny what you say about beaches. For whatever reason, I must not have underlined or circled “beach.” “Beach” doesn’t occur in my own visualization of these poems. To me, beaches suggest sun, freshness. I guess a fjord feels fresh, of course. That makes sense now. But those poems that include the word “beach” I actually wrote on a beach. While sitting beneath the kitchen sink, with the door closed, in the dark among pipes, listening to metal, I never would consider the image of a beach. That’s how I write most poems. I don’t look out at the world or at parts of my day and try to discover actual images. I close my eyes and find them. “Beach” presents one exception.
AF: In terms of preexisting narratives that echo and resonate throughout the book, Frankenstein’s ice scenes come to mind, as do the Romantic poets. Somebody floats facedown in frigid water, as Satan does in Paradise Lost. Any number of entries start with a concise, definitional, Surrealist-inflected statement, like Kafka’s short prose works (for example his piece “The Bridge”). When a poem mentions fucking a mountain I hear Bonnie Prince Billy. I even sensed a bit of Free to Be. . . You and Me in there. Yet more than all these others, the predominantly prim, anecdotal encounters with death evoke Emily Dickinson. Do you think of your work as rubbing up against some such referents? Does this type of intertextual expansion reflect your desire to write fjords on and on, into infinity?
ZS: I can’t tell if this comes from living in the 21st century, but when I start an individual poem I’ve often just watched a movie or gone to a rock show and had a few ideas related to certain moods or feelings. And I wrote this book over a two-year period during which I read a decent catalogue of books. I couldn’t point to one particular thing, but they all swirl around in my head and my heart. I’d read a lot of Russell Edson. About halfway through these poems I picked up Anne Carson’s “Short Talks.” I don’t know how she keeps it so simple, and I wanted to write like that and couldn’t. I tried and tried. A few poems in Fjords don’t make quite as much narrative sense as the rest. Those came from me trying to write like “Short Talks.” Kafka, Frankenstein, Emily Dickinson, Satan and Bonnie Prince Billy always will linger nearby. You can’t write a poem that doesn’t rub up against its referents, and I wouldn’t care to. I write poems because just reading pieces I love sometimes feels not quite enough.
AF: In terms of “Short Talks,” some fjord poems seem to present a quick series of absurd propositions. The whole of “Staring Problem,” for instance, runs: “A woman walks into a room. I am in a different room. What has happened to your eyes? she asks.” Then sometimes you’ll trace elaborate symmetries. “Behind a Wall of Animals” opens: “You are behind a wall of animals tying your shoes in the blackness. I am in front of the wall of animals tying my shoes in the brightness.” So some scenarios occur quite fast and make no sense. Others draw out a long series of logical movements. I thought both of your collaborations with Brandon Shimoda (the letter-by-letter stuff), and of the improvisatory collaborations by Joshua Beckman and Matt Rohrer. I wondered what role improvisation plays in Fjords. Do you consider each compact propositional sequence (each fjord) an experiment in some way? A scene experiment? An affect or emotion experiment?
ZS: Yeah, exactly. These structures immediately establish some sort of premise. In one line I need to set up the situation and setting and characters. That helped me think through how narrative works. Your reader has these expectations and only these expectations—since within the context of the book nothing else exists. In the same way, most of us probably can’t remember the beginnings of our dreams. We just find ourselves in a situation. And then I try to develop that logic, to develop that narrative, to push how this new world works by adding a few more facts. Usually some turn appears. We’ll learn that the world we came to expect contains a major problem or detour or surprise. Or the scope shrinks from really big to small. Some fundamental shift. . .
AF: The “I” might reveal itself as female.
ZS: Right. So a new set of expectations arises. And then an exit happens right after that. After the first line I immediately think, how can I get out of this situation? It becomes a puzzle and a fun game to play. Sometimes I only have to take a few steps in order to make the exit interesting. Other poems get more convoluted. The longer poems sometimes don’t work. But the logical, repetitive back-and-forth you mentioned (in “Behind a Wall of Animals,” or also “Someone Falls in Love with Someone”) can sustain me and stay interesting for a while. I feel that, as a poet, the less I can explain to the reader, the more interesting the reader’s experience. And I have learned a lot from collaborating. I’ve done collaborations with Brandon and Emily Kendal Frey and Mathias Svalina and Heather Christle, among others. This has taught me much about moving quickly through a poem—to reach a climactic place while constantly surprising myself at the same time. Heather says she likes to collaborate by herself and to try to surprise herself with every word. She’ll write one word and stop and think about the millions of possibilities. I’ve started developing my own poems word-by-word more in new projects. But Fjords moves line-by-line. I’d write one line with its own logic, then move some distance away from that.
AF: You’ve mentioned the logic of dreams, which reminds me you’ve also developed an illustrated manuscript. Could you discuss your relationship to drawing? Contemporary drawing often can seem mathematically precise even as it renders the conceptually impossible. So when you talk about composing word-by-word, or sentence-by-sentence, I picture how drawing can trace that type of elemental decision-making process.
ZS: For this illustrated project, called The Book of Joshua, I’ve worked with the artist Ian Huebert. And it does offer dream-logic narratives. Except in our case the entire book could be one dream. Its first pieces look no different than poems from Fjords. But they track a timeline. So a subject gets born in the first poem. He dies in the last poem. Gradually he gets older, with each poem representing a single year in his life.
AF: So kind of with Lyn Hejinian’s My Life in the background?
ZS: Yes. Ian illustrates this sequence. He has his own understanding of the ways dreams work, and how to illustrate these particular dreams. So now I get to watch my dreams reappear and how he illustrates them. When I wrote these poems, I had a vision of what Viking (the main character) looked like, and what his world looked like, and its color palette. I can’t conjure that up anymore. It’s completely changed. And I myself can’t draw. That’s probably why I write poems. They probably come from the same exact feeling. I’m teaching a group of 9th-graders in Taiwan right now. I also hung out with a few of the 5th-graders, and they wanted to play this scribble game. One boy would scribble on a piece of paper and then it was my job to make an image using that scribble. So if he drew a figure eight I might add a set of eyes and draw a face around it. I wasn’t very good at it. I didn’t know how to work with the premise he set up for me. So instead I would scribble for him. I’d draw this impossible scribble that didn’t make any sense at all. And in one second this wonderful boy named Paganini would draw an entire landscape and these people over to the side. I try to be like Paganini with my poems.
AF: And again, just with this anecdote itself, we’ve got Surrealist exquisite corpses, Rorschach tests, Romantic music’s histories of recycled variations (Paganini?) all combined into a single anecdote. How about a couple final questions concerning death’s multifarious presence in this book? Does it offer an abstracted, emptied concept, like fjord, to be manipulated according to a particular poem’s aesthetic or narrative logic? Does it build up resonance simply based on verbal or thematic repetition? Or does the concept of death permeate and underwrite this entire project’s diverse flux of moods, situations, exchanges?
ZS: Death always offers something more. I’ll write and talk and think about it for the rest of my life. It seems the one thing promised to me, and my only promise to others. It will unfold and reveal and complicate—in ways not so different from how death arrives and redirects these poems. We possess so much agency once we realize we’re just writing a poem. And the same with love. Love and death interweave in these poems. They represent our only two promises.
AF: Hopefully we get both.
ZS: I think about this every day. I think about my real death—but not in any actual or specific sense (yet). I’m fascinated by death in a literary or abstract sense as much as by actual death. It’s such a great word and, to me, an ultimate place where poems and fiction and movies go. We all share it. It scares us. We stare straight at it, and move quickly toward it—it remains such an incredible topic to think and talk about. So when I write poems, they often develop a narrative logic that progresses from beginning to end, moving through time. I’ve written like that for 15 years. I’ll lay the narrative in some slight future from where the poem begins, and I’ll often end this sequence with death. To exit a poem I’ll think, how can I kill this character (even if I’ve only written three or four lines about the person)? Perhaps we all should ask ourselves this same question. Though I’ll tell my students that if they don’t know how to end a narrative, they should find an interesting way to kill their character. I often suggest getting mauled by a bear, especially if no bear has appeared yet in the poem. Hmm. . . have you tried bear mauling, I’ll say. The Man Suit contains several endings in which the character just dies by being mauled by a bear. I’ve evolved from that, but only by using bears less. Characters still die at the end. They still must encounter their own deaths. In Fjords people keep dying throughout. The fjord poems seem less funny because they are less sudden. Hopefully they feel sad. And if I want to sadden the reader at a poem’s end, death helps, or the loss of love, or some unrequited love—which amounts to the same feeling anyway.
AF: Sure I like the French phrase “la petite mort” for an orgasm, and how your poems end both mortally and orgasmically. Here two visions of death stood out to me. There’s “everything unravels back into blood and string,” which seems to echo, in a deliberately grotesque way, preceding lyric conceptions of the ever-changing organic interrelation of all things. And then the line “Nothing happens next,” which I think follows the description of a black scarf. I thought of how, in epic poetry, hateful darkness always descends over somebody’s eyes. Does Fjords keep death as multiplicitous, again as intertextual, as it can?
ZS: Those lines you brought up were the two last lines written before the book got published. Neither appeared in the original poems. I’d wanted to change how each of these poems ended. I like your idea of how that last line about blood and string, from “Breath-Holding Championship,” puts us all in common, all from the same sort of matter. So death presents a return back to the non-existence before we were born. And when I say “we,” I mean not only the people currently alive, but even pre-humans or something.
AF: I thought of DNA.
ZS: Death for these poems provides an abstract feeling—not the death that occurs in war, or through disease, so much as this sense of inhabiting a place alone, lonely, with everything black and still and silent and without love, without the people we love. Nobody can love us back because we’ve squeezed beneath the kitchen sink and our mom isn’t standing outside the door. Our mom has died. Nobody knows we’re here. Death in Fjords feels like that. It might be peaceful. It’s quiet. The poem “The Reckoner” used to end “Then she lifts up her dress.” After some conversations I added “Nothing happens next.” To me that line reads “nothing happens next.” Something still is happening. Nothing is happening—even this.
Zachary Schomburg is the author of The Man Suit (Black Ocean 2007), Scary, No Scary (Black Ocean 2009), Fjords vol 1 (Black Ocean 2012) and the forthcoming The Book of Joshua. He co-edits Octopus Books and co-curates the Bad Blood Reading Series in Portland, Oregon.