This interview by H.L. Hix continues a series that began as multi-question interviews but now has taken the form of one-question “mini interviews.” To ask a series of questions about a book is to keep returning to the book and thus to emphasize its opacity, to regard it as one would regard, say, a painting. To ask a single question, Hix tells himself, is to emphasize the book’s transparency, to regard it as one would a window, as what offers a vista, what frames for us a world. The subject of this interview is Zach Savich’s The Firestorm (Cleveland State University Poetry Center).
H. L. Hix: The formulation “I suppose I do believe in nothing” is repeated several times in your book (for example, as part of the first line of three poems in a row on pages 26-28). For me, the word “do” stops me, and makes me think about the formulation, asking myself whether this is an affirmation or a negation. Consequently, I want to ask you, about the whole book: are these poems affirming or negating? (Obviously, this is a false dilemma, so feel free to reject the very form in which the question is asked.)
Zach Savich: False, perhaps, but fair to ask. I ask it of many books: what world do they posit, what do they leave out. Do they do what I, lover of TV and walks and coffee, believe only books can do and expand from that? And I ask it, foolishly, of my life, while knowing that, you know, the tomato sauce may negate the recipe but affirm the wine: the coin has two sides one spins among, so Washington appears to eat the eagle eating him. . . I hope my poems posit knowledge that is similarly spun, aglint, in motion, not of balance but of exchange; not of a position but of positioning. As, in one’s emotional life, contradictions do not necessarily conflict but gesture toward a self that’s odd, but not at odds. The self less a character than a setting. Today I felt at home in the afterlife. Today I felt suspiciously alive! Me: the setting where such weather blew; I hope my poems also are. . .
More concretely, I hope the poems in The Firestorm affirm in the manner that vividly observed particulars, through being, appear to: less by saying yes than through an insistent, inexhaustible here is. A nod that points, rather than assents. Particularly: since the easiest forms of affirmation can feel insufficient (“I saw the geese and knew nature loved me”), and yet the things of the world can still call one to love or what may be love today.
Is that more concrete? Maybe this will be: I wrote these poems in some years I believed all ideas are only so many words, shrapnel of mood, tires desire is the air and lugnuts of. I knew things, sure, but all things being equal, they were all equally things. I believed I had no ideas, no thoughts, only senses that compose: wind on my face, so I have a face. Thus, poetry, through the senses, composes us, but one must be actively, raptly embodied yet void for such sensations to actually strike, or tune, the mind’s kite’s fabric so brightly who can tell what’s kite, what’s string, what’s wind. As one of the poems says, I thought there were no actual narratives, economics, or theology, only the geologic triad: heat, pressure, time. Which of those do I wish for today?
So, I hope the poems affirm such capacious enlivened sense, complex daily ardor, clarity as in distinct not comprehensible and a lie. The mouth speaks warm against my throat. I lean toward its heat; that’s the better part of language. The poems preserve, the poems incite. One is in a country we cannot map except by moving through, large enough to speak our minds in. (Hilary Plum and I discussed some related ideas of “not knowing” and sense in our review of Filip Marinovich’s second book here.)
I should confess: I was driven to such thoughts, grumpily!, in part in over-reaction to what felt/can feel like a current self-satisfied and knowing period poetic style, which strip mines narrow voicey veins of shallow behavioral mayhem (akin to undergraduates’ school-sanctioned tailgating, while the forces of righteousness, me and my friends, tailgate nowhere near a game, let’s say. . . ), of nonchalant positings, nonchalant metamorphoses, to taxidermy the hardier world of saying/sight into predictably flat declarational orthodox “imaginings” that transmit a pose, but leave out most of what one loves in language or the world. Cool kid stuff I’ll strawman vaguely here, partly because—if I’m talking about any actual poems, I’m talking about the work of some of my best friends, who will laughingly hold out a net here as I fall, some of my favorite work, lumping it, unreasonably, but the poems in my book did come from trying to affirm/negate through such churning, mad at what felt like rote modes of innovation, rote modes of wildness, as I’ve been before at rote modes of plodding verse. I mean: even if I was an overwound weathervane toward these perceived trends, I wanted my poems to affirm, to be accountable to, how actually vivid, rich, effulgent, difficult, brief, fragile, full true sense is. More than the t-shirt slogan flash of, say, “the geese are trampolines in my brain’s trampoline,” which feels so similar to the similarly stoned and world-shy affirmations of (strawman) epiphanic free verse: “The geese are sad calendars of my life.” (Might as well thrash out at dull formalism, too: “The geese fly off into the flightless night!”) That is, I can delight in such postures (and jealously wish I could write in them), even if there’s so much they can’t convey, that any good walk can, but I’ve also honestly felt geese stir winds that, listen, graze me. The world, all its negations, have felt live in those unsimple whooshes, with nothing to do with ideas, poetry, its “communities,” my asetheticized thrashings: I hope my poems, if they shift in flight, at least sometimes whoosh a bit like that. (This isn’t about geese at all.)
To believe instead in the accruing senses, despite the fashions of any poetic year, or any self: the pupil changes, despite itself, with light; nerves trellis at the sight of any winding thing; how soon we come untongued, how near the catastrophe, castles, gore, duller dooms, all recalls something else, mistakes. . .
The poet overstates? Only in context. Anyway, I liked the line you quoted because
1) It starts with an end. I wanted those poems to begin with a resting place and stir, rather than wandering to a safe exit. To show the more honest experience of—you come to a conclusion, prove something, now what? Through the emergency door—into the calm and consequential day and shrimp-flavored air and what do you know…
2) But I should admit that “do” is probably there because it adds an iambic lilt. Conservative sound slipping an affirmation in (“form is what affirms” – Merrill)? More, I think, that attending to the syllables caught the sense I meant: a feeling less of setting an idea down than looking up after it. “I do” weds us to the present. Not the ideal but the here, the now. (The first poem in that set, not in the book, was in a less roughed up rhythm.)
3) Earnestly, for all my grumpiness, I wanted to believe such a present, as in that astonished and raptly emptied line, cared for with enough intent, passionately enough, could render something tender and—yes!—transformative, an art equal to life, which of course is a curse and delight, as anything good. I look at the book now and see the record of trying this, of trying to believe it, that desire and depiction aren’t failures but things one fails by not wanting them ardently enough: I do believe, I suppose, that art can do this, can record the err toward surge, the effort of nailing in place boards that let wind in, building a fish ladder so we can see the salmon leap. Words like bits of stained glass hung in stretching taffy. Which, if it’s stretched by hand, becomes a way to also see the human hand. Poems like a fountain in which even the walls, even the statues sporting, even the streets leading to it—are also water, but what incredible detail on that river god’s abs, how refreshing to lick. I hope the book affirms to one reading alone, who wants books to do what I hope they do: show me all I’ve known is real but that isn’t all that is.
Zach Savich is the author of the poetry collections Full Catastrophe Living (University of Iowa Press, 2009), Annulments (Center for Literary Publishing, 2010) and The Firestorm (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2011), as well as a book of lyric prose, Events Film Cannot Withstand (Rescue Press, 2011). He serves as an editor with The Kenyon Review and with Rescue Press’s Open Prose Series.