A Dialogue de Sourds with the New York Times Magazine Poetry Editor
Matthew Zapruder is the new poetry editor for the New York Times Magazine, as well as MFA director, creative writing at Saint Mary’s College of California and editor at large at Wave Books. His words are taken verbatim from his self-introduction in the New York Times. Since the latter would NEVER publish my alternative view, I’ve woven it into this dialogue de sourds. PM, poète maudit, is my cartoonist sobriquet.
MZ: As I started to choose the poems that will appear each week in the New York Times Magazine over the next year, I imagined who might be reading them.
PM: You mean like, uh, well-to-do, politically-correct, bourgeois poets and their groupies—you know, other safe, pensioned, and cocooned academics like you, who have opened wide and just said ahh to poetry?
MZ: I thought about how life is already so complicated and busy, and how, on Sunday mornings, people might want to just sit and drink coffee and quietly move through the paper. I thought that people might turn the page and see a poem and say: “Oh, no. Something else I have to do. Except for the crossword, I thought I was safe.”
PM: Well, any poem you likely decide to select will inevitably be a safe one! So, no problem, people, the poem next to that ole crossword puzzle will just make the safe space a bit larger. Yawn! More coffee, please!!!
MZ: For most of my life as a poet, I have been thinking about this very moment, when a poem enters into someone’s life. Most of the time, this happens in expected situations: a classroom, a wedding, a funeral. Maybe we have even chosen to pick up a book of them. But I believe that poems are meant to be a part of our lives. They are made up of our language, reconfigured and rearranged to make our minds move in different directions than they ordinarily would. At their best, they make something close to a waking dream.
PM: Well, for most of my life as a poet, I haven’t been thinking about that at all. Instead, I’ve been trying to shake up the comfy lives in which far too many poets like you dwell. The poems I write are sure as hell NOT going to be part of your life in the ivory tower, though they’d probably make your mind move in a different direction if you didn’t keep the door so firmly shut and would probably be a waking j’accuse nightmare for you and those like you.
MZ: It’s great to have the chance to put poems in front of people in the midst of what they are otherwise doing. I like the idea that someone would turn the page of the magazine and see a poem, and that those words in the poem would have a chance to follow up on, refract, amplify, reconfigure the language of culture and news. The poem gets a chance to exist in a place that is not isolated or rarefied.
PM: You mean it’s great to have the chance to be an official gatekeeper of poetry and serve as a filter for what poems people will have in front of them. And how does a poem get a chance to exist in such a place when it is created by an isolated (insulated) entrenched ivory-tower academic like your first choice, rarefied Poet Laureate of the US Congress, Juan Felipe Herrera?
MZ: Poetry is in fine shape now, as it has always been, even though there is a small industry of people periodically informing us it’s dead.
PM: Oh my, so I must belong to that small “birther” industry of literary deniers, who argue that poetry has indeed become a protected safe space to the extent that whoever dares openly question and challenge the ineluctable flaccidity of the poetry—the dead poetry of zombie poets—presented to the public by the gatekeepers of the literary established order, will be ostracized and banned.
MZ: Nevertheless, people go on writing it in all sorts of different ways. Why? I guess we need it. Virginia Woolf wrote, “The poet is always our contemporary.” I believe she meant that poets, for all time and in all lands, have always found the places in language that continue to be common to human experience.
PM: Well, I write it not out of some vague “need,” but rather as part of my citizen duty to decry corruption in all its forms. For me, it is not the language (forme), but the message (fond)! And why choose such a vacuous quote? Well, it does seem to back the flaccidity of your self introduction. How about this quote by Charles Bukowski? After all, he’s now perfectly acceptable as part of the literary establishment. You can find him on the Academy of American Poets website. It really sums up your MO perfectly. “Poetry has long been an in-game, a snob game, a game of puzzles and incantations. It still is, and most of its practitioners operate comfortably as professors in our safe and stale universities.”
MZ: Poems are, in and of themselves, an assertion of both a particular imagination and a common humanity, the possibility that my dreams can be yours, and vice versa.
PM: Now what the hell does that mean? My dreams of inclusion will never jive with your dreams of excluding poets like me. And your dreams of obtaining and publishing badges and names could never have jived with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s… you know, as in “I am ashamed to think how easily we capitulate to badges and names [Herrera], to large societies [Academy of American Poets] and dead institutions [St. Mary’s College]. Every decent and well-spoken individual affects and sways me more than is right. I ought to go upright and vital, and speak the rude truth in all ways.” Rude truth? Well, we ain’t gonna find that in your poesy selections for the New York Times Magazine!
MZ: My exciting and somewhat daunting task is to pick, each week, a poem and write a very short introduction, which somehow manages to open up the poem without interfering with it. When I think of these introductions, I imagine them as little keys that will open the lock of the poem. And each time, just like in those old stories we heard as children, once the lock opens, the lock and key will disappear, and it will be clear that nothing was ever locked at all.
PM: Locks that have to be opened by special gatekeepers of poetry? No wonder poetry doesn’t matter! No wonder it’s dead! Rather than stories heard as children, how about stories heard as adults, you know, like censorship and banning by the Academy of American Poets, Banned Books Week hypocrisy, ivory- tower speech codes, etc., etc.? Now, how about a little rare honesty and tell us what poems and poets you will kneejerk reject in the name of inclusivity from appearing in the New York Times Magazine? How about stepping aside from the gate for a moment and allow this dialogue de sourds ,as clarion for new openness, real inclusion, and vigorous literary debate, enter into your realm?
MZ: [Silence is golden…]… or [adhominize me as angry, jealous, hateful, illiterate… in an effort to entirely divert attention away from the points made in my argumentation]