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Paul Zarzyski: “Poetry is the bloodiest of the arts.”

New West: In the introduction to one of your chapbooks, Blue Collar Light, you describe how, despite a household largely empty of books, you became enamored with words, how your “childhood ear latched onto and savored the colloquialisms and jargon” of your hometown and family. The way you describe it, it seems a natural transition. But so few other people manage to make a similar segue, from working class limericks to real poetry. What else shaped you in your development as a poet? What brought you to where you are now?

Paul Zaryzyski: Not “limericks,” but lingo–musical language. Yes, “real poetry,” metered-out in individual words or phrases, or, when luckiest, in complete lines or even passages. I didn’t identify it as poetry back then, but I knew it was unique, creative. I understood that the best-told stories were rendered with a lilt, with rhythm, with a symphonic language that made the listeners’ tympanums dance. Phrasing. Breathstop. Locution. Locomotion. Propulsion. Explosion and implosion (the latter, defined phonetically as “the nasal release of a stop consonant in which the vowel of the final syllable is greatly reduced–eaten, sudden, mitten, etc.) I’m not talking haiku here, but rather lengthy, sometimes garrulous, narratives complete with crescendo, punch line crescendo. More spontaneity than containment. More freedom than fettering. Take that extra tuck and let the lingo buck. “Words Growing WILD,” by god. I grew up in a physical, visceral world where putting words together musically effected purt-near as much truth-’n’-beauty as putting jabs, hooks, crosses, and uppercuts together pugilistically. Pugilistic puissance. What brought me to where I am now? Roadwork in the boneyard. Long sparring sessions, sometimes 15-20 rounds per writing shift, oftentimes with myself–not mere shadow boxing, but unpulled punches right on the ol’ proverbial button, hard shots to the heart. In other words, I trained–and still train–with all the pluck and pump and gusto I can muster. It’s all about work ethic, about digging deep down within, about testing the edges. You were hoping for a literary and/or intellectual response? You’re talking to the wrong poet. Go find a writer who touts “inspiration” as his mantra, his wellspring. I subscribe to the dictum of Turkish Poet, Nazim Hikmet: “Poetry is the bloodiest of arts–one must offer his heart to others and feed on it himself.”

NW: Cowboy poetry, in its emphasis on readings, on performance art, seems to harken back to an earlier time. Maybe it goes all the way back to the Greeks. Back to the day when poetry wasn’t isolated to the academy but was a populist, often ribald, artful entertainment. It seems to me that your work appeals to this same sensibility. Who is your ideal reader? When you finish a poem, send it out into the publication aether, what are your ambitions for it?

PZ: Maybe I should feel embarrassed–finally exposed as a fraud forever–but never, not once, have I pondered my “ideal reader.” Certainly not in the midst of writing a piece–wouldn’t that be akin to an act of creative homicide-suicide? On second thought, I guess I have, in fact, considered “ideal audience” AFTER I’ve finished a poem and before taking it from the page to the stage. Yes, of course, I’m always attempting–and often failing I should add–to predict an audience’s affinity for specific subject matters and, to a lesser degree, sensibilities. I like your phrase “artful entertainment,” though I’m not sure you need to italicize artful. One of the sections in WOLF TRACKS… offers a trio of epigraphs that reflect this concept, one by Picasso that hits it I think, dead center: “I’m just a public entertainer who has understood his time.” You asked, however, who my “ideal reader” is. Which might differ from who my ideal listener is? You got your Page Poems and you got your Stage Poems and, preferably, hopefully, you got your poems that are effective equally from either venue. We could talk for hours about this notion, but let’s address instead your “publication aether” inquiry: I’M my “ideal reader” and the only aether I aspire to dazzle these days is the aether that surrounds and rises for billions and billions of light years straight above my 12 by 12 writing niche. I’m 54 ½ years old, been spurring’ words wild across the open range of the blank page and calling it “Poetry” since the early 70s, and feel I’ve evolved–for better or worse–to a place where validation from the outside world becomes less and less significant, while self-validation becomes more and more difficult or perhaps even impossible. All my ambitions these days are consumed by The Process. I talked to my painter friend, Ted Waddell, recently and when I asked him how his work was going, he replied, “I’m just trying to figure out the color green.” BINGO! Finally, the less I’m able to define audience for a poem I’ve decided to deem “finished” or “abandoned” or whatever, the more hope I probably have that the poem will find its OWN indefinable audience, if that makes any sense?

NW: In various epigrams and dedications, even in the lines of your poetry, you mention, variously, Wally McRae and Richard Hugo, James Dickey and Billy Collins. But the arena you’ve carved out for yourself seems to me entirely your own. Who else has been an influence on your work, and in what way? How would you describe your own work to an interested but unfamiliar reader?

PZ: The second of this double-pronged question is easy to field: I try hard to avoid trying to describe my work to “interested but unfamiliar readers,” because I fear I’d fail so miserably, they’d NEVER buy a book or CD. “What do you write about?” is the question most often posed, to which I have a stock response–“living and dying on Planet Earth.” Sometimes, especially if I’m in that altered state of euphoria after, say, my fourth or fifth Guinness, or my third shot of grappa or Cabo Wabo tequila, or my very first sip of a dirty martini, I’ll elaborate a tad …hangin’ and rattlin’, rockin’ and rowelin’, sinnin’ and grinnin’, fishin’ and wishin’, ebbin’ and flowin’, yearnin’ and burnin’ and learnin’ on Planet Earth and, occasionally, on Planet UniPoet, from whence I was beamed down. You ask a silly question, you get a sillier answer, right? Your inquiry about my “influences,” my gurus, however, is not one bit silly. Yes, first and foremost, Hugo. His heavy duty focus on Music and its magical or mysterious capacity to dictate or, my word, invent the Message fit me like a custom-fitted Nudie-The-Rodeo-Tailor rhinestone-studded-’n’-embroidered bucking-broncho-twister-in-the-saguaros suit jacket. Not instantly, mind you. I was green as a gunsel could be–friggin’ verdant! Still clinging to the possessive–my poem. It took a few years before I began to fully comprehend the power of Dick Hugo’s dictums: “Just concentrate on having fun with the sounds of words and don’t worry about what it is you think you have to say; in every poem there’s a constant battle going on between the music and the message–in the very best poems, neither ever wins; poems are like people–if you listen to then carefully and long enough, they’ll eventually tell you what it is they have to say.” And, prior to Hugo, there was a myriad of poets who my first mentor, David Steingass, introduced me to–Paul Zimmer, David Etter, John Woods, Gary Gildner, John Haines (who I later studied with at the University of Montana), Phil Levine, Maxine Kumin, Mary Oliver, Ellen Bryant Voight Carver, Snyder, Gallagher, Kinell, Stafford, Harrison, Hall, Wendell Berry–his “Farming: A Hand-Book,” one of the first collections Steingass urged me to devour–and how can I wait this long to list James Wright and Dylan Thomas, Madeline DeFrees and on and on and on, every individual one’s work, as well as the amalgamation of all of this incredible poetry, so critical to my ear’s fine-tuning, to my heart’s honing. I’ll never, EVER, forget my first Bukowski encounters of the umpteenth kind. Never, EVER, forget Dickey’s “Poems 1957-1967,” with its “Cherrylog Road,” the closure of which, to this day, 30+ years after my initial reading, still screams the beauty-’n’-truth of MY black leather jacketed youth:

And I to my motorcycle
Parked like the soul of the junkyard

Restored, a bicycle fleshed
With power, and tore off
Up Highway 106, continually
Drunk on the wind in my mouth,
Wringing the handlebar for speed,
Wild to be wreckage forever.

Shit-oh-dear, did I ever have great teachers, all of whom were alchemists–capable of turning commonplace experience and/or observation into literary gold. My first chapbook it titled CALL ME LUCKY–that says it all.

NW: Too often a poet’s standing among his or her peers is determined not by the work itself but by the university chair they hold, the endowments they secure. In this regard, although you have an MFA from the University of Montana, although you were a protégé of the great Richard Hugo’s, your decision to work outside this system has given you a harder row to hoe. How would your work be different if it were coming out of the university system?

PZ: Good question. Unfortunately, its impossible for me to honestly answer because I’ve been working outside the university system for purt-near two decades, aside from an occasional 3-4 day residency here and there, and I have not had the time, nor the inclination, to keep abreast of the work that IS being written by those well-ensconced, so to speak, in the academy. To boot, comparisons are, in my opinion, absurd. You tell me– is “publish or perish” still the mandate? If so, I’d likely have crashed, burned, and turned to cinder long ago. Again, my personal validation has so little to do with publication, and its synonymousness, in most minds, with success, with career, with establishing a name in the upper towers of literary hierarchy. I love what a critic-friend of Sam Shepherd said in a documentary interview: “Sam was always willing to fail and fail interesting and if you’re willing to fail interestingly, you’ll succeed.” So, with that in mind, here’s a wild, shoot-from-the-hip-’n’-holler-shit attempt at answering your question: Maybe–just maybe–the pressure to achieve notoriety via prestigious publication, and/or via winning awards and/or receiving accolades from the critic powers that be, would have curbed my willingness to risk failure? WHICH, now that I consider the prospect indepth, would likely eighty-six 90% of the work in my repertoire, my remuda, including “Why I Am Not Going To Buy A Computer,” “The Whale In My Wallet,” “Benny Reynolds’ Bareback Riggin’,” “The Bucking Horse Moon,” “Turkey Buzzards Circling Nirvana,” …I best quit before I swirl into doldrums so deep, not even the XXX industrial-size 55-gallon drum of concentrated Prozac with pop-up straw can block-‘n’-tackle me back up.

NW: No matter your discipline of art, seems like it’s natural to lament a bygone, halcyon age. Short story writers still talk about the passing of the Saturday Evening Post. Novelists describe (awestruck at the idea), the riots of people shouting for the next installment of a Dickens serial. To end on an optimistic note, what is there about the current age in poetry that’s going to be remembered fondly? That might even be romanticized by a succeeding generation?

PZ: So you want me to take a stab at “what lasts?”? Our mutual friend, Ralph Beer–one of the most talented prose writers to ever call Montana home, I know you’ll agree–dared me to field at least one of your questions with a single word. What lasts? Wykxxxski! That’s what. (Hope I got Ralph’s spelling right.) And, speaking of that amber elixir, served in the thick crystal ball-esque glasses into which I’ve peered well into the a.m. on numerous youthful out-of-the-body-sojourns, not one of which, ever, transported me into the future (no forward gear, only reverse, in a whiskey glass), I can’t even venture a guess as to what succeeding generations will celebrate from today’s poetry. Yes, these are vibrant times for the jagged-on-the-right art form, in that more is being written as well as read and listened to, than ever before. Quantity, however, is not directly proportional to quality. Or is it? WYKXXXSKI!

About Allen M. Jones

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One comment

  1. Thanks Liz & Jon,

    Better than a phone call to Great Falls! You gotta love it, you got to love Paul.

    JCD