In episode 6 of Phoned-In, BOMB’s poetry reading by phone podcast, Luke Degnan talks to Portland, OR poet Zachary Schomburg about our generation’s obsession with animals and how poetry lends itself to collaboration. Also, Zach reads some poems.
Luke Degnan: You seem to have an obsession with the forest and trees. Can you explain why or where this comes from?
Zachary Schomburg: It’s not as if I spend more time than other people in the forest. My forests aren’t real forests I suppose. They’re kind of these dark, dream forests. When I picture them, they’re made of the trees you see in Tim Burton movies. They’re twisty and unreal. I like to spend time in forests. I like to go hiking and that sort of thing. It feels very different when I write a poem. It’s not the same kind of nature. When I write these narrative poems, often times when they exist in poems, they feel like dreams to me. In fact some of them very much are dreams. In a lot of my dreams I’m being chased, and for whatever reason if I’m not being chased through a building or some childhood home or something like that, I’m often being chased through these kinds of forests. Wherever the place is, it’s kind of confusing. It’s easy to get lost in it. It’s easy to hide in it. It’s very dense. A forest is the perfect setting for these sorts of chase scenes, in my daydreams and these dreams that I consciously make up and in my actual dreams as well.
LD: Why do you think our generation is obsessed with critters? Wolves, birds, bears, LOLcats, panda bears, animals in general…
ZS: I have a lot of those. You’re right, I’m certainly not the only one. For me, they’re a way of putting characters into my poems and still give my protagonist the ability to be lonely and isolated. It’s really important that even in the poems that I’m writing, my protagonist, the I, is the only human or the only person we can identify with in each of the poems. A lot of times they’re about loneliness and searching. In order to have these other characters they almost have to be animals, and if they’re not animals at least some kind of inanimate object that becomes a character in a poem. Animals, to me, are very…I’m interested in them I suppose. Especially bears and owls and jaguars and certain kinds of insects and wolves. I don’t know why, but I think that a lot of the critters I just named are critters that are associated with the night. I’m constantly writing poems at night. I can’t write a poem while the sun is up. I guess these are the creatures I think of when I’m writing.
These animals that our generation mentions are kind of like representations of these actual animals. I don’t think they’re real. For example, I don’t think people are interested in real owls, but they might name their band The Owls. It’s this fascination with myth or mythic creatures. The creatures themselves aren’t necessarily mythic, but there is a strange other reality where the animals exist in. Almost like they’re fantastic animals in some way. I think it might be a result of these children’s books that we used to read. There’s this turn in literature that has happened in the last few years where we try to capture the tone and even the narrative style and sometimes even the exact narratives of very simple children’s books. I wonder if it’s this new return to try to recapture innocence, recapture our childhood, in the same way that we would recapture a children’s book as if we want to live in the world of the children’s book that we read when we were six years old.
LD: You’re involved in many different collaborative pursuits. You recently performed with a band, you’ve worked as and with an illustrator, and you’ve worked on Team Sad and two other upcoming chapbooks. What draws you to collaboration?
ZS: Poetry is about connection. It’s about communicating something that’s kind of impossible to communicate directly. You really have to involve other people. I collaborate with other poets, particularly Emily Kendal Frey. It’s a way that she and I are able to communicate with one another. It feels like playing a game. We’re able to play this poetry game with each other and relate to each other through poetry and create these things that I could never have created by myself because I don’t think that way. To be able to bounce my ideas off someone else really produces something that’s impossible.
With other mediums I think it’s really exciting. Like you mentioned, illustration, music, film, I put out a collection of poem films recently. There’s something that happens, this third thing that happens, when you mix poetry and something else together. A third thing happens. I’m not sure exactly what it is, but it’s new and there’s energy there. To me that’s pretty exciting and I’d be a fool not to jump at these chances. That was a dream of a lifetime. That was so amazing to stand in front of Typhoon, the band, and read poems while they played very loudly with driving, dark, orchestral music. I have no musical talent at all. It was great to get to live my fantasy of fronting a band.
LD: When you titled The Man Suit, were you thinking of Pablo Neruda’s poem “Nothing But Death”? It includes the line, “Death arrives among all that sound like a shoe with no foot in it, like a suit with no man in it.”
ZS: No. In fact you’re the first person to ever mention that to me. I’m a Neruda fan, and I’m really excited that you just brought that up. In fact what they bring up to me all of the time is, Does this have something to do with Donnie Darko? I’ve never watched Donnie Darko. I was always kind of disappointed like I thought, Oh no, I’ve written the Donnie Darko book, and I didn’t know it. I still haven’t seen it to this day because I’m kind of afraid that it’s too close.
LD: How do you think a person finds home?
ZS: I think we can try and try, and the way I try is to do it through poetry. I try to find home through poetry or at least write about that process. A lot of the poems, particularly in Scary, No Scary, are about exactly that, the title poem being one of the more direct ones. It’s a concept that doesn’t really exist in any tangible way, though I want it to. So it’s constantly disappointing when you can’t find it. When you find out that your memories are actually false memories or are skewed in some way, you feel that your history is not quite exactly right. It can be one of the most terrifying and tragic realizations when you realize that there isn’t such a thing. It’s something that I’m constantly discovering and finding out but still constantly trying to ignore in my search for some kind of home. I’m doing that through poetry, and I’ll probably write about this for my entire life.
Zachary Schomburg is the author of Scary, No Scary (Black Ocean 2009), The Man Suit (Black Ocean 2007) and several chapbooks, including, most recently, collaborations with Emily Kendal Frey called Team Sad (Cinematheque Press 2010), Feelings Using Wolves (Small Fires Press, forthcoming), and Ok, Goodnight (Future Tense Books, forthcoming). His translations from the Russian of the poems of Andrei Sen-Senkov have been published in Circumference, Jacket, Harp & Altar, and Aufgabe among others. A DVD of his poem-films, Little Blind Thing, is now available from Poor Claudia. He and Mathias Svalina co-edit Octopus Magazine and Octopus Books. He lives in Portland, OR.
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