When I was in my twenties, my grandparents finally moved out of the house my mother had grown up in. In the attic where we used to sleep as kids, and where my grandfather would come in at bedtime and sing “Goodnight, Irene” to me and my younger brother and sister as we lay in a row in our little cots, I had found my mother’s typewriter, a Royal Quiet Deluxe, perfectly preserved from her high school days. My grandfather was the sort of person who would make sure it was in pristine working order, and when I opened the case, the keys gleamed. It didn’t even need a new ribbon. It made a satisfying, well-oiled clack.
I lugged it to the house I was living in on School Street, in Northampton, Massachusetts. I had moved from California back to the same weird little valley where I had gone to college, to go to graduate school for poetry. Thankfully I did not yet know that a manual typewriter was a writerly cliché. For a while, the typewriter just sat there in the corner of my room.
I was still toiling away, writing a lot of poems the way I used to: choose a subject, and try to write something “about” it. Use a computer. Those poems always felt labored and ponderous. No matter what I said, the thoughts in them were never new. Nothing was being added by my writing. I had already figured it out, and mostly it was banal and obvious. Death is sad. The city, if you have not been informed, is lonely at night. In it, other people are mysteriously uninterested in me, which is sad and lonely for me, and for them, whether or not they know it.
Occasionally I would try to let things go completely, and exert as little control as possible over the language. Those poems were a mess, and I would stare at them afterward with bored incomprehension.
My bedroom on the second floor of that house on School Street tilted alarmingly. A row of poorly sealed windows looked out onto the street and other crooked little houses. A giant morning glory had taken over the backyard, and I marveled at how its purple flowers would open to admit the pollinators, and then close in the afternoon and die. The next day new flowers would do the same thing.
Winter came, and a cold wind constantly blew through the room. Sometimes flakes of snow would somehow appear inside. A ring of frost on the lip of a glass. I was growing more and more frustrated with the destabilizing ease with which I was able to continually write and erase words on a computer. Things were always happening too fast, and changes were being made and unmade with alarming frequency. The poems, in their clean, professional fonts, looked so much better than they were. More often than not, I couldn’t stop myself tinkering long enough to figure out what felt right and true to me. I desperately needed to slow down.
My new existence felt barely tethered. I thought nothing in my life mattered, and I was willing at a moment’s notice to alter it. This made me careless and cruel. An equivalent lack of responsibility manifested in my writing. I was always willing, recklessly, to change anything in the poem to make it more musical, more strange, always skating along the edge of irrelevance. While this makes one an awful boyfriend, friend, brother, or son, I think it is an excellent place to be as a young artist. It hones one’s skill and teaches the line between intuitive meaning and pointless weirdness.
When I gained a small audience of fellow poets in graduate school—who became friends who deeply mattered to me, and whose work I read, too—something began to change. It would be a long time before I’d come to understand how much these connections meant, in life and in writing. But their presence affected me deeply as a writer. Not only was I finally in a place where other people were serious about poetry, I began to think about them while I was writing. I was able to imagine them moving through the poem. I would move things around and imagine what the effect would be on my readers. And I moved through their poems too, marking where I was baffled or uncertain, always considering the possibility that things could be in a different order. On the one hand, I felt a growing freedom and understanding of the composition process, which could sometimes feel dizzying. On the other, there was the actual, physical presence of readers who gave direction to that freedom.
In a desperate attempt to get away from the limits of my own emotions and experiences, I began walking around the quaint little town, along streets canopied by trees full of blossoms, in a permanent unhappy daze, gathering lines and transcribing in my notebook whatever I heard in my mind. What I saw became words, not just to describe what I was seeing. I was also collecting stray thoughts, memories, observations, jokes, comments, questions, strange bits of language on signs or the sides of passing trucks; whatever I saw, overheard, and thought, with no discrimination. Each house seemed to emanate a friendly, familial light. I told myself I wasn’t writing poetry, just lines, most of which were not particularly promising, but I kept collecting.
I didn’t realize it at the time, because I was only vaguely familiar with surrealism, but like those misunderstood idealists I was trying to maintain a more or less constant dream state while I was awake, so that many lines would come to me and bridge the gap between reality and the unconscious. I was also obsessed with a particular group of artists, Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), whose most famous member was Wassily Kandinsky. They operated in the space between figurative art and abstraction, and their gorgeous, colorful canvases shimmered with the twin energies of representation of the world and the intimation of all that was beyond mere representation.
I wanted my poems, like those paintings, to reflect and engage with reality while also pointing always to something beyond it, something I did not truly understand or grasp but could feel was there. I desired the presence of both worlds in my work, and had no idea how to summon either, much less both. Out of desperation I began setting my alarm earlier and earlier and getting up just to assemble those lines, along with others that I had written earlier and cut out of poems that were not working. Most of the lines were not good. I wasn’t sure what to do with them, other than retype them and try to move them around, again and again, until something felt like a poem.
I signed up for a workshop with James Tate, whom I worshipped. The feeling was not mutual. We both suspected I could not write any good poems, and the evidence appeared weekly. It was early spring and, I remember, very cold. Winter dragged on. I brought in poem after poem, and like the weather they just got worse. One week I read with a growing sense of dread as I heard my voice in the room, and Jim looked at me for what seemed like a very long time. Then, with one hand ceremoniously turning the paper over in the air, he placed it with exaggerated care back on the table, facedown, saying just one word: “No.”
In rearranging these lines, I wasn’t writing poems exactly, just trying to connect things from different times I had walked around to see what suggested itself. I was looking for anything that meant something. I searched through them for clues or signs, a faint suggestion of a scene or situation.
I did this for many weeks without much success. Then, without warning, I realized that the lines were collecting themselves into a scene, like in an auditorium when an orchestra is warming up before the performance. Those disorganized sounds become the real performance, the one that happens before the official one begins. The audience rises and applauds. Guided by something nameless, I kept writing and putting things together with a new instinct, or maybe an old one that had at last emerged. The poem felt in some way both lighter and, for the first time, essential, though (or perhaps because) I couldn’t say what I was doing.
I brought the poem to class, but strangely, for the first time, I did not care what anyone said. After I read it, Tate looked up at me, and gave an enigmatic “Huh.” Then he spoke for a long time about what he liked. But I did not really listen. I had already learned something about writing poetry, something that could never be forgotten.
In that little room overlooking School Street, surrounded by snow, I began to type many versions of whatever poem I was writing, over and over again, on the Royal Quiet Deluxe, which was not quiet at all. Each time I was done I would yank the poem dramatically out of the platen and stare at it, maybe making some marks. If I wanted to see what the change would look like, I’d have to retype it, even if it was just a single word. The process was slow, meditative, hypnotic. I could work for many hours like this. The sound of a typewriter is unmistakable. It resonates in a room, timelessly, through doors, into the world. The sounds dominated my skull entirely. I began not to think about but to hear how necessary each word was or wasn’t: if I skipped something to avoid typing it for the fiftieth or hundredth time, and then when I read it, it sounded fine, I would never look back.
I also had a secret, immutable rule. If I ever mistyped a word— horse for house, ward for word, vary for very, or find for fine—I would have to keep it. It was a pact I made with myself, to trust my unconscious, that what seemed to be an error was actually a sign. Occasionally I would accidentally place my fingers on the keys incorrectly and type an unpronounceable word or string of gibberish, which I would then have to try to decipher.
The poems changed, becoming more focused. There are at least fifty and up to several hundred typewritten versions of each of those poems in boxes somewhere. It was when I came at last upon very simple poems, short ones by Vasko Popa, by the Greek poets Yannis Ritsos and C. P. Cavafy, and by the Poles Wisława Szymborska and Zbigniew Herbert, that I started to see the possibilities of a simple, clear narrative that allowed for both worldly and dreamlike events. I wrote that way for a while, imagining a reader, and being as deliberate as possible. I was also writing for myself, to find out what I would say. I was like a child, finally hearing the stories I had wanted all along.
The combination of gathering lines constantly by hand and returning to them to see what emerged was both elongated and focused by using the typewriter. Plus it was just fun to pound the keys hard and hear the satisfying clacking sound. I was, at last, working.
An excerpt from Story of a Poem: A Memoir, forthcoming from Unnamed Press this April.
Matthew Zapruder is the author of five collections of poetry, including Come On All You Ghosts and Father’s Day, as well as Why Poetry, a book of prose. In 2000, he cofounded Verse Press, now known as Wave Books, where he is editor at large and edits contemporary poetry, prose, and translations.
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