Zachary Schomburg moved to Portland last year and dropped off a copy of his book, The Man Suit, for me to look at. A couple hours later, he was my new favorite poet. There are so many reasons why I like him: His writing is accessible but strange, he's not a big city academic, he runs his own small press, he's handsome but not too handsome, he eats meat, and he's a great live reader.
I guess another reason is that he's not really popular yet, and it gives me a sense of secret discovery — a sort of familiarity, like he's just writing for me and maybe 30 other people. But that obscurity is already fading. Since moving to Portland, he has read at a number of events and he has about eight books, in one form or another, coming out this year. Well, three anyway. His work constantly pops up in magazines and on web sites and he's also becoming known for his translations and collaborations with other poets. (Visit his blog for more of his work.)
Schomburg is reading at Smallpressapalooza on Monday, March 16th, at 5:15pm. I interviewed him via email.
Did you have pets as a child? Did you talk to them or pretend they were people?
Yes. When I was very young, we had some kind of largish dog. Its name was either Penny or Nickel — I can't remember exactly. It would bang its head all night long under the kitchen table, repeatedly, with endurance. I mean it hit its head very hard. According to my mom, it also destroyed multiple screens in our screen door. Apparently this dog did no good, but I loved it. At least, I think I loved it. I remember a nice family coming over and adopting it from us. I was very sad, but knew it was for the best. I lived my childhood imagining Penny or Nickel frolicking free on the golden edges of cornfields in some dog-loving eastern Nebraska farmstead. My mom later told me, as an adult, that that "family" [was] the dogcatchers, and that day of the dog's transition to a better home in the country was its last.
I also had a cat named Mousetrap which was given to me for Christmas when I was eight. It died only a few years ago. A dog named Buddy that we rescued. I have a 19-year-old sister (who I would not consider my pet) who loved that dog and still prizes a stuffed replica of that little dirty poodlish mutt which I remember having leaf-bits in its curls and smelling like shampoo and poop. And until recently, two cats I miss dearly, Malkmus and Salinger. No current pets.
I did not pretend they were people. I pretended trees were people, though.
Do you think growing up in Nebraska inspired you to rebel against traditional Midwestern thoughts of poetry, or is there a Midwestern surrealism I don't know about?
I don't think surrealism is regional, or in any way geographically influenced. And more broadly, I might make the same claim about poetry. Or my poetry, anyway. I didn't feel any particular kinship with Nebraska poetry, for example. When I write, place is entirely imagined, internal. I have this dark post-apocalyptic forest I like to imagine, for example. Or right now, I'm thinking a lot about Mars, but not the real Mars, just the kind of Mars I could access in my dreams. I'm not that interested in writing about actual things. When living in Nebraska, I was never too interested in writing a poem about the plains, the Huskers, or Wal-mart. Maybe, more accurately, it's references to reality I rebel against.
What do you like the most, and least, about running Octopus Books?
I like that it allows me to work closely with one of my BFs, Mathias Svalina, Octopus' co-editor. I talk to him about every day. And I love poetry — so it's my way, my duty, to promote it, to continue the conversation. It's not enough to simply write it, for me. It occurred to me how many brilliant poets had so few equally brilliant outlets to publish their books. The options are limited and, sometimes, disappointing in design, aesthetic, promotion, etc. We're doing our small part, I hope. I love reading the manuscripts each April during our open reading period. I love cultivating a relationship with the poets we publish. I love having my say in the design.
I do not like dealing with money, struggling to allow it to simply exist. (We're not a non-profit) A necessary and ugly evil half of small-press publication. That part doesn't feel like poetry to me. But, if we were getting rich off this stuff, that would somehow feel off, too.
When you collaborate with other poets, are you pretty easygoing about the organic back and forth or is there a lot of editing, arguing, and angry staredowns?
I collaborate primarily with Emily Kendal Frey, an inspiring poet who doubles as my girlfriend. It's typically a smooth process — we each tend to give each other good ideas and spark weird little tangents in our collaborations. It's fun. We collaborate in the same way that some people play board games. We sit across the table from each other and pass the pad or laptop back and forth. We call it poet-nerd time. There is a lot of editing, yes, and polite arguing. Ultimately, when we disagree, we realize we can just use that great line we came up with in our own private poem. When we butt heads, we literally butt heads. We just keep head-butting each other, like territorial rams, until one of us gives up in pain. Then the winner gets to keep his or her own last line.
Who's your favorite new poet? Your favorite old poet?
The favorite new poet question will make my head explode, but the answer can pretty much be answered if you read each of the 11 existing issues of Octopus magazine. Is that a lame answer? Poetry is not dead. It is the opposite of dying. It is so very good right now. My favorite living old(er) generation poets might be: James Tate, Russell Edson, Frank Stanford, CD Wright, Alan Dugan (not living), and about 16-24 more. The best poet of all time is Emily Dickinson.
Have you met any of your poetry heroes and what has that been like?
I have. It's always a bit disappointing. But that's the nature and failure of idolizing humans. I only know their poems, and not them, and the poems are immortal. The heroes are just these little poem vessels susceptible to heart disease. They're all lovely, lovely people. And I only hope I can disappoint as much in the flesh someday. That only means my poetry absolutely slays its readers.
Do you want a poem on your gravestone?
Hmm. Hmm. Um. No? I don't know how to answer that question. Is that something I'm going to have to deal with? I always just assume I'm going to be the last one on the planet. If I'm not the last one on the planet, somehow, maybe I'd just want my ashes to be buried in the roots of some beautiful tree. And then people can carve things into the tree if they want. I'm sorry, I'm making this too difficult for everybody.
Are you enjoying life in Portland?
Portland is good. I can't imagine a better city for me to live in. I think I could live in San Francisco too, but Portland is the place. I've decided. I kinda drink coffee now (do mochas count? No? Okay.) and I walk a lot more. I have a bike now. I want tatts but feel like a poser. It's in a blue state. I've never lived in a blue state before. That is nice. Mt. Hood is pretty. The ocean is pretty. I'm from Nebraska, so these two things are very foreign to me. I sincerely love Nebraska, too. I'll talk about it for hours if you want me to. But not for its mountains or its ocean. Powell's is nice.