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The Bagley Wright Lecture Series: A Conversation with Matthew Zapruder

By Sara Wintz
From the top right: Dorothea Lasky, Joshua Beckman, Timothy Donnelly, Terrance Hayes, Srikanth Reddy, Rachel Zucker

From the top left: Dorothea Lasky, Joshua Beckman, Timothy Donnelly, Terrance Hayes, Srikanth Reddy, Rachel Zucker

Matthew Zapruder and I went toe-to-toe at Oakland’s Boot and Shoe Service this weekend to talk about his newest collaboration with Wave Books Publisher and arts philanthropist, Charlie Wright: The Bagley Wright Lecture Series. The series, currently in its first year, commissions poets to develop and deliver public lectures about poetry to national and international audiences. Wave Books and The Bagley Wright Lecture Series are two separate organizations, but they do share a few things in common, like Charlie and Matthew.

Sara Wintz: Hi Matthew, how did The Bagley Wright Lecture Series start?

Matthew Zapruder: We’re always thinking about things to do and one of Charlie’s interests is criticism. I’ve been working a lot with that sort of material because I’m writing a book of criticism that’s coming out next year, and part of the book is lectures I’ve given at Tin House, NYU, and elsewhere. So, I’ve been reading a lot of that sort of material. Charlie and I began talking about this and we came up with the idea of starting a lecture series that’s based on a model that has been pretty common for a long time: of an institution selecting a lecturer and commissioning that person to write a series of original lectures.

SW: Like the Norton Lectures?

MZ
: Yes. That’s the most famous version, but there’s a lot of others. When you look at the most vibrant and influential writing that has happened, about poetry, over the last seventy-five to a hundred years and even farther back, so much of it began as lectures. We thought there was something so interesting about asking a bunch of poets to talk to a general audience about their interests and concerns within their own poetry and to give some people the opportunity to come up with a few new ideas when they might not otherwise do that at this stage in their careers because they’re so busy teaching, or at work, or at other things.

SW: It’s difficult to find an opportunity to talk to a general audience!

MZ: Right. We thought, by providing an audience, some support, and frankly the timeline and the impetus and the outside stimulus for it, it would give these poets who we are interested in, a chance to say something to a general audience at this stage in their careers and to generate some critical work that wouldn’t otherwise happen. There’s people who are already writing lots of criticism, and that’s great, but there’s some people we want to hear from that we haven’t heard from yet.

SW: Who’s involved?

MZ: When we thought of this, we decided to pick six initial lecturers, two a year. The first lecturer was Dorothea Lasky who just finished her lectures. She has written and delivered her lectures and she might continue to deliver them, but her lecture period was the second half of last year. Then the first half of this year is Joshua Beckman and he delivered his first lectures at NYU and at the Poetry Foundation last month. Timothy Donnelly is next, then Terrance Hayes, who is not a Wave Books author, and then Srikanth Reddy, and then Rachel Zucker. So those are the first six. We tried to find a variety of people and variety of aesthetic approaches and again, people who are not primarily known as critics, but who we know have interesting things to say.

SW: What are you hearing from audiences?

MZ: I’m hearing that people seem surprised by the non-academic tone of the lectures, which I think is a good thing, because that’s what we intended. I think people really go to the lectures not knowing what it’s going to be. We need to do a little bit better job of explaining what we’re doing, but I also think that it’s a difficult thing to explain what it’s going to be before it happens. It’s a little complicated. I’ve tried to explain it, but, over time people will understand more and more what this lecture series is. And like you noted, it’s based on something that is a familiar model, but I don’t think that people really think of that. They’re familiar with Eliot’s lectures but I don’t think—

SW: —yeah, there’s a gap , between Eliot’s lectures and the education of general audiences and the criticism that poets read. I think that somewhere general audiences’ reading of criticism stopped, chronologically.

MZ: Yeah, I think so. I think that is true.

SW: That seems like what you are working into.

MZ: Trying to! We don’t want to talk down to people. But I think the idea is to try to see what happens when an audience comes into contact with a contemporary poet and not just reading the poems– which is one great thing that happens– but when poets try to explicitly articulate their ideas for that particular audience. And different things are going to happen! We don’t know what’s going to happen. But I think it’s something like, T.S. Eliot’s in his mid-forties, let’s give him this lectureship and see what he says; Borges, let’s give him this lectureship and see what he says. We think: let’s see what Dorothea Lasky has to say, let’s see what Terrance has to say, let’s see what Joshua has to say. We’re already learning a lot as we go along. Each lecturer has a very different idea of what this means for them, but that’s good. I just try to be supportive and help out, talk through things with people.

But you asked about audiences: I don’t have a great sense of it yet because we’re just starting. I get the feeling people are starting to realize what we are trying to do. I don’t think they know what to expect when they go and I think that’s okay, but I’d like to see more people get interested in it. I mean, the audiences have been great and the venues have been full, but I’d like to see this pick up! I think that that’s just going to happen over time. And, as the books get published too, hopefully that will bring more attention in different ways.

SW: What’s the difference between a poet giving a reading of criticism versus a poet giving a reading of poetry? Why do a poet reading criticism?

MZ: That’s a great question. I think that the poetry reading has become something that is very well-established in our culture and I think that it’s tough to do too much with that. We tried to do a lot with the Poetry Bus and we try to do a lot in different ways. But ultimately, the format of the poet showing up and sharing his or her work in front of an audience of some kind: it is what it is. But this idea that a poet would come and talk to people about how she works, why she does what she does, how she sees the world: that’s less established as a phenomenon in our culture, so there’s an opportunity to try to do it different ways and to try to see what happens. I don’t know yet, I think there’s many different ways that it could be successful. We’re trying to explore that in a lot of different ways, from a large audience to a small audience to different venues.

SW: There’s certainly examples of it historically, like Jack Spicer’s reading at the Vancouver Conference. That was a big moment in his career.

MZ: Yup! That’s one of many, many examples. If you look back at Lorca and his lecture, “Theory and Function of the Duende,” Duende is probably one of the top five important poetic concepts that anyone ever came up with and that was a lecture that he went around delivering from place to place. Stevens’s most important statements were lectures. “The Noble Rider and The Sound of Words,” and all those things that we know now as essays were originally lectures. Ruskin’s “Storm Cloud of the 19th Century,” which is a very important piece of work: that was a lecture. Eliot’s important critical statements: lectures. The list goes on and on. Frost almost never wrote anything. Almost everything that he came up with was part of a lecture or a talk. His collected prose is almost all talks that he gave, transcribed talks. There’s so many other examples of this. The more and more you read, the more you realize that there’s something that happens when you put a poet in front of an audience and ask him or her to talk in prose, that ends up more often than not being something that is lasting. The idea is to try to put poets in the position to make that kind of work.

SW: When you said “concept” I started thinking about pedagogy. I’m wondering, in organizing the lectures, whether there’s a sort of pedagogical goal: for general audiences, or for the poets, or for the teaching of poetry overall.

MZ: That’s a perceptive question. For me, personally, I think that there is a pedagogical aspect to Wave Books in general, in the way that any sustained publishing endeavor has that aspect to it or you could even say didactic one: trying to say something about literature and about what can be done with poetry and what matters. I think it’s a little unfashionable to talk that way because people immediately assume that you’re saying that what you do is “better” than what other people do, or what other people do isn’t as worthwhile, but we don’t feel that way: Wave is a small press, we publish 8-10 titles a year. We can’t publish everything that’s good and we don’t presume to. It’s not like it’s only us. But we are trying to say something in particular about what can be done with this generation of poets, and the lecture series is one explicit version of that. You have to be careful with that because the lectures aren’t speaking for Wave Books, they’re speaking for themselves and we want these poets to say what they, as individuals, care about. There will be a lot of contradictions in what they care about, and among the lecturers there will be different interests. There is a desire, on our part, for the lecturers to say something that matters to them, and in the course of saying something that matters to them, hopefully it will matter to other people too, and there will be a discussion about what matters. In that sense, yeah, pedagogical, or an attempt to talk about values.

SW: Is there any ideal audience for these lectures? Is there an ideal age group?

MZ: As you know there’s a sizable, if small, amount of people who care about poetry, in general, in America. Then there’s a far-larger amount of people who are intellectually engaged with art of other kinds in America. Whether it’s visual art or film or music, there are people who are interested in culture and art, who don’t really have much contact with poetry. There’s no reason that they shouldn’t have contact with poetry. This is a familiar problem for poets. The lectures are an attempt to reach out to that audience in addition to the audience that already cares about poets and poetry. I don’t think about it in terms of age as much as I do thinking about expanding the audience. That said, if a poet wanted to talk to a particular audience or talk about an esoteric concept, that would be their prerogative. I wouldn’t want them to feel like they have to talk to the masses, if they don’t want to do that. I imagine that the structure of what we’re doing will lend itself to expanding the audience. That’s the idea, we’ll have to see if that happens.

SW: It’s such a cool experiment.

MZ: Yeah, we’re lucky to be able to do it. I feel it’s like everything that we do with Wave Books: we want it to be something that’s not just about what we’re doing. We want it to be helpful to the larger community of poets and reaching towards a larger goal. We are always thinking in terms of our activities: how is this going to resonate and expand and bring more people in and give more people the opportunity to experience this thing. It’s trial and error in that way. It’s experimental in that way, I guess. You try something.

SW: Organizationally, how has the lecture series evolved?

MZ: With me and Charlie? I go up to Seattle a lot. We talk on the phone all the time. This idea evolved in conversation. We talked to a lot of people about the idea. But we had a pretty clear idea of what would work: presenting the lectures at certain regular venues and asking poets to write three, one-hour lectures, that they would give multiple times.

SW: So each poet will have a chapbook—or a book—that comes out after the lectures?

MZ: Yeah, we’ll see. Some people might write more. I don’t think fewer than three lectures, but it’s possible. I really want the lecturers to give their lectures multiple times. What I’ve seen happen is that they start to do it, it seems very scary at first, and then people start writing and they think “I have so many ideas, I want to write so many things.” But then I say to them, “Try to stay focused.” We want the lecturers to give the lectures different times so that they’ll deepen, instead of furiously writing ten of them. I think that that’s a different kind of project. It starts to maybe move a little away from the audience and more into the writing process. I want the attention to stay with the audience.

SW: Have you been editorially involved with the lectures?

MZ: I usually have a lot of conversations with the poets giving the lectures. A lot of the work that I do is about being someone they can bounce ideas off of. These are particularly brilliant people: they don’t need a lot of help once they get going. But I’m there, I check in in the middle of things: “How’s it going?” I’ll maybe read a draft or listen to one of the lectures and if they want me to comment, I’ll comment. And then mainly trying to keep them focused, because these are really interesting thinkers with great ideas and once they start thinking, it’s like… things go… My job is kind of to corral them into focus. Once we put the books together, I’ll start to have a much more active editorial goal. That hasn’t happened yet, but it’s going to happen.

We have a coordinator for the series, Ellen Welcker, and she is working as the logistical person. She’s responsible for all logistics, publicity, coordinating with the venues. etc. But her role is also far more than logistical. She’s a wonderful poet and thoughtful person, and really gets the purpose and evolving vision of the Series. It’s actually quite complex to calibrate each event. So she and I and Charlie together discuss how best to organize the lectures, and Series as a whole, to make this the best experience for each lecturer and audience.

SW: Is there anyone else involved?

MZ: The main other “person” is the audience. That’s the point. The main experience is for the lecturers to give the lecture in front of people and to see how it feels, to find out what it feels like, what that conversation is like. It’s the listeners and the readers and the people out in the world who will be the most important people. I want to let that happen for them. That’s the biggest part of the experiment. But, again, I think that there is a historical example for this working—it’s not like we made up this idea—so I think that there is a good reason to think that this will work. I could be wrong. We’ll see what happens

SW: This is a really broad question that could go anywhere, but what are you hoping that the lectures will do for poetry?

MZ: That’s a good question. I don’t know. I guess my reaction is to say that I think of it more as what it will do for the individual poets who are delivering the lectures. It will give them a chance to articulate some concepts that have been on their minds, and part of their work, and part of their imaginative lives. And in the course of doing so, to bring something out into the open, to other poets, their peers, younger poets, older poets, and also to audiences, poetry audiences and more general audiences: that will give audiences a way to understand what contemporary poets are doing, in a way that is deeper and more interesting than what they have understood before. That’s the hope.

But I do have hopes that this will do great things for poetry, in the way that I can look back and read The Witness of Poetry by Czeslaw Milosz as a book and I can read The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism by Eliot or I can read Adrienne Rich’s lectures, or I can read Rita Dove’s lectures. I’d like people to look back on this and think: I’m so glad that they did this, thank goodness that they did this. Somebody asked Dorothea Lasky to talk about things and made it possible for that to happen. I don’t know what these poets will say in their lectures. I don’t imagine that many of them know what they are going to say. But the hope is that it will feel like we did something worthwhile. We just have to see!

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Posted in Open Door on Monday, June 2nd, 2014 by Sara Wintz.

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