The following conversation was had between GlCl's very own Z.G. Tomaszewski and his close friend and fellow poet Kyle Vandeventer, in the light of Tomaszewski's recently published first book of poems All Things Dusk (selected by Li-Young Lee as the 2014 International Poetry Prize Winner and published by Hong Kong University Press). Vandeventer initiated the dialogue, which took place in November 2015.
KV: In your book All Things Dusk I see references to places in Grand Rapids, where you were born and raised; the Grand River, Lake Michigan, but I understand many of the poems were composed while residing in Vermont. How much does location inform your writing, differentiating from what settings can be conjured up in the imagination?
ZG: I'm interested in the geography of spirit. So, location is essential. In Richard Hugo's “The Triggering Town” he discusses how much of his writing comes from passing by small towns. Hugo lived in Montana most of his life and, as you may be aware, that state has a great deal of space between towns. Now, many of those places hold on to very little these days that held them together before, save what is born in the imagination and whatever names from stories that still exist. Well, in that space between towns Hugo contemplated the lives of its people, their desires and practices, and fictionalized local legends. Basically he envisioned a town's mythos and explored, via its inhabitants, its ethos. I love thinking about this. The "triggering town" serves as analogy: there's an impulse that gives us to every poem, that we should receive it but keep moving toward some ultimate reality. Something beyond the facts. Stopping and visiting the town would jeopardize the whole process, Hugo warned against doing this. I'm curious how a place can be stimulating, and is, but where - no, how does that transform and what absolute might be uncovered?
I was born in Grand Rapids and lived in Vermont where most of All Things Dusk came into focus, yes. Going to Vermont I left behind some amazing opportunities on the vague sense that I had something to do somewhere else - a premonition that I was poised for a breakthrough in my way of processing and therefore had something bigger I needed to write and a new, open space to do so. For reasons yet to be completely understood, Grand Rapids wasn't the place for me to be synthesizing. I went to a town in a state where I knew no one and found a cabin. Early on I was writing a lot about my immediate surroundings. How enlivening the exotic! I think it is apparent in the book. But the longer I was there the more Michigan kept revisiting me, variously, through memory: family and friends and the familiar landscapes I was removed from. I like to believe memories are locked in the land and by traveling we can key in to some of those secrets of the subterranean conscious. The more present I was in Vermont the more present and clear were my ponderings of Michigan. Odd, memory is. So, I was writing about each place, but then there were times where the place the poem was born out of was a melding of details among both. I suspect we project our version of a place onto a place based upon where we've been and what we've encountered previously. Nonetheless, the place itself always has a greater, more pure energy that we just need to tune in to. From there, limitless possibilities are available to us. Maybe you write a book, maybe you revise one poem, maybe you hear a timeless story or start composing your next symphony. Go and be. Stay and be. What matters most is searching for totality, a deeper embeddedness, being at home in the world.
KV: You had that triggering thought to up and go, to follow and trust that feeling toward something bigger. It's hard to just give into that impulse to leave, trusting the universe and one's self. So you're there, first day in Vermont, how did you begin this spirited journey into the unknown?
ZG: How do you walk out of the house? You just do. It's a matter of responsibility. Of course, what we're talking about here is a bigger responsibility: listening to yourself against all odds. The masters say, "trust your intuition," and the sage says, "follow your heart." I do not claim to know where this logos is, but it must be in the body. The body is old, it is our earth vessel, but it is not as old as spirit. The spirit has greater knowing. It tries to speak through the body. We really just need to listen.
As for my first day in Vermont, I knew I had to find a river and swim. Seriously. I discovered the Lamoille River and bathed. That's what my body desired. And not just my body.
KV: Baptismal. What influences did you bring along to help open up this new life of yours?
ZG: Frost's West-Running Brook, Thoreau's journals, Mary Oliver's Dream Work, all of Patricia Fargnoli's books, Donald Hall's Kicking the Leaves and The Back Chamber (which I purchased in New Hampshire on my way to visit him), several books by Galway Kinnell, Mark Doty's Atlantis, and Philip Levine's Breath among others.
KV: A pilgrimage to visit Donald Hall. How did that help shape the journey within your writing during this period of creative endeavor?
ZG: It became evident early on in our first visit that we had leagues to explore in conversation. After a day spent at his Eagle Pond farmhouse I returned to my cabin in Vermont with an invite from him to come around again, soon. I did. On that occasion Donald asked if I wouldn't mind driving him around. It was during that drive throughout his region of New Hampshire when I discovered I was at a monumental turning point in my life as a writer. It just so happened that in the middle of the afternoon we arrived at a cemetery where we walked to the grave of his late wife and poet Jane Kenyon. We were both silent. The wind stirred a little, kicking up a few leaves. That's when, out of the quiet, I recited a poem of Galway Kinnell's, addressed to Donald after Jane's death. I hadn't thought about it, had no sense that it would happen, but suddenly it sprung forward. After a long pause, he started weeping. Then he looked at me and said, "Yes. Beautiful. Thank you." I began to notice it was a shared gravesite, his name already engraved on the headstone, the date of his departure yet to be chiseled in. Returning to his house that evening, saying our farewells, he inquired of me to present him some of my poems. I probably looked pale and blue in the face. I hadn't thought that I would ever show him my work, let alone be invited to. Somehow another surprised recitation rolled out: "Okay."
Weeks later, working tirelessly on a pile of poems (many of them have found their way in to All Things Dusk) I came to a terminal. I wrote Don a letter asking if it wasn't too much to send him almost twenty poems. He was agreeable, so I sent them, taking an extra week or two to properly arrange them. That's when I began to realize I had something more than a handful of poems, rather a sequence worth pursuing - images building upon one another, repeating but opening out as metaphors. I gave it a title, a placeholder, then mailed it. A fortnight passed before I heard from Don. I remember actually wishing I would never hear from him, that it would save me embarrassment if he simply did not respond, thinking I had created some great crime by trying to write poems. But, as I said, the manuscript came back. He wrote a sweeping letter, very encouraging. I have it at my desk to this day. Following his letter were the poems, a majority of them dismantled. He worked their images to the bone. He liked most of them though, which was a huge relief. What was amazing is how he saw, more clear than I could, the metaphors alive and new and naturally, for a young writer, the dead ones. Don is especially concerned with dead metaphors. He wrote an incredible essay on them, I recommend reading it. I think it is his unabashed tone and his manner of being open to what I was writing and trying to help that be fully realized which has been most impressionable. Anyway, I made it my primary focus and overhauled the manuscript during the rest of my stay in Vermont.
Five years later, Don and I continue to write letters. And, I have this book to thank him for. I am so grateful.
KV: You had a different title for the manuscript that you had sent to Donald before it became All Things Dusk. What was it called and why the change?
ZG: Yes, it was briefly called Diurnal, but through multiple revisions I came to see that the true title was within the content all along, I just had to relinquish what I wanted for it. I knew it was only a placeholder, it never felt suitable, especially as the thing evolved out of a chapbook into what we have now. Jim Harrison expressed once how the antennae of self stretches farthest out at dusk. To my ears, the tone of the speaker in many of these poems echoes the mode of dusk, basically manifesting Harrison's sentiment. I like to think of my book's readers as exploring this trail of dusk, and therefore, self.
KV: Let's put ourselves in the present. What are you working on right now and where can we find some recently published work?
ZG: I am working on housing a second full-length book of poems, currently titled Our Moon is a Chiseled Bone. I just received an incredibly positive rejection from New Issues Press. So that's "the thing with feathers" (as Dickinson wrote, referring to 'hope'). Poems in that volume have just been published or are forthcoming from a handful of magazines, of which I am grateful to the editors of The Cortland Review, Diode, Briar Cliff Review, Midwestern Gothic, The 3288 Review, and Ruminate Magazine. I am putting together a list of my poems that are readable online, here: www.zgtomaszewski.wordpress.com. Additionally, my chapbook Mineral Whisper was a finalist in the Coal Hill Review / Autumn House Press 2015 Chapbook Contest. We'll see what happens with that.
KV: Being a poet is a full time job, always observing, taking notes, making connections, leaving yourself wide open to the universe just on the chance that it will utter a single word of meaning, and of course the long haul of editing. At the end of it all, like any other job there comes the baseline of responsibility. What would you say is the responsibility of the poet?
ZG: To report the shared awareness of our emotional truths? I am still figuring that one out.
Thomas Lynch said once at a reading that the poet spends 23 hours of a day not doing anything, but in that one hour of doing, they are concentratedly more productive than the average 9 to 5 'er. It's almost an act of midwifery. The work of a ferryman. It's unclear what Lynch means by productive, but I guarantee he's not referring to what's economically profitable. Bob Hicok talked about why he left the tool and die trade to write poetry. He said he goes to poetry because it doesn't repair refrigerators or fix engines - something to that effect. I would take that to indicate the responsibilities of a poet are not quite handy nor easily discernible and are based on what we accept and what we friction in our lives.
Robert Pinsky has written at length on the subject. "Resist, violate, and renew." I think what he may be getting at is that we know our responsibilities based on what we resist (and, might I add, embrace). I think it's different for each poet depending on their values, their desires. What seems key is: transformation. The trick is, figuring out how to make it new. I like what Alice Fulton wrote: "It will be new/ whether you make it new/ or not." If you want your voice in there take responsibility. It will happen without you. The world revolves with or without us.
In a recent letter from Li-Young Lee this notion of responsibility came up, "The big issue for me is whether or not we can withdraw all of our projections (what our egos think we see) and find a view of Ultimate Reality or Absolute Reality or God, and whether or not making art is a way to that. The true seers, the ones I consider true seers, are the ones who point us toward Absolute Reality. I don't see how art contributes to the evolution of consciousness except that it frees us of our illusions and reminds us of our ultimate primordial condition, embeddedness in God."
Let me leave you with a passage from Czeslaw Milosz:
The purpose of poetry is to remind us
how difficult it is to remain just one person,
for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors,
and invisible guests come in and out at will.
KV: Let’s have a couple of short takes. First book of poems you fell in love with?
ZG: John Rybicki's We Bed Down into Water and Sharon Bryan's Sharp Stars.
KV: Last thing you praised?
ZG: Walking into my house and there being two beautiful ladies with guitars singing in French, how the lamplight gave them the amber jewelry of the past.
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