A few weeks ago I had a chance to meet writers Matthew Zapruder and Amy Hempel for the first time. The event was part of a reading series at the Juniper Summer Writing Institute, an annual summer workshop at the University of Massachusetts that brings students and accomplished writers together to explore the craft of poetry, fiction, and memoir.
Zapruder and Hempel did not disappoint. Zapruder read a selection of new poems, including “Poem Without Intimacy,” which was a featured Sunday Poem here on Gwarlingo. His most recent book, Come on All You Ghosts, includes two of my favorite works, “Pocket” (also published on Gwarlingo) and “April Snow,” which Zapruder read at UMass.
Here is an excerpt from “April Snow” (courtesy Copper Canyon Press):
Zapruder’s poems are provocative, unexpected, and capture contemporary American life in an entirely original way. In “April Snow” it is the “scarred waitress who wears typewriter keys as a necklace” and the “mountain of cell phone chargers” that prevent the poem from lapsing into a conventional, snowy reverie. Amidst the emotional insights and vivid descriptions of place in Come on All You Ghosts are mentions of a Xerox machine, David Foster Wallace, the unemployment rate, Joni Mitchell, ESPN, and Diet Coke. Not every poet could make this combination work, but Zapruder does.
Zapruder came to poetry in his twenties while earning his PhD in Slavic languages and literature at UC Berkeley. He realized that compared to his fellow students he didn’t have the focus and dedication he needed to pursue his field of study professionally, so decided to follow his true passion instead: poetry. Zapruder went on to earn his MFA at the University of Massachusetts.
“There’s a lot of bullshit about MFAs, and people complaining about them,” he explained in an interview with Marissa Bell Toffoli, “but the fact of the matter is that I’m the perfect example of someone who really benefited from it. I would learn something in a day just by talking to someone, or by being in a bookstore when someone happened to be there, or having someone put a book in my hand that it might have taken me months or even years to run across on my own. It helped me start to become an artist; I had a long way to go, but it got me from being a complete ignoramus to beginning to have some sense of what was going on.”
When discussing his writing process on the Pen American Center blog, Zapruder explained that many of his most recent poems are the result of writing exercises, “either ones I have found or those I have generated myself, in order to move from the terror of the blank page into the actuality of language. As always, I then take this language and move it around as necessary, until I feel real, deep, human concerns are emerging.” His ultimate goal is to write poems that feel “close to a natural speech act, language an actual person might use when feeling emotionally and intellectually engaged and committed.”
“What intrigues and electrifies me is the possibility of beginning with total freedom, intuitive knowledge, instinct, even randomness, and building out of those states or qualities into a poem…I continue to try to find ways, whether it is through the processes mentioned above or through new ones such as writing exercises I find or invent, to move from the unformed chaos of free language to the formed poem.”
When I chatted with Matthew after the reading, he told me that he is working on a non-fiction book about poetry, as well as a new collection of poems, tentatively titled Sun Bear. In addition to being a talented writer, Zapruder is also a translator, teacher, and editor at Wave Books, a press that is as obsessed with the quality of its books as printed objecst, as it is with the quality of the writing itself.
“I think that people are most happy when they do things that are deeply connected and integrated with who they are,” Zapruder explained to Toffoli, “and that fulfills that need in themselves to feel connected to others and productive.”
Like Alice Munro, Amy Hempel is one of only a handful of contemporary writers who has built a career on the short story. I’ve read Hempel’s The Collected Stories three times now. I never tire of her wit, empathy, and ability to convey a range of powerful ideas and emotions in only a few words. Her story “Memoir,” which appears in The Collected Storiesis only one sentence long:
Just once in my life—oh, when have I ever wanted anything just once in my life?
Hempel shared three stories with us during her reading at the University of Massachusetts—”Moonbow,” a micro-fiction story called “Sing to It,” and her most recent published piece from the current issue of Tin House, a moving story about a high-kill animal shelter titled “A Full-Service Shelter.” Although the story was published as fiction, Hempel explained that everything she describes in the story is true: sometimes the wrong dogs are killed, shelter compliance records are inflated, and sedatives are judged too costly and eliminated during the euthanasia process with shocking results.
The point of view and structure of “A Full-Service Shelter,” which repeats the phrase, “They knew me as the one who…,” was inspired by Leonard Michaels’ story “In the Fifties.” It was this line by Michaels that caught Hempel’s attention:
“I had personal relationships with thirty-five rhesus monkeys in an experiment on monkey addiction to morphone. They knew me as one who shot reeking crap out of cages with a hose.”
Animals are a continual presence in Hempel’s life and fiction. She volunteers at a high-kill shelter in New York City, has trained seeing-eye dogs, and is co-founder of the Deja Foundation, a non-profit that offers direct assistance for care, training, recovery, and rehabilitation to dogs rescued from high-kill shelters. After the reading, Hempel told me that she started Deja in order to give death-row dogs a second chance. “Many of these dogs just need behavior training or vet care before they can become viable adoption candidates,” she said.
One of Hempel’s many volunteer duties is writing the biographies of dogs housed at a shelter in New York in an effort to get the animals adopted before they’re euthanized. She considers it some of her most important work since the end result can mean the difference between life and death for a dog.
In her 2003 interview with The Paris Review, Hempel told Paul Winner that during her childhood, “the two things that were always there were reading and animals. I wanted to be a veterinarian, but slipped up when I hit organic chemistry.” Words and animals continued to be a life-line for Hempel during a particularly difficult two-year stretch when her mother took her own life, her mother’s younger sister committed suicide, she was injured in two serious auto accidents, and her best friend died from leukemia.
It was at Gordon Lish’s workshop at Columbia that she began to transform these life tragedies into fiction. In one exercise, Lish told his writing students to reveal their own worst secret—”the thing we would never live down,” Hempel told The Paris Review, “the thing that, as Gordon put it, ‘dismantles your own sense of yourself.’” Hempel’s “worst secret”? “I failed my best friend when she was dying. It became the subject of the first story I wrote, ‘In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried.’” This short story masterpiece would become Hempel’s most anthologized piece of fiction.
In The Paris Review interview, Hempel credits her early training as a journalist and her study of stand-up comedy for her concise style and well-timed humor. “I don’t feel I have a particularly large imagination, but I do have some powers of observation.”
“Journalism taught me how to write a sentence that would make someone want to read the next one. You are trained to get rid of anything nonessential… You start writing your article, assuming a person’s going to stop reading the minute you give them a reason. So the trick is: don’t give them one. Frontload and cut out everything extraneous. That’s why I like short stories…Some writers feel that when they write, there are people out there who just can’t wait to hear everything they have to say. But I go in with the opposite attitude the expectation that they’re just dying to get away from me.”
A typical work day for Hempel includes “around two hours of writing writing, about six miles of dog walking (which also counts as writing), a lot of time on E-mail, a movie, some forensics shows, and CNN to see what I missed.”
Some of the authors who have had the greatest impact on her are Barry Hannah, Raymond Carver, Mary Robison, Grace Paley, and Allan Gurganus.
“They didn’t sound like anyone else I had read. For me, they redefined what a story could be—the thing happening off to the side of the story other writers were telling; they would start where someone else would leave off, or stop where someone else would start. As Hannah said later in Boomerang, a lot of people have their overview, whereas he has his ‘underview,” scouting ‘under the bleachers, for what life has dropped.’”
Hempel pays careful attention to each and every sentence. “Writing conducted at the sentence level has always made perfect sense to me,” she told Paul Winner. “Though it’s unlikely you’ll write something nobody has ever heard of, the way you have a chance to compete is in the way you say it….That is how I assemble stories—me and a hundred million other people—at the sentence level. Not by coming up with a sweeping story line.”
Hempel is also a brilliant self-editor with impeccable pacing and timing. Why describe a transition, for example, when a simple space break will do? “The white space sets off, underscores, the writing presented,” explains Hempel, “and you have to be sure it deserves to be highlighted this way.”
“If used honestly and not as a gimmick, these spaces can signify the way the mind really works, noting moments and assembling them in such a way that a kind of logic or pattern comes forward, until the accretion of moments forms a whole experience, observation, state of being. The connective tissue of a story is often the white space, which is not empty. There’s nothing new here, but what you don’t say can be as important as what you do say. I think my favorite compliment that I got from a writer early on was someone saying to me, You leave out all the right things. That was wonderful to hear.”
Like Matthew Zapruder, Amy Hempel has a precision with language, yet leaves enough mystery in those blank spaces to expand, not constrict, possibilities. Listening to Zapruder and Hempel read their work, I realized that both writers consistently achieve the perfect balance of precision and mystery.
“The two things I want are interesting language and genuine feeling,” Hempel told The Paris Review.
“And one other thing: Years and years ago I knew a very wise woman who was tremendously accomplished and who had excelled at many things, a lifetime achievement for anybody else, and I asked what was her goal now? And she didn’t hesitate for a second. ‘To love deeply.’ A lesson there… ‘Wear your heart on the page, and people will read to find out how you solved being alive.’ That was Gordon [Lish] twenty years ago, and that’s what I’m still trying to do.”
Also, don’t forget that the Gwarlingo bookstore has an assortment of book titles on my personal recommendation list, including poetry, fiction, art and photography books, and more. A portion of your purchases benefit Gwarlingo.
(Note: Thanks to Betsy Wheeler, Ryan Williams, and the Juniper Summer Institute for contributing photos to this article)