It was mid-June of last year when I first received an email from Zach Savich regarding an idea for us to collaborate. I hadn’t read his manuscript yet but I sent my reply the following day, ‘seed planted, incubation ready to begin.’ The idea, like all good ideas, bounced around our inboxes filled with questions, references, declarations—the idea developed further during a dinner party, and finally, it became more than just an idea. It wouldn’t exactly be a truth if I were to say that the book or the poems were what first interested me to collaborate with Zach. It was Zach and our prior conversations that carried my admiration, curiosity and of course excitement to read his latest book. As I read through The Orchard Green and Every Color, I was taken aback, though not surprised by any means, with the language being distilled, the layering of ideas and concepts packed so neatly into concentrated observations sprinkled with the language-game and transitions. The emails continued. The idea we sought to realize developed in two parts, the first being this very interview, which began in January 2016 and the second being letterpress triptych broadsides to accompany the book.
IL: In The Orchard Green and Every Color descriptions that are attributed to observation don’t always describe the object but instead acknowledge all/other plausible narratives that can be associated with that observation. While reading I found myself thinking about the language-game and how the play of language lacking direct application can attribute to moving away from the poem to other language that is not the poem. How does this meditation on observation create an experience of reading the poems as a body of work? I’m curious if there is an intent for a reader to experience a Barthian perspective on how our “expressive needs oscillate between the mild haiku summarizing a huge situation, and a great flood of banalities.” Do you feel language situates itself best in the simple observation that quantifies a grander situation that is not the poem through an overflow of probability?
ZS: What a rich and and beautifully phrased question! If we can take “game” to also mean “willing” and “of the woods, like a rabbit,” I hope the language in this book wills itself into a wilderness that plays in several ways. First, in line with Barthes, there’s the productive problem of summary: I love the memorable lilt of aphorism and proverb, of how an abruptly fitting phrase can at once distill and condense a wider scene. And yet, I’m aware that after epiphany—after a compressed perfect perception, however apt or batty or wise—one remains here, still perceiving, blinking back into the ordinary. Should we try to apply hard-won insight to the banal, to transcend it, even, or, if your interest isn’t in a settled view but further vantages, alive in the ordinary, amble toward the possibility of another thought? Because linguistic description always ping-pongs immediately from seeing into conceiving (seeing is conceiving?), description becomes thinking, which then seeks a subsequent correlative to propel its case; in traditional haiku, one might experience this as a feeling of expectant looking that skids from a final line, a sense of looking up, tuned to now see more, that I feel, for instance, after reading Buson’s “A brawny young man / in his twenties / has changed into summer clothes.” And now? So, I’m interested in epiphany that doesn’t close the subject but dissolves itself, of attentive ambivalence, let’s say, within proverbial structures. I think of the poem in the book that ends “to reach the newest room / step through any wall” or another that concludes “much as cooking well becomes / not calculation or performance of arduous craft / but any evening now.”
Second, the observed world in this book often extends from the delicate, the passing. The delicate, I thought, implies a habitat that has allowed it to survive, among congeries of care. The seemingly peripheral, thus, frames us: by a “flower in a plastic water bottle” glimpsed on a newsstand’s counter, by images that “express” one’s self or ideas not by projecting or containing them in a diorama’s symbols but through a kind of displacing exchange that reverberates back, changing what initially motivated an observant stance. As for utterances implying potential or unsaid speech, I suppose the delicate includes parts that do not endure, which therefore conjure the processes that have eroded them: I feel the wind and look around for blowing leaves, and there’s the stalwart, leafless oak; a honed statement doesn’t foreclose possibility, perhaps, but in its definiteness suggests alternates. Is this what you had in mind about observation suggesting “other plausible narratives?”
IL: Yes, this is exactly what I was thinking about. There are moments of distilling, or this looking up and tuning in “shirt cinched in a window / signaling / come to me here or / one is already with me here or /said faith should be in the figuring / out after.” Moments like these lines happen throughout the work, this distilled moment of observation that is followed with a play on epiphany, ending with the subject dissolving, how you beautifully put it, with attentive ambivalence. Here the cinched shirt is a leafless oak, in its definiteness still capable of suggesting other plausible narratives. “Chestnuts you can break by hand, against other chestnuts in your hand.” This line has struck me for its literal quality (how caveman or clumsy or innate or impossible) but also for its figurative depth—if “play” is one curious rabbit then I can’t help but test the wilderness and insert banalities for chestnuts. If there is ever a moment in a poetry class where one is teaching cadence of aphorism and proverb I can only hope that this line is casually expressed as if it were a common fact.
I am also interested in, how you effectively stated, the epiphany that doesn’t close the subject but dissolves itself. I feel that this dissolving epiphany is what I would attribute as a key factor in the derailment of language. Winifred Novottny’s depiction of describing a flower in a jug concludes for one “to put language all that the flower is in its own particular qualities” could “go on forever and still fail.” He then goes on to suggest that if we cannot succeed in describing concrete objects how can we possibly depict moments “in the mind, or a mood, a vision, or an attitude.” This is where the dissolving epiphany succeeds, where the derailment of language accesses the attentive ambivalence. Where the going on forever and still failing could in fact become successful. Novottny is too caught up with proving the distance between object and thought that he misses the opportunity in the space between object and thought—the play on other plausible narratives. Would it be wild to say that your poetry perhaps is not just a focus on the linguistic ping-pongs from seeing into conceiving or description becoming thought or even the dissolving epiphany but also can be read as an act of derailing language?
ZS: Yes, I could see how this kind of derailing—troubling the alignment of seeing and saying, not in order to emphasize the distance between the two but to keep the interchange trembly, to see from its position—Is basic to poetic thinking. Two lines from Wallace Stevens come to mind: “After the final no there comes a yes / And on that yes the future world depends.” I don’t take these lines to support a kind of blithe positivity—a”say yes to life!”—but to enact, as Stevens so often does, the process of trying to find what will suffice, what will suit a motivating urgency that both precedes and ages alongside one’s experience of it. The point of the lines, I think, isn’t the affirmation but the process behind it, which necessarily settles on a yes that, like a lost key, is always in the last place you look: not this, not this, not this, maybe this.
In her collection of essays The Language of Inquiry, Lyn Hejinian describes attempting to “write a work which would not be about a person but which would be like a person,” an attempt that also keeps language in the lively intermediary seam of perception and which suggests an ethical relationship to a text. “Careful with the words, words are people too,” sang a band from my hometown. I think of this notion sometimes in teaching: while a student is unlikely to demand perfect coherence or a minor range of emotion and thought from herself or her closest friends, she might still expect it of poems. Sure, poems can valuably offer a “momentary stay against confusion,” as Frost says, but “momentary” is the key word: Stevens’s “yes” is a momentary yes, which allows a world to last a little longer, so we can see what’s next. Similarly, even the most coherent statements about one’s life immediately open into further questions: I love my wife; what does it mean to be married, today?
Direct apprehension of the sensual world, which of course never fits perfectly into language, seems like one way to think beyond what we already think we know because you have to, you know, consider something beyond yourself. Although we are never not in the world, this effect can often feel like return, a way to revive a lost relationship to enlivened perception while also avoiding the dulling rinse of nostalgia; to adapt Hejinian, I hope the poems in Orchard Green are not “about,” say, a landscape but feel like moving through one. And I admit that my interest in description first entered this book through a cranky feeling that much recent poetry had relinquished the eye, and the variousness of the world, in favor of a solipsism of voice or pose; aliens could recreate a world I’d like to inhabit from the poems of Emily Dickinson, but I’d miss many elements if they based my biodome on the works of whatever contemporary poet we could agree has a smaller scope. I don’t mean that poems should be time capsules containing vast catalogues of “everything,” but, perhaps, that I esteem a kind of receptivity that, as you suggest, doesn’t just shuttle among modes but endures on a threshold.
IL: What initially drew me in while reading Orchard Green was the placement of text on the pages, and not just the placement but also the amount of language the reader receives. There is a tendency I have when picking up a book that focuses on where thoughts begin and end. That process dissolved while reading Orchard Green. In Lyn Hejinian’s essay “The Rejection of Closure” she quotes Francis Ponge—“Man is a curious body whose center of gravity is not in himself.” Hejinian states that the “center of gravity seems to be located in language.” I would agree that Orchard Green creates a reading experience that is of moving through a landscape but there are also fascinating moments of how language functions throughout the work. Yes there is this negotiation of perception to language—naming is only one way we use words; there is also the use of transitions. Where I find myself centering my reader’s gravity is in your use of transitions. “I have been practicing a knot so complex the rope goes completely straight at times.” And later, “the dead ask what are you and you could answer anything but usually say alive.” I don’t know what your relationship to gravity is, but I find the use of transitions in Orchard Green as grounding pivots, bearing the threshold as entry or dissolving points to get through the landscape. I feel compelled to press that the landscape provides slippage in terms of being a navigation tool. Perhaps this is in line with the notion of direct apprehension of the sensual world, the sense of touch seems to be one way that plays with thinking beyond what we already think we know. “There is little evidence of the bee’s contact with the blossom, outside the blossom.” Whatever goes on inside the body we have no language for such as words that are associated with touch, but if whatever goes on inside the body were to happen above skin or on skin or within skin we have language associated to touch, “anything seen being outside the body is plainly ecstasy.” How does the interchange of touch function for you in this work?
ZS: If I had to offer a theory of how poetry evokes touch—a sense of touch—I’d focus on sound, which textures language so that, as Merrill reminds us, sense is equivalent to sensation. That is, descriptions of texture typically contribute less to an impression of touch than do the textures of descriptive language, or any language. Reading Keats, joy’s grape bursts against the “palate fine” in the ear first, and then I imagine the roof of my mouth, but what touches me most is the silky, supple “strenuous tongue” meeting the pile-up of “can burst Joy’s grape.” I feel it somewhere beyond mimesis. Visual innovation in anglophone poetry has often foregrounded or revealed kinds of sound-play that wouldn’t be as apparent otherwise, as in Williams’s stair-stepping indentations or Olson’s typographic flinging or Sobin’s phonetic ruptures; no matter how sculptural or material one’s language might endeavor to be, we can’t read English without “hearing” the language, unless we’re regarding a work purely as opaque signs that do not progress by cadence in time, so visual effects most often create an atmosphere that inflects a poem’s sounding. I hope the visual conventions in this book, such as the alternation between left- and right-justified pieces, help emphasize the glancing qualities of aphorism and distinct perception that we mentioned earlier, the sound of that kind of line.
If I had to address your question more specifically, I don’t know. Maybe I would say a poem’s “relationship to gravity” is, if I understand any physics, moving; what seems to center us is the steady spinning underfoot. So, what’s underfoot? What ground grants mass, what urgency or anxiety, rooting us through its turning? I suppose we know touch, similarly, through motion: I remember, in high school, noting another’s hand becoming insensible on my chest as we slept, indistinguishable from my body, which was interesting to note, but ultimately less, uh, substantiating than to have the fingers flutter, distinctly. Feeling the wind on my face, I have a face, and the wind gains force; touch, thus, is always a process of interchange, much as Ponge’s poems often trace an orbit that refracts back between a line of expression and its apparent subject. Which sounds like a highly entangling process: a numbed hand, though free from types of subjectivity, does not touch more objectively, though a feeling hand can find the limits, which we are inside of? Maybe.
But maybe the more interesting line of thought is about eros: how can a poem create an involving sensual sense not through workaday dramaturgy—I remember reading a short story that, hilariously inept, described a man’s “stomach, containing two sandwiches, slapping” against his partner—but through the kinds of rapt delay, agitation, expectancy, and heightened wit (and obliterated wit!) that can make the very air, or a shared armrest, seem like part of one’s body? This isn’t a porny thought; it seems central to how desire and pain fuse through one’s life shaping our so-called ideas, and so the sense a poem gives can shape one similarly. The contact, the tension touch requires, can happen only glancingly in language’s clutch; so maybe it happens most touchingly when it happens lightly, as though priming? I say this knowing that much in the book, including some of the lines you quote, casts the embodied subject in relationship to death: an absence that confounds one’s body, as it strains toward another who’s no longer with us. Frays a nerve. I caress a memento instead. Did you have another sense of how these poems—or poems in general—evoke touch? Or how they trouble the lines between inner and outer, addressing aspects of the interior that seem less palpable?
IL: “Wind where the chimes will be / Beautiful, in a passing way / Thus, more beautiful the more it passes me / Much as those birds that never touch the ground.” This is the sense or sensation of touch, as you wonderfully have put it, which glints in language’s clutch. There is movement. There is cadence. Something flutters or remains still. But this ping-pongs through everything else. I know sound, but how do I take in sound beyond anatomy? I think what I find myself noticing more and more as I read Orchard Green is that it isn’t a heightened account of moving through a landscape but in fact it reads like a charged anvil crawler. There is so much mapping to account for. Not just in language but also in the visual conventions. I think that this idea of the glance is something I have been walking around. I read recently that “glances are the new currency.” Maybe this is a little bit of cheap jab on the whole art imitates life trope but I can’t help but think about how daily life interacts with micro-distractions. This excites me, in the sense that works that are regarded as being just purely opaque signs have a tendency to be a visual representation of a glance and perhaps the illustrative replication of an anvil crawler, but you’ve approached a linear narrative that not only progresses cadence in time but also glances qualities of aphorism and distinct perception, language lingers and yet dissolves—and this is what I find the most interesting about Orchard Green.
Along the way we have also been working on a side project of triptych letterpress broadsides that accompany Orchard Green. The broadsides, I think, speak to this idea of the glance, especially as the triptych functions through a play on distorted repetition. As far as this side project has revealed itself, how do you feel the triptych responds or contributes to the entirety of Orchard Green?
ZS: This reading reveals and honors the work—and the larger work of seeing, living—In touching ways; thank you.
The “along the way” seems key to much of it, if a glance lances obliquely, showing that “content is a glimpse,” as de Kooning said. This kind of “along the way” revelation depends on angles, and one of poetry’s productive power’s is that it uses language itself as an angle: I almost revised the above to “revelation deepens angles,” which I wouldn’t have thought if I hadn’t said “depends,” but which seems interesting and true. To get more basic, the other night, I was enjoying the glassy ramekin of ketchup that came with the bar’s fries. I was content enough, until my friend moved her beer to reveal there was a companionable ramekin of mayo. The world got bigger. Collaboration probably works like that, in general: when there’s just one thing, I’m either looking at it or away from it, and refining either that greeting or aversion. Writing alone can feel like that, perfecting the ketchup. But then the way we’re along becomes multiple; we become more peripheral, to something else, which seems like useful ethics.
Because of your perceptive reading, the broadside both transposes and responds to some elements of tone, of correspondent solidity and ephermerality, that you’ve helped me understand are central to the book. It’s similar to how I had to look up “anvil crawler.” A type of lightning! How beautiful, that there are types of lightning. And that another name for this type, making it the patron bolt of collaboration, is “spider lightning.”
Isabel Lederman was born in California in 1990. She received degrees from the University of California Santa Cruz and the University of the Arts Philadelphia. She currently works as a Research Associate, Media Outreach and Public Engagement Coordinator at the Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery and teaches in the BFA Printmaking Department at Maryland Institute College of Art and the MFA Printmaking + Book Arts Department at the University of the Arts Philadelphia.
Zach Savich was born in Michigan in 1982 and grew up in Olympia, Washington. He received degrees from the Universities of Washington, Iowa, and Massachusetts. His work has received the Iowa Poetry Prize, the Colorado Prize for Poetry, the Cleveland State University Poetry Center’s Open Award, and other honors. His fifth collection of poetry, The Orchard Green and Every Color, was published by Omnidawn in 2016. Diving Makes the Water Deep, his memoir about cancer, teaching, and poetic friendship was published by Rescue Press in 2016. He teaches in the BFA Program for Creative Writing at the University of the Arts, in Philadelphia.