Monday, December 18, 2006

Automated Regret Machines and Miracles of Modern Medicine; There might be worse things than a successful friend or two...

By any standard, Matthew Zapruder is that rare creature, an MFA success story. For all the promising young things flooding graduate English departments from California to Alabama, every fall, visions of book deals and New Yorker publications dancing through their heads, there are only so many book deals, only so many pages of the New Yorker to go around. Only so much success, in other words, to be divvied up. While it doesn’t always go to those who most deserve it, in this case, happily, it has. Mathew’s first collection of poems, “American Linden,” was published to critical acclaim in 2002. His second, “The Pajamaist,” appeared this fall. In between, he’s been busy teaching at the New School, publishing in everything from the Alaska Quarterly Review, to the New Yorker, and co-curating the KGB Monday night poetry reading series with Deborah Landau. And, best of all, his poetry has only gotten better in the time I’ve known him.

I was once a promising young thing. Really, I was. The kind of girl about, and to, whom lots of phrases using the word, “potential,” are used. Always with the clear implication being that, well, potential’s not a guarantee of anything, now is it? For a little while, though, when I started working on my own MFA, even I thought things just might be looking up. I remember obsessing over words, single words, stretching them out as far as their endlessness allowed, before they’d collapse back in upon themselves, and their own inevitable limitations. I remember keeping my sentences tucked away for safekeeping in the darker recesses of my mind. Relishing each one as it enfolded what had come before and blazed the trail for whatever was on its way. The feeling of pen in hand, or keyboard underneath, the sound of my own creations, the sensation of reading them, then reading them aloud. I fell in love with all of it, all over, every day.

I remember that ecstatic energy, the staying up, night after night, reveling in my own words. I remember feeling so full of language, of talent, of all that much vaunted potential finally coming to some kind of fruition, it seemed I might just be getting something right, and I might never get enough. I thought everyone around me must be feeling more or less that way. Until I said some such thing to a friend at the time, and her blank look told me otherwise. I was a promising young thing then though, so all I could see was how much more that left for me. And that was just exactly what I wanted. More, of everything, already and always. More.

But more is never quite enough, and yet somehow, it always turns into to much. All that energy lost its ecstasy and turned itself against me. I can’t say when, or how it happened. There wasn’t one particular moment, but then again, it didn’t take so very long. I became insatiable, irascible, and endlessly inconsolable. Overwhelmed and overwhelming, especially to myself. This went on for years, during which I produced nothing but destruction, for myself, and anyone unlucky enough to get caught up in my wake. Whatever romantic clich├ęs there may be about artists or writers needing to be a little on the crazy side, to get anything done, I can tell you they’re all wrong. Being crazy, even just a little, relatively speaking, is a full time job. It requires hours of dealing with doctors and drugs, experimenting with different, newer, bigger, better versions of each. And of course, the prodigious energy required to pretend you’re fit to be out amongst the normal people. All this leaves you with none of what you need to write so much as one single word. Nothing even close to what you’d need to make a whole life for yourself.

If I’d ever been a “glass half full,” kind of girl, I’d probably see the extent to which the miracles of modern medicine have settled my internal storms the last few months as nothing short of miraculous. I’d be full of visions for the future to come, the work to do, the life to lead. And it’s true, I do have some of that going on. More often though, I think of all that wasted time. All the harm I did to myself and others, all those others, and then that one in particular. Nonetheless, things are, once again, looking up, it seems.

As I walked over to Mathew’s reading at KGB Bar last Monday night, I couldn’t get that Morrissey song, “we hate it when our friends become successful,” out of my head. Wondering if I’d be happy for him, jealous, or a bit of both. We’d never been the best of friends in grad school, but were in the same circles, and shared a lot of that kind of silly, boozy fun that involves things like empty bottles of blackberry brandy. You may not know this, but as a rule, writers like to drink. We’d even read together once. My very first reading, I think.

Unsurprisingly, I was late, and I’ve always found it hard to really get a handle on poetry read aloud anyway. I was assured by those who know more than I about such things that the reading was, “fabulous,” “life changing,” and, indeed, “so life changing, it changed everyone’s lives once, then changed them back to what they’d been before.” I hadn’t been to KGB in ages, and had forgotten how much I liked it. All that red, those steep stairs and nooks and crannies. The last time I’d been there, though, I’m not sure any of the people I was with were entirely capable of reading, let alone writing anything.

If I were generally a nicer person, I might not have been so surprised to find myself only genuinely pleased for Matthew, and that all is so well with him. Even after reading some of his new poems myself – they are, indeed, fabulous – the jealousy doesn’t seem to be popping up. They’re very different from what I remember of Mathew’s poetry. Less formal, differently, though still tightly structured, and maybe less afraid of leaving meaning unresolved. I seem to just be glad these poems are out there in the world now, even if it hadn’t realized how much it missed them, before.

And really, who could resist titles like, “Automated Regret Machine,”? Or its final lines,

“One could say I am cruel. Once late at night after getting a drink of water I waited behind a door to jump out at whoever came first, my brother or sister. Until now I had chosen to think they were too thirstily waiting in bed to fear any longer, but fear was what pushed them to rise and clear the room they knew I did not know my stories had filled with actual vampires or ghosts.”

I couldn’t have put it any better myself.


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