Matthew Zapruder is an American poet, writer, translator, and university professor. He has written four books of poetry, including his most recent, Sun Bear. His work has earned him multiple awards and accolades. He is the co-editor at Wave Books and is the lead guitarist and provides back-up vocals for The Figments.
I didn’t read poetry at all in high school, unless it was assigned. My senior year I had to write a paper on a poet, and pretty much at random chose W.H. Auden. I completely fell in love with his poems, especially “Musée des Beaux Arts.”
I wrote a little bit of poetry in high school and college, but I never thought I was a poet. I wanted more to be a songwriter, but I was more interested in playing my instrument (guitar) than writing lyrics. When I was in my early 20’s, in graduate school for a PhD in Russian Literature, I started writing poetry a lot, and reading it. I’m not really sure why I did that, but once I did I became completely consumed by reading and writing it. It was really all I was interested in, but I didn’t know much about it, and was finding it hard to get deeper into it, so I decided to go and get an MFA in creative writing instead of getting a PhD. At that point I started thinking of myself as a poet, not in an active way, or as something I would say out loud, but more in terms of the undeniable fact that it was what I did and thought and talked about all the time. Poetry was the center of my life, and it has continued to be ever since, which I guess makes me a poet.
I am tempted to answer this question glibly, by saying, “to write poems.” I bet I am not the only one who would say this: probably most poets would. Keats wrote that in a great poet a sense of beauty obliterates all other considerations, or rather all consideration. That’s another way of thinking about a poet’s “job.” I think Keats meant that this is the case when we are writing poems, but not necessarily in the rest of life. I don’t think, as poets, we can permit ourselves, aesthetically speaking, to have any other “job" than to write poems. Our “job" is not to have any other “jobs.” Of course, most poets have to have other jobs (without quotes) to make money. As far as a social or societal job, I think poets have the same one as everyone else, which is to be good citizens, and responsible, decent human beings. I’ve never personally found writing poetry to be in opposition in any way to my role as a citizen, member of a family, human.
If you mean the book with that title [Sun Bear], it was what always inspires me: the continual act of living as a poet, which means to write poems within, and out of, daily experience, and to find places where the imagination can pour in. If you mean the poem [“Sun Bear”], which is the title poem of the book, it was exactly what it says in the poem: going to the Oakland Zoo, seeing those amazing weird bears, and feeling some kind of odd, unpredicted identification with them, and then following that feeling, in writing, wherever it might lead.
I am really, really, really terrible at memorizing poems (I’m also really bad at remembering jokes). I don’t know any of my own poems by heart, and while I have at various times in my life memorized a good number of poems, if you asked me to recite even one of them right now, I would not be able to. I do not know why this is. I think if I *had* to choose, one I might select would be Dickinson’s “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain” Partially, this is because I have written a lot about this poem (in a book of prose that is forthcoming), so I almost know it by heart already. It’s also one of my favourite poems, so it would be nice to have it lodged permanently in my brain. Probably it already is.