LG: You’ve written about the “sleepy town” in Missouri where you’ve spent most of your adult life and career, but I would like to ask you to talk about your growing up in Chicago and its influences on your thinking. Could you talk about the neighborhood Beverly Hills, where you grew up? And perhaps your high school, Saint Ignatius, down on the Near West Side of Chicago? Also, did living in a city that has the second highest number of Polish people outside of Warsaw, as someone of Polish descent, have any bearing on your language or sense of place or yourself as writer?
WZ: Yes, to all of the above. I’ve lived in Missouri for 40 years, but somehow I’ve never left Chicago, really. I read the Chicago Tribune online, every day and the city news is hardly ever good, particularly the nightly shootings on the south side, near where I grew up, which are getting worse. Chicago is home and in many ways it always will be.
My grandparents were immigrants from Poland and all four of them worked in the Union Stockyards. My father’s parents made enough eventually to open a bar that served Polish food to Yards workers and to help two sons attend medical (my uncle) and dental school (my father). They all lived in a neighborhood called Back of the Yards. My dad did well enough to move my mother, brother, and me away from that neighborhood and into a newer and nicer one, one almost in the south suburbs but still in the city.
Beverly was, and is, a predominantly Irish neighborhood, and it was hard for me and my family to fit in. My father’s family name once had about two and a half times more letters. In grade school, I heard a steady stream of Polack jokes and felt very out of it most of those years. So I turned in and read a lot and listened to the kind of music the kids couldn’t or wouldn’t dance to, jazz, which you could hear easily then on several stations on the radio. All that was a kind of “negative capability” for me, and it was a big part of the beginning of my life as a poet.
I went to very good schools, including St. Ignatius, “Iggy,”a Jesuit high school. I had wonderful English and Latin teachers in there, and I read and memorized a lot of poetry in both languages, which didn’t make enough of an impression on me to start writing. That came when I got to college and studied with two poets devoted to writing poetry and teaching, James Dougherty and John Matthias.
I can’t leave this question, though, without mentioning my maternal grandmother, the grandparent I spent the most time with in my childhood. It wasn’t until after she died when I was in my middle 30s that I realized how much her exuberant storytelling and singing—all in Polish—had meant to me when I was very young. Her love of her language—and laughter—were far more important to me than I had ever realized when I started to write poems. I picked up only a smattering of Polish in her house, certainly not enough to read poetry in Polish. Milosz, Herbert, Szymborska I read only much, much later, in translation of course. Szymborska is without question my favorite of them. If Grandma had any education, she might have been Szymborska.
LG: Talk about jazz as a place. I know it has always been such a tremendous interest of yours. Can you talk about how you came to know jazz? Where? When? Do you associate it with places? Or does the music itself become a place for you? Or both?
We say that “music keeps time,” but I think it also keeps places for us. The first time we hear something that catches our interest mingles with the light or darkness of place, its smells, other people, creating synesthesia. I remember you have that wonderful poem about listening to and meeting (?) Oscar Peterson in which you’re with your father. That’s a poem in which I think the music and musician are a kind of locus for that moment. Can you talk about how jazz has seemed an enduring influence on your writing as inspiration and topic?
WZ: I’ve touched on this already, but here I can expand on the racial climate of the south side of Chicago when I was growing up. I’m not sure the destructiveness of that has changed significantly over the years. I heard more than my fill of racist rants and jokes growing up and didn’t understand until years later that these attitudes had to do with fear and anger, fear and anger rooted in competition for jobs in the stockyards and all the plants and factories, on the south side in particular, and in neighborhoods where the people who did the work lived. There were fear and anger on the other side too, of course, in African-Americans over the same things. I can hear that in the blues and jazz I heard growing up, but I didn’t hear or understand the fear and anger then. This music has just always been to me impossibly beautiful—so passionate, so complex, and so continually inventive. It was so much a kind of answer to me for my own very complex questions about and opposition to the racist attitudes in the people, in my family, whom I loved. For my father to take the family to see Oscar Peterson at the London House in Chicago on my birthday was a profound act of faith and love in him. Artists, writers, musicians often seem to have to stand apart, break free, break away from what they can’t accept. For me this discomfort or restlessness ties in with the social isolation I felt as a kid and teenager: again, a kind of negative capability. I certainly didn’t understand this very well at that time.
LG: In your essay you say you’re not much of a traveler, but you have been to Japan to interview jazz musicians. What was that like? I don’t think most people here in the U.S. would associate jazz with that place and culture. What did you learn there? Did it have an impact on how you wrote and thought about jazz?
WZ: I had a sabbatical in 2000 and at that time hefty travel funds were available to really go somewhere. The college where I teach had gotten a big Title VI grant to support professors in developing more international studies courses. I picked Japan for one reason: to buy jazz records. After World War II, Japan fell in love with jazz (and baseball). Well, the Japanese didn’t have much choice, did they? In rebuilding, Japan did what it has always done and that is to very creatively build on influences of other countries. Beyond American jazz and baseball, we see this creative appropriation in the auto industry as well. Japanese musicians, if they were to make a living, played in clubs patronized by American servicemen, and so they had to learn to play American music. Jazz, instrumental and vocals, was actually kind of popular in America then, and so the soldiers of the Occupation wanted to hear it. But many Japanese, particularly those of college age in the late ‘40s and ‘50s, fell in love with jazz for probably the same reasons I did. There was interest among students in Japan as early as the ‘20s, but nothing like what happened after the war. In addition, the freedom and spontaneity and exuberance of jazz seemed to appeal very much to the conformity-bound Japanese. Jazz soloists are profoundly unique and strong individuals and hearing them was a deliciously sexy and guilty pleasure for young Japanese creative types. And, as in many things, the Japanese went into jazz with absolute total commitment. A very strong jazz record industry emerged, mainly built on American musicians. American players would do record dates for Japanese promoters that were never released in the States. You could get those records at very expensive import prices if you were lucky. For Sadao Watanabe to be “the Charlie Parker” of Japan was the highest honor there. But over the years, this imitation and derivativeness have changed, and many Japanese musicians have found their inspiration in Japanese folk music. Read: blues. Blues is really the universal, international language that is music. Many Japanese jazz musicians come to study in the States, particularly at Berklee College of Music in Boston, and they go home to Japan to play their music and to teach jazz. So I went to Japan to buy records, and I came back and studied and learned a lot about Japan. I teach a course called “Jazz in Japan” now. I made a few wonderful musical friends there with whom I stay in touch in e-mail and on Facebook. They were very friendly, very open, and very supportive of my interest in their love of jazz.
I’ve written only a couple of poems about Japan. Most of my attention has gone into the interviews I’ve done with Japanese musicians, record producers, and club owners, and in planning and revising the course I’ve taught. I am hoping to collect the interviews—there are about 25—into a book. All that work was really a different kind of energy for me. I was only in Japan for a couple of weeks, and I loved it.
LG: Talk about your early poetic influences. You studied at Notre Dame with John Matthias and then at Iowa with Marvin Bell and others. Can you describe what those places were like in the late 60s and 70s? I also wonder if or how your contemporaries, like Larry Levis, had any influence on your poetics?
WZ: The late ‘60s and early ‘70s were crazy years to be on college campuses generally, mainly due to the war in Viet Nam. While there was an anti-war movement at Notre Dame, it was relatively small, and you could find it and feel it in the English Department if anywhere on campus. As I mentioned earlier, I found myself as a poet there, and I owe Jim and John a very great deal, mostly for the encouragement and permission to take poetry seriously as life work. My dad, in particular, was kind of horrified about this interest of mine, but he tolerated it during my undergrad years, thinking I could still wise up and go to law school. When I decided to go to grad school in English, my mom had to lean on him to ease up. I owe her too, for many things. I was always close enough to both my parents for their support to matter to me.
I took an M.A. in English at Wisconsin, and Madison then was up for grabs politically. National guardsmen stood outside the classrooms and I walked home from campus through wisps of tear gas. Creative writing there was very much a sideline for the English, but I got to study for a year with Carl Rakosi, one of the Objectivist poets. He was in his ‘70s then, and kind and encouraging in getting me to read my own poems critically. He was a visiting writer who traveled on the bus from his home in Minneapolis and back each week, but he was a presence in my life.
I was lucky to publish some poems in good journals, and very lucky also to get into Iowa after I finished the M.A. I decided I did not want to go on for a Ph.D. in literature. I can’t say that the two years at Iowa were unhappy ones because I had just gotten married and Cathy and I virtually honeymooned in Iowa City. The Workshop was the most intense and competitive environment I had ever been in. I didn’t make friends easily there, and I didn’t socialize much. My best friend in the Workshop, David Weissmann, finished the program and then went to medical school, though he keeps up with poetry. My next best friend was John Skoyles, who has gone on to a wonderful career in poetry and memoir. Marvin and Don Justice were endlessly insightful teachers in workshop, but I couldn’t get close with them, not in the way I felt close to my earlier teachers. I felt closer to Norman Dubie on the faculty at Iowa, who had just published his first book, Alehouse Sonnets,and who was only a couple of years older than I. My best and favorite teacher at Iowa had been Norman’s teacher in college at Goddard College in Vermont, Barry Goldensohn, and he was consistently warm, friendly, and generous to me. At the time I guess I still needed that encouragement and validation.
As poets we can get that also from other poets too. My Iowa influences had actually left a few years before I got there. Jon Anderson, Jim Tate, Steve Orlen were very influential on me then, although I was a big fan of Marvin too, who had actually just taught Jon, Jim, and Steve. The poetry world really is a small world, when you come down to it.
At Iowa I was glad to get to meet fellow students like David St. John, Maura Stanton, Tom Lux, Denis Johnson, and of course Larry Levis, who taught at the University of Missouri in Columbia for several years. I had known Michael Ryan at Notre Dame and he was at Iowa when I was too.
LG: In your essay you wonder why you haven’t written more poems about the small town of Fulton, Missouri (where Winston Churchill gave the “Iron Curtain Speech”) and I wonder if you could speculate? Do you think it’s more difficult to write about places we reside—that are the repeated images in our lives? Or is there some other reason?
WZ: I do think it’s more difficult to write about the places where we reside—or at least to show and read some of the work to others who reside there too. Louis Simpson, who read twice at Westminster early in my career there, told me that he never read on his own campus. “That would be like fouling one’s own nest, don’t you think,” he asked me. I have written some Fulton poems besides “Achilles,” including an epithalamium for a student of mine who got married in the Church of St. Mary, Aldermanbury, on the Westminster campus.
I can’t say that I’ve ever written so much about where I was living, all the places we’ve touched on here, in any direct way. The indirect ways—and I think there are many indirect ways we write about place—are considerably more numerous and in the long run more intriguing, if we have time to think through them. I’m very serious about this time we have or don’t have. In a busy teaching career, I’ve just been glad to get the poems. Answering your incisive questions about the work and the life is a luxury I have not often had.
Photo By: Dan