In Conversation • Marc Zegans

Marc Zegans is a poet and creative development advisor. He is the author of six collections of poems, The Snow Dead, The Underwater Typewriter, Boys in the Woods, Pillow Talk, The Book of Clouds, and La Commedia Sotterranea: Swizzle Felt’s First Folio from the Typewriter Underground; two spoken word albums Night Work, and Marker and Parker, and also the immersive theatrical productions Mum and Shaw, The Typewriter Underground, and with D.L. Wilder, Sirens, Dreams, and a Cat. 

The Snow Dead, based on Marc’s most recent collection debuted theatrically at the Lost Church during San Francisco’s 2019 Lit Crawl. 

Marc lives by the coast in Northern California.  His poetry can be found at marczegans.com, and he can be reached for creative advisory services at mycreativedevelopment.com.

A good way to start a conversation is talking about time and weather, isn’t it? How does the weather look like right now in California?

It’s a cool evening at the moment, a nice prelude before a heat wave that’s supposed to begin tomorrow. We have an eighty-five thousand acre forest fire burning just outside of town, and we’re hoping that the heat doesn’t cause it to expand further.  My gratitude, prayers and admiration go to the heroically brave firefighters who are contending with this blaze and the many other fires that have beset California in recent weeks.

“This night we
did not make
love, but held
close against
each other
and woke
solid in each
other’s arms.”

Marc, your poem “Running” made me feel like the“water” was running throughout the poem, sometimes by the “sea” and other times through the “tears”. Are life and relationships like the ocean?

Marluce, you’ve read right into the heart of my work, especially at the time that poem was written.  I’ve had a lifelong relationship with the sea, and for me life and relationships are very much like the ocean—vast, spectacularly beautiful, ever changing, thrilling, sometimes terrifying, often unexpected, and always an adventure.  

Why Vidigal’s favela located up the hill from Leblon, in Rio de Janeiro was the choice for your poem?

I spent some time working in Rio back in the early 90’s.  I was fascinated by how the favelas at the edge of this incredible city had fashioned such richly interconnected  lives, and such robust and vital informal economies. Vidigal’s thousands of small houses stacked one atop another, many with spectacular views, as it rises above the hill captured my imagination.  I had the opportunity to spend time there with a teacher who ran a small school there, and who introduced me to the community. The warmth, kindness and affinity of the people in this precariously perched community truly moved me.  

My experience in Vidigal contrasted sharply with mine in Botafogo, where I was living during my stay. Botafogo was energetic, highly urban, heavily trafficked, filled with people, enjoyable, very much in a hurry; except in the marketplace, people’s eyes didn’t meet.  I liked and still remember fondly the flow and bright eyed connection that I experienced in Vidigal.

About seas, you crossed the Pacific Ocean over to the Atlantic, many a mile you have sailed. What Brazil has brought to you and your art?

More than anything Brazil brought a sense of embrace to my art. Abraços captures it better. The people were so warm, so filled with life, eager to talk, to spend time, to dance.  I entered a pattern of going out almost every night with people to have dinner, drink caipirinhas, and dance.  I loved the incredible food, especially the wonderful variety of fruit that was available everywhere, and my heart quickened to the visual drama of Rio. I also loved the life and the activity on the beach and those wide, black and white wave patterned sidewalks. 

While I enjoyed time on Ipanema and LeBlon beaches, the place I really loved was Praia Barra Tijuca.  That area was less built up than it is now, the beach was wide open, not crowded, and I found its expanse fantastic. The swimming there was great as well.  I enjoyed it there so much that on my last day in Rio a friend took me to a fine churrascaria in Tijuca before I headed to the airport.  

In many ways though the time I spent in Curitiba influenced me creatively as much or more time than the time I spent in Rio. There’s a glass opera house built over a quarry in Curitiba that’s an absolute miracle. I remember going there, walking over the running water as you entered the all glass structure and watching in sheer amazement as the interior lights went down, lights rising on the giant growth outside the hall as if we were being transported into an enchanted forest.  It was one of those shared moments in which the air is filled with energy and spark—truly magical.

Curitiba fascinated me because of its rather profound innovations in transportation, public art and the skillful and creative reuse of materials.  I had the occasion while there to speak over a meal with Jaime Lerner who was then Curitiba’s mayor. (He later became Governor of Paraná.)  Lerner, a former architect and urban planner, was a fascinating guy. It’s rare that successful politicians have such a deep grounding in urban design, planning and social theory, and rarer still for one to have a comprehensive vision of place and its possibilities organized as much by aesthetic values and design thinking as by economics.  Though I only met him that once, I learned a great deal from the encounter about how creative work and context interact.  Specifically, I came to understand “situation” and being situated in a way that I would not otherwise have.

“I see now I have been sleeping

In a parking place, soon to be

Removed, a temporary occupant”

This is an excerpt from your poem “Coffee”. Many poets have the feeling of being strangers and even foreign in their own places, a similar feeling of an immigrant. Do you believe that every writer should move away some time?

That’s a wonderful question. It made me pause and really think. I don’t think that there are any shoulds in writing because each person, each person’s gifts and their particular modes of expression are specific to the individual. For some, the value and power of their work is necessarily tied to place;  its full expression would be destroyed by a move away from the place that they help to define and that fundamentally defines them. This caveat noted, I do feel that there is tremendous power, value and opportunity in moving away.  Stepping out of the familiar can change us for the better in so many ways.  A paradigm case is the painter Paul Gauguin, but in less dramatic ways exiting, at least for a time, our originating circumstances can open us up in a great many ways.  When we do step away we learn to see through different eyes; our physical rhythms change; we smell different scents; the food we eat and how we eat changes, and being a stranger in an unfamiliar place, even when welcomed warmly into people’s homes, we palpably feel our vulnerability. As a consequence, we’re forced to observe more closely.  Being dispossessed of what we can take for granted, embracing the unfamiliar, and being embraced by those we have not known can only be good for us as artists.

How do you see the use of both fiction and reality in a poem?

The poems that move me most are those that create a complete, urgent and immersive reality. They take you over so fully that you forget yourself and come to inhabit the world made in the poem. The really fine ones sustain their capacity to cause us to inhabit the poem even as we analyze it, deconstruct it, and learn the means by which to reproduce it.  The more we know, the more fully such possess us.  In a book called Kerouac on Record (Bloomsbury 2018),  in an essay that precedes a couple of my poems, I mention the delight with which Jimmy Page, best known as the guitarist in Led Zeppelin, recounts his experience with encountering Link Wray’s instrumental recording “Rumble.”  Page, now in his seventies, recalls with rapture his direct experience of this song, his elation deepening as he shows, five decades or so later, just how it was done.

I approach your question from this angle because any living poem contains both elements drawn from reality and necessary fictions.  It never is one or the other, it is about selecting elements from life, and fashioning novel elements–ultimately rooted in life–in ways that bring about the specific reality of the poem on the page, or on the spoken word stage, and that fashion the reality that exists between the poem and whomever has chosen to receive it. Within this orchestration, however, some poems are set forth as conscious fictions whose overt intent is to invite readers to suspend reality and to enter an experience that would otherwise be unavailable.

By contrast, other poems seek to capture and express lived experience in one way or another–perhaps to distill a moment, perhaps to capture a scene, perhaps to offer confession. As such they locate at least a portion of their assertion of validity in a claim to correspondence of some kind with external reality past or present. But such poems, even if they strive for accuracy, impose a  frame on a  life situation that in reality is continuous.  Within this frame they  select details meant to evoke the situation on terms chosen by the poet.  Exclusion of certain details in favor of others, even if those portrayed are accurate, per force establishes a fiction. So the truth, or reality, of a poem designed to convey live experience is always relative to the poet’s intention. While the meaning its readers discover in a poem may tend toward the universal, the fact set by which it exposes such meaning is necessarily something less than the whole truth.

It’s not only selection, though, by which poems that propose correspondence to external reality depart from it, the devices that poets use to inhabit the minds, bodies and spirits of their readers—rhythm, meter, metaphor, stanzaic structure, order of presentation, allusion, and internal music, to name a few—forcibly remake reality in service of the poem, the experience of which in the end is what matters to poets and their readers. 

Who are the writers and poets you admire the most? 

The writers I admire most are the people I know who struggle to write as best they can in service of their readers; by which I mean kids learning to write; people who have something inside them they simply must express; fellow poets and playwrights struggling through drafts to make something of value; experts writing articles and newsletters meant to share their experience with people who can benefit from the wisdom they have attained, parents writing to children to say that they love them, and those who write to console people in their grief.  Writing is deeply human, immensely difficult to do, and for me anyone who takes up a pen and writes from a sense of necessity, or as a form of gift to others, is a writer I admire. 

The list of my poetic and  literary influences is ever changing. This year the poem that’s had the greatest effect on me is Larry Beckett’s epic,  Wyatt Earp (Alternating Current Press, 2020), which was published this past spring. His use of rhetorical devices as a substitute for metric repetition expanded my sense of what is possible within the American tradition of the English language, and that doesn’t happen often.  I spent a fair amount of time earlier this year reading a series of interviews with Borges undertaken during his eighty-fifth and eighty-sixth year. Encountering the musings of this blind writer and poet, a world poet, so deeply ensconced in the Argentine milieu gave me a powerful sense of the scope, possibilities and limitations of making meaning with words. As I grow older, this sort of encounter becomes more important to me.

Recently, I’ve been rereading and sharing bits of Yeats. Inquiring into Yeats at a point in life where I can really see what he accomplished at a level of craft has made the poetry fresh for me and has induced a welcome kind of reverent awe. To feel genuine awe at human accomplishment at this age, especially in one’s field, is an entirely welcome experience. As regards American poets, Sharon Olds has had a long-standing influence on me, in part because I read her early and found her in-life, matter-of-fact honesty to be a congenial and empowering way of doing verse. 

Would you be able to give some explanation of what you mean here? 

Happily. 

Consider  the way she ends her poem, “His Terror,” which is about her dying father in his final days.

“The lumps of the cancer are everywhere now,/he can lay his palm where they swell his skin, he can/finger the holes where the surgeon has been in him./He asks me to touch them./Maybe his terror is not of dying,/ or even of death, but of some cry/he has kept inside him all his life/ and there are weeks left.”

Here you see her speaking a direct, undeniable truth. “The lumps of the cancer are everywhere now.”  She doesn’t flinch, or run into vague metaphor. She faces the situation and forces us to meet it too. There is no room for escape, and yet, with the final word “now,” she tells us, it hasn’t always been this way. There was a life before, and she opens our imaginations to what that life might have been, establishing there, without a word of description, the contrasting ground on which his terror–the subject of the poem–lies.  

She then expands on the firm ground she has laid through concrete description, noting, “he can/finger the holes where the surgeon has been in him.”

Having made it impossible for us to avoid the specific physical truth of his situation, she turns to what his terror might be.  He is now the object of speculation, and we have entered her mind, her worry, without a break in the poem’s voice. This fluid transition from what is to what might be is seamless and shameless. We see him. We see her as a situated narrator, thinking, wondering. Then we know the final truth that brings fact and question together–”there are weeks left.”

The verse, because it does not look away, but looks at and looks in, finds its strength and its power in its matter-of-fact way of telling, a power that would be lost if it spoke through a filter or tried to proceed via analogy. 

And, perhaps, some others you admire?

Songwriters have been tremendously important to me and to my development.  Everything I do creatively is rooted in the blues, but beyond this encompassing truth, particular recording artists outside that genre have had a powerful influence on my writing. 

I was drawn into spoken word by Tom Wait’s bits like, “Emotional Weather Report,” on his Nighthawks at the Diner album.  Beyond the lurid, vividly overstated,  appeal that Waits offered to an entranced teenager, I’ve found guidance and inspiration in the best American songwriters because they achieve such economy of line in the simplest of language.   Consider the opening verse of Hank Williams’ “I’m so Lonesome I Could Cry:”

Or the first two verses of Lucinda’s Williams’ heartbreakingly beautiful “Lonely Girls:”

The degree of isolation compellingly described with plain language in these simple versus is extraordinary. Listening to such music and learning the lyrics that animate it taught me that any action I take as a poet that departs from this elegant simplicity has to be  justified by the meaning it lends to the work. It’s a hard standard to meet.

Film “Alpha Betsy”, by Debra Cantanzaro

Your project Typewriter Underground is a lovely collection of videos in collaboration with many artists. Seeing a poem written by you through another person’s perspective, it allows you to improve your relation with your own work as well as with others?

Working with others in this way helps me to see the performative possibilities and limitations of my poems. This cannot happen with work that simply appears on the print page, or that only I read aloud to others. Working with filmmakers is particularly interesting because their reading of the poem and their ability to convey their account to the actors intensifies viewers’ experience of the material by sharply delimiting what the viewer encounters.  Because it is an interpretation, a well made film of a poem far more tightly bounds the possible meanings a viewer can assign to the material than does the original source.  

Of course this means that many such films and performances are possible, and the idea of fostering various representations, driven by an aesthetics of play, has been a central part of the Typewriter Underground project.  I read the poems that form the foundation of the project at venues throughout California for more than a year before pulling the material into a book—La Commedia Sotterranea della Macchine da Scrivere: Swizzle Felt’s First Folio from the Typewriter Underground (Pelekinesis, 2018)—into a theatrical production at Henry Miller Library in Big Sur, directed and produced by Janice Blaze Rocke. 

Are there limits to these collaborations and partnerships?

There are many limits to these collaborations–time, interest, capacity, budget, understanding, resonance, and many more.  But what is more surprising is how large and mostly unexplored the collaborative space is.  I’m presently engaged in a project with Tsar Fedorsky, a fine art photographer, through the auspices of the Manship Artist Residency and Studios (MARS).  The project is a “Ghost Residency” which I conceived when COVID arrived in the United States. I had been scheduled to do a conventional writer’s retreat at Manship, and because of travel and residency restrictions was precluded from doing so.  Rather than take this as a loss, I asked, “What if we could make my presence felt at Manship, and if the place could work its magic on me? What if we invented a virtual or “ghost” residency?  As the idea developed, we came to the notion of a collaboration between me and a local photographer who would explore the grounds and buildings at Manship with the sense that an unseen poet, perhaps a ghost, was working and living there.

In service of this end, I sent Tsar a great many of my poems, so that she would have a sense of me as a poet. I sent her new work that I was producing contemporaneously with her shooting schedule, and she, in turn, shared quite stunning images emerging from her end of the  project. We discussed these at length and edited the raw material down to a potent tripartite photo essay called, Stone, Ghost, Life. We’re presently working with the folks at Manship to determine how best to share this body of work to the public.  While my poems and a fiction of my life as a poet inspired the project, the core product is a set of images that respond to my written work, our conversations and the location, but that do not contain or literally interpret a single one of my poems.  There will be a short essay by me to accompany the project, but the manifest expression of the project lies in the images, and this is very much how I wanted it.  

Silent film “Hypergraphic Dakini”, by Jenn Vee

Also from your project Typewriter Underground, the silent film by Jenn Vee was based on your poem “Prolixity Ferris”, from your book La Commedia Sotterranea della Macchine da Scrivere. I recently heard from a literary critic that what a writer needs is silence and slowness, then this video sounded just perfect! A combination of silence, time, and words. Do you also believe that writers need this combination? What else?

I believe this fundamentally.  I was strongly influenced toward this view by James Joyce’s argument for silence, exile and cunning in Portrait of An Artist. Here, Joyce’s alter ego, Stephen Dedalus exclaims,

I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely

as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defense 

the only arms I allow myself to use — 

silence, exile, and cunning.

Slowness as a companion to silence, is tremendously important.  It gives our thoughts and ideas time to ripen, to become rounded, to develop nuance and texture.  This is different from using conscious craft to achieve analogous qualities.  When we act consciously to generate properties that arise naturally from slowness, we do so by prefiguring the resultē—we have an image in mind of what a fully ripened fruit looks, feels and  tastes like, so we rush to fulfill our image of that result.  By contrast a thing that grows and changes with time will be specific, unique and complex in unanticipated ways. A  forty year old condimento balsamico from one vintage will taste markedly different from one made by the same family, using  the same method, drawn from grapes harvested the following year, and that’s where  the  beauty in slow ripening  lies.

What is the function of a poem?

I suppose that there are as many answers to that question as the day is long, and I won’t presume to speculate as to whether there is a final answer to your question. 

I would venture, though, that a poem need not always have a function; it can simply be.  Poems can be complete without having to perform a role beyond their simple existence. They can abide in themselves, or, by their nature, insist on themselves in ways that are undeniable. This can be sufficient.  

I spoke earlier about poems that cannot be possessed, a poem complete in itself is such a poem. We can enter its space, but because it does not perform an external function, we cannot lay hold of it as we might a poem geared toward specific application. 

While the point is contentious, I do believe that, within poetry, poems can and rightly do serve functions, just not all of them.  A particular function of a poem is to bear witness, to use the tongue to lay bare what otherwise may not be spoken, to reach past the reality distortion machines of oppressive regimes and authoritarian leaders to truths that restore us to ourselves.  Another function of a poem is to make meaning that cannot otherwise exist.  If we can say something in other ways equally fresh and equally good, a poem is a form of expression, but it has no particular poetic function. If what needs to be said can only be expressed in a poem, then that poem performs a poetically specific meaning making or affective function.  A poem can also  function as a portal taking readers to places never seen, to experiences previously beyond their imagining, and to neglected places of import common to us all.  A poem can function to make us feel that we are met when nothing in our lives has mattered more.  And for me one of the finest functions of a poem, and this concept is not original to me, is to make the morning new. 

When looking at someone’s art or poem, what do you see first, and what makes you stare at it for over a minute or an hour?

A poem or a piece of art that compels and holds my attention activates something powerful inside me. It’s so clear in what it projects that it grabs me before I’ve consciously seen or heard it. Once it’s got me, it works to pull me deeper in, providing a rich landscape to explore, meaningful material to chew on, emotionally connected expression, and it touches parts of me that need to grow and parts that need to heal.  

A piece of work holds my attention when, having awakened my interest, it gives me something so important that I feel compelled to share my experience with others.  A good illustration is the production of Brett Dean’s Hamlet at Glyndebourne, which recently appeared online for a week’s run.  The opera reshapes the play’s famous narrative in shocking and riveting fashion. It sets its narrative premise with a devastating act of heraldry—“not to be” the opera’s conclusion, given at the outset, now foregone.  

Having jolted us to unexpected alertness, the production arrogates to itself the freedom to render these formerly familiar characters in ways not seen before, the music performing a crucial role in this revitalization—not as accompaniment to or ornamentation of, but as a central, novel,  vitalizing force, one that takes our expressly shared knowledge of the outcome as permission to do that for which music is best equipped—take us into full exploration of the places that lie between origin and return. Starkly framing the tragedy in the libretto’s opening line establishes grounds by which this Hamlet can truly be “Opera,’ led and framed by the music, and this is thrilling.  

In more intimate terms, I read a post in the Guardian today, shared by my friend the rock critic, biographer and recording artist Sylvie Simmons, about Marc Bolan, of T-Rex fame’s, continuing influence on musical artists.  The article included a link to Nick Cave’s recent cover of the Bolan tune, “Cosmic Dancer.”  Cave’s music, especially his album The Boatman’s Song, has often spoken to me, so I eagerly played  the track.  My immediate experience was the rising in me of a cluster of memories relating to the original recording generated no doubt by Cave’s apprehension of the locus of this song’s emotional truth, and his potent ability to convey that reality from the opening note.  I quickly found myself entranced and intrigued by the recording’s instrumentation and arrangement. These choices expanded the song’s possibilities while remaining true to its heart—like the Hamlet production—intensely familiar and yet attractively new.  

As I listened on, Cave’s “Cosmic Dancer” gave me access to a complex host of memories, not linearly connected, but related to the song, the artists and the producer, that called out to be met, and to emotional wounds left open, now crying to be resolved. So when it was done, I played it over, and then over again, and then over again—repetition being integral to music’s emotional force and power to heal.  And when I was done, I conveyed this piece to others in various messages and postings.  Why? Because it drew me in; it touched something real; it changed me for the better, and made me want to share this gift of with people I felt it might similarly touch.

“is the noise in this place the sound of god?

do you think god lives here in the forest?

I think maybe we are hearing him breathe.

let’s walk slowly and be very quiet…

just so you will know, I am not scared.

I think not seeing is not a problem.

I like not seeing as we start to walk.”

PoemWalk, by Marc Zegans

Does literature allow us to search for God? The use of god without the capital letter means that your god is a different one of what other people’s god? And the reason you say that you like not seeing it as you start walking, is because you could continue wondering its existence throughout your life?

What a dry and dreary place the world would be if literature did not allow us to search for God.  Nothing compels literature to engage with the spiritual and the transcendent, but nothing prohibits it either.  If its aims are encounter, exploration and invitation, but not proselytization, then pursuit of the divine in words functions as literature. When it’s wrapping an agenda in a story, then it’s something else.  

Your question about the small “g” God in “Walk” brings out an important aspect of the poem.  The question is asked by a small boy during his first venture into the deep woods. For him  God is a familiar, a commonplace, part of the fabric of the universe, just as are we all. He has not yet learned to see god as somehow removed: a fearsome God, a loving God, a God of judgment, a God of radiance to be held in awe. He sees God simply as playing a part of some kind, so in a humble and unassuming way he asks questions about this small “g” God.  

The voice saying “I like not seeing,” is still the young boy’s. He is communicating to his father that he isn’t scared, that he feels safe and well tended to in the forest, and that using his other senses is exciting, fresh, and ripe with possibilities. Implicit in this account is the premise that so long as we maintain childlike openness to experience we can, as you suggest, continue to live in wonder.

“I suppose I am out now,

Out of excuses, out of art,

Out of contrivances, out.”

This is an excerpt from your poem “Out”. You once told Creative Life: “Saying that I was a poet was the equivalent of coming out of the closet” – I liked it so much that you said because I also stated it when I first read my poetry in front of people – I was so frightened! So after assuming oneself as a poet, there is no way back, right? Was at that moment that you decided to spend most of your time helping people work through creative blocks? Can you tell us a bit about how your process of “coming out of the closet”?

I’m thrilled that my voicing this resonated with you, and that it spoke to your experience.  Stepping forward, giving full voice to who you are, can be a terrifying experience. Knowing how others have done this can be of enormous comfort. It makes us feel less alone in the world.

For me the process of acknowledging that poetry is central to who I am was an extended one.  I began writing poetry many years before I “came out” as a poet.  I even had a play based on a group of my poems produced by director, Colby Devitt, but even then I wasn’t out as a poet. It was something that I did “on the side,” or perhaps better put, “on the downlow.”  Shortly after that play was produced, I stopped writing poetry for about ten years. 

I began to write again after having come through cancer, a divorce and the beginning of a new life. I was fortunate to have a residency at Mesa Refuge in Point Reyes California, where much to my surprise I began writing poems. I was fortunate also to have three wonderful people who received these early scratchings with love and respect.  It opened a channel that has grown wider in the years since.  

Even then, though, it took time for me to say that I was a poet first and foremost.  I grew up in a family that had a tortured set of attitudes toward creativity, one that made coming forward very difficult.  While they celebrated vast creative achievements of the kind that won Nobel Prizes, they lived in terrible fear of the embarrassment that might come from  the production of anything less than perfect.  Accordingly, I was quite forcibly told that unless I could guarantee the success of my efforts, I ought to spare the family the humiliation of being linked to my fumblings.  They had neither appreciation for the stumbling path of the creative process, nor for the integrity of work done at any level of capability.  The imperatives they expressed were also devoid of  respect for one’s particular nature. Everything was driven by externals, how things appeared to the world, and how what was shared reflected on them.  The message in essence was, “unless you’re a pre-certified genius, keep it to yourself.”

So I led a divided life, writing poems and developing my craft, while doing my work with creative artists and arts organizations.  When I built my first website, I brought these parts together, presenting myself as both a poet and as a creative development advisor.  I can’t begin to describe the flack I got from family members when I put that  up.  They were convinced that presenting myself as a poet would destroy my ability to attract consulting clients.  I truly felt bad for them and for how anxious they were, but having survived cancer and made a new life from scratch, I finally saw the absurdity of the whole dynamic, let go and came out as a poet.  And that’s when my life really began.

Is there a difference in assuming yourself as a poet only by writing on the page between performing it to an audience?

In some contexts I make the distinction between functioning as a poet and “doing spoken word,” because it can be situationally helpful to do so. If I’m just reading poems, perhaps written by other people, then I’m functioning more as an actor than as a poet.

Fundamentally, though I don’t make a distinction between the two modes of creating and engaging poetry. 

Poetry began in spoken form and in song.   It was words carried on air, and for me its heart still lies there.  I process words more as sound than I do as symbols. I always have, and when I shape a poem I see it as ephemeral sculpture–words floating on air, filling space, then, gently, shifting their contours as their vibrations echo and decay in the room, falling into, what I called in one poem, “ambient hush.” 

When I write, I tend to spend considerable time voicing the poem out loud, exploring its sonic possibilities, its accent structure, its various possible pacings, and the resonance points in my chest, my mouth and my sinus cavities that bring the words to life.  

These vocal exercises not only shape my poems for performance, they yield far better work on the page, because they equip me to work out the rhythm, meter, music, sonorities, salients and dynamics of the piece in ways that I simply could not only with eyes to page. 

As a creative development advisor, helping artists, writers, and creative people thrive and shine, what is your advice or how do you work with artists who have English as a second language? 

This is a wonderful question, but my answer to it would depend entirely on the needs, capabilities, and the specific circumstances of the individual.  How I would work with them, and what we would try to accomplish would depend on what they were seeking, and if I could do something useful to help them.

You work with different artists and types of arts, such as theater, music, poetry, and films, as well as different areas of business and the corporate universe. What is the fine line between all those arts you work with?

I don’t know that there is a fine line, especially these days because more and more people work in a variety of media.  That said, different disciplines have different methods, traditions, modes of advancement, and social and economic structures. For example, one’s training, career trajectory, means of livelihood, and opportunities to practice one’s craft will be very different for a dancer than they are for a painter. This said, one of the benefits that arises from working across the arts is that I’m often able to take an idea that is common practice in one domain and offer it as a suggestion to someone working in another.  This active cross-fertilization of practices tends to open up fresh sets of possibilities.

Speaking about the moment we are living in right now, due to COVID-19, how do you believe this has impacting creative minds?

I’ve seen it affect the artists, writers and performers I work with in various ways. As compared with folks in the general population, I think that they’ve adapted to the situation pretty robustly.  Artists typically have had to deal with adversity, exclusion, and various sorts of risk as a part of their daily lives long before COVID. They’ve also developed strong imaginative tools and practices that give them an edge in confronting challenging circumstances, and since many of them are used to working long hours alone, social distancing has affected them less than folks who suddenly find themselves in unfamiliar isolation.

In terms of what I’ve seen, it’s been everything from intense activist engagement with the topic, to focused advancement of new work, inventive exploration of new and different technology, and lethargy and despair.  One factor that seems to be terribly important in determining people’s creative progress in the time of COVID is whether they’re engaging the new situation as an interesting set of creative constraints and degrees of freedom to be explored in novel ways, or  simply trying to replicate what they’d previously done through means that they deem to be poor substitutes.  The former are setting themselves up well for growth, the latter for creative and emotional difficulty.

“I’m dreaming what I can dream.

The list is long–a catalogue

of dreams; a compendium 

of symbols.”

“Of Dreams and Songs”, by Marc Zegans, published on Spoken Word Scratch Night, in Paris.

Marc, is the common dream of artists to make their livings with art?

It is a common dream, but not a universal dream.  Some artists are happier not connecting their work to the way that they earn money. Others want to make a living through their art so long as doing so enhances their creative energy and experience. Others, still, would like to make their living exclusively through making art, but will not let limited income deter them.  Finally, some set financial independence through their art as a primary objective. These folks stay in the arts if they succeed in making a living there and exit if they do not.

The question you raise is a different one now than it was in previous generations because a significant percentage of the population is living longer healthier lives after retirement.

As a consequence, one sees many people starting creative lives when income is no longer a constraint on creativity.

Is there a moment that artists and writers should stop dreaming?

When we stop dreaming, we become less than alive.  We should never, ever give up dreaming. We should become excellent at embracing our dreams, cultivating our dreams and learning from them.  We should savor our dreams in their own right, let them inspire us, learn from them how we need to grow and to change, and let them inform us how we can better live in this world.

What we should not do is live in idle dreams, or organize our lives based on fantasies that have no connection to reality.  Working artists are practical people. They put hands in clay and bring form from it. Artists bring their work into the world and share it with others. They reflect on their practices and adapt these on the basis of new information and feedback. When a dream is tired, exhausted, irrelevant, it’s time to let it go and invite new dreams to enter.  Artists who lead fulfilled and fortunate lives imagine, but they do not pretend.

When does a poem end?

That’s a beautiful question.  

So long as it’s in the world and can touch a heart or mend a soul, it never does.


Cover Photo by Amanda Hoskinson

Other links to Marc Zegans’ works:

Spotify • “The Underwater Typewriter” • “La Commedia Sotterranea della Macchina da Scrivere” • “The Snow Dead”Interview with Moving Poems


Want to read more about poetry and literature? Check our conversation with Luci Collin here.

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