Emergency Press: Tell us a bit about how this poem was composed.
Scott Zieher: As a book length effort, this poem took probably 100 readings in the past five years, with about 25 different versions, all told. It took about a decade to get the idea into its current form. I have a notebook with me at all times and lines or words or images or combinations occur for me at any time. These scraps eventually get added to a larger whole, be it Virga or any other poem I've ever written, really. It's pretty rare when something comes out complete and "finished" for me, in part because I generally work with a pencil and paper first and invariably the line breaks, order, and word choice automatically change once the piece begins to be re-drafted from holograph to typescript. I work best very early in the morning, from about I can work from about 5:00 until 10:00 AM. I can get a lot of work done editing or composing during those 5 hours.
SZ: Walt Whitman's 1855 Leaves of Grass, Ezra Pound's Cantos, Walter Benjamin's Arcades Project, James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, William Carlos William's Paterson, John Berryman's Dream Songs and Sonnets, Louis Zukofsky's A, Charles Olson's Maximus Poems, and Robert Kelly's Loom.
SZ: The city is an unavoidable inspiration for me. Every square foot holds some appeal. In the process of writing this poem, I became very comfortable using place names, languages and even imagery from points elsewhere, but that was automatically justified by the fact that any word in the world can somehow drop into your lap here. The city has a poetics all its own, and these poetics are constant, irresistible and wholly surprising. This is most definitely a poem of and for New York City, so it's safe to say the poem is itself a poetics of this place as much as anything else.
SZ: Certainly there's precedence in the world of letters for poets responding to the visual arts; from the mere fact that the Greeks have a word, ekphrastics, for poems about paintings to the Renaissance men Leonardo and Michelangelo, to Baudelaire and Apollinaire. But Frank O'Hara is the irresistible prototype for me, and the New York School poets most definitely come first to mind as a group, or tradition, though tradition's probably the wrong word. No canonized poet I know has sold art as a vocation, but there's a great guy named Geoffrey Young who has a gallery in Great Barrington, New York, who self-publishes his chapbooks of poetry. And my friend Kent Mueller writes poems and sells art. There's also Christian Haye, a New York dealer and former poet. But O'Hara comes closest, I suppose, to how I spend my workaday. Much has changed in the New York art world in the last fifty years, though, and if he were alive today O'Hara might well be pimping young artists to collectors in a gallery as opposed to a museum. I imagine he'd be very good at the job. It's no great surprise that he was inspired during his lunch hour. Like him, I feel lucky to have simultaneously cut my teeth on the visual arts and writing poetry, and as an art dealer, I like to think the "product" we sell is pretty poetic. I feel lucky to handle a great host of inspired artists who work really hard. I get the same thrill selling a painting or sculpture by another artist as I do when nineteen of my own words come together in two seemingly sweet sentences.
SZ: The desired effect should be inherent in the title: virga is the meteorological term for rain that evaporates before it hits the ground. It would be good if the reader felt what a drop of water felt like hurtling earthward, disintegrating, so, alternately, maybe a small satisfaction in having captured what usually disappears. The collage of snapshots that composes the poem is an attempt to capture the admittedly countless, formless, chaotic, multifarious faces seen and heard while strolling through New York City with wide open eyes and ears. This poem is romantic, so there should be an effect of nostalgia. It's also acutely American, so the positive and ticklish effects of our vocabulary should be felt, too. Sadly, an antique definition of virga is penis. And while there's a bit of testosterone in the poem, hopefully that just lends a sense of optimistic energy. There is a lot of testosterone on the streets of New York City. The image on the cover of the book is by Jeff Ladouceur, an artist from Vancouver. His rain-drop like blob with three patches perfectly conjures what I want from the poem- a sort of tattered and somewhat loopy figure striding along un-tucked but optimistic, and beautifully drawn.
SZ: Sense gets trumped. Wandering through New York City does not really allow for any sort of typical sense. But therefore there's meaning in the irregularity of the structure of the poem. There's meaning in the breaks and hopefully the lay of the words on the page feel like the weather that might occur around a raindrop hitting dry air really fast. Sense comes together here by way of accumulation. There's meaning in every hard won word, but in the end, nothing beats a good tune.
SZ: My father died on the 13th of August, and since I can remember I've been pre-occupied with the number thirteen, especially in writing poetry. I have often written sequences of poems numbering thirteen and it got to the point where I felt I couldn't "use" the number anymore. So I multiplied it by a sort of pseudo-Christian 3 and arrived at 39. 39 is a nice, solid, seemingly random number, I thought, with none of the numerological baggage that weighs down thirteen, but still playing in perfectly to my mock-heroic ancestor worship. I started work on the sections that repeat the number 39 when I was probably 35 years old. It had nothing to do with my own age. But then I was notified that I'd won the Emergency Press contest the week I turned 39, which was weird. Then later I realized that my father was 39 when he died, and that, by the time the book was actually published I would have lived longer than my father, which was heavy and morbid and also sort of wonderful.
EP: Could you give us a brief biographic account of how you got to where you are today, in New York and in poetry?
SZ: I grew up in Waukesha, Wisconsin with my mother and two sisters. My father died two months before I was born but my mother took great pains to encourage me as a kid. She gave me notebooks when I went on bus and train trips and told me to write down what I saw so I would remember. My mom was the secretary to the principle of my Junior High School and my dad sold plumbing fixtures for a company called Chicago Faucet when he died. I was very close with my family. I studied art history and English as an undergraduate, bouncing around between three different schools in the Wisconsin University system, eventually taking a degree in English from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. From 1988 to 1992 I was a member in good standing of the Goal Zero Poetry group and won the Greater Milwaukee Poetry slam two seasons running (1990-91). Goal Zero met weekly at the Metropolitan Art Gallery, later known as KM art, led by my great friend the art dealer and poet, Kent Mueller. I met a lot of artists during this period and visited New York about a dozen times. I moved to Williamsburg, Brooklyn in 1992. Here I wrote a few parts of what would eventually become Virga while attempting to compose a 21 line poem every day for a year, which ended upon my matriculation in the MFA program at Columbia University in the fall of 1994. In the two years following, I worked for the Visual Arts MFA Division and thereby became a further part of the emerging art world. Williamsburg was (and remains, wildly multiplied) a hotbed of young artists, so I met a lot of young artists and dealers there too. I moved into Manhattan in 1997 and worked for a time as a glorified secretary for a Wall Street securities firm, working daily on Virga. My mother died of Lou Gehrig's Disease in 1999 as I entered a course in connoisseurship in American Arts at the Sotheby's Institute. The book is dedicated to her (and my father) because at the end of her life she would have given anything to be able to walk the streets of New York. Fortunately, I met my partner Andrea Smith in the Sotheby's program. Thereafter, I worked for a contemporary art gallery in Midtown, and further refined Virga. In 2003 Andrea and I opened ZieherSmith, a gallery for emerging artists and we now hang monthly exhibitions of new work in all media. I also have a second book of poetry that is very nearly completed. It's called Impatience and will have at least one poem for every state in the Union and then some.