In the Field: Conversations With Our Contributors–Alexander Zitzner
Tell us about your poem “Some Exorcisms That Lead Away from Forgetting” in Volume 22. How did it come to be?
I have two memories of this poem in its early stages. One being that I was able to take a graduate-level poetry workshop last year, and after going over this poem, my professor said something along the lines of “It’s good, but what is it about?” The answer then is the same answer I have now that it’s just about “some exorcisms.” From that this poem was originally titled “Some Exorcisms” which is a nod to Nicholas Gulig’s poem “Some Pornographies” in his collection Orient. Another instance of being fortunate was being able to TA for an intro-level creating writing course last year where Dorothy Chan visited and gave a brief lecture on ways to enhance a poem. One of her suggestions was to make a title longer and let it do more work, so from that I went home and lengthened the title of my poem to what it is now. Aside from these memories the poem draws a lot from the time I’ve spent sitting outside at night unable to sleep and listening to the coyotes, birds, passing cars going into the city, and watching the moon.
What excites you as a writer? What turns you off, makes you turn away or stop reading a piece of writing?
Writing that experiments with form and language excites me. Three of my recent favorite reads have been Jos Charles’ feeld, Hoa Nguyen’s Violet Energy Ingots, and CAConrad’s A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon. I’m a fan of most writing but I love poems in collections like these that keep showing the endless possibilities of approaching poetry. It’s all inspiring even if I don’t write like them. My turn offs are Bukowski poems—otherwise I’m trying to continuously broaden myself so I’ll read almost anything and everything as long as it isn’t hateful. What was an early experience that led to you becoming a writer?
Around 6th/7th grade my mom introduced me to The Doors and I was infatuated with the idea of Jim Morrison. When I learned about his life and that he was into poetry, I, in turn, became interested in poetry. Although I’m not into The Doors anymore, poetry stuck with me. Plus Morrison’s interest in Rimbaud got me into him, and after that, Ashbery because of his translation of Illuminations. I think in a funny full circle, while reading Julian Talamantez Brolaski’s poem, “pyramidal, its certain form” in the December 2018 edition of Poetry, it has a great line that summed up my adolescence, “the doors have an 11-minute song called ‘the end’ / which feels serious when you are 11 and stupid.” “The End” was my favorite song too, so it’s good to laugh about this now and think where this started.
What books, writers, art, or artists inspire you and your work? Do–or have–you had any mentors in your writing life?
I’ve been name dropping a lot of writers in this interview because I am inspired by so many people and am thankful for them, so the aforementioned are important to me. At the risk of going on for too long, I will name a few writers, artists, and musicians who inspire me: Frank O’Hara, James Tate, Kaveh Akbar, Tyehimba Jess, Kai Carlson-Wee, Matthew Dickman & Michael Dickman, Chelsey Minnis, Joshua Beckman, Elle Pérez, David Wojnarowicz, Alejandro Jodorowsky, David Lynch, Kenneth Anger, Louise Bourgeois, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Lou Reed, Jason Molina, Jeff Mangum, David Berman, Townes Van Zandt, The Stooges, Patti Smith, Ian Curtis…the list could go on forever. I’ve been fortunate to take workshops with John Murillo, Gretchen Marquette, and Nick Gulig, but my main mentors have been B.J. Hollars, Allyson Loomis & Jon Loomis, and Matthew Rohrer.
Do you practice any other art forms? If so, how do these influence your writing and/or creative process?
I really enjoy painting, playing guitar, and skateboarding. I’m passionate about all of them although I’m still practicing each to get better. My first passion was skating—I’ve been doing that since I was 6 and it definitely correlates to how I approach writing. When you’re learning a trick (or even a song, maybe even a method of painting) you go into it knowing that it’s going to take time to learn—you’re going to mess up a lot. That’s how I feel about writing. It’s nice when a poem comes out feeling done, but the re-edits are my favorite part because you get to flush everything out. So it’s kinda like learning a trick or a riff—you’ll get closer and closer to something that it passable, then you try to perfect it in your own way. It’s almost good in that way to fail more than you succeed—you deepen your appreciation for what you’re doing. I’m not sure if that luxury is given to many other activities.
What craft element challenges you the most in your writing? How do you approach it? What is your quirk as a writer?
My craft challenge is that I get bored easily. I’ve tried numerous times to write poems that deal with similar subject matters or are in the same form so there is a sense of cohesion, but I am constantly changing what I do. Maybe it’s because I’m young and still feeling everything out, but as most young poets, I hope to someday have a collection that bonds itself together over something. Aside from that is that I have many topical quirks. Generally my poems have something to do with rain or something being on fire—there will more than likely be birds or some animal—and I think of them as autobiographical fictions, or combining elements of truth and then bending them as far as I can to border on surrealism while keeping my footing in the real world.
How does the current political climate influence your art or creative process?
It has made me depressed and as much as I want to shut off the news or not look at what is going on, it’s made me stay vigilant of everything going on. One of my favorites, Frank O’Hara, helped me create the habit of writing everything down that is going on with my life. So I’m taking note of what is going on so as to not forget, and all of this is fuel for poetry. With this, I think Forrest Gander starts his book Be With with quote that goes something like, “the political begins with intimacy.” Art in my mind is a very intimate thing, whether it’s you writing/creating for yourself or to share with people—the act of thinking things through and translating your experience into a piece of work is important to me because it seems like a lot of problems come from errors in communication and information. Art, I think, can then help spread the truth, or at least some truth which in turn raises awareness about what is going on.
What are some themes/topics that are important to your writing?
I don’t consider myself to be an environmentalist (although I do care about nature) but a lot of my writing revolves around what it has been like to live in Wisconsin, where it is not unlike Minnesota where if you go 10-15 minutes outside almost any town or city, you’re surrounded by beautiful farmland, fields, or forests which the road cuts through. The New York School of poets had this idea of the “urban pastoral” which I think is what has helped me make sense of where I live. There are elements of the city which makes it into my poems, but as I said, I’m always looking for birds or some way to find out how nature is competing or adapting, and how I am feeling about all of this going on.
What does your creative process look like? How does the environment you are in shape your work or where do you like to write?
Music is usually my first resource. I like to listen to music whenever I’m doing anything because it warms up my brain, so the first thing I do after I wake up is put on something to set the mood for the day. When I leave my house I’ll be listening to something in my headphones, but looking at my surroundings which is a nice mix of houses, buildings, trees, streets, and grass. I like to look at the sidewalk a lot though—garbage is interesting to me and makes me think of the story behind it. Usually when I’m walking, I don’t pull a ton of ideas from only the scenery, but usually seeing something or hearing a lyric helps me create a starting off point to just start writing and go from there.
What projects or pieces are you working on right now?
Mainly I’m trying to graduate. That is my first priority. However, I’m doing a cool independent study dealing with Jon Loomis on poetry and getting ready to apply for MFA programs. So aside from graduating, I think I’m just trying to write, edit, and solidify some poems by November so I can start applying. I’m extremely excited about all of this.
Alexander Zitzner is an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire pursuing a BA in creative writing. Outside of school, he reads for The Adroit Journal, has just completed a term serving as co-vice president of the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets’ West Central Region, and is the former assistant arts administrator to the writing residencies at Cirenaica in Fall Creek, Wisconsin (2018), and The Priory in Eau Claire (2019). You can read more about Alex’s work at his website.