By Roz Kay
“You seem to know a lot about humans,”
she whistled, splashing with her hind flippers.
“Perhaps you will write it all down for me.”
These lines, from Marc Zegans’ poem The Underwater Typewriter (in his new collection of the same name, published by Pelekinesis), make me smile, even on several re-readings.
It’s the charm, the surprise, the kaleidoscopic shift of words that brings the seal into focus for the first time; the way it resets what you’re reading and by extension how you might see life.
Why, I asked Marc, did he pick this poem (from among so many evocative poems and titles—inflection, perchance, Unclasped, even the tiny three-line poem Inversion, which creates a tree-sized image, so much bigger than it is on the page) to share its title with his book?
Part of the answer is water: it’s a current (pun intended) that runs throughout his conversation and his poetry.
“I’ve got a very strong relationship with Big Sur and the Northern California and Central California coast,” Marc says.
“Having moved back here after many, many years away, it was a way to root this work in a place that I felt I was returning to; there was something core about that.
“In a deeper sense, it’s a poem that’s about going into very deep and dangerous, yet beautiful, waters. And realizing that you come away from that place and bring things that are important and valuable to the surface.”
In this context, Marc’s poem is a response to Adrienne Rich’s poem, Diving into the Wreck.
“Adrienne Rich spent the last years of her life living in Santa Cruz, California,” he says. “But Rich’s work is about what’s down there that in some sense can be recovered, and mine is what you make of it.
“So, while it’s not a direct answer to her poem, there is a resonance with it, and an appreciation, an awareness of the poem, and also of the place where she chose to spend the last years of her life.”
Which brings us to Marc’s view that poetry is more than communication; it’s conversation. It’s a dialogue, he says, part of a long tradition of conversation between poets themselves and between poets and readers.
“There’s a tradition in rhythm and blues music back in the forties and fifties of making what were called answer records,” he says.
“Someone would put out a single, and then someone would try and one-up them, or would try to engage that single by creating an answer record to that.
“So you’d have R&B bands putting out these strings of singles which started with one thing and then another answered it, or picked up a line from one and carried it forward in another.
“And I love that feeling of conversation, dialogue, competition, and expanding the form. And so I was very conscious of making the answer poem like an answer record.”
Here, he’s talking specifically about his poems P(un)k Poets: Too Fucked to Drink, his answer to Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl, as well as The Underwater Typewriter. Music is on the page too; his poem Woodshed is laid out in such a way that if you turn the book on its side, the words become notes on a score.
For Marc, poetry is multi-dimensional.
Poetry as “ephemeral sculpture”
This is Marc’s second poetry collection; he’s also released two spoken word albums. So is the The Underwater Typewriter a continuation of themes or a move into something new?
“I think the book is a step into new waters,” he says. “It’s an extended performance. If you read it from beginning to end, you can read and perform this entire book out loud.
“It flows together as a sonic performance, and as I was writing it I was very consciously aware of creating a book that would do that.”
In working on the book, Marc thought often of the solos of Carlos Santana, and how despite many variations over the years, the central focus doesn’t change.
“You can hear many examples over many years, but there’s an entry with complete focus into what’s happening,” he says. “Although there’s great variety in the solo itself, there’s a through-line of sound and there’s a through-line of spiritual intention that drives the work forward.”
Poetry is inextricably linked with theatre as well as with sound and vison.
“The way I make and process poems, I hear words, and so I’m always making poetry from an auditory perspective,” he says. “What do words sound like on air? How do they fill a room, how do they decay?
“In shaping poems I often think of them in terms of ephemeral sculpture. The connection between doing spoken word before an audience and theatre is quite close.”
While there’s often a sense that poetry is not for the masses but is something rarefied and inaccessible, the internals musings of the poet, Marc points out that the relationship between poetry and theatre is neither new nor surprising.
It all goes back to the tradition of story.
“Poetry has always been connected to theatre,” he says. “Theatre comes from an oral tradition of telling stories around a camp fire. Poetry’s the same.
“Poetry was our means of transmitting stories and enacting in safe spaces the dramas of our lives.
“It was only in relatively more recent times that poetry took a written form and became something very much on the page and something more interior.”
How an accidental poet started opening doors
Marc’s arrival at poetry hit him like a meteor flying in out of the blue. A graduate student at Harvard, he was doing some writing, but poetry wasn’t on his radar. He had no interest in writing it and becoming a poet hadn’t crossed his mind.
“One sleepless night back in about 1987 or 1988, I got up from bed, sat down at my computer, and started writing,” he says.
“And what came out was a poem. I felt this—it was truly a visit by the muse, or at least urge to write—and I didn’t know why and I didn’t know what, and I just wrote without a filter and a poem came out.”
But having started, he hasn’t stopped.
“I think one thing that keeps me writing poetry is the richness and economy of the form,” he says.
“You get to write relatively short lines, every word counts, every line break counts. Words press up against each other and you begin to become aware of their relationship to each other in a way that you can’t in any other form.
“You see how letters repeat themselves, how sounds repeat, you feel juxtapositions in words that are on the page that generate new images for a reader, or take you to different places that are connected but not necessarily entirely linear.”
“As you’re reading a poem, if a poem is well-constructed, it’s kind of like walking down a hall of doors, and each time you come to a new phrase or a new line, you have an opportunity to open your own imaginative door, and I find that fascinating.”
We’re talking again about Marc’s passion for poetry as conversation, for writing something that everyone can explore, that connects across dimensions.
“There are some poems that simply can’t be written that way,” he says. “They’re dealing with abstract ideas, they’re dealing with trying to develop the possibilities of what language can do in an intellectual sense, and there’s certainly space for that, but I think that represents a corner of the field. I’ve written some abstract poems.
“But what I’ve tried to do for the most part is write the human way, that in some sense connects lives, and when I’m able to do that well, I feel fulfilled.”
© Roz DeKett
Lines from The Underwater Typewriter and photos used with permission.
About the poet
Marc Zegans is the author of the poetry collection Pillow Talk and two spoken word albums, Marker and Parker and Night Work. He comes to The Underwater Typewriter through the bayous and backwaters of American poetry, having been the Narragansett Beer Poet Laureate and a Poetry Whore with the New York Poetry Brothel—which Time Out New York described as “New York’s Sexiest Literary Event.” Marc has performed everywhere from the Bowery Poetry Club to the American Poetry Museum. As an immersive theater producer, he created the Boston Center for the Arts’ CycSpecific “Speak-Easy” and Salon Poetique: A Gathering of the “Tossed Generation.” He also has been MC and co-producer of The No Hipsters Rock ’n Roll Revue and co-producer, with Karen Lee, of Burlesque for Books. Marc lives near the coast in Northern California. You can follow Marc on Twitter here.
About the publisher
Pelekinesis is an independent book publishing company focusing on the development of literary-minded authors and artists by embracing the evolving publishing paradigm and creatively supporting the skills of these talented individuals. You can find the full catalog at www.pelekinesis.com