“You publish too much!” An interview with Bill Zavatsky

By Michael Allen Zell

Bill Zavatsky is a New York poet who has had two of his own books published since 1975. Why so few?  He’s been busy running SUN press and magazine for fifteen years, translating Surrealist poets, teaching, and playing jazz piano. Zavatsky graciously took time to answer a few questions last week in advance of the next Black Widow Salon at Crescent City Books (230 Chartres St.), at which he will be the featured guest. The event takes place at 7 p.m. on Monday, March 12. Zavatsky will also read as part of the 17 Poets series at the Gold Mine Saloon on March 15.

Room 220: Black Widow Press is going to reprint your co-translation of Andre Breton’s Earthlight, which won a PEN award in 2004. How did this come about?

Bill Zavatsky: My friend Zack Rogow and I had regained the rights to our Earthlight translation and thought we’d look around for a publisher. Black Widow Press was the first one that we thought of. I wrote to publisher Joe Phillips to inquire about whether there might be a conflict, because he had reprinted Mary Ann Caws’ and Jean-Pierre Cauvin’s translations of a selection of Breton’s poems. But he said he liked to publish multiple translations of the same author, and that is where we started. Joe also reprinted my and Ron Padgett’s translation of The Poems of A.O. Barnabooth by Valery Larbaud and we had had a marvelous experience with him as our editor and publisher.

Rm220: In your translation of Surrealists, have you ever found work that you consider untranslatable, as defined by Walter Benjamin?

BZ: I’d have to go look up Benjamin’s theory of translation, with which I am not familiar. I do like Pound’s ideas that images can be translation but music can’t. There’s always the struggle to come as close as possible to what the poet means and how he makes it mean, and that includes the sonic dimension. My favorite Surrealist is actually Robert Desnos. I’ve tried very hard over the years to translate all of Desnos’ Rrose Sélavy sequence, but most of the puns are impossible. I developed some kind of system for translating a bunch of these poems that would offer the reader a kind of equivalent to what Desnos was doing, but by now I think I’ve forgotten what I did. I find Breton’s early poetry almost incomprehensible, and not very inviting. But the further one goes into his poetic oeuvre, the deeper and richer it grows.

Zavatsky contributed poems to liner notes for albums by jazz pianists Bill Evans and Marc Copland

Rm220: You were awarded back-to-back MacDowell fellowships in 2007 and 2008. You used your time, in part, to write an essay on pianists Bill Evans and Marc Copland. Would you speak on your time at the MacDowell Colony and sum up the essay?

BZ: My stated aim was to work on poems—nothing special. At some point I did write an essay about collaborating with Bill Evans and Marc Copland—the latter is a wonderful jazz pianist who ought to be better known here in the States. My writing about Bill predated my friendship with him, and in fact a poem that I wrote about him led to a meeting with him and his wife, Nenette, and to our friendship. I had known Marc at Columbia University when I played piano in a big band that he organized. We lost track of each other, connected again, and eventually he asked me to write something for a quintet CD on which he was leader. I have now written fourteen poems that have appeared as the liner notes on recordings of his. So I worked on a lot of things at MacDowell, but Sascha Feinstien, a poet and saxophonist and the editor of Brilliant Corners, a jazz-oriented literary journal, had asked me to write about Bill and Marc. The article, “Words Out of Music: Collaborating with Bill Evans and Marc Copland,” gave me the opportunity to pull together in one place the poems I had written for and “with” these pianists, and to explain a little about how I wrote them.

Rm220: Your first book was published in 1975 and the second, Where X Marks The Spot, in 2006. You’re currently working on your third book. What has led to the—in the present day, rather anomalous—route of letting your poems steep and mature for years? Translations and teaching?

BZ: It’s kind of a dumbass thing for a poet who isn’t very prolific to point to other poets and say, “You publish too much!” but that’s kind of how I feel. A friend of mine—and I emphasize that this was a friend—said to me, “This new book of yours has a terrific poem on almost every page. Most books, if you find three really good poems in the whole book, it’s an event.” I humbly suggest that he is correct. But maybe I could field a strong book because I threw away a lot of mediocre or terrible poems in the intervening years. You’re right in mentioning translation. I spent a lot of time working with on Earthlight with Zack Rogowand and on The Poems of A. O. Barnabooth with Ron Padgett. I’ve also spent a lot of time translating Desnos, Rimbaud, Apollinaire, and other poets, and written a number of essays about teaching poetry writing. I also, with my ex-wife Phyllis, ran SUN, the press, and SUN the literary magazine from 1971 – 85. We published several big fat issues of the magazine, thirty-six books, and two issues of a wild and crazy beast of a magazine called Roy Rogers.

Rm220: While director of SUN you published Max Jacob, Raymond Roussel, and many others. How did SUN arise and what defined the period for you?

BZ: SUN the magazine began as a publication at Columbia University called Sundial. A student named Larry Susskind started it as an alternative to the Columbia Review, the official university literary magazine, which was cliquish and difficult to break into. Sundial was open to everybody, and I published my first poems in it that might be thought of as any good. I started as a staff member, become poetry editor, and then when I was set to become the editor, the funding was pulled. The Episcopal office had funded Sundial, and a wonderful man named Bill Starrr, one of the Episcopalian chaplains at Columbia, got in trouble for presiding over the marriage of two students who were involved in the occupation of one of the university buildings in the spring of 1968. So I scraped together some money and published a double-issue of the magazine, but since by then I wasn’t affiliated with Columbia, I decided to kidnap the magazine and changed its name to SUN. The double-issue qualified us for a grant from what was then called the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines, and I had enough money to go forward. A few years later I published Phillip Lopate’s first book of poems, The Eyes Dont Always Want to Stay Open, and the press came into being.

Rm220: In addition to your writing, you are also a jazz pianist. What about the piano particularly appeals to you, and do you see elements of music akin to your particular literary interests?

BZ: I was handed an accordion when I was about six years old, and by the time I was eleven or twelve it had grown into a piano. After I had really started to listen to Fats Domino, I began to hear the New Orleans-style piano on other recordings—particularly those of Huey Smith. I loved this piano sound! Then one day my mother was driving us home from somewhere and the air-raid sirens began screaming. The directive was that, if you were in an automobile when the missiles struck, you pulled over to the curb and stayed in your car. Just as we were pulling over, something unbelievable began to come out of the car radio from a brand-new LP called The Wild Sound of New Orleans, by a young musician named “Tousan.” I ran down to my local record stop the next day and ordered it. This mysterious “Tousan” turned out to be the brilliant Alan Toussaint, and he instantly became one of my piano heroes. I still have that recording, and some day I’m going to get Mr. Toussaint to sign it for me.

I love the blues, and I try to write blues tunes and even sing them, though nobody wants to hear me sing. I also confess to being a bebopper. I worship Bill Evans, Marc Copland, Keith Jarrett, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Lennie Tristano, Alan Broadbent … too many great musicians. And these are only a few of the great pianists.

Poetry and jazz are improvisatory arts. Writing a poem, even a first draft, is like taking a solo on a musical instrument that happens to be you. I think that playing jazz has given me the courage to write, and that writing has given me a certain kind of courage when I make music.

Jane Henderson Zavatsky, March 1943

Rm220: Other than your new book, what research and/or translations are you working on presently?

BZ: I’ve gone back to working on Robert Desnos and am trying to finish a translation of LES TÉNÈBRES (DARKNESS), his twenty-four poem sequence from the late 1920s. There are some essays that I want to write or finish writing on topics as various as Julius Caesar and Hitchcock’s Vertigo, and I am hoping to get more than started on a memoir of Bill Evans. My mother died last October at ninety-one, and beginning with a poem that I read at her memorial mass, I find myself thinking and writing a lot about her. Of course I’ve always thought about her, but I’ve never been able to write much about her. That energy was going towards my father. But since her death I have begun to see her in different ways, from different angles. Her husband, who is cleaning up her effects in Florida, where they lived, just sent me an extraordinary photograph of my mother six months pregnant. She is incredibly beautiful and elegant, standing in a drift of snow next to a restaurant where she’s probably just had a bite to eat. Is it too weird to say that I’ve fallen in love with my mother all over again?