What is the occasion of this book?
MZ: Tenure. I needed to write a book to get tenure. I mean, I would have most likely written a book anyhow, but the possibility of losing my job because I haven’t written a book made me focus and write a book. I think it would be an interesting thing to research—the impact of academic jobs on poetic form and production.
Throughout history you see economics defining literary form with the Victorian novel being maybe the most well-known example. Victorian novels are 800 pages long because they were serialized monthly in magazines and authors were paid by installment. I, too, would have tried to make my story go on as long as possible.
Incidentally, I was self-conscious about the length of my book. It’s officially 88 pages, but it seems that poetry books are getting fatter and fatter, and I’ve never been good at making fat manuscripts. When I told Joshua Beckman at Wave that I was anxious about my manuscript length, he noted that manuscripts of late seemed to have increased in size. I wonder if that’s a product of poets in America being institutionalized within Academia. Are we making fat poetry books to look like we’re working hard? So that we have something hefty to throw on the dean’s desk? It’s something that I think about.
Where do you look for inspiration?
MZ: I find inspiration in other texts. It’s rare these days that I begin writing without having a direct connection to another person’s poetry. By direct, I mean that the other poet’s text is in front of me or I’m listening to a poet’s reading online as I type, that kind of thing. Some of these poems started as erasures of Jim Brodey poems. Some of them came out of typing I did while listening to Robert Duncan’s lectures or a Beverly Dahlen reading. Often I’ll read another person’s poems backwards or in some strange pattern and see if I get any phrases that I like and then I build from there.
As I’m working I’m not consciously thinking about writing anything in particular. I’m not sure what the poem wants to talk about until a good bit of it has formed on the page. It feels like a Ouija board or something. And the process feels relaxing when it’s working—when I’m actually getting a poem that works. But the rhythms in this book are often really anxious, which is no surprise given our moment.
How do you know when a poem ends?
MZ: It’s a rhythmic thing, I think. The music settles on a certain beat and I say, ok, we’re done.
What is your favorite poem, line, word in The Tiniest Muzzle Sings Songs of Freedom?
MZ: "The Remainders" because it is so fun to read aloud. Its energy builds differently in the four sections of the poem, but there’s an intensity throughout that makes it exciting to read in front of an audience. I can feel the room shift. Plus, it makes fun of going to school to study business, which is something I love to do.
We are thrilled this book will be on NYPL shelves! Now please tell us what’s on your shelf?
MZ: I’ve been reading early Barbara Guest, so The Location of Things, Moscow Mansions, and The Countess of Minneapolis. And James Schuyler’s collected poems. I just read Marjorie Perloff’s book on O’Hara, which I’ve never read before. I really liked it. What else? The German novel All for Nothingby Walter Kempowski. It’s about a German family having to abandon its house and flee as the Russian front comes through. NYRB published the novel in translation. They publish a lot of European novels that I’ve loved. I like this novel in particular because it describes things that I’ve heard my grandfather, who was forced labor under the Nazis, talk about my entire life. There’s a character in the novel, a Pole who works for the family—that character’s experiences are very much like my grandfather’s. I ate that book. It’s the only novel I’ve found that describes this particular historical experience, which in my own imagination defines my family.
Thank you, Magdalena Zurawski! NYPL patrons, we invite you to read The Tiniest Muzzle Sings Songs of Freedom in the Rose Main Reading Room of the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building; many of the items linked above, including Zurawski’s recent book, are only available at this location. To access material, here is our guide on Requesting Research Library Material.
For more poetry blog posts, see our listings from the 2019 Best Poetry Books Committee.