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Interview with Zachary Schomburg

by Mel Wells

Zachary Schomburg is an Oregon Book Award-winning poet who will be teaching the class Creating a Chapbook Manuscript at Literary Arts this fall. He was en route to Raleigh, midway through a 43-day cross-country book tour promoting his newest work, The Book of Joshua, published by Black Ocean. We spoke by phone, talking about his upcoming class, small-town connections, eighties mix tapes, and his hunt for a reclusive poet.

Q. What inspired you to teach this class?

As someone who does workshops primarily through academia, it’s a rare opportunity for me to get to work with people who aren’t necessarily searching for degrees or credits, who just want to genuinely have conversation about poetry with me and each other. It makes me feel included in the poetry community and is an opportunity to engage with people in it, particularly people I wouldn’t have met otherwise. In both the previous classes I’ve taught at Literary Arts I’ve gained friendships with people I might not have come across any other way. Beyond that, I want to do my part in supporting Literary Arts because it’s an organization I really believe in.

As for chapbooks, I like small projects that do single things. Chapbooks are more focused than a book; to me, they’re a lot more fun to do. And a chapbook is usually a limited-edition art book—one of the reasons it’s valuable is because it’s beautiful. So the poet also needs to be aware of their aesthetic options. If I’m going to have my name on a book of poetry, I want to have input on its cover, its layout, and the way it’s organized, because my name is on the cover. The cover is the very first page of my book.

Q. So will you be discussing a lot of design elements? 

We won’t get into teaching design software, but we will talk about how a book should be put together, because this is a very valuable part of the conversation. For example, what do you imagine the cover looking like? The object can be a metaphor for what the book is doing; the construction can be very informative about how it can be read. The design elements are an opportunity to continue the conversation with the poems.

Q. What are your favorite parts about teaching poetry?

Poetry is the thing that I love; I want to think about it and talk about it with strangers and friends, every day. I suppose on one hand it’s a job, but it’s a job I would do anyway—having these conversations. My favorite part as a teacher and workshop guide is that I’m constantly learning from other people’s perspectives.

Q. How is your tour going? And, in confession of stalking, what is this #mixtapetour stuff mentioned in your Twitter feed

[laughs] The tour is going really well. When I was planning it, I realized renting a car for six weeks would be super expensive, and the idea of being in a Corolla with all our books and gear for that long sounded very uncomfortable. So I decided to buy an ‘89 Chevy conversion van for $1200, and so far that gamble has paid off. Also, we decided to keep the tour very 1989, with all the technology and the ways we’re entertaining ourselves from the eighties. So we bought a bunch of cassette tapes, about one hundred, including old hip-hop and hair metal, and have been asking people to bring us mixes and then we’ll tweet about them. So far we’ve had six. The idea is to say, “Come to our reading and interact with us, and then we’ll continue the conversation on Twitter.” So far people have kept that conversation going. Four people made new mixes that are really good; others gave us old mixes from the eighties. We’ve had a lot of fun with both versions. Another fun thing about #mixtapetour is my friend Kate Bingaman Burt, an illustrator in Portland, agreed to draw the mix tapes and their playlists, and then post them on Twitter and Instagram.

Q. Do you have any upcoming projects you’re especially excited about?

We have a book coming out with Octopus Books that I’m reading from at every stop: Picasso’s Tears by Wong May. This is her fourth book of poems, but the first since I was born. She put out three books and then sort of fell off the publishing map—at least in the public sphere, no one knew where she’d gone. I discovered her work in 2003 and began searching for her. In 2009, through help of C.D. Wright, I discovered that she was in Dublin under another name, was a painter, as it turns out she never stopped writing poetry but fell out of love with publishing it. She sent us 800 pages of poems that she’d been writing my whole life, so we put out this beautiful hardcover poetry book that I’m reading from and trying to get her back in the conversation—trying to raise awareness about her poetry.

This is my third tour, but it’s longest drive I’ve ever been on. The other trips all coincided with my previous three books. The first I toured for was Scary No Scary. I really like to drive, and to meet friends and to travel, and this is a way to share my poetry and hear others’ poetry and try to be a part of every little poetry community in every little town. I get to make new friends, get books into people hands, and discover and buy new books.

Also, Joshua Marie Wilkinson is joining me on this trip for three weeks, Chicago to Tucson. It’s our third time touring together; we’re good travel partners and having a lot of fun. He’s driving right now.

Q. So how do you keep up your energy while traveling around the country on tour?

There’s something about the rhythms of a tour, about reading in a different place almost every night. You wake up, have coffee, get in van, drive, find happy hour, meet people, find a couch to stay on, and repeat. You’re social in the evening and then quiet during the day, listening to music, thinking. It’s that balance of up and down time that is sustainable. If I had to hang out all morning, in addition to every night, it would be much more exhausting. But this rhythm is like breathing.

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