Between the Lines

Zack Rogow

Zack Rogow is the author, editor, or translator of twenty books or plays. His eighth book of poems, Talking with Radio: poems inspired by jazz and popular music, was published by Kattywompus Press in 2015. He is the editor of an anthology of poetry if the U.S.A., The Face of Poetry, from University California Press. Currently he teaches in the low-residency MFA in writing program at the University of Alaska Anchorage and serves as poetry editor of Catamaran Literary Reader.

How has social justice influenced your writing?

I grew up at a political time in a political family. Instead of being taught, “Don’t cross the street in the middle of the block,” my mother taught me, “Don’t cross a picket line.” I came of age in the 1960s, when the civil rights movement, the peace movement, and the student movement were at high-water marks. Social change and writing always seemed to me closely intertwined. That connection was reinforced by the influence of June Jordan, a wonderful poet, essayist, novelist, and librettist who was my mentor both as an undergraduate and as a graduate student.

What are you working on right now?

Several projects. One is a new book of poems tentatively called Irreverent Litanies that is partly about my ambivalent relationship to spirituality. Another is a one-woman show about the French author Colette that I’m collaborating on with the actor-writer Lorri Holt. An early version of it that was read at the Millennium Stage of the Kennedy Center in Washington DC that you can see on their website. I’m working sporadically on a book of selected translations that includes poems and songs from French, German, Japanese, Portuguese, Spanish, and Urdu, many of them collaborative efforts. I’m also gradually accumulating pages for a memoir of humorous incidents in my life.

What are your top three reads?

One of the top would certainly be The Orwell Reader, selections of work by George Orwell. He’s one of those writers whose work I want to read as much as I can. Orwell had such integrity. He would never bow to conventional ideas of any sort. His prose has an astounding combination of precision and vision. Orwell’s writing embodied the ideals he expressed in his essay “Politics and the English Language”—a must read.

Another would be June Jordan. Any of her selected poems, such as Things That I Do in the Dark, or Passion. June was a lighthouse. You could set your course by what she stood for. Wonderful love poems. She was also one of the funniest human beings I’ve ever met.

Third might be Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. That novel never ceases to amaze me with its incredible attention to the small moments of life and how deeply they resonate. All the images are as fresh as when she wrote it, almost 100 years ago.

What is your writing process like?

“Process” would be an exaggeration. I struggle to find time to write. When I get an idea, I try to play out all the opening moves in my head, to see if the gambit will lead anywhere. That way, with the time I have, I’m not wasting it on ideas I will later have to throw out. But I try not to finish the concept before I start writing. I want to discover as the work is in progress. I’m very linear for an artist. I can only have one draft I’m working on at a time. I’m always amazed by writers who can juggle multiple drafts at once.

Do other forms of art influence your work?

Very much so. I’m a visual thinker. Visual arts are extremely important to me. I think of literary history in terms of what artists were painting at that time. I also listen to music constantly. I’m particularly addicted to jazz, especially of the 1930s to 70s. I just finished a book called Talking with the Radio, poems inspired by jazz and popular music, due out from Kattywompus Press in spring 2015.


Fossils and Fuels: The Evening Commute

The traffic on 280 laps up gas
as it lashes around the hills
above the Crystal Springs Reservoir.

                         The oncoming headlights form
a Nile of fireflies.
                           Taillights ahead
brighten like blown embers.

Each bubble of music
chases the one in front.

As the coastal mountains lean
away from the sun, the rays
transform the water
into a matador’s suit of lights.

It’s beautiful, the evening commute: beautiful

as a bullfight.

 

 

What the World Needs Now

for Hal David, Burt Bacharach, and Jackie DeShannon

What the world needs now is an electric car with fins
What the world needs now is a loosey-goosey interpretation of the most sacred books
What the world needs now is a way to live many lives simultaneously
What the world needs now is a whole country just for elephants and their trusted companions
What the world needs now is a villanelle you can rock out to
What the world needs now is freedom ringing from Badaling Mountain in China to Kilimanjaro

in Tanzania to Denali in Alaska to Mount Elbrus in Russia

What the world needs now is a tofu recipe that tastes as good as a medium-rare burger just off

the grill

What the world needs now is a glue that can fasten Monday onto Saturday and Sunday
What the world needs now is a cigarette that cures cancer
What the world needs now is a Frisbee that can turn 90 degrees
What the world needs now is for everyone to stop running the water when they brush their

teeth

it would saves lives
—I’m not sure how but I know it would

What the world needs now is Marilyn Monroe in a flannel shirt and combat boots
What the world needs now is a way to record and play back our dreams

What the world needs now is love sweet love

At least that’s what I need

 

 

What Do You Think?

What do you think about people who act like 10 Items or Less doesn’t apply to them?

What do you think about drivers who muscle into the turn lane without waiting in line

in a

hybrid?

What do you think about scholars who write armlength
footnotes with words like “heuristic”
and “counter
-
hegemonic” and then tell you how they’re changing the world?

What do you think about countries that can’t go five years without starting a war—
countries like

the one I live in and love?

What do you think about people who say their religion is better than everyone else’s? They can’t

all be right, but they could all be wrong

I once heard the Zen master Suzuki Roshi
describe with joy tasting the wafer when he took com
munion in St. Patrick’s Cathedral

How do you feel about automatic weapons in private hands
—they’re needed to repel space

invaders, right?

What do you think about the idea that everything you get in life is deserved

Genocide? Bad

Karma. See ya later!

How do you react to tearing up the body in the name of exercise and health?
What do you think about people who never have a problem with anything and always answer the

question “How are you?” with a chirpy “Great!”?

What do you think about apps where you can’t a
dvance to the next level without fifteen hours of

practice?

What do you think about artists who believe it’s perfectly fine if their work only makes sense to

their friends?

I’m not sure what
I
think about poems that start every line with the same words
Man
y days I’m not sure what I think about myself

I’m not sure what I think about growing old and looking more and more each day like my

Grandpa Saul with my spectacles and with my gray hair melting away like a glacier

And I don’t want to think about death on those days when the argent sky and the newborn grass

on the hills are so vivid and I imagine all my memories evaporating like a sudden lake formed by a rainstorm in the Sahara where I hitchhiked in the violent heat of July at age

eighteen and I can’t bear for all this ever to end

 

 

There Should Be Unicorns

There should be unicorns with flirty eyes
And polished horns that flash like saxophones.
There should be hobbits seeking ancient prize,
Toting satchels packed with gin, and berry scones.
There should be fairies zooming all the night
To mirror constellations

just for kicks

While raspy dwarves parade beneath their light,
Then march to twinkling mines with lamps and picks.
There should be satyrs, gryphons, centaurs, djinns,
Fierce goddesses with those bonus arms, elves,
Gargoyles, golems, mermaids with blingy fins,
And squadrons of angels who fan themselves.
There should be a God who judges our ends,
Loves all, rights wrongs. Yes, there should be, but friends…