Matthew Zapruder is a busy guy. A world-renowned poet and essayist, he also edits Wave Books, teaches at St. Mary’s College of California and, as of recently, juggles parental duties. And, next year will see the release of his first book of prose.
For the uninformed, Zapruder is a big deal. He’s the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and the William Carlos Williams Award, among numerous other laurels. Known for a loose style that finds unexpected surrealism in the conversational mode, Zapruder is a man of many voices. His poems meander intently but unpredictably from joy to melancholy, casual to intimate.
In his own words, here’s how Zapruder manages to balance sleep with creativity, productivity and fatherhood.
To my continual surprise, I am a morning person. I usually like to get up by six, drink some water and coffee, and get to work. If I’m writing prose, which I’ve been doing off and on for the past couple of years, I often will wake up in the middle of the night with ideas for expansion and revision. It’s actually kind of horrible. Sort of like being possessed. On the other hand, when I’m writing poetry, I think my brain likes to go deeper into the dreamlands, so I usually sleep better, and wake up early in the morning ready to go.
Of course, everything is different now that we have a baby. He actually has a fairly predictable schedule at this point. One of us is usually up pretty early in the morning to take care of him, while the other one sleeps or works. If it’s my turn I usually take him to the local coffee shop where he is a celebrity for his good nature and is occasionally bestowed radiant smiles.
I need a certain amount of sleep to work well and be a decent human being. Usually at least seven hours, preferably eight. If I get less, especially multiple days in a row, I can usually write, but am not good for much else, including being a decent husband. So the first few months after the baby came were hard for everyone. Unfortunately I’m a very light sleeper, so I usually wake up even if it’s not my turn to take care of the baby. When he has a cold or is otherwise bothered in his sleep and waking up in the middle of the night, it’s kind of like being tortured, albeit by a tiny adorable jailer.
Strangely, right after the baby was born, for the first month or so, I was incredibly productive: I finished a draft of this prose book, and also wrote many poems, several with him on my lap, sleeping. It was a very unexpected development. I found his presence both generative and calming.
I still feel pretty creative, when I’m not exhausted. Like so many parents I’ve figured out ways to work more efficiently and in smaller increments of time. This actually works pretty well for poetry, because once I’m working on a poem, part of my mind has a tendency to stay there, even while I’m doing other things. So I can dip in when I have some free moments.
I try not to work on anything when I’m with my baby, not only because I want to be fully attentive to him, but also because I find there is a calm and peace in just getting into his world that's unlike anything I have ever experienced.
It’s been my experience that regardless of how busy I am or am not, if I don’t make a schedule to write, I usually don’t do it. There are just too many other ways to be busy that are less challenging psychologically. Once I sit down I am always so happy I did. It’s very much like exercise in that way (except for the sitting down part). With prose it was interesting, because I needed to block out way more time. Writing a whole book of prose, as opposed to just essays, really helped me develop my concentration and ability to get very deep very quickly into a piece of writing. I find it easier now to sit down and concentrate faster when I am writing poems.
Email and the internet are the real killer: I love the ritual of blocking the internet and email (I use Mac Freedom), closing my door, letting everything get really quiet, and starting to write.
I have a very small bedside table: just my glasses and, right now, Elena Ferrante’s third volume in her Neapolitan series, which I just finished reading with rapt attention and terror, atop which rests Jane Austen’s Persuasion, which I am teaching in the fall in the MFA program at Saint Mary’s College. And crammed next to the books is my wife’s old digital clock-radio from high school, which blasts terrifying static according to its own idiosyncratic schedule. Probably time for a new device, though I love the survival of this pre-internet time device into our current lives.