Cambridge Writers’ Workshop Grant Writing & Programming Intern AM Ringwalt recently sat down to chat with Z.G. Tomaszewski, a poet and musician living in Grand Rapids, to discuss his writing. Check out the interview below.
Z.G. Tomaszewski and I met last summer in Missoula, Montana, at a small retreat organized by our long-time mentor Chris Dombrowski. During our time together, Z.G. was deeply influenced by reading—and sharing—the work of Li-Young Lee. At our nightly dinners and campfires, he would often—either by memory or with book in hand—relay bits of gleaned wisdom. When I learned that Z.G.’s manuscript All Things Dusk had been selected by Li-Young Lee as the winner of the Hong Kong University International Poetry Prize, I knew how much this honor meant to him.
The reader of All Things Dusk ought to take heart in Li-Young Lee’s assertion: “These visionary poems suggest that every world is manifold worlds, that mundane experience is saturated with the sacred if we practice using the heart’s and soul’s eyes to look and see. In this book, the world is measured by the heart’s scale and the soul’s rule, and the result is a beautiful human singing.” I certainly did. I, taken by the blurb and the mission of Z.G.’s literary work, desired to learn more.
Last month, Z.G. and I found ourselves back in Dombrowski’s Montana, this time at the 406 Writers’ Workshop’s Beargrass Retreat. The retreat, which successfully aims to “gather some of the West’s most celebrated and promising writers at this storied ranch for four days of readings, workshops, craft talks, and generative writing opportunities that connect writers of all experience levels with self and place,” was a conduit for our friendship to grow and long-awaited discussions of our respective creative work to come to fruition. This interview began over email and ultimately came together by way of more campfire talks. It came to a bittersweet conclusion over jasmine green tea at Missoula’s Caffe Dolce, right before Z.G. turned to the mountains of Glacier National Park.
Z.G. and I share a deep love for Michigan. Born within bicycling distance of its lake, he lives in Grand Rapids as a self-proclaimed poet-rambler, handyman, and musician, as well as co-director of Lamp Light Music Festival and a founding member of Great Lakes Commonwealth of Letters. I, too, spend my summers on Lake Michigan by way of Petoskey. Naturally, my first question centers around that magical lake.
AM Ringwalt: In “Summer Song of Lake Michigan,” you write, “Who could resist / the temptation of centering oneself?” Do you consider the act of centering to be spiritual, or something else?
Z.G. Tomaszewski: Sure, the act of centering is at once spiritual and practical. It’s a tuning into the logos of the world. Don’t get me wrong, I like being tilted, leaning over, scaling the range, but there’s a return inherent in me backing away from polarity. Balance. Moderation. Picture a buoy.
AMR: How does the temptation—that tilting, leaning over, scaling the range, and final backing away from polarity—inform your creative process?
ZGT: For one thing, temptation seems never-ending. I’m intrigued by its nature, its place in eternity. I often think that temptation is not just lusting for something else, craving the other, but an end in and of itself. Or am I speaking about desire? Desire fills moments of forgetting, wanting to be shattered and rebuilt. These are two trimmings from a cloud I cannot quite grasp yet. All I know is that when temptation is quieted I am hollow of impulse for a moment. What’s great about temptation is not always relieving it, but seeing what we are and are not capable of, and then learning to be disciplined accordingly. And thus our shortcomings are windows into the soul of how to be whole, with and without.
AMR: Had All Things Dusk already been selected as the winner of the Hong Kong University International Poetry Prize, since it’s dated back to 2014?
ZGT: I did not know All Things Dusk had been chosen by Li-Young Lee at that time. It wasn’t until a week after returning home from the big sky state that I received the acceptance letter from Hong Kong University Press—it was probably in the mail and I tapped into that wave of energy headed my way! I remember I had with me Book of My Nights while we were there in Missoula. Chris Dombrowski saw I was reading it and asked if I ever read the book of collected interviews with Li-Young—I had not. He let me borrow it for a spell, I read most of it then and there.
AMR: Fascinating. Did your perception of the manuscript change during or after Montana? If so, how? If not, how did Montana solidify your pre-conceived notions of the text?
ZGT: I recall the premonition I had while in Montana that I was “on the cusp of something big.” I felt a breakthrough was happening, but I wasn’t certain what exactly. I can surely say that I was not thinking about All Things Dusk during that week. Instead, prior to coming out [to Montana], I was focused on a second full volume: fixing it up and tearing it down. I wrote a handful of new poems while at the initial retreat, brought them back, continued to hammer out the second manuscript. I knew what I had in All Things Dusk should not be touched, lest it break off and sink altogether. It was the work being done on a new volume that informed me I had completed something and needed to continue moving away.
AMR: It’s important to trust in such premonitions. Speaking of: you have a chapbook forthcoming from Finishing Line Press (congrats!) called Mineral Whisper, which I understand you wrote in—and inspired by—County Clare, Ireland. What called you there?
ZGT: I traveled to Ireland first during the Summer of 2012 and then revisited the following Spring of 2013. Somehow I was invited by Thomas Lynch, given a chance to stay in his ancestral cottage in Moveen, minutes walking and at cliff’s edge on the Atlantic coast. Pastures for miles, centuries, lifetimes. The polychromatic palate of grays and greens! I have been called to places that I have trouble voicing why I was called there. It’s elemental. A deeper knowing that gets lost to language. Reclaiming this through poetry—that’s one reason I keep writing. An act of archaeology: uncovering the spirit, brief invisible bit of consciousness, bringing forward awareness of what pulls us onward, elsewhere.
AMR: Can you pinpoint the moment of the chapbook’s inception?
ZGT: Mineral Whisper was composed in large during my first stay in Ireland. I wrote most of the poems during that time (minus the beginning two weeks, in which I was studying the place, not able to write, not wanting to hurry speech, needing to adapt to the land, its vibrations) and found upon coming home that there was far too much cohesion to let them lay alone, scattered, in notebooks, in drawers. So, when I ventured back I brought all the poems with me (every one had been edited by this point) and found a thread pretty soon after unpacking. The sequence came together without much difficulty. I had a lot of space and time to focus on it.
The precise moment: Waking early one morning, rain, looking out the window and seeing a white horse perfectly framed, the window wavy and it seemed a unicorn was standing there looking in. I was working on the title poem at that moment. I trusted what passed between us as a sign.
AMR: Back to the first premonition! The poems of All Things Dusk deal with uncovering memory. Is this uncovering part of centering, or something else entirely?
ZGT: Memory is the brain’s faculty of most efficiently processed stimuli, compacted and stored for easy access, but always failing. In some fashion it’s like gravity, we know it by its ever-presence, or its absence. Voice is the flashlight by which we explore the caverns of the mind. Memory thick with stalagmites, impassable trenches.
AMR: How does memory shape your poetic voice?
ZGT: Sometimes we can walk right up to an experience and blind it or be blinded by it, touch it, but most often we’re steering our light past a bend, watching the beam curve and break off, so we reach (or not) into the dark and imagine the connecting details. Poetry is connectivity even if it’s by way of deranging the senses.
AMR: I see the narrator of these poems as a dexterous force, particularly through the recurrence of direct relationships with the earth and with the metallic (“I take the scythe, sharpen its blade”). These themes, of course, are only made more evident in “Again, My Grandfather Chops Wood.”
An aside: I’m reminded of Galvin—who is with us at Beargrass—especially his poem “Coming into His Shop from a Bright Afternoon.” I noticed, in my research, that Dombrowski actually interviewed Galvin about this very poem in an old issue of Orion.
In the poem, Galvin writes about shaping the earth. Your poetry is, in many ways, the spiritual manifestation of the physical shaping the earth. How (and why) do you aim to shape, to reshape?
ZGT: Yes, I like that: “the spiritual manifestation of the physical shaping the world.” And I value that poem of Galvin’s, it’s in a similar vein as Seamus Heaney’s “Digging.” I am fond of the inner-workings of the world and our connections in it. Like the pagan and cold mountain poets I find that the truer, more lasting realizations in my life have been by observing and then learning how to participate within it. The materials of language are no different to me than a landscape, its ecosystem. I see something beautiful, sometimes I touch it, maybe take it with me, sometimes I leave it, mostly I leave it.
Anything can be a poem, but not everything is one. It’s a matter of wading out into the water, not just staring at it, and then, now you’re in the river, you cast, and cast again, who really knows what the catch will be. In other words, I have no other aim than to go out into the world and it seems I simply tend to reshape the world in reflection of the way it has shaped me.