Scott Zieher is a man of many enthusiasms. He is handsome, built like an old-fashioned baseball player, and apt to speak frankly on subjects ranging from sonnet scansion to Wisconsin cheese to the state of Yankees’ relief pitching. We are sitting outside a bar drinking cold beer on the first oven-hot New York night of the year. Zieher surreptitiously smokes a cigarette, held between his legs below the table. We are on the far west side and the Highline hangs over his shoulder in the last of the sunset.
“A lot of poets can be pretty insufferable,” says the poet. “I went to a small press book fair recently that featured a lot of poetry — it was bizarre and kind of awful. A lot of poets are fucking clueless, they just really don’t know how to interact with a book-buying public. The second I even hesitated at a table, even if it was just noticing some interesting cover art, the poet would be in my face trying to shake my hand like he was selling used cars on commission. It was a very unpleasant experience.” Zieher knows a thing or two about the culture industry, as we are in fact just two blocks south of the art gallery he owns and runs with his partner, Andrea Smith.
The mohawked waitress has noticed the illicit cigarette smoke rising from beneath the table and admonishes Zieher in the kind of indulgent, mock-serious tone normally reserved for a favorite nephew — such is the value of a little charisma and a nice head of hair (Zieher looks to be in the Samuel Beckett mode). With a grin, he skips past the fence and finishes his butt on the sidewalk. But Zieher’s infectious charm is not the manufactured New York version one might expect from an art dealer — it goes all the way down to a real Whitmanesque love of the world, perhaps best illustrated by an excerpt from a recent poem printed on dirtpress.com called What to Want (essentially a list of, well, what to want):
Latticework around your high story windows
above the bustle
No more than five dollars ever
A tunnel from tomb to tomb
And a grandfatherly gold fedora
Genuine though it may be, Zieher’s native charm is pretty useful in the fast-paced New York art world, a highly commercial milieu that seems an odd place for poetry. But Zieher cites Frank O’Hara, late of the New York School of poets (and a curator at the MoMA), as an example of poetry intersecting with visual art. “A lot has changed in the New York art world in the last 50 years, but if he were alive today, O’Hara might well be pimping young artists to collectors in a gallery, as opposed to a museum. As an art dealer, I like to think the “product” we sell is pretty poetic.”
But where O’Hara put art into his poetry, Zieher has done the inverse by using his gallery space for occasional readings, including a monthly series hosted by Christopher Stackhouse, editor of the literary magazine Fence.
So is there anything happening now in this city akin to the New York School of poets? “Not really, of the 12 poets from my MFA program (Columbia), only four have come by the gallery. For my part, I’ve been way more connected to the visual artists from my days at college. And I seem to be more in touch with poets from places like Vancouver, Beirut and Michigan. As far as I can tell, there’s a lot of great writing, but little cohesiveness among poets in that traditional sense. I think the “school” or “movement” thing is impossible today. People’s interests are way too scattered.”