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.”
As part of his job Zieher travels to art fairs in places like Paris and Miami, and is always planning trips in search of a new talent, which often involve touring the studios of any given city. Though Zieher may find some poets insufferable, the same can’t be said for artists. “All I aspire to do is sit in studios and experience what’s happening with the painting and the painter, it’s really satisfying and inspiring. You have no idea the sense of turning that enthusiasm into placing a painting in a really good collection.”
But artists’ studios and gallery collections are a long way from where Zieher grew up — the small industrial city of Waukesha, Wisconsin. Born two months after the death of his father, a plumbing fixtures salesman, Zieher was raised by his mother, a secretary at the local junior high school. From very early on he was encouraged by his mother to write down what he saw and heard in a small notebook (something that he still does, an approach reflected in the observational, playfully enumerative aspect of his poetry). Zieher also had the good fortune to run into a couple of decent teachers in high school and found a creative outlet by way of an after school poetry group. “I was lucky. You didn’t always get that kind of opportunity in your average public high school. I was looking at a recent, 20-year updated yearbook and there aren’t many professionals — for some reason there are a lot of “drivers.” That’s it, it just said “driver.” My hometown suddenly seemed pretty insulated...”
Zieher graduated from the University of Wisconsin with an English degree, and went on to win the Greater Milwaukee Poetry Slam, back-to-back, in 1990-91. “The first eleven times I competed I lost, but I was determined to win it somehow. After winning it twice I lost to this woman in a bustier. It was all about the bustier. I was also nearly hissed off the stage in a National Slam competition in Chicago. The women hiss at men they deem misogynists, and I read the lines “My nightmare is the wind/ Just some woman.” That kicked off a shit-storm of hisses, I actually had to pause the reading. This tells you a little about the culture of the Slam. It’s an amazing way to cut your teeth as a reader.”
Zieher moved to New York in 1992 for the MFA at Columbia and has never left. In the way that only out-of-towners can, he’s fallen deeply in love with New York — something readily apparent in his new book-length poem VIRGA, published by Emergency Press.
Nearly ten years in the making, it is undoubtedly a poem of the city, a map in verse of one man’s decade-long walk through the five boroughs. Among his main influences in the writing of VIRGA, Zieher cites heavyweights like Joyce and Benjamin (airplane reading like Finnegan’s Wake and The Arcades Project respectively), along with poets like John Berryman and Charles Olson. But there are dense, beautiful, agglomerated paragraphs (contrasted with the looseness and easy line breaks of the entire poem) that make one think of collage artist Joseph Cornell, who would come down into Manhattan from his house in Queens, collecting observations and objects for use in his art. When I mention this similarity, Zieher is at once pleased and sheepish: “I’m obsessed with collage, and Cornell was my introduction to the discipline. He’s a long-standing influence. The gallery held a 100th Birthday party exhibition for Cornell in 2003, with 13 emerging artists working in his style.”
At this point — the table covered with empty bottles — the waitress interrupts the conversation and asks us to move inside so she can close down the patio. It is a moment of decision. One more beer or call it a night? But there is never any doubt — we haven’t even touched on the state of the Yankees yet…
From VIRGA (available at emergencypress.com)
Burnt buildings, white buildings,
All desperately begging pardon of a buncombe
Brush dynamo rusting
Such terribly aggressive dust on the windows
Brunt brown, cigar brown, boot brown tracks
rolling toward the East River
Toward an old juice nest where two painters
now ply their strokes
Two grown men, holed in a garret of one-haired
(Visions clutter their small room like a covey