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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.”