An Interview with Zack Finch

By Editorial Assistant River Grabowski


Zack Finch’s nonfiction essays have recently appeared or will soon appear in New England Review, the Georgia Review, Tupelo Quarterly, the Adroit Journal, Colorado Review, Socrates on the Beach, and Brilliant Corners. His poems have been published in Poetry, Tin House, Gulf Coast, Denver Quarterly, and elsewhere. Recent scholarship on modern and contemporary poetry has been anthologized in 21st Century Marianne Moore: Essays from a Critical Renaissance (Palgrave Macmillan) and The New Wallace Stevens Studies (Cambridge UP). He lives with his son in the Berkshire Mountains, where he is an associate professor of English at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams.

River Grabowski called contributor Zack Finch to talk about his lyric essay “The Spirit Cabinet,” which was published in the Fall/Winter 2021 issue of Colorado Review.

River Grabowski: I’m curious if we might start by talking about this hundred-year-old secretary that you’ve inherited from your family, which serves as an impetus for “The Spirit Cabinet.” Where is it living right now, and what are the consequential or inconsequential items that reside in it? 

Zack Finch: It’s in my dining room. The most consequential items it contains are my great-grandparents’ library, about eighty leather-bound books. To remove them from the secretary would have felt like a disinterment—I had a superstitious desire to preserve them just as they had been transmitted to me. As if they were a portal to the past. Or maybe they were a retaining wall holding something back from me. Probably both.   

 I’ve been storing stuff of my own in the lower drawers of the secretary too. A bunch of artwork by my seven-year-old son, photographs, letters, flotsam. It’s hard to tell what will be consequential or inconsequential to the future. That’s probably why I am such a saver—you can’t know what will become important later on so you save everything. I recently read my grandmother’s copy of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, which is housed in the secretary, for the specific purpose of deciphering why she had drawn, as a teenager, a little heart in pencil on the final page, right after the last sentence of the novel which reads, “Come, children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out.” My grandmother was a very private person and I wanted to understand her better. The mark she left was such a passing gesture, but it gave me a tiny keyhole through which I could try to peer into her childhood.

RG: That’s fascinating—sounds like detective work. It reminds me of a question I wanted to ask you about the diverse set of voices we find in your essay: Ishmael from Moby Dick, Woody Allen, Nicholas Abraham, Sigmund Freud, Walter Benjamin, Jon Krakauer, to name a few. How many of those sources did you find in that bookcase, and how does this spectacular canon of voices inform the larger concerns of your essay?

ZF: The fact that most of the sources in the essay are Jewish was something that gradually snuck up on me—the same way my family’s Jewish heritage was revealed only gradually. In addition to the people you mention, there are also Jewish figures like Houdini, Adam Phillips, Emmanuel Levinas. To me subjectivity and selfhood are deeply intertextual. We are composed of so many other people. It’s hard for me to distinguish my own thoughts from what I’ve read or gleaned from elsewhere. When doing research for this essay, I was open to writers—anyone at all— who could help me clarify my thoughts about these topics of inheritance, secrecy, forgetting, shame.

The most important thinker to this essay is definitely Walter Benjamin—I was thinking of all the research he did in the Bibliothèque Nationale for what would become The Arcades Project—massive amounts of excavation work on nineteenth-century Paris, generating thousands of scraps and quotes, which he then filed away in the expectation that one day everything would be revealed to him. For the two years while I was working on this piece, I just kept reading and thinking and writing into an open notebook where I would file the thoughts, quotes, and conversations that would later shape the essay.

RG: Did your reading and collecting happen immediately upon receiving the secretary, or was this project something that came about after the fact? I am also interested to know how the form arose out of your archiving and playing with the fragments.

ZF: Right away the smell of the books brought me back to my childhood. But I knew there was something much farther back behind my own childhood worth investigating—I just didn’t know exactly what. At first, the secretary felt like the sleek black monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey—this abstract, rectilinear form that appears at certain decisive moments and is hard to interpret because it’s so mute and opaque, and yet you know that something crucial is being transmitted, so for a while I felt like an ape that would just walk up to the secretary and feel its mahogany with the palms of my hands and try to imagine the living tree that it once was.

It took me a while to discover a form for the essay. For a while, I was calling it “Arsenal and Zoo,” a phrase I found in a Benjamin essay, because I loved the A-to-Z form, which Roland Barthes uses to organize his fragments in a book like A Lover’s Discourse—the illusion of completeness. I also knew I wanted to retain the feeling of discrete “compartments,” which the secretary possesses. From my notes on the history of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century English furniture, I had written down all these ornate, decorative terms, most of which refer to the façade or veneer of a piece of cabinetry. Eventually, I had this notion that each subtitle could be like a strange knob—something you could pull and access what was inside.  

RG: Those terms themselves are obscure, right? When I first read the essay, I was pretty confounded and started looking them up. I was really attracted to this process you created for the reader—taking those obscuring terms related to, as you say, the façade or veneer of the furniture, and forcing us to do some digging. It seems to mirror your own investigative process as well as the content of the essay, that this secretary, your family heritage, was obscuring even as it was organizing.

ZF: I like words that feel both attractive and estranging. You’re totally right: this mirrors the process I was engaged in—this attempt to access historical and psychological “depth” by sounding out material that felt impenetrable.

RG: If I’m hearing you correctly, you were conceptualizing these subheadings as knobs you could pull to access a cabinet. You mention in the essay that you considered writing in “watertight cabinets,” but then a friend suggested that you should write in the form of an octopus. Wild. I’m curious if you have any reflections as far as how the essay moves between its sections, especially because we see words mentioned in one section and recontextualized or repurposed in the next. Can you give us more insight there, potentially as it speaks to the essay as a whole?

ZF: My friend and colleague, the writer Caren Beilin, was the one who floated the octopus. She was trying to push me in a new direction: an octopus is a living creature with these flowing appendages, in stark contrast with how I was organizing the essay in these bone-dry compartments. I know knowledge is not compartmental. It’s relational and flowing, constituted through the tracing of connections. I’m glad the essay felt this way for you. I wanted all the discrete sections to connect like a warren or a reef of conduits under the surface. Clearly, I was unable to create a linear story out of all this found material, because the illusion of narrative mastery would betray how fragmentary my understanding of the past is. So even though I liked the notion of turning the essay into an octopus, alive and fluid, in the end, I felt some weird loyalty to the form of the secretary. This probably means that I am my great-grandparents’ child after all.

RG: Wonderful. I wonder if you might speak to one of these connections that you make in the final turns of the essay, where you invoke your sister’s childhood memory of waking in the morning to the call of chocolate croissants in the same dovecote as Primo Levi’s account of waking, in a recurring dream, to “the order at dawn in Auschwitz, a foreign word, a word that is feared and expected: ‘Get up.’” It’s a heated, powerful moment. After this, the essay’s subheadings, which were before this moment decorous furniture terms, turn to Jewish terminology, closing the piece’s alphabet structure–yarmulke and zayin. Can you talk about this movement? Was this something you stumbled into while essaying or was it something you planned to do?

ZF: I was grappling with how the relative tranquility of my experience growing up suburban, white and middle class in the United States has a direct, but concealed, relationship to violent histories that have been obscured or forgotten in my family and in our culture broadly. So in the moment you identify, the juxtaposition of this highly protected moment of waking up to the smell of something delicious baking in an oven is set against Primo Levy’s belief that even when he’s having a peaceful domestic moment, it must be a dream from which he would wake up at any moment, back in Auschwitz. I remember going to see the movie Schindler’s List with my grandmother when I was young, just the two of us, it was a matinee, and then afterward we went to lunch, but no one mentioned how we were personally related to that history. So it was only obliquely that I learned how my great-great-grandparents came over to the States —some from what is today Ukraine during the pogroms in the early 1880s. These stories aren’t told; they’re conveyed almost epigenetically or epiphenomenally. To get at that complex silence—to make it speak—took putting one thing against the next, juxtaposing peace against trauma, so that any conclusions would be felt instead of explicitly stated. But yeah, all this stuff, including the conclusion of the essay, I stumbled into.

RG: I’m curious about your process of writing into such insights, forming these powerfully revelatory connections that, as you say at the end of your essay, “make the world feel more solid.” Lots of people have interests in genealogical research in the context of their own family, but I’m curious about your process of grappling with intergenerational trauma through writing—which is now, having been published, a public grappling. How do you see your writing, and writing in general, functioning in a larger cultural sense?

ZF: I feel an increasing pressure within myself, or desire to put my work into circulation in order to participate in the immense exchange of writing, thinking, and grappling. I love the intimacy of writers sharing this private process with strangers. But publishing also feels fraught and daunting, especially when you’re writing autobiographically. And I’m never quite convinced that anyone would care to read my writing anyway. When someone does, like you, it feels like this incredible miracle.

Where I teach at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, I love seeing the way that the sharing of writing creates relationships and community. Much of my pedagogy is devoted to the potential of collaboration and sharing work between peers. As much as I tend to shy away from publishing, particularly stuff that would probably make my grandparents and family members dismayed, I want to be open and honest. That feels healthy to me, even when it’s comfortable. Writing and publishing can feel like an antidote to shame.

RG: I’m interested in what you’ve said about writing feeling like an antidote to shame or to what drives us to want to conceal because in the essay you speak about writing surrealist poetry at one point in your life, which feels obscuring to a certain extent. You mention in the essay, “These days I’m trying to make sense of things more clearly. I want content.” Is writing essays your effort to achieve this? How do your histories with poetry speak to your current concerns as a writer?

ZF: When writing poetry, I tend to get carried away by the music of the language—the slipperiness of the signifier. A few years ago it began to feel like prose could give me a different kind of traction, allowing me to think more clearly. Poetry has such a vatic history behind it—it can feel like a very big plinth to climb upon. I think of Ralph Waldo Emerson, how he lionized poets and sacralized poetry—but his poems weren’t very good because he had all these inherited ideas about the genre. When he was writing essays, however, he was truly innovative—so fluid and improvisational and wayward. You never knew what was coming next. 

RG: Are you mostly writing essays these days? Where are you putting your writing energies?

ZF: Mostly essays. Each piece feels distinct, and yet I suspect they are related, so I’m beginning to think toward a collection, even though I work best in the darkness, where plans and itineraries and projects are just like corners of furniture that you happen to bump into.  

RG: I’m curious which contemporary writers you admire, especially as you mentioned that you feel almost constituted by your life as a reader. What are they doing that excites you?

ZF: Susan Howe is the most exciting and mysterious contemporary poet to me—her essays as much as her poems—the profound historical depth of her writing feels like such a powerful version of Benjamin’s notions about material history, what can be recovered and what cannot be. Your question also makes me wonder what “contemporary” means. So many of the writers I most admire have died in the past few months: Lauren Berlant, Leo Bersani, Joan Didion, Janet Malcolm, Etel Adnan. Are they still contemporary? I’m pretty sure they’ll always be.  

RG: This has all been so provocative, so thank you for letting me interrogate you. For our curious readers, where can they find more of your work?

ZF: I recently published an autobiographical essay in Socrates on the Beach, and I have an essay on whiteness and performativity coming out in the Georgia Review.  This past year I published an essay in Tupelo Quarterly on the challenges of grieving and mourning during the pandemic, as well as essays in The Adroit Journal and New England Review

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

River Grabowski is a queer writer and translator based in Fort Collins, Colorado. Currently, they are an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction, work as a composition instructor, and serve as an editorial assistant at Colorado Review. He was also a Fulbright Scholar in Argentina and has worked as a Spanish-English literary translator in Querétaro, México.