The Art of Paying Attention
Fred Zirm

Former Theater Arts Director and English Teacher Fred Zirm has published a new book of poetry, entitled Object Lessons (Main Street Rag Publishing). Zirm came to Landon in 1975 and taught at the school for 39 years before retiring. In addition to directing more than 100 student theater productions, he was the school’s first-ever visual and performing arts chair, served as an advisor to the student council, and oversaw student publications such as the arts magazine, Prometheus (now known as Prometheus Unbound), during his tenure. This Q&A blog is part of a new series called #LandonForever: Conversations with Former Faculty.

Q: How long have you been interested in writing poetry?

A: One way to look at my writing career is diminishing ambition. When I was in high school, I thought I was going to be a novelist, and then I went to the University of Iowa to become a playwright, because Hamlet is only 100 pages compared to War and Peace. And then I was drawn to poetry as I became a busy director and teacher because I realized you can write a poem in an hour.

Q: How much have you been writing since you retired from Landon in 2014?

A: When I retired, I knew I had written a lot of poems, mostly from my sabbatical from Landon in 2011 and from summers spent at the Writers’ Center in Chautauqua, NY. So I decided to focus on sending them out and see if I could get them published. I did get some published, even though I had a fair number of rejections, too. Since then, I am writing more often. During the pandemic, I have been taking online classes which helps me to write more regularly.

Q: Do you find that the topics you are writing about are things that you know?

A: We have a local poetry group that grew out of a class my wife took (she writes poetry too), and they have said to me, “Give Fred an ordinary object or an everyday event, and he will turn it into a poem.” And that’s to a large extent, what I do. The name of the book is Object Lessons, and lots of the poems are about dishwashers or televisions or whatever.  For me, poetry is the art of paying attention. That doesn’t mean I naturally pay attention to everything. Poetry is my way of slowing down. I am a checklist, get-it-done kind of person, so poetry helps me pay attention to the things that might blur by.

 

Object Lessons by Fred Zirm

Q: Is there a particular poem in Object Lessons that you think would resonate with the Landon community?

A: I hope the entire book is accessible. It’s about whether you turn the lights off or not in your house, and old appliances and how you can hear them work. Most of the poems have to do with paying attention to something fairly common. Here is one called Hard Plumbed (Main Street Rag Publishing).

The delivery man tells us
he cannot replace the old
dishwasher, with its solid
copper connection and no
cut-off valve to accommodate
a new and improved successor.

It was installed as if it would
last forever – like a monument
or a bank vault
or a heart.             

Q: Is there a poem in the book about Landon?

A: Here is one connected to the school. In 1983, Landon offered me a Schinnerer Grant for professional development during the summer. Because I taught mythology in the Middle School, I took the opportunity to cycle around Greece for a month. I went up to the Acropolis, and in my narrow American way, when I saw a cactus there, which I thought was the quintessential Southwest plant,  I suddenly pictured Aeschylus and Aristophanes as if they were great American Western heroes. It’s the poem least about regular things in the book, but it has a connection to the School because of the grant. Cactus on the Acropolis (Main Street Rag Publishing) was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, an award among literary magazines.    

 Cactus on the Acropolis                                     

 makes me imagine tumbleweed as well

 blowing across the stone orkestra

 of the ancient theatre of Dionysus

 where Aeschylus and Aristophanes

 circle each other and then square off,

 six guns slung from tooled leather belts

 wrapped round their gleaming white togas.

                                         

You know, Kid, character is fate

Aeschylus sneers,

his hands hovering over

his revolvers’ shiny pearl handles.

Cerberus barks in the distance.

Those saloon girl Muses peek out

from behind the marble pillars.

Thetis drags her young son Achilles

by the heel off the street to safety.

                                     

Smile when you say that, Butch,

Aristophanes replies

and spits at his opponent’s feet.

The Muses gasp; Thetis clutches

Achilles close to her chest.

 

The tragedian just stares

at the dark spot in the dust

and then looks his enemy in the eye.

This town ain’t big enough

for the both of us he snarls.

 

Neither one of them sees

the sniper on the roof.

 

Q: What else have you been doing since you left Landon?

A: I have been directing. That includes seven youth musicals at The Arts Barn in Gaithersburg, MD and two at BlackRock Center for the Arts in Germantown, MD, and three adult productions. One at Silver Spring Stage in Silver Spring, MD, A Delicate Balance by Edward Albee, won the Ruby Griffith Award for best non-musical. I feel like I am doing pretty good work.

Q: Where can we purchase your book?

A: You can purchase the book online here. I also have a reading at Chautauqua from last summer available on YouTube.