"I engage doubt just as I engage fear; I embrace it, offer it a cup of tea and ask it what it has to tell me."
About Marc Zegans – poet, spoken word artist and creative development advisor
In addition to prominent artists, writers, actors, musicians, and directors, Marc Zegans clients have included: From the Top, GrantCraft, The Actor’s Shakespeare Project, Opera Boston, The Ariel Group, XVIVO, Rialto Arts, Chelsea Pictures, the Social Innovation Forum, Theater Offensive, and major philanthropic organizations including the Ford, Rockefeller and James Irvine Foundations, the Carnegie Corporation and the Pew Charitable Trusts. Marc is the author of The Underwater Typewriter (Pelekinesis, September 2015), Pillow Talk (G.Spot Press) and the play Mum and Shah. He has released two spoken word albums, Nightwork (Philistine Records), and Marker and Parker (Tiny Mind Records).
1. What is the force that drives you forward? What fuels your ambition?
As a poet, I’ve been very interested in finding human possibility in the broken. I’m engaged also in the related question of expressing voice, bestowed by grace, in the face of adversity. The matter of finding voice and giving voice through our particular gifts and unique experience animates my life both as a poet and as a creative development advisor.
I’m passionate about helping artists travel ardently through the arc of their creative careers. I’ve had the good fortune to work with people at all stages of their creative lives: young artists and writers developing basic skill and discipline; people in mid-life dipping their toes in for the first time, and successful artists in the late stages of their careers attending to questions of creative legacy. I find constant joy, delight and surprise in working with the folks who quicken our pulse and help us to see anew. I spend my time most days helping people work through creative blocks; expand their expressive vocabularies; find their natural audiences, and move with grace through important transitions and transformations in their creative identities. I feel incredibly lucky because there aren’t many people who get to do this.
2. Can you talk about your greatest “failure”? (something that led to your most significant shift in consciousness, and made you who you are today).
I’d always done creative work, but had devoted much of my early life and career to studying and teaching about innovation and creativity in the context of organizational life, especially public life. The time I spent in the academy gave me many of the tools that I use in my daily practice, but in some sense this path was a diversion from my own life as a poet, and from directly engaging with people working through their personal creative challenges. During my twenties and thirties I was perhaps too attentive in a conventional sense to career, to safety and to ambition.
I did have a moment of epiphany about fifteen years ago that set me on my present path.
When I was in my late thirties, I learned that I had cancer. At that juncture, I felt that my health had failed me, but from where I sit now, I realize that I had failed my health. My epiphany came one day while lying on a gurney in the emergency room at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. At one point the pain I was experiencing ebbed a bit and I noticed an older woman across from me who needed comfort (the relative of a teenager who had fallen into a coma.) I smiled at this woman. She looked a bit surprised, continued pacing for a moment, then drew a deep breath and smiled back. In that instant, I knew what mattered, and I understood that everything I did for the rest of my life had to be from love and in direct service of creativity.
3. Are you happy?
Yes. I’m happy in what I do, in whom I’ve chosen to become and in my environment. I live close to the water on the less traveled North Central coast of California, and the sunsets here are magnificent.
What does happiness mean to you?
A friend of mine in college used to say, “Happiness is a commitment, not a repercussion.” I don’t know if she coined that phrase, or whether she heard it somewhere, but it’s a great vision of happiness.
I see happiness as something we make, a gift we give and a choice about how we choose to respond to what arises in our daily life. To me being happy doesn’t mean that I never feel sadness or confusion or pain or difficulty, it means that I love life, embrace it fully and savor it in its intimate and intricate detail.
4. What do you think is your greatest strength? On the reverse, can you identify a personal challenge (something you currently struggle with)?
That’s a wonderful question. I think my greatest strength lies in knowing that so long as I have personal challenges and new things to struggle with, that I’m alive and that I have the opportunity to grow. Knowing this encourages me to enthusiastically embrace the challenges that come along, the chance to enjoy working through them and the delight that comes from stepping into the light on the other side. Deep down, I think that’s why I’m truly happy.
5. When did you first realize that you wanted to be an artist? Can you talk about that moment or time in your life?
I used to say; “I’m a poet when I’m writing poems, a musician when I’m playing the piano, and a dishwasher when I’m washing dishes.” For me you are what you’re doing at the moment. Understanding that takes a lot of pressure and preciousness out of defining the relationship between yourself, your creative work and the larger world.
This said, there was a moment a couple of years after I was through the cancer, when I said, “I’m a poet, that’s what comes first.“ I’d been raised in a family where creative work, unless you were certified as a genius by winning big prizes and such, was something that you did on the side. They viewed it as too risky to say that you were an artist, much less live as one. For me, saying that I was a poet was the equivalent of coming out of the closet. I have a poem called “Out” in my new book, The Underwater Typewriter (Pelekinesis September 2015) that speaks to this.
When I announced that I was a poet, my family was appalled. All they could say was, “Won’t people in those big organizations you’re consulting to, like the Ford Foundation, look at you funny when you say you’re a poet?”
I said, “Well, if they do, I’m clearly no longer the right person to be working with them. On the other hand, they just might be interested in the poetics of philanthropy.”
As it turns out, lots of people embraced me as a poet, and it gave me greater credibility when, for example, I would talk to an organization in crisis about “changing the structural metaphors that organized their work.”
More importantly, every single creative person I work with knows that I have skin in the game as an artist every day of my life. This simple fact creates solidarity, mutual empathy and understanding that simply couldn’t exist if I wasn’t doing the work myself. It’s what makes Phil Jackson such a good coach. He played ball for the Knicks. Not only that, he spent a lot of time as a player on the bench, watching the game and learning just what to do when he came in.
6. Habits, routine, morning rituals — What are the positive things you do daily that have had the most significant impact on your life and work?
Walking on the beach every day I can, taking the time to breathe and to look at the sunset, bringing stories of this place to the people I love, and choosing constantly to follow my energy precisely where it wants to go.
I’ve learned over the years that people have a surprisingly hard time entering beauty, so I carry a profound sense of responsibility to share my experience of the beauty of this place with others. It’s one of the things we do as artists, mediating our direct experience in ways that make it possible for others to participate.
7. How do you deal with doubt? Where do you go for support?
I engage doubt just as I engage fear; I embrace it, offer it a cup of tea and ask it what it has to tell me. I learn a lot that way, and the doubt seems to dissolve once it’s had a chance to say what it has on its mind.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to abide in a place of unknowing until a question or concern fully works its way through. As we age, the questions become more subtle and complex, and it takes more time to sit with doubts before they resolve themselves, but if we’re open, if we listen, if we invite ourselves to imagine, and if we leave plenty of space for our unconscious to work its magic, things tend to become clear.
8. What, in your opinion, are the qualities of someone who is a “great” artist (in whatever discipline)?
From the perspective of internal practice, great artists are people who love life, love their work, passionately pursue the questions that matter to them, learn constantly, do the work that only they can do and develop methods both specific to their work and adequate to their needs. Great working artists also take chances, share their work generously, have the courage to work differently, and the capacity to start anew when they’re faced with the insistent call for metamorphic change from within.
From an outside perspective, a great artist gives the world powerful gifts: gifts of meaning, of seeing differently, of seeing anew, of inspiration (listen to how many musicians out there talk about hearing a piece of music that made them pick up a guitar), and of tools that aid us in our own making. Truly great artists alter us; once we’ve experienced their work, we see things differently, and we become better versions of ourselves.
9. Any advice for artists on a similar path? (Perhaps advice you wish you’d been given when you were first starting out).
Your path is your own: cherish it.
10. Could you talk a little bit about your relationship to money? Has your relationship to money changed over the years?
I used to spend a lot of time explaining artists – especially experimental artists – to funders, and a lot of time defending artists to overzealous board members and business people who wanted to make artists more businesslike. In the arts services world you often see people acting on the nominal theory that artists are somehow defective and therefore need to be fixed.
The reality is that artists simply being artists make a lot of folks quite anxious, so these people try to convert artists into something that they can cope with more easily.
One day, to rebalance the scales a bit, I observed, “To a banker, time is money; to an artist, money is time.” As artists we do well to become wise about money because a healthy relationship to money buys us time.
11. Ever experience flow/being in the zone? What does it feel like for you, and can you tell us about a time when you experienced it?
I experience flow often, particularly late at night, when I’m deep into working a new poem. The hours compress. My focus is sharp. I feel fully alive, and erotically connected to everything around me—open alert and capacious. I find sometimes, when I’m in flow that I become so focused on the writing that my legs fall asleep. I’m completely unaware of it until I try to stand up. I experience the same kind of flow when I’m mixing sound, or collaborating on song lyrics, and that’s a beautiful thing because it’s a shared experience.
I often find similar flow when I’m working with clients, especially when we’re engaging over a couple of hours or more. We discover a groove and sink into it. It’s beautiful.
12. What is your favorite book?
My favorite book is always the one I’m reading at the moment. If I don’t like it, I put it down and pick another. It’s kind of a joke in the restaurants and café’s in my neighborhood in Santa Cruz, because I’m always sitting at lunch with my nose in a new book, taking copious notes. A few months ago a waitress walked up to me and said, “Marc, that’s a very expensive habit you have there…but a good one.”
When I was a very little kid, my favorite book was, “The Little Engine That Could.” What better training could there be for an artist than the simple refrain, “I think I can… I think I can…”
Loved this interview? Learn more about Marc by visiting his website: mycreativedevelopment.com
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And check out Marc’s new book:
“The Underwater Typewriter immerses us in the ritual of finding and expressing voice, bestowed by grace, in the face of cruelty, chance, betrayal and loss. It arrives as a collection of weathered shards, gathered and turned, through which light and by implication love, bent and at times nearly occluded, passes kaleidoscopically. The Underwater Typewriter’s shifting patterns reveal the variety and range demanded of a poet traversing brutal terrain, tempted by but refusing bitterness. Zegans’ poetry inverts Browning, finding human possibility in the broken, and discovers life beyond Joseph Cornell’s wistful memory compiled in the collage of remaindered things. Listen closely as you read, for sound travels great distances under water.”
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