poetics.ca issue #1
poetics.ca issue #1
poetics.ca homepage





an interview with Rachel Zuker

[view printer friendly version]

This interview was conducted over email from December 2004 to November 2005

Rachel Zucker is the author of the poetry collections Eating in the Underworld (Wesleyan, 2003) and The Last Clear Narrative (Wesleyan, 2004). Winner of the Barrow Street Award, the Strousse Award, and the Center for Book Arts Chapbook Prize, Zucker's poems have appeared in many journals and anthologies including APR, Colorado Review, Fence, How2, The Iowa Review, Salt Hill, Xantippe, and The Best American Poetry 2001. her third book, The Bad Wife Handbook, is forthcoming from Wesleyan in late 2007. She lives in New York City and can be found at www.rachelzucker.net

rob mclennan: What first started you writing, and when?

Rachel Zucker: This turned out to be a stumper. Was it that my mom wrote down my dreams and stories in a notebook before I could write? Or was the beginning more officially located in 5th and 6th grade when my English teacher, Mr. Sandomir, turned off the lights, put on Simon and Garfunkel and let us tend to our independent poetry projects? “Write a poem about a feeling without mentioning the feeling.” “Write a poem about a color without mentioning the color.” Luckily these poems have been long lost. But, however bad they were I surely thought of myself as a poet by the time I got to high school.

rm: Did you receive any formal training in writing while in high school, or were you left to your own devices? Were you reading poetry during high school?

RZ: I went to a private high school in Riverdale, New York. Before that I’d gone to Yeshiva (orthodox religious Jewish training) and so my move to a secular environment was pretty shocking. I showed up at high school with long skirts, long sleeved shirts and not knowing anything about the fad of pinning up your blue jeans with safety pins. It’s amazing that I managed to make the shift as easily as I did. I met my first true friend (someone I still speak to on the phone every single day), fell in love, and learned to pin my jeans. Somehow, at the age of 15, I had the gall to complain about my English teacher (a sweet and hapless first time teacher) to the head of the department. I felt the class wasn’t rigorous enough. The department head's response was brilliant. He took me on as an independent study student and assigned me all kinds of extra reading, mostly poetry, and weekly poetry exercises. I remember reading Jerome Rothenberg’s anthology, Technicians of the Sacred and writing some crazy poems in response to that book. I also read Adrienne Rich, Sylvia Plath and Sharon Olds and through most of the Norton Anthologies. Mr. Aune insisted that I read Elizabeth Bishop. I was too young for Bishop, though, and couldn’t appreciate her until college.

My high school friends all knew I wrote poetry, but I wasn’t the literary magazine type. I played sports and served on student government and was obsessively and deeply enmeshed with my first boyfriend, a guy I ended up dating for 5 years.

rm: Does that mean that your poems lived exclusively as an independent project during your teen years? When and why did you first start making your work public?

RZ: My friends knew I wrote poetry. I wrote a lot of love poems to my boyfriend. I loved poetry and thought of myself as a poet (this helped me to distinguish myself from my mother who was a storyteller and writer but not a poet). Not sure exactly what you mean by “public.” Published? Poetry, at least in the U.S., is so marginalized that sometimes even publishing a book of poetry doesn’t really feel “public.” I competed in a few poetry slams while in college. That was public. I took some poetry classes with Wayne Koestenbaum and submitted to the class’ “workshops” of these poems – that felt public. I had a few poems published in literary magazines during college and won a minor poetry prize and lost the major poetry prizes. I guess deciding to go to get an MFA might really be considered the beginning of my public persona as a “real” poet, although even then I felt like I’d been accepted by mistake, like I didn’t really belong there, like poetry wasn’t a “real” thing to do. Not sure my feelings have changed entirely. Poetry is certainly something I do. Not sure whether it is public or private. Maybe part of this struggle (not purely semantic, not needlessly evasive I hope) has to do also with the nature of my poetry which is both personal and public, “autobiographical” and filled with artifice.

I wrote an essay on this theme for the American Academy of Poets that was posted yesterday.

rm: The piece at poets.org (“Confessionalography: A GNAT (Grossly Non-Academic Talk) – Rachel Zucker on ‘I’ in Poetry: Fiction or Nonfiction”) is pretty entertaining. I wonder if all the 70s “confessional” poets accomplished was to turn the word “confessional” into a dirty word, tainting the idea of the “confessional poem” into an airing of the authors’ “feelings” and dirty laundry. You seem very good at keeping the personal aspect of the “I” in your poems without turning it into anything tawdry or overly-sentimental. How are you able to find a balance?

RZ: Well, thanks for the compliment; I’m glad to hear you don’t find my work tawdry or overly-sentimental. As for the Confessionals (there should be a rock group called the Confessionals, if there isn’t already), I’m not sure I agree with you. I think they did more than air dirty laundry. And, I think that airing dirty laundry and “feelings” is pretty important. (More on your use of quotation marks around the word “feelings” in a minute.) Say, for instance, your house has been quarantined and finally, after a long and painful month, the affected have died. Or perhaps they made it through. In either case airing the dirty laundry becomes a kind of holy rite. Or say you are doing the once-a-year ritual cleaning for passover and airing out all the linens and things. Or say that it is just regular old dirty laundry, the kind that everyone has. Everyone. The stuff that we all have because we are human and have body fluids and smells and messes; even this dirty laundry has a sacred face.

(I just spent the past 10 minutes pouring gingerale back and forth between two glasses to flatten it and then slamming a skillet onto a bag of ice cubes to make ice chips for my two sons who are harbouring a nasty stomach flu. Soon I will take the dirty linens down to the basement and try to erase the evidence of last night’s viral adventures. Meanwhile, just a few miles from here, in midtown Manhattan, men and women are hurrying up and down the streets wearing insensibly stylish shoes and showing their identification cards to security guards.)

Why did you put the word “feelings” in quotes?

I love Sylvia Plath and deeply admire Anne Sexton. Robert Lowell doesn’t charge me up so much but he has many fine poems. And Sharon Olds’ poems changed poetry. For the better. Ginsberg is amazing. Young poets may be slightly embarrassed by some of our foremothers and forefathers, but I am so thankful to come after and not before those 70s poetry even if some people now associate poets with the kind of taboo-breaking speak-outs of AA and the like. Some people will always hate poetry either because it is too academic, too sentimental, too arcane, too self-indulgent, too political, too banal... you get the picture.

Seriously, tell me more about your “‘feelings’”...

rm: Recently I’ve been talking to Gwendolyn Guth (an Ottawa poet and academic) about your work. She says she found your work when “searching the net for poetry about the (unmedicated) birthing experience. I’m fascinated by her multiple revisions to try to capture the discontinuous nature of that terrifying, wordless, introvertedly in-body experience.” What attracts me to your writing is how much and how well you incorporate your children and mothering into your own writing, without abandoning other aspects in your writing or life. With three small children of her own, and my own daughter just turned fourteen, Gwen and I want to know how you find space and time to write with small children?

RZ: I would not have survived the early years of mothering without writing. It wasn’t a question for me of “finding” space and time to write. I was lucky not to have to choose between my children’s safety and writing. I don’t know what I would have done. Perhaps some women (and men) are better than I am at giving up their selves to parent. I gave things up–dropped out of a clinical psychology program, gave up friends, gave up readings, travelling, keeping a clean house, being a super-mom or “stay at home” mom–but not writing. Perhaps my children’s safety depended, in some measure, on my continuing to write.

‘Twas extremely negligent not to acknowledge how much my husband gave up as well. His presence made the writing possible.

rm: What attracted you to the story of Persephone for your first collection, Eating in the Underworld? And were you following a version that already had the character of Persephone as more independent, or did you deliberately change her from someone you saw as too passive?

RZ: In Iowa I had written a collection of poems which I submitted as my MFA thesis. The book was about 80 pages long. After graduate school I worked on the manuscript for a few years – taking poems out, adding poems, revising and rerevising all the while sending the book to contests and getting rejected. One day I sat down and said to myself, “something is wrong with this book, what?” Somehow, that day, I was able to take a step away from the poems and look at them askance. When I did that I suddenly saw this shadowy presence lingering in the poems. A motif, a theme, a ghost haunting the book. I thought, “look at all these poems about weather and love and independence and mothers and daughters and darkness and depression and power... I know this story. I’ve heard it before.” And there it was: the Persephone cycle. I had been interested in the story before and had years ago written a poem about Persephone, but I had certainly never intended to write a book about Persephone. Once I saw this ghost, though, I decided to push the book in that direction and see what happened. It was not an entirely comfortable choice. I had watched my mother, Diane Wolkstein, work for so many years on her book Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth and the story of Inanna is, of course, a version of Persephone/Demeter. I wanted very much to distinguish myself from my mother and her kind of writing but the story was calling to me. I knew I ran the risk of ruining the poems I had, but I thought of something a friend said to me about writing “spend everything; save nothing” and I went for it. I cut the manuscript down to about 30 pages and wrote out and out and out into the pockets. It took a long time and was hard going. Meanwhile I did research about the myth. I read all the poems, essays and books I could find about the myth. I keep a process log which led to more poems. It was not my intention to rewrite Persephone as less passive. What was clear to me was that the story of Persephone had traditionally been told from Demeter’s perspective. It is really the story of Demeter. When I looked at it from Persephone’s point of view her character changed, the story changed. I wrote her or through her not as I wanted her to be but as I saw her.

rm: I find it interesting that you say you kept a “process log,” which sounds very scientific method somehow. I suppose, though, you did say you were in a clinical psychology program for some time. Is the “process log” a normal part of your compositional process? How is a Rachel Zucker poem built?

RZ: The process log came out of teaching Prose Composition to Freshmen at NYU. I had asked them to write research papers and wanted them to be extremely conscious and conscientious about the process of writing. I had made these grand claims about writing through stuck places, about writing as a space of discovery, writing as thinking not just as a record of thought. I thought, when I got stuck with my book, that I should follow my own advice. I kept notes on my reading in the log and also asked myself very basic questions like, “Why am I writing this book?” and “Why does Hades love Persephone?” and “Where is the Underworld?” and I tried to answer these questions, in writing. I wrote through the frustrations of the poems and even through the anxieties and frustrations of the submission and publication of the manuscript. The process log has not (thankfully) been a part of other compositions. Each book has its own process requirements. They’ve all been difficult but none has required the explicitly self-conscious work of the process log.

rm: The poems from your second collection, The Last Clear Narrative write about the process of living, around mothering, childbirth, marriage and friends, as well as the culture of simply being alive in the world. Was the process of writing these poems more natural than composing the pieces in Eating in the Underworld, or more difficult?

RZ: This is a tough question for me to answer. I’m not sure exactly what you mean by “natural.” I’m not sure that writing is ever natural. Isn’t it always artificial? I will say that the process of putting LCN together as a book was more organic or associative (now maybe I’m just being semantic about “natural”) than the book-making process of my first book. After finishing Eating in the Underworld I had a few years worth of semi-autobiographical poems and edited and revised and ordered and reordered these poems for a long time. Then, my good friend Arielle Greenberg invited me to submit poems to a section of the online magazine How2 that she was guest editing. I wanted to send a birth poem I’d written after my second son was born. When I went back to the poem, however, I was quite disappointed in it. I went back to my journals and poems and drafts from during and after my son’s birth and eventually wrote (for her really) what became the last poem in the book. It was a defining poem, and right after sending it to her I woke up in the middle of the night knowing how to organize the book.

For the poem and process note on this:


rm: How do you consider narrative as you are building such a collection? Do you see your two collections as long poems broken into individual steps along the way, or as individual poems that work their way up? Is there a difference? How do you work between telling the story and holding it back?

RZ: My first book is a series. Not really one long poem but close. I imagine it being read from beginning to end although not everyone does it that way. The Last Clear Narrative is a book of individual poems. The poems are related to one another and speak to one another – clearly I am obsessed with several themes – but they are more separate than the poems in Eating in the Underworld. As for narrative, well it’s always there. I think it is human nature to imagine one’s own life as a story and to organize information and experience into narratives. People who truly do not depend on narrative are often mentally unstable. Narrative is a fundamentally organizing principle as well as a language of communication. That said, I was quite preoccupied, in my second book, with experiences that resist being retold or explained in narrative ways.

The experience, for example, of having a newborn baby is at once a story one recalls later but is also, at that time, a strange in-body but out-of-story experience when expectations of linear time and space are tested. I wanted to try to write in the places and moments where narrative failed. It is never really possible to do so because language is so firmly saturated with narrative, but maybe sometimes I got close. “The Window is One-Sided It Does Not Admit” often takes me back to that place when I read it. The “story” of those post-partum days is another matter entirely.

rm: It reminds me of a Jack Spicer quote: "Poems should echo and re-echo against each other. They should create resonances. They cannot live alone any more than we can…" Given a structure of poems that speak to each other, do you worry about creating pieces that can't exist by themselves? Is this something that you even worry about? I'm thinking specifically of carving up manuscripts to send them out to the little magazines. Are there some pieces you can't?

RZ: I do have some long poems that cannot be excerpted and publication gets tricky in those cases. I have a long (20+ page) poem, "The Rise and Fall of the Central Dogma," that I didn't know what to do with other than wait until my third book comes out. Recently, however, Black Warrior Review decided to publish it as a chapbook which is fantastic. My other long poems have also been published in journals by editors kind enough to spend many pages of space on me. So I've been tremendously lucky. At the same time, and perhaps in part because of my good fortune, my feelings about the whole long poem problem have changed. I used to feel badly about these too long poems, these unwieldy offspring, but lately I am feeling more loyal to these poems. I would like to write something one day about the long poem as a form of monogamy. Like monogamy, the long poem isn't particularly flashy or marketable, but it certainly has its attributes and engenders a way of seeing things, a way of living in the world in relation to another human being (a husband, a reader), that isn't attainable in any other (less continuous) way.

But maybe you were not talking about long poems but about manuscripts like Eating in the Underworld? Honestly I was always a little surprised when the poems were accepted individually to journals, but the editors seemed to feel that they read fine and people liked them. Part of my surprise is that I myself don't usually like to read single poems. I do occasionally come across single poems that I fall in love with, but I prefer to read books of poems rather than individual poems or anthologies of many writers. I especially like long poems (James Schuyler's "A Few Days" is one of my favorites) and series (I just finished reading a wonderful book of poems, Jane, by Maggie Nelson about the murder of her aunt). I also vastly prefer novels to short stories and adore TV miniseries. I get invested in characters, a world, a voice, a kind of language and don't want it to end. And, despite my many complaints about marriage and the energy and fortitude it takes to read and write longer works, I ultimately agree with Spicer that we cannot live alone. Even though I often long to be away from my family I also make less and less sense without them. It's OK with me if my poems need each other.

rm: The poems in your second collection are far more personal than your first, working with the material of family. Were there any moments of awkwardness or difficulty in writing about your marriage, pregnancies, childbirth and motherhood in The Last Clear Narrative?

RZ: Maybe there should have been more awkwardness than there was? My husband has always been totally supportive of my work and is himself an extremely forthright person. I am actually much more private than he is. (In my recent work I find the word "privacy" coming up quite a bit.) I don't know what my children will think about my work when they are older. I hope that they will see it for what it is: the struggle of a woman trying to make sense of her world.

[view printer friendly version]