This interview was conducted over email from December 2004 to November
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.
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.
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.
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.)
did you put the word “feelings” in quotes?
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
[view printer friendly