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Interview with Rachel Zucker

I met the poet Rachel Zucker on a hot July day in New York, where she grew up and has lived almost all her life. The city felt full of fury against Donald Trump’s immigration policy: children were being separated from their parents on the southern US border. That week Zucker had protested with her family. Her eldest son was at home when I visited; soon he was going to college, to Yale, where Zucker studied before doing an MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. When we met, she was about to travel to Berlin with her youngest.

 

Such details (not these, but others) might be gleaned from Zucker’s poems. Writing in the tradition of confessional poetry, she exposes what Sharon Olds would call the ‘apparently personal’. But her books of poetry – most recently Museum of Accidents (2009) and The Pedestrians (2014) – along with her lyric memoir MOTHERs (2014) and the ‘poemic’ Home/Birth (2010), co-written with Arielle Greenberg, also contain a lot of the world. Her aesthetic is inclusive, her attitude open: this is writing susceptible, in the best way, to influence, interruption and doubt. In this moment, Zucker’s impulse towards dialogue feels right, politically and ethically. She has said that she reads the poetry of others to find out how she should live. I admit to approaching Zucker’s work in the same state of need: I discovered her writing as a new mother attempting to reconcile a divided life, and I go to it – as I went into this interview – looking for company and guidance in feeling ambivalent.

 

Equally sustaining is Zucker’s podcast Commonplace, in which she has long, in-person conversations with poets (and, less regularly, with those she calls ‘other people’). Now nearly 60 episodes in, Commonplace is an incredible archive of contemporary US poetry: from Claudia Rankine to Danez Smith and Anne Waldman, Zucker’s guests discuss their craft and process, and they read their poems. But more compelling even than the frequent insights into the artistic values of leading American poets is what these thoughtful, engaged and articulate people reveal about how they live. In this interview Zucker offers an explanation of why, as a listener, this feels so useful. She also talks about what poetry is for, the female poets of the 1970s she adopted as mentors, and the ‘poetics of motherhood’ that she found in them and that she is still trying to pin down. Her next book, a series of lecture-essays, will include her thoughts – surely expansive and equivocal – on that subject.

 

Q

The White Review

— What do you think is the role of the poet, and of poetry, right now?

 

A

Rachel Zucker

— I’m worried that my answer is going to seem like a total dodge, but I’m going to give it anyway. I want to say that poetry has relevance, that poets have relevance, but I also want to push back against the idea of a role. I think that maybe part of the job of the poet is to undermine or subvert our idea of what a role is, what a job is. There are so many different kinds of poets. There are poets who are doing what someone might consider to be incredibly apolitical, self-indulgent work, and I think in some ways the role of poetry, or my experience with poetry, is to re-examine all of those assumptions, or all of those critiques. There’s a lot of argument particularly around this question of overtly political poetry versus craft, and I’ve heard that put forward over and over again: ‘Well, I want it to be a good poem’, as if a political poem isn’t necessarily a good poem. I feel at this moment that I’m less interested myself in poetry that seems to be apolitical, but as soon as I feel that, I think about… I’m picking a poet I really have not liked, who I feel like it’s quite safe to dislike, Robert Lowell. Through thinking about why I don’t like Lowell, or what annoys me about Lowell, I’ve come to feel I’m so glad Lowell is in poetry. I’m so glad Lowell is part of the conversation when I think about what the role of the poet is. So I think that role is to make us question all our assumptions and all our prescriptions about what poetry is for, who it’s for, what it’s supposed to do, the importance of it, itself. Maybe it’s frivolous, sometimes. I think that we need that, in order to make this disobedient space.

 

I also don’t know the answer to this other question, which is what’s the role of the poetry critic? I feel like poets have known for a really long time that they didn’t know what their job was, but poetry critics thought they knew what their job was, which was to say whether something was good or bad, or whether something was important. And I think that that relies upon an assigning of roles to the poet, which has changed over time. But if we really knew that poetry was aimed at subverting any notion of role, what would the job of the critic become? And that seems really interesting to me. I think that’s why I’m interested in Commonplace, because I’m really not a critic.

 

Q

The White Review

— There is a form of criticism that is seen more as a relationship between the critic and the work that they produce and the work they look at, rather than an authoritative statement about worth or value.

 

A

Rachel Zucker

— Absolutely. What is the relationship between the critic and what he or she is reading? I don’t know if you’ve ever read My Poets by Maureen McLane. It’s incredibly rigorous in terms of its scholarship, but it’s deeply personal. It’s about her relationship with these poets, as she grew up, her connection to them. I feel like that’s a really interesting example of a new kind of criticism that’s very personal or relational. Also The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson.

 

Q

The White Review

— From a political point of view, the personal in writing refuses objectivity, refuses the idea that there are standards and that everyone is the same.

 

A

Rachel Zucker

— A book that I want to mention because I feel like so many of my ideas come straight out of it is Alicia Ostriker’s Stealing the Language. She goes back and thinks about how women who were writing in the 70s and 80s, and the end of the 60s too I guess, in the women’s movement, had to use a language that was so deeply gendered. The language they were using for poetry, but also the critical language. The idea of universality and the impersonal is a really gendered and raced concept. If when critics and academics and cultural makers had said ‘person’ they always meant a straight white man, then what are we really talking about when we’re talking about universality? If the assumptions about the body are that it’s male, that it’s white, that it’s of a certain class, of a certain religion, then… I think all standards have been to some extent built on concepts like universality or purity or beauty. Once you even push on them a little bit, these are really problematic ideas that are totally related to systems of oppression, so to question the aesthetics is to question political systems. I’m always really interested in – whether it’s in response to Anne Sexton or Sylvia Plath – those moments when the critics are saying not just ‘I don’t like it’, but they’re saying, poetry is over, they’ve killed it, art as we know it will never recover.

 

I hear some of that, somewhat coded, in relation to political poetry now – in the desire to separate craft from content again. I’m not saying you can’t say a poem is bad, or that you’re not interested in the language, but I think when I’m in the presence of someone who is fighting very very hard that the new political poetry ‘just isn’t very good’, it feels like there’s something similar at stake, like: what are you worried is going to happen? To poetry? To you?

 

Q

The White Review

— Going back to those poets associated with the women’s movement of the 1970s: how did you find them and what do they mean to you now?

 

A

Rachel Zucker

— At Yale Wayne Koestenbaum had a class called Contemporary American Literature and there was so much poetry in the class, which usually there isn’t. That’s where I first read John Ashbery, that’s where I first read James Schuyler, who I just fell in love with. I feel like some people, Frank O’Hara’s their guy, John Ashbery’s their guy. Schuyler’s my guy. He writes short poems that are unbelievable and these very very long, almost book-length poems that are unbelievable, and I’d never seen that before. The man I’m currently married to and have been married to for twenty-one years wanted to go to LA because his father and his father’s family live there. He convinced me in part by saying we would go to San Diego, where the James Schuyler archives are. Now, when I was taking a different one of Wayne’s classes, one of the assignments was to pick a book of contemporary poetry by a living poet and write a review. So I picked David Trinidad, mostly for the cover of his book Hand Over Heart, and ended up on this pilgrimage to meet David Trinidad, which was this incredible experience. So I loved David Trinidad, I loved James Schuyler, and when I got to the archive I had no idea where to start, so I asked for the correspondence between Trinidad and Schuyler. In one letter Schuyler recommended Alice Notley. I went to the library and took out everything I could by Alice Notley, and just totally fell in love with her.

 

I think it was through Alice Notley that I found Bernadette Mayer. I knew who Anne Waldman was because I’d been so interested in Ginsberg, but then in the context of Notley and Mayer, Waldman made more sense to me. I hadn’t been able to fully appreciate Diane di Prima or Anne Waldman as part of the Beats, but as part of this second-generation New York School, mostly women, I did. And then I think through them I became interested in Eileen Myles and Toi Derricotte. And then I started to read June Jordan. I was very late to read Lucille Clifton. Sonia Sanchez I started to read around that same time. So one led to another led to another. I don’t remember who first recommended that I read Midwinter Day, the book-length poem by Bernadette Mayer, but it completely changed everything I thought about poetry. And of course Alicia Ostriker, too, and once I’d read Stealing the Language, I saw who else she was talking about and I tried to find all of those women and read them as well.

 

I have a book of lecture-essays coming out, hopefully in the next year, and the last one that I wrote is called ‘Why She Could Not Write Her Lecture on the Poetics of Motherhood’. That’s really about all those women and that era in poetry, and trying to figure out whether they were writing like mothers. And if so, what did that mean, and could you say something meaningful, but not exclusionary, about how they were writing, why they were writing, the forms that they were using.

 

Q

The White Review

— Going back through the New York School, you were rewriting this history that was handed down to you. There is a sense that as well as their poetics relating to motherhood, these are alternative mothers – perhaps like Maggie Nelson’s idea in The Argonauts of the many-gendered mothers of the heart.

 

A

Rachel Zucker

— A book that was really important to me was Maggie Nelson’s book Women, the New York School and other True Abstractions. That came out before my book MOTHERs, and MOTHERs came out before The Argonauts, but they are all related to each other in terms of exactly what you’re saying: trying to think about, for me, these women as mother figures, as leading the way, as a different kind of mentorship.

 

Q

The White Review

— In your poem ‘Please Alice Notley Tell Me How to Be Old’, you literally invoke her, as a model or a mentor. How does that work when you are writing? I love the moment in MOTHERs when you say that you have all Notley’s books out in front of you.

 

A

Rachel Zucker

— I think it’s embarrassingly, or gloriously, literal. It’s not that I don’t change anything, and I certainly take things out and rearrange things, but I change very little. I think it’s akin to photography – you could say, well that’s what was there, it’s just a photograph, but of course: composition, point of view… But it’s more like a photograph than a painting in terms of the relationship to the literal and the ‘real’. So yeah, if I had Alice Notley’s books out, I had Alice Notley’s books out. I wasn’t imagining that I had her books out.

 

Q

The White Review

— And is this ‘thereness’, or literalness, part of the poetics of motherhood?

 

A

Rachel Zucker

— I think so. I have never got to a point where I feel super comfortable saying this is the poetics of motherhood. But yes, I think that if it is a poetics at all, it’s connected to interruptibility, to literalness, to reportage, to inclusivity, in terms of peoples, stories, bodies, domestic stuff. I think that it tends to be a poetics of accretion, it tends to be durational. Have you seen Chantal Akerman’s film Jeanne Dielman? It’s about a mother. It’s four hours long and there are whole sequences in which she is preparing potatoes, in silence. I was asking: what kind of durational poetics are Alice Notley and Bernadette Mayer engaged in and why? How long does it take to diaper a baby, to put someone to sleep?

 

Q

The White Review

— Do you worry about essentialising motherhood?

 

A

Rachel Zucker

— Yes I absolutely worry about essentialising gender or motherhood or certain kinds of experiences, because I may be calling something a gendered experience when really it’s a white experience. And that is a tremendous pitfall when you’re not able to see yourself clearly. The only solution to that, and it’s always a work in progress, is intersectionality. But the solution is not to say there’s no such thing as a female experience – well there might not be a female experience – but the solution is not to say that gender is insignificant. Even if it’s not biologically significant, it’s culturally inescapable. There has to be a way to be aware of the fact that not all mothers feel one way, and that some people who are not mothers experience what I am ascribing to a poetics of motherhood, but also to say, yes, there is something – these poets have something in common, or these experiences, for almost everybody, have something in common. And then it’s important to look at the mothers who don’t feel those things, and think about how this can make a more complex picture about what motherhood is or can be for some people.

 

Q

The White Review

— You say there has to be a way for these positions to co-exist. Have you found it easier to do that in poems or writing the lectures?

 

A

Rachel Zucker

— I think it’s easier to do in poems. I think there’s something that happens in prose, even in memoir, where it’s hard to avoid a certain kind of assertion that you are speaking from an objective place, or that you are speaking for others. I think poems don’t do that as much.

 

Q

The White Review

— Conversation, as in Commonplace, has a similar effect.

 

A

Rachel Zucker

— Right. First of all, from a very practical perspective, I didn’t want the responsibility of talking about someone else without them there. I’m always surprised at what every single conversation brings and what the dynamic is. I learn things about their habits, their obsessions, and sometimes I don’t agree with them. I think I’m getting better at pushing back a little bit. It depends who it is. In the Alice Notley episode – I don’t agree with her that Trump’s not a fascist, that real fascists are the people saying ‘down with Trump’, any group-think. But that was a moment that felt really true to who she is and to the things I love about her. I feel like it is about seeing someone clearly, at least in that moment. It’s hopefully a picture of two people, primarily of this other person, of how they live their lives, how they make decisions, to find out who might be surprisingly conservative and who is just so out there without any self-consciousness, like CA Conrad or Kristen Prevallet. There are moments when I’m like, what’s happening? I hope that somebody listening thinks, well, that’s not surprising to me at all. Or: I’m so shocked too. I don’t know if you’ve ever been in group therapy but I was for ten years – it ended about fifteen years ago. I learnt so much doing it. In part because I learnt so much about myself in the moment when two other people were having an interaction. I do feel there is something similar in Commonplace.

 

Q

The White Review

— Can you say more?

 

A

Rachel Zucker

— In the therapeutic context, when you and the therapist are talking one on one, there are going to be moments when you feel the therapist understands you or misunderstands you, and then the relationship is strengthened or weakened. If it’s a deep therapeutic relationship it’s going to be really painful in those moments when there’s misunderstanding – useful, but so fraught. In group therapy, when you’re listening to two other people, you don’t have to defend your ego, it’s not your own story, you’re not in the room, you’re not responsible for what’s happening. You’re able to identify and not identify with both people, and without a lot of pain. You can feel very deeply, you can be vulnerable to it – I could imagine someone saying, I’m going to change my life. But I don’t think you feel in that moment that I have no one, or no one understands me. And in the case of the podcast: why would two people who can’t see or hear you, who recorded this earlier, understand you? You can go really deep, and you can see things about yourself, without the same level of risk that you feel when you’re actually talking to somebody else. Because, depending on who you are, when you are talking to someone else you feel an enormous responsibility to please the other person. Like now, I imagine you are thinking: Am I asking the right questions? What does she think about me? All those things that I think about when I’m doing Commonplace, you don’t have to think about any of that when you’re listening. Definitely afterwards I almost always have those thoughts: ‘Why did I say that, why did I do that?’ I think sometimes those are the moments that are really good in the episodes, but they’re also pretty horrible.

 

Q

The White Review

— You said in the episode with Steph Burt that you are obsessed with comprehensiveness, which I recognise in your poetry. But I wonder how that works in a podcast? Are you trying to find out everything? Do you feel like you’re going to see this person from every side? Where are the frustrations with that and are you trying to resolve or redeem anything, or are you happy for a conversation to exist in its partialness?

 

A

Rachel Zucker

— I have a tendency toward maximalism, wanting to include everything and be comprehensive. A feeling that anything less than everything is a form of essentialism and is going to be inaccurate, and always a failure. But that is totally impossible. I knew that rationally, intellectually, but it wasn’t really until the poet] Yanyi said during one of our conversations for the ‘Inside Commonplace’ episode that the listener doesn’t get full access to our relationship. And that’s not a failure, at all. To get a glimpse into something is not the same as essentialism, it’s not saying: this is all there is. I don’t know where I came up with this loony idea… a listener, a human being, of course they didn’t know everything about you. I don’t know why I’m learning that lesson so late in life, but I’m really trying to rethink some of my feelings about comprehensiveness. I still don’t think I’ll ever want a highly edited, highly refined, highly curated aesthetic, either for the podcast or for my poems or for my life, but I think it would be really empowering for me to rethink the way in which I had things set up, where comprehensiveness, maximalism, total inclusion were real, true, ethical, the goal – even though it’s impossible – and anything less than that was really not just a failure but unethical. That is a really unhelpful and problematic binary. So what that will look like as I try to make my way into that new space, I don’t know.

 

Q

The White Review

— I’m reminded of the discussion you had on Commonplace with Sabrina Orah Mark about tsimtsum – the concept in Jewish mysticism that describes God’s deliberate absence from his created beings and the moment, before his departure, when he filled vessels with his light, vessels that break. You discuss art being about collecting the fragments, the shards of light.

 

A

Rachel Zucker

— It might just be a semantic difference, but I’m thinking that the Greek word for perfect expresses something that is whole. It doesn’t mean that it’s good or right or the best. I love the concept of tsimtsum, and I both believe and don’t believe that pulling all the fragments together could repair. I do think that it can repair in the sense that if there’s something in your own personal life or politically that you will not look at, that you will not deal with, you will never repair. You can’t repair the history of murder and oppression of black and brown people in the United States if you don’t really look at slavery. You could come closer to reparations if you really gather all the pieces, but at best you’re going to get a mosaic of broken pieces. I do think that’s what I’m trying to do, to a certain extent, but the pieces will always appear as if they are broken. But that makes sense to me. I think that we do that our whole lives. What is the broken shard of our identity? Well it came from our parents or the bad breakup, and then we are this collection of pieces, seen and unseen, and part of trying to live an integrated life, both on an individual level and certainly on a community level or a national level – and an artistic level, because you can’t separate those – is about gathering the pieces and looking at them when you don’t want to, and trying to make sense of them.

 

Q

The White Review

— Do you think poets are particularly good at holding together the fragments as they exist? Something that emerges from Commonplace is your guests’ willingness to look at ambivalence.

 

A

Rachel Zucker

— Ambivalence gets a bad rap. It’s very unappealing. I’m so ambivalent, and it’s something about myself that is very frustrating. I think that hearing how other people live their lives, whatever their troubles are, how they do and don’t do things, is the only thing that makes me feel less alone and less a total… it’s fine if I feel like a failure, but it’s not fine if feeling like a failure means I don’t have to act. I think that’s partly why I have those conversations. I wanted to ask Cathy Park Hong: How should I live my life? I wanted to ask Danez Smith, I wanted to ask Claudia Rankine. It was so fascinating: Claudia Rankine wanted to talk about Disgrace by Coetzee. I had never read Coetzee. Then I read it and this thing she said about none of the characters being redeemable and why do we have this expectation that everyone in a novel or maybe in life is redeemable, and to really question that, to have a book which plays that out – that wasn’t the life skill that I was going to get from her, but over and over again I don’t get what I expect, I get something that is incredibly powerful and interesting. Sometimes I don’t hear it until I’ve listened to the conversation three times, and then it completely changes me.

 

Q

The White Review

— Will you interview anyone when you’re in Berlin?

 

A

Rachel Zucker

— Yes, Jenny Kronovet, an American poet who has lived in China and is now living in Berlin since released as Episode 56]. She is an amazing poet in her own right, but she has a lot of experience with translation and I really want to start these translation episodes. I haven’t figured out yet whether they will be in addition to the regular episodes or if they’ll air separately. For some reason I want them to be shorter and to ask roughly the same questions to each person. I want to have all different kinds of people who are in different kinds of translation relationships answering the same questions as a way of looking at how different these projects are. Whether you’re translating from the language you are fluent in or whether you’re not. Whether it’s your native language. Whether you know the person. Whether it’s someone who has been translated many times or never before. Jenny has an amazing story, which I don’t fully know yet. She was the translator for a book that was published under a pseudonym for the protection of the Chinese writer. I want to ask her about all that. But I’m also struggling because I’m reading her own book in her own language and it’s really good, and I don’t want her to feel diminished that I want to talk to her as a translator. This is a problem.

 

Q

The White Review

— Comprehensiveness again.

 

A

Rachel Zucker

— Exactly.
 

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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

is a writer and an editor on the art list at Yale University Press, London.

I met the poet Rachel Zucker on a hot July day in New York, where she grew up and has lived almost all her life. The city felt full of fury against Donald Trump’s immigration policy: children were being separated from their parents on the southern US border. That week Zucker had protested with her family. Her eldest son was at home when I visited; soon he was going to college, to Yale, where Zucker studied before doing an MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. When we met, she was about to travel to Berlin with her youngest.   Such details (not these, but others) might be gleaned from Zucker’s poems. Writing in the tradition of confessional poetry, she exposes what Sharon Olds would call the ‘apparently personal’. But her books of poetry – most recently Museum of Accidents (2009) and The Pedestrians (2014) – along with her lyric memoir MOTHERs (2014) and the ‘poemic’ Home/Birth (2010), co-written with Arielle Greenberg, also contain a lot of the world. Her aesthetic is inclusive, her attitude open: this is writing susceptible, in the best way, to influence, interruption and doubt. In this moment, Zucker’s impulse towards dialogue feels right, politically and ethically. She has said that she reads the poetry of others to find out how she should live. I admit to approaching Zucker’s work in the same state of need: I discovered her writing as a new mother attempting to reconcile a divided life, and I go to it – as I went into this interview – looking for company and guidance in feeling ambivalent.   Equally sustaining is Zucker’s podcast Commonplace, in which she has long, in-person conversations with poets (and, less regularly, with those she calls ‘other people’). Now nearly 60 episodes in, Commonplace is an incredible archive of contemporary US poetry: from Claudia Rankine to Danez Smith and Anne Waldman, Zucker’s guests discuss their craft and process, and they read their poems. But more compelling even than the frequent insights into the artistic values of leading American poets is what these thoughtful, engaged and articulate people reveal about how they live. In this interview Zucker offers an explanation of why, as a listener, this feels so useful. She also talks about what poetry is for, the female poets of the 1970s she adopted as mentors, and the ‘poetics of motherhood’ that she found in them and that she is still trying to pin down. Her next book, a series of lecture-essays, will include her thoughts – surely expansive and equivocal – on that subject.   [interview]

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