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.