Monday, March 21, 2011

Coffee Chat #6: Rachel Zucker

I don't know Rachel Zucker personally, but I sought her out at the recent AWP because I am very intrigued by her work and the voice behind her work. My first entry into Zucker's world was through Museum of Accidents, which I admit, I initially didn't love, but then I went back to read her other books (particularly The Bad Wife Handbook) and loved so many things about her writing that I went back to Museum of Accidents and changed my mind wholeheartedly. What I love about Zucker's work is her voice, her boldness, her openness. Her voice just feels very real, very complicated, very complex, very unsettling. And behind that openness and boldness is a deep focus on craft. Her voice is all her own and I love that about her work. Whether you have had children or not; whether you have children or not, Zucker is a poet everyone in this world must read.
She was kind of enough to indulge in my endless curiosity with her usual zest and openness, despite the fact that she is widely interviewed already. I tried to ask questions that were different or were uniquely my own. I think in all of my interviews, I try to demystify people or poets so that they become more tangible to me. I guess my own discovery that there is no "path" in poetry or no "destination" is something I like to investigate further in my interviews. In many ways, writers seem so different from one another, but on so many levels, we are very much the same. I put a few of my responses to her comments in bold.


VC: Tell me about your latest project, the book-length lyrical essay with Arielle Greenberg, on homebirth.

RZ: Home/Birth: a poemic is a collaborative, hybrid genre book about homebirth, birth, feminism, and friendship.

VC: You seem to do a lot of collaborative work with the poet Arielle Greenberg.  What makes your relationship work so well?  Have you ever had any problems working together or has it been smooth sailing?

RZ: Our relationship works well because we work on it. We care about it and about each other and put the time in. Sometimes it’s a lovely, easy friendship and sometimes it’s hard. I don’t have sisters (or brothers) but Arielle is like a sister to me. I love her in complicated ways. The relationship is deeply sustaining and inspiring on so many levels, even sometimes because it provokes self-awareness which can be unsettling.

VC: After reading your books, I feel like I know you or at least the speaker in your poems well.  Very well.  Sometimes in your poems, I think to myself, "I can't believe she said that" and then I read the next line and the next and think the same thing.  Coming from a modest Chinese American (more Chinese than American) family culture, I am in awe of your honesty and frankness.  Where does this come from and do you ever have second thoughts about putting certain things in your poems?

RZ: You brought up culture and I think that’s heavily at play:  lot of it has to do with being Jewish. Think about it, Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen.. speaking up isn’t our problem. We have other problems for sure! [VC: I grew up in an all Jewish community, so I understand!]

VC: Where do your poems come from?  Do they come from a thematic idea?  Do they come from an image?  Do you know where they come from?

RZ: Good question! I have no idea.

VC: Once you said in an interview: "I don't like rejection, but I have an even harder time dealing with people's jealousy."  I've noticed that some poets can, and I emphasize can, be very jealous of other peoples' successes.  How do you deal with that?  Do you ever get jealous of other poets, their poems, etc.?

RZ: I am so uncomfortable with other people’s jealousy that I tend to completely sublimate my knowledge of it. I don’t tend to be so jealous of others although every once in a while I have a full out temper tantrum about rejections. I have a very high tolerance for rejection but after last fall when I was on the job market and had applied for grants (and didn’t get either), I think I might have reached my limit for a while.

VC: You've obviously experienced a great deal of "success" in the poetry world.  Do you agree with that and if so, why?  If not, why not?

RZ: Are you jealous? If so, I can’t hear you. Just kidding. I have experienced success in the sense that I’ve had my books published and have had editors who believe in me and lately, with the Home/Birth book, I’ve had people write to me and Arielle and tell us that the book has changed their lives. That’s incredible. I’m profoundly grateful to these things. [VC: Jealous of you? Yes, yes, yes! Well, I am not "jealous", but have deep admiration for you and your work--like you, I probably don't have time to be jealous].

VC: You've had quite a few books of poetry published.  Was it hard to find a publisher for your first book?  Was it hard to get the subsequent books picked up (I know you had the same publisher, Wesleyan, for a while).  

RZ: It was extremely difficult to find a publisher for all of my books except for the books published by Wave and 1913 press.

VC: Your most recent book, Museum of Accidents, is out from Wave Books.  Your prior from Wesleyan.  What made you change presses?

RZ: I can’t answer that online.

VC: At the most recent AWP in D.C., I asked you, Laurel Snyder, and Matthew Zapruder, whether you feel "joy" or "tortured" when you write poetry and all three of you sighed and said: "tortured" or some form of torture.  Something about your poems and the way they flow on the page in terms of syntax seems "easy" for you.  The poems almost feel as if they cannot not come out, that they are busting at the seams.  But oddly, I read that you write slowly.  Can you talk more about how you feel when you write and how you write?

RZ: I think I felt a little bit of peer pressure at that moment. This is going to sound cheesey but I’ll go for it: lately I’ve made the decision that if I am doing something (like writing or spending time with my kids) then it means that is what I WANT to do. This is a weird logic, I know, but I’m sick of the whole “I have to write but it makes me miserable” thing. I can’t really say that I feel joy when I write, but I’m trying to take responsibility for my choices, for my life. I write because I want to. There is a difference, as I know from childrbirth, between pain and suffering. I think there is a difference between torture and discomfort. I don’t think writing is torture. I think it’s intense and that can be uncomfortable.

VC: In your recent books you seem to have some common themes.  Do you ever fear what a lot of poets seem to fear, which is writing the same poem over and over or writing the same series of poems over and over?

RZ: I don’t know that I have a choice in the matter.

VC: Do you think the poetry community is New York-centric?  Why or why not?

RZ: I guess the New York poetry community is. Is there a poetry community? I feel like I’m always missing everything.

VC: I'm amazed at how you have such a large range across all of your books, meaning, you have long lines, you have short lines, you have conventional syntax, then not.  I first thought that subject matter informs the structure and format of your poems.  Then I began to doubt my theory when I looked back at The Bad Wife Handbook where there are these short compressed lyrics and then the longish work in the middle of the book.  How do your poems arrive at their structure?

RZ: The subject matter absolutely informs the form; they are inextricable.

VC: You seem to have a lot of poet friends who are your trusted readers.  Does your husband read your poems?  If so, does he read them as a critic or not?  And if he does read them, when do you let him into that process?

RZ: My husband doesn’t like poetry. Luckily he likes poets.

VC: Would you consider yourself an "ambitious" poet?  If so, what does this mean to you?

RZ: I’m a hard worker. Work has often been an escape for me. I’m trying to redefine that, to move closer to joy as the reason I work and the feeling I get when I work.

VC: I read an amazing conversation you had with the "nonmother" poet Sarah Manguso in Candor Magazine.  I loved the honest conversation between the nonmother and the mother poet.  Are you surprised when "nonmothers", both male or female read your work with interest or noninterest?

RZ: Yes. But I’m surprised when mothers read it too--how do they have time? [VC: That is funny. I have lots of small minutes, but not lots of large blocks of minutes, but I'm working on that]

VC: Are your parents proud of you?  Said another way, how do your parents react to your life and writing?  What were they like when you were growing up trying to figure out what you wanted to do in this world?

RZ: Yes, I think they are very proud of me. I have my issues with my parents, certainly, but one thing they gave me was the sense that I could do anything. They thought I was smart and capable and talented. That was a gift, to be seen that way.

VC: A friend who just had a baby said that it is "relentless."  I agree.  As a mother, I feel like the highs are higher and the lows lower.  Do you ever feel this way?


VC: I got goosebumps reading Stephen Burt's review of your work in the Boston Review--I found it to be one of the best reviews I've read in a while simply in terms of the writing itself, not to mention the dead on interpretation of your work and how he contextualized it.  How did you feel when you read this review and how do you feel when you read reviews of your work in general?

RZ: I got hives. I’m not kidding. It was very strange and wonderful and upsetting to be “seen” so clearly by a totally stranger. That was incredibly scary and meaningful to me.

VC: When you got the National Book Critics Circle Award nomination, I've read you were busy dealing with kids and putting a movie on, etc.  How did getting that nomination make you feel after you had time to actually reflect on it?  Did it change anything?  Do any of your conventional "successes" in poetry change anything in your life?

RZ: It made me think I had a real shot for getting a grant or fellowship --but that turned out to be a bad investment of energy.

VC: Why do you write poetry?  What does poetry mean to you?  

RZ: Writing connects me to the world. Helps me pay attention. Sometimes my poetry can get very internalized (I’m often describing my interior world).  That’s part why started doing this daily blog

VC: What is or are your biggest fear (or fears) related to poetry?

RZ: That by spending my time writing I’m doing frivolous and should be helping other human beings in a tangible, concrete way.


  1. Great interview! Thanks to you and to Rachel!
    I love Stephen Burt's reviews, too.

  2. Hey Victoria--Thanks for this interview. I love her work and really liked the questions you asked!

  3. Victoria, Thank you for this interview! Cheers, Deborah