Monday, March 28, 2011

Ron Slate's Spring Poetry Feature

I recommend 2 poetry books for Ron Slate's Spring Poetry Feature (Mule by Shane McCrae and Death Obscura by Rick Bursky).  Click below if your'e interested:

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.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Coffee Chat #5: Meghan O'Rourke

I first met Meghan O'Rourke over 5 years ago when we were both at Warren Wilson's MFA Program for Writers.  I didn't know who she was but sensed there was something really special about her.  Five years later, I, and the rest of the world have had the good fortune of reading her wonderful work in all genres.  With each passing word, I really love her work more and more.  She has a new book coming out called The Long Goodbye about grief and her mother's passing.  I've talked with her many times before but really wanted to dig deeper and find out more about her, demystify her and her work in a way.  I think our culture has a weird way of elevating people, then putting them down because of their "success".  There's always so much more to the story and the person.  She was gracious enough to indulge in my curiosity.


VC: I feel like I've known you for years, yet I don't feel like I really know you that well.  Interestingly, I get this same feeling when I read your poetry--there's a sort of combination of openness and hiddenness.  Do you agree with me and if so, is this a conscious decision?  If not, why not?

MO: I was a pathologically shy child, and I always think that is embedded in the work in some way.  From a non-biographical, aesthetic point of view, I’m drawn to the mysterious way cadence is such a powerful too for making us feel things we can’t name.  Cadence works on our limbic system in ways that nothing else does. I love poetry for the way it creates a language for what can’t be accessed through the rational alone.  I’m interested in what can’t be said straight, or “the hum of thoughts evaded by the mind,” as Stevens put it.  I think many of our deepest feelings or intuitions feel like this to us.

Is it conscious? God, who knows. I’m not sure any of it fully is. I think it starts unconscious, and becomes conscious. You learn to work with what you have, your own predilections and tics.

VC: You have always seemed to me to be so incredibly ambitious.  Where does this ambition come from?  And do you ever get tired of it (I ask this, because I do of my own ambitions)?

MO: Hmm. People do sometimes tell me I am “ambitious.” I confess I don't quite know what it means, and I often wonder whether this would even come up if I were a man. In other words, I always hear embedded in that word a kind of critique. Do you? Maybe I’m crazy.

I don’t exactly think of myself as ambitious, per se. I think of myself as “driven” or perhaps more accurately “hounded.” Writing and reading help me keep anxiety and dread away. I work hard, but I do so because I’m calmest when I’m working. And yes: I tire of this reality!  

I was very lucky in my career and I think that’s part of why some may think I’m ambitious. I stumbled into a lot of good jobs. and to be sure I’m really invested in our writing about our culture, in critiquing certain elements of the media discourse about culture, and so on. But it’s not very strategic.
VC: You seem so incredibly skilled at so many different genres.  Was poetry your first love?  What attracts you to the genre?

MO: Novels were my first love, actually. When I was very young I wrote novels and stories--mostly bad science fiction about unicorns in space, that kind of thing.

Then, when I was 16, I read Wallace Stevens and Elizabeth Bishop and fell hard in love with poetry. The two poems that did it were “This Solitude of Cataracts” and “In the Waiting Room.” What I love about it – again – is that sense of mystery, the way poetry can crystallize a hard-to-identify intuition. These were the lines of Stevens’ that sealed the deal—the way the poem invokes the illusoriness of a mind finding “rest / in a permanent realization” yet also seems to crystallize it, to make monumental the sensuousness of a minute moment:

He wanted his heart to stop beating and his mind to rest
In a permanent realization, without any wild ducks
Or mountains that were not mountains, just to know how it would be,
Just to know how it would feel, released from destruction,
To be a bronze man breathing under archaic lapis,
Without the oscillations of planetary pass-pass,
Breathing his bronzen breath at the azury center of time.

VC: Why did you decide to bypass the contest route when you published your first book and go with Norton?  Or did you actually send your manuscript out to contests prior to working with Norton?

MO: I didn't actually make a conscious decision. I liked some of Norton’s poets so I put my manuscript in an envelope and sent it to them. I liked that they did criticism and poetry and I wanted to be published by a house that did both. I got lucky –Jill Bialosky read my manuscript and liked it.

VC: A long time ago, I read an article on the Gawker titled: "Why People Hate Meghan O'Rourke" and it talked about you being the symbol of "privilege".  How did that make you feel and how in general do you deal with that kind of open criticism of you and your background?  And how do you deal with peoples' envy and jealousy of you, your background, or accomplishments?

MO: The only way to deal with such things is by focusing on your work, I suppose, as it’s the only thing you have control over – someone will always dislike you, no matter what you do, and we all do stupid things or rub someone the wrong way at times.

That particular post was upsetting because it suggested things about my life that weren’t true, which bothered me. I have been educationally privileged, but I was not financially or socially privileged in the sense that the post suggested; my parents were poorly paid teachers. (Of course, it’s hard to talk about not being privileged without sounding extremely privileged –by comparison with most of the world, I certainly am.)  I spent my childhood in a kind of wonderland my parents invented for us because we didn’t have much money. I felt like an outsider, a feeling I think most writers need to experience in their lives.
VC: Related to that question, things seem to come so easily for you from an outside perspective.  Do you feel this way?

MO: No, it doesn’t feel that way, except when it comes to editing. I do feel that I am a good editor; it’s a way of being useful to the world (and to the word, which I originally typed by accident). Everything else feels very hard.

VC: Because you live in New York, how much weight do you put on the "po-biz" work that goes along with promoting your book, meeting the right people, getting the right reviews, etc?  And how do you separate the creative process from that po-biz work that seems to be increasingly necessary to have any readers at all?

MO: I think that all that is pretty poisonous when you’re trying to work. But I can see that it certainly helps, and that it likely helped me to be in New York, and I guess it is important for writers to think about such issues in this day and age. But like a lot of writers I find that all this stuff creates a kind of noise in my head which gets in the way of writing. A  friend of mine keeps telling me to leave the “fetid cesspool” that is New York in his mind. Since I left Slate a few years ago I’ve spent about half of every year in small towns or places outside NY, because I need to get away from that noise, into the private reality of conjecture, imagination, discovery that has nothing to do with the “professionalized” world.

I don’t think it’s useful to stress getting the “right” reviews because so much of reviewing is accidental. It’s kind of pheromonal – like dating.

VC: Sound seems important to you as a poet, as does imagery, what else is important to you in your poetry?

MO: What else is there? Just kidding. I’d say syntax. Syntax can make or break a poem. and wisdom. That matters to me, hokey though it may sound.

VC: What is your writing process like for your poems?

MO: I start with a kernel, a line, an intuition. The poem gets drafted. Then I revise the draft obsessively over a period of weeks, months, sometimes years. Mostly I expand and contract, expand and contract. like an accordion. Hopefully, it gets more precise, more sonorous, more complex, even if it begins to look simpler. Usually the poems need a few months in order to take shape. And I do mean “take shape.” They’re blobs of language at first.

VC: Did you have trouble putting together your first book?  I somehow remember talking to you about how you felt you had to write additional poems to complete the manuscript once you started putting it together.  Is that true?

MO: I wanted Halflife to develop thematically as you read it from front to back. And yea, I felt some things were missing from Halflife in my first draft - elements of feeling and perception that somehow weren’t there. It was an intuitive sense of something being missing, rather than a really describable one.

VC: What kind of poems are you working on now and do you have a second book coming out soon?  How do those poems differ from your poems in your first book?

MO: I just finished a second book, called Once. It’s different: sparer, a little more disillusioned, and more direct. But I imagine if you read it you’d also see a lot of continuity. It tries to weave together different kinds of loss – loss of childhood, loss of civic innocence, loss of love – into one tapestry. I began writing it when Bush was in office. I was thinking about forms of complicity – the guilt of surviving, of being a citizen, when atrocities like Guantanamo were going on. I was thinking about the guilt of being healthy as your mother is dying. And so on.  It’s both more allegorical and autobiographical than Halfife, whose first-person poems were based less on my life than it might have seemed. It’s not the book I would have “chosen” to write but life forces itself on you sometimes. I think it is much balder. The poems kind of insisted on their methods.

VC: Many poets I know are poets and they teach, occasionally writing a review here and there.  You write poetry, criticism, culture pieces (on all kinds of topics), and now a memoir.  I am grateful you do all of the above, but do you ever feel like you are doing too much and not focusing enough?  

MO: Of course I worry. But I have to make a living. Then, too, the idea that we should focus on one genre is a historically recent one, borne partly out of the professionalization of something that used to be a vocation. Everything both takes away from and feeds your work, whether it’s teaching, or writing journalism, or baking bread.

VC: I've read some of your pieces on the passing of your mother and her illness.  Even as I write this, I still don't know what to say to you.  Is that kind of unsayable relationship our culture has with death and grief part of why you wanted to write this memoir?

MO: Yes. I wrote THE LONG GOODBYE because I became interested in the fact that grief is a space of embarrassment and silence today. I felt very alone with my sorrow after my mother died, craving rituals or communal space in which to observe my loss. We can talk about loss in art or memoir safely but alone in a room with each other we often find ourselves ill at ease.

Then, too, writing is how I make sense of the world. And in this case I think I wanted to carve out an insistent place to mourn and feel and think and reflect – rather than merely move on.

VC: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this memoir?  

MO: Writing the memoir was one of the rare times in my adult life when writing felt easy, natural, and right. It was remarkably fluid. I think this is because I had to write the book in order to survive, in order to stay intact; the pressure of necessity obliterated my normal self-consciousness.

Revising was hard. There were a few scenes I’d described where I hadn’t put enough down the first time around, when it felt natural to reflect on a scene, necessary. So a yaer and a half later I had to go in and try to make myself remember how painful a certain afternoon was. That was very hard.

But perhaps the hardest part was writing about other real people, and dealing in my heart with that, and what it meant.

VC: Does anything make you uncomfortable as you anticipate the publication of your memoir?

MO: I am a private person so it was hard to expose certain sides of myself, certain feelings or things that happen. But it was necessary if I was going to do justice to the real experience of grief – and how identity-shaking it can be. And because I knew there were others out there like me I felt the imperative to tell it like it was, so to speak.

VC: Prose seems to just flow out of you so easily.  Is that how you write prose or is it a painstaking process?  How about poetry?

MO: No; it’s painstaking. I revise obsessively. Sontag said that she was an ordinary thinker and writer; what was extraordinary was that she was willing to revise.  If anything seems fluent, it’s because of how much I revise. The same is true of poetry. I find poetry much harder, though, perhaps because I revere it so.

VC: I remember being very excited that you were married to a business journalist, Jim Surowiecki, who wrote this really really great book, called "The Wisdom of Crowds" because I have a business background and write business things too.  I was saddened to hear that the marriage had ended.  How did all of this coupled with the passing of your mother affect you as a writer, a person?

MO: That’s a question it will take a lifetime to answer. Both things have utterly changed my life, and me. He and I remain very close. I guess I can say for now that I’m much less interested in the noise of professionalism or on making “plans.” And I am much more interested in living each day in whatever way I choose. I daydream a lot more and spend more time walking and with my friends. I feel deeply aware of the smallness and futility – what Ecclesiastes would call the vanity – of human venture! So life seems to be more about love, and work, and kindness. Also, existence seems much funnier and more preposterous. (Jim is happy to hear his book called “really really great,” by the way.)

VC: As I'm sure you know a lot of poets, how do you separate the reading of their work to knowing them on a personal basis?  Was that a strange position to be in when you edited poetry for the Paris Review?  Why aren't you editing poetry for them anymore?  

MO: Great question. It was very strange, and often painful, when I was at the Paris Review. I had practice in it, having worked as a fiction editor at the New Yorker. There is a kind of way in which you are suborning your personal feelings to the magazine and its needs . I never loved that element of it. But on the other hand you feel a sense of fidelity to the work. And you really do want to publish the poems that move you most, and you only have sixty -some slots per year. So that makes the separation of the friend-self and the editor-self possible.

VC: As you envision yourself at the age of 60, and look back at your life, what does that picture look like?  Or said another way, what do you want to achieve in your life, professional and personal?

MO: I would feel extremely lucky if I were able to keep making a living by writing and reading. When my mother got sick, at the age of 52, it changed the way I deal with the world in that I don’t envision anything beyond the next day, and haven’t been able to for two years now. To the frustration of friends and colleagues, I suspect. That’s changing a bit. But at this point what I want is just to feel that I was present, every day, not planning or worrying or missing out on the utter intensity of being alive  - the natural world all around us, the joy our friends bring us, and so on.