rachel zucker is the author of four books of poetry, most recently Museum of Accidents. With Arielle Greenberg she co-edited two anthologies and co-wrote Home/Birth: a poemic, a non-fiction book about birth, friendship, and feminism. Zucker lives in New York with her husband and their three sons. She teaches at NYU and the 92nd Street Y and is a certified labor doula.
Front Porch: In some of your early work, such as Eating in the Underworld and sections from Bad Wife Handbook, your form uses sentence fragments in a contemporary lyric structure. In your more recent books, such as Museum of Accidents, your form relies more heavily on syntactically complete sentences, often in a paragraph structure. Can you speak about the shift in form from your early work to your more recent work, and how the form influences the way you deal with your subject matter?
Rachel Zucker: Interesting question! I don’t think that’s ever been pointed out to me. I don’t think there is really a formal “progression” in my work, in the sense of progress or evolution. I think that different poems (or projects) call for (or are born out of) a different kind of voice, rhythm, syntax, mindset, etc.
I think that Museum of Accidents has a range of styles in it, but is characterized by a kind of rushing, piling on—”paragraphs,” or explosions of language, happen. I think that the earlier books were often preoccupied with the fragment, especially because I was often writing about pregnancy and early motherhood, which were, for me, experiences in which my sense of self was fractured.
Currently I’m working on three projects: a lyric memoir (in nonlinear prose), a book of short prose pieces, and a book of poems (in mixed forms). Each of these has a different relationship to form.
FP: When a writer shifts forms within a poem, often the voice and tone also shift, confusing the reader—but this doesn’t happen in your work. The voice and tone of your poems are maintained, and even further developed by the shifts. What can you tell me about this inter-shifting method?
RZ: I think I’m always trying to accurately represent the way my mind works and the quality of real experience, which is sometimes very disjunctive. When I write, I’m not aware of trying to maintain or shift tone. I’m not really sure I know what tone is exactly.
FP: In your work, you sometimes use a more traditional line break, while other times you have clear paragraphs. In your opinion, what is the function of the line break?
RZ: Ha! I just asked my students that yesterday! We read a great essay by Denise Levertov about the line and also several small essays from that anthology called A Broken Thing: Poets on the Line. I guess I’m not totally sure what you mean by a “traditional line break” or “clear paragraphs.” I think one basic function of the line break is to show the reader where to pause. It helps the poet score the poem. Sometimes the line break is also used to create multiplicity of meaning. Or disjunction. In one of my recent projects I had taken out all the line breaks because they felt too precious to me, but the poems were impossible to read, and so I put the line breaks back in. My philosophy of line breaks changes based on what I’m writing. In that sense, it’s not a very good philosophy. It certainly isn’t dogma.
FP: The form in your collection Museum of Accidents is very unique. You use a series of complete sentences and pieces of narrative to create a lyric moment, but these lyric moments, as they’re arranged in the collection, create a larger narrative. Can you talk about how narrative and lyric, which are usually set as opposite, may function together?
RZ: It’s really funny that you’re asking me these questions. I’m struggling to define these terms with my students this semester. But, as a writer, I guess my answer is very simple: I want my writing to mimic, or in some way enact, experience. Experience is often lyric, sometimes broken. Our understanding of experience, our “processing” of it (to use a contemporary term) is almost always narrative in nature.
I’ve always been interested in story. My mother is a storyteller. And I’ve always been interested in getting close to language before it becomes storyfied.
FP: How do you know how much of the narrative is necessary for the lyric moment to have meaning for the reader?
RZ: I think that’s just intuitive, and probably also a matter of taste (on the part of the reader). Different readers have different levels of attachment to, or desire for, narrative.
FP: In The Bad Wife Handbook, some sections contain very traditional lyric forms—one-page poems constructed from couplets and one-line-stanzas—while in other sections your poems span several pages with a more creative and diverse use of white space. Can you talk about the use of white space and the image of the poem on the page?
RZ: My husband (a teacher) pointed out to me that The Bad Wife Handbook is a bit like a five-paragraph essay. I think there’s some truth in that. I also think that one of the concerns of that book was formal. Here are five ways of saying the same thing, but saying the same thing in a different way is always saying something else. Isn’t that what poetry is always about on some level?
FP: Are there particular poets who have influenced your form?
RZ: On some level, I am influenced formally by all the poets I read. Seriously. That’s always a big part of what I’m “looking at.” I have great admiration for poets who write in mixed forms or who, like Alice Notley, have great formal range. D.A. Powell is a formal master. I study his poems. But I also love poets who appear to be less concerned with form—James Schuyler and Bernadette Mayer come to mind immediately—even though they are also formal masters.
FP: What is it about the mixed form that excites you?
RZ: I guess it makes sense to me that someone would need a new or different form as her life and experiences change.
FP: Some poets, such as Wallace Stevens, have said that the poet has no social or moral obligation when they write—the only obligation is to poetry. Other poets, such as James Weldon Johnson, have maintained that the poet should be ever conscious of his or her identity as male or female, white or Black or Hispanic, etc. Your work often deals with what may be considered “women’s issues,” i.e. motherhood, wifehood, pregnancy, and female sexuality. What is your opinion on the idea of having a moral or social obligation as a poet to portray women one way or another?
RZ: Big question. Good question. I don’t know how I would not write about being a woman, how I could not be aware of my identity. So much of my daily physical and emotional and psychological life is influenced (defined?) by the fact of my gender. Not to mention the years I’ve spent pregnant, nursing, caring for young babies—years in which I was flooded with hormones that affected my language and my thinking. And it’s not just about motherhood (and certainly not just about biological motherhood!)—motherhood is just a very obvious and salient example for me. Being a woman is inextricably connected to my sense of myself, and I don’t think the culture ever sees past my gender when it sees me.
I’m less clear, less sure about my religious and racial identity; “less sure” only in the sense that those feel more fluid to me. But perhaps if I were not white I wouldn’t feel that way! I don’t mean to say that being white means I shouldn’t write about race. I don’t think that at all.
FP: What do you think the white poet’s responsibility to writing about race is? Or is the term “responsibility” unfair? As Wallace Stevens puts it, is our only responsibility to poetry and creativity?
RZ: I’m not sure how I feel about the word “responsibility” in this context. Not that I think it’s “unfair,” I’m just not sure it’s the right word. I don’t think writers have a “responsibility” to write about anything or not write about something. But I do think it would be good if more writers wrote about race. I also think there is room for men to write interesting, complex poems about masculinity. And I definitely feel called myself to tell the truth about my experiences as a woman.
FP: Your book Women Poets on Mentorship is a collection of essays and poems by women poets on the subject of poetic mentors. Can you speak briefly about the tradition of women’s poetry and the importance of this tradition for the aspiring female writer?
RZ: Yes! First of all, I think the recording, acknowledging, and investigating of the history of mentorship by women poets is important for aspiring female and male writers. Arielle Greenberg and I felt that something new was happening, that we were living at a moment in history when we had a full generation of women writers who were alive and teaching, or corresponding or writing, in ways that mentored us. This had not historically been the case. So, we were interested in pointing this out. Obviously men and women have long been influenced by women writers, but not in such a direct way as today. By and large, the poets in our book describe their relationships with their mentors as permission-giving, which is a very different style (or notion) of mentorship from a “kill the father” model in Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence. Of course, the relationships between women and their mentors are complex and varied, and it’s stupid of me to simplify them. Still, I think it’s a topic that has not been properly examined, and one that is vitally important to understanding contemporary poetry. On a more personal note, we really wanted to document these relationships as a way of helping writers feel less alone.
FP: In your book Home/Birth you write what may be called a persuasive essay on the merits of natural birth. How was your creative process different in this blending of poetry and nonfiction? Was there more to consider in terms of audience reaction and interpretation?
RZ: What was radically different about writing that book was that it was collaborative. And it is overtly political, overtly polemical. We were trying to convince people of something. That’s not what I am trying to do in my poetry. But there was overlap in the sense that we were trying to tell the truth about birth and included women’s true stories.
FP: Over the course of your writing career, is there anything about your work that has surprised you?
RZ: I am constantly surprised by poetry! I don’t think I’d keep writing if I weren’t. I guess (on a less cheery note) I’m still surprised at how hard it always is. Pretty much everything about my work has surprised me. I mean that very sincerely. I’m surprised at how difficult it is to keep writing. I’m surprised at how impossible it is to stop. I’m surprised that anyone reads, let alone likes, my work. I’m surprised at how important that is to me. I’m surprised that every time I write something new I feel like I have no idea what I’m doing over and over and over again.
FP: What are some poetic tools or concepts that you would like to explore in your future work? Is there subject matter you have not written about as much as you would like to?
RZ: I think I’d like to write more about happiness, but I’m not sure what I mean by that. I would not like life to give me some horrible and tragic subject matter. I guess I will be writing about middle age soon (very soon), about being the mother of teenagers, and (hopefully) happiness? My poetry has come largely out of desperation, anxiety, depression, and a sense of urgency. I’m pleased to say that’s not how I feel right now. So I’m exploring how to still make art, but from a more balanced, more contented place. I hope that is possible.
Read Rachel Zucker’s poem “Wish You Were Here You Are” here.