Today’s guest is poet Rachel Zucker. A graduate of Yale in Psychology and Child Development, and of the Iowa Writers Workshop in Poetry, Zucker teaches poetry at New York University and is the author of ten books, including her memoir Mothers, her National Book Critics Circle Award finalist, Museum of Accidents and her collection of prose and poetry The Pedestrians. She is also the co-editor with Arielle Greenberg of two anthologies, Women Poets on Mentorship: Efforts and Affections, and Starting Today: 100 Poems for Obama’s First 100 Days. Greenberg and Zucker are also co-writers of Home/Birth: a poemic, a nonfiction book about birth, friendship and feminism. Zucker has also been a birth activist, doula and childbirth educator. Her awards include the Salt Hill Poetry Award, judged by C.D. Wright, the Barrow Street Poetry Prize, the Center for Book Arts Award, and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and her poetry has appeared everywhere from Fence to American Poetry Review and Pleiades and has been reprinted multiple times in Best American Poetry. Rachel Zucker is also the founder and host of one of my favorite podcasts called Commonplace: Conversations with Poets and Other People where she has interviewed Sharon Olds, Alice Notley, Rita Dove, Bernadette Mayer and many others. Rachel Zucker is here today to talk about her latest book SoundMachine from Wave Books, and its companion immersive audio experience also called SoundMachine. Publisher’s Weekly says in its starred review: Artfully layered . . . these pieces defy genre and interrogate the role of wife, mother, and artist as fixed identities. . . . Zucker renders even the simplest inquiries resonant and profound in this restless and thoughtful book.” The Jewish Book Council adds: When Rachel Zucker quotes the Yiddish saying “Verter zol men vegn un nit tseyln. One should weigh words, not count them,” she captures the essence of SoundMachine’s ambitious project. These extended prose poems and meditations bravely create room for the heretical, confessional, and experimental. SoundMachineembodies critic Rachel Blau DuPlessis’ call for a “radical poetics” that draws on this “Jewish structure of feeling, this Jewish sense of textuality involved with endless writing, multiple commentary and vectors, endless deferral.” Finally Morgan Levine for the Columbia Review says: In her elegiac poem “Rough Waters,” Rachel Zucker asks: “What story is this? / What animal am I?” These two questions and all that they carry – ideas of form, displacement, incongruity, language, and instinct – run throughout SoundMachine, Zucker’s collection of genre-bending poems. Whether speaking about motherhood, grief, or poetry, Zucker’s unrelenting eye and wittily critical voice peel back these experiences to reveal insights that are both deeply human and uncompromisingly analytic. Poetry, for Zucker, is a way of paying attention, an attention that extends beyond the actual facts of life. It’s an attention that mandates discomfort; an attention that admits to finding her sons boring at times or to shopping for sex toys in Anne Carson’s office.”
David Naimon: Welcome to Between the Covers, Rachel Zucker.
Rachel Zucker: Thank you, David.
DN: [laughs] This is like a long-anticipated moment for me. I’ve been waiting to have this conversation with you both because I know we’re both long-term listeners of each other’s shows and supporters of each other’s shows and so there’s just the interest in having that encounter with you. But also, there’s a meta element to it in that sense because we’re both podcasters and listeners to each other podcasting which makes the show appealingly self-conscious. But one of the things that makes this encounter both really ironic and inviting for me is that we both have an ethos of doing interviews in person, we both want or believe that something happens when we’re in the room with the person giving the interview or having the conversation. Because of this, it’s very welcome to me to have my first remote interview with you, to have the inaugural pandemic season of Between the Covers be with you specifically. Before we start talking about SoundMachine, I guess, maybe to ground us in place, can you just tell us where you are and what situation you are found while we’re having this conversation?
RZ: Yes. There really is a lot of anticipation for this. I’m speaking to you from this little room off the side of the second floor of my house in Scarborough, Maine. I’ve owned this house for about three or four years and have been coming to this part of Maine for over ten years, but this is the first time that I’ve been here at this time of year. Normally, I live in New York City when I’m not traveling or over the summer when I’m here and I try to come up a few other times a year either by myself or with my family. There is something so incredibly bizarre and wonderful about this entire setup that feels almost overwhelming like when you were giving the introduction, I almost started to cry for a lot of reasons; one, I have been looking forward to being on Between the Covers for a really, really long time and I think that there’s a certain generosity to Between the Covers and the way that you prepare for talking with your guests. I love listening. I’m sometimes quite jealous of your show or your conversations with guests but I’m always jealous of the guests you have receiving that introduction. I’ve really thought about that for a very long time and wanted to be that person and I wanted to be physically in the studio with you. Have we met in person?
DN: No. That’s one of the sadnesses that we were going to be on a panel together at AWP in San Antonio and I was excited simply to be in the room with you and to meet you for the first time. I’ll point people to the podcast that we’ve now made of that panel on Keep The Channel Open, Mike Sakasegawa’s podcast, that you also have on Commonplace but then you were going to be here in Portland physically at the Lewis & Clark, a Reading Series with Mary Szybist and we were going to meet each other but there’s this irony, and maybe we can pivot here specifically around SoundMachine when you say you teared up listening and I know that in my two Zoom Seders that happened in this last week which I’m thinking like, “Oh, do I really want to do these rituals mediated through technology?” my hesitancy to do a show mediated through all these technological things, but what’s interesting during the Seder was several people did cry and I’ve never been to a Seder where people have cried and some of the people there felt more comfortable with that intermediary, they felt like they could disclose more which is counterintuitive to me. The experience, in some ways, was more revelatory and open and, of course, part of that is probably because we’re all in quarantine also and so we’re starved for connection. Maybe a Zoom Seder on a normal time wouldn’t be like that but one of the things that makes this particularly great to have you as a remote guest is because the book itself is about speaking and recording. Your book opens with these things: it opens with technology, it opens with questions as an artist of what to record, how to record, and the ethics of listening and recording. All of that is very timely. We puzzled through all these things together around how I could set up a studio because you’ve grown into being an audiophile and I hope to move myself from being an audiophob to an audiophile myself.
DN: But let’s start with the title, let’s start with SoundMachine which I think has a million or innumerable different ways you could read it. What are you grasping or reaching towards with that title?
RZ: I think that it’s meant to have multiple slippery evasive meanings but there is a title poem in the book and the title poem has a lot to do with my relationship with my middle son and the experience that I had with both my older sons many times, especially with my middle son in the teenage years of him speaking to me and saying to me over and over again, “You’re not listening,” and that same phrase being levied back and forth between myself and my husband in our very long marriage and what does it mean to really listen to another person. I think that listening, anybody who has a Buddhist practice, or I really would say actually, most religions have some element of a ritual around marking time, being present, either trying to be more in your body or trying to push your body away and be more in your spirit, if it’s a religion in which body and spirit are seen as dichotomous. I think that so much of what SoundMachine wrestles with is, as you say, the voice, the recording, but also the words here and now and how a person, in this case, myself, actually ever is here, actually ever experiences now and I think that’s part of what made me feel like I was going to cry when you said at the end of the introduction, “Now, here is Rachel Zucker,” I was like, “Am I here?” I’m here in Maine and yet I have this connection with you. I can see you, the technology enables us to trick ourselves into being with each other or having the perception that we’re with each other, and then later—and I hope this doesn’t seem too abstract or metaphysical but I really think this is like at the heart of the existential anxiety in the book—later, hopefully, strangers or people who know us will listen to this and have the experience of being with us, have the experience of me and you in a time machine traveling through time to be in a future moment in the present with a listener. I think that that’s something that I find incredibly beautiful and meaningful but also very frightening. I think that there are many moments when I am more literally here and now with someone in the same room or in physical contact with them where I don’t really feel with. I think that the gap between, it’s almost like a jet lag like when you go to another country and you’re there, you’re in a different time zone, and things feel very unreal, where are you? Are you there? Are you in the “here” or is part of your spirit lagged behind or left behind? I think, for a lot of reasons—my history, my religion, my neurochemistry, all of those things—I have a very difficult time proving to myself that I’m here, that I’m now, and that another person is here and now, and this question of witness and the voice for me is a very strong piece of evidence that I go to. I mentioned this detail of mine before but certainly, I think it’s a very formative experience that my mother who was a storyteller, I spent a lot of my childhood watching her rehearse to tell stories, I spent a lot of time sitting in the audience and listening to her tell stories. In both of those experiences, she was and also wasn’t really available to me as my mother but there she was, my mother, in close proximity in the present. My mother had a radio show called Stories from Many Land for about ten years on WNYC and I would often go to the studio with her, sit, and listen to her record live. Then she traveled a tremendous amount, sometimes with my father, sometimes on her own. She would leave with me the reel-to-reels and when she was away, I would listen to her telling stories. Her voice and these stories were both what I had of her presence but they were also proof of her absence. Then, of course, what does it mean to be a writer? Where is the voice in a poem? Is that on the page? Is it in the mind? Is it in the mouth? Is it in the ear? Another level of this which leads into the immersive audio project was I started to feel that these pieces in SoundMachine and some of my pieces before, maybe all of them, I don’t know, lived more in the performance than on the page. But I have a very complicated relationship to performance and the idea of performativity as being in conflict with the real, the authentic. That’s another whole level of like now we’re meta, meta, meta because you and I are performing these roles to podcast hosts but now I’m in the role of guest and you’re in the host but we just weren’t both guests and we’ve listened to each other and we’re going to talk about poetry and where is the location of the greatest authenticity of both the voice, the form, the content of the poems which are true, real, and confessional. But what does that even mean? Then the last thing I’ll say for now about the title is I think I’m, like many people, somewhat confused about whether human beings are animals, machines, biological machines, or spirits. I think the idea of a SoundMachine was this moment of thinking about there’s a long piece in SoundMachine called In the End and that used to be the last piece in the book in an earlier version of the manuscript. The last line of that piece is “I was made to make a sound.” I’m playing both with I was made to, as in “forced to” but also created to, as if making a sound is at the heart of my reason for being in the world. But does that make me a good person? Does it just make me a sound machine? What are all of the ways in which we use actual sound machines, not human beings to distract ourselves, avoid hearing or saying certain things, or come closer, be more engaged with other human beings, nature, our families, and other people?
DN: When you mentioned the question of machine, I definitely feel like you’re pointing towards a sound made by a human versus the sound of a bird or the sound of a volcano that has something to do with the production of language or, at least, of human sound. But what’s interesting to me when you had Wayne Koestenbaum on to talk about SoundMachine and you two were parsing the various possible meanings of the title and one of them that he came up that you hadn’t thought of was “Is the machine sound? Is the machine healthy?” but also there’s the sounding the depths. But the one thing that you didn’t bring up is the level at which it’s most obviously introduced in the book which is the SoundMachine, literally, of masking the sound of your husband snoring, a sound you can’t stand. That, on the most basic level, seems to be the way we first encounter this question of a SoundMachine, but on a bigger level, it raises the question of “Can we listen when we’re making a sound? Are we listening when we’re making a sound? Is there a violence in creating sound? What is the ethics of creating it? How much space am I taking up? At whose expense? Is there erasure? Does that sound right to you that that’s one of the inquiries of SoundMachine? Is this very notion of the creation of sound and the possible damage that it could do?
RZ: Absolutely. I mentioned to you before that I was writing the pieces that would become the book SoundMachine at the same time that I was working on this book of lectures which have become essays which are very explicitly about the ethics of representing real people in art, the legacy of confessional poetry, which is also an ethical consideration and ethical question. A lot of questions of like “Who am I to make a sound? Who am I to tell anyone what I think about poetry? Who am I to tell anyone what they should think about poetry? When I was writing those lectures, I had decided I was done writing poetry, I was never going to write another poem, and so these pieces which kind of are poems, lyric essays, prose, and memoir were sometimes procrastination. Also, I was trying to develop a set of ethical guidelines or rules for myself about what I could or couldn’t say or what I should or shouldn’t say and then I would go ahead and break all of those and write these pieces in which I did name people and I did write about my students and breaking each one of these rules. There’s one other important thing that actually didn’t come to my consciousness until the book was released and I always think that’s really interesting that there are things I learn about my own process or my own books long after I’m done with them. It has to do with simultaneity. On a literal level, the SoundMachine, as you say, is a white noise machine to block out the sound of my husband snoring. Also, in that first piece in the book, there’s a baby monitor where we’re listening to the sounds to hear when my youngest would wake up or if he was crying and then in his room, there also was a white noise machine at that time to block out the sounds of his brothers who had a very hard time staying quiet while he was taking a nap. There were these multiple levels of sound that were going on. I think that I have real discomfort with editing out the multiplicity of sound or experience or who’s there in the room, and I think that I came into poetry with a sense that poetry should be concise, it should be the best words in the best order, and it was a real model of chiseling away at the stone to reveal the true form. The poets that I love like Bernadette Mayer, Alice Notley, just to have two examples, are poets that are so messy in certain ways and also inclusive. I think I was looking for a way to create a poetry that was readable but that included my thoughts, the sound of my own thoughts, what I was hearing in the rooms, the actual rooms of my life in terms of the people who are speaking, my doubts, my worries, the buses outside, I think New York is in these pieces in terms of the population density, it’s never quiet there. You just learn to filter out an incredible number of sounds and to focus on one thing. But there’s some way in which I think the act of focusing on one thing feels incredibly violent to me and I was looking for a way to include all this stuff that’s not really supposed to be in poetry.
DN: I’m not sure if you may have already answered this but when we open the book and we see the dedication which is “For you, that unspecified you, for you, thank you for listening,” and then later in the book, you write a variety of things on the board for your students to consider and one of them is “Who are you writing for?” I know the “For you, thank you for listening” both seems like you’re talking to your readership and to your listenership at the same time as a podcast host and as a poet, but “Who are you writing for?” is that even a question you ask yourself as a writer when you’re writing? Is there a real or an imagined audience when you’re writing?
RZ: It’s definitely a question I ask myself. It’s not a question I know exactly how to answer like I feel all the questions in my life [laughs] but I think that, again, a lot of my ideas about my own poems and about poetry come out of disagreeing with either my understanding or my misunderstanding of what my teachers and their teachers valued as true poetry or good poetry. One of them was that you shouldn’t write for an audience, that to do so was a pandering, a manipulation, or almost close to advertising, and that true poetry was timeless and not for anyone; or if it was, it was for Helen of Troy or something like some muse or some model but not a real person. I think that there’s something in all of these declarations about what poetry should be that is bound up in the history of whiteness, white supremacy, and a real oppressive power structures. If you just think about the difference between acting and storytelling, or mostly the difference between white churches and black churches, or the difference between storytelling traditions in indigenous cultures, there is participation, there’s an awareness of the audience as present that I think is very different from, let’s say, classical music from a European background in which the classical musicians don’t acknowledge the audience except in the very beginning and at the end. All of those things, theoretically, are very important to me in saying that I really do think about my audience, but then that there’s something much more personal about the ways in which about the audience and in the long piece called It Has Come to My Attention, there’s a moment where I’m talking to my son and I’m talking to him and he is the he but he’s also the you in the poem at that moment. I’m switching back and forth between first-person and third-person. I stride to refer to him in third person and there’s something so terrifying to me about doing that in that moment. I need for him to be the you in that poem in that moment in order to, in my mind, keep him safe, keep him alive, keep him real, keep my maternal attention focused solely on him, and also at that moment, I try to explain to him that over the course of my whole writing career, people have suggested in one way or another like, “Well, just write it for yourself and put it in the drawer and look at it later, or write something that you know you’re never going to publish and you’re never going to show anyone.” I’ve always really bridled at that and at that moment in the poem, I’m really considering whether my life depends upon knowing that I will show my writing to an audience or the idea that there is an audience, that somebody is listening to me. I think if you want to talk to my therapist about this, this comes from an early lack of feeling seen, heard, or acknowledged from my mother in particular, and to some extent, my father. But I think that whatever it is, in my own history or my own temperament, the idea of writing for an audience, and sometimes, it is a very specific person, the “you” is a very specific person but in this case, it is, in different pieces, a very specific person and also a general you and it’s not general, that’s not the right word, a specific unknown you. Again, this is part of what made me so emotional hearing your introduction because the idea that you, who I’ve never met before have read my work so carefully and so deeply, in some ways, is I think for me anyway, an act of intimacy and an act of love that is, in certain ways, deeper than the daily intimacy, proximity, and love of a long marriage or of a child and parent. I think that that’s what I was trying to reach for, this idea that whoever is looking at this book at this moment, someone I don’t know maybe, that person is actually incredibly precious to me.
DN: I love that, thank you. I want to take what a lot of what we’ve been saying, this question of being present, the here and the now and then allowing for other voices which may or may not be related to being present and take us into that opening of you as a mother in the Dark Room at the beginning of SoundMachine with a child who needs reassurance and you struggling to be present or struggling against the desire for escape or to be distracted by something else; and later in the book, as you referenced the actual poem SoundMachine where your son accuses you of not listening or, at least, not listening in a way where he feels meaningfully heard. Recording scenes like this that don’t feel like they’re new to your work, they feel like a through-line for me from book to book and there’s an issue of taboo also in this like the way you would say “my introduction might have an intimacy that’s more than a long-term marriage,” I’m sure there are people who are pausing at that and going, “Oh, my God,” and similarly that you would choose to portray the scene of you really wanting to leave the room at the very moment your child would last want you to leave the room is part of that. But it feels like what I would like to do in this conversation is unpack your poetics which you’ve both called the poetics of motherhood and a Poetics of Wrongness, both of which we see here but I want to start with the poetics of motherhood which I feel like you’ve already talked about but not calling it that yet. At one point in this first piece, Song of the Dark Room, you phone a poet who has four children but also has eight novels, two books of poetry, and a full-time job. You ask her how to be present to making art when also being a mother. It made me think of my conversation with Jenny Offill who created this term art monster that has entered the lexicon and when we had our discussion, she talks about how she’s watching the movie Rivers and Tides with Andy Goldsworthy and he’s in front of the camera and he’s delivering this super captivating monologue about his process in his poetics. Meanwhile, his wife and child are milling around in the background unacknowledged and silent. She took away from that, with admiration, his ability to be impervious, to be hermetically sealed within one’s own passions and thought processes and that this was often something that was afforded quite a bit more often to men and that her characters which are mothers are more porous and that her language and the way she portrays thought is also more porous. I wondered if this porousness is somehow something related to the poetics of motherhood for you because we open with you willingly or unwillingly in a moment where you’re being pulled in multiple directions and instead of you choosing to craft the moment to foreground one of those, you show us all of those.
RZ: Yes. [laughs] I could respond to this for the rest of my life. I want to say one of the problems that I have in trying to talk about the poetics of motherhood as I conceptualize it is I don’t want to essentialize gender, I don’t want to essentialize motherhood. I don’t believe that I’m talking only about an experience that women have. I don’t believe that I’m talking about experience that only biological mothers have. Not all mothers have this and some fathers have this and some parents have this and some people who have never been parents are incredibly porous, incredibly permeable. Poets are so sensitive and part of what that means is about being vulnerable, being open, being heard easily by other people, being distracted. There are poets who have razor focus and are very clueless about social cues. That is also true but I think that the reason to call what I’m describing a poetics of motherhood is that I do believe that there are certain experiences for most parents and really especially for most mothers that cause a crisis of self in which the self becomes fragmented, in which the boundaries become somewhat indistinguishable. Again, there are other kinds of crises that can lead to the same experience on a physical and spiritual level like extreme illness or grief, abandonment, there are all kinds of things. You certainly don’t have to be a mother to be in the position of caretaking, of having a radical responsibility for someone else. I guess what I’m saying is I don’t know how to have a radical responsibility for another to be in the role of caretaker and not have your poetics and your mind radically changed by that. I think of Tillie Olsen and Toi Derricotte and as opposed in a way, in some ways—and this might get me in trouble—to Virginia Woolf who wanted a room of her own. Motherhood really precludes, in certain ways, a room of your own, it doesn’t mean you can’t find one, it doesn’t mean you can’t go in there for a certain period of time, but in my experience as a mother, and I don’t know if I would have been this way if I had not had children, there is no room of my own. Even if I’m in a room in a faraway city, nobody is bothering me, it’s never true that no one knows where I am but imagine that sci-fi world in which I went away and no one knew where I was for a period of time, my kids are still in the room with me. I’m still worried about them, I’m still distractible, I’m still interrupted. I will say that I do think that our technology makes us all mothers in some ways because we are so interruptible and I think that that’s very problematic and very humanizing in certain ways. I think this experience of a pandemic also makes us all mothers in the way that I’m trying to describe—I’m losing the thread of my own response, you were asking me about the poetics of motherhood, where am I going, David? Help me. [laughs]
DN: What you just said made me think of your conversation at The Adroit Journal where Donna Vorreyer suggested this term crafted stream-of-consciousness to describe your work and also Allen Ginsberg. I think you have a connection with Allen Ginsberg, that you like Allen Ginsberg’s poetry and you share this maximalist tendency and verbosity. You didn’t reject crafted stream-of-consciousness but you wanted to push against this shared notion with him in a way that, at least, in this case, perhaps had to do with gender in contemporary America in the sense that you felt like his work could be prophetic and monumental and, in a way, it feels like for it to achieve that, perhaps that is a work that is more impervious to other things. It’s not interrupted and it isn’t foregrounding interruption, it’s foregrounding this delivery in a way. I don’t know if I’m saying that right but I’m curious if that sparks anything for you when you look at the ways you and Allen Ginsberg overlap and diverge.
RZ: Yeah. Absolutely. I love Allen Ginsberg so much and I love the disobedience that he has in his work that I also associate very much with Alice Notley but very differently. But yes, absolutely, his work is very monumental. There’s also some not-that-hidden misogyny in his work. I can’t help but think that part of why his work and my work are so different even though they feel very connected in some ways is that he never had children, this is not to say that he never cared for anyone or deeply loved anyone, but he was able to take drugs and follow his bliss or follow his visions and I really can’t very much. I also think that there’s something important to say which is that my own experience of motherhood is very much through the filter of heterosexuality. I think that queer motherhood is importantly different from heterosexual motherhood because there’s always this other person in my experience and also a monogamous two-person rather than polyamorous relationship. I think all these things matter and inform what I’m trying to describe. Then, of course, the actual temperament and personality of my particular husband who is a feminist, who is very supportive, who is very open, who is very liberal, who had an enormous amount of day-to-day contact with our kids and care of our kids, and to some extent, it’s been an egalitarian marriage, but in other ways, it absolutely has not. He is a teacher, he goes to school, he compartmentalizes whether that’s because of his gender or because of his temperament, I can’t fully say. But what I know is that there is some part of me that always knows where my kids are, is always thinking about them. It’s not just my kids, I think that being a mother has led me to vulnerability, permeability, porousness, susceptibility, and openness that maybe I had before, I don’t know, but I certainly have it now and I feel that way about my friends, my loved ones, and about stories that I hear of strangers very far away who are suffering, and there’s nothing I can do for them but they are still present for me. I do not feel able to shut the world out the way I see that he can shut the world out, even our own children, even me for sure, he’s quite good at shutting me out and so I think that’s part of what I’m talking about. Allen Ginsberg is having these ecstatic experiences and these visions and he’s getting in touch with his body but I feel so attracted to that and I feel that there’s something in me that speaks too but I also feel so contained by my domestic responsibilities, I mean, I’m always in the fucking apartment. Do I ever go outside in the poems? Hardly ever.
DN: Let’s hear a poem. I was hoping we could hear There Are Two Magics.
RZ: Great. Oh, I am briefly outside in that one.
DN: Are you really?
RZ: I think so. I think it starts outside.
[Rachel Zucker reads a poem called There Are Two Magics]
DN: We’re talking today to Rachael Zucker about her latest poetry collection from Wave Books, SoundMachine. I wanted to circle back briefly to the opening scenes of SoundMachine in the Dark Room and then later, your son who says you weren’t listening, and then to bring in your mother again that you’ve already referenced because, in a way, she’s more of a sound machine than the sound machines that are in the rest of the book. You reference this that we also learn in your memoir Mothers that she was literally on the radio and when you went there, obviously, if you’re going to be in the studio, you needed to be quiet. She was a sound machine that was erasing her daughter in those moments. Also, as you mentioned, when she’d go out on tour, she’d give you these reel-to-reel tapes of her radio show and you say in Mothers, “I’m listening, really, to the sound of her absence. Her voice is the sound of her absence.” You wrote about your fraught relationship with your mother while she was alive and I feel like what happens because of this is one of the principal ways your poetics of motherhood and your Poetics of Wrongness meet. Before we proceed, I’m hoping you could talk a little bit about your mother in relationship to the publication of your memoir Mothers and her desire for it not to be published because I feel like from there, we can go into some of the questions you raised in The Poetics of Wrongness which is your upcoming lecture series which you graciously allowed me to read in preparation for today also.
RZ: Yeah. How to tell the shortest version of this? I started writing Mothers—or what would become Mothers—because I was invited to a poetry reading to give a poetry reading and speak about a mentor. I had written a book I had co-edited with Arielle Greenberg, this book about mentorship in which we did not include our own essays but it was women born in the 1960s and 70s writing about a living woman poet who had, in some ways, mentored or influenced them, the idea being that my generation of women poets had teachers and mentors who were women but that generations before us, they really didn’t. We wanted to record and investigate female mentorship. I started to write this essay and I was trying to think like, “Well, who would I write about? Who is my female mentor?” and I thought about Alice Notley, Sharon Olds, Brenda Hillman, and Adrienne Rich—I’m forgetting some very important people—I even thought about Wayne Koestenbaum as a mother, I thought about James Schuyler as a mother, David Trinidad as a mother. I started writing and it just became this longer and longer prose piece, and I’d not really published a book of prose before that or written one, I actually had written a book of prose that had never been published and still hasn’t been. I was writing this and I was including a lot of quotes from different female poets who were very important to me and it became about motherhood, about mentorship, but also very specifically, why I felt I had spent my whole life looking for a mother when my mother was alive and what was that in our relationship that I didn’t feel like I’ve gotten what I needed, why was that? Was it because of my mother? Was it because of me? Was it because she was an artist and she chose being a storyteller and being a writer over being a mother? When I was growing up, I really had this fantasy that I was going to have four sons, that I was going to not work, that I was going to stay home, cook, and do all the things my mother didn’t do, I was going to be the opposite of my mother in every single way. That was really how I defined my own identity. Of course, when I became a mother, that is not what I did. I kept writing, I kept working, and I kept teaching. I certainly was home a lot. I certainly have been an extremely hands-on mother and a very, very, very different mother from the way I feel my mother was with me. But I started to recognize a whole lot of feelings that gave me insight into what my mother may have felt. I think the primary wound that I felt as a child was the feeling that my mother didn’t really want to be there, that her mind was elsewhere, that her imagination was elsewhere, and that certainly was something I experienced as a mother where I would physically be there with my kids but there were many times where I felt I was not as present as I imagined I would be or as I wanted to be, or even being pregnant, which I had looked forward to so much and idealized, I just felt sick all the time, it was not what I thought. As you said earlier, having a baby is so boring, hard, and exhausting sometimes and children are awful. My children are awful sometimes, like really awful. If anyone treated me the way my children treated me, I would go to a shelter or something.
RZ: I wrote this book and I didn’t even know it was a book and I just kept writing and writing and writing it and the other piece of it that’s really important is that I had been telling my students for years “write about the thing you’re most afraid to write.” I had thought like, “Oh, well, I’ve written about how boring children are, about my marriage, and sex so I’ve really been doing this,” but I knew, I was like, “You know what, the thing that I’m most afraid to write about is my mother.” I’d also experienced two deaths of women who were very important to me who had been like mother figures to me, Peggy Sradnick and Elana Stein, one who was the head of the daycare center my children went to and really taught me a lot about mothering, and my doula instructor Elana Stein who also taught me a lot about care and support. Both of them had died and so part of the book is about why have I been looking for a mother my whole life? What kind of mother have I become surprisingly? Can I forgive myself for this kind of mother that I am? Why do I feel so separate from my mother and angry with her and abandoned by her when she didn’t abuse me and she didn’t abandon me and I really think she did the best she could? In any case, I was writing this and I eventually ended up having a publisher for it, Julie Carr at Counterpath. When I realized that the book was going to be published, I’ve been thinking about this the whole time and talking about this in therapy non-stop like, “Oh, my God, what’s going to happen when my mother sees this book? What’s going to happen? What’s going to happen?” I finally let her read it when I was in Paris teaching for a few weeks a few years ago in the summer of 2012. She initially was very supportive of the fact that I was writing and writing even about motherhood but very quickly, she became very, very, very upset, she did not want me to publish the book. She felt that the book was inaccurate, poorly written, that I shouldn’t reveal what I was revealing about myself and that I definitely should not expose her in the way that the book did. I agreed to a series of weekly meetings where we went over her concerns about the book from September, October, November in my apartment in New York. They were some of the really most devastating conversations that I had with her. Meanwhile, I was reaching out to other writers that I really respected who had written memoirs—Nick Flynn, Meghan O’Rourke, Sharon Olds—to ask them like, “How did you know it was okay to write these things?” Darin Strauss was someone I spoke to as well, “What were the risks? What were you most afraid of? Did it come true?” Then my mother went to Taiwan where she was working on Monkey King, she was working on translating and retelling Journey to the West and I went and I interviewed Sharon Olds—this was before I had Commonplace and you might think of it as a proto interview for Commonplace—but I went to interview her about Stag’s Leap. In preparation for this interview, I reread every single one of her books very carefully. I just also was filled with what I suddenly saw as these cautionary tales in her work that she had written with a lot of openness about her family in ways that were deeply inspiring and important to me and to many other people. But it seemed like she was saying in Stag’s Leap to some extent, “Yeah, my husband didn’t really like it and this was part of what led to our break up.” I was thinking about all those things, I went to interview her. I basically did a terrible interview, I basically just said, “Should I publish this book?” and Sharon would not tell me the answer to that. I came home and a few days later, I sent my mother an email that said, “I am going to publish this book.” She had said to me, “If you publish this book, terrible things will happen to you, to me, and to your children.” I said in the email, “I don’t think that’s going to happen. I’m willing to make the changes that you want me to make. If I don’t publish this, I’m never going to be able to publish anything else. This really is my story to tell. I don’t think I’m being cruel and I think we’re going to get through this.” She got my email and sent the email to several of her friends and her assistant and basically said like, “Rachel is breaking my heart. I can’t believe she’s the kind of person who would do this. I’m so upset.” Then not long after, within hours, she started to have chest pain and called the equivalent of 911, was taken to the hospital, and had an aortic dissection which is a tear in the aorta and was prepped for open-heart surgery, a valve replacement. Her aorta ruptured as she was going into this surgery. On the way to the hospital, she called her therapist and told her therapist to call her brother and tell him what was happening and told the therapist to call me and tell me not to publish the book. Those were effectively her last words to me and she did not live. She lived through the surgery but she never regained consciousness. I had already had many experiences in my life in which I was unsure about the ethics of saying certain things in poems or in writing revealing personal information, naming people. Some people didn’t like it but boy, this was a whole other level of trauma, it really was trauma and I did feel for a long time that I had killed her and that writing in this confessional way could kill someone.
DN: Understandably, it’s unbelievably horrifying and it’s the worst fear that anyone would have about writing where it affects another person the way they’re being portrayed. I want to take that experience and look at the Poetics of Wrongness. You did publish Mothers and you end it with a letter that she wrote you about her concerns about the book and in your upcoming collection of lectures. You go about setting up rules that you mentioned earlier and then you list out these rules but then you say that when you start writing again, you quickly find yourself breaking the rules. Similarly, in SoundMachine, you have this incredible long poem called Confessional where you omit the names of the people being referred to in the poem. Instead of the names of the people, you have these underscored blanks in their place. But when we get to the end of the poem, at the very end, you give us many of these names in a last moment of needing to, it feels like. In a way, you’re reenacting this impulse and this trauma and I guess I wanted you to talk to us about the Poetics of Wrongness in the light of all of this but also more specifically about your relationship to rules and what responsibility you feel you have or don’t have when you’re making your poems because you’re obviously grappling with these questions and then there are these fundamental areas, it feels like, where you’re, I wouldn’t say you’re not willing to compromise but it feels like to compromise might call into question the very act of art-making. Talk to us about the rules and then the rule-breaking post Mothers and post this “if it was in a novel would be unbelievable true thing that happened to you around your mother”.
RZ: I think the only way I can talk about it post Mothers is to talk about it pre Mothers first just for a few minutes. I grew up in the West Village but I went to yeshiva from first grade to eighth grade, a very religious Jewish school called Ramaz and where I was just really wrong in every way. I didn’t live in the right place, my parents were much less religious than anyone around me, my mother worked, then my parents got divorced. I was literally the only kid in my class at that time with divorced parents and a mother who worked. Also, my mother would not submit to rules in a way that I very much admire, and even at the time really, she just was not ever a mainstream person, just dressed how she wanted to dress and said what she wanted to say. I was really an outcast in school and very lonely. I didn’t have any friends. I was a smart kid but who did not learn Hebrew and half the day was in Hebrew, and like I said, we weren’t observant at home. I was always breaking the rules, getting in trouble, feeling wrong, and feeling stupid. I had terrible handwriting. It was very hard for me to learn to read. I couldn’t spell—I still am a terrible speller. I was told that I was a bad writer because that’s what writing was, spelling and handwriting. When I got to fifth grade, I had this fantastic teacher who had us do poems for the first time, my English teacher, Larry Sandomir. He told us—and I have come to realize this is not the full truth—that no one can tell you that your poem is bad or wrong because it’s poetry so it’s subjective. So I really came to poetry as the place where no one could tell me that I was wrong, and not only that, where poetry was about breaking the rules, about breaking the margins of the page, about you want to spell something the way you want to spell it, go for it, that just makes it a better poem. It doesn’t make any sense, awesome, this must be a great poem. Of course, I now feel like poetry, in some ways, has many, many, many more rules than prose and other kinds of writing, but I think for a long time, I really associated poetry with breaking the rules with activism, with anti-authoritarianism, with not being controlled, with being able to just decide what’s poetry and what’s not poetry, no one else can do that. Allen Ginsberg was a hero of mine, Adrienne Rich was a hero of mine, poetry was the language of protest, it was the language of wrongness in the sense of, again, disobedience and not normalness, not mainstreamness. When I wrote the title piece, the title essay or lecture the Poetics of Wrongness, what had happened at that moment, I had agreed to write these lectures but I hadn’t written them yet and then my mother died and I was like, “Oh, my God, I’m never writing anything because I’ve lost my right to write poems because I killed someone and I’m not going to write anything personal ever, ever, ever again. It’s too dangerous. It’s too selfish. It’s off the table.” But I had been paid to write these lectures and I really wanted to write these lectures. I started writing these lectures and I wrote a whole lecture about the history of photography because I had studied as a photographer in addition to psychology as an undergraduate at Yale and I was very interested in the way that I’d been influenced by photography and photographers more than poets and by literature. Then I wrote a whole essay, a lecture about the history of confessional poetry, Sexton and Plath primarily, and also Robert Lowell. I was like, “Ah, look at this, I have written these lectures as I have been paid to do.”
RZ: Then I realized, “Oh, my God, both of these lectures are clearly a justification to my mother.” It’s not explicit but if they clearly are like, “Look, mom, here were these confessional poets who wrote in this style and we don’t think of them as horrible people although we kind of do,” we definitely think of Sexton and Plath as terrible mothers and Lowell was a terrible father and a terrible husband, but we don’t think of their poems as terrible, we think of them as liberating, we think of them as revealing the truth of humanity and the complexity. And look at this history of photography, these are, if you want to look at street photography or if you want to think about Sally Mann’s photography, she is a really important photographer to me who took photographs of her children, sometimes naked, and got into a lot of trouble for doing that. But to me, this was like the most intimate moving art. Clearly, I was saying, “Look, I’m not the first person to invent writing about somebody. This is what art is.” Then I thought, “Okay, look, I’m going to keep writing the same lecture over and over and over again unless I write it.” So I wrote a third lecture that was literally about everything I’d ever written that had hurt anyone. I gave all three lectures to the series editor. He read all of them and I had a writing retreat scheduled that I was just going to revise based on his feedback and then I was so thrilled, I was supposed to write three lectures, I wrote three lectures, fantastic. He said, “These are not lectures. One of them is too informational, one of them is too long, one of them is too personal. It’s just not a lecture at all. You know what, you’ve done a lot of thinking and I’m really interested in your thoughts but I think you should start over. Don’t cut and paste, don’t try to save these, just start over.” This was a devastating revelation to me that instead of three almost finished lectures, I had nothing. It was a very hard time for me personally, my kids were struggling, there was a lot going on, I had set time aside. I started to write what became called the Poetics of Wrongness. It was originally called FU and then the name of the editor.
DN: [laughs] That’s a great title, yeah.
RZ: It had a colon, “every goddamn thing I know about poetry.” It was called that and it basically was started in my old style of anti-authoritarian teenaged angst of like, “You want to tell me that these lectures are wrong? Well, you know what, the only thing I know about poetry is that it has to do with wrongness, and that’s what poets are, that’s what poets do. They engage with wrongness, that’s what the form is doing. It’s really a misunderstanding, in my opinion, of everything that poetry is about to make it right, to make it perfect, to make it beautiful, to make it good, to make it all these things, that really it’s in the brokenness, in the deformity, in the difference, and in the failure that poetry really lives and that I understand both myself and poetry. But even though I believe very strongly in the Poetics of Wrongness as a manifesto, I also was stuck with all this other truth which was “Do I think it’s okay to kill people? No, I do not. Is it okay to be wrong in certain ways? No, it is not. Am I okay with hurting my children? No.” Then the rest of the book, I have to go back and figure out for myself like, “What are the limits? What are the limits to wrongness or what are the consequences of wrongness that I am not willing to abide even if it makes you a great artist?”
DN: Can I ask you about that?
DN: Because you do look at these other poets who use their personal lives as part of their poetry and you have different responses to them. I’m thinking of Sharon Olds and Robert Lowell specifically who both are taboo breakers and both are folding in their personal lives in ways that maybe you would feel some resonance with or not. But you find Olds’ approach more liberating in something off about the way Lowell is going about it which suggests that investigation maybe is partly you figuring out “where are your limits and why do I have this response?” I was wondering if maybe you could talk about both of those poets from your own perspective and your own thoughts. Is it a question of gender? Is it a question of the poetics of motherhood? Or does it dwell on the specifics of the very taboos that each of them do or the very trusts that each of them may or may not have violated?
RZ: Okay. That’s a super complex question and complicated for me also because I know Sharon Olds and I feel like I have a really good sense of her personal generosity. Of course, I don’t know what it’s like to be her child although I actually did go to high school and college with one of her children so that’s also a strange thing to have seen her from the distance in the role of mother and to have a little bit of insight into her as a mother. Lowell is a kind of an easy target for me and I think that that’s both fair and unfair for me. It’s interesting, none of this made it into the book but I read a lot of Snodgrass who I think is a very under-read poet. His long poem, I believe it’s called Heart’s Needle, there’s a lot of debate about where confessional poetry started or what really makes something confessional. Lowell was the first one who was called a confessional poet with that phraseology from M. L. Rosenthal, but Heart’s Needle by Snodgrass came out before Life Studies by Lowell. A lot of what Heart’s Needle is about is he got divorced from his wife and, because of that, was separated from his child who he would see sometimes and not at other times. I find those poems to be both deeply confessional and very radical. That’s a very interesting early example of a man writing about the intense heartbreak of being separated from his child and hardly anyone reads Snodgrass anymore. When Lowell says, “I am frizzled, stale, and small,” when he admits to or describes the ways in which he has been emasculated, the way in which he’s psychologically broken, that is a radical act and that is deeply vulnerable and deeply exposing of himself and when he writes about others. But I do sense a lot of cruelty and a lot of thoughtlessness in the way that he writes, particularly about his wives. I think that I’m not the only one. His friends, Elizabeth Bishop and Adrienne Rich, especially Bishop, was very upset about the way Lowell wrote about other people. I think gender is a small part of it. I also think that we can’t overlook, I don’t want to make it all about this, but Lowell’s mental illness and the way in which, specifically bipolar disorder, shaped his experience and his relationships with other people is quite different from Sharon Olds’ experience of having been neurotypical, at least, to the extent that she was not diagnosed with mental illness the way Lowell was in an intact family for her kids’ entire childhood, very, very, very present with her children. There’s also this question coming back to whether your poetry or writing or being an artist makes you more present or less present. I feel in Sharon’s poems, and I think the same is true for me, that her poet mind allowed her to pay more attention to her children and to be, in certain ways, more present even if she was writing a poem in her mind from time to time, even if she, at certain times, went into another room, or while they were napping, wrote things down. Yeah, okay, she had another life but she had a self that was not entirely involved in being a mother. Sexton and Robert Lowell, when they write about their children, they are often writing about their absences from their children, they’re often writing about acknowledging that they were really not able to be good parents and, in fact, were, in Anne Sexton’s case, a pretty terrible mother and she’s trying to work through that in her poems. Sharon Olds is talking about how painful, difficult, and impossible it is to be a perfect mother but she’s not trying to either justify or vilify herself for very serious wrongdoing towards her children.
DN: Yeah. I want to read this quote by Adrienne Rich that you quote in Poetics of Wrongness about Robert Lowell just because it’s such a great quote, “What does one say about a poet who, having left his wife and daughter for another marriage, then titles a book with their names, and goes on to appropriate his ex-wife’s letters written under the stress and pain of desertion, into a book of poems nominally addressed to the new wife? I think this bullshit eloquence a poor excuse for a cruel and shallow book.” I felt like I really love this section of the lectures as you find your own limits through others and then also when you’re parsing things like Sharon Olds’ Spectrum of Loyalty and Betrayal which you both find appealing and not entirely working for you specifically at the same time. You unpack her spectrum of loyalty and betrayal and ask questions about it for her own way of solving this issue. But instead of talking about that specifically, I was hoping maybe we could hear the excerpt of a Sharon Olds poem that you include in the Poetics of Wrongness called Satan Says and then follow that with a poem of yours Five Months Later I Finally Have Something to Say.
[Rachel Zucker reads an excerpt from Sharon Olds’ Satan Says]
[Rachel Zucker reads a poem called Five Months Later I Finally Have Something to Say]
RZ: Okay. [laughs]
RZ: Yeah. I was going to say something that you reminded me of when you asked me to talk about Lowell and Sharon Olds which comes up in both of these poems. I cannot, in any way, speak for Sharon Olds but I do think that one of the things that I questioned in myself in SoundMachine is whether I feel that because I am a good person, by which, I mean I have not left my husband, I have not abandoned my children, I show up for things on time, I’m very responsible, I haven’t broken any laws, by those measures, not just superficially, but I’m a good person, does that give me permission to be bad in poems, to say whatever I want, to do in poems whatever I want to do? I think that also there are several pieces around that including a question I asked myself in SoundMachine about whether I can only write a poem when I have something mean or bad to say to or about someone else, whether it’s become a fetish. I don’t know the answer to that but I start considering that. Many poets have thought like can they write when they’re happy or can they only write when they’re miserable. Then there’s another whole aspect of this that I think does have to do with being Jewish and has to do with something I’ve talked about before, but this question of—and I do feel that this was a real misunderstanding—that confessional poetry was a real misnomer in the sense that I don’t belong to a religion and wasn’t brought up in a religion in which one had to confess one’s sins or that saying something was a sin. You could have bad thoughts, I can have bad thoughts and I can say them out loud and maybe I can write them in a book. If they’re true, it’s not libel. I think that that’s a confusing thing to me because I think that when we use Lowell, Sexton, and Plath as examples, they did bad things too in real life to real people. I’m not saying I’ve never done anything wrong in my life in real life to other people but I try very hard, I have a very, very high expectation for myself about all kinds of citizenship and family and responsibility and I always move out of the way if someone’s walking towards me on the street, it’s even to that level. I think about it constantly and I’m quite anxious about “Am I hurting this person? Am I listening well enough? Am I doing this? Am I doing that?” I think that that’s also part of, for me, not a question I’ve answered but the difference between how I see Lowell and how I see Olds. One more thing, I’m sorry, but I think that there are taboos around things we’re not to say that are deeply oppressive, so breaking those taboos feels incredibly important and breaking them on the page and breaking them in language seems radically important but I had thought, before this experience with my mother, not harmful in the same way that other incredibly important acts of disobedience. Take for example John Brown, yes, John Brown, I think I had in my mind that you’re allowed to do anything with language and then when my mother died, I think I really questioned that and I’m not sure about the answer now. My whole binary between a good person and a real-life bad person on the page, and I’m not even really a bad person on the page—I just spend all my time talking about how I’m not a bad person in real life which is potentially very annoying.
DN: It seems like one of the areas where you come to maybe provisional realization is that you don’t want to punch down.
DN: In this regard, the one area that you’re looking at more with your own writing is the limitations around how you portray your children which wouldn’t be the same considerations about portraying your husband or portraying your mother. But I wanted to follow up on this question around the value to the community of breaking taboos on the page. The ways in which breaking taboos on the page might have an effect out in the world that is good even if it’s creating discomfort or shock. Because you say this in the Poetics of Wrongness, “Even though I believe that narcissism is often an accusation used to try to control women, I am no longer interested in writing that is only about the self. I have never been very interested in writing that attempts to exist without self to write with no self is irresponsible, to write with only self is irrelevant.” On a similar note, one of your five requirements for an ethical “say anything poetry” is that it has a purpose, that it ensures the well-being of the community and its inhabitants to prevent or overthrow tyranny and oppression. I was hoping maybe we could talk about that, you do trouble this question of confessional, try to move from outside of the label of confessional for many different reasons and you come up across this term that Foucault discusses parrhesia which captures this idea of the responsibility to community. I was hoping maybe you could talk to us a little bit about parrhesia and how that might link into what would otherwise be a poetics that has a lot of yourself in it but not with the self as the end of what you’re doing.
RZ: Yeah. I would like to say about Foucault that it was one of the great surprises of my life that I would ever write about Foucault. [laughter] And that’s all I’d like to say about Foucault. I’m having a moment where I am about to say something I shouldn’t say which is really very hard for me to not say it but I don’t have to say everything at all times. [laughs]
DN: Do you want to say it and then we can decide later whether to cut it?
RZ: Yeah. I guess so because it doesn’t matter, it’s so gossipy and irrelevant that’s why it’s totally not that important. But the thing I don’t want to say is who this person is. But what I will say is that when I was writing that lecture, I spoke to a philosophy professor who teaches ethics and he was the one who said, “Wait, there’s someone before you who has gone through this rather carefully, and that person is Foucault,” and I was like, “No!”
RZ: “I’ve spent my whole life avoiding reading Foucault! I don’t have a Ph.D. for it so I don’t have to read Foucault.” He was like, “No, no, no, you have to read this piece because it’s really so much what you’re talking about.” So I did and it was brilliant and incredibly helpful. The philosophy professor is the same guy who’s in the poem After the New Couples Therapist and that’s what I was like, “Why do I have to tell David that?”
RZ: Anyway, an old lover. Let’s use the Sharon Olds Satan Says poem as an example of this. She’s locked in this box, she’s locked in the box of femininity, she’s locked in the box of being a child, and she’s locked in this music box with this ballerina and Satan says, “I’ll let you out, all you have to do is say what happened and say these terrible things about your parents.” There are people who are not as adoring of Sharon Olds as I am, it’s true, they exist, and yet I will say that over the course of my teaching career, I’ve met a great number of people—either because they’ve come into personal contact with her or more often just with her work—who will say that Sharon Olds is the one who really made them a writer or that her work opened something up for them. Often, these are gay men who feel that something about her openness or her willingness to speak the truth about her body, her sexuality, and her experience was what helped them come out of the closet or helped them write openly about their bodies, their sexuality, their experience, their experience with their parents, their experience with homophobia. It’s interesting to me that this breaking of a taboo is not just to get women out of the box, for example. I also see a difference there, that’s the purpose that there really is a purpose. Was it Muriel Rukeyser who said, “If one woman was to tell the truth about her life, the world would break open”?
RZ: I’m probably slightly misquoting but I think that’s kind of a sense that I have that some of these prohibitions around privacy, around etiquette, around normalcy, around our social expectations, are ineluctably tied to ways of repressing, authoring, vilifying, pathologizing LGBT people, women, people of color, and that one very important way of fighting against that oppression and dismantling those systems of oppression is to tell the truth about your life, your body, your experience in the world, your lived experience, and that purpose is one of the most important purposes that can be because if it has the effect that we wanted to have, it will lead to less oppression. I think that’s really important. Then this question of punching up or punching down also comes up in both Satan Says and in Lowell’s work, in Sexton’s work. There’s a poem by Sexton that I talked about in the Poetics of Wrongness that I love so much and it’s the one to John Holmes and it’s a similar poem to Satan Says in that she’s speaking back to John Holmes who was a writing teacher who really just spoke so belittlingly of Sexton, Anne Sexton’s poetics and her penchant for writing about herself, her life, her family, and her body. She really talks back to him in this poem. It’s very clear from the poem that he is locking her in a box in a big way, and not only that, but then making her feel like a terrible, terrible person for wanting to get out of the box. In her poem, there’s different imagery, it’s a bowl and she’s trapped in the bowl of her mind and there’s a kitchen table. I think that that’s incredibly important. Foucault is much more political in his presentation of this idea but like yeah, we now know firsthand right up front that we need someone to speak truth to power and take down Trump. The history of tyrants is that they became tyrants in part because they were never listening to anyone who was disagreeing with them, who’s challenging them, or pushing back at them. In that sense, a democracy absolutely depends upon the freedom of speech, in particular, your ability and your responsibility to speak truth to power and to say “This is not right.” But that’s not the same as saying freedom of speech is that you can just shout at a child abusively and make them feel terrible and ashamed; yeah, it’s freedom of speech, you could say whatever you want but it doesn’t qualify, it doesn’t have a purpose, it doesn’t change, it doesn’t protect other citizens, it doesn’t protect democracy. Of course, this concept comes from ancient Greece and it’s super problematic because not everybody could vote and not everybody was considered a person or a citizen but I’m transplanting the idea which I think is a very un-American one in certain ways that we can believe in freedom of speech but we can also participate in trying to figure out ethical guidelines for speech so that we remember that the purpose of speech is for good even if it disturbs, provokes, upsets, that it’s not just for shock value, it’s not just for entertainment, it’s not just to hurt people.
DN: I think one of the things that’s compelling about your work is that it’s very particular to yourself but the ends are not there like what you’re discussing with the parrhesia ultimately that it’s about coming from below and aiming above. You seem very aware of your podcast and in your work about your positionality in relationship to who you’re speaking to. I guess I wanted to bring up this question or explore this question with you of parrhesia when talking about questions of whiteness which you raised in your poetry, your podcast, and in your lectures. For one, in the lectures, you bring up poet Shane McCrae who you reached out to when you were exploring the confessional and he wondered if a poet could only be considered a confessional poet if they were white because it presumes that you start in a state of grace and that you’ve fallen and if you’re a poet of color who might write like a confessional poet, you would never have begun in the state of grace so you’d just be considered an autobiographical poet. Then the question of whiteness comes up when you gather your pantheon of poets for your poetics of motherhood, women who write like you with long lines with a maximalist impulse that was often associated with men who are reclaiming the long line like Alice Notley and Bernadette Mayer from men and repurposing it to their own designs. But you worried and wondered why the non-white poets that would otherwise be considered to be writing about motherhood but didn’t fit into your notion of poetics who were not white—like Audre Lorde, June Jordan, or Lucille Clifton who wrote shorter lines, shorter poems—you wondered if there was some aspect of a poetics of privilege within the poetics of motherhood. You don’t have to talk about these examples necessarily but I like this open question that you have, it’s self-questioning as you puzzle through being a poet who is white, the question of your own poetics when it comes to wrongness and motherhood.
RZ: Considering that race doesn’t actually exist, it’s not real, it is just shocking and totally not shocking, the insidiousness of the power of this false concept, I think that we’re at a very interesting moment right now in history where, it’s such an interesting term, but the woke white person, and as Mira Jacob said to me, she’s very frustrated with that term because there’s no such thing as being woke, you’re waking up and you’re waking up and you’re waking up but I think that the process of trying to wake up—and I’ve really learned a lot from my conversations with the poet Joy Katz who is writing about whiteness and motherhood in really amazing ways. Whatever it is in our own lives for white people that makes you realize that you’re white, and I’ve said this before, every time I hear myself say it, I feel uncomfortable but it is true that I did not consider myself white until probably graduate school. Because I considered myself Jewish and when you go to yeshiva, at least, the yeshiva that I went to, everything was about Jews and non-jews and I lived in New York, both my parents were Jewish, it wasn’t within my family, very, very strong anti-racism and that was equated with being against antisemitism. But it was not like “Oh, we’re those white people who are racist,” it was like “There are white people, good and bad white people, and we’re Jewish people.”
DN: Can we pause there for a second?
DN: Obviously, in most ways, we’re functionally white in America with white privilege, white-passing, if not just white but that you’re realizing that late in an American context, at least, for me, I don’t think it’s that embarrassing because that wasn’t true in Europe, for one, Jews were considered a different race, they were considered to have a different smell and they were considered to have a different size and shape of their skull and they had all sorts of properties about them that were alien. Then also the notion that white nationalists, even today, don’t consider Jews part of that vision. I’m not defending white Jews as not being white, I think there is a complication if you have an awareness of Jewish history but obviously, ultimately, it’s disrespectful to Jews who aren’t white in the United States, maybe more than anybody too, for white Jews to say they’re not white in an American context.
RZ: And it’s also incredibly disrespectful to people of color for me to imagine myself as part of an oppressed minority in a daily way that I don’t experience whereas people of color often do. But you’re right, my father was born in December of 1940 in Nice, and his parents, my grandmother was waiting for him to be born and then fled to the United States but had to stop in Portugal for three months because one of her other kids got sick. They came to the United States, they were rerouted to Cuba, they were in Cuba for a little while, they came back to the United States. I do not think that in my father’s lifetime until maybe the past twenty years, he has felt like a white person. He went to Yale when there were quotas for Jews. It was a daily experience for him of being visibly, markedly, treated differently by people because he was Jewish. That is not my experience but it is my recent intergenerational experience and certainly, even my mother’s parents who came, a generation earlier, to the United States than my father on my father’s side absolutely were treated primarily as Jews, not primarily as white people. It is very present. Also, my grandparents were extremely close too on my father’s side and my great-aunt, my grandmother’s sister, spoke with heavy, heavy accents, they spoke Yiddish to each other if they didn’t want me to understand or French and they did not consider themselves American. I also have not really ever considered myself American even though I am an American, and to say I’ve never considered myself an American is offensive when you think about what it means to be an undocumented person in the United States. I have all of the privileges of American citizenship and I have enjoyed them and counted on them my entire life and absolutely passing privilege, skin color privilege, white privilege and yet, it is a meaningful and real part of my experience that I consider myself to be the child of immigrants, this feeling that the government could turn on me at any moment, that is the government is not to be trusted, that even if I have an American passport, that it could be taken away from me. These are things that I feel very deeply and again, that is not the same as my life expectancy is much higher than a black woman living in New York of the same class and educational background. That’s incredibly fucked up. I know when I go to the hospital to give birth to a baby, I’m probably not going to die and my baby is probably not going to die. If I were of color, I would be much less sure of that. My sense, without trying to generalize, is that we are at this moment in history when if we care about waking up to the impact of racism and other kinds of oppression, we have to consider our own whiteness, we have to consider intersectionality, what our position is given all of the details of our gender, our class, our geography, and all of those things. Every white person needs to wake up to the fact that they’re white, what that means, and how that affects them because I think that this recent notion of the appropriate liberal good way of thinking about the world is to be colorblind. I would say, that’s the big divide between my father and myself, his generation and, by endless conversations with me and especially with my kids, he’s come to realize that colorblindness is a total fantasy and a harmful one. But I think that in our age, we’re really in that shift of saying, I mean, can you imagine saying, “Oh, I don’t see race”? [laughs]
DN: That’s what I was saying at the beginning of the question. I love everything you’ve just said because you’re aware of your position. I feel like the poetics of motherhood and the things that you’re reclaiming for women or for mothers by breaking taboo and then the flip side of that, you, developing a poetic that speaks very, very much to you and yet you’re porous to hearing in the ways in which it may be erasing, I guess this could return us to the SoundMachine, you’re porous to the ways your poetics could be a sound machine that’s erasing legitimate motherhood poetics that are non-white, that maybe you didn’t see them as being a motherhood of your poetics and motherhood because you are white.
RZ: Right. I think if there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that every time I think I understand how whiteness is working in a particular situation, I have only begun to see the edge of that, that it is so deeply entrenched in all of our institutions, either the way that my professors who were white—all of them, literally all of them, and most of them were straight—how whiteness affected them and their teachers and every notion of what we think about what makes art good, everything we think about who we are and how to live and when I think, “Oh, I figured something out,” I have to stop and say to myself over and over and over again, “Wait a second, am I blind to something or am I not able to see a fuller context of this? How can I pull the frame back to see the larger picture of how this thought came into being?” like as you were describing, I was picturing a stage and I was picturing an actor on the stage and the spotlight on the actor and there are so many times where I think like, “Oh, that, I see it now,” and that the goal is to shine more light on it and darken everything else so that I can see and I can hear this one thing. But think about if you turn off the spotlight or if you turn up all the lights in the theater and you see the audience and you see the other actors and you see backstage and then you go back even further, how do you include the people who built the theater, who made the props, how was it that this person got to be in the center of the stage with the spotlight on them, whatever their story is, whoever they are, you can’t untie that from the history, it’s like when Obama and Michelle lived in the White House and this realization that the White House was built by former slaves, enslaved people. One of the ways in which white supremacy survives and thrives is that it is very hard to see your own privilege and it’s very hard to see outside of your own context, especially for white people. I’m probably performing an act of white fragility right now to say this, it’s quite painful to realize that everything about yourself is tied to the oppression of others, that every one of your successes, and I think that that’s also very deeply embedded in what I’m trying to describe in particular about American-Jewish whiteness at this moment in history because we’re coming out of a time when we way overgeneralize that everything about us and everything about our identity came out of victimhood. Now, I’m coming into, over and over and over again, an awareness of how much of my life is tied to the oppression of others. That’s a worldview change and that’s a self-view change. Both things can be true and this is part of why it’s so important to break down all of these binaries whether they are around gender or around good and bad or victim, oppressor because the truth is almost always that there are competing multiple truths that have to stand next to each other and that we have to take responsibility for. Again, this has to do with wrongness, I don’t really necessarily want to get into this but do you remember when Eileen Myles said in the New York Times that men should just stop writing?
RZ: I don’t know if she said for fifty years or something like that like. I get what they’re saying and I have sympathy for that and yet I don’t feel that way at all, I want men to keep writing. Why does anyone need another book of poetry from a middle-aged white woman about her kids on the Upper West Side of Manhattan? Nobody needs that. It’s obnoxious, it’s offensive. My whole being is wrong. My whole existence is both a testament to my ancestors and to their survival and absolutely built on the backs of others. I think that’s part of the “Am I a good person or am I a terrible person? You know what, I’m both.” Do I even have the right to work through some of those questions in poetry, publish them, ask anyone to buy it, make a podcast, be the host, teach a class? Is every living breath of mine at the expense of someone else? To some extent, yes, and yet I do keep going. I plan to continue breathing like live out my offensive life.
DN: [laughs] I’m very happy to hear that. I wanted to read something else that you wrote in the Poetics of Wrongness when you say that you write against because this relates I think to something you just said about your whole life being wrong too, you say, “I write against. My poetics is a poetics of opposition and provocation that I never outgrew. Against the status quo or the powers that be, writing out of and into wrongness. Here’s my current definition of a poet: ‘I am wrong and you are wrong and I’m willing to say it, therefore I am a poet.’” Then later, you say, “It is the job of poems to undermine, to refute, retort, resee, disrupt, to tell you nicely or aggressively that you are wrong, that the world is fucked up, that all our modes of understanding and expressing are suspect, that there is nothing and no one above reproach or scrutiny.” I wanted to take that aspiration into questions of form because you explicitly say in your book of lectures that you’re writing against the notion of what a lecture is but I also feel like you’re doing that with your poetry. You explicitly question whether the poems in SoundMachine are poems within the poems themselves. You seem to also actively undermine their poemness and I wonder whether SoundMachine is a collection of poems—and I don’t mean that in a good way or a bad way—but I’m curious if you could talk to us about writing against in relationship to the impulse to undermine form and whether the question of whether these are poems or not is ultimately a relevant one to you.
RZ: Okay. I think I have some “good reasons” that I wanted to undermine the poetic form and then I have some other reasons that feel sort of crass and embarrassing and, of course, I will share both of them with you. After I wrote Museum of Accidents—and that was the book of mine that did the best, as you said, I was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award, I didn’t win but also I had this experience of having Stephanie Burt write a really dense long review of the book in the Boston Review that I had never felt so seen and Stephanie connected me to these poets who now I talk about as if I’m in their league but I’m not in their league and I never was. It’s just wild that happened to me—Anyway, when I finished that book, I’d always had two books or more ready at the same time until Museum of Accidents, and when I finished it, I had nothing else, when it was published, I didn’t have anything else. I felt that the book was very authentic, the poems are long, the lines are long, some of them are all over the page, some of them are much shorter, and they felt like an accurate representation of how the language sounded to me and also disjunctive when it needed to be. But I also was sick of it, even that seemed like too much lyric beauty. I really wanted to write prose. I really wanted to be considered a prose writer for a lot of weird reasons including that I didn’t like the way, especially as a white poet, but as a poet that it was like this ivory tower elitist thing. I don’t consider my poems to be rarefied. I don’t consider my use of language to be poetic in that way. It’s like when someone gives you a novel to read and a certain person says, “Oh, you’ll love it, it’s so poetic,” it usually means it’s incredibly annoying to read.
RZ: I just want a novel that’s just really great to read. I hate that idea of poetry is like abstract, beautiful, and hard to understand, it makes me feel stupid and I was like, “I don’t want to write that book,” and you mentioned Jenny Offill earlier, I wanted to write that book. When her book came out, I had so much jealousy, I would read it and stop, it was like I wanted to write that, I wanted to write like Maira Kalman, I wanted to be Maira Kalman, I wanted to be like, what is her name? Every one freaking loves her—I have a lot of jealousy that I’m willing to admit to—the woman who writes like the super short fiction but it’s like memoir but it’s not really, and all the men love her and they don’t love anyone else. Was she married to Paul Auster? We’re just like playing guessing games, whatever.
DN: I’m trying to think who that is.
RZ: Okay, anyway, she writes in prose, she’s not a poet—I can’t move on from this but I’m going to—anyway, [laughter] I wrote two books, one was Fables and one became Pedestrians. Then eventually, Fables was swallowed up by Pedestrians, and Wave published it. But Fables was absolutely supposed to be either fiction or memoir and I felt that I’d been writing memoir really pretty much my whole life and I had been told over and over again, “These aren’t poems,” even when they looked like poems on the page. It was not a nice thing I was being told, it wasn’t like, “Oh, you’re an experimental poet,” it was like, “These aren’t poems, they were too narrative, too conversational, too chatty, too about banal things, too long,” all this stuff. Anyway, I think in part because Wave pretty much only publishes poetry, not entirely, and also because the two books were published together, I feel that it doesn’t matter how many books of prose I write, I’m always going to be considered a poet and it’s interesting because what I’ve noticed is that within the poetry community now, there are more and more books of prose being written by real poets but about ten, fifteen years ago, if you were a poet that wrote a book of prose, especially if that book of prose did well, boy, were you talked about behind your back by other poets. Poets really don’t like that and I can’t really figure out why that is, is it because they feel abandoned in their marginalized genre of no money and no readers? I don’t know. But I wanted to abandon them. I wanted to reach a general audience. I felt like on a more individual level, my long poems are intimidating to many readers and I didn’t want to intimidate those readers. I had the experience of when somebody would have to come to one of my readings for course credit or something, they come up to me afterwards and say like, “Oh, I didn’t think I was going to like it but I really did,” so I knew that when I read the work out loud or when someone was forced to read it, they were like, “Oh, yeah, I like this kind of poetry. This isn’t really poetry, this speaks to me in some accessible way and I really was looking for that.” I think that I’ve had this back and forth with myself about how much I need to stay in my lane, how much I’m a poet, why I became a poet, and it has to do with a lot of the things we talked about before, I do think that because poetry is so marginalized as a genre and so few people read poetry and we have all kinds of weird confusing thoughts about whether poetry is fiction or nonfiction, I do think that for some people like me who say very personal autobiographical things, we sometimes go to poetry because we think that if we say it in a poem, we’re allowed to because nobody reads it, you don’t make any money. But if you were to say the exact same thing in a memoir, everybody would get very, very upset or if you said it in prose, people would feel like, “Well, I know how to read prose. I know how to read sentences,” and that’s an accompanying struggle that I’ve had for the past fifteen years of wanting to be a prose writer and wanting to be read as a prose writer even if I’m not a prose writer. [laughs]
DN: I don’t know if it was a theory that I created or something that I read by you that you no longer believed but I had constructed this idea that because your mom was a storyteller and because your mom was such a big storyteller, a famous storyteller, that you were part of your writing against because you do declare that you’re writing against the sentence, some of your early books like The Last Clear Narrative, you’re writing against the sentence, against the narrative, and against story, if that was a way to try to become impervious to your mother, to create a territory that she couldn’t touch or that was constructed on your own terms because this other territory was so loud, was such a loud sound machine that you’d have this other place, am I making that up?
RZ: You’re not making that up at all and that’s definitely a very big part in Mothers. Definitely, I thought that performance was entirely off-limits for me which is all these things that I came up with like I can’t do that because that’s what my mother does. I can’t be like this because that’s how my mother is. I’m a pretty good storyteller. I’m not as good a storyteller as she was but I’m a good reader of my own work. I like to be in front of an audience, I love to read, and yet I think performance and performativity are bad and then on top of that, I think yes, I had this idea, all growing up, people would say, “Oh, are you going to grow up to be a writer just like your mother?” and I was like, “No, I’m not going to be a writer, I’m going to be a poet,” as if being a writer and being a poet are two entirely different things and I thought they were for a long time. There are a lot of people who are avid readers who will not read poetry. My husband, reading, I would say, is his greatest passion in his entire life. He doesn’t really like poetry. I somehow thought like, “Yeah, if I was a poet, then I was absolutely nothing like my mother,” whatsoever which is so nuts. After she died, I had to go through all her stuff and there were boxes and boxes of notebooks and galleys, I have all the same stuff. [laughs]
DN: Yeah. I love how we get that recognition when you’re in the position as a mother who can’t do anything right and then that connects us to your experience as a child with your mother. Also, thinking about this question of imperviousness from the beginning of our conversation and porousness that maybe you’re trying to or were trying to become impervious to your mother but we see so many ways that it’s porous. Inevitably, one of the wonderful anecdotes you share is around Alice Notley because in Mothers, you’re looking for poetic mothers, a lineage of poets who can be surrogate mothers either in reality or on the page and Alice Notley is one of those people for you, and yet she cites as one of her influences, which you didn’t know when you chose her as your mother, she cites your mother in one of her stories as a huge influence on her poetry. In a strange way, you get your mother through Alice Notley.
RZ: She’s always there, my mother is always there, it’s just fascinating. All these years, I thought I’d married my father, my husband looks so much like my father in certain ways and has a lot of qualities. It took me like twenty years of marriage to realize I’d really just married my mother.
DN: Well. [laughs]
RZ: There’s that question too which I think it’s taken me an extremely long time. I still haven’t fully accepted this but according to other smart people, I can write something that is about my own life, that is autobiographical, that is “true” and it’s still the way I see it. It doesn’t mean it’s a lie and it doesn’t mean it’s fiction, but it’s an entirely different experience than anyone else who is also in the room. Am I ever describing my mother or am I just describing my internalized mother? Something, for me, early on led me to want to believe in a world in which things were either real and true or unreal and untrue. The real experience of the universe is whether we’re talking about racism, lived experience, ideas, storytelling, poetry, or art, there is no art that is 100% true and real and there is no fiction that has nothing to do with the person who created it. But it has really taken me until my 40s, my mid-40s to even begin to understand that that’s real.
DN: I wonder, is that what you’re doing, at least, partially when we take this idea of writing against? Are you writing against language or writing against the stability of selfhood or of truthfulness the way you’re switching pronouns that you’ll refer to yourself as I and then in another poem, you’re in the third person as she or as the mother? We keep having you cycle through different positions for yourself within language and so that forces us as the reader into a different position with you also.
RZ: Right. We probably should all go back and read Foucault but we don’t need to to know that the language is not pure, it’s not devoid of all this other stuff, it’s not transparent, it’s embedded with whether I’m using gendered pronouns, whether I’m using the first-person pronoun, when I say the mother, anything I write in English, it contains the entire history of colonization and decimation of indigenous populations as well as all the ways in which the language itself is making it very hard for me to imagine selfhood that is outside of the selfhood I was taught to imagine and is in the language. My writing and my poetics don’t look like M. NourbeSe Philip and yet I think that I very much identify with the idea that you, on some level, have to break the language even as you have to use the language to tell your story. You have to break the story, you have to break all the forms there is embedded in every word, in every form, in every made object. Every made object is as much an artifact of the limits of imagination as it is of imagination. We cannot even fully imagine a world because of our political structures, because of our history, because of our language, because of our ideas about human bodies and relationships and all of those things. We can only exist within that, it’s like the work of liberation is never done, a made object is also, by definition, exclusionary. I want both to go back to the example of the sculptor chiseling away at the stone. I want the original stone, I want the chiseled stone, I want all the pieces of stone that were chiseled off. I want a blood from the person who slipped once and cut their hand while they were making the art, I want it to take as long to be in the presence of this sculpture as it took to make it, I want your body to feel the way the sculptor fell to somehow, I want you to look at it and have your back hurt but I also want you to have a transcendent experience in which it just appears to you like as if from the divine. I want it to make you think of yourself. I want it to make you see yourself in ways you never thought of before. I want all of that, all of it at once. I don’t want it one at a time because as soon as you have any order, then you have the oppression of linear ideas and of narrative. But we are in time and we are limited in hours, even in our senses. Then the other thing is I want something that is just short of total anarchy and chaos because if you walked into the room and you had what I just described and it did all of those things to you, you may just not even be able to look at it or perceive it, there is something, there is a curatorial aspect to all arts that is, by definition, exclusionary and don’t look at this, do look at this and look at it in this way. There’s a point of view. As soon as there’s a point of view, you have ego and all that stuff. In any case, I’m just going all over the place just like my picture of art. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I want to keep destroying everything without destroying it so that we have both the art and all the things that the art was made of if that makes any sense.
DN: Yeah. No, I want you to read some more poems and maybe we can have the listeners hold these questions in their mind that you wrote on the board for your students which may be, like the last one that I brought up, they’re not entirely answerable, but two of the questions that you wrote on the board for your students is “Is there one eye or multiple? Is there an eye outside race, gender, and class?” But the three poems I was hoping you’d read, three short poems, Let the World Unfurl One Word at a Time, Snapshot, and The Feeling.
RZ: Okay, I will read those now. I just want to say one other quick thing which is I want to give a slightly more concrete example of what I was just talking about which is in SoundMachine, I speak about my son’s struggle with mental wellness and it really violates so many of my guidelines that I have set for myself as you mentioned earlier like what is the trespass against my children who I have more power than in certain ways to write about their stories. Two things, first of all, I think that the idea of that prohibition and that taboo is both very important but also tied to certain kinds of ideas about separateness that I don’t know I believe in. Am I really separate from my son? Is he really separate from me? There are certain ideas about masculinity, about relationships between mothers and sons which are extraordinarily damaging and to say, “Oh, I’m not going to write about this topic because it will violate my son’s privacy,” in some ways, is to reinstate those really problematic ideas. The other thing, there are multiple eyes and I hope it’s clear that I’m always writing my version of what happened.
[Rachel Zucker reads a poem called Let the World Unfurl One Word at a Time]
[Rachel Zucker reads a poem called Snapshot]
[Rachel Zucker reads a poem called The Feeling]
DN: We’ve been listening to Rachel Zucker read from SoundMachine from Wave Books. I wanted to take this notion in your essay that you wrote about Jewish poetics, Envy of the Graven Image [Graven Image Envy] I think it’s called, is that right?
RZ: Yeah. You went way back.
DN: Yeah. I wanted to take that notion Judaism like Islam has that taboo around the image of idol making and an emphasis on the word spoken, sung, and written and think about a series of lines in SoundMachine that return us to the problems of turning reality into language. In SoundMachine, you say, “Every metaphor is full of blood diamonds, full of blood. The act of making one thing into other; trees into pulp, into paper, people into image, sound, word, story.” Maybe with that in mind, I was hoping we could talk about your companion audio project, also called SoundMachine, and hear what inspires you to take language into this other framing or this other venue and what, if anything, are you trying to free language from, if that’s part of what you’re doing by doing the SoundMachine project.
RZ: Sure. Thank you for asking me about the audio project and also for asking me several times about Jewishness. It’s something that I actually really don’t get asked about very often at all. Who knows whether the audio project is going to accomplish anything? [laughs] But I wanted to teach myself something new. I really love audio. I love the intimacy of listening to audio. I love the quality of human voice reading things to me. That’s something that I’ve loved for a long time. Not everybody loves that. I wanted a way to demonstrate that simultaneity that I was trying to describe earlier so it’s very hard to do that on the page. You can do it visually with text overlapping or drawings and text but I am not a very visual person, I’m much more oral. I wanted to have it be so that you could hear two things at once so that was very exciting to me and I also wanted a space to experiment with performance, but intimate performance like a way to have some of the intimacy and some of the accessibility of a live reading but also being able to listen to it alone whenever you want to stop, to turn it off. I feel a lot of guilt and shame when I’m reading in public that maybe people don’t like it but they have to be there or they can’t get up and leave the room. I feel more permission to be performative in this format where, “Okay, if you don’t like it, just turn it off. I didn’t see you turn it off.” These are small concerns in certain ways but they all came together and then I also feel like I just hadn’t really seen it done very often. I like listening to audiobooks. There are very few audiobooks of poetry, Tommy Pico who was a guest on Commonplace, someone collaborated with Tommy and made a soundscape of his work and Tommy is a fantastic reader and then they did put out an audiobook of Tommy’s book IRL which I had read two or three times on the page and then listened to and had a completely different experience of it. I was like, “Wow, I love this.” There’s a poem that I really love by James Schuyler called Hymn to Life that I really don’t love reading on the page but there’s a good, not great recording of Schuyler reading it that’s on the PennSound website and I used to listen to it over and over again as I was commuting back and forth to Fordham. I don’t know, I started to think like “Why isn’t there more audio poetry?” I’m very jealous of poets who have other media that they work in like Wayne Koestenbaum, he does so many different things but he’s a painter and a musician. It seems like I do most of the interesting things I do out of jealousy but Nick Flynn, I did a reading with Nick Flynn and he came with his band and I was like, “Why don’t I have a band?”
RZ: “I want a band.”
DN: I want to hear your band.
RZ: Anne Waldman had a band. Who else? A lot of great poets have bands. Anne Sexton had a band, Joy Harjo.
DN: That’s right.
RZ: I love her work. I’ve loved Joy Harjo’s work since I was in high school. But I don’t know if you’ve heard her sound work but it’s also incredible. I have one of her pieces on my liked songs on Spotify and I listen to it almost every night before I go to sleep. In any case, I just thought, “Wow, maybe this is like a new genre in a way,” because it’s not slam poetry, it’s not performance poetry, it’s not just a straight reading of the book, there are things in the audio versions of the poems from the book that are changed because they have to be changed either because you can express some of the things in sound without having to say them or say those words or some things you have to clarify because you can’t quite get at it in sound because you know that the experience on the page that someone gets to a certain place and then they’re going to go back and read it again but you can’t do that. I don’t know, I was just really interested in seeing how far I could take it and seeing if these pieces, which are not really poems, they’re not really memoirs, they’re not really essays, they’re not really lectures, I thought maybe there’s something else there, a form that has it but doesn’t really have a name.
DN: What I’m going to do is in lieu of you having a band present in Maine with you right now, we’re going to play a little excerpt of two very different ones and so maybe you could start by just introducing We Cannot Make Them Happy Behave Passionate Patient Safe Sorry and then I’ll play three or four minutes of that and then have you introduced the next one after that.
RZ: Awesome. I wrote that piece actually when I was in Maine and the place that I’m in right now several summers ago, it was a very difficult summer and I was here without my husband but with two of my kids. I was doing a lot of reaching out through email, text, and phone to other friends of mine, particularly other mother friends of mine, just sometimes for advice and sometimes just like,”Oh, my God, this is so hard,” and I ended up writing this piece that’s quite different from the other pieces in SoundMachine because it’s the voices of many mothers, a lot of the actual things that they said to me during that time. When it came time to do to make the audio piece of it, I really wanted to have that feeling of a chorus of mothers present. First of all, this is made and performed by mothers, the sound designer and musician is Alicia Jo Rabins who is an incredible musician and, turns out, an incredible sound designer.
DN: And has been on both of our shows.
RZ: And a mother and a very helpful mother. The voices that you hear in the piece are my voice, Laurel Snyder, Airea D. Matthews, and Erika Meitner. I had each of them record the piece and I wanted a feeling that I couldn’t really achieve on the page of interruption, of asynchronous, overlapping but also comforting, non-narrative but enough clarity of understanding and I really do feel like the sound version is truer to the intention of the piece than the text version.
[An audio excerpt playing from SoundMachine audio project: We Cannot Make Them Happy Behave Passionate Patient Safe Sorry]
DN: We’ve been listening to Rachel Zucker’s audio project SoundMachine, a companion to her book SoundMachine from Wave Books. Before we play the other one, Rachel, tell us where people can find these audio projects in case they want to listen to them in their entirety.
RZ: Sure. Right now, four of them, possibly five are available for free on Bandcamp. But I got stalled so if you go to Bandcamp and you search my name and you search SoundMachine, you’ll be able to find them there. Eventually, I hope to release them as an album when I finish making maybe ten all together through Spotify and all the other stuff, almost like an album. What I really would like is to basically turn SoundMachine into a production studio and create these kinds of immersive audio pieces in collaboration with sound designers of other poet’s work and either release them as a podcast that’s a cross between Song Exploder and the Poetry Foundation or something. I’ve applied for a grant, I don’t tend to win things but who knows? The one that you just heard part of, my fantasy is that would also one day exist as an installation with spatial sound and photographs and that you would walk into a relatively small dark room in a gallery or a museum and it would be an immersive audio experience that also would have a visual component to it as well. But that does not yet exist so for now, Bandcamp is your best bet.
DN: Okay. Let’s go out with one more excerpt and this one is from the Death Project [poem]. Talk to us about that one and then we’ll play an excerpt from that.
RZ: This one was the sound design and music, original music is by Nathaniel Wolkstein who is my first cousin on my mother’s side. He is an incredible musician. He has done most of the pieces that I’ve done so far. It’s been extremely incredible to collaborate with him on these. This particular piece is a strange piece, it mostly takes place with me sitting in my son’s bedroom at night, my youngest son who’s asking me some really difficult questions about death and I’m trying to answer them. It’s quite painful to try to acknowledge to him the existence of death as he comes into full existential despair. Then there’s this middle section which is very different in form and tone that is all about Sally Mann, who I mentioned earlier, the photographer Sally Mann, and about her experience of taking photographs of her children and then an experience that she had with an escaped convict who came onto her land. The poem also has to do with awareness, not just of individual human death but of environmental destruction and degradation and also this question that we talked about earlier about realness and whether my only sense of realness is when I’m in this room with my son and forcing myself to stay in that difficult moment and be there. We wanted to have different thematic qualities in the audio rendering and there is a violin which is Nathaniel’s primary instrument but not his only by any means, and then there’s the sound of water. It was very important to me to have live recordings, not canned recordings so there’s even a room tone in the actual rooms that I wrote these poems or that these poems happened that are contained in the audio pieces; there’s no way you would know. In some of the audio pieces, the actual people in the poems speak their own lines so to speak like you’ll hear my husband’s voice at one point and my kids’ voices at one point or the author that you mentioned earlier who has four kids and twenty books or so is Julianna Baggott and I recorded her giving me the actual instructions that she had given me that appear in the poem. There’s also like a cinéma vérité quality going on in these audio pieces that I think is similar to, I love that you’re using the word companion to describe the relationship between these two projects, the book and the audio project but I think that provocative quality of “Did he really say that?” exists in the book and then we try to get that same feeling of risk or, I guess in some cases, trespass by using the actual voices of others.
[An audio excerpt playing from SoundMachine audio project: Death Project (poem)]
DN: We’ve been listening to Death Project [poem] from Rachel Zucker’s SoundMachine audio project. Rachel?
RZ: Yes? [laughs]
DN: [laughs] Rachel, it was a deep honor and pleasure to have you on Between the Covers.
RZ: Thank you so much, David. I’ve been looking forward to this and it exceeded my expectations.
RZ: I hope this doesn’t preclude getting to, one day, sit in a room together in real life.
DN: I hope it doesn’t either.
DN: We were talking today with Rachel Zucker, the author of SoundMachine from Wave Books. You’ve been listening to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host.
Today’s episode of Between the Covers was not recorded at the studios of KBOO but at the volunteer-powered, non-commercial makeshift home studio of host, David Naimon. You can find more of Rachel Zucker’s work at rachelzucker.net and at commonpodcast.com and at [soundmachineproject.com]. Rachel Zucker also adds an extended reading to the bonus audio archive from her upcoming book of lectures, the Poetics of Wrongness. This bonus material joins readings by Layli Long Soldier, Forrest Gander, John Keene, Ted Chiang, Sheila Heti, Carmen Maria Machado, and many others. You can find out more about how to subscribe to the bonus audio and other rewards available to supporters of Between the Covers at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. I’d like to thank the Tin House teams, Elizabeth DeMeo and Alyssa Ogi in the book division, Jakob Vala and Jeremy Cruz in the art department, Yashwina Canter in publicity, and Lance Cleland, the director of the Summer and Winter Tin House Writers Workshops for helping make the podcast run as smoothly as it does. Finally, I’d like to thank Imre Lodbrog and Barbara Browning for creating this outro. Their album Imre Lodbrog et sa Petite Amie can be found on iTunes and Barbara Browning’s Trove of ukulele covers can be found at soundcloud.com/barbarabrown.