12 or 20 questions: with Rachel Zolf
[photo credit: Sharon Harris]
Rachel Zolf’s newest full-length collection of poetry, Human Resources, was released in spring 2007 by Coach House Books and recently shortlisted for a Lambda award. Her previous collections are Masque (The Mercury Press, 2004), which was shortlisted for the 2005 Trillium Book Award for Poetry, and Her absence, this wanderer (BuschekBooks, 1999), which was a finalist in the CBC Literary Competition and will be reprinted as a new edition this fall with a foreword by M. NourbeSe Philip. New York’s Belladonna books published a chaplet of Zolf's poetry in 2005 entitled from Human Resources and she has a new chapbook, Shoot and Weep, just released from Nomados Literary Publishers. Her work appears in the anthology Shift & Switch: New Canadian Poetry and a forthcoming Coach House anthology of innovative Canadian women poets. She has published and performed her poetry across Canada and the U.S., and her critical essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Xcp: Cross-Cultural Poetics, West Coast Line and Open Letter. She was the founding poetry editor of The Walrus magazine and has edited books such as Betsy Warland’s only this blue (The Mercury Press, 2005).
1 - How did your first book change your life?
I don’t know if I let it much, unfortunately. It’s taken me a long time to allow myself to be a writer. But yes, at the risk of sounding essentialist it gave me access to a medium of communication that I really really needed.
2 - How long have you lived in Toronto, and how does geography, if at all, impact on your writing? Does race or gender make any impact on your work?
I’ve lived in Toronto too long – I think 36 years or so. Certainly the polvocality of the city has a huge impact on my writing.
3 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I tend to work in long forms, conceptual sequences.
4 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process?
They are in the sense that I don’t necessarily wait until a poem is perfectly finished (as if it ever is) until I read it in public. I like trying new work out in a reading, seeing what kind of responses it generates. There is a performative sound element that keeps coming up in my work and those poems are particularly interesting to play with in front of an audience.
And in fact reading can change the way both the reader and I perceive the book. I read from Human Resources very fast, for example, to enact the kind of information overload you experience in the text. but when you actually sit down to read it privately, you have to read it very slowly to tease out its associative strands.
5 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I don’t think you can separate theory from writing. All my work poses questions, many unanswerable, about knowledge, ethics, mastery, disaster.
6 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I’ve had mixed experiences with editors, but working with a good editor is definitely a useful process, a gift in fact. Working with an inexperienced editor or one too heavy-handed in attempting to impose their own will can be a real pain.
7 - After having published more than a couple of titles over the years, do you find the process of book-making harder or easier?
I definitely found my most recent book an easier process than previous ones. Hope that trajectory will continue!
8 - When was the last time you ate a pear?
I think someone like me is supposed to say she prefers peaches.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Sometimes you have to lie to the lover.
10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I’m trying to develop one but things get in the way.
11 - Where is your favourite place to write?
I try to write in my office but it isn’t heated so I’m spread out on the dining room table waiting for spring.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Ha, inspiration. I guess you could say I turn to research because most of my writing comes directly from the research I collect.
13 - How does your most recent book compare to your previous work? How does it feel different?
Every book is different. My most recent work is this chapbook, Shoot and Weep, and I think there are only three lines in it that come from “me.” This is a definite shift for me that I’m liking.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Film techniques: montage, assemblage – documentary assemblage in particular – associative research practices, work with documents, found materials, etc.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
The writers I look to depend on the project I’m working on. Lately, I’ve been reading folks like Judith Butler, Jacqueline Rose, Achille Mbembe, Hannah Arendt, Giorgio Agamben, Emmanuel Levinas, Wendy Brown, Ella Shohat.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Write every day. Live by water. Feel good most of the time.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I’m done attempting other occupations.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
The urge to inscribe.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The Battle of Algiers is definitely the last great film I’ve seen. I recently really liked reading Renee Gladman’s The Activist and Juliana Spahr’s The Transformation.
20 - What are you currently working on?
A book on competing knowledges in Palestine-Israel. Shoot and Weep is the first part of it.
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