Sunday, January 06, 2008

12 or 20 questions: with Rachel Zucker
Rachel Zucker is the author of three books of poetry, most recently, The Bad Wife Handbook. In May, Women Poets on Mentorship: Efforts and Affections, the anthology she co-edited with poet Arielle Greenberg, will be published by University of Iowa Press. She lives in New York City with her husband and their three sons. She is a certified labor doula and a homebirth activist. For more information please visit her website:

1 - How did your first book change your life?

My first book was accepted for publication right around the time that my second child was born. I had an eighteen month old, a newborn, and was enrolled in a graduate program in Clinical Psychology at Rutgers. It was more than I could manage. It took more than two years from the time that Wesleyan was interested in my book until it finally came out, but knowing the book would be published was extremely helpful when I decided to drop out of Rutgers. It made the decision (which wasn’t really a decision) to write “full-time” (which of course I wasn’t really doing) feel more legitimate.

2 - How long have you lived in New York, and how does geography, if at all, impact on your writing? Does race or gender make any impact on your work?

I was born and raised in Manhattan. I lived in New Haven as an undergraduate at Yale, but I wasn’t very rooted at Yale and treated New Haven a bit like a suburb of New York. I lived in Iowa City for two years when I got my MFA at the University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop. Then I returned to New York because my husband began a PhD in English at Columbia. Other than the two years in Iowa it feels like I’ve always lived in New York. My husband and I think about leaving all the time but by now we have a strong community here. Also, where would we go? We’ve been spoiled by the politics of New York City and can’t imagine living in a red state. Canada?

Every summer Josh (my husband) and I try to leave the city for an extended period of time—we’ve been to Nova Scotia twice, Prince Edward Island, Maine, Denver—and the change of geography and experience of being away from home have been very important to my family and my writing.

The process of trying to see and make sense of new surroundings (or make sense of New York from a distance) often results in a tumult of writing; I think poems are one way I make sense of my world.

Meanwhile, New York is so often the background or rhythm or subject matter of my poems that I often fail to even notice. Then I go to a reading and someone reads a poem with all these deer and birds and it has a different tempo, and I realize how much my poems are from New York. But of course there are so many New Yorks! As the mother of young children I stay in my neighborhood most of the time. I look out the window at the city during someone’s nap. I walk to the park. I go and say hello to Jay who owns the health food store nearby. I take the children to school and pick them up. This is a very, very different experience from, for example, my father, who works in a large building in Midtown and wears a suit every day and often takes the subway during rush hour.

Race, gender and religion do play a part in my poetry. I just read Major Jackson’s essay in APR about how white poets fail to write about race. I’m still digesting the essay but certainly my whiteness and my presence in a mostly nonwhite city is largely invisible in my poems. I need to think about that. Gender and religion, on the other hand, are visible in my poems both in terms of process and subject matter.

3 - Where does a poem or piece of fiction 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?

There is no one way or set pattern to my poem-making. I have a notebook and sometimes there is a poem I make from bits and pieces. Right now I am at work on a longer piece in installments. Sometimes shorter poems appear as I procrastinate on the longer one.

4 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process?

Public readings are very important to my process. I love to read new work and a reading will often push me to write or at least finish something. Also, in preparing for a reading I often do my best editing. I practice reading poems out loud so that I know how long a piece takes and so that I am comfortable reading it. As I practice I notice which lines are hard to say or which parts of the poem I consistently skip or forget. Often these are places I will cut. Sometimes they are the most important part of the poem.

I think it is important, from time to time, to be responsible to your audience in a face-to-face way. Of course the reception one gets from a particular audience is not a foolproof indication of anything, but it’s really necessary to have to stand up in front of people who have devoted time and energy and maybe money to come and see you. It’s important to feel the pressure not to let these people down and to remember that poems have readers (and listeners) and are always, on some level, about human communication.

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?


Hard questions?

Can human beings get close enough to one another to experience and express real empathy?

6 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

I’m deeply grateful to my friends (and teachers) who have, over the years, read my poems and helped me make them better. I can’t imagine sending a book manuscript out into the world without at least a few of my most trusted readers (Catherine Barnett, Arielle Greenberg, D.A. Powell, Wayne Koestenbaum, David Trinidad) see it first.

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 find the process of book making quite difficult. My most recent collection was just as hard if not harder than the first two.

8 - When was the last time you ate a pear?

Pears are my favorite fruit. I am very picky about pears. Eating a bad or even mediocre pear is a profoundly disheartening experience; one I try hard to avoid. Every Friday morning I go to the farmer’s market on 97th Street between Amsterdam and Columbus and see if the pears are ready. This morning the nectarines were all gone and the apples and pears had taken over. I bought a beautiful clap pear that looks like it’s blushing pink through its yellow skin and still has a small part of the branch and two perfect leaves attached. I think it will be ready tomorrow.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

“Don’t be afraid of your suffering. Only be afraid that you will not learn from your suffering.”

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction to non-fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?

It isn’t the moving between genres that’s difficult for me but the other genres themselves. Fiction involves a lot of terror for me. Both fiction and non-fiction require a tremendous amount of time. I am a very slow writer (I can’t believe how long its taking me just to answer these questions!).

The appeal of fiction and non-fiction? Ummm, readers?!

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

Here’s my day so far: Woke up at 6:30 am. Changed baby, pumped 4 ounces of breast milk while holding the baby and reading the paper and shouting commands at my older sons. Got their backpacks ready and finished breakfast for boys. Changed baby and read him two books. Put baby down for nap. Cleaned up kitchen, worked on interview, returned emails, ordered groceries on-line, worked on my long poem in-progress. When baby woke up: nursed him, took him to the health food store for ginger and skullcap tincture (trouble sleeping), ate lunch, nursed/ changed baby. Husband on childcare duty for 2 1/2 hours: worked on interview, returned email, spoke on phone, marinated meat, did the laundry, worked on long poem-in-progress, asked friend to throw me a book party. Baby up: nurse, change, wait for husband to come home with older sons. Baby down for 3rd nap (cranky today). Should be cleaning the kitchen or writing but am working on interview. It is 4:08pm. Boys will be home soon and I’ll make dinner, supervise homework, 3 baths (its 87° today), good night books, baby to bed, big boys to bed, husband out tutoring high school students.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

I go to a reading (which almost always inspires me). I just saw Matthew Zapruder and Deborah Landeau read. They were wonderful! I read a book – particularly something dense and complicated. Lyn Hejinian or Leslie Scalapino almost always get me writing.

13 - How does your most recent book compare to your previous work? How does it feel different?

I have no idea.

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?

I love visual art. I love the language of science (there’s a lot of science in my new book). As I said, I think I often write poems as an attempt to connect to my landscape, so place is important (not as a subject matter but more as a strong tide I’m swimming against).

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

Are you kidding? Do you want a list of 50 poets?

And fiction writers? Wow. I couldn’t possibly name them all. I’ll say only that I am trying very hard right now to figure something out about writing – a puzzle of sorts – that has to do with Nathan Englander, Michael Chabon and Marilynne Robinson.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

Travel around the world for a year with my family.

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?


18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

No one/ nothing made me do anything. This is what I’m doing. Maybe some day I’ll do something else.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

The Yiddish Policeman’s Union.

20 - What are you currently working on?

I’m collaborating on a book-length hybrid genre piece with Arielle Greenberg called Home/Birth. Arielle and I are also editing an anthology of essays by women poets about mentorship called Women Poets on Mentorship: Efforts and Affections that is due out this May from University of Iowa Press. I just finished my fourth collection of poems, which is tentatively titled. Museum of Accidents and will be published in 2008 by Wave Books. I just wrote an essay about nursing for an anthology and as soon as I’m done with these questions hope to get back to work on my novel.

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