Friday, March 17, 2023

Rachel Zucker, The Poetics of Wrongness


            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.”
A poet is one who feels wrong in a wrong world and is willing to speak even when doing so proves her wrong, ugly, broken, and complicit. This is not the same as saying that I write poetry to “feel better” or to be forgiven or that the goal of poetry is to “right wrongs.” Perhaps some people feel better when they write poetry. Perhaps some poems make the world less wrong. What I’m trying to explain is that a poet’s athleticism lies in her ability to stay in and with wrongness. Of being willing to be disliked for being too smart or too stupid, too direct or incomprehensible, elitist or the lowest of the low, and for what? For the privilege of pointing out that everything in the world is wrong (including me). (“The Poetics of Wrongness, An Unapologia”)

I’m always excited to see the appearance of a new title from New York City poet, editor, interviewer and publisher Rachel Zucker, and her latest title is the book-length essay The Poetics of Wrongness (Seattle WA/New York NY: Wave Books, 2023), a work originally presented and produced as an in-person lecture as part of The Bagley Wright Lecture Series [see my review of Dorothy Lasky’s 2019 Animal, here]. Zucker is the author of five full-length poetry collections: Eating in the Underworld (Wesleyan University Press, 2003), The Last Clear Narrative (Wesleyan University Press, 2004), The Bad Wife Handbook (Wesleyan University Press, 2007), Museum of Accidents (Wave Books, 2009) [see my review of such here] and The Pedestrians (Wave Books, 2014) [see my review of such here]. In the opening section of The Poetics of Wrongness, Zucker describes her shock at being solicited for such a series as The Bagley Wright Lecture Series, offering that she’d never done a lecture before, but her evolution has shifted over the past decade or so to expand beyond poetry into non-fiction, working a blend of essay and memoir that would certainly lead itself to this particular invitation. She’s been thinking about writing and writing about thinking about writing and writing about thinking about thinking about writing for so long that the trajectory feels entirely natural: one can trace a beginning through the staggered and accumulative narrative essay-lyric of her poetry, moving more overtly into prose through her collaboration with Arielle Greenberg, their HOME/BIRTH: a poemic (1913 Press, 2010). Since then, one can see Zucker’s movement across lyric and form through her blends of poetic essay and memoir in her subsequent MOTHERs (Counterpath Press, 2014) [see my review of such here] and SoundMachine (Wave Books, 2019) [see my review of such here], both of which I highly recommend.

            What do you get when you mix the pursuits of brevity and beauty? advertising. The motto, the jingle, the political slogan. A pitch that should take no longer than a ride in an elevator. The poetics of wrongness prefers the stairs, prefers a half-finished, crumbling stairway to nowhere. The poetics of wrongness often can’t fit in an elevator, wouldn’t know what button to press, doesn’t know where it’s going, suffers from a fear of elevators, and has forgotten its keys and wallet. The poetics of wrongness wants poems that are expansive, inclusive, contradictory, self-conscious, ashamed, irreverent. It’s hard to be those things in a hundred words or less.

It becomes hard to get more than a few pages into this lecture without wishing to quote everything, such as Zucker’s notion of beauty equalling truth, which she contradicts at length, arguing against John Keats, and Mark Strand as well. “I too love the well-made thing,” she writes, “but the poetics of wrongness rejects the notion that poetry is a pursuit by which we take the ordinary and put makeup on it, make it better, make it ‘best.’ The notion that art must be the rendering of the ordinary into the transcendent or extraordinary is not only wrong but is ultimately part of a system of thinking that has been used to oppress, enslave, torment, and destroy.” It becomes hard not to get lost, as well, in her remarkable prose. This might be essential reading. I am already lost.

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