A Conversation with Rachel Zucker

By Rick Marlatt

Your bio describes you as a person with many interests and responsibilities including motherhood, travel, photography, academia, childbirth education, culinary arts, and marathon running. What makes it all come together?
I'm not sure that it does "come together." I'm always worrying that all the things I do detract from my ability to do one thing really well. On the other hand, I'm never ever bored.

Many poets and writers tend to fall back on teaching as a source of economic stability. You do a lot of teaching in addition to the other activities in your life. Do you find that maintaining occupancy in a variety of wavelengths to be stimulating artistically?
Um, teaching "as a source of economic stability?” Not sure that really works for most people. Teaching poetry does provide more money than writing poetry but that isn't saying much. But, in response to the other part of your question, yes, I do find teaching to be very artistically stimulating--both preparing for class and my interactions with students--and I'm grateful for that.

Where does writing fit into your universe? What is the relationship between your craft and the rest of your life?
I feel like I'm figuring this out again from point zero every single day. It's exhausting.

You are a writer of both poetry and prose. Do you find that the process in each genre informs the other, or are the mechanics more distinct?

I'm not a confident prose writer as of yet. I guess feeling as stupid and frightened as I do when writing prose helps me be a better poet because I never feel like an expert. I know feeling stupid makes me a better teacher. The mechanics of prose are different. Prose takes so much more time.

Would you discuss your education? What effect has your graduate training had on your writing, both critically and artistically? 
I'm not sure I'd call getting a MFA "training." I am trained as a doula and my doula education was absolutely "training" in the sense that I learned how to do something. At Yale I was a psych major which didn't train me for anything except studying really hard. I spent a lot of my time writing poems during my neuropsych or philosophy classes because the language was very inspiring (so then I had to go back and figure out what the professor had been saying all over again). I also spent a lot of my time stressing about current, past and potential future boyfriends and, actually, in retrospect that might have been time well spent. Getting a MFA at Iowa was a wonderful experience; it was thrilling to come into contact with other writers (some of whom are now life-long friends) and such excellent professors. It was great--and somewhat surreal and unsustainable--to be in a place where everyone thought poetry was important. Mostly, the MFA is valuable in that it gives one time to read and write. I don't think that's the same as training.

Museum of Accidents (Wave Books) is your fourth collection of poems, and it has garnered a great deal of praise, including terrific reviews in places like the Boston Review. Would you discuss the book's significance within the context of your career?        
I never felt I had a "career" in poetry before the very positive reception of my latest book. I still wonder if having a "career" as a poet is possible, but I think that if it is possible, maybe I do have one. Seriously, it's a little creepy, and very amazing. I am totally weirded out that Stephen Burt got so much right in terms of my influences and motivations in his Boston Review piece. That's almost more touching and disturbing than how much he liked the book.

In addition to your own work, you're also a noted editor. One of your compilations is Starting Today: 100 Poems for Obama's First 100 Days. How do the themes and symbols in contemporary social and cultural issues affect your work? 
More and more I'm trying to write poetry that is more overtly social and political. I'm right in the middle of this, though, so I don't really feel comfortable talking about it.

You've been studying, writing, and publishing poetry for well over a decade; and your work has been recognized by many awards and fellowships across the spectrum of contemporary American poetry. How might you describe your evolution as a poet? How has your work developed or changed over time?
I'm probably the worst person to try to answer this. I'm not sure my work has changed very much over time. Has it? I can really only talk about my interests. Those have changed. Although maybe those haven't changed very much either? Oh dear. Maybe that's why I'm always rejected for fellowships? The question is always, "what would you do with this money?" and all I really want to say is "write more." I think it's funny that Museum of Accidents was received so differently than my other books. They're all
so similar.

Many young poets feel their success as writers hinges largely on publications. How important was it for you to publish when you first started writing?

Getting published was always important to me. I started sending out poems when I was in graduate school and found it pretty thrilling when they were accepted to journals. But I didn't assume that acceptance by an editor was necessarily a sign of the poem's worth. I was always aware that good work wasn't going to get published because of space, formatting, etc. or just because it didn't fit an editor's needs at the time. That was one of the reasons I started Boomerang: A Contributor's Journal, which was a spiral bound journal I made in editions of 25 or 50. I solicited poets and published whatever they gave me. I very much liked publishing works-in-progress or work that wouldn't be published elsewhere. It felt fresh and more like "sharing" which is part of what all publication should be about.

You do a lot of readings in the New York area, including The New School and the St. Mark's Poetry Project, and elsewhere. Are you typically conscious of live performance potential when you compose a piece?
I'm not that conscious of anything when I make a new poem which is part of why I like writing. I'm not in that mind. I do value readings very highly and use them as part of my process of revision. If something doesn't read right it's usually not right. And if I never want to read a certain poem it probably isn't good. Also, I really only like reading new work and readings are an opportunity to force myself to have something new. Recently, I also have made a rule for myself to write something new during a reading.

This spring, you'll teach a graduate seminar at Columbia on contemporary American poetry by women. Can you discuss your influences? What poets have informed your work?
I taught that course last Spring, and it was fantastic! It was so inspiring to have the opportunity to read and reread so many great poets. Also my students brought all sorts of new insights to the poems. I think I am freakishly overly influenced by Alice Notley. Isn't everyone?


Rachel Zucker is the author of four books of poetry, most recently, Museum of Accidents, (Wave Books, 2009) named one of the best books of poetry in 2009 by Publisher Weekly, and a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award. Zucker's first full-length collection is Eating in the Underworld (Wesleyan Press, 2003), a series of poems that follows the narrative arc of the myth of Persephone. Her second collection, The Last Clear Narrative, (2004) is a cross examination of marriage and motherhood. Her third collection, The Bad Wife Handbook, is a darkly comic contemplation of married life. Zucker has co-edited (with poet Arielle Greenberg) two anthologies: Women Poets on Mentorship: Efforts and Affections, (2008) an anthology of essays by younger women poets about mentorship and Starting Today: 100 Poems for Obama's First 100 Days. She lives in New York with her husband and their three sons. Currently she is teaching at New York University and the 92nd Street Y and studying to become a childbirth educator. Her website is www.rachelzucker.net.

Share |