Rachel Zucker has lived in New York City for almost her entire life. She is the author of several poetry collections, including Museum of Accidents (2009), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and named one of the best poetry books of the year by Publishers Weekly; The Last Clear Narrative (2004); and Eating in the Underworld (2003). Her memoir, MOTHERs, was just released by Counterpath Press. With poet Arielle Greenberg, Rachel co-authored Home/Birth: A Poemic (2010). She was trained as a birth doula and a childbirth educator but is not currently attending births or teaching childbirth education classes. She has taught at Fordham University and New York University.
Rachel’s turn-ons include: good television, babies, watching her sons play music or soccer, and salt. Turn-offs: Garrison Keillor, disorganized and irresponsible people, stand-up comedy, and animals that speak with human voices. Her latest book is The Pedestrians, from Wave Books.
The Rumpus: Rachel, welcome to Late Nite. I can’t believe you’re here! Don’t you have better things to do with your time?
Rachel Zucker: I do have better things to do with my time. Would you like a list?
Rumpus: Sure, let’s hear some of it. You can take us all the way to our first commercial break!
Zucker: Well, I spend a lot of time scheduling things. I just spent a week’s worth of hours figuring out the travel soccer arrangements for two of my kids. Also, my fall teaching schedule. Also, dinner. Also, who is picking my kids up from school. Also, I’m teaching now. Very little of my time is spent thinking about poetry right now, except the time I spend in class, so really the truth is I don’t have anything “better” to do than this interview, I just have all the things that rise to the top of the list of what seems urgent. I was talking about urgency in poetry yesterday in class. It’s funny, then, to say that talking about poetry has very little comparative urgency in my life right now.
Rumpus: And yet look at you—the books, the hairstyle, the fashion! You’re like the Tina Fey of poetry. A true Renaissance woman.
Zucker: Oh, don’t get me started. Did you see the piece that ran on The Rumpus recently? Speaking about my hair… I’ll turn the tables on you—what did you think of that?
Rumpus: Hey, even Tina doesn’t always sport a Prell look. As for the review—personally, I like my milk 1%.
Zucker: Well, just saying… I won’t say anything about my hair! I do think there is something there to what she’s saying, even if it felt bad. I’m interested in that response but confused by it as well.
Rumpus: Fortunately The Rumpus review department is down in the basement while we’re up here in our penthouse studio.
Zucker: I do complain about a great many things—and shouldn’t—but not about my hair because I’ve accepted that I really don’t understand anything about my hair or clothes. That’s just not my thing.
Rumpus: You know, I was a bit worried to have you on the show, since stand-up is one of your so-called turnoffs.
Zucker: Ha! That’s not to say I don’t like comedy. There’s an important distinction. I love narrative and sometimes I feel frustrated with stand-up.
Rumpus: Which is weird because The Pedestrians is awfully funny. Can you talk about the kind of humor that interests you, in life and in your poems?
Zucker: Humor is essential to survival. Funny poems are vastly underrated. Very underwritten.
Rumpus: Underappreciated too.
Zucker: I’m glad you find The Pedestrians funny. I wish it were even funnier. But I am only able to be honest. And sometimes my view of the world is pretty dark. But still funny.
Rumpus: On the surface the poems are quite funny, but the more you spend time with them, the more serious they seem. Most comedic poems worth their salt probably have this quality.
Zucker: Well I think humor and terror are very closely related.
Rumpus: Me too. That’s why I’m such a huge fan of Louie. That show is amazing. To me it’s the televised equivalent of poetry.
Zucker: My husband loves Louie. I like it. I love moments of the show but don’t love the whole thing.
Rumpus: Can you list some comedic influences—performers and poets?
Zucker: I loved Ali G.—the show but not the movies. I like Maria Bamford. One of my greatest anxieties as a mother is head injuries. Truly. I’m not being funny. I really, really fear head injuries. But when people hit their heads in movies or fall down—I can’t stop laughing.
Rumpus: Like this stuff here?
Zucker: No, actually. I hate those. Had to stop watching. Those are real head injuries and therefore not funny, and the addition of the laugh track and “funny music” just makes it worse. I am very concerned about all the people in that video and want to make sure they’re all ok.
Rumpus: So more like this?
Zucker: Yeah, more like that! Some of those are super funny, although the laugh track almost ruins it. Normally, I don’t love Seinfeld or that guy—I’m blanking on the name—my husband and oldest son love him. Larry David! Curb Your Enthusiasm felt too mean and also too repetitive. Not complex enough.
Rumpus: One thing comedians do—that I think poets also try to do—is make everything game. Even meanness. I don’t like watching some of it, but I admire the desire to embody the whole range of human experience. There’s a great clip we’ll link to here of Louis C.K., Seinfeld, Ricky Gervais, and Chris Rock talking about this. If you hang in and watch for a while, you realize you’re watching an MFA workshop on humor. They actually argue at one point about where the line should be drawn… stuff they can’t or don’t talk about in their acts. Seinfeld seems the most limited in this regard.
Zucker: I love it when artists talk about process! I love the movie Comedian.
Rumpus: Haven’t seen it. I’ll put that on my Netflix stream. But you should check out the “Talking Funny” video we linked to above, courtesy of the poet Cory MacPherson.
Zucker: I loved the British Office and also the American one. LOVED them. That was uncomfortable for sure, but there was a narrative.
Rumpus: British Office is incredible. So good I couldn’t even bring myself to watch the American counterpart, though I’m ashamed to admit it.
Zucker: Yes, I agree that comedy does a good job—and is often about—stepping over the line—Lenny Bruce, etc.—and that this is important for a lot of poets too. I guess I feel like there has to be depth. I don’t think loving the American Office takes away from the British one.
Rumpus: I’m sure you’re right, but I still haven’t been able to do it. Let’s talk about The Pedestrians. Traditionally we get things going by having the poet introduce a poem from the book.
Rumpus: The audience can link to it here. Our discussion about comedy relates to this poem, I think. One of the things I appreciate in your work is that you prove you can begin, go, or end a poem anywhere. When did you learn this was possible? Was that true for you at the outset of your writing life, or was this something you built up to or came to trust over time?
Zucker: Hmmmm… When did I learn this is possible? When was it not possible? There is a poem in Museum of Accidents called “What Dark Thing.” It has a secret formal assignment: I wanted to not come back to the beginning. I was sick of poems that circled back. That’s all I cared about for that poem. There’s another poem “Welcome to the Blighted Ovum Support Group”—all I knew was that it was about my miscarriage and had to end with the punch lines of dirty jokes. So yes, sometimes there are formal rules I’m breaking on purpose.
Rumpus: Here’s where the question comes from, I think. The poems we’re taught in school usually have a trajectory that can roughly be charted as beginning/middle/end, with the end usually carrying the most weight. Your style democratizes every iteration and mode of feeling. The form of “Pedestrian” has an equalizing pressure. Every new thought is balanced with the others. I love that quality, which you cultivate elsewhere, like in “I’m Nobody You Are Too” and the amazing “I’d Like a Little Flashlight” and “Please Alice Notley Tell Me How To Be Old.”
Zucker: Yes, ok. I was being a bit snide. So I was asked to write this essay for an anthology. A micro essay for Structure and Surprise, edited by Michael Theune. Check it out: it’s a really good book! I ended up writing about how much I disliked the epiphany ending. It was something I’d thought about for a while but hadn’t been forced to articulate clearly.
Rumpus: I’m sick of them too. I write too many of them!
Zucker: That helped me realize it was not just an annoyance but a kind of political stance.
Rumpus: Was there ever a time when you aimed for that epiphanic ending? I started doing it as a kid and never stopped. Thought that was the whole point. James Joyce is into this, and Flannery O’Connor of course, and Philip Larkin, Keats, etc.
Zucker: I supposed I sometimes still aim for that ending. It’s very satisfying in some ways. But mostly I distrust it. In high school my mother advised me to make my last lines into titles. It was very good advice.
Rumpus: I think the poem is also a good example of the comedic dynamic in your work. It has an O’Haran freewheeling pace and style but also his wit: “I stayed on the local b/c why go nowhere faster.” There’s the rim shot of that moment which counterpoints the poem’s other moments of seriousness. It helps give that seriousness traction in expressions like “what should I be doing? dying?” and “please someone remind me what’s/the point of literature?”
Rumpus: There’s also the moment later on when you mention, “Cathy Wagner’s / book My New Job includes the word PENIS frequently / that’s nice & makes me feel happy like a pinked-up / pickled radish…” That’s a surprising, delightful move. It also suggests, to me at least, that you acknowledge there are topics you haven’t quite attacked yet or accommodated in your writing. It speaks to a voracious appetite for life and fitting as much of it as possible into your poems. Is this a good reading of that moment?
Zucker: I think that’s a very kind reading, and accurate insofar as it does describe my desire to get EVERYTHING into the poems. And yes, I don’t write very much about penises. More than some poets but not perhaps as much as I should. Penises are literally all around me all the time, and have a lot of influence on the world, on my world.
Rumpus: Yes, they are a daily part of existence… at least for half of us.
Zucker: I’ve been married to a penis for a very long time. 17 years. I have three sons.
Rumpus: I’ve been married to one for 44. With no divorce option.
Zucker: My poetry definitely comes out of a female body. Heh.
Rumpus: Touché. I understand that Woody Allen is an influence.
Zucker: Yes, because I feel like his “form” is one that feels very compelling to me. He’s a storyteller. He’s a comedian. He breaks the rules—and sometimes fails. He is funny and very dark. I feel closer to his “poetics” than O’Hara’s, in a way. Even though I don’t work with plot or character really.
Rumpus: I can see the relationship. Especially in the first section of the book, or rather the first of the two books, since The Pedestrians is actually two books in one. How do you feel when readers describe this style as “stream of consciousness”? I think we throw around that term too much, especially in workshops.
Zucker: I feel fine about that. It’s not accurate in terms of my process, but I’m not offended by it.
Rumpus: The term “surreal” too. It’s as if everybody’s lost touch with its original meaning
Zucker: Oh, surreal! I so, so want to be surreal! I long to be! But I am not. I am only “real.” Or apparently real. Or faux-real. Or something. Surrealism sounds super fun.
Rumpus: So few of us are surreal. Let’s link to some seriously surreal YouTube stuff right here.
Zucker: I am interested in the movement of my own thoughts and in trying make the poems feel more accurate to experience, including the experience of thinking. When I edit the poems—and I do edit, which some people don’t mean when they use the term “stream of consciousness”—I’m usually editing toward greater accuracy, which sometimes means more fragmentation, because that is the way I think.
Rumpus: Poems like “Pedestrian” and “Alice Notley” extend that tradition. Are they initially written that way? “Pedestrian” takes place on the subway. Is the initial draft actually written on the subway?
Zucker: Yes, almost all of that poem was written in transit. And some of it was written in the “free writing” part of my class.
Rumpus: I assume then you do this a lot—free writing—but only a small percentage of those poems survive or proceed toward being finished or published. Safe assumption?
Zucker: No. I almost never do free writing. Unless I am forcing my students to do it.
Zucker: Hmmm… Writing on the subway or anywhere is writing. Maybe it’s all just writing.
In this case I was starting every class session with a mandatory “quiet writing” session of 5-10 minutes. I just remember using that time to continue the poem I’d been writing that day on the subway. Sometimes I make my classes do automatic writing for 5 minutes and increasing 2 minutes a day until they get to 20 minutes. I did that two summers ago when I was teaching in Paris, and I did it along with them. There were a few poems that came out of that. But usually that’s not part of my process. I don’t have a regular process.
Rumpus: Other than writing, do you do any free association exercises to keep your brain limber?
Zucker: No with any regularity, but I’m not opposed to it!
Rumpus: Let’s do this. I’ll feed you a word or phrase, and you respond without censoring yourself. Want to try it?
Rumpus: Okay. First one: Happy Hour.
Zucker: Sad hour.
Rumpus: I don’t think David Chang would be pleased with that. It sounds like he’s serving up ramen. Care to add more?
Zucker: Sure… I think I’d have to say “sugar.”
Zucker: I know that’s not very satisfying. Usually I avoid sugar, but sugar is like the most deeply satisfying addictive thing ever, like Momofuku.
Rumpus: I gather you’re something of a foodie.
Zucker: Oh my god, yes. I love food too much—not because I’m fat but because it’s so consumptionistic, etc.
Rumpus: Food pops up a lot in your poems. Makes them more sensory and rich. Okay… back to the game. Here we go: Tina Fey.
Zucker: I might suck at this game. Jangle. I love Tina Fey’s comedy.
Rumpus: You’re doing great! Spongebob Squarepants.
Zucker: Insipid brain disease.
Rumpus: “I wandered lonely as a cloud…“
Zucker: Matt Rohrer.
Rumpus: Alice Notley.
Zucker: Witch. And I love witches.
Rumpus: Is that what they’re called in NYC?
Popbars ruin the whole beauty of popsicles, which I don’t like, and makes them fancy and delicious to me—which is embarrassing. There are, by the way, low-end foods I like very much.
Zucker: Mallomars, pork buns, ramen…
Rumpus: Back to the game. I’ve got a few more: Hillary.
Zucker: Halloween, which I HATE.
Rumpus: You hate Halloween?
Zucker: YES. I HATE HALLOWEEN. This makes me VERY unpopular.
Rumpus: I bet. What was your best Halloween costume? Or worst? Or the last time you dressed up for Halloween?
Zucker: One time I was picking my kid up at day care and it was Halloween and he saw all these people dressed up in costumes and he was asking why and I said, “That’s weird, I don’t know,” and I rushed him home and locked the door and pretended it was not Halloween. I think that was my favorite Halloween. Sadly, that didn’t work again…
Rumpus: That sounds like a plot twist from Louie.
Zucker: I don’t remember ever dressing up for Halloween but I must have. I do not like dressing up at all. I do not like it when other people dress up. I like everyone to be THEMSELVES. I do not like candy. I do not like knocking on strangers’ doors. I do not like having to deal with the candy disaster that is Halloween. I resent it. My kids eat tons of crap but not BAGS of CANDY. Also, now Halloween means that young girls dress up in highly sexualized outfits that would never be acceptable if it weren’t Halloween.
Rumpus: But you like it when Sasha Baron Cohen dresses up as Ali G., yes?
Zucker: Yes, I like that. I like when he takes on the role of a total buffoon. I am not against acting. Also, do you know Sarah Jones? She is fucking AWESOME. LOVE her. She becomes someone else in front of your eyes as you are watching, without even dressing up.
Rumpus: She’s cool. Here’s her TED talk.
Zucker: But that’s not Halloween. I’m interested in the self. And in the limits and transformations of self. And in self presentation. And in doubt. And in playing with the audience’s expectations. But I don’t like dressing up like on Halloween. Does that make sense?
Rumpus: When you watch Sasha Baron Cohen or Sarah Jones in action, you become aware of the difference between embodying a character vs. merely dressing up.
Zucker: It’s a really important distinction for me, on the page and in my life. I’ve gotten better at it but I still suck at putting on makeup and wearing any kind of clothing that feels ornamental. It’s just not for me.
Rumpus: On that note, here’s another word association: Selfie.
Rumpus: William Blake.
Rumpus: Vanilla Ice.
Zucker: Key chains.
Rumpus: Key chains? Rachel Zucker, do you have a Vanilla Ice key chain?
Zucker: I was not popular enough—or at all—when Vanilla Ice was popular to remember who Vanilla Ice is without my husband reminding me. So, no, I don’t have a Vanilla Ice key chain.
Rumpus: Have you seen this? I can’t decide whether it’s the most brilliant thing on television or a sign of the apocalypse.
Zucker: I had not seen that. Not sure there would be enough foodie food on that show to keep me interested.
Rumpus: Okay, next one: metaphor.
Rumpus: Pop Tart.
Zucker: Arielle’s pregnancy.
Rumpus: As in your pal and collaborator, Arielle Greenberg, right?
Rumpus: Two more: Sylvia Plath.
Rumpus: Good one! “Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don’t.”
Zucker: Yup. That was a great ad campaign.
Rumpus: Agreed. Enough of that… we’re wearing ourselves out. It seems like one of the themes in The Pedestrians is the pursuit of joy, actually. Pardon the cheesy transition.
Zucker: I agree.
Rumpus: It’s a persistent question in the book. The speaker of your poems is on a quest to find it.
Zucker: Yes, very true. It’s a struggle. Something I’m working toward. You know, it’s not really a quest to find joy as much as it is a quest to be the kind of person who seeks and accepts joy. Does that make sense?
Rumpus: Absolutely. This is what resonates with me most about the book and why I wanted you to appear on the show.
We haven’t spent enough time talking about the prose half of the book, Fables. Can you talk a little about the relationship between Fables and The Pedestrians?
Zucker: Fables and The Pedestrians were written as separate books but I was writing both of them at the same time or overlapping in time. The editors at Wave suggested putting the two books together. I like the way the two books talk to each other and tell some of the same stories in different voices and registers.
Rumpus: Me too. The echoing between the two is never overdone.
Zucker: I like the way the prose and poetry interact. The two books, along with my memoir MOTHERs, were all written in the same three or so years and together they are a kind of simultaneous trilogy of one woman’s life told in different registers.
Rumpus: I love how animals keep popping up in the poems—how you explore the border between the human and animal. In my reading there’s a connection between the pursuit of joy and our inner fierceness or feral nature. Maybe because animals, as far as we know, always live in the present. If we can get closer in touch with our animals selves we might capture more joy for ourselves. Or experience more joy.
Zucker: I have a complicated relationship with non-human animals. I’ve never really been close to one. I’m fascinated by but afraid of animals. I was also reading a lot of Jung at the time. All of this, along with hating and wanting to explore the form of the fable, went into that book.
Rumpus: That’s fascinating. But it somehow makes sense to me now that I’ve read the book. Yes… the animals are all at a distance. They’re elusive creatures mostly. No cuddly kittens or pups in your work. But foxes, jackdaws, snakes. Beasts that peck or bite.
Zucker: I’m even afraid of kittens. They bite too! But I respect animals.
Rumpus: Elaborate on that.
Zucker: I think it’s a huge shortcoming of mine—this disconnect between the world of human and animals. We are animals.
Rumpus: Lurking somewhere behind Fables are Aesop’s Fables, in which animals are given human characteristics, desires, language. It’s as if you’re inverting Aesop’s dynamic somehow.
Zucker: Yes. Originally the pieces in Fables all had titles from real fables and all had little morals at the end. In later revisions I took these out.
Rumpus: It’s no secret that you’ve lived most of your life in NYC, where, because it’s a paragon of civilization, there might be some longing for wilderness, for creatureliness.
Zucker: I have a longing for wilderness and for greenness. I wish I were a person who longed for animals, but I’m not.
Rumpus: Which species do you think resonates the most for you, metaphorically?
Zucker: Well I want to resist that question because in a way I don’t want animals to be metaphorical.
Rumpus: Fair enough. Let’s switch gears then.
Rumpus: One way of thinking about your books to date is that they attack or exploit the labels we put on women, and particularly mothers. The feral mother, the belabored mother, the mythical mother, the Madonna, the martyr, etc. The writing seems like a way of getting to the self by means of deconstructing those labels or masks. Where do you think you’re headed next?
Zucker: Ooph. Well, I’m in a hard place right now. A very silent place. And I’m struggling to either accept this or drag myself out of it.
Rumpus: It sounds like you need to be obstructed. You know about this little writing assignment/game we do on Late Nite, right?
Zucker: Remind me…
Rumpus: Well, it’s based on a film by Lars Von Trier and Jorgen Leth, titled The Five Obstructions. Have you seen it? It’s a documentary about creativity, inspiration, form, etc.
Zucker: No—is it good?
Rumpus: Fantastic. David Rivard recommended it to me and I use it in my classes. You get to see all the triumphs and failures of the creative process. It’s wonderful, disturbing, and beautiful.
So I’ll give you three poetry obstructions, or rules, and then you’ll produce a draft in response to those rules. Ready?
Rumpus: Okay… here are your three obstructions. Your poem must:
- Include your three sons.
- Use end-rhyme at least three times.
- Find inspiration from or address this video.
How does that sound?
Zucker: Scary and fun!
Rumpus: Our viewing audience can participate by posting their poems in the comment box below.
Okay, Rachel. What do you have for us?
Zucker: I only could manage something short and sort of dumb:
Bridge under sun
blanch the air.
Hands on the controls,
where, where, there.
Alert and pertinent.
The three boys full
of witness and terror cry
Loop de loop de loop.
Rumpus: Which rule was the biggest pain in the ass?
Zucker: The rhymes were annoying and also, sorry, I didn’t care much for the video. Again, though, I’m not really writing so the whole enterprise feels obstructed to me. Like a potentially fatal bowel obstruction.
Rumpus: Well, it’s really generous of you to make an attempt during this stretch when your muse is on vacation.
Zucker: Sorry to end on a really unfunny note, but it’s hard for me to find humor in my current non-writing situation.
Rumpus: No worries. You’ve been a delightful guest. Time for a Popbar.
Stay tuned for Episode #5 of The Rumpus Late Nite Poetry Show, with guest Daniel Anderson.