If I Don’t Write This, I Can’t Go On: An Interview with Rachel Zucker
By Michael KimballFebruary 6, 2014
Rachel Zucker is the author of nine books including a memoir, MOTHERs, and a forthcoming double collection of poetry and prose called The Pedestrians. She lives in New York and teaches poetry at New York University. She is the mother of three sons and is a labor doula and childbirth educator. The Believer says Rachel Zucker “may be Generation X’s likeliest heir to the confessional legacy of Sylvia Plath, Louise Glück, and Sharon Olds.”
MICHAEL KIMBALL: Part way through MOTHERs, you reveal that you were afraid to write about your mothers, your biological one and your poetry professors. How did you overcome that fear and begin writing?
RACHEL ZUCKER: I began writing without overcoming the fear. The fear didn’t dissipate, and I still have moments of terror about this book. The fear wasn’t constant — it ebbed and flowed — and there were moments when other emotions almost crowded out fear: resoluteness, defiance, exasperation, confusion, resignation, hopefulness. The phrase “I was afraid to...” often means one didn’t do the thing one would have done if one had not been afraid. The phrase assumes the fear has a predictably stopping force. “I was almost afraid to” often means “I almost didn’t do it.” I’m thinking right now about birthing and how doulas sometimes talk about the difference between pain and suffering. Pain is a normal part of labor and has an important adaptive value. Hopefully suffering isn’t part of labor because suffering isn’t necessary or useful in labor. I wonder if there is a similar distinction between fear and — not sure what the equivalent of fearful suffering is — terror?
I still have moments of terror about this book. In those moments I just sit, frozen, trying to catch my breath. In the terror moments I think that this book actually killed my mother. I think that I will never write anything again. I think I am a morally bankrupt person. There is no writing through those moments. But fear ... I wonder if, like pain, fear has an adaptive quality to it, a motivating quality? I sometimes wonder if my penchant to write about what I’m afraid of is a masochistic flaw, and I know that some people have a low view of “writing as therapy,” but most writers are triggered in part by some sort of discomfort whether it is fear, confusion, curiosity, anger, or obsession.
Over the years, when I’ve been afraid to write something, for personal reasons or for aesthetic reasons, I’ve insisted (to myself) that I write that thing. I was terrified to write Big Ray, both the material about abuse and the things like the dead dad jokes. I’ve found that writing through the fear is a kind of relief, though publication kicks the fear back up again.
There were moments during the writing and since the publication that I have felt: that other people write books that are much more [insert adjective here] than this one, and they don’t seem terrified, so maybe I just need to stop being so chicken. And other feelings, too, ones I’m less proud of: if I don’t write this I will never write anything and if I don’t write this I will disappear and if I don’t write this I can’t go on.
MOTHERs reads like you found a way to go on. The book is a hybrid, part memoir and part poetry (mostly quotes of others). It made me think of David Markson’s late novels, at times, especially when you ask: “What if it were possible to tell you everything about myself by quoting others?”
The book came closely on the heels of the publication of Home/Birth: A Poemic, a book I wrote collaboratively with Arielle Greenberg. Our book is a hybrid nonfiction book about birth, friendship, and feminism. We include our own birth stories, the birth stories of others, the found language from home birth bumper stickers and medical studies. For the most part a reader can’t tell when I am speaking or when Arielle is speaking, so it subverts normal expectations about authorship. There are section dividers marked with poems made from language recycled from longer prose sections of the book. The book grew organically from the inside out, from the back and forth between Arielle and myself. It was an addictive process, and we were both a bit sad and lonely when the writing was really over.
The form of MOTHERs is very much like Home/birth except that I’m talking to myself and aware of the sadness of that. There are many other books and lyric essays that I’m sure inspired me and informed my formal choices (although for a long time nothing felt like a “formal choice,” just like a big formlessness). At one point I remember complaining to a poet friend that I wished my book had turned out more like Maggie Nelson’s Bluets (which I admire for its tightness and restraint and composure). The friend laughed and said, “your book is just like you: a too-muchness, a mess.” It was said with love and approval. It made me think that my own frustrations with my book(s) are understandable but silly. What if I went to the hairdresser and said, “This time I’d like you to make me tall, thin, and blond.” Good luck with that.
I have long admired and (honestly) envied a spare, short style. Your book Us, Abigail Thomas’s Safekeeping. Half of my new collection of poems/prose, The Pedestrians, is a series called Fables, which are short autobiographical prose pieces written in third person and which aspire to a Kimball/Thomas/Nelson concision. But MOTHERs was not something I could contain. Like my longer poems and like my books of poems, MOTHERs had to expand in a sprawl. I needed space to change my mind, to be wrong, to reconsider, to include, to be changed.
Also, I have long loved book-length poems (which tend to be hybrid): Don’t Let Me Be Lonely (Claudia Rankine), all of Anne Carson’s work, Jane (Maggie Nelson), I, Afterlife (Kristin Prevallet), Red Missed Aches Read Missed Aches Red Mistakes Read Mistakes (Jennifer Tamayo). I also love traditional and nontraditional memoirs: Bring Down the Little Birds (Carmen Giménez Smith), Half a Life (Darin Strauss), Safekeeping (Abigail Thomas), Trespasses (Lacy Johnson), and many graphic memoirs.
You write: “I have often tried not to be a poet.” And I’m wondering if the memoir elements are an attempt to “not be a poet.”
I’ve had a long love/hate relationship with prose. I love very long and very short novels and memoirs, but until MOTHERs I had never written either. About nine years ago I started working on a historical novel based on the life of Gutmann Gutwirth, my great-grandfather. There were many reasons I wanted to write that novel: I’d been given a suitcase full of photographs of my grandmother’s family; there were questions I wanted to answer including how the family became secular in Antwerp before WWII, and who this religious Polish diamond-dealer father-of-nine was deep inside. Also I wanted to prove that I wasn’t “just” a poet.
My oldest son had just started school, a transition I found interesting and unsettling. Every day I would drop him off at school, and a few days a week I would go to the Hungarian Pastry Shop and write at the same table with my fiction writer friend Nathan Englander, who, at the time, was always there. I was working on several long poems (that would later end up in The Bad Wife Handbook) and on the novel.
Every writing day I would start by jotting down some observations about my son’s drop off at school and about my thoughts about school as an institution. I was annoyed with myself; I only had a few hours and I was wasting them on writing about my kid’s drop offs. This journal turned into a book (that no one would publish) called The Goodbye Book. Looking back on those months, which feel mostly like a failure, I think I was teaching myself to write prose. I’m a slow prose writer and find writing prose to be even more full of self-doubt and self-loathing than poetry. And yet I’ve always wanted to write prose.
It’s a bit sad to be a poet. Even successful poets have an extremely limited audience, and a lot of people hate poetry, even people who are avid readers of other genres. There is a freedom in not having a market to worry about — nothing you do or don’t do as a poet or in poetry is really going to matter financially so you should just write what you really care about in a way that makes sense to you and not worry about anything else. But that also makes writing poetry hard to justify. I always felt that stories and art are meant to be organic, living communication with a live audience. Saying I was a poet always felt ridiculous and embarrassing, like I didn’t have any chance of being part of a larger cultural conversation or of giving pleasure to a “general audience.” I think that growing up the daughter of a storyteller and within a community of storytellers made me care about the connection between the artist and audience. For many years my poems were criticized for being too “prose-y,” and I, too, felt like I was not really lyric enough.
This is starting to sound like “poor me” sour grapes, but all these things were swirling around in my head while writing MOTHERs, which was never meant to be a book.
Big Ray was never meant to be its own novel, either; it started as a chapter in another novel that was ultimately abandoned. But do you think you would be the poet you are if your mother hadn’t been a storyteller?
One of the questions that began to interest me in my late 30s was how much of my life I’d constructed in opposition to my mother (or to my picture of my mother). So — and I ask this in MOTHERs — had I resisted writing prose because it didn’t interest me or because I wasn’t good at it or because I was afraid to be like my mother or to have to compete with her? My father is also an author. He wrote several nonfiction books in the late 1970s through the 1980s (How to Invest In Gems, How to Buy and Sell Gems, Gems and Jewels) and published his first novel, Blue, in 2000. He’d always wanted to be a novelist but didn’t feel he could until after his divorce from my mother. Somehow I constructed an idea that being a poet (rather than a children’s book writer or novelist or performer) would be completely different than what either of my parents had done or were doing.
In my late 30s I was trying to allow myself more freedom and more range. It had always been a not-so-hidden desire of mine to write prose, especially picture books for children (I love that you can give these as gifts, they feel valuable and appreciated), novels (the writing of which seems totally impressive and macho and respected by almost everyone), and memoir. I would simultaneously berate myself for wanting to write prose and bludgeon myself with Alice Notley’s “never tried to be anything other than a poet” or with what I imagined were the purer and loftier ideals of real poets like Jorie Graham. Have you ever read The Meadow by James Galvin? I LOVED that book! I read it over the summer between my two years at Iowa. When I asked Galvin to sign my copy and told him how much I loved it, he said, grumpily, “Writing prose is just typing.” There was a serious division between the poets and fiction writers at Iowa, and even today many of my favorite poets have a nasty way of talking about prose writers. So whichever way I pulled I felt like a failure.
What was MOTHERs supposed to be when you started it?
The form of it was always a central concern. “What is this?” I kept wondering, as I wrote. Is it an essay? Is it prose? Is it a journal? Is it poetry? Is it a “lyric essay”? Is it hybrid? Who is it for? Who in the whole world would ever read this mutant thing?
I joke that I have a singular talent for making every marketable idea unmarketable. It’s not that funny and basically true. One publisher I sent MOTHERs to explained to me very kindly and completely why the book would never, ever be published and why it would appeal to exactly no one. Too many poems, too much about poetry and poets but not a poem. Prose but so fragmented that no one but poets would want to read it.
And you continue to be a poet in the face of all this.
I write these books the only way I know how. I’m a messy, interrupting-myself writer who seems unable to make anything up, can’t even begin to construct a plot. I am only interested in (or capable of? I’m still not sure!) charting my own thinking and looking at my own experience. I love stories. I love them. They are vitally necessary, give meaning to our lives, and stave off our fear of death and meaninglessness. But, are stories true? No, I think in a way they never are. I think poetry as a genre is more accurate than prose. Poetry is a more truthful translation of experience — or at least it can be.
The stories that you made up when you were a little girl (in MOTHERs) are so beautiful and sad and strange, full of these beautiful logic jumps, but I am perplexed as to why your mother called them Dreams, Songs, and Drawings, 1976 when none of them seemed to be dreams, songs, or drawings.
Those little stories are very precious to me but also a complicated inheritance. There are a few drawings, but they aren’t very good. Some of the stories really are dreams.
My mother had enormous respect for dreams. She had an active dream life and always wrote them down. I have many, many notebooks filled with her dreams and also daytime thoughts and observations. (Right now these are lined up in a row under my desk and I am not sure what to do with them and I think about them all the time.) For many years my mother saw a Jungian therapist, and from what I understand a large part of the work there was dreamwork. She would often ask me if I’d had any dreams and would then record them for me. My mother was often elusive, distant, or absent, but when she was present she was remarkably present. It requires patience and attention to record a child’s dreams or take their stories or songs as dictation. It taught me that my dreams and songs were important to her, and because she saved them, I thought that perhaps they were important in general. I think that made a profound impression on me. I was surprised and astonished at some of the content — why was I dreaming/thinking about a woman with two husbands at such a young age? Many of the nightmares I had as a child were about my mother. Around the time I was writing the book I took a dream workshop with Peeka Trenkle as well as a short hypnopoetics dream workshop with poet-hypnotist Kristin Prevallet. Dreams were very much on my mind.
In my new book, The Pedestrians, there are four kinds of “pieces”: 1) “real poems,” which are short, lineated poems that often have to do with the writing of poetry or with poets; 2) “dreams,” which are unlineated, slightly edited versions of my actual dreams; 3) titled poems, which are lineated poems each with their own titles; and 4) untitled poems — there are only a few of these and they are sort of deeper poems, poems dragged up from the unconscious. I wanted to play with these various levels of made, unmade, and dredged up ways of reporting my life. I suppose that typing up and deciding to include those little pieces in MOTHERs inspired me to have the guts to put my real, mostly unfiltered dreams into this new book It felt irreverent — a fuck you, rarified poetry world, here are my dreams.
Dreams are often so boring to listen to but stories aren’t. Dreams, stories, poems, and songs all intersect in a sort of shifting, moving cloud. We seem to have a strong desire to make the boundaries between these things very clear, but they aren’t clear — there is so much overlap. On a practical level, I liked the way these pieces provide a pause in the text, a sort of stake in the ground, but I also felt that including them was a way of saying something nice about my mother, of acknowledging her.
I don’t think I could have written Big Ray if my father wasn’t already dead. He would have tried to silence me or “correct” me, as my mother did. What did you and your mother talk about at your weekly meetings about the book? Did she just try to justify herself, or attack you, or something else entirely?
This is a good, good question. When I wrote the book my mother was very much alive. My mother’s mother, Ruth, is still alive at 99 (although not a life I’d want, and a living death my mother was very afraid of). My mother was fragile in some ways but remarkably strong in other ways — spry, lively, lithe, adventurous, and full of stamina. I certainly didn’t expect her to die for years, maybe decades! (Even writing this now has such an air of unreality to it. There’s a large part of me that doesn’t believe she’s dead. I think she’s still in Taiwan.) I always imagined my mother becoming demented (as my grandmother did) and having to care for her for many years.
My mother was a huge presence in my life. A shadow over everything. I mean “shadow” as a nonjudgmental description and in the sense of a psychological or psychic shadow. The question of being like or unlike her was overly defining. I needed to write through these questions of mothering and mentorship and being like and being unalike in order to keep living, keep mothering my sons, keep writing. I’d written about these topics before but always cloaked or slant: the story of Persephone and Demeter, the story of my own mothering.
Why did I show it to her? Oy vey. Well, it was very clear to me that I wouldn’t feel okay about publishing without her reading it. I was terrified to send the manuscript to my mother, but I did. I waited to send it to her until I was going to be teaching in Paris for three weeks. I needed an ocean between us.
At first she was surprisingly supportive. She said she read the book three times. She said the first time she was very upset but that by the third time she realized it wasn’t about her, it was about me. She always said she was glad I’d written it. But then our meetings — oh they were very painful, very hard. She wanted to justify certain things. She wanted to tell her side. A lot of what she said reflected poorly on my father and on me. Often the meetings would end in an attack on me, either a direct attack or a sneak attack. But I kept meeting with her. I must have wanted to talk it through with her. I must have wanted the book to be part of our relationship. I definitely wanted her permission. I was never entirely clear about what that meant.
But I am clear that I did not have her blessing. In the end she was very angry with me. The idea of my publishing the book was deeply upsetting to her. I did not fully realize how upset she was about this until after she died. There are so many sad and upsetting parts of the final story.
Michael Kimball is the author of six books, including Big Ray, Dear Everybody, and Us. His work has been translated into a dozen languages, and featured on NPR’s All Things Considered and in Vice, as well as in The Guardian, Bomb, and New York Tyrant. His next book is about the arcade game, Galaga (Boss Fight Books, 2014).
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