Rachel Zucker was born in 1971 in Manhattan and has spent almost all of her life there. She graduated from Yale University in 1994 with a BA in Psychology. She took her MFA at the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop, where she studied with Marvin Bell, Jorie Graham, and Brenda Hillman. She is the author of five collections of poetry, 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), and The Pedestrians (Wave Books, 2014). She is also the author of a memoir, MOTHERs, (Counterpath Press, 2014). With poet Arielle Greenberg she co-wrote Home/birth: a poemic and co-edited Women Poets on Mentorship: Efforts and Affections and Starting Today: 100 Poems for Obama’s First 100 Days. Zucker is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and teaches poetry at New York University.
This interview was conducted on March 19, 2014, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, in the home of the poet and her husband, Joshua Goren.
I arrived at Rachel’s mid-morning on a chilly day in March. She was returning from a trip to the gym, a little beside herself as she was unexpectedly freed of watching her youngest son. We decide to conduct the interview at her kitchen table, where Rachel shared insights about mothering three small children in NYC during and after 9/11, the move from writing chiseled to more messy/talky poems that coincided with putting motherhood at the forefront of her poetry, and the problem of how to write poems when not in a state of emergency.
MS: In your poem “Pedestrian,” which appears in your new book, The Pedestrians, you have this line where you say “why do I imagine someone interviewing me … they always ask about my “real life” and “the juggling act,” which is stupid – I am not juggling my life like eggs or oranges.” How do you see what you do, if it’s not juggling?
RZ: I feel it’s good to get this part right out in the open: everything I say today is going to be colored by the fact that I am not writing right now. I have a hard time remembering that I really used to write and a hard time feeling empathy for myself over time. Certainly there have been many times I’ve been juggling my personal time and my family—writing and teaching, but it feels like that never happens to me because I am not writing right now. And it’s funny that I said that, about being asked about real life in interviews, because all I ever want to ask writers about is their real life! But right now all of my kids are in school, I’m not teaching, I’m not writing, so my real life right now is really strange. I decided not to teach and I doubled up in the fall because I got an NEA, so I can have this stretch of time to dig into a writing project. You have to make those decisions far in advance to be able to do it, and then you just don’t know whether you are going to be writing or not writing. Maybe some writers do, but I don’t.
MS: So, how long not writing?
RZ: I was working on MOTHERs and The Pedestrians, mostly revising, and then my mother died in January 2013. I already felt like I was in a slow period. I didn’t have a lot of new work, and I wrote one poem right after she died (which is in The Pedestrians). Since then I have only written one poem.
MS: Wow, so you have two brand new books out, and yet, nothing new for over a year. Where are you on this – are you in a state of panic?
RZ: I feel like, well…yes, somewhat. The Pedestrians was in the making for years. I sent poems to Wave [Wave Books] years ago, and Matthew found it kind of interesting – [Matthew Zapruder] liked ten out of the sixty pages I had written. I find it weird to answer questions or even to teach writing when I feel so far away from my writing life. I feel a little bit like a fraud.
MS: Oh, gosh – no! Were there breaks between your previous books? How did you negotiate those?
RZ: Yes and no. When I graduated from Iowa in 1996, I had my thesis— called Depth of Field—it was a collection of personal poems that had to do with the harsh winters in Iowa, and with depression, and with my powerful/scary mother, and my boyfriend who later became my husband, and I sent the book out to all these contests, and it got rejected and rejected, and finally I had this epiphany. I thought, well, maybe this book is getting rejected not because it’s so hard to publish a book but because it’s bad! So, I went with that for a while. I spread out all the pages, and it hit me: my book is about the myth of Persephone. I hadn’t intended to write about that, so I thought, let’s see. I took seventy-five pages and narrowed it down to about fifteen or twenty pages that seemed the most Persephone-like, and I decided to write into that. All the poems I took out were more autobiographical, more chatty. Then I spent about a year writing into those twenty pages until it became this book that followed the myth of Persephone. It took a long time to get it published. By the time Eating in the Underworld was published, I had written another manuscript, The Last Clear Narrative. So, I had these two books going on at once, Eating in the Underworld andThe Last Clear Narrative, though by the time the second one came out, The Bad Wife Handbook was done. Initially The Bad Wife Handbook was twice as long as it is now and I cut it in half and half of that book plus new poems became Museum of Accidents.When Museum of Accidents came out, I was done. I had nothing left, and that was the first time. Before that, I’d always had another manuscript waiting.
MS: So, how old were your kids?
RZ: I guess Museum of Accidents came out in 2009, and so they were 10, 8, and 2. And I had nothing, no poems lying around, no secret, hidden manuscript lying around that could be published. It was scary but good. I wanted to do something different. I didn’t feel the same – even though I had a two year old, I didn’t feel that intensity of early motherhood I’d felt from the birth of my oldest son until the two older boys were five or six (they’re eighteen months apart), and I think the poems in the earlier books come out of that crazy, intense time, those completely chaotic, overwhelming, fragmentation-of-self days where I wasn’t sure I could leave the apartment, but I had to leave the apartment. I think the poems in the previous books come out of that time …endless, right?
MS: Yeah … you write about that endless time so deftly in The Last Clear Narrative. But on top of that infancy-mothering “this will be forever” mindset, I was wondering, as I was walking around lower Manhattan on the way to your apartment, well, it’s just so strange because the lower part is just, well, just empty now – and thinking of you with a stroller, or with a double stroller, and thinking, how does she get through a day with her babies? I mean, how old were you when the towers came down?
RZ: 9/11 figures prominently in my second, third and fourth books, although people don’t often look at the poems as having to do with 9/11; the motherhood stuff is what people see. My oldest son was two and my middle son was nine months on September 11, 2001. It was the first day that we were going to leave the baby in daycare for a full day—9/11—there was this teacher who got a phone call from a friend outside of New York, and she asked “Did you see what happened?” and, as I was leaving the day care center, the teacher said to me, “A plane just hit the World Trade Center.” I thought, “That’s impossible. How could someone calling from Michigan know that when we don’t?” And, I remember, I got home, turned on the television and saw the second plane hit. I thought, “Do I go back and pick them up? Are they safer there, or safer here?” No one had any idea what to do.
MS: How far away were they?
RZ: Not far, maybe a ten minute walk – and, you know, we were uptown.
MS: You don’t know what’s safe.
MS: That is just so scary.
RZ: It was scary. It was also a very intense amplification of fears and stresses I’d already been living with. I don’t think about it anymore, but for a long time it was just the task of keeping them safe, of getting them in and out of the double stroller, getting them onto the subway, making sure I was holding two little kids’ hands on the subway, or the bus, and people are not always so nice …
MS: It’s interesting, listening to you talk about when your kids were little, because in The Pedestrians you seem so comfortable in your city, and you said, on the McNeil–Lehrer News Hour segment you just did—that this book is your swan song to Manhattan, so it seems like the kids growing up and the post-9/11 terror receding, and your voice is sort of a female Frank O’Hara, this love of being in New York, and it being the backbone of the book, but then you go outside of the city and are almost yearning to get back, like the city is a character in the book. So, I guess that comes from your kids getting older, but I keep coming back to that image in “ocean” [in the first part of The Pedestrians], of that UPS truck, it’s sort of a comfort, knowing each day it will “make a three-point turn into the driveway … and pull away”—that trust you have in a single image – where did you learn that?
RZ: The pieces in the first part of The Pedestrians were supposed to be a separate book called Fables. I wanted it to be published with pictures and didn’t even send it to Wave, because it didn’t seem like a Wave book. Originally, each piece was titled with the name of a fable, for instance, “The Wolf and the Stork,” and when I first wrote them they each had a moral at the bottom. The project began when we were in Maine, and I was getting tons of kids’ books out of the library. They had all of these books of fables which I really didn’t like. I don’t like the form of the fable, how everything comes down to this pithy thing at the end. I find it pedantic, and I don’t like that the animals are talking. So, basically I got really interested in a form that I don’t like. But at the same time I bought this notebook that had these little [shows me notebook with grid at bottom of each page]… grid spaces I didn’t know what to do with, so I would write “don’t kill the goose that lays the golden egg” in the box and then write something else—a description of my day, perhaps, leading up to it. I took away most of identifying fable structure away in revision.
MS: So you took away the fables and the titles … that is so cool. So, what were you up to?
RZ: Well, it just felt like the fables don’t all need titles, and I got sick of the morals even if I was trying to subvert the morals. I was just trying to do something really, really different from what I had been doing. You asked about that image of the UPS truck. I think my goal was to simply describe what was happening, as much as possible. And there was this other project I was doing—a daily blog I kept for over a year. The project was to post one sentence a day beginning with the word “where.” It was about finding the “here” in “where” and was called W(here). One sentence only. It had to be a description, I could not use the word “I,” and the action I was describing was usually outside, and there were photos. I had just gotten my iPhone, and it was just kind of coming out of that. But then, I had to change my Google login, and after a year I lost all the photos. It was never meant to be precious writing. I did feel upset when I lost all photos and abandoned the blog, but it ended up feeling like a Buddhist exercise—losing so much of the work and ending the project so abruptly. In retrospect, I think I was practicing for writing the fables, though I did not know that at the time.
MS: It’s interesting to me that you chose a form that you hate, and you took what you wanted from it, made it what you wanted it to be. Is that a thing for you – do you choose the hardest strictures for yourself, the thing that bugs you the most, or choose the form you most hate?
RZ: Well, I do sort of hate the fixed form, you know, sonnets and villanelles, and I haven’t been so successful at making myself write those unless I am teaching them.
MS: How about with imitation? I know you are a big fan of Alice Notley and Bernadette Mayer. Do you play with imitating them much?
RZ: I don’t think consciously, but definitely … they are there.
MS: Who are some of your touchstone writers?
RZ: For a while, Leslie Scalapino was magic for me. I would start to read one of her books, and it was like there was a level of not understanding and not caring about not understanding that would make her books bridge books for me: I could just start writing if I started reading her. So, it wasn’t actually that it was my most favorite thing to read …
MS: What specifically about her work was inspiring you to write?
RZ: It was that her language was coming in … it resonated with me in a kind of way that made the language coming out of mecome out. Another example of how I do this, and this is not very polite is that I like to write at poetry readings and lectures. For instance, the one poem I have written in the past year was written during a lecture. I think there is something meditative or something that occupies my mind when hearing spoken language. I do love Alice Notley, and her work inspires me, but I am reading it as a reader or as a fan and not necessarily in order to write …whereas with Scalapino I was reading to write.
MS: Notley writes the best kind of poems to get lost in.
RZ: Yeah, that’s true for me for some of her work, her later work. I had a student come to me who had just read In the Pines. She said, “You love Alice Notley. I don’t understand this at all.” And I said, “I don’t understand these poems at all, either!” And she said, “What do you mean you don’t understand Alice Notley? You love her! You talk about her all the time.” And I said, “Well, maybe I will understand it when I am older. I don’t know.” I’m not an academic. I’m not a scholar. I didn’t feel like I had to say something smart about the book. I underlined parts – I got something from it. But I wasn’t able to articulate what I “got” from it. That was a good getting lost for me.
MS: Do you teach In the Pines?
RZ: No. And when students ask me about that book, I suggest they talk to someone else if they want a scholarly response.
MS: I love how she so confidently refuses to follow a narrative arc in her work. I know it might drive students nuts – might make them accuse poetry of being inaccessible. But that refusal to tell a story … you also do that really well. I mean, you have such a wide array of voices and approaches – from the neo-confessional—with the veil down, with the speaker totally exposed—or you can be spare, non-linear, and elliptical – confessionalism’s opposite. Where did you learn to be so versatile?
RZ: I don’t know … thank for you for saying that. One criticism of my work that I’ve heard since I was a student is that it’s too talky , prose-y, narrative – so I am not sure I have a well-formed lyric muscle. I care so much about the sound of language and the music of language, but I think there are other writers for whom every line is this chiseled beautiful thing. It’s nice of you to say that there’s a range, but I am tending toward feeling the opposite of what you’ve observed in my work—that is, there isn’t much of a range at all, and that the progress has been towards not caring at all.
MS: Whether your poems are chiseled or not?
RZ: Yes, that I’ve come to terms with the fact that in my work I have no range, and that I’m just telling stories in poems, so just go ahead… because, what do I care?
MS: It’s surprising to me that you consider yourself a storyteller in your poems – that your poems are talky and narrative, because one of the things I am so struck by your work as a whole is how crafted your poems are – your ability to pare down and withhold, to choose images, or one image, so carefully, especially in your earlier books—I’m thinking of Eating the Underworld, especially, but also The Last Clear Narrative. In these earlier books, your work is highly crafted, highly chiseled. But then there’s this huge change with your newer work—where you are less interested in tidying and more interested in the messy, as you refer to it, to write the kind of poem a mother writes. Are you consciously saying to yourself, okay, I don’t want to write the chiseled poem, because if I did I would end up like, say, Plath? [laughter]
RZ: The Pedestrians… well, this is the first conversation I am having about it. On the one hand, I feel proud of myself for giving myself the permission to experiment—to say, let’s just see what happens if I actually include, for instance, real dreams. Let’s just see what happens if I get as close to the edge between poetry and total stupidity, or whatever the opposite of poetry is, as possible.
MS: The dreams in this book are so great. They just sound like, well, actual dreams, but they work really well in the context of this book.
RZ: In The Bad Wife Handbook there were five sections, and in the last section were a series of numbered “autography” poems in which I wanted to restate what I’d said in the early poems but more directly, more boldly. My husband once suggested that the five part structure of the book was like a five-paragraph essay. I liked the idea and used to say the book was a form of telling the same thing over again in five different forms—the long form, the short form, the serial form—but of course when you start to say the same thing in a different form, the material changes. And that was what I was really interested in …
MS: Can you share a bit more about the five sections in The Bad Wife Handbook? Call me dense, but I wouldn’t have thought of them as each sharing the same event. Section 1 describes a potential dalliance with another man. It’s a series of spare and discrete poems; there’s a hesitant, mannered quality to the voice. What happens to the voice/point of view/mode of delivery in Sections 2-5?
RZ: The whole book is about monogamy and desire. One of the long poems “The Squirrel in the Palm” is about what it felt like to leave my children for the first time for more than a few hours and the way in which this absence allowed me to see and talk about the physicality of motherhood and loss of self. The long poem “The Rise and Fall of the Central Dogma” is all about Darwin and DNA and the idea that marriage is a flawed institution just as the common (simplified) version of DNA is a concept real scientists know doesn’t exist. “Annunciation” deals with the same themes: motherhood, desire, self-hood, lust through the lens of the story of the Annunciation and through the motion of my body going from New York to Italy to New York to Nova Scotia. Then the last section, this short series of Autography poems is meant to directly write my life to the reader in ways that the lyric, narrative, rhetorical strategies of the first four sections attempted but may have failed to do. Mind you, none of this was going on when I was writing the poems, only when I was revising and ordering and publishing and looking back on the book after publication.
MS: Thanks for clarifying what you were up to. It helps me better understand what you’re doing in The Pedestrians, saying the same thing in different forms. As fables, as dreams, as vignettes, as post-confessional. This makes me think of the poem “Egg Dream,” in The Pedestrians. It goes:
I have four or maybe five eggs on the counter. I am preparing to make something. What if they roll off?
This is a great example of several things going on at once – the dream, the domestic scene. It also works fantastically as an ars poetica …
RZ: I had to fight for that piece to make it into the book. I’m not sure I think of it as a poem exactly.
MS: Well, tell your editor I loved that poem, especially the placement, just before one of my favorite poems in The Pedestrians, “mindful,” where your speaker is quite “talky,” as you refer to it, blurting things out sort of frantic rush right from the opening lines:
jammed my airspace w/ a podcast &
to-do list filled up inside I run & running
then a snowstorm so no school I cried & said
Mayor Bloomberg should be scalded with hot
cocoa when someone said Yay for snow! I’m
cutting it too close … (“mindful,” page 83, The Pedestrians).
I love, love, love how this litany of modern day motherhood ends with the speaker’s realization she’s forgotten to thaw the meat – forgotten to take the meat out of the freezer. That it’s there in the poem – the very thing my mother used to freak out about: what are we going to eat for DINNER? “Mindful” also happens to have a toddler in it. Joy Katz, in her essay “Baby Poetics” (APR, 2013] expresses her fear of being sentimental, clichéd, of championing hetero-normativity, and a whole host of other quagmires if she drags a baby into one of her poems.
RZ: It’s hard for me to even imagine that as an anxiety. I loved Joy’s essay, but for whatever reason I never felt like, oh no, there’s a baby in my poem. I would really have to take a deep breath and figure out why having a baby in a poem is a problem. I have other fears of what’s in the poems or what’s not in the poems, primarily about hurting other people, saying things I shouldn’t say, the line between the public and the private. But the sentimental stuff is really interesting, how that intersects with motherhood and babies, because I just didn’t get it. I didn’t know you weren’t supposed to do that. What the fuck was I supposed to write about? My whole life was just in this pukey, poopy thing.
MS: You were comfortable with writing about the everyday, what’s going on right in front of your nose, and you’re well trained in the craft of not being clichéd or sentimental about other subjects, so why not apply the same rigorousness to poems about motherhood?
RZ: Right. I think that I was always writing about my real life, about what was really happening, but as I said earlier, in my first book I really needed to put everything through this lens of Persephone, and I was scared about that! I was scared about being a woman writing about myth… I didn’t want to be that kind of woman, with the whole myth thing…
MS: Like Plath! [more laughter] But the way you did it kind of blew the whole writing-about-myth thing out of the water.
RZ: I think that for me the big breakthrough, if there was one, happened when I was between Eating in the Underworld and The Last Clear Narrative. Compared to Eating, The Last Clear Narrative felt ragged and messy. I couldn’t figure out which order the poems were supposed to go in. Around this time Arielle Greenberg was guest-editing an issue of How2, and she asked me for a poem. I had just had my second kid, and it was a difficult birth, and I had all these notes, and I thought I want to write this poem. I want to write a birth poem. Because I have never read a poem that described what I experienced. How can that be? I’ve never read a poem. I’ve never read an essay. No one told me. No one told me that this is what it was going to be like. Why? Was everyone lying? Was I the only person who felt and experienced what I felt and experienced? What the hell? So, I tried to write this poem, and every time I tried to write it, it was fake. It was too sanitized, too clean, too much of a mind that was a reflective mind. And I thought, this is a lie. This can’t be my birth poem. So, I had to keep going back and revising, trying to get closer to what that experience felt like. And it was only when I wrote that poem, “Here Happy is No Part of Love”— that was the last poem that I wrote for that book but helped me organize the whole book. It wasn’t just about the birth. When I wrote it, I thought,Ah! This is what happened to me when I became a mother. Everything cracked open.
MS: So, that was a huge poem for you.
RK: Yes. And writing that poem helped me realize I felt a sociopolitical urgency to talk about these very universal, banal experiences that are the most life-changing, the most transformative of experiences. Experiences that are shared by so many women and men, and yet the depiction that I’d seen of them seemed totally inaccurate. That was what The Last Clear Narrativewas about for me. So, for me to worry there were children in my books? Well, of course there are children, and there have to be, and I don’t feel like it’s sentimental. I feel like everybody had been lying to me, and lying to women. There are poems earlier on in The Last Clear Narrative already pointing toward this. For instance, the poem “The Window is One-Sided It Does Not Admit” was a poem that I wrote over the first three months of my oldest son’s life. It was so shocking what happened to time, to my body, to my relationship between self and other. I felt like the only way to describe that was for the language to fall apart; it didn’t even feel intentional. There was no other way for me to be accurate about this experience. What was I going to do, recollect in tranquility? [laughter].
MS: It’s such a beautiful poem. I am thinking of lines like “he / unmeasures me” and “who measures my losing my slip the sure erasure.” You capture so well those early days of motherhood in this poem. Using the blank space on the page is one way – huge spaces between words: “one day” and “(cry, suck, cry),” and the final stanza is a freeze-frame for what happens when one mothers an infant:
I will gather a story to tell you
what night looked like
what every city vista told day by day
heat and time was not, were no
I knew you were I knew there was you
and summer and never any other season.
That feeling like it will always be this way – that we will always be awake all hours of the day and night, soothing and rocking, nursing and, let’s face it, be invisible, be “veined / with the cry,” as you put it so well. The fact of “days, days / days.”
RZ: That’s what it felt like! We’re hot, we’re sweaty, there’s milk everywhere. It’s just going on and on and on, like, did I feel worried that, oh no, now there’s a baby in my poem? It’s not even about him! He’s like a little animal, you know? He’s just clutching me and sucking me. Here’s the thing: I don’t think I got the message that you weren’t supposed to do this, to write this kind of poem.
MS: [Laughter] And, as you say in The Bad Wife Handbook, “a woman with young children is not a woman but a mammal ….” I’m glad you didn’t get the message. I mean, what if you had?
RZ: Right. But I did get the message that I wasn’t supposed to write ‘about’ things, about a certain thing (subject). I got the message that I wasn’t supposed to tell stories in poems. I was supposed to have a ‘cry of the occasion.”
MS: So, who taught you that stuff, the cry? [laughter]
RZ: Jorie Graham [laughter].
MS: So when the baby landed in the poem’s lap, you were ready to take it on.
RZ: Yeah …I was … what else was I supposed to do?
MS: But there are plenty of new mom poets who freak out …but you give the male gaze the finger. That feminist sort of hey, I’m breaking silence, spit-up on your lapel be damned! But now your oldest two are teenagers!
RZ: I do feel like the baby part of my life is like a ship sailing away, and I feel like there’s aren’t any real babies in The Pedestrians. And I really thought … in the poem “today my son told me,” one of the first poems I wrote for this book… He was 11 (now he is almost 15)… When I wrote that poem I felt like this is the beginning of something new that felt important to me – there’s a different tempo to the relationship you have with your kids when they’re not babies, when they’re not toddlers, but they’re still your children, the relationship is still intimate and beyond language, but it’s different – they are people.
MS: It’s so perfect that he’s going to teach you all about agricultural and civilization, tell you about seeds and crops. It’s just so eleven! But it also works so well against the poems in the book that are so chaotic and exasperated and sick and tired of not being able to write or think or rest. Or be mindful! It’s not juggling, but more like, perhaps, a cubist poem or painting: here’s me loving life, here’s me loving my child, and over here on this side, here’s a hard penis and I am wearing my IUD, so what’s a penis for? I mean, all the facets, all the permutations of familial life—your life—are there. And that’s what I love about your work. And all the forms your poems take. And on top of that, the mind of the poet in the act of creating, or not creating. That frustration. That joy.
RZ: I just want to say one more thing about form. I said that in The Bad Wife Handbook, I felt like I was saying the same thing in different ways, with different forms, and in that way saying something else each time I supposedly ‘retold’ it. With Museum of Accidents I just didn’t care about the form (except the form of each poem), I was just focusing on what I had to say. But The Pedestrians is about different forms, but it’s also about different registers of voice and states of consciousness – a lot of the book sounds like “this is what happened today,” but this is the information by way of a dream; this is information by way of the poetry reading I went to; this is information by way of walking down the street. And that somehow, instead of, as in the Bad Wife Handbook, how do I tell this story in a short versus a long story, the mindset of The Pedestrians was more about: what form can I use for this kind of consciousness?
MS: It’s very cool, but also sort of foreign to me, how you are so interested in multiple modes of doling out information. It reminds me of that book Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau. He wrote this book that provides fifty or more ways to describe/share an incident that happened on a bus. He does it as logical analysis, as tanka, as dialogue, as straight narrative. The Pedestrians does a similar thing, and in so doing, opens the reader’s mind to questions of subjectivity, of the folly of the expression, of the “what really happened” instinct, to the resistance to tracking down, through one form of expression, “the truth.” You seem to be telling us there are many truths, many ways to get to a more authentic replication of one writer’s experience.
RZ: I’m interested in process above almost everything else. I’m very drawn to experiments like the one you describe—multiple ways of describing an incident. Or that painter who painted a glass of water for years and years. I’m not sure the multiple forms of “what happened” in The Pedestrians is meant to undermine the idea of truth; they are meant to attempt an accurate (more truthful) representation of my experience. And I think I also wanted to include multiple forms and registers of voice that might be more domestic (dare I say female?). Sometimes the LYRIC POEM feels awfully cocky. I wanted a book that included a more daily voice, a smaller voice. A female voice.
MS: Let’s talk for a minute about Museum of Accidents because, at least to me, that’s the book where you give the finger to the Myth-Lady-Poet persona, the one you did so well in Eating the Underworld. Where you shirk the ““cry of occasion,” the “recollection in tranquility,” all that very male and safe/self-censoring stuff we’re taught in grad school. In the poem “More Accidents,” for example, the narrative seems to be held by a fine thread. You weave in historical facts, natural disasters, etymologies, and all order of linguistic feats, while your two children are in the middle of an accident. We get your reaction to a specific accident, watching it unfold, your realization that your sons “are tied together in ways that do and do not include [me],” but we also get your reaction to ALL accidents. And what’s holding all this together? The ampersands, and the voice. Trust in your voice and the language. That the leaps will cohere. Did you write this poem in stages, or did it all come to you in a flash? What was your process?
RZ: This poem was written to fill a hole in the book. A physical and philosophical hole. I felt that the other poems were pointing to ideas about disaster and accidents and coincidence and narrative and experience and connection and they were doing their job as individual poems concerned primarily with themselves. I felt like there needed to be a big poem in the book and one that was more explicit in its metaphysical concerns. I wrote the poem in bursts and fits and then there was a long process of editing.
MS: Wow, it’s amazing to me that the need to fill in a gap resulted in one of the most powerful poems in a very powerful book. I am so glad you were compelled to write it. One last question, which will bring us back to the beginning. And this is from the section called ‘apartment,’ from the ‘fables’ section:
She wanted to believe that she could write the way some women sat knitting. She wanted to make something out of peacefulness but worried that peacefulness was antithetical to makefulness.
What if the quiet you have intentionally and carefully created, this serene life you have been able to make for yourself, is what is preventing you from making poems?
RZ: I think about that all the time! And, not to say that becoming a mother was something bad. But it did create an emergency for me. So, even though it was logistically extremely hard to write, it was also a very productive time for me. I don’t want something bad, or even emergency-like to have to keep happening to bring me to that state of I have to write, I have to write, I have to write. I wonder if it’s a developmental thing, being in my 40s now. How do I calm down but still make things?
MS: I think you are going to learn.
RZ: I hope so!
MS: It’s probably just a temporary state of shock as life grows more predictable and relatively calm as your children mature. I know you are going to figure it out.