KR Conversations

Rachel Zucker

zuckerRachel Zucker 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 poems “Mindful,” “Just off the Road near Lynchburg, Virginia,” and “That Great Diaspora” can be found in the Summer 2013 issue of The Kenyon Review.

Is there a story behind your KR poems? What was the hardest part about writing them?

The three poems in KR are all part of my upcoming book, The Pedestrians, which will be published by Wave in 2014. After my book Museum of Accidents was published I really had a clean slate which was exciting and terrifying. I just knew I wanted to try new things in my writing and explore the boundaries of what I thought made a poem a poem. I became interested in writing what I thought of as “anti-poems” and for a while none of the poems had line breaks because the line breaks felt too precious to me. Eventually I felt the poems did need line breaks—they couldn’t breathe otherwise and they were unreadable, unfriendly to the reader and I am not interested in being willfully hostile to readers even though I’m not afraid of difficult poetry. The book has dreams, poems, and what I call real poems. In between Museum and The Pedestrians I almost got a job teaching in Idaho which obviously would have meant leaving New York where I’d been born and raised and where I have lived all my life except for college and graduate school. New York has always been an essential part of my poems and my poetics but I wanted my experience specifically as a New Yorker to be even more visible in these poems than it had been before. So, most of the poems are very explicitly about New York or “the diaspora” (which, in this case is everything outside of New York). In particular, the poem “Mindful” is not only about New York but attempts to be made of New York or have a urban, specifically New Yorky, poetics not just backdrop.

I wanted this book to be less “heavy.” I wanted something more lighthearted and funny, even. In this I think I may have failed. Oh well.

I’ve always been interested in books of poems more than single poems and I tend to write series of projects or, at least, groups of poems. But, that doesn’t mean that putting a book together is easy for me. In fact I find it pretty excruciating. This book was really difficult. I was writing poems of varied tones and types and forms and wanting the book to work perfectly together and wanted to make some of the poems almost or completely fail individually but be intrinsic to the larger project. This was difficult to say the least. I was working against the lyric but knew that this was a really dumbass thing to do.

What have you learned about the writing process in the last five years?

I need more quiet. I need more time alone. I need to be patient with myself.

Apart from this one—can you share with us the literary magazines you most look forward to reading, and why?

Honestly, I tend to read whatever is handed to me or happens to be left in my office or on the floor of the bathroom. There are really, really excellent magazines out there! I applaud the editors for the really hard work of running magazines. I consistently like reading APRCourt Green, and Fence but I almost always find treasures in all the little magazines and presses: Octopus, Poor Claudia, Black Clock, Low Ball, Washington Square. The truth is, sometimes I am solicited for work then I read the issue I’m in carefully and find many wonderful things by poets I hadn’t heard of. So, I tend to read widely and unfaithfully.

When we publish, whether in print or online, we hope we’re making a sustained art—something that endures and continues to be significant. What role will sustained art have in a future that’s sure to be full of iPads/Pods/Phones and Kindles, hyper-fast computers, and a reality where we can always be online, all of the time?

I’m not sure how important sustained art is. I’m not trying to be snide or cheeky. I’m truly not sure.

Of all the things you could be doing, why do you write?

It helps me figure out what I think and how I feel.

In the 1950s, John Crowe Ransom invited a coterie of critics (William Empson, Northrop Frye, etc.) to write a “credo” for The Kenyon Review. The results became an essay series by 10 leading critics on their core beliefs regarding literature and the critical practice, entitled “My Credo.” What would you include in your own credo? What core beliefs do you have about literature and books?

I’m in the midst of a pretty severe crisis right now on this topic and can’t possibly answer this. I need to write my way through this question. It would take minimum of 200 pages.

Tell us about a teacher (“teacher” construed broadly!) who has been important to your writing.

Well, first of all I co-edited (with Arielle Greenberg) a whole anthology of essays that answer this question! I highly recommend the book: Women Poets on Mentorship: Essays and Affections. 

But today, the answer is WAYNE KOESTENBAUM! He was a brilliant, brilliant teacher I had as an undergraduate and he turned me on to most of my favorite writers. More importantly, he has become a friend. He has helped keep me afloat during this crisis (see #6) and also I am so deeply inspired by Wayne’s kindness, energy, playfulness, seriousness and, very importantly, his commitment to passionately exploring other media such as music and painting. You know how some people visualize a “safe place” or a “happy place”? I often think of Wayne’s painting studio which I’ve never actually seen in real life. It’s very much like Colin Craven’s relationship to hearing about the Secret Garden while lying infirm in his grim mansion (I’m talking about The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett).