In a Million Different Pieces

A conversation with poet Rachel Zucker

by Ryan Rosenberg

Illustration by Dorothy Windham

published October 7, 2016

Before calling up New York City-based poet, teacher, and doula Rachel Zucker, I came across a line from her poem "The Pedestrians": “why do I imagine someone’s / interviewing me sometimes they are & always / ask about my ‘real life’ & the ‘juggling act’ which is/stupid[.]” Talking to Rachel Zucker over the phone, I took note not to ask her about how she divides her time, but why would that question even come up? Zucker’s poems are porous; they challenge the boundaries of the private versus the public, without any separation between ‘real life’ and the ‘juggling act.’ Her language of mundane noticings translates habit into an otherworldly substance. 

This past May, Zucker started a podcast called Commonplace, which features her conversations with writers like Claudia Rankine and Cathy Park Hong. Her books of poetry include Eating the Underworld (2003), Museum of Accidents (2009), and The Pedestrians (2014). The Spanish translation of Museum of Accidents is forthcoming. In her interview with the College Hill Independent, Zucker spoke about the ethics of her poetics and the inadequacy of a language informed by years and years of patriarchy. 



The College Hill Independent: Are you always writing things down? 


Rachel Zucker: There’s nothing I’m always doing. But I’ll go through periods of time when I am writing a lot of stuff down, or I’ll have a notebook. But like today, I noticed a guy in a truck picking up trash, and a man came out of a house and said to him, “I’m so glad I caught you,” and gave him some money, and the guy in the truck said, “Oh no, no you don’t have to do that,” and the man said, “No, my wife said, ‘You just put out the trash and he just takes whatever I put out away.’” I was so struck by this interaction, and I don’t know the context, but I assume there’s a certain amount of trash that’s picked up by the city and paid for by taxes, but for some reason the man is taking more trash than he has to, and so this other guy is tipping him. But it was a funny interaction because it was all around trash and the dynamics between the wife, who I couldn’t see, and this husband. If I were in a place where I was writing things down, I would write that down. But I’m not, so other than telling it to you, I’m sure it’ll just get lost in the atmosphere, which is also fine. 


The Indy: I’m curious about how the backdrop of New York City figures into your writing. You grew up there and still live there, and I certainly get a sense of the city and the noise of the city in many of your poems, especially the broken, post-9/11 city that you describe in Museum of Accidents (2009). How important is it for you to be in NYC, with all of the noise? 


RZ: You caught me at a time where I’m working on a lecture that’s about the poetics of motherhood. I'm thinking about women in the late ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, who were writing what I’m calling the poetics of motherhood: Alice Notley, Bernadette Mayer, Sharon Olds, Toi Derricotte, and a few others. But in any case, I mention that because it’s very much on my mind and all of those women who are very important to me write a kind of messy, interrupt-able, interrupted, long, inclusive, rambling kind of poem, often book-length, or in series, often political, often hybrid in its nature, and they include a lot of different levels of consciousness: the banal, the dream state, the hyper-aware. I mention that because I think that when I was writing The Museum of Accidents and The Pedestrians I really was trying to get the city more and more visibly and palpably in the books. It had always been a backdrop; I grew up in New York, I’ve basically lived my whole life in New York, except for college and graduate school. I feel like my poetics come out of this high urban density and what it feels like to live in this city, to be in close proximity to so many people, mostly strangers, and what the psychic and creative consequences of that are. But I will say that I can also see that my poetics are very much aligned with some of these women that I’ve mentioned. Bernadette Mayer, for example, moved out of New York to Great Barrington in the early ’80s, and I’m rethinking some of the assumptions I’ve made about the formal connection between New York and my work in thinking about some of these poets. I wonder if it’s the city that is largely influencing my work, or if it’s being the mother of young and now teenage children, or if it’s being a woman, or writing at this moment in history. There are a lot of things at play. I used to think that the city was such a monolithic influence, but I’m not so sure anymore. 


The Indy: I recently read that piece by Elizabeth Bastos in the the New York Times titled “Why I Decided to Stop Writing About My Children,” in which she writes about overstepping the boundary of what seems appropriate to write about in regards to one’s own children. She talks about her own father calling her out on it and that her reaction was, “I kinda perceive myself as a confessional poet[.]” Confessionalism is a term that’s often used in talking about your work, and I’m curious about your relationship to that term, and also how you conceptualize the ethics of representing people, like your children, in your writing?


RZ: These are the questions that I ask myself. I’ve been delivering a series of lectures across the country about the ethics of writing about real people, and I talk about appropriation, both from a personal perspective, and from a larger political and social perspective. The question of, what are the ethical responsibilities of the artist when representing real people, either by name or not by name, identifiable or not identifiable, family members or not family members—I think is the most pressing question of my life right now, by far. In one of my lectures I propose a set of guidelines for myself. It was really important for me not just to say “Well, it’s super problematic, but it’s what we do.” I wanted to try to go beyond that. 


The Indy: What are these guidelines like? 


RZ: Well, I don’t believe in a world of art where I am telling anyone else what to do. They are guidelines for myself only. I think that writing about the personal and the domestic and breaking down barriers between what has been considered public and private was and is of enormous significance, because in many ways privacy has only benefitted straight, white men. So breaking down those barriers and putting children in poems, putting the female body in poems, putting non-normative or homosexual sexualities in poems, and not having the world seem like if you’re a straight, white, male, then you’re the universal, is of enormous social value. The opposite of that is oppression, repression, the closet. 

Complicating that and enlarging that is vital and essential. At the same time, it creates ethical problems because as soon as you put your own children in a poem, or your body in a poem, or personal information in a poem, you run the risk of hurting either yourself, or more importantly, your kids or other people. I’ve thought a lot about the Kenny Goldsmith debacle of presenting the autopsy of Michael Brown. There were so many problems with what he did. One of them was that he didn’t consider his positionality or his power, and what he was doing with his power. It was a case of appropriating and exploiting someone else’s story. I think it’s important for the person who is making the art to have at least as much at stake or more than the person that they’re exposing or writing about. In that situation, Kenny Goldsmith had nothing at stake. He didn’t contextualize himself, he wasn’t risking anything. 


The Indy: I read your introduction to one of your poems that appeared in How2, in which you describe the process of writing about the birth of your second child: “The attempt to make a narrative out of experience that is stripped of narrative, context, point of view is critical to the process of healing, because it is too frightening to remain in that location of perfect ‘I.’” What do you mean by the moment of the “perfect ‘I’”? 


RZ: The specific experience that I was talking about in that case was birth, but I don’t think that what I’m talking about is limited to biological birth. There are many transformational experiences, or many daily experiences, that challenge our notions of linear time and the rules of narrative. Birth is an interesting one, because your whole sense of self is challenged. In Western culture, there’s an understanding that there’s a stable self, there are all of these binaries like self/other, body/mind, magic/science, male/female, past/present/future (which isn’t a binary), and that these things have discernable boundaries, and that it’s really important to recognize these categories, or somehow maintain them, and that as we go through our lives we are either in one state or another. It’s a tremendously limited and inaccurate way of describing real experience.

When you give birth, time stops functioning in a normal fashion; are you one person or two people? I was just listening to a podcast about medical ethics, and they were talking about how in different religions there are different moments when the baby and the mother are considered separate, which is obviously really important in terms of bioethics and right to life and right to choose. In Catholicism it’s the moment of conception, in Judaism and Islam it’s the moment you can hear a heartbeat, in Buddhism it’s the moment that the umbilical cord is cut, and in Hinduism there is no one moment because everything is cyclical, and so to say that now they’re together, now they’re separate, is a real failure to understand the cyclical nature of time, life, and experience. Birth is an interesting moment, and other experiences are too: like sex, or severe illness, or, I’m not so familiar with this, but drug experiences, or other extreme states, or not even extreme states, even just me talking to you on the phone and the cars are driving by and there are a million things going on in my mind at once, but I’m trying to create a stable central narrative for you, to be understandable.

But actually, if I think about who I am, I’m in a million different pieces, a million different parts, and I’m connected to all of these other people. Am I still connected to my children, to my history, to my politics, to my past, to my dead mother; who am I? In some ways, my experience of birth was everything else falling away except the physical sensation and the aloneness of giving birth to this child. But in another way I was also the most disconnected from all the things that I think of as creating a stable self, or a central narrative, or a sense of linear time, which I think are things that we use to make sense of our lives. So in some ways I was one, in other ways I was many. I was certainly two. 

We’re accustomed to this traditional, male view of inspiration and creation; you’re a man and then all of the sudden you get inspired by a female muse, or God, and then you create something and you’re separate from your creation. Then you go back to the state you were in before you created this piece of art, and that’s just not my experience at all. And if you think about pregnancy, birth, and parenting, (and I’m not just talking about biological mothering, or mothering versus fathering), but if you really think about it, it takes a really, really long time to make a baby and it takes even a much longer time to take care of a child to independence, and those things change you physically forever. You don’t go back to who you were before. It changes your brain, it changes your body, and even when your child is an adult and deemed independent and grown up, you’re always connected. I guess what I’m saying is, without totally essentializing gender and creative process, if we fought some of our assumptions about attachment and separation and individuation, and we saw the creative process as much more in line with a female model of birth and motherhood, rather than the way heterosexual appropriation happens from a male point of view, maybe I wouldn’t be so surprised right now that everything in my life seems totally connected.