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An Interview With Poet Rachel Zucker

Poet Rachel Zucker

This week at the Poetry Blog of 32 Poems Magazine my interview with poet Rachel Zucker was posted. She’s a contributor to the magazine and was a delight to interview.  I really enjoyed her comment about no one really being “just a poet.”

First, let me tantalize you with a bit from the interview, and then you can go on over and check the rest out for yourself.

Without further ado, here’s the interview.

How would you introduce yourself to a crowded room eager to hang on your every word? Are you just a poet, what else should people know about you?

Is anyone “just a poet”? I don’t know anyone like that. I’m also a professor and teach at NYU. I’m also a doula (labor support assistant). I’m studying to become a Childbirth Educator (so I can teach birthing classes to pregnant couples). I’m a mother of three sons. I’m a devoted wife to my husband, Josh Goren. I’m always starting new projects and hobbies. For example, I just started a blog, where I post one sentence descriptions every day. I also write prose. Is there a room where a crowd hangs on my every word? I guess, maybe a room full of students who are there for extra credit . . .

Do you have any obsessions that you would like to share?

I have many obsessions. I wish I had more time to watch television. I really love television but don’t watch at all now. I want to watch the new Game of Thrones mini series. My husband has read me all the books — thousands of pages — we have 200 pages left in the last book.

Most writers will read inspirational/how-to manuals, take workshops, or belong to writing groups. Did you subscribe to any of these aids and if so which did you find most helpful? Please feel free to name any “writing” books you enjoyed most (i.e. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott).

I recently posted a list of books that was most useful to me on 32 poems blog. None of these are writing manuals but all of them functioned as how-tos. I started a writing group many years ago — a peer group — and the group stayed together (with members coming and going) for almost 10 years. It was tremendously helpful to have that group, post MFA. I met Arielle Greenberg that way! And worked with these great writers. I stopped wanting the group because I was mostly writing prose. Now I miss it. But I have my correspondence with my dear poet friends: Arielle, DA Powell, Laurel Snyder, Sarah Manguso, Sarah Vap, Wayne Koestenbaum, David Trinidad, Matthew Zapruder–just to name a few who have given me invaluable feedback on my work and supported me in my writing.

I think I read a lot of books that are really thinly veiled “how to” live books and these help me write. I read memoirs and parenting books and cook books.

Do you have any favorite foods or foods that you find keep you inspired? What are the ways in which you pump yourself up to keep writing and overcome writer’s block?

I really love coffee but have had to stop drinking it all together. I have really debilitating insomnia and the caffeine makes it worse. I feel really sorry for myself about giving up coffee. I’m sitting here mentally smelling it and just feeling sad.

Check out some of her poetry or prose.  Here’s a poem I found on Poets.org from her:

Hey Allen Ginsberg Where Have You Gone and What Would You Think of My Drugs?
by Rachel Zucker
A mouse went to see his mother. When his car broke down he bought a bike.
When the bike wore out he bought skates. When the skates wore down he ran.
He ran until his sneakers wore through. Then he walked. He walked and
walked, almost walked his feet through so he bought new ones. His mother was
happy to see him and said, “what nice new feet you have on.”
—paraphrase of a story in Mouse Tails by Arnold Lobel

hey, listen, a bad thing happened to
my friend's marriage, can't tell you
only can tell my own story which
so far isn't so bad:

"Dad" and I stay married.  so far.
so good.  so so.

But it felt undoable. This lucky life
every day, every day. every. day.

(all the poetry books the goddamn same
until one guys gets up and stuns the audience)

Then, Joe Wenderoth, not by a long shot
sober says, I promised my wife I wouldn't fuck
anyone, to no one in particular and reads a poem
about how Jesus has no penis.

Meanwhile, the psychiatrist, attractive in a fatherly
way, says libido question mark.

And your libido?
like a father, but not like mine, or my sons'—

"fix it."

My friend's almost written
a good novel by which I mean finished
which means I'd like to light myself
on fire, on fire
with envy, this isn't "desire"
not what the Dr. meant
by libido?
                        I hope—

not, it's just chemical:
            jealousy. boredom. lethargy.

Books with prominent seraphs: their feet feet feet I am
marching to the same be—

other

than the neuronic slave I thought anxiety made me
do it, made me get up and carry forth, sally
the children to school the poems dragged
by little hands on their little seraphs
to the page my marriage sustained, remaining
energy: project #1, project #2, broken
fixtures, summer plans, demand met, request
granted, bunny noodles with and without cheesy
at the same time, and the night time I insomnia
these hours penning invisible letters—

            till it stopped.

doc said: it's a syndrome.        you've got it,
                                      classic.

it's chemical,
mental

circuitry we've got a fix for this
classic, I'm saying I can

make it better.

Everything was the same, then,
but better.

At night I slept.
In the morning got up.

Kids to school, husband still a fool-
hardy spirit makes
me pick a monday morning fight, snipe! I'll pay for that
later I'm still a pain in the
elbow from writing prose those shift+hold+letter,
I'm still me less sleepy, crazy, I suppose
less crazy-jealous just
ha-ha now at Jesus' no penis his
amazed at the other poet's kickass
friend's novel I dream instead about
the government makes me put stickers
on my driver's license of family members
who are Jews, and mine all are.  Can they get us
all? I escape with a beautiful light-haired man,
blue-eyed day trader, gentile. 

gentle, gentle, mind encased in its blood-brain barrier from the harsh skull sleep, sleep and sleepy wake and want to sleep and sleep a steep dosage— 

            "—chemical?"

in my dreams now every man's mine, no-
problem, perhaps my mind's a little plastic,
malleable, not so fatal now 

the dose is engineered like that new genetic watercress
to turn from green to red when planted over buried
mines, nitrogen dioxide makes for early autumn
red marks the spot where I must
watch my step, up one half-step-dose specific—

            The psychiatrist's lived in NY so long
            he's of ambiguous religious—
            everyone's Jewish sometimes—
            writes: "up the dosage."

now, when I'm late I just shrug it's my new improved style missed the train? I tug the two boys single file the platform a safe aisle between disasters, blithely I step, step, step-lively carefully, wisely. I sing silly ditties play I spy something pretty grey-brown-metal-filthy for a little city fun. Just one way to enjoy life's trials, mile after mile, lucky to have such dependable feet. you see, the rodents don't frighten I'm calm as can be expected to recover left to my one devivces I was twice as fast getting everywhere but where did that get me but there, that inevitable location more waiting, the rats there scurry, scurry, a furry till the next train comes

"up the dosage."

Brown a first-cut brisket in hot Dutch oven
after dusting with paprika.  Remove.  Sauté
thickly sliced onions and add wine. (Sweet
is better, lasts forever, never need a new bottle).
Put the meat on onions, cover with tomato-sauce-
onion-soup-mix mixture, cover. Back in a low
oven many hours.

The house smells like meat.
My hair smells like meat. 

I'm a light unto the nation.

I'm trying
to get out of Egypt.
This year,
I'll  be better.

Joseph makes sense of the big man's dreams, is saved,
saves his brothers those jealous boys who sold him
sold them all as slaves. Seven years of plenty.  Seven
years of famine.  He insomnias the nights counting up
grains, storing, planning, for what? They say throw
the small boys in the river (and mothers do so). Smite
the sons (and fathers do it.) God says take off your shoes,
this holy ground this pitiful, incombustible bush.

Is God chemical?
Enzymatic of our great need to chaos?

We're unforgivable.
People of the salted
cheeks.  Slap, turn, slap.

To be chosen
is to be
unforgiving/ unforgiv-
en, always chosen:
be better.

The Zuckers are a long line of obsessives. 

This served them well in war time saw it
coming in time that unseeable thing they
hoarded they ferried, schemed, paced, got the hell
out figured out at night, insomnia, how to visa—

now, if it happens again, I won't be
ready

I'm "better."

The husband, a country club Jew from Denver, American
intelligentsia will have to carry me out and he's no big
man and I'm not a small girl how fast

can the doctor switch the refugee gene back on?

How fast can I get worse?  Smart again and worse?

Better to be alive than better.  

            "...listen:" says the doctor, "sleeping isn't death.
            All children unlearn this fear you got confused
            thought thinking was the same as spinning—"
            Writes: "up the dosage."
            don't think.  this refugee thing part
            of a syndrome fear of medication of being better...

Truth is, the anti-obsessional medicine works
wonders and drags me through life's course...

About this time of year but years ago the priests spread
rumors of blood libel. Jews huddled in basements accused
of using Christian babes' blood to make unleavened bread.

signs and wonders.
Christ rises.

Blood and body and babes.
Basements and briskets
and bread of afflictions.

I am calm now with my pounds of meat
made and frozen, my party schedule, my pills
of liberation, my gentile dream-boy, American
passport, my grey haired-psychiatrist, my blue-
eyed son, my brown-eyed son, my poems on their
pretty little fleet-feet, my big shot friends, olive-skinned
husband, my right elbow on fire: fire inside deep in the nerve
from too much carrying and word-mongering, smithery, bearing
and tensing choosing to be better to live this real life this better orbit this Jack

Kerouac never loved you like you wanted.
Blake.
Buddha.
Only Jesus and that's his shtick,
he loves

everyone: smile! that's it,
for the camera, blood pressure
normal, better, you're a poster child
for signs and wonders what a little chemistry
does for the brain, blood, thought, hey,

did you know that Pharaoh actually wanted
to let them go?  those multitude Jews
but God hardened Pharaoh's heart against them [Jews]
to prove his prowess show his signs, wonders, outstretched
hand, until the dosage was a perfect ten and then
some, sea closing up around those little chariots
the men and horses while women on the far shore shook
their tambourines.  And then what?  Forty years to get the smell
of slavery off them. 

Because of this. Bloody Nile. My story one of
the lucky.  Escape hatch even from my own
obsess—

            I am here because of this.
Because of what my ancestors did for me to tell this
story of the outstretched hand what it did for me this
marked door and behind this red-marked door, around
a corner a blue-eyed boy waits to love me up with his
leavened bread, his slim body, professional detachment,
medical advancements, forgive me my father's mother's
father was the last in a long line of Rabbis—again! with this? This
rhapsody of affliction and escape, the mind bobbing along
in its watery safe. Be like everyone. Else. Indistinguishable but
better than the other nations but that's what got us into this, Allen,
no one writes these long-ass poems anymore.  Now we're
better, all better.  All Christian.  Kind.

Please check out the rest of the interview on 32 Poems Blog.

  • A lovely interview — I especially cracked up at “Is there a room where a crowd hangs on my every word? I guess, maybe a room full of students who are there for extra credit . . .” — too true! I feel for Ms Zucker, giving up coffee, but I can appreciate why sleep is a little more important! 😉

    I love the poem you shared — wow! Total gut punch, in the best way — I half read it aloud because it begs to be heard (but I’m at work and don’t want to scandalize my coworkers!). Will read this, aloud, at home — thanks for sharing!

    • Oh, that would have been great to hear at work . . . aloud!

  • Great interview, as always! I certainly see the Ginsburg connection in that poem. I really enjoyed it based on the first read, but it’s definitely one that I could ponder for awhile.

    • Yeah the connection with my “favorite” beat poet is clear. Glad you liked the interview.