Commentary, Interviews

Interview // Rachel Zucker

On Monday, November 14, Rachel Zucker will present a lecture titled “The Poetics of Wrongness: An Unapologia” at McCaw Hall, co-presented by the SAL Poetry Series and Bagley Wright Lecture Series.

Zucker is the author of nine books, most recently, a memoir, MOTHERs, and a double collection of prose and poetry, The Pedestrians. In addition, Zucker hosts the podcast “Commonplace: Conversations with Poets (and Other People),” in which Zucker has interviewed a range of poets, including Claudia Rankine, Nick Flynn, Cathy Park Hong, and Shane McCrae. In October, Seattle poet Keetje Kuipers exchanged emails with Zucker about her work on the podcast and the power of these uniquely personal conversations. 


Why do you think it’s important to interview poets in your kitchen or, on occasion, their kitchen? What effects do you believe this setting and the element of in-person interaction have on these conversations?

Initially I was going to do these conversations—I don’t really think of them as interviews—over the phone. I had interviewed David Trinidad for Washington Square Journal over the phone and really liked the experience. But my oldest son, who is a huge podcast aficionado, and my good friend, who has a youtube channel and also listens to tons of podcasts, both encouraged me to do these conversations in person. I resisted—in person seemed super scary! Over the phone, you can look at your notes and write things down, shoo your kid out of the room or go pee! But in person: there you are! And you’d better be there! My son and my friend said, “You can tell when two people are in the room together—it makes a difference, it sounds different.” So I forced myself to try it. I’m glad I did—I think it does make a huge difference.

It’s funny you ask about the kitchen. For me it’s just about finding a quiet place. Some of the conversations have been recorded in an office space, some in hotel rooms, two in my living room, only one in my kitchen. But your question reminds me of a great (and chilling) Anne Sexton poem “For John, Who Begs me Not to Enquire Further.” The whole poem is great but here is the end:

At first it was private.
Then it was more than myself;
it was you, or your house
or your kitchen.
And if you turn away
because there is no lesson here
I will hold my awkward bowl,
with all its cracked stars shining
like a complicated lie,
and fasten a new skin around it
as if I were dressing an orange
or a strange sun.
Not that it was beautiful,
but that I found some order there.
There ought to be something special
for someone
in this kind of hope.
This is something I would never find
in a lovelier place, my dear,
although your fear is anyone’s fear,
like an invisible veil between us all…
and sometimes in private,
my kitchen, your kitchen,
my face, your face.

What role does your own vulnerability—or permeability, perhaps—play in the podcasts? I’m thinking in particular of your interview with Cathy Park Hong, and the wonderful introduction you gave us to not only her poetry, but also your very personal reaction to her body of work. Do you intentionally seek out voices for the podcast that, in one way or another, intimidate or challenge you? Are the risks of mutual examination and exposure necessary elements in these conversations?

I love poetry that challenges and intimidates me. I want to use the podcast in order to come into closer contact with authors who write that kind of poetry and with the feelings those kinds of poems inspire. And vulnerability and permeability, well, I don’t seem to know how else to do anything. I also love poetry that provides solace, comfort and understanding. My relationship with Matt Rohrer and with his poems, for example, is full of appreciation, gratitude and comfort, but I was still excited to get to talk to him and find out more about him, what he’s doing, and where he and his poems come from. It was lovely to discover that Matt and I were reading many of the same poets at the same point in our lives despite coming from different backgrounds and locations. There are pleasures for me in the diverse kinds of Commonplace conversations. I like going toward fire, but I never want Commonplace to be a sort of extreme sport interview activity that is humiliating for anyone. There is a really important line between vulnerability and humiliation.

The decision to place intimacy and the quotidian at the heart of these conversations seems an intentional rebuke to a more traditional style of interview, where the interviewer desires to elicit intimacy through artifice and while simultaneously refusing to divulge anything of herself. If that old model might be compared to our worst nightmare of a therapy session, what can you compare your model to?

How about the best model of therapy? In each one of these conversations I’ve learned so much about the other person and about myself. It’s true that in most forms of therapy the patient doesn’t learn a lot about the therapist, or the patient learns different things about the therapist (more relational things) than the therapist learns about the patient. In this way Commonplace is more reciprocal than therapy, but I still think the intimacy and self-discovery of Commonplace is similar to therapy, which often prioritizes the quotidian and daily. Maybe, actually, the model is actually just conversation, the kinds of conversations we had before our technologies made it difficult to spend face-to-face, uninterrupted, engaged, intimate time talking to another human being.

I repeatedly find myself laughing or crying as I listen to the podcast—reactions that staged literary conversations rarely elicit from me anymore in this age of AWP panels and plenary sessions. Are you, too, moved by these conversations? And, if so, has this been a surprising element for you in the process?

Well first of all, I am enormously gratified to hear your reaction. Thank you for sharing that with me. I also feel very moved by these conversations both in the moment and especially when re-listening to them and editing them. Listening to them later is, in certain ways, more profound for me because I don’t have to be thinking of a response or the next question. I can really, fully just listen. At the same time, there is often intense frustration in re-listening because I think of things I should have asked or said and hearing my own mistakes, misspeaks and anxiety is pretty embarrassing. And, strange perhaps for a podcaster to say, but I hate hearing my own voice played back! But I am stunned at how emotional this process has been for me and how open people—the people I talk to on the show and the listeners who contact me—have been with me. It’s a great honor and adventure to do this.

How do you choose the poets you feature on the podcast?

I choose artists whose work I adore, deeply understand or want to understand more deeply. I choose artists I know or artists I have never heard of that are recommended to me. I choose less well-known artists I want listeners to know about or well known artists I want listeners to hear from in a more personal way. I feature artists who say yes to my invitation. I want a diverse range of voices and visions including those I might disagree with, but I have no interest in providing bandwidth for racist, misogynist or homophobic speech or ideology.

What are you reading right now?

Motherhood Reconceived: Feminism and the Legacies of the Sixties by Lauri Umansky.

Accompaniment to a good poem: cup of coffee or glass of wine?

One shot of espresso in my favorite tiny white cup with a blue “J” that my friend Arielle gave my son when he was a baby.