Rachel Zucker is the author of ten books, including, most recently, SoundMachine (Wave Books, 2019). A recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, MacDowell Colony, and the Sustainable Arts Foundation, Zucker is an adjunct professor at New York University and the founder and host of the podcast Commonplace: Conversations with Poets (and Other People). Zucker is currently working on an immersive audio project (also called SoundMachine) and a book of lectures called The Poetics of Wrongness. For more information visit www.rachelzucker.net.
Donna Vorreyer: Rachel, thank you for agreeing to speak to me about SoundMachine. I want to start, well, at the very beginning. Your dedication reads, “For You. Thank you for listening.” This immediately drew me into an intimacy with the speaker, one that intensified with the first piece, “Song of the Dark Room,” and its examination of loneliness and need, distraction and desire. Could you speak a little about the decision to open the book with this piece and the intimacy of the connection?
Rachel Zucker: Sure. I love this question and love that you started with this one!
So much of this book was written out of existential loneliness and a feeling that I was not securely connected to the earth or to others or even to my own body. The central drama or motivation of the speaker is the desire to connect—as a wife, as a mother, as a human being, and as a writer speaking to an audience—to others. When I was “coming up” in poetry, there was a sense that there was something cheap or pandering about thinking too much (at all?) about a reader or the audience while writing. The compositional stage, and even to some extent publishing or public readings, were meant to be free of awareness or consideration of the reader. To write or perform with an awareness of the reader was seen as manipulative, pandering, or almost whorish in a way. I’ve always pushed back against the prescriptions that poems be written or read without the biography or lived experience of the author and without an awareness of audience.
In this book, that resistance is more explicit than in previous books. The word “audience” appears 12 times in SoundMachine and sometimes feels like life or death matter. In “It Has Come to My Attention,” I write, “I don’t know why I imagined there was an audience wanting caring needing to know who I am, what I think/feel, but once I imagined it, I needed to believe.” And, later in the same piece, “But what if all this time, she asked no one, the audience has been keeping her alive?” My connection with my audience—with the “you”—both enables and sometimes complicates/makes harder connections between the speaker (me) and the other real people in my life.
Some poets are a bit like actors or playwrights, and their poems function as dramatic monologues. There is an audience, but the goal is to never break the fourth wall. For many reasons, including that I was raised by a professional storyteller and spent countless hours with storytellers, my work is much more in the tradition of storytelling than theatre. A storyteller not only acknowledges the audience’s presence but interacts with the audience. A storyteller tells stories to an audience, for an audience, with an audience, and (mostly) with an audience’s consent. There are many ways in which I try, in this book, to speak to and for and with—this dedication is an early indication that I acknowledge and show gratitude to the reader. In Haiti, when a storyteller wants to tell a story s/he shouts “Krik?” If the audience wants this teller to tell, they shout back “Krak.” To publish a book is to assume that one has shouted “Krik?” and someone somewhere has shouted “Krak!” So, in a way, buying or borrowing and opening the book with the intention to read (or listen) puts us in that post-Krik-Krak moment, and I need to appreciate the immensity of this invitation.
The dedication is also a direct reference to my podcast, Commonplace. Early on, I found myself saying the phrase “thank you for listening” during the intro or outro of each episode. I started to meditate on the profundity of listening and being listened to. SoundMachine is about speaking and making sound but also, deeply, about listening to speech, sound, gesture, silence. It is painful to feel one is not listened to, ignored, erased, silenced, shouted over. Having an audience (whether it is one person or many, intimates or strangers) and actually being listened to is no small thing. Listening is difficult. The speaker in this book struggles mightily to listen enough and listen in the right way, and the speaker is always aware that speaking (writing) in/of the book is always an act of not listening and therefore a sort of violence or failure even though speaking is also necessary. So in this sense there is a relationship between speaking and listening and the “I” and the “you” that must be acknowledged right at the beginning.
DV: I am pleased to have felt so included in that “you.” As I read, I noticed that some of the pieces in the book are formed like “traditional” poems, many read more like essays, and others almost seem to be transcripts. No matter the form, I would describe all of the pieces as carefully- crafted streams of consciousness. (I realize that this is an oxymoron, but it’s the closest I can come to explaining them.) What was your process like for this book, especially your revision process? For instance, how did you revise and still maintain the momentum of real thought, the way it is, as you say in the titular poem, “associational and interrupted?”
RZ: Some of these pieces were written in prose and stayed in prose. “Rough Waters,” “Seven Beds Six Cities Eight Weeks,” and “In the End,” for example, resisted line breaks for many reasons. I didn’t want to elevate the death of a loved one (my cousin in “Rough Waters,” my doula mentor in “Seven Beds,” and my mother in “In the End”) to high lyric elegy and also felt that these pieces wandered and were discursive like lyric essays rather than verse. In these prose pieces, I didn’t want to cut out all the other things that were happening at the same time. I wanted to make room, especially for the domestic, the banal, the non-literary.
Other pieces in the book definitely looked like poems in earlier stages. Part of the revision process for this book was taking the line breaks out of almost all of these pieces, seeing what needed to change once they were in prose and then deciding that some of them just needed to have line breaks or something like line breaks. I like the term “crafted stream of consciousness” —(did you just coin that?)—because I think it describes certain aspects of the book well and also describes a lot of writing I love.
I wonder though, if there’s something important missing in “crafted stream of consciousness” as a way of describing the work? Allen Ginsberg’s work is “crafted stream of consciousness,” and I love his work, but there’s something prophetic and monumental about Ginsberg’s work that doesn’t quite describe what I’m doing. The interruptedness of my work (and mind) and the associational quality of my work (and mind) are more like (but not equal to!) the brilliant work of Bernadette Mayer. What shall we call it? Inclusive, maximalist, capacious, simultaneous, interrupted, associational, relational. We could call it “maternal,” by which I mean capacious, simultaneous, interrupted, associational, and relational as much or more than a gendered, caretaking role, biological or otherwise. Whereas Ginsberg may be charting and describing his meandering thoughts, I am reporting experience that includes my thinking, feeling, children, husband. The compositional frame is porous, fluid, flexible, uncertain and faulty because there often feels like there is no world outside the poem. It sometimes feels like the poem is the whole world—all and whatever I can put down, put in. While it is sometimes exhausting, it’s not exactly difficult for me to maintain the “crafted stream of consciousness” or “maternal” nature of the poem; what is difficult is for me to attend solely to any one thing. Revision is often a process of taking out what’s just too confusing or allowing myself to drop a thread or strain or interruption out of consideration for the reader’s attention even if I feel including it is interesting and important.
DV: I love that your revision seeks to maintain the fluidity but also (calling back to the first question) acknowledges that pieces confusing to the reader may need to be excised. Speaking of callbacks, I noticed not just thematic “callbacks” to your previous books in SoundMachine, but also a repetition of specific details and structures.
To name a few: text conversations appeared in The Pedestrians, as well as references to Alice Notley, Lenny Bruce, and the poet who says, “I’m doing really bad” and discusses toothbrushes and assholes. Allen Ginsburg is referenced prominently in Museum of Accidents and in SoundMachine. Is there a reason you chose to repeat some of these references and/or experiences in the new context of SoundMachine? What can poets learn from revisiting or reframing previous writing in new work?
RZ: It’s kind of you to call these “callbacks” because it makes them sound like intentional literary strategies rather than obsessions or things I’m stuck on or still working out. Some of these callbacks are as simple as: I was texting in The Pedestrians and I’m still texting and texting is a super interesting form of communication and has become the primary way I communicate with my kids and husband when not with them. Other callbacks—Alice Notley, Lenny Bruce, Allen Ginsberg, Olena Kaltyak Davis—well, these are important people/figures and I’m clearly projecting onto them or in a one-sided conversation with these folks that continues across many books.
I’m not sure what, if anything, poets can learn from the way I call back other than that “make it new” is definitely not my aesthetic. I say this both flippantly and with great seriousness. I’m (literally) the poet who stays home, who stays, who does the same stuff EVERY DAY and thinks about the same people and things over and over and over and over. Again, might we dare to call this aesthetic “maternal”? The poems are pretty monogamous in their length and concerns and attachments. Even when the speaker experiences a lot of “fight or flight” (adrenaline/cortisol), she is bound to “tend and befriend” and “stay and play” (oxytocin/prolactin) in the poems and in life.
DV: The idea of the poems being monogamous in their concerns is interesting to me, especially since many of the poems examine relationships in a way that is revealingly honest, and my next question may be hard to pinpoint, but I will ask anyway. The writing here is stripped of artifice, every doubt and frailty laid bare without using a shield of language to “pretty up” the difficult and often unflattering details of a life. This, to me as a writer, seems incredibly daunting and even dangerous in respect to its vulnerability. How did you manage to create something almost obsessively self-focused, but completely relatable and universal at the same time?
RZ: [Deep breath.] It is daunting. The book is unflattering and sometimes, yes, feels dangerous to me. I think your description is accurate. It definitely feels obsessively self-focused and specific in ways that make some readers uncomfortable. (On this last one I’d point out that A LOT of (male) writing is obsessively self-focused and doesn’t trigger the same response in readers or critics.) I recently received an email from someone I’ve very close to who said he read the first few poems and couldn’t get past his personal reactions (including, in particular, concern for my family) because the poems sounded so much like conversations we’d had. He worried that the universality was lost on him. It was a funny email because some of the things he was concerned about don’t concern me. He seemed sheepish about having a strong personal reaction, but isn’t this something a writer wants a reader to have? As for universality, well, I’m not sure if my writing is “universal” or even how I feel about “universality” as something to aspire to.
Forgive me for quoting myself but I have thought a lot about universality and, in “The Poetics of Wrongness,” the title essay of my book of lecturessays (published online at APR and coming out in 2020 from Wave), I write: “The poetics of wrongness is deeply suspicious of universality. The poetics of wrongness rails against the way in which Universalism is often used to exclude certain bodies or subjects or tones from poetry, the way encouraging poets to write about common experiences that “everyone” can relate to often has the opposite effect of leading to a poetry that is only about certain (often male, often white, often heterosexual, often normative) experiences that according to straight white men are ‘universal.’”
DV: A follow-up question here. In my mind, “universality” means that you are writing about being human in such a way that many different people can see themselves in the text. (I know that I have felt very connected reading your work both in this book and in the past.) What word would you use instead that is, in your thinking, more inclusive?
RZ: I don’t think there really is another word to substitute for “universal” I think perhaps this is about re-thinking why people connect to or see themselves in the work when the work is so particular, specific and NOT universal.
DV: I think that readers connect to the work, despite it being personal and particular because, to me, SoundMachine functions almost like a condensed Shakespeare in its massive exploration of the human condition: need, desire, panic, insomnia, grief, anger, death, regret, sex, marriage, parenthood, workplace drama, illness, and, yes, love.
These themes are woven in and out of almost every piece and, as I read, the experience at times was dissociative, harnessing me into a ride where I could not always see the next turn. It was a visceral experience, propulsive, loading the reader with information with very few traditional “rests” (white space, line breaks, etc.) to digest. What made you decide to tackle so many big issues on one canvas? And how did this propulsive dynamic arrive?
RZ: I like your description of the book. I’m not sure putting all these things in one book was a decision. It might be closer to a disorder or difference. Whether or not my mind’s movements—perseveration, globalization, circularity—are a diagnosable disorder or not, I’m not sure. In terms of recurring “themes” you mention, well, some of these—need, desire, insomnia, grief, regret—are in some ways defined by reocurrence, persistence, unerradicability. For example: one bad night of sleep is not insomnia. So one poem about insomnia is probably not an accurate portrayal of insomnia? In terms of marriage, parenthood, illness (being in a mortal and pervious body)—those are the primary dramas of my life and the things I’ve been exploring, investigating, experiencing for over 20 years. Why would they not be in each piece?
DV: Well, when you put it that way, it makes perfect sense. With this book, you have created/are creating an audio experience on Bandcamp. I was fascinated by the preview that was given on Commonplace—the melding of historical recordings, ambient noise, and your reading of the poem was powerful and something unique in the world of poetry. What about this book called for a soundscape—was it the content? Or did your experience with Commonplace open up avenues regarding poetry and audio that you hadn’t considered before?
RZ: As with most decisions I make, especially artistic ones, there wasn’t one a-ha moment but rather a period of intermittent provocations and irritations that I ignored, entertained, resisted and explored until something pushed me over the edge to do it. Here are just a few of the seeds that lead to the audio project:
First, I like reading to a live audience and am good at it. Over the past decade or so, people have come up to me after readings and told me how much they enjoyed hearing my work. This is often said with a tone of surprise and gratitude, as if the listener expected to not like me (or the reading) and was pleasantly surprised. Sometimes it’s a student who was required to attend, sometimes it’s someone who came to hear the other reader, but sometimes it’s someone who came to see me and wants me to know that they felt a different kind of access to my work hearing me read it aloud. Years ago, a young woman came up to me at the end of a reading and practically shouted at me: “you’re just like Nikki Giovanni… you’re JUST LIKE NIKKI GIOVANNI!!” Now, sadly for me, I am not really that much like the fabulous poet Nikki Giovanni, but I think what this person was trying to say was that she’d seen my work on the page and imagined it was going to be tedious, academic, and incomprehensible. She was delighted to discover that I was compelling to listen to, understandable, and that something about my work reached her, mattered to her, held useful, real-life meaning for her. So, I wanted my writing to reach readers, including and perhaps especially, readers who don’t typically read poetry or who might be intimidated by long poems or by work that lives on the page in non-normative ways. So I knew I wanted an audio version of my work, but I wasn’t sure whether there was something special in the live performance that would be lost in a regular audiobook.
I also thought about what it would mean to lean into the performance aspect of reading. I LOVE good spoken word poetry, but I’m not a spoken word poet, so what am I? I had mostly avoided anything that felt like “performativity” when my mother was alive and felt quite hemmed in, at poetry readings, by trying to strike exactly the right balance of “good reader” and “not overly performative.” There are a lot of expectations and judgements about what a poetry reading should be and a sense (this is thankfully changing) that performativity is a kind of pandering to the audience that should be avoided. My Commonplace conversation with Tommy Pico (and listening to his audiobook of IRL) were extremely inspirational for me in terms of thinking of the voice as an instrument and reading as an art.
So I wanted there to be an audio book for this book but had no idea how to convince someone to pay to make an audiobook of SoundMachine. (At that time Wave hadn’t made audiobooks, and very few books of poetry are made into audiobooks.) And gradually it became clear as I started to think that I wanted more than a standard, straight audiobook. Being more and more open to performance and theatre and theatricality and then seeing Alison Kobayashi’s “Say Something Bunny” and getting to speak with Alison for Commonplace—well, this was profoundly motivating!
In addition, I knew I wanted to try something new, to stretch myself, to put myself in the role of novice. Talking to the many Commonplace writers who work in other media and learning enough audio skills to properly record and do basic sound editing were essential in gaining enough confidence to take the plunge. So then I started to do research and see what was out there. I found some great stuff, but nothing like I what I wanted to make. The fact that there was no close example of what I imagined immersive audio poetry could be was both freeing and intimidating.
Those are just a few of the things I was thinking about when I ran the Kickstarter and started making the first piece. Of course once we started making it, I was thrown into the logistics, constraints, possibilities, pleasures, and frustrations of making the pieces, not to mention the specific pleasures and frustrations of collaborating with different sound designers—I’ve worked with three so far—but I suppose that might be more than you want to hear about right now!
DV: Not at all—I find this whole concept fascinating, and I hope that it opens up possibilities for audio in poetry. It was a pleasure to speak with you about this project.