What Kind of Poetry Do You Write (2 of 2)
I write what might best be described as new vintage poetry. Despite my love affair with the renaissance and the late victorians, I am still a modern gal who likes her iPhone, linen trousers, Fluevogs (when I can afford them), hip hop, and birth control. I text. Alas is always ironic. I recently bought a new vintage dress at a shop called Avenue P in Larchmont where I live and scribble. New Vintage is what the shopkeeper called it, so I inquired with something elegant like, "eh?" She described my poems: all new construction meant for contemporary life but with an eye on the past. Not so that my readers might exclaim bitchen or groovy or keen, but because this is what pleases me and settles me into my skin.
In short, I answer with an analogy because most people I talk to do not read poetry. To parents of young children, I generally add that my poetry is not rated PG13.
This question always bedeviled me until I decided to say, "Very good ones," on a whim one day, and I've used variants of that with a friendly grin. Dreading this question -- and more difficult ones ("My nephew writes poetry. Would you read his manuscript?") -- I sometimes identify myself as a philatelist or classicist to discourage further inquiries. Auden recommended "medieval historian."
Poems that make me uneasy. If a poem doesn't make me increasingly uneasy as I work on it, I toss it, as the absence of unease and conflicted feelings usually means there is too little at stake in the poem.
When people ask that question, I usually tell them I write about sex, violence, and politics. Might as well get them out to the poetry section, anyway. Unless they seem prissy or easily offended, in which case the poems are all about family life, landscape, and history.
When people ask me what kind of poetry I write I say I write book-length poems about desire, death, the imagined worlds of children, wilderness, violence, loss, and pleasure.
I usually answer: "speculative." I am interested in poetry as a means toward imagining alternative realities and, concomitantly, a means toward making our current reality feel more rich and meaningful. Historically, poetry has always been speculative in the sense it has harnessed language in order to intensify and modify existing ways of thinking. The very act of putting images, thoughts, and ideas into language literally "makes them up." I am interested in taking this a step further and using the already "made up" as a way of re-imagining language, and, through language, finding some sort of meaning. Poets have always searched for meaning. Heretofore (perhaps when there were fewer of us), language itself provided an easy means of modulation, intensification, and, sometimes, clarity. Now, with the welter of language we experience daily (and help to create), it can seem that language isn't enough, that language can, in fact, be a drain on meaning. I am interested in deriving language that makes life feel meaningful.
When asked what kind of poetry I write, I respond, "It's sort of all over the place. I used to be closely identified with the sonnet, but I mostly work in free verse." I try to make it sound like other people read my work and review it, and I always drop in the word "work" whenever I can. Pretentious, yes, but at least it makes it sound like
I always say, "Uhh... it's about people."
I wish I had a better answer.
I used to say that I wrote novels for people with really, really short attention spans, but I don't say that anymore. I used to write them, but now I don't. Now I write love poems to the monster that lives under my bed.
I always, always get this question on airplanes, which is why occasionally I lie about my identity and profession. Sometimes I say, narrative--poems that tell stories. But then people ask what kind of stories, I don't know what to tell them because I write stories about women's bodies, about sex, about childbirth, about the legacy of the Holocaust and its effects on my family, and how do you tell your seatmate about your body, about your family when all they tell you is that they work in IT or pharmaceuticals? When they tell me they work in Human Resources do I tell them that I write about the buildings on the interstate that they drive past, the people on street corners that they look through? That the person behind them in line at Walmart taking notes--that's me? That I'm writing about them? About my neighbors, and seatmates, and what it's like to look at their house from above or outside and see the lights on glittering, and have no idea what's going on inside, so I talk about the quality of the light instead, give it a flavor to imply that it's beautiful and silent and worried and impenetrable? Sometimes I just say, what kind of poems do you like?
Read part 1 here.
Poet and educator Rachel Zucker was born in New York and grew up in Greenwich Village, the daughter of novelist Benjamin Zucker and storyteller Diane Wolkstein. She earned her BA at Yale University and her MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Zucker’s expansive yet lyrical poems interrogate and deftly...