Rachel Zucker: An Interview With Serena M. Agusto-Cox

July 26, 2011

Poet Rachel Zucker

1. 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…

2. Do you see spoken word, performance, or written poetry as more powerful or powerful in different ways and why? Also, do you believe that writing can be an equalizer to help humanity become more tolerant or collaborative? Why or why not?

I think spoken word and written poetry are both profoundly powerful in their own way. I love storytelling. I love good slam poetry. I love David Antin, Spalding Gray, Tracie Morris. In the fall, I’m going to spend one week of the semester talking about spoken word including Steve Benson whose work I’m eager to get to know.

I absolutely believe writing (and reading) can help people become more tolerant. Learning about others and identifying with them is the basis for empathy. Naomi Shihab Nye writes eloquently about the social and political power of poetry. If you don’t know her poetry and her prose, you should. When I read her I feel hopeful and also chastened. I know I have not done nearly enough as a poet to make the world a more tolerant place.

3. 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.

4. 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.

5. Poetry is often considered elitist or inaccessible by mainstream readers. Do poets have an obligation to dispel that myth and how do you think it could be accomplished?

Poets should dispel that myth if they’re trying to “sell” inaccessible poetry. Some poetry is very difficult and some readers like difficult work. I think the greater issue is that some poets eschew and deride poetry that is accessible. And, there is poetry that is accessible and wonderful. Kids usually like poetry. Then elementary and high school teachers (some of them) mess it up. Thank goodness my son thinks the teacher who is trying to ram her very specific interpretation of Edgar Allen Poe down the throats of all the 6th graders is dumb. He likes the poems and seems to mostly feel sorry for the teacher. So do I.

6. When writing poetry, prose, essays, and other works do you listen to music, do you have a particular playlist for each genre you work in or does the playlist stay the same? What are the top 5 songs on that playlist? If you don’t listen to music while writing, do you have any other routines or habits?

The music of Luna (Dean Warham and Britta Phillips) was the sound track to Museum of Accidents but otherwise I really don’t like listening to music when I write. I find it completely distracting. I love to listen to talk radio when I do almost anything, but for writing, I need quiet. I have a bad habit of eating while I write. I’m trying to stop doing that.

7. How do you stay fit and healthy as a writer?

I go through phases of more or less healthy and fit. Recently I realized I’d gained more weight that I liked. I’ve been running regularly and lifting free weights and watching what I eat. It’s boring and time consuming and important. Last year I ran a half-marathon, which was a huge accomplishment for me. I’d love to do that again one day but don’t have time for the training.

8. 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.

9. Please describe your writing space and how it would differ from your ideal writing space.

My study is a total mess. Right now, on my desk I’ve got piles and piles of stuff: broken action figures, books, this stupid “make a plate kit” I’ve been meaning to send away for months, old magazines, student poems, drafts of my own poems, empty teacups, sticker sheets, overdue bills and contracts–oh look! Superman and Batman are locked in a tawdry embrace! Anyway, you get the picture. It’s chaos. I like the idea of a clean, peaceful desk but it only ever lasts a day or two.

10. What current projects are you working on and would you like to share some details with the readers?

I’m working on a new collection of poems called The Pedestrians. I’m writing one sentence a day on my blog. I’m blogging for the poetry foundation am about to start an essay about the birth of my son for an anthology on birth stories. I have a half-finished picture book and two finished but unpublished picture book manuscripts. I have the first three pages of a YA book, story, something that I’d like to work on. And I have another idea for a long series of poems that is too new to talk about.

Check out some of her poetry or prose.

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