In Museum of Accidents, her 2009 poetry collection, Rachel Zucker describes the experience of motherhood as “every same day new again. every way is without a way out or/ way to look back, to be back, to bring the fabric into a tight/ pucker or pocket or foxhole hem, some little space to fall into a breath.” Zucker’s poetry always rises to the demands of experience, and her writing about motherhood, especially, has been widely acclaimed for its dynamism, inventiveness and complex honesty. She also has been a forceful advocate for mothers through her work as a labor doula and childbirth educator.
In addition to Museum of Accidents, which was a National Book Critics Circle nominee, Zucker is the author of three other poetry collections and, with Arielle Greenberg, the co-author of Home/Birth: A Poemic. Zucker and Greenberg also co-edited the 2008 anthology Women Poets on Mentorship: Efforts and Affections. When we met with Zucker for this interview at AWP, we were thrilled to find Greenberg with her and jumped at the opportunity to bring Greenberg into the conversation. Greenberg has published several poetry collections and chapbooks, including last year’s extraordinary Shake Her from Ugly Duckling Presse, and is known for her foundational critical and editorial work on Gurlesque poetry.
A. BRADSTREET: What are the books that you found yourself reading after becoming a mother that suddenly you had a new appreciation for?
R. ZUCKER: Definitely The Mother/Child Papers by Alicia Ostriker, of which I had a used copy, but which was then rereleased. It’s an amazing book and really important, mind-blowing. Rereading Sharon Olds and definitely Adrienne Rich, particularly her prose. Her poetry had always been important to me, but in terms of being a mother, Of Woman Born and On Lies, Secrets and Silence. I read non-poetry books like Mother Nature by Sarah Hrdy, which is this huge socio-anthropological look at the biological and sociological underpinnings of motherhood. That was a really important book to me. And there were other books, not poetry books, that were really significant to me. But in some ways, all the poetry I read after becoming a mother I read differently. Definitely Alice Notley, particularly her early work.
A. BRADSTREET: What are some of the more recent books that have come out that you feel have been thinking about motherhood in interesting ways?
R. ZUCKER: It’s almost harder for me to think about which books that aren’t doing that. Brenda Shaughnessy’s book [Our Andromeda], which I just read, is a pretty interesting take, and Sarah Vap’s books. There are so many single poems in full collections. I don’t know if I would say, probably to their benefit, that it’s necessarily that whole books are like this. I feel like all the poets whose books I’ve loved—not all, but so many of them— a substantial amount of their work now is about motherhood to varying degrees.
A. BRADSTREET: How has motherhood has changed your own writing practice?
R. ZUCKER: I don’t really remember my writing practice before I had kids so much. I know I had one, but that’s a hard question for me to answer. I didn’t have kids in graduate school, and I didn’t have kids for the first few years after graduate school, but I think my real writing coincided with having kids, so I can’t quite answer that.
A. BRADSTREET: What caused your real writing to coincide with having kids? Do you think it was an outlet that you especially needed at that moment? Or was there a burst of creative energy?
R. ZUCKER: I don’t think it was a burst of creative energy. I think it was definitely an outlet that I needed, and I think that I had always been interested in the self in the world, and relationships, and who I was. Becoming pregnant and having a baby, and in particular having a second baby, created a real crisis for me around some of the things that I’d always been philosophically interested in. But then, at that point, I was physically and metaphysically interested in those things. So I think it was both that the subject matter I’d always been interested in, but hadn’t had a real sense of urgency about, became very clear, and everything felt much more urgent. Writing as a way of being a single person, as opposed to being half of a diad or half of a triad, was really important.
A. BRADSTREET: What were some of these things that you talk about being philosophically interested in, that physically and metaphysically became imperative?
R. ZUCKER: I think what it means to be a human being and one person and a lot of existential questions like, ‘What’s life for?’ and, ‘What’s the point? When’s it a good idea to die?”
A. BRADSTREET: I’ve been surprised that questions about death have come up so much since becoming a mother. That they’re so paired with new life coming in.
R. ZUCKER: Yeah, for me, I was like, now it would really be a problem if I died, whereas before, not so much. Or a very different kind of problem.
A. BRADSTREET: I think that’s one of the things that is so beautiful about “Long Lines to Stave off Suicide”— the confluence of the poetic will with that of actual living. Because Arielle is here too, and you were talking about what it means to be a single person, you of course collaborated on Home/Birth, and I wondered if collaboration as a mode of writing also felt like a necessary thing to do too after becoming a mother?
R. ZUCKER: There was time in between those two parts, but absolutely. At the time I didn’t have some big plan. It was Arielle’s idea. It wasn’t like, Oh this is the next stage! But in retrospect, it does certainly make a lot of sense that I’d already had a different way of thinking about the world and thinking about being one entity, being two entities, whose language was whose, and what was I trying to say, and what was that all about. I don’t think either of us knew what we were doing until we were done.
A. GREENBERG: We definitely tried to get a few different collaborations going before that, and it wasn’t like we didn’t want to do it, but we were like, you know, it sounds kind of fun, but it just doesn’t feel particularly urgent given the business of our lives. We had tried and failed maybe two or three different collaborations before that. Mostly, in my memory, to maintain and sustain a writing practice in the face of having children.
A. BRADSTREET: Someone was just telling me that collaboration is a natural mode of writing for women, and in part possibly because of the fact that, in the long history of male poetic “geniuses,” there is always the contribution and collaboration from the person who is taking care of the house, raising the kids, and even as an intellectual collaborator, but nonetheless just gets written into or under the name of the male “genius.” So somehow women are always more aware of that, and I think that’s part of what you were saying, about whose words are really whose.
R. ZUCKER: Absolutely, and I think that together, but separately, we’d already explored a lot of those issues that you’re taking about intellectually when we were working on the mentorship book and the idea of ‘Is it mentorship? Is it influence? Is it collaboration? What’s defining the subtle differences between those kinds relationships?’ was very important to us. Thinking about where you get your inspirations or permission or support. But then we wanted to take it one step further and to really rethink, Why is there a very male anxiety about influence?, and to see that wasn’t what women our age were describing when they were describing their relationships with mentors. It wasn’t like, Oh my god, what if I read Fanny Howe and then I lose myself completely, and I never discover my own language again? It was like, Oh my god, this is amazing, I want to write now.
A. GREENBERG: I think we were conscious before, during and after of the problems of it being a gendered thing. I certainly think it’s true, the idea of the woman behind the male genius writer, but Carol Gilligan would say that we’re just socialized as women to collaborate rather than to compete. I think we are both interested in how that is a power that is a force of good in the world, and also how that’s problematic and complicated. I don’t think either of us wants to paint some romantic picture of what it’s like to collaborate with women, or be influenced by women, or have a woman be your mentor, or a woman be your student or your friend. It’s not all rosy and wonderful just because it’s women. It’s really complicated stuff. I think Home/Birth came out of that, and the mentorship book came out of that too.
R. ZUCKER: I think it’s interesting that we did the mentorship book before Home/Birth. I don’t usually think about it that way.
A. GREENBERG: I don’t really have any motherhood poems out yet, but I have poems to Rachel in my second book asking what it’s going to be like on the other side. Those are my only motherhood poems in book form at the moment, poems directly addressed to Rachel asking, “What the fuck is it going to be like when I become a mother?”
R. ZUCKER: And that’s also why it’s hard for me to answer the first question because there are so many poems that I’ve read that aren’t published, or aren’t published in books that I feel like are part of my world. Like Arielle’s poems, it’s weird to me that you guys haven’t read them. It’s strange, I feel like they’re in the world because they’re in my world.
A. BRADSTREET: There is one question I’ve been thinking a lot about, especially because I had my first child at the same time as when my university was going through all these budget cuts. I felt so far removed from that, because there was no way I could physically be there protesting with everybody. And I worried this tied back to a general perception of writing about motherhood. There’s an idea that you can’t be radical, or you can’t be avant-garde, if you’re a mother. So this is something I want to hear from women who I do think are very innovative writers: Is it possible to be radical or avant-garde and be a mother? Or is there an inevitable adjustment of values or an adjustment of commitment? And is that necessarily a bad thing, or is there something new that can arise from that?
R. ZUCKER: That is such a good question. Obviously I think it’s possible to be radical and avant-garde and be a mother. In fact, I think some women become mothers in ways that are radical and avant-garde and activist— in their birthing practices, in their mothering choices, in their family dynamics, and whether they work or don’t work and how they manage those things. So it’s not just about, Are you bringing your baby to a protest in a sling?, although I think that is also a very important part. I think that many women, me included for sure, became radicalized at the same time that we became mothers. That is a huge inherent issue that we have as women, that it is biologically and sociologically very compelling to stay home, protect your child, and not care in the same exact way about the rest of the world, when you have a new baby. That’s really what you’re supposed to do, not just because the world is telling you that’s what you’re supposed to do, but because…
A. GREENBERG: You are a mammal.
R. ZUCKER: Yeah, and you shouldn’t— “shouldn’t” is maybe the wrong word— but I don’t expect a woman with a new baby to be changing the university structure. God, you have something more important to do. But then the problem is that those voices are not really heard. I think that the worst part of this is that often women go through a period of a time when, for many different reasons, some good and some bad, their attention has to be turned inward, or toward the family, or toward the domestic sphere. Then they come back into their professional life, or they’ve really lived a very compartmentalized, very painfully divided life, and when their children are older they’re not always the biggest advocates for young women with children. This is something that’s really painful and, unfortunately, divides a lot of women. You kind of go into your motherhood place, and women get divided, and women who are mothers and not mothers get divided along various different lines. Then we lose a lot of power, we lose a lot of our collaborative force. And I don’t quite know what to do about that, because it feels just like an inherent problem.
A. GREENBERG: Or benefit. You choose your battles. You can’t do everything. I feel like, even after you become a mother, the mothers are divided. The issues we were passionate about when our children were young, or when we were pregnant, are not the same issues as when our children are 8 or 10 or 12 or 13. The issues change over time, and your children are facing different things in the world, and that changes where you want to put your energy.
R. ZUCKER: It’s hard, though, because people that are the best to advocate for women with very young children are women with very young children, but it’s not right time for them to advocate. That doesn’t mean that they’re brainless passive mammals. They’re not. But I think that, realistically, it’s very hard.
A. GREENBERG: But it’s a long life. I just saw Brenda Hillman at Berkeley. She is still on the front lines doing hardcore, serious, super activism all the time. And she raised a kid. There are many examples.