Everybody is a Storyteller: an Interview with Rachel Zucker
Poet, mother, teacher, and podcast host Rachel Zucker is the author of ten books. Her most recent, SoundMachine, is part poetry, part memoir, and part lyric essay. Other notable works include Museum of Accidents, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, the memoir MOTHERs, and The Pedestrians, a double collection of prose and poetry.
In June 2016, Zucker launched the podcast Commonplace: Conversations with Poets (and Other People). In each episode, she interviews poets and artists about quotidian objects, experiences, obsessions, and more. Before launching her podcast, she toured the country delivering lectures on the intersection of poetry, confession, ethics and disobedience as part of the Bagley Wright Lecture Series. These lectures will be published in a collection called The Poetics of Wrongness.
Zucker has been awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, MacDowell and the Sustainable Arts Foundation. She teaches poetry at New York University and Antioch University Los Angeles.
A New York City native, Rachel moved to Maine last year, where she has lived out the pandemic with her three sons.
When I spoke to Zucker, we talked about what it was like to grow up in a family of storytellers, how she first got into poetry, the inequalities that the COVID-19 pandemic made clear, why you can’t discuss art without considering ethics, and much more.
Barbara Platts: You grew up with two parents who were storytellers. How did this affect your trajectory as a storyteller?
Rachel Zucker: It not only affected my trajectory as a storyteller; I’m not sure I imagined anything in life outside of the frame of storytelling for a long time. I’m not sure whether I do even today. I think there’s a deep belief that pretty much our whole lives are inside of stories or storytelling, and it’s almost impossible to even see experience or communicate experience outside of telling stories. That’s a little bit theoretical-sounding, but what I mean in practical terms is therapy is obviously a form of storytelling. Medicine is a form of storytelling. Science is a form of storytelling. Obviously writing is a form of storytelling. Storytelling is a form of storytelling, but what isn’t a form of storytelling? As soon as you try to communicate or organize thought or physical experience, you are involved in the process of storytelling. I sort of see all of life in relation to storytelling.
BP: Yes. A little bit of a counterargument is that not everyone can be a writer. A lot of people need writers to tell their stories. Even though it’s ingrained in all of us, every company, every industry needs writers.
RZ: Yeah, I guess I’d push back a tiny bit and say, I think everybody can be a writer. It’s absolutely true that people have different access to writing and reading and that a lot of people go through life thinking storytellers are irrelevant, antiquated. And then industries sort of come back to the importance of storytelling through a capitalist model and think of it as branding. Like, oh, how do we tell the story of our brand? How do we tell the story of the invention of the computer? Or how do we tell the story of how you should buy our car and not the other car? They realize, for sort of capitalist reasons, we need people who can write compelling copy. We need people who can describe things. But I think everybody is a storyteller. Everyone has the ability to be a writer, if we consider writing to just be the act of telling a story on the page. And certainly, writers are not the only storytellers, right? Dancers tell stories or subvert certain kinds of narratives, in a way. I’m interested in pushing back on the idea that writers are people with a special talent or a special affinity or a special relationship with language that other people don’t have or can’t really have.
But I think everybody is a storyteller. Everyone has the ability to be a writer, if we consider writing to just be the act of telling a story on the page. And certainly, writers are not the only storytellers, right? Dancers tell stories or subvert certain kinds of narratives, in a way. I’m interested in pushing back on the idea that writers are people with a special talent or a special affinity or a special relationship with language that other people don’t have or can’t really have.
BP: I think that’s a good point. Maybe writers are just more obsessive with storytelling and others aren’t as focused on it?
RZ: Or again, to push back—I promise you I won’t do this every single time you open your mouth—but is it possible that writers are just people who were encouraged in writing, and it’s not that some people are more obsessed with it than others or find writing more natural, so to speak? Really the only difference between a published writer and an unpublished writer is that a published writer is published. Someone else made that decision, not the writer themselves, unless you’re a self-published writer. Maybe the only difference between a writer and someone who’s not a writer is someone else made that decision.
BP: Did you feel that you were encouraged by your parents to tell stories?
RZ: I was very encouraged by my parents in terms of them listening to me and valuing what I had to say and being interested in my imagination. It certainly was not a family where children are supposed to be seen but not heard. On the other hand, there was definitely a hierarchy. My mother was the professional storyteller and it was very highly valued to be a good listener, to be in the audience, to be quiet, to be patient, to respect the terms of storytelling. At school I was told, basically from first through eighth grade, that I was a bad writer because writing was synonymous with spelling and handwriting. I think it was the combination of the encouragement I had at home for storytelling, which was not differentiated from writing, and then this real disapproval and criticism I had at school that was not so interested in storytelling. Writing was really just about the mechanics and not about imagination, creativity, or expression. I think it was both of those that actually kind of pulled me towards writing, and poetry, in particular. I thought of poetry as the place where there were no rules. You could say whatever you wanted and you didn’t have to be a good speller, you didn’t have to have good handwriting, and you didn’t have to know capitalization and grammar rules.
Now I don’t think of poetry that way, as the place where there are no rules, but I think I’m kind of anti-authoritarian and anti-institutional, anti-hierarchy. I knew the school was wrong. I knew the teachers were not teaching in the service of what I considered to be the heart of a story. I went to a parochial school, yeshiva, but I had a much more secular teacher in fifth and sixth grade, an English teacher who did these poetry units with us, which largely were about turning off the lights and writing whatever you wanted. That also gave me the sense that poetry was a craft where you could do whatever you wanted. He gave me a lot of praise for my poems, which at the time was absolutely thrilling beyond belief. So, yeah, I think I wrote because I was encouraged and also as a kind of fuck you to the authorities.
BP: Is that still one of the reasons you love poetry?
BP: You grew up in Greenwich Village, but you traveled a lot for your mom’s folktale-collecting trips. Tell me a little about that and your childhood in general.
RZ: My mother fell in love with Haiti, both the country and the geography of it, but primarily because, in the seventies and eighties, the oral culture and the respect for storytellers was still very, very strong there. In the U.S, storytelling was librarians sitting there reading a picture or a chapter book rather than telling stories. Mostly people being told to be quiet, it’s a library, no talking. That’s really the opposite of an oral culture, a society that values stories not just as published pieces, but as storytelling and listening to a live storyteller as a form of education itself. My mom took me to Haiti several times. I had many experiences listening to stories in a language I couldn’t understand, which is fascinating. My mother was very adept at languages and learned them easily and fluently.
We also went to Peru. I remember going to Bali and watching the shadow puppet storytelling of the Mahabharata, which could only happen at night because you had to wait until it got dark to make the shadow puppets visible. I remember just trying to stay awake because it was very exciting and interesting.
The idea that a particular story, a kind of storyteller, or a kind of storytelling would be the reason you would travel all around the world was deeply embedded in my understanding of what it meant to be alive and what it meant to travel.
The idea that a particular story, a kind of storyteller, or a kind of storytelling would be the reason you would travel all around the world was deeply embedded in my understanding of what it meant to be alive and what it meant to travel. Some people travel for food, some travel for natural wonders. Those things were very important to my mother and to my father, but they were important in part because to try to fully understand the stories of a culture, you had to also have experience of the climate, the foods, the people, the language. It was both exciting and sometimes very boring, sometimes very lonely. I’m an only child and there was hardly ever anyone to play with, and the other kids around didn’t speak English, and I didn’t speak the other languages. There were a lot of non-verbal relationships that were required.
BP: It’s been a long year for everyone. How has COVID and everything that’s come along with it affected your writing?
RZ: I haven’t written at all for over a year. There are blessings that have emerged from this incredibly upside-down time. I had wanted to leave New York City for a long time to know what it felt like to live in a less urban place. I’d been waiting for sort of a compelling mandate to leave New York. But now I’ve lived outside of New York City for a year, and I’m really grateful to have had that experience. I’m really grateful to have thought about loneliness and physical distancing. The importance of physical relationships with other people is much more clear to me. Deciding to get divorced at the very beginning of COVID and then having to be physically isolated from everybody but my children has been horrible, and has made me realize that my teaching and my writing are never going to be the same again. I haven’t been writing, I find reading extremely difficult. It’s almost painful. I keep trying to figure out if my glasses prescription is too low or something, because I really have trouble reading since COVID. I have trouble with attention, with concentration, but I hope I will start writing again. I hope I’ll be able to concentrate and read. But I never want to go back to how things were before in other ways. I’m much more interested in the body and in connections between people, and the physical world. I think I spent my whole pre-COVID life overly prioritizing intellect and thinking, and I don’t want to go back to that.
The other thing is both personal and political, which is I don’t think there’s a way forward without really processing the grief of what’s happened, and the anger. The grief of the actual people who have died and been physically harmed by COVID itself, but also the way there was this initial possibility that COVID would undermine oppressive structures and would hit everybody. Like, oh, maybe this is what’s going to have us finally rethink capitalism, finally rethink institutional racism, and rethink and really act against white supremacy. But COVID has mostly killed poor people, marginalized people, and old people. If anything, the very rich people got richer and structures of inequity just got worse. I can’t just go back to writing. I think everything is really, really messed up, and it’s not the right solution to try to fix it, if fixing it means fixing it for white people, which it mostly does. So let’s keep it fucked up, but in a way that works towards greater solidarity and liberation. I feel that way very deeply.
BP: It sounds like it may be something you want to write about?
RZ: Yes, I mean, I feel two things. One, I was recording a conversation with Makenna Goodman for Commonplace. She’s the author of this incredible novel called The Shame. Makenna mentioned she was not going to be the voice of her generation to talk about COVID. I feel the same way about myself. I’m not the person who has been most harmed by COVID, but to not write about it, what should I write about then? Nothing is outside of COVID for me. But for people who, you know, were living in fear of the police or in fear of violence and harm of white supremacy, nothing was outside of that. Maybe I imagined I could write outside of white supremacy, outside of capitalism, or outside of the patriarchy. I couldn’t. That’s the mark of privilege to imagine you can. I can’t imagine not writing about these things, but it’s also very complicated to think about how I would write about these things, because which part of this is really my story to tell and which part of this is someone else’s story to tell?
I can’t imagine not writing about these things, but it’s also very complicated to think about how I would write about these things, ibecause which part of this is really my story to tell and which part of this is someone else’s story to tell?
BP: In the last year have you still been teaching at New York University and working on your podcast and the project SoundMachine?
RZ: I haven’t really made any progress on project SoundMachine since COVID started. I’m teaching at NYU and at Antioch and revising a book of essays. I am continuing with Commonplace, but we used to do two episodes a month, and now we’re at about one every other month. It’s really been difficult to keep going.
BP: What got you interested in starting a podcast like Commonplace?
RZ: So many things. I really love podcasts. I was at the end of a lecture tour. The Bagley Wright Lecture Series had asked me to write and deliver this series of lectures. I had given them across the country and really enjoyed that process, even though it was also grueling and very scary. I really liked traveling to different places, meeting the poets, and the writers, and the non-writers (if anyone is actually not a writer). I didn’t want that process to end of having conversations with other writers or other non-writers and having an audience. I started Commonplace for lots of reasons, but also just to see if I could do it. Then when Trump was elected not long after, the political mandate became much, much clearer. Commonplace gives me a lot of pleasure. It has helped me read more deeply, more widely, more carefully in preparation for these conversations. But, ultimately, the goal of Commonplace is to dismantle white supremacy. Commonplace became a platform.
BP: You’ve been praised over and over for your ability to show your feelings and your experiences in your writing. What advice would you give to new writers who are struggling with getting more personal?
RZ: I would say think about your internal critic as a force of internalized racism, misogyny, homophobia. Who is it that really wants you not to say your truth? Why? Think about the word oversharing, right? Women have been vilified, if not killed, for oversharing. Women who try to live by a woman’s wisdom historically have been deemed witches and dangerous. These kinds of censorship and silencing are not the same across all groups, but who doesn’t want you to say your truth? This is part of how empires control people. This is part of colonialism. This is part of patriarchy. By saying that a certain kind of feeling or a certain kind of body is disgusting or uninteresting, that’s a mode of oppression and control. For some people, seeing that voice as the voice of oppression and control can help you push back against it. But these things go back to when we’re all very young and somebody doesn’t want to hear about your period or your feelings or whatever it is. We internalize that over and over again. So, I think it’s a practice of finding teachers, finding mentors, finding peers, finding editors who want to know more and who will praise you, or at least hold the space, for what that more is.
BP: You’ve given lectures around questions like, should I write this and is it okay to put this story in my work? Do you have trouble making those calls?
RZ: Absolutely. And primarily that’s about hurting other people. Can I say this about my kids? Can I say this about myself? Let’s say I say, “Being a mother is very boring.” It is very boring, not all the time, but a lot of the time it’s very boring. That’s not the only thing I feel, but to not say that is to not acknowledge the fullness of my experience of motherhood. But will that make my children feel lousy? I don’t know. I hope it will make them feel that I was very present and that I was aware of a lot of different parts of the experience and also that that’s my experience. I’m not saying they are boring, sometimes they are, but when I say being a mother is boring, that’s about me. It’s not really about them. But, again, I really think it’s important to think about who benefits from me saying this and who benefits from me not saying this?
BP: You’ve talked a lot in your lectures about confession and ethics. Why do you think these are important topics to cover?
RZ: I’m not trying to be coy, but is there any other topic? It’s sort of like, nothing is outside of COVID right now. Is anything we write outside of the question of ethics? I don’t think so. Every single craft-based investigation into art is also an ethical one. To imagine you can separate ethics from art, to imagine there’s art that transcends capitalism, or that we could say “This is good art,” without a conversation about audience subjectivity, I think that’s like some kind of a fantasy of colorblindness or some sort of idea that’s only available to very privileged people.
Every single craft-based investigation into art is also an ethical one. To imagine you can separate ethics from art, to imagine there’s art that transcends capitalism, or that we could say “This is good art,” without a conversation about audience subjectivity, I think that’s like some kind of a fantasy of colorblindness or some sort of idea that’s only available to very privileged people.
BP: Do some of your beliefs around this come from personal experience?
RZ: It’s definitely my personal experience. There’s nothing I teach or talk about or write about or think about that’s outside of my personal experience. I don’t believe in that. I don’t believe in objectivity, I don’t believe that’s even the goal. My thinking and my writing is inextricable from my personal experience and also my experience as a mostly protected person, knowing if I said the things that I said, I probably wasn’t going to get shot.
Being a white Jew is a very interesting thing in the United States, at least for me. There’s a lot of power and privilege, in my experience, including the power and privilege of literacy and having come from many generations of people who wrote and studied texts and people who believed each word of a text was divine, but also that you could interpret and argue and talk back to a text without sinning and being punished for that kind of engagement with a text or with the word of God. I’m part of a group, as a white Jew, who was oppressed and victimized not long ago. My father was born in France in 1940. His parents took him and his sisters and fled the country three days after his birth. So, on my father’s side, I’m the first-generation American. If you believe in the collective unconsciousness, collective trauma, that’s deep in me, but at the same time, as a white Judeo-Christian American, I have enormous power and privilege.
As a writer, you also have enormous position and privilege and power. But I also write, teach, think, and live from a perspective of being an outsider, of being part of a marginalized group, of being a woman, really damaged by patriarchy and misogyny. I guess I feel like everything is everything, right?
From my Jewish background, there is a real kind consciousness of being both oppressor and victim. For example, in a creative writing classroom, as the teacher, that’s a position of enormous power and privilege. How do I avoid becoming an oppressor if I’m in a position of power? As a writer, you also have enormous position and privilege and power. But I also write, teach, think, and live from a perspective of being an outsider, of being part of a marginalized group, of being a woman, really damaged by patriarchy and misogyny. I guess I feel like everything is everything, right? There’s no line between the personal and the literary. There’s no line between politics and my love life. There’s no way to separate these things. There’s only ways of trying to think about the intersection, interaction, and juxtaposition of relative power relationships. Not to mention, I never even brought up class and money. Every single thing that we’ve talked about so far is within the world of capitalism. So right there, you’re dealing with an oppressive structure.
BP: How has your job as a mother of three boys affected your writing?
RZ: From a more capitalist perspective, motherhood is a form of unpaid labor that the economy values less and less the more women appear to have control over their own fertility through the use of hormonal birth control. The more that childbearing seems to be a choice—which it is not a choice for many people—but the more it seems to be a choice, almost like a lifestyle choice, the less pressure there is to make it possible for parents to also exist in the economy. How has motherhood impacted my writing? Well, I spend a lot, a lot, a lot of time with my children, thinking about my children, cooking, going to the grocery store, cleaning. When I employ other people to do some of the tasks required to parent, then I’m suddenly in a world of very complicated ethics. When I do all of those things myself and don’t employ other people, then that’s what I’m spending my time doing as opposed to writing. I’m an adjunct at NYU. I’m a part-time employee. I have no full-time tenure track, no job security at any institution, which is sort of similar to being a mother. It’s not that I have nothing. It’s not that I don’t have something to show for my efforts, but none of it exists within the economy. That’s sort of like a Marxist description of motherhood. But since I had children, since before I had children, my writing has largely been about my own identity. From the earliest I can remember, I wanted to have children. I wrote about pregnancy, childbirth, nursing, and attachment, and really thought through a crisis of identity and subjectivity, which for me happened through the biological having of children. For other people it happens differently. So the kids are kind of what I write about, or motherhood is what I write about. But they’re also the thing that makes writing impossible. So they are my writing and they are the obstacle.
BP: Is there anything you’re working on that you’re really excited about?
RZ: Yeah. I would like to really give a shout-out to Victoria Chang and to everybody who runs the Antioch program. I’ve been taking a more and more non-traditional approach to teaching, which is bound up in my ideas of anti-hierarchical writing, thinking, being, and living. But the clarity with which Antioch lays out the expectations and responsibilities for students and faculty, along with a real insistence that all institutional requirements and traditions have to be examined for inherent bias is really mind-blowing for me.
Antioch sent this great book called The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop by Felicia Rose Chavez to all the faculty. I’m reading that right now, and I am taking an online class that’s led by someone named Karen Brody called Daring to Rest. It’s a forty-day yoga nidra practice and involves, in part, resting and doing these guided meditations every single day, but also learning to hold opposites together. These things are completely related to me: how to teach in anti-racist ways, how to hold opposites together in the body, how to access a kind of consciousness awakeness that is not waking-centric. How that’s going to present itself in my writing, I’m not sure yet. Maybe it’ll mean I don’t actually write another book or maybe it will be in a different form. But moving from other teaching models and other teaching institutions to this experience with Antioch has been very powerful, very inspiring, very opening. I’m grateful for that. Antioch is good, but not perfect, and they’re aware of that. They’re constantly self-criticizing. That’s really my main point. Can you try to do a good job and be constantly self-critiquing? It’s never going to be a perfect thing. It’s always going to be in process. It’s always going to be trying to be more accessible, more responsive, more inclusive, but it’s never going to be done. I wish we could have that attitude towards our own writing and our own lives.
Barbara Platts is an award-winning columnist, the online editor for Sweet Jane Magazine and the blog and content director for Lunch Ticket. She’s worked in many forms of journalism, from public radio to newspaper, and is thrilled to be pursuing her MFA for nonfiction writing at Antioch University. She lives in Boulder, Colorado with her fiancé and two adorable pups. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @BarbaraPlatts.