Sundress: Welcome to Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Today Stevie Edwards reads the poem, “Long Lines to Stave off Suicide” by Rachel Zucker.
The poem you picked to read for us is dynamic and intense. Before we listen to your recording, what can you tell us about Rachel Zucker’s work and Museum of Accidents?
Stevie Edwards: What I love about Museum of Accidents (and other work by Rachel Zucker) is that she demystifies motherhood. I think as a culture we have a tendency to put motherhood on this pedestal where everything is unicorns and apple pie. Although I don’t have children, I know that wasn’t the case for my mother, and that’s not to say she didn’t love her children. I think she did and does deeply. But I think Zucker’s bravery in talking about depression in motherhood, in talking about the fear of transmitting one’s more negative aspects onto a child, makes it a little bit easier for me to breathe. She tackles the fears I have about motherhood, in a way I can only really compare to Sharon Olds. Zucker has this amazing balance between tenderness and bite; the negative capability in the poems makes the moments of light seem more important, more expensive.
Sundress: “Long Lines to Stave off Suicide” has a great rhythm when read aloud. Is the form of the poem, and its use of the page, which it seems to undulate, typical of Zucker’s work?
Stevie Edwards: Rachel Zucker often has these kind of wild looking pages with lots of long lines and lots of somewhat erratic looking (but I would also argue quite skillful) indentations. Museum of Accidents has a non-standard trim size with a wider than usual page width, and her poems often take up the full thing. I’m not sure if this is a useful reference, but visually the poems in this book look a bit similar to the poems in Crush by Richard Siken. The ways she uses indentations and line breaks create a controlled world in which the reader is thrashed around. There will be these little hesitations of white space, and then the emotional explosion of a sprawling line.
Sundress: The thrashing is audible. The first moment in this recording that struck me was as Zucker relates making pancakes for her son’s class and one of his classmates becomes oddly attached to her. As you read the lines it moves back and forth smoothly for a bit. The first shock—the boy’s mother was dead—is delivered with the same rhythm; it is that sentence that follows:
with its abrupt short line, that grabbed my attention. Her admittance of her sudden relief—that in her child’s life, she’d succeeded simply by being around during his development—comes as a punch. It is that same willingness to share a very human thought that Olds has, but of course Olds is less sprawling in comparison. There are more instances to investigate. Which lines hold particular meaning for you?
Stevie Edwards: Those lines you’ve quoted are definitely ones I’ve walked around with for awhile. The opening of this poem has always stuck with me:
First, I’m really struck by the choice of beginning the poem with “or,” which I take to suggest a contrasting action the speaker could take instead of suicide, another option. I think there’s a bit of biting humor to the phrase “everything for a long time is so / keep-the-baby-alive,” but also a lot of ache. I don’t have children, and I think one of the reasons I haven’t gone that route, at least not up to this point, is knowing that if I had them and killed myself it’d be the most monstrous thing I could imagine doing. As someone who’s dealt with suicidal ideation since my early teens, I have this tendency to guard others from depending upon or caring about me—though it doesn’t always work. However, I’ve also seen having children really, as corny as it might sound, give people I know who’ve struggled with depression a sense of purpose. A thing they feel they have to live for no matter what. I’ve also seen it do the opposite. I guess what really blows me away about that opening is how honest it feels and how much it gives us about what’s at stake for the speaker.
I also love the section where the speaker and her son are on the subway and the son looks at a sign and says “why…should you / say something if you see something?” which is both cute and heartbreaking.
Sundress: As an educator, tell us how you feel about these lines:
Stevie Edwards: I am currently working full-time in publishing, but I did teach at Cornell from 2012-2015. There’s a sentiment there that I certainly can connect to — a question I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about and don’t have an answer to is whether or not one needs to have suffered to be good at writing poetry. That’s not to say I think all good poetry has to be about suffering. At times I’ve read student poems that lacked emotional resonance and thought that maybe they hadn’t felt enough loss to comprehend the miracle of a tulip opening. But that’s not all student work. Some student work has made me feel glad in my bones for poetry. Sometimes I feel so grateful I get to help discover poetry. And sometimes I think that my question about if poets need to have suffered is just me being bitter about my ideas of easy lives I haven’t been dealt.
Sundress: It does seem to be an interesting, common discussion in poetry circles though—“do you need to suffer to write (good) poetry?” Do you feel like the undercurrent of suffering in this poem came from a necessary truth, some sort of real occurrence? Or, perhaps, I should ask if you feel that while you can take some ownership of this poem—as you have by recording it, because of its personal importance to you—if that also allows you to speculate past the boundaries of the poem to the poet?
Stevie Edwards: I don’t really feel comfortable speculating past the bounds of the poem to the poet’s lived life. I think this is a poem of necessary truth, but I don’t think that means it has to be a “real occurrence.” To some degree, our writing is always informed by our own obsessions and experiences, but I don’t think it’s fair to assume that such influence always shows up in literal ways. That said, there’s a roundness to this speaker, to the full spectrum of emotions that ranges from such sweet moments like “banana after brush-your-teeth time” to the rage and despair of lines like “oh, for fucks sake, there’s no difference between ‘stones or ‘rocks’ in Virginia’s / frock. down, down, down…”— which I think would be challenging to achieve without some personal insight. However, I will say that I think it’s weird that there’s such a frequent impulse to interrogate whether or not people’s sadness in poems is real. Nobody ever is like, were those daffodils in Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” really THAT great? How do we know that it wasn’t really just a couple of tulips, but maybe daffodils sounded better? Was he exaggerating their beauty? There is such a strong cultural pressure to invalidate negative emotions, a pressure which I believe comes from a place of fear—fear of admitting what one’s actually felt, fear of perceiving what humans are capable of going through, fear of powerlessness.
Sundress: You mentioned how Zucker has impacted you as a reader—that her “bravery in talking about depression in motherhood… makes it a little bit easier for me to breathe.” How has Rachel Zucker influenced your work?
Stevie Edwards: I think the lines from this poem that have most directly influenced my work are somewhat less directly tied to bravery and more to do with aesthetic (although, those things aren’t completely separate). I do appreciate the ways in which Rachel Zucker makes spaces for women to write about less idealized versions of motherhood. When I read really pristine portraits of motherhood, frankly, it makes me think that I could never be good enough to be a mother. And, more and more, I don’t think that’s true.
The lines from this poem that have influenced my writing the most are:
There was a period of time where I was cutting and cutting and cutting my poems down to shreds. But these lines shook something loose in me. Yes, I love it when poems have real world things. When there are blue jays and bass. I love the ability to reenact an instant through language and form. I love Frank O’Hara’s “The Day Lady Died,” the list of stuff I can touch with my hands, even if I have to Google half the items. And I love how wild Zucker’s form is—how she’s chucking objects all over the place. There is nothing dainty about this poem’s form or style, and I love her for doing that. I think Zucker’s writing is beautiful but not pretty. Perhaps, to some extent, it would be a lie to put this poem in pretty little couplets with a bunch of highly ornate language. For awhile, I operated under and idea that if I was going to write about something as controversial as suicide, I had to do it in the prettiest lines to get away with it—as if I might trick editors who’d ordinarily scoff at the topic with some really enticing assonance.
Sundress: Are there any other Zucker poems, reviews, or interviews you would recommend?
Stevie Edwards: Oh, there’s lots of poems! I really like “Welcome to the Blighted Ovum Support Group” and “Hey Allen Ginsberg Where Have You Gone and What Would You Think of My Drugs.” She also has several other books, which you can check out on her website rachelzucker.net.
What is essential to you as a writer or poet? What piece changed your life? Gave you hope, validated and voiced your fears, was there while you triumphed over them? What piece brings you joy? Made you laugh or grin like a fool? Who was it who made you sit back in wonder, inspiring you to be a stronger writer? We want to know. Send us a recording (or packet of short recordings) of you reading your Lyric Essential—a short story, a handful of poems, an excerpt or two—to SundressLyricEssentials AT gmail DOT com. Then we’ll talk.
Stevie Edwards is a poet, editor, and educator. She is Editor-in-Chief at Muzzle Magazine and Acquisitions Editor at YesYes Books. Her first book, GOOD GRIEF (Write Bloody 2012), received two post-publication awards, the Independent Publisher Book Awards Bronze in Poetry and the Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award from Southern Illinois University – Carbondale. Her second book, HUMANLY, was recently released by Small Doggies Press. Her poems have appeared in Verse Daily, The Offing, PANK, Vinyl, Devil’s Lake, Indiana Review, Salt Hill, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from Cornell University and a BA from Albion College. She currently lives in Charleston, SC, where she works for a nonfiction publisher by day and is a poet by night.
Rachel Zucker is the author of nine books, including her memoir MOTHERs (Counterpath Press, 2014), and The Pedestrians, a double collection of prose and poetry forthcoming from Wave Books. Museum of Accidents (Wave Books, 2009) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and named one of the best books of 2009 by Publisher’s Weekly. Widely published, her poems have appeared in journals including: Barrow Street, Iowa Review, Pleiades, and Prairie Schooner. Zucker received a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in 2013 and currently teaches poetry at New York University.