Poet, Teacher, Podcaster: A Conversation with Rachel Zucker

“I’ve never really been interested in being a part of something that’s, in a certain way, elitist and esoteric. That’s always been a conflict around poetry for me because so many people hate poetry, for a lot of different reasons...” — Rachel Zucker
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Rachel Zucker is a poet, mother, teacher, wife, and trained doula. She is a Twitter enthusiast (if you’re a fan of innovative Donald Trump bashing, you should follow her @rachzuck). She has three sons, is a soccer referee, and a massive consumer of Gelato Fiasco and Seed + Mill. She is also, now, officially a podcaster.

Commonplace, Zucker’s new podcast, is a series of conversations with poets (and other people) about literary and non-literary obsessions, politics, the quotidian and the domestic, and so much more.

I should note that I first encountered Zucker’s work years ago at a reading at NYU. As she read, I remember thinking: wow, poetry can do this. Needless to say, I devoured her work and anything I could find online, shared her books with anybody who would read them, and during some of the most difficult months of my life, I found sustenance and comfort in her words.

So, you can imagine how nervous I was when she agreed to speak with me on the phone about Commonplace. Unfortunately, you can’t hear the background noise that defines much of Zucker’s life and work—the coffee machine, the making of breakfast, her husband walking in and out of the room. But, what follows is a transcript of our conversation, wherein we discuss the creation of the podcast, her interview process, and the chaos that surrounds such a large and ongoing project.

I must also warn: this is not a short interview. If you know anything about Zucker’s work—or my own—you know that long-form is our game. This is no exception. Settle in.

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Hillary Ferguson: I was looking back at your book, The Pedestrians, and in your poem “I’m nobody you are too,” you write, “I think I’m more interested in thinking about people making things than in looking at the things they make.” In a way, looking back at those lines, this podcast sort of feels like it was inevitable, but do you want to touch on the gestation and birth of the podcast and how it all sort of came together into being?

Rachel Zucker: I think there are two different questions that you’re asking. Both of them are really interesting. One of them is, how long did it take me to come up with the idea, and it’s hard to locate the starting point of that. It either took a really long time or a really short time. There were a lot of things that fed into that, a lot of different experiences that sort of just came to a head that resulted in my saying oh my gosh, I think I want to start this podcast. But, once I came up with the idea—until the moment that I aired the first episode—it was a really short process. I think I had the idea in either April or May, and the first episode aired June 15. So, that seems really short to me.

HF: That’s definitely short. I honestly don’t really know how you pulled all that together so quickly.

RZ: Yeah, April. It was in April because that’s when I interviewed David Trinidad in Chicago.

HF: Love David! (Great episode by the way). If you could have any poet on the show, dead or alive, who would it be? What do you think you’d most want to ask them?

RZ: There’s a lot, but if I could pick one I would pick Adrienne Rich because she keeps coming up over and over again in pretty much every episode. She’s just so important to me and important to so many other poets, and to such a wide range of poets.

HF: I think you guys have talked about her in every episode sans maybe one, right?

RZ: Yeah, we have. So I think—what would I ask her? I’d probably blow it. I’d probably ask something stupid. I guess I would ask her, “Is everything going to be ok?” And she’d probably say, “No.” Or the other question I would want to ask (and I don’t know if I would have the courage to ask it) is, “Do you feel you lived your life the way you wanted to?” and “Was writing, in the way that you did, a life spent well?” And that’s a hard question to ask someone, especially when they’re alive because it implies they’re about to die and nobody likes to talk about that.

HF: I think we’ve talked before about how we both lean toward introversion and have a difficult time talking and being around a lot of people at once, but do you find any of that anxiety or neurosis seeping into the interview process? Like, you’re having these amazing poets on your show and I guess I’m wondering if you feel nervous when sitting down to talk with someone like Claudia Rankine or Bernadette Mayer?

RZ: Uh, yes! I feel nervous before every single interview—or, well, I don’t like to call them interviews, I like to call them conversations—but I feel nervous differently. It’s interesting, though, because it’s not always predictable to me which ones will feel relaxed and which ones will feel really difficult. And then, there’s something else I’ve noticed: afterwards, no matter how great it was, or how much of a relief it is for it to be over, I definitely have kind of an adrenaline response. It always takes me a little while to recover from having done one. Once, I did three [episodes] in one week and it was really, really hard on me. I mean, I really think it takes me a while to emotionally prepare and emotionally recover. Then recently, I did four in one week after promising myself to never again do three in one week—that was incredibly tough. When I was done with the fourth one, I felt grateful to have done it and when I’m in it I’m really focused one-on-one with someone, but when I finished that fourth episode in one week, I felt like I had just been at the worst cocktail party of my life for four hours, trapped, and unable to get out.

So, I have to be more thoughtful of that. Either that’s going to change for me as I continue to do them, or just not do so many at a time.

HF: How do you usually prepare? What’s your process like?

RZ: Every episode is different. In my fantasy, I use the interview as an opportunity to re-read every single book the person has ever written, as well as any interviews with them or articles about them. I also try to sit down with my producers (Christine Larusso, Zach Tackett, and Nicholas Fuenzalida) and come up with questions together. In reality, though, that doesn’t really happen. Especially not when I have four in one week, and depending on who it is, now the most important thing to me is to have 1-3 really clear questions in my mind and to know which question I want to start with. Also, it’s important to me to just be present and listen and let go of the other questions. Although, I think having the other questions—I’ve never actually gone into an interview with only one question—are helpful to have, on the side.

HF: I hate to use the term “our world,” but you know, in the “literary community,” Commonplace has sort of blown up. I mean, even in my MFA program, it’s a point of conversation amongst my peers and colleagues after a new episode airs. But, I wonder about the “non-poetry world?” What’s your audience like there, and do you feel a kind of responsibility to make poetry accessible in this form?

RZ: I don’t know if I feel a responsibility for that, but it’s one of the delights of the whole project for me. I think that’s always been something I’ve cared much about, even in my own work. I’ve never really been interested in being a part of something that’s, in a certain way, elitist and esoteric. That’s always been a conflict around poetry for me because so many people hate poetry, for a lot of different reasons: perceived difficulty, the way it was taught to some people in high school, the way that something about it makes people feel stupid.

I do track unique downloads but there’s very poor software for more subtle tracking of who’s listening. You can’t see if people are really listening to it or just downloading it or stopping it in the middle. You can’t tell where in the country they are, or who they are, mostly. Mostly I just have anecdotal feedback and evidence. I’ll get an email from someone or run into someone on the street, and they’ll say, “Oh, I’ve been listening to your podcast.” And it does often surprise me that it’s not poets who will say that to me. Like, my kids’ Hebrew school teacher, who has never come to any of poetry readings even though I always invite him—I don’t think he would even want to go to a poetry reading—but he really likes listening to these podcasts. Or, this guy that I mentioned in one episode (who had been in a bike accident), he is a writer himself but works in advertising and he loves listening to the episodes. My dad also told me that this friend of his, who is in her 70s and has no history with poetry, listens to each episode more than once because she doesn’t want to miss stuff! So, I mean, I guess the answer is I really don’t know who is listening and I really don’t know how many people are listening, and then every once in awhile I’ll find out one specific person is listening, and I’m always really surprised and pleased.

HF: So let’s talk about the long-form of the podcast. To be honest, I don’t really understand why people would expect anything different if they know anything about you and your work, but you did receive some complaints, or I guess criticisms, about the length. Is that still feedback you get at this point?

RZ: Well, they weren’t really complaints. When I first started doing this and I was trying to set it up and figure out how to do it, I didn’t really have a sense of what form I even wanted. So I asked a bunch of people who were either podcasters or tech people—you know, not necessarily poets. All of them said, this is what a successful podcast looks like: it’s 25 minutes long, there’s a teaser or intro in the beginning, and they have to come out on the same day every week. It wasn’t like, you have to do it this way, but it was like, this is why certain podcasts are successful and other podcasts are not. So, I was like, oh, ok…I can’t do that.

And then of course there was some feedback—not necessarily complaints—where people were like, oh my god, this is way too long. And they said, “There is no way I’m going to listen to something that’s an hour or two hours.” Some people have asked, “Why don’t you make it into two episodes, or why don’t you put a break in there?” I don’t understand why people can’t just press pause. My Dad is so funny—he was listening to the Wayne Koestenbaum episode (which is two hours long) when he was driving from Woodstock to NY, and he’s not super tech savvy so he’s scared to press pause because he doesn’t want to lose his place. So, when he got back into the City, he just sat there in the car and listened to the whole thing in one sitting which is really sweet.

And then, there has been useful critical feedback, especially after the first episode I aired—where maybe four people emailed me and said, “Improve your sound quality because it’s really bad.” That was incredibly helpful. At first I was just using a zoom recorder between two people, and in the Claudia Rankine episode there was so much background noise it just sounded awful. So, I’ve started setting up more appropriate sound equipment, and now the sound quality is much better. I’m really sensitive to that—there are a few other podcasts that I listen to and really like, except the sound quality is really poor and I have to say, it drives me insane. That’s a really important thing to me.

But yeah, there are some people that are like, “Oh do you want some advice? The episodes are too long.” And I’m like, “Yeah, no thanks.”

HF: Good, I’m glad. I almost wish they were all as long as the Koestenbaum conversation. I was hoping to finish it by today, but yeah, I still have thirty minutes left. But I will finish it.

RZ: I think you’ll like the rest, actually. You in particular.

HF: It’s, I mean…he’s fantastic. It’s actually the first encounter I’ve had with Wayne Koestenbaum and I think I’m going to get a little bit obsessed. Anyway, yeah, so I had this question saved for later but since we just touched on some of your favorite podcasts—what are those? What are some of the podcasts that have really influenced Commonplace?

RZ: Well, I love a lot of them. Obviously This American Life—I think I’ve listened to that since the beginning of it and I just love it. My podcast is most similar to WTF, but I don’t love that one, so that’s interesting to note that it’s mostly like WTF, only without some parts that annoy me.

I like Invisibilia (a spinoff of This American Life), Serial, and I listen to Dear Sugar, but not religiously. It doesn’t speak to my soul in the same way, but every once in awhile I’m just completely, utterly floored. And there are poetry podcasts that I listen to, of course—Poetry Gods, All Up In Your Ears and Make No Bones are really good.

HF: I think it’s funny it took until the end for you to mention a poetry podcast. I’m not really sure why I find that funny, though.

RZ: Well, I didn’t start with poetry podcasts. I started with these more story-telling type of podcasts, narrative podcasts. I didn’t even know about poetry podcasts until after I started mine and other people were like, “Well you know there’s other poetry podcasts,” and I was like “Really??” So, I’ve only just now started listening to them.

HF: Actually, I think that makes sense. You just said something about narrative podcasts and I do think that’s what makes Commonplace so unique, because it is a podcast about poetry, but produced in a very narrative, story-driven way, which I think is one of the reasons it’s so engaging.

RZ: I do think it’s significant that the podcasts I listen to religiously and love the most are in forms that I am incapable of or cannot do. Like, the ones I mentioned are highly edited and produced, and they’re being paid to travel and are journalistic. I don’t have any of that. I hope it has some of the feel of those other ones, but it’s an interview podcast. It’s like a Marc Maron [host of WTF] rip-off. Sometimes you have to be who you are instead of who you like.

HF: Yes, for sure! Ok, so do you feel like—for better or worse—the podcast is affecting or changing the way you write and read?

RZ: Well, I’m not writing right now, so that’s a hard questions to answer.

HF: Ok. That’s my least favorite answer you’ve given me so far.

RZ: You know, I guess the reason I’m not writing right now is because I’m teaching, and I’m writing the [Bagley Wright] lectures, and I’m doing the podcast. It’s logistical stuff and also I do have a new manuscript that I should be revising. I think it could be fine that I’m not writing right now, but theoretically, the concern could be is whether doing the podcast, in a way, releases some kind of energy or pressure that is necessary for my writing. I don’t know. I don’t know if that’s true.

I definitely think it has changed the way I’m reading, but in a way that’s similar to teaching. Because, you know, teaching is so great. You have all these assignments and all these books you have to re-read in order to teach. If I were a fabulous, dedicated intellectual, I’d be reading like that all the time. But, I don’t. You know, when my friends have new books I read those, and when enough people recommend something then I read it. I also really actively try to make sure I am diversifying the kinds of poets and the kind of voices that I read—both for my own work, and for my teaching and writing.

But, the podcast is a whole new level of responsibility that makes those things much more urgent and clearer for me. I want to make sure the podcast is diverse, that the people I interview include a wide range of voices, and types of writing, and geographies. All those things. And that it’s not just my friends (although, a lot of them are my friends). Even if it’s someone I’ve read and loved for a long time, if I’m going to be in their presence, I have to read them in a different and more serious way. So, that has been really great, and it may end up that it’s really good for my writing. I just don’t know yet.

HF: Well, I guess we’ll stay tuned for that. Although, when you mentioned in one of the episodes that you had a new manuscript I kind of lost my shit a little. So, I’m definitely excited about that. But yeah, last question! What’s next for Commonplace? Like, where do you see it heading in five months to a year?

RZ: I have to make a decision. I have five taped, unaired episodes. By the end of November, I think I will have like five or six more, and that’s so many episodes that I think it will take me really far. And I don’t love the idea of there being a backlog. Even though it’s not “journalistic,” it feels weird to me to air them so long after they’re recorded. The problem is that it takes me a long time to get them from the raw recorded state to when they’re ready to air, even though I’m not really doing that much editing, I am doing some. I have these three amazing producers helping me, but this is not my job. It’s like my fifth job.

So one answer to that question is a decision about frequency. Do I want to go to three-a-month versus two-a-month? I don’t know. I’d definitely like to start talking to people who aren’t poets, different kind of artists. Either about poetry or whatever art that they create. I have one coming up with someone who is not a poet at all and I’m really excited about that. I’d love to have more fiction writers and when I go to Portland, Oregon in a few weeks, I’m interviewing Andi Zeisler, who writes about feminism and was one of the co-founders of BITCH Magazine. I’m really excited to talk to her and I’d love to talk to some musicians and performance artists. That’s something really exciting for me.

I’d like to think about how to produce special topic episodes. For example, I’d love to do an episode about the Undocupoetic movement, and I’m sort of working on that. Technically, it’s a little bit confusing for me because I don’t quite know how to do it with many people in the same episode. Whether I’d have four different poets and then put it together, or have us on the phone, I don’t know—but I haven’t set that up yet.

I also like the idea of having an episode about someone who’s died. I would love to have an episode with one or several writers where we talk about someone like C.D. Wright or Adrienne Rich, or Jake Adam York. There are so many writers I would love to have a conversation with but I can’t, because, well….I can’t talk to dead people. So, how could I have a Commonplace episode with those people in some way? That’s something I really want to explore.

HF: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

RZ: Ok, so I will tell you one funny thing, which is that I dream about the podcast. Sometimes if I edit at night, like before I go to sleep, it’s awful because I’ll just dream about Garage Band. It’s like dreaming about Tetris: cut that, splice that, move that. And the dream will be just like that, all night. It’s awful.

But mostly, it’s a great pleasure.

HF: Yeah, it definitely seems like you’re enjoying it and we—the audience—are really enjoying too. At least, the people I’ve talked to about it.

RZ: That’s so great. It’s really, really awesome to hear and it means a lot to me, because there definitely are moments when I think, Oh my god why am I doing this? I don’t have to be doing this. I shouldn’t be doing this. And there are moments when it’s hard. It’s embarrassing and I make mistakes and I say things I wish I could take back. I’m putting myself out there, just as I do in my poems, but to a wider and different kind of audience. And there are a lot of moments where I’m like, I’m the biggest fool, why am I doing this? And then I get feedback—like the feedback I’m getting from you—where people say, “Hey, I really appreciate this and I’m listening.” I know that’s how I’ve felt about other podcasts—that there is something very sustaining about them, so it is very sustaining to have that positive feedback.

HF: It really does feel like you’re bringing the world of the poet closer to the listener. At least, that’s how I feel. But, do you feel more vulnerable in these podcasts than you do in your poetry? I mean your writing is definitely in the confessional sphere in general.

RZ: I think yes. Because, as we were talking about earlier, podcasts are accessible to people in certain ways that poems aren’t. So, there’s a kind of frustration with poetry in that it has such a limited audience or a rarefied audience, but at the same time, there’s also a protection in that. Even now, when I write poems and publish them, I don’t think anyone is going to read them. And then some people who read them don’t understand them, even if they seem perfectly clear to me. Like horribly clear.

So yeah, I think anybody can understand the podcast because it’s people talking. And it doesn’t look funny on the page, and anyone can turn it off. I don’t know. There’s a different level, or a different kind of transparency.

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Rachel Zucker is the author of nine books, most recently her memoir, MOTHERs, which details her relationship with her mother and various female mentors, and The Pedestrians, a double collection of prose and poetry. Her collection Museum of Accidentswas a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2009. Her other books include: The Bad Wife Handbook, The Last Clear Narrative, and Eating in the Underworld. With poet Arielle Greenberg, Zucker co-edited two anthologies and co-wrote Home/Birth: a poemic, a non-fiction book about birth, friendship and feminism. Zucker received a National Endowment of the Arts fellowship in 2013. She lives in New York City with her husband and three sons.

Zucker currently teaches poetry New York University and is delivering a series of lectures around the country about the intersection of poetry, confession, disobedience, ethics, feminism, and the representation of self and others in art. For more information visit her author website. On Twitter, she's @rachzuck.

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Hillary Ferguson is a New York City-based poet and writer. She is currently an MFA candidate in fiction at The New School, a co-founder of the journal Politics and Poems, and the curator of two KGB reading series in NYC. She is a regular contributor for The Huffington Post and Buzzfeed, and her poems have appeared in Public Pool, Lamprophonic, the Roanoke Review, Open Thought Vortex, among others. She can be found on twitter @Hillary_Ferg.

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