Rachel Zolf | February 22, 2013
Photo by Brian Adams
Take Down the Clouds, Rachel Zolf
1. Where are you now?
In front of a screen, on a blue chair, in a little house, on Sunnyhill Lane, in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
2. Where do you write?
Because of a number of overwhelming things, I wrote no poetry for over two years. Then I went on a 10-day residency at the Banff Centre for the Arts this past December and 65 pages poured out. I felt like I had a body again, a container for uncontainable things. Then I remembered I wrote most of my third book on short jaunts from reality to New York. So maybe I write – away.
3. Why do you write?
As a means to live. Not make a living, live. As fully embodied as possible.
4. Is there any part of you that cannot manifest itself in your work?
There is a deeply held part that I am trying to reach. As a means to live. As fully embodied as possible.
5. How important is music to you?
So important it sometimes hurts to listen.
6. Do you think much about your audience?
Very much. I want the reader/listener’s encounter with my work to spark feeling, any feeling, even hatred and disgust. I was talking with a student recently about making poems using phrasal fragments, what remains, in response to disaster; and I showed her a poem I put together in which a Palestinian man is forced by an Israeli soldier to fuck a donkey. As we were slowly travailing through the shattered lines, she suddenly turned away, “I can’t look at it.” Something happened there. That’s all I ask.
7. Whom do you wish would come visit you in the hospital?
Besides my lover Audrey, who would help me feel safe, Melissa Buzzeo, who would read my palm and help me feel strong; and Alex Gratsas, who would make me laugh at myself.
8. What do you find yourself hoping for when things get quiet?
For things to remain quiet. So the noise can breathe.
9. What are you afraid of?
Less than I used to be. I am thankful for that. Failure, but I am developing a poetics of failure. Being unliked, but that can go with the territory. Loss of loved ones, but. Giving up.
10. Do you return to your books after they’re published?
Not often. The shame overwhelms me. Have to get over that.
11. Who are the writers you return to again and again and again?
M. NourbeSe Philip, Kathy Acker, Paul Celan, Jacques Derrida, Gail Scott, Akilah Oliver, Juliana Spahr, Bhanu Kapil, Walter Benjamin, Judith Butler. I could go on, because there is no real list.
12. What book would you like (if any) to be read aloud to you?
Edmond Jabes’ The Book of Questions, Volume One, “The Book of Questions.”
13. What do you miss?
Right now I miss lying around with good friends and red wine in Brooklyn.
14. Where would you like to return to?
15. To those who survive you, what instructions do you have on your death?
Sit with me for a little while. Ash to dust on water. Be. Fight. Be.
16. Where would you like never to visit (again)?
The Swiss Alps. The rumours of monstrosity are true, sans the sublime effects. Unfortunately, I have to return once more for school, then never again.
17. What’s the last best thing you’ve read?
White Civility: The Literary Project of English Canada, by Daniel Coleman. His figures of the Muscular Christian, the Enterprising Scottish Orphan, and the Maturing Colonial Son are helping me as I write a kind of deranged, I mean deracinated, poetry that interacts with the ongoing colonization project that is Canada. And Laura Elrick’s Propagations, its insistent light and sound particles, its re-percussions, thrusting maximal minimal flowers flower breast whiskers.
18. What is the effect of weather on your mood and on your ability to write?
Here in the west, the cliché holds true – big blue sky, bright sun, beautiful light: they hold you upright. I am generally happy in spite of my best efforts. It continually astounds me.
19. What journals, poets, presses have you discovered lately?
Since (for better or worse) I have an academic salary for a little while, I bought a subscription to BookThug, so have all their titles. But, unfortunately, since (for better or worse) I have an academic job for a little while, I have had no time to read the books in the BookThug box. Mark Goldstein’s Form of Forms is one in the box I’d like to explore, as I know he worked on that personal project for a long time with Betsy Warland, who was also an important mentor of mine, always pushing her charges to ask unanswerable questions, while breathing and scoring the body of the page.
And this is no discovery, but I’m very glad to see Tonya Foster’s first book, Swarm of Bees in High Court, finally coming out soon with Belladonna Books. Tonya is a superbly talented U.S. poet, and a brilliant, lovely being, whose first book is way overdue. Can’t wait to read it.
20. Care to share any distractions / diversions?
I unwind from the stupidities of the academy by watching stupid racist, sexist, etc. (where do the commas go in that list?) shows like Homeland, American Horror Story: Asylum, and Nashville. What can I say? I agree with Samantha Giles that Claire Danes’s facial expressions are addictive; I’ve got a thing for crazy people and Chloe Sevigny; and uh, I’ve got a thing for Connie Britton too, ever since I got addicted to that maudlin Texas football drama, Friday Night Lights. “Who knew, eh?” mutters the Canadian so-called “feminist academic poet”—and that’s a double scare quote for you.
21. What are you working on and what have you got coming out?
In the two years not writing poetry, I did write a screenplay for a film, The Light Club of Vizcaya: A Women’s Picture, directed by NYC artist Josiah McElheny, that premiered at Art Basel Miami Beach this past December. Josiah commissioned me to write this utopian pseudo-documentary about pre-WWI queers bathing in light, and I resisted at first, saying I couldn’t do character or narrative (and didn’t really feel like I could write at all). But after lots of hard archival work, the voices eventually emerged, in a sort of (non-Fichtean) narrative curve. The Light Club script was published in the book accompanying Josiah’s retrospective at the Wexner Center for the Arts that opened last month.
I also wrote a weird little Steinian play in (again, commissioned) response to my friend Cheryl Sourkes’s brilliant webcam artwork. Winnipeg’s Platform gallery, which showed Cheryl’s work in November, is publishing the play, “Nothing and all,” in a book called Palimpsest this spring.
But the new book that is starting to emerge is called Janey’s Arcadia and explores contact zones between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Canadian settler texts as revelatory moments of cultural violence and misrecognition. Among other techniques, I use the errors I find in Optical Character Recognition (OCR) digital scans of early Canadian settler literature to insert ruptures in poems that enact the complex ethical affects and effects of the face-to-face encounter with the “Other” – bringing disavowed knowledges and errors of recognition of colonization to the surface. The book’s central character, Janey Settler, is drawn from a relatively famous purple-prose character, Janey Canuck (herself a proto-feminist response to Johnny Canuck, a comic figure in early Canadian nationalist lore, supposed to be the younger cousin of Uncle Sam and John Bull), with a healthy dose of Kathy Acker’s Janey Smith thrown in because she fits. Janey Settler’s hot to trot!
22. What are you looking forward to?
Witnessing how the Idle No More Indigenous rights movement unfolds in its next stages. It’s been amazing to see how this revolutionary social movement sparked by four women in Saskatchewan has had such an important impact not just in Canada but worldwide. And it’s just starting.