an interview with Rachel Zolf
rob mclennan: What first started you writing, and when?
Rachel Zolf: In 1991, I was living communally in a former monastery just outside of Winnipeg and helping to turn it into the St. Norbert Arts & Cultural Centre. At the time, there was a legal battle going on between the province's midwives and the government over the issue of licensing. As a fundraiser for the midwives' legal defense, Di Brandt was running a weekend writing workshop in Winnipeg. The folks I was living with sent me to the workshop pretty much against my will—I guess they thought it was for a good cause and good for me. While the other participants— Méira Cook and Diane Driedger were two I remember—brought examples of their fiction and poetry, I brought an unfinished essay on John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress that was a page and a quarter long and stopped dead right when I declared myself to be a “travailer” (a term from the book denoting the work involved with embarking on the pilgrim’s journey). I had dropped out of university a couple times by then because I hated writing essays and being marked. At the time, I even hated the sentence, spouting off about the tyranny of subject-verb-predicate and such. I guess there was a budding poet in me that I hadn’t met yet.
To make a long story short, Di helped coax a couple poems out of me at that workshop, and I wrote a few more pieces over that summer. Di published most of those in Prairie Fire and suggested I send a concrete piece I did (which, incidentally, became a central poem in my book, Masque) to Tessera, where Barbara Godard picked it up. Without that workshop with Di, I don't know if I ever would have found my way to poetry.
rm: Were you aware of much poetry before you started the workshop, contemporary or otherwise?
RZ: Unfortunately not. I can't even remember which poems we studied in high school (Birney’s “David”?), and aside from a little Spenser, Chaucer and Eliot in a university survey course of major colonial writers, I was pretty much a poetry neophyte. Oh, I was enamoured with e.e. cummings' "somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond" at the time, because the person I was madly in love with showed it to me. But that doesn't count, does it. Basically, I wasn't one of those people who had squirrelled away poems in dusty drawers since she was five, and poetry had never been high up on my reading list—the Hardy Boys were too engrossing. Di introduced us to some Canadian poetry at that workshop—I remember Libby Scheier's book, Sky, as particularly affecting me—and I wrote my first poem there (which was, incidentally, the only writing workshop I've ever taken). I started getting into the form after that.
rm: How did you get from there to publishing the collection, Her absence, this wanderer (BuschekBooks, 1999)?
RZ: A central part of that book is the title long poem, which chronicles a journey I took in 1996 to Jewish sites and concentration camps in Poland and the Czech Republic. Soon after I started writing and reading poetry, I was quickly drawn to the long poem format. I love the energy contained in the fragment, “how the pieces/don’t quite fit together,” which is a quote from the end of that poem. I wrote very intermittently in the 90s—I was working full time and had no space left and not enough courage to commit myself to writing. Eventually, the pieces of the book came together, particularly during a crucial few days I spent in Montreal in 1998, fine-tuning the manuscript with Betsy Warland. Di Brandt also helped me tremendously to refine the book's tone and voice. I was very lucky to have both Betsy and Di be vigorous supporters and editors of my work. I sent the manuscript out to a bunch of publishers in mid-1998. John Buschek responded very quickly, and I went with his press.
rm: It doesn't read as though it was an easy piece to write. Difficult, I mean, in terms of subject matter. Did you travel with the intention of writing, or did the piece evolve slowly over the course of your trip and after? And how did parts of your family react to you doing this kind of writing on family history?
RZ: I don’t remember if I had a particular “intention” of writing a long poem about that trip. I did write notes on the trip, parts of which later turned into the poem. Yes, that whole book was extremely difficult to write. As I said, it took me many years just to give myself the permission to write anything at all. My family didn’t have much of a notable reaction to the book.
rm: In an article for Capital Xtra that Blaine Marchand wrote for the annual Wilde About Sappho reading, just after your first collection appeared, you spoke of your struggle for claiming an identity, both for yourself and how you present yourself to others, saying "In the beginning I wasn't ready to have my voice as a woman, a Jew and a lesbian come into the world [. . .] But having this book come out is an important process for me. [. . .] It's been easy for me to pass, as a straight, a non-Jew. But this affects the choices we make. This book is an attempt to grasp the world, finally realizing you can't, and simply have to let it go."
It sounds as though your struggle, earlier, included that of writer or poet, even when you were workshopping pieces that would eventually become your two trade collections. With your first collection a few years behind you, and the appearance of a second collection, has this made any of the struggle for self-identity clearer, or simply less of an issue? Are your poetry collections a product of you trying to find your own place/space?
RZ: Yes, when I talked about “voice” in that interview, I meant my voice as a poet. At that time, my writerly voice felt intimately linked to my fractured/multiplied identity, but it doesn’t so much today. It's a cliché that first books often resemble coming-of-age stories, and mine was no exception. I’m certainly much more comfortable in my skin six years after finishing Her absence, this wanderer--I no longer hope I’ll open the fridge one day and my Self will pop out. In fact, as my book, Masque, demonstrates, I still believe that identity and world can’t be contained in any concrete sense of “place/space.” Their traces can be held for a while, but must eventually be released, again and again.
rm: Would you say, then, that the search for a writer's "voice" is a constant, ongoing process?
RZ: No, I'd say that there is no one, clear, containable "voice" for a writer, at least not one that I'm in search of myself. My aim in writing is not to discover anything in particular about myself but to work with ideas and concepts that interest me and present them in interesting ways. Given that my work often contains many "found" voices, I don't think it'd be possible to pin down one voice for my writing if you tried. Basically, I just make work out of the churn in my body, and the voice comes that fits the work in hand.
rm: I would take it then that you consider your writing less about the personal "I" and more about the exploration of language? And there is much more play in your second collection, Masque. How do you work between the alternate voices and the narrative in such a collection?
RZ: Well, my work tends to concentrate on how subjectivity is constructed within language, so it’s a little of both. The “I” itself is a fiction, but as my friend Carol Laing says, a “necessary” fiction, one that is important to delve into and explore. The key point is that in my writing I’m not trying to hold up a mirror to my life that the reader can walk through and grasp who I am in bite-sized pieces. I want the work to be about more than that, to slip by and challenge convenient notions of how poems, meanings, ideas, identities are made—the contexts that shape them. The characters in Masque continually slip out of your grasp, morphing into others, with all characters being aspects of one another, just as we wear different personae for different situations. Some may find this anxiety provoking but I find it freeing. So yes, the work does deal with the “I” as much as it examines language, but it approaches the personal from slant perspectives.
And yes, there is more language play in Masque, and even more in my new manuscript, Human Resources. I’ve moved “through” some difficult personally resonant material to a place where I can more deeply engage with the world and with language. But I’m not playing with language for the sake of wank—it feels very serious to root around in the various language systems that I operate within and must contend with.
I’m not quite sure I understand your question about “alternate” voices and narrative. There is no one central voice with radiating alternate ones in Masque, no hero, for lack of better term. Just as there’s no one central narrative. Masque continually pushes against the limits of voice and story structure, and I hope creates a space that opens and opens as the voices and threads intertwine. Masque flows continually from contraction to expansion and my aim was that the reader’s perceptual experience would mirror that indeterminate flow.
rm: After hearing you read from a selection of new work when you read in Ottawa, I’m very interested in the poems that make up Human Resources, working from both the personal and impersonal work-related meanings of that, wrapped around philosophical query. What was the trigger for this series, and how long do you see the project continuing?
RZ: Human Resources comes out my ongoing curious and strange experience writing marketing and employee (hence the title) copy part-time for a living. The corporate world is such a fascinating microcosm of Western society and I’ve been able to mine my experience in its halls in interesting ways. As poets, we all make deals to survive, and mine involves expending a lot of words in selling things, particularly financial products. So I make money selling money with words while having this curious other identity as a poet with a bank balance in the negative (in more ways than one). That paradox was my jumping off point for an investigation through poetry of the philosophy and psychoanalysis of money, capitalism and communication. In delving into the rhetorics that these various “spaces” spawn, I was influenced by Steve McCaffery's work on Bataille and the general economics of (language) writing. Human Resources isalso informed by notions of machinic identity (here what it’s like to turn into a writing machine) and employs a couple generators and search engines to help create some of the poems. But the book is not all machine output—it delves into and enacts the effects of split subjectivity as the two worlds of poetry and "plain language" collide, overlap and merge, and we see the psychic Faustian cost of selling things with words. I’ve recently finished this manuscript so I guess it will continue until it becomes a closed book.
rm: With so much Canadian poetry working in linear narratives, how do you reconcile that against the kinds of non-linear structures you work with in your writing? What are you trying to accomplish with your writing that you don't see out there? What do you think poetry is supposed to accomplish?
RZ: I don’t feel a need to reconcile my way of working vis-à-vis other ways. Everyone does their work in their own way. And I’m not consciously trying to write in a way that I “don’t see out there”. I just do my work and it is what is, as they say. In Masque, I like to think of the work moving more vertically than horizontally/linearly, with the reader negotiating the gaps and interruptions in the text, like how you experience a piece of music. In Human Resources, the form looks more linear—less “open field” than Masque—but it has similar vertical effects, as the layered words and their associations in the text continually pull you off of the page. I guess I’m trying to create worlds/experiences on the page that keep pulling you beyond the page and into the world, not just through intertextual means but through the cumulative associative power stored within the most common, familiar words. And my stance towards narrative (and history, for that matter) is a similar revisioning of the linear or dialectic as something more complicated. That’s why I tend to use visual images, such as montage or assemblage or spiral (à la Brossard) to describe the way I work and its position vis-à-vis history and language.
For me, the most interesting poetry places tremendous scrutiny and pressure on language, but in a way that also engages with the world, with the social codes we live under that are embodied in language. Poetry can make us more conscious of our actions and consequences, through a constant attention to how we construct language and it constructs us. Excavating under the smooth surface of the words we use every day, to the unconscious, suppressed thought and feeling, and beyond.