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Two nibs
Rachel Zolf

Rachel Zolf
photo Vincenzo Pietropaolo


Rachel Zolf in conversation with Joel Bettridge

Date: Northern Fall 2008 — Northern Winter 2009

A serpentine line of beauty

Paragraph 1

JB: I’ve listened to a number of your readings online, and of course I heard you read when you came through Portland in 2007; not surprisingly, the accelerated pace you read at really stood out to me when I had all these readings in my head, so I am wondering if you could talk about why you read at the tempo that you do? What effect are you after? I know you have said that you want to let listeners (or readers) navigate the poems on their own terms, but the pace of your readings is entirely too deliberate for this answer to satisfy me.


RZ: I recently heard Kit Robinson read at the Segue series and there were a great couple lines in his poem ‘Atomic Mambo.’ They come from a quote attributed to musician Eddie Palmieri: ‘When you go fast / You have more time between notes.’ I really like the conceptual paradox in these lines, and I’m also reminded of the fullness of Walter Benjamin’s ‘now-time’ (jetztzheit), where past, present and future are coinciding in a moment. These elements speak to the technique I use to read from Human Resources (I read more slowly from other books!). I take seriously the task of the performer, not simply to entertain but to break the fourth wall and make something happen. One fairly obvious reason I read from Human Resources at an accelerated pace is to evoke our too-sped-up culture. I want listeners to feel disoriented, feel their hearts race in surprise and perhaps anxiety as they attempt to follow along and reach for meaning that may not be easily consumable as sound bites. I explore problems of communication and consumption in the book and want to enact them on the page and in the oral/aural space of the reading. To demonstrate that communication doesn’t just come, it takes work (as does reading), and that using ‘plain’ language is not necessarily the same as being clear. And that there are limits to understanding, limits to what we can put forth and what we can absorb, no matter how much we desire more. In ethical terms, you could say my writing inhabits the slash or hyphen between self and other (here writer/ reader, performer/ listener) and problematizes and performs that difficult space. But frankly, one of the reasons I read so quickly is to get my mouth around these long, awkward, imploded sentences without losing my breath.


In the notes to Human Resources you mention ‘the poet’s machine mind,’ which at once appears to invoke a number of procedural poetics — I’m thinking in particular, and loosely, of Kenny Goldsmith’s work, or Bök’s, or Kasey Mohammad’s — even as it holds onto a more direct sense of authorial agency. I do not so much want to ask about your sense of poetic voice, which you have written about before, as hear what you think this phrase argues about our ethical or creative accountability, for what we make, say or do.


RZ: An interesting question, because the phrase is actually ‘the author’s proprietary machine-mind ™’, and for me the little TM and ‘proprietary’ are the key elements of the phrase, as is of course the deliberate use of ‘author.’ I don’t know if the poet is as dead as the author is yet, but it’s thankfully looking more and more that way, especially given the great strides folks like Kasey have made using his machine-mind. I could go on about the persistence of the author function in our poetry communities, but that would take us somewhere else. Or maybe it wouldn’t. Suffice it to say I prefer the writer to the author, she’s more interesting and generous and less concerned with how her hair looks or ownership.


I love the fact that I misremembered that line (why didn’t I look it up I wonder?) — it exposes so much of what you are pushing against, and why we need to continue to do so, for these notions of authorship and agency still hang around, even when we don’t consciously advocate for them, and have worked steadily for alternatives. And obviously your line is way better, so let me try again: How do the ‘little TM’ and the use of ‘proprietary’ still make room for ethical or creative accountability in your poems? In other words, what part of your ‘self’ do you think is still responsible, and to or for what, in your work?


RZ: It’s funny, I recently came across a comment about Human Resources on one of those awful book rating sites, where someone actually thought I had trademarked my own proprietary machine-mind to make the book — and the person was unhappy with the product — two stars’ so. How literal an interpretation is that… Do folks not have a sense of irony anymore? (rhetorical question). Next time I guess I should make a purer product.


But I digress — in answer to your question, I (all my ‘I’s) take responsibility for every word in my books, no matter how the words got there. I don’t believe our ethical responsibility changes when procedures or machines or other artificial devices come into play with writing (as of course they always do, starting with metaphor, metonymy and the like). Sure, using procedures is one way to distance the author’s hand from the text, but no one can say that a book such as Eunoia wasn’t composed by an author. Maybe it’s a Canadian avant-garde (or Post-avant breakfast cereal) thing, not to be so concerned with having to evacuate the subject (a term I prefer as more expansive than self), nor so worried about overarching Language poetry dictates. And maybe for me it’s particularly a feminist avant-garde thing. Certainly the writing I like best investigates and ‘skirts’ the subject without completely evacuating it; I like writing and a writing practice that is consciously impure.


When I started my work-in-progress, The Neighbour Procedure, I knew little about Israel-Palestine, and partly because I didn’t (and still don’t) claim be an expert on such a charged topic, one procedural constraint I used in the chapbook Shoot & Weep (which forms the first part of the book), was to pull myself out of the text as a speaker for the most part while putting proliferating subjects or ‘I’s back in to tell their own competing tales. Just three lines of the chapbook are from ‘me,’ though it may be difficult to discern which three. I sometimes forget myself. I don’t have a simple answer here — I respect the conceptual beauty of a work like Kenny Goldsmith’s Day, and in the end (at the end of the day), Day is a book with Goldsmith’s name on it that he bears responsibility for in terms of speaking to and for and from it.


I’m a materialist writer (or more accurately a conceptual materialist, as Rob Fitterman pointed out to me) in most senses of the term, and I certainly don’t feel I disappear as a subject from any of my texts. Human Resources, for example, came out of my direct experience writing communications material for money, and the various affects and effects of that experience are evoked throughout the book if you’re looking for them. But you don’t have to look in that way in order to ‘get’ something from the text.


To pick up more directly this question of how to situate your work in relation to other contemporary innovative projects, I would say that when I first read Human Resources I was immediately struck by the way it appeared to take the lessons and strategies of innovative writing, particularly in regard to poetic disjunction, for granted in order to try and push the poems into more unfamiliar terrain, unfamiliar that is to readers already familiar with the avant-garde. Which is to say, it seemed as if the lines in Human Resources were trying to cohere, but could not, instead of reading as deliberately fragmented.


I’d be curious then to know how you conceive of the place of disjunction in your poetry, and what kind of reading experience you hope readers will have in Human Resources, and perhaps your other work.


RZ: I conceived of the prose-block poems in Human Resources as little essays, little arguments I was having with thinkers and writers I was reading as I was researching the book, or just minor opinions of mine I wanted to blurt out there. To be clearer, these pieces were framed around questions I was pondering that I knew had no easy answers. And that I wasn’t interested in providing answers for, actually. So yes, I use disjunction to swerve around closure in those poems. I think of the arguments imploding along with the sentences and paragraphs, the multiple clashing thought-vectors too much to contain. The poems on the recto pages consisting of four separate sentences use more traditional, how shall I say, ‘paratactics’ to entice the reader, offering a little Language poetics, a little la perruque, and a little something else.


Given the intellectual abundance of the poems, I’d be interested to hear more about how your essay-poems work and what kinds of sources you use. Could you unpack one for me, say page 38 in Human Resources? Let me cite a few lines specifically:


Adrienne Rich used the Communicating Bad News template to affirm that the half-curled frond would not commingle with your book. The tie’s lower tip should align with the top centre of the belt buckle and its back slide through the label to not reveal an undisciplined self. From the epoch of the name to the advent of the number, C3I spends time etching surfaces with symmetry, repetition and a balance of nodal points. At least some figures when processed produce pleasure, but don’t introduce new products in August or wear shirts off a dead man’s body to work. Heart, hope, faith, Andy Card, Josef Goebbels and Banana Republic make today’s bureaucracies into tomorrow’s communities of meaning. So be it, amen, let’s roll![1]


RZ: Adrienne Rich is starting to show up in all my books, maybe because I can’t get over the traumatic moment when she used a form letter from Norton to reject my starry-eyed request to use a quotation from her ‘Twenty-One Love Poems’ in my first book, Her absence, this wanderer, long ago in 1998. Ah yes, those were the days when we asked permission. Here the form letter from her publicist turns via poetic licence into PowerPoint’s hilarious ‘Communicating Bad News’ template. You should check out this presentation template if you haven’t already (e.g., State the bad news; Key points to remember that will give audience confidence or improve morale, etc.), but you need an earlier version of the software as they seemed to have phased out these useful content templates in the newest version of the Microsoft Office™ we love to hate. Too subversive, perhaps.


The next part of the poem mashes together a little Foucault with this essay I came across on the trouble queers have in the workplace. Then there’s a bit of Michel de Certeau’s Practices of Everyday Life next to Donna Haraway’s cyborg resistance to command-control-communication (C3) ideology and the (ideological) dream of a common language (Ms. Rich again), plus a touch of the timeless tome, On the Art of Writing Copy by consummate adman H.G. Lewis.


Bush 2’s former Chief of Staff Andy Card enters with the ‘new products’ line referring to the proper time to announce the second Iraq war, and the dead shirts thing refers to my collection of men’s shirts from the 1930s and 40s that I got mostly at the Second Time Around Shop in Picton, Ontario. The end of the piece riffs on a quote from Leading with Soul: An Uncommon Journey of Spirit: ‘Heart, hope and faith, rooted in soul and spirit, are necessary for today’s managers to become tomorrow’s leaders, for today’s sterile bureaucracies to become tomorrow’s communities of meaning.’ What more can I say…


Your answers so far are pushing us toward the political aspects of your work, and I’d like to address this component of your poetics more explicitly. In an interview with rob mclennan in 2006, you wrote: ‘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… 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.’[2]


I’m interested in your statement here because Human Resources, which you were referencing in the above answer, strikes me as politically and philosophically aware, but not politically naïve. The political sensibility in your work appears to desire political comment or investigation, even effective action, while not actually holding out much hope for the latter. I don’t want to invite any generational squabbling, but your work, to my mind at least, does read as decidedly fixed in this political quandary, which seems especially relevant to younger writers. I’d be curious to know how, then, your political thinking has developed since the above answer and how you talk to yourself about the place of politics in your poetry. Perhaps you might answer this question in relation to your new chapbook, Shoot & Weep, which I found quite compelling.


RZ: Like many poets, I struggle with the notion of whether or not poetry can do anything in a political sense. Certainly in western culture, poetry is an undervalued art form with no real sway over people, let alone state policy, capital flows, etc. So while I do still cling to the somewhat naïve notion that poetry can change the way we think, the 30 or 40 folks who read my books probably don’t need their molecules swished. But this is what I do, this is what we do as a community, making serious (and playful) work and having serious (and playful) conversations that hopefully ‘proliferate,’ as Rodrigo Toscano said to me recently.


When you mention ‘investigation’ that seems to me a better word to start with than pure politics. We all know how political poetry can degenerate into didactic propaganda that turns readers off. If there is a marketing aspect to poetry (and of course there is, it can’t be avoided), it is this desire to turn people on, wake them up. The impetus for this new project of mine on Israel-Palestine was reading colour photos and cutlines on the front page of the New York Times of Israeli soldiers walking arm in arm across the Lebanese border in 2006 glad to be ‘home,’ while the story of the devastation they left behind that summer went largely untold. I woke up in that moment to my denial about the role of Israeli politics in the larger world, Israel’s ‘special’ relation with the U.S., and the responsibility all Jews (no matter how religious or anti-religious, Zionist or anti-Zionist or in between) must bear for the actions of this place that dares to speak as the ‘Jewish homeland’ (hey, I thought the homeland was the text).


In this new project I’m still using investigative tools to ‘excavat[e] under the smooth surface’ of the rhetorics that somatize us, and the aim is the same turning on as above. But no, I don’t believe my poetry will inspire the revolution.


I did not mean to suggest that there was even a hint of naïvety in your work — that is one reason I find it so gripping, for its intense desire for an alternative political reality or discourse combined with full-throttled realism.


Perhaps a better way to get at this question would be to ask you about the tension between ethics and politics, or an ethical attention and a political will, in your poetry. I think we have all heard this question in one form or another for a long time, but I still want to hear your answer to it because I am stumped. On the one hand you make room for a kind of Talmudic poetics, where reading and writing lead to questions, which lead to more questions. You say in an interview with Heather Milne, ‘I think one of the key potential functions (if we really want to give it a function!) of poetry is that it can help people to let go of the desire to know completely and completely control their environment, and perhaps rather it can lead them to open up to a sense of mystery,’ which I think speaks clearly to an ethical procedure in your poetry.[3] \


And yet, there is in your poems, as you have said, a desire to effect actual change in the world, or ‘wake people up,’ even though you recognize the impossibility of this possibility (and our own already complicit involvement with forms of power we detest). In the above answer, and in your recent Xcp: Cross-Cultural Poetics essay you frame this politics in terms of investigation, or documentary — a form of poetry that shifts our perspective, allows you, in Levinas’s formulation, to ‘articulate the Other (l’Autri) to others (les autres).’ The quote from that essay that stands out to me the most is this one:


… it may be part of the job of the poet to (yes, for fear of stating the shopworn), trans-late — to ‘carry’ a scene, issue, conflict or meaning (however fragmentary) ‘across’ spaces. Part of that task involves taking apart solidified language and knowledge forms to make them portable and using the documentary lens of the poem to examine the various rhetorical strategies that these sites and media employ to make and shape meaning. Poetry as a space that enacts multiple forms of motion has the potential to conduct just such border crossings: ‘language must break up and yield if I am to know you.’[4]


Now, the desire for questions that keep going forward, or for a poetic investigation, and the desire to shift the actual circumstances of some people living in the world are both hopes I think many of us share, but they strike me too as a difficult balancing act, and perhaps they are even at odds. I’m not sure. But how do you try to keep this balance in your own thinking and work? And don’t say that the questions are one form of politics! I know many of us have been taking comfort in that formulation for a few years, I know I have, and maybe we are stuck with it, but I’d like to see if there is another answer, especially given the fact that awareness no longer seems that useful — I’m thinking of the war in in the early 90s, or the tragedy that continues today in Darfur; in both cases the presence of journalists, and extensive documentation (attention and investigation if you will) appear to make little difference.


RZ: Since I wrote that essay in Xcp, I’ve shifted away from thinking of my work as documentary per se, or as limited by that poetics and its somewhat doctrinaire trappings. That’s the problem with attempting to articulate a poetics in medias res. Even now I’m a little wary as these questions are at the front of my mind, but not at all sorted — yet I doubt they ever will be so I’ll take a shot at responding. It’s too true that documentation isn’t enough, though I do think it matters in the case of Palestine. There have been books written about the bias/ obfuscation of media coverage in North America against the Palestinian struggle, evidence that the news that’s ‘fit to print’ is very selective indeed. I won’t go on about that, but suffice it to say that poetry from the western world that engages with this struggle has its potential proliferations.


But your question about the question interests me. For me it’s not the Talmudic ‘And yet, not yet’ infinite regression of questions with no answers that moves me so much anymore. Lately I’m moved more by what I call ‘limit’ concepts, what I see as a very productive space in the liminal, or you could say catachrestical, spaces where language and meaning appear to fail us. One such concept that feels very ripe for me is ‘the neighbour,’ hence the title of my work-in-progress.


I’ve been thinking a lot about the theological-political structure and ramifications of the neighbour and neighbour-love, both in terms of the actual situation of proximity and denied affinity among cultures in Israel-Palestine and neighbour as a productive ‘third’ term that complicates the transcendental ethical two and brings the somewhat unassimilable political three into the equation. It’s common knowledge that ethics founders on the shoals of the political — Levinas’s emphatically negative answer to a journalist’s query as to whether the Palestinian is not the consummate ‘Other’ is just one small example of the inapplicability of ethics (and yes, you could say the inapplicability of poetry) to ‘real-world’ situations. But where do we go from there?


I’ve been reading and thinking about the neighbour as a third term of political relation that disrupts Carl Schmitt’s friend-enemy couple and exists somewhere more fruitful than on the binary line, even though where it exists may not be completely accessible. I could go on about these liminal spaces/concepts but my main point here is that if as writers we decide to root around in what we don’t know, decide to challenge our assumptions and personal and collective denials; if we forgo our sense of mastery over things and ideas and ethics and politics and people! — we are at least starting from a more interesting ‘borderline’ conceptual place than some of us have been indoctrinated to speak from thus far.


Your turn to the term ‘neighbour,’ for better or worse, draws questions of identity into our conversation, and over the past few years you have answered a great many questions about the place of identity in your poetry (it seems at times as if readers of your work appear to feel compelled to ask you about identity). Usefully though, one element of your work that stands out to me is the way it assumes the constructed character of identity, and seeks to find a way to stabilize it, or make it livable, instead of simply pointing out its provisional quality over and over again. That is one of my readings of your work at least, but I’d be interested to know where you might resist, build on, or shift this reading.


RZ: Ah yes, identity. Interesting that you noticed how many times that’s come up. Strange how those questions tend to be asked of certain writers and not others. I guess in a similar way as I described above my differing stance toward the author and writer, I prefer to explore the subject rather than identity. Identity tends to collapse upon itself, become univocal, regardless of how hybrid its constituent parts may be. There is more room to play with the multivocal subject, more room for the reader too to investigate his/her own rhetorical construction.


In fact, in my books, I’m using terms such as ‘Jew’ and ‘lesbian’ as figures, not necessarily as pointing to specific people, though of course there are fragments of the self that inform the texts. Like the term ‘feminist,’ Jew and lesbian reach catachrestic limits when you attempt to define them and they never stop producing effects and affects in the interlocutionary moment — they never lose meaning. I think of these terms similarly to the limit concepts described above such as ‘neighbour’ or ‘sovereignty’; I similarly believe in their potential applications towards opening thought. If all else fails, they at least provoke a complex and potentially productive reaction in the reader/audience.


Since you answered the above questions before you travelled to Israel-Palestine, and you were there in January (2009) when the fighting between Hamas and Israel began again to such devastating effect, would you mind describing what that experience was like, and how, if at all, it has changed any of your answers to the above questions?


RZ: I’ve only been back a few days and I think it’s going to take me a long time to sort out my thoughts and feelings about such an intense experience, but I have had some preliminary thoughts that will likely shift The Neighbour Procedure project as I write more towards it. Not to get into a huge political discussion, but after the tours I took through the West Bank and witnessing the literal hardening of the occupation there (with the wall and checkpoints that are more like borders), coupled with the horrifying coverage of the Gaza bombings and invasion that I watched on Al-Jazeera, the BBC, even CNN, I’ve had to relook at whether the notion of the neighbour can actually be applied in Israel-Palestine.


The reality is that even if, as per Freud, one’s instinct may not necessarily be to love your neighbour — even if it is more likely that you may hate your neighbour and his/her overwhelming proximity — one does tend to see the neighbour as another human being. What I mean is you generally see your neighbour across the fence as a whole person, not 3/5ths of a person or a third of one and so on. Suffice it to say I don’t think the Israeli state (and, sadly, most Israelis, given their continuing overwhelming support for the Gaza attacks and other occupation manoeuvres) see Palestinians as whole human beings with the rights that attend that basic recognition, and until they do, one could say until their position towards the face of the other shifts, nothing will really change in Israel-Palestine.


Before I went on the trip I wrote a long poem based on common verbal roots in classical Arabic and Hebrew that embodied a kind of naïve hope about the resonances between these cultures, and I have to say my urge when I returned was to scrap the whole thing. But on thinking more I’ve decided instead to add English ‘loan words’ that are used in modern Hebrew (which of course is a new language with many new coinages — as poet Sami Chetrit said to me in Tel Aviv: ‘any word that isn’t in the Bible is new’) to the poem to infect the purity of the original poem and evoke the ‘special’ relationships with other state powers that so contaminate things in Israel-Palestine.


I’ve also shifted how I feel about ‘Jewish philosophical thought’ and now see even defining thought in such a way exhibits a kind of tribalism that is becoming all too dangerously prevalent in Jewish culture today, particularly as a result of Israel’s tribal tendencies. When ethical notions are so shamefully abused and drained of meaning by a state as they are in Israel (i.e., ‘we are a moral army,’ we ‘shoot and weep’ etc.), one tends to lose hope in their efficacy as philosophical guideposts. Yet I see this place of hopelessness as precisely the site from where the artist can step in (and up) and respond to the competing rhetorics that surround us and hem in our minds; not only speaking truth (however indefinite) to power (without being didactic, of course), but also wending a serpentine line of beauty back to ah yes, meaning.


[1] Rachel Zolf, Human Resources (Toronto: Coach House Books, 2007), 38.

[2] Rachel Zolf, ‘interview with Rachel Zolf,’ interview by rob mclennan, Drunken Boat#8 (2006),

[3] Rachel Zolf, ‘with Rachel Zolf,’ interview by Heather Milne, in Prismatic Publics: Innovative Canadian Women’s Poetry and Poetics (Toronto: Coach House Books, forthcoming fall 2009).

[4] Rachel Zolf, ‘A tenuous we: writing as not-knowing,’ in Xcp: Cross-Cultural Poetics 20 (2008), 184.

Rachel Zolf

Rachel Zolf
photo Vincenzo Pietropaolo

Rachel Zolf’s most recent book of poetry, Human Resources (Coach House, 2007), won the 2008 Trillium Book Award for Poetry and was shortlisted for a Lambda Literary Award. Previous collections include Shoot and Weep (Nomados, 2008), from Human Resources (Belladonna, 2005) and Masque (Mercury, 2004). Her poetry and essays have appeared in such journals as Xcp: Cross-Cultural Poetics, West Coast Line, Capilano Review and Open Letter and in the anthologies Prismatic Publics: Innovative Canadian Women’s Poetry and Poetics (Coach House, 2009) and Shift & Switch: New Canadian Poetry. She was the founding poetry editor of The Walrus magazine and has edited several books by other poets. She is currently the recipient of a Chalmers Arts Fellowship supporting a poetic project on competing knowledges in Israel-Palestine, entitled The Neighbour Procedure (forthcoming Coach House, 2010).

Joel Bettridge

Joel Bettridge

Joel Bettridge is the author of two books of poetry, That Abrupt Here (The Cultural Society Press, 2007) and Presocratic Blues (forthcoming from Chax Press). He co-edited, with Eric Selinger, Ronald Johnson: Life and Works (NPF) and his critical study, Reading as Belief: Language Writing, Poetics, Faith is forthcoming from Palgrave in Fall 2009. Currently he is an Assistant Professor of English at Portland State University.

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