An Interview with Rachel Zolf

Brian Adams

Clarise Foster: My first question is a long one I am afraid, but I am going to put it forward anyway. It strikes me that your newest collection, Neighbour Procedure (published by Coach House Books) is an important destination for you. Your first book, Her absence, this wanderer, has a distinctly personal feel to it. It feels like a journey in search of heritage and inheritance, one which also seems to reveal a search for form — for language — how to speak from the place you’ve found yourself as both Jewish and a lesbian. In Masque, the personal becomes a surface, one of many, and all of them hiding a much more fundamental sense of existence, as Jewish and as lesbian. Speaking or language is also a surface or layer we hide under. In Human Resources, the sense of what language holds becomes so much clearer, and far more confusing at the same time. Again, there is a sense of dislocation that comes with being a woman, Jewish, and a lesbian. The personal reflection in HR has faded somewhat, but there is a distinct sense of the author’s intimacy with the text, the author’s familiarity to the experience and types of communication the text references. Finally, there is Neighbour Procedure. This newest work seems to come without any distinct personal conflict to anchor the text; the chaos of the tumultuous relationship between Palestinians and Israelis speaks for itself in its own languages, violence, peoples and grief. Although you are of Jewish heritage, this fact makes no discerning splash in the text. In many ways the book is a disturbing vantage place with no sides, no secure point of view — in other words, a very scary place to leave the reader alone. Why has it been so important for you to write yourself out of the text? What does your “absence” achieve for your poetic practice, for the impact of your work on readers?

Rachel Zolf: I guess I’m one of those poor souls who still believe in Roland Barthes’s call for the death of the author and the birth of the reader (from way back in 1968, that revolutionary year in which I happened to be born). As I read your question, it occurred to me that you could say I’ve slowly enacted that transformative process from author to reader over the course of my books. But even in Her absence, this wanderer, I made gestures to the reader to try and draw her into the meaning-making process of the text, for example instructing her to write an uncontainable memory on a seeming containable piece of white paper, fold it carefully and place it on an obliterated, non-existent gravestone. Even the title of that book contains the absence of the author, the one wandering awkwardly among unanswerable questions, uncomfortably inhabiting spaces where language fails and meaning can’t be contained, no matter how many different shapes we make on the page to attempt to hold it. In that difficult, liminal space of failure, I feel there is space for the reader to enter.

This relationship between author and reader hasn’t really changed across my work. A similar process is enacted in a different way in Masque, where the reader has to do more work to attempt to piece together the exploded fragments of speech into some kind of coherent narrative, a process doomed to failure, but a process that creates much room for the reader to shape her own meaning out of the disjunctive elements. In Human Resources, the sentences more implode than explode, the reader is sucked into the page and must flail her way back to the seemingly smooth surface of language, which of course is not so smooth at all. Neighbour Procedure uses several forms to draw or shock the reader in several directions; it’s filmic in that way. While I use assemblage form to deliberately not reference a stable “I” figure, I do insert what I call “mad affects” into the text that reflect some of my feelings in relation to the crisis depicted; I don’t think my stance towards this act of ongoing colonization is hidden. As Shoshana Felman writes, “The more a text is ‘mad’ — the more in other words it resists interpretation — the more its specific modes of resistance to reading become its ‘subject’ and its literarity.” In other words, in all my books I try to enact situations where the reader feels uncomfortable, dislocated in their own skin, and is forced to think about why they feel that way. In terms of Neighbour Procedure’s relation to my other books, while the subject matter is anchored more in the “world” than in the personal or the family or the office or the everyday, the questions I’m investigating concerning memory, history, knowledge, subjectivity and the conceptual limits of language and meaning haven’t changed. I am still, and will likely always be, that crankily absent author wandering across the page.

CF: So do you see the poet’s (your) mission as to rattle the reader’s cage — and I mean that literally — to get them to see the cage and try to free themselves instead of putting all the onus (or responsibility) on the writer to get them out?

RZ: Indeed that is an interesting way to look at it. When I mention film above, I’m referring to montage “shock effects,” first practiced by the Russian Formalist filmmakers, using the juxtaposition of jarring images to wake people up to some kind of action. Parataxis, disjunction, collage and other formal effects in poetry can operate in similar ways, particularly at the limits of language where you keep trying and failing to contain uncontainables. I think of how M. NourbeSe Philip describes “locking” herself in the text of Zong! through the use of poetic constraint (the fact that the whole book is made from the words in a two-page legal document), partly to force herself into the place of the people — slaves — caged on that ship. When you read the book, and particularly when she reads aloud from it, you are there with her and them too, encaged in history, forced to think through what responsibility means. This is the work that inspires me, where the reader’s experience isn’t a lulled romp through to epiphany or narrative closure but a jolt towards something like clarity. And I use that word on purpose, because of course this kind of work is always accused of not being transparent or clear enough. And in response I always go back to poet Rae Armantrout’s words in her important essay “Feminist poetics and the meaning of clarity”: “Is something clear when you understand it or when it looms up, startling you?” Armantout speaks of “another kind of clarity that doesn’t have to do with control but attention, one in which the sensorium of the world enters as it presents itself.” Indeed I feel trapped inside a poem or fiction that rises and falls towards some kind of unitary essence. I gravitate towards work like Gail Scott’s fictions that open and open while still enclosed within a very well-thought out structure, one could say a poetics in Scott’s case. Charles Bernstein talks about absorptive and antiabsorptive writing and how one can use antiabsorptive strategies for absorptive means — and vice versa. I attempt to use both of these strategies in my writing, for instance Masque’s form at first seems impenetrable, impermeable, but if you give in to the structure, the narrative absorbs and holds you; or some of the sentences in Human Resources may at first seem like gibberish, they may even be unpronounceable, but if you sound/parse them out slowly, there is much revealed. On the other hand, many of the poems in the opening of Neighbour Procedure look like straight-up narrative poems, you are drawn in by how simple and uniform they look; but before you can even settle or take a breath, you are pushed out and beyond by the uncontainable nature of each poem, even each line, as NourbeSe once said to me. I used to say that I am anti-aesthetic writer, with all the postmodern trappings that carries, primarily because I am not much concerned with beauty. But I no longer stick with that designation (no name ever fits anyway, does it), as I can see the amazing antiabsorptive effects you can create by using beauty to draw and jar the reader into consciousness. Lisa Robertson, for example, does this brilliantly.

This interview is excerpted from a longer piece published in CV2.