Transcript - Episode 94: Rachel Zucker
Mike Sakasegawa: Hello, and welcome to Keep the Channel Open, a podcast featuring conversations with artists, writers, and curators. My name is Mike Sakasegawa and this is episode 94. Today’s guest is Rachel Zucker.
Hello everybody, hello, welcome to the show. Today’s guest is Rachel Zucker. Rachel Zucker is the author of ten books, including SoundMachine (forthcoming from Wave Books in 2019). Her other books include a memoir, MOTHERs, and a double collection of prose and poetry, The Pedestrians. Her book Museum of Accidents was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. A recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, MacDowell Colony and the Sustainable Arts Foundation, Zucker teaches poetry at New York University. Zucker is the founder and host of the podcast Commonplace: Conversations with Poets (and Other People). She is currently working on an immersive audio project (also called SoundMachine).
So, you may have heard me mention Rachel’s podcast Commonplace before, it’s one of my favorite shows and one that has certainly influenced this show. I’ve been listening to Commonplace for, oh, a couple of years now and I’m consistently impressed with the intimacy and depth of the conversations Rachel has with her guests. I’d been wanting to read some of Rachel’s work for a while now and earlier this year at the AWP conference I finally picked up a copy of her book The Pedestrians, and, well, the book did something a lot like what my favorite kinds of photograph do, embodying something specific and personal but also something everyday and commonplace and therefore familiar. And I’m really pleased to have gotten the chance to talk to Rachel about it.
There’s a link in the show notes to where you can pick up a copy of The Pedestrians, which I of course recommend. You will also find a pre-order link for Rachel’s new book SoundMachine, which will be released on September 3rd, as well as to the SoundMachine audio project. You can go to soundmachineproject.com to sign up for the project newsletter, and get updates on the project’s launch, which should be pretty soon. You’ll also find a link to Commonplace, and all of those have my highest recommendation.
Now, one more thing before we get started. For subscribers to the KTCO Patreon campaign, Rachel has very generously added a bonus reading of her poem “Pedestrian,” the title poem of the book we’re talking about in today’s show. If you’d like to listen, just visit patreon.com/sakeriver—there’s a link in the show notes for that—and make a pledge in any amount, and you’ll get access to the full bonus archive, which includes readings from writers like Yanyi, Michelle Brittan Rosado, David Bowles, Lydia Kiesling, and many more. Once again, that’s patreon.com/sakeriver, and that’s sake like the drink, and river like river.
Alright, let’s get started. Here’s my conversation with Rachel Zucker.
Mike Sakasegawa: So I was wondering if we could start with a reading?
Rachel Zucker: Yes. Can I read two short pieces?
RZ: Is that all right?
RZ: Okay. So, these are both from The Pedestrians, and The Pedestrians was supposed to be two separate books. One was "Fables" and one was "Pedestrians." And I'm going to just read a short one from each. So, from the "Pedestrians" side of things, this poem is called "today my son told me":
once long ago everything
grew everywhere all over
the planet people ate things
what later became known as
they started to notice
things grew in certain places
where they dropped
what later became known as
that's called cultivation
my son explained
& used the word
he said crops changed everything
hominids could stay in one place
and fence animals
this was the birth of culture
people didn't need to
gather & hunt all day
so they developed language
& the ability
to kill everything
RZ: Can I tell you why I chose that one?
RZ: So I'm in Maine right now and I'm here with my husband and my oldest and my youngest son—my middle son is in New York. And my oldest son, Moses, who I had this conversation with—I guess he must have been maybe 11 or 12 years old. He's 20 now and he is between his first and second year of college and he's reading a book called Against the Grain, which is about, I think, the history of cultivation and the transition from hunter-gatherer societies to farming, or what he's been referring to as "passive farming." And so the last week or so, when we've been sitting on the beach together or are walking around, he's been talking to me about this book. And it's just so funny to me to be back in this same conversation with him more than eight years later. It's a much more nuanced conversation now that we're having and yet the feeling is very, very similar. It's a feeling, you know, of just sort of being in the presence of one of my sons discovering something that he didn't know and then realizing I didn't know it either. And learning from them and feeling that... He used a phrase from this book that I know is going to show up in my writing somewhere, which is "a crowding disease." So anyway, that's why I chose that, because it's just so present for me. Can I read this one other one?
RZ: Okay. So this is from "Fables" and these were all written in prose and they were meant to be seen as prose. And this one—there's a section in here called "Ocean," and all of those were also written in Maine, in the same place that I am right now.
RZ: She sat on the deck face in the shade, legs in the sun, reading books by people in the faraway city. She'd cry a little or watch a small mammal run across the road.
Once she was on the phone with a poet who lived on the other coast, and she described the creature she thought was a beaver, woodchuck, or hedgehog. The poet on the other coast assured her, with great confidence, that it was a woodchuck. He explained that woodchucks’ legs are designed for hills and that's why when running on flat ground the animal looked as if he were hopping on his back legs.
“Totally,” she told the poet even though she didn't know the names of the animals or birds or trees or flowers and had trouble sitting still and spent most of her time wondering why she was reading sad memoirs.
Every day she watched the UPS truck come toward her up the road, make a three-point turn into the driveway before hers, and pull away.
MS: Thank you.
RZ: It rains—
MS: Oh shit. [laughs] I'm sorry.
RZ: It's all right. No, you're right. You're right. That's the next—that's a totally different one. You're right.
RZ: Anyway, so that... [laughs] I haven't looked at this book for a long time, by the way. Part of the pleasure for me in thinking about this book is also thinking about—I know that what I was waiting for from the UPS truck was the copy of Museum of Accidents, the first copy. It was exactly this time of year and I was very eagerly awaiting that from Wave. And I am now eagerly awaiting the first copy of SoundMachine. So there's just a lot of weird 10-year resonances for me.
MS: Mm. It's—I mean it's funny. I guess.... Well, first of all, before I say anything else, I just wanted to say that, one, I really enjoyed this book quite a bit. And, two, I really—I think that you probably know this because we've talked about it, but I really enjoy your show quite a bit.
RZ: Thank you.
MS: Yeah. I was thinking about it a little bit and thinking, "I wonder if it might be a little weird to talk about a book that's five years old now." Like it might not feel quite as immediate as when you were doing interviews and stuff for it when it first came out.
RZ: Well, actually, I didn't really do hardly any interviews when it first came out. The Pedestrians and my sort of hybrid memoir, MOTHERs, both came out in 2014, not that long after my mother died and I really was not capable of doing that much when the book came out. So it's kind of nice, actually, to talk about this book.
MS: Sometimes I think maybe it's nice to get a little space between a piece of work and the talking about it. Even though obviously with a book, even by the time it's come out, you've had a little distance from the making of it. But maybe even after that, having a little more time to sort of digest and marinate could be a little useful. I don't know.
MS: [laughs] It's funny that you picked these two poems. I feel like, you know, I always ask people to pick what they're going to read, and almost invariably they end up picking things that have been ones that stood out to me. Although I have this suspicion that if they picked something else that that would also feel like it was one that stood out. [laughs]
RZ: [laughs] Uh-huh.
MS: But I feel like there's things that run through these two poems or pieces or whatever they are, that run through the whole book. You know what I mean?
MS: One of the things that was particularly interesting to me about considering this book was... You know, so this prose piece, this opens the "Ocean" section of "Fables." But the two sections, like you said just now and I've read elsewhere, that they were intended to be two separate books originally, maybe more like chapbooks, but they kind of overlap a lot. And in particular with this one thing where you're describing this phone call with another poet and talking about this creature, there's a poem in the second part—I think it's on page on 129 in my notes—.
RZ: Oh, yeah.
MS: Yeah. Where it seems like you're describing the same kind of thing or at least a similar moment, where this sort of woodchuck or muskrat or groundhog scurries in and out of the hilly underbrush. And there are moments where—like also the UPS truck comes in this one that you did, a mail truck comes later. It feels like there's these resonances between where it's almost like you're describing the same thing but in different modes, if that makes sense. I found that really interesting.
RZ: Yeah. That, I think, is a really accurate description of what's happening in The Pedestrians. And I would just add to this that I wrote "Fables" mostly in the summer in Maine—one in Paris and then in New York. And then the poems in "The Pedestrians" overlapped in terms of the time of when I was writing them. So maybe there was a one-to-two-year period of time in which I was writing what then much later became "The Pedestrians," "Fables," and MOTHERs. So in a way, the three books are a triptych—or I guess the two books are a triptych—but the three pieces are a triptych. There are dreams that I write about in The Pedestrians that I also write about in MOTHERs. So there are definitely common concerns. I would say they're probably common concerns in all my books. But in these two books, The Pedestrians and MOTHERs, there's also just the same situations that I'm writing about, and certainly the same people, the same kinds of thoughts and experiences. And I think that you're exactly right that I'm interested in trying to see what happens to a story when it's approached or transmitted in different modes of consciousness or different levels of awareness or awakeness. And in different forms. So, you know, what happens when it's in prose? What happens when it's in verse? What happens if it's in memoir? What happens if it's in third person, not fictionalized but with the feeling of fiction? I think that those modes of awareness is as much the subject of the book as anything else. So yeah, I think that's exactly right. And I think that, you know, I spent a lot of time [laughs] feeling like I'm making all kinds of mistakes and feeling embarrassed about all of my choices. And one of the things I tend to doubt is the way in which maybe my books are all about the same thing. We're in a good situation right now since you've only read one of them. So—
RZ: [laughs] You haven't yet had the feeling of like, "Again? You're writing about that again?" But [laughs] I guess with The Pedestrians I was sort of thinking about like, well yeah, I am writing about the same things, in one sense, again—although, you know, a lot of artists do that their whole lives. But maybe I'm writing about it with a slightly different focus or a different lens or a different awareness. Like there are different things that are brought to the forefront. Yeah.
MS: Yeah. I mean I think most artists, you can sense some kind of a through-line in their different works and bodies of work. I think that, you know, I mean it's always the same person, so there is going to be something in common, don't you think?
RZ: I think so. I mean, sometimes I think [of] a poet like Alice Notley, the way the books look and the way they sound in some ways is so different from book to book. And I admire that very much. At the same time, it's all Alice Notley. It's her same concerns. And I love that about Alice Notley. So, you know, a poet like Sharon Olds, even though her books are different from book to book, I think the consistency is more similar. And I don't think I quite know what kind of poet I really want to be. I think I just end up feeling badly about whatever it is I've chosen.
RZ: If I'm too similar, if I'm too different, you know, that's just a characteristic dilemma on my part.
MS: [laughs] I'm sorry, I'm only laughing because I can relate to that so much.
RZ: Yeah. I was talking to my former teacher and friend, Wayne Koestenbaum, and he—I've been asking a few former Commonplace guests to interview me about SoundMachine and I'm trying to put an episode together. Wayne was so generous in reading the book and asking me questions. But he described sort of all of my books and in particular SoundMachine with this phrase that I think should have actually been the title for SoundMachine. He said, "Well, as you've continued with your"—I can't remember the adjective but—"with your persistent rendering of scenes of self-castigation."
RZ: And I was like, "Yeah, I guess 'scenes of self-castigation' is really the hidden and not-so-hidden title for everything I've ever written."
MS: [laughs] That's funny. I mean, I sensed that too, I think, at least in this book. And I think, you know, even at times listening to Commonplace. And it's funny because there's always this sense of presenting something as itself, whether that might be an emotion or some experience, some scene or something, but then kind of undercutting it in some way. And there's something about that move that feels... I don't know, that it does something... Like it has this sort of self awareness to it that—it just feels really good to me. There's this way in which you... Like everybody has their little idiosyncrasies and everybody has their quirks and their flaws, but most of the time people don't address those in the work itself. I feel like there's something that feels very honest about foregrounding those things. You know?
RZ: I do know, and I don't know whether that means that you suffer from a similar set of neurotic problems as I do—
MS: [laughs] Could be.
RZ: It's certainly honest in the sense that this is just an accurate description of how my brain works, and how I think everybody else's brains work. But it has come to my attention that not everybody goes through life the same way. You know, obviously in so many ways, including neurologically or experientially, temperamentally. And I think that there are probably people who find the thing that you're describing as kind of honest or that you like, I think there are probably people who just find it endlessly annoying.
RZ: [laughs] You know, or problematic. Like, "Why can't you just say one thing and leave it at that?" You know, "Why, why, why, back and forth." So, I don't know. Thank you. I'm glad.
MS: [laughs] It's strikes me that you're kind of doing it now.
RZ: I know. You might need the same kind of therapy I need, is all I'm saying. [laughs]
MS: [laughs] Obviously of course everyone's going to have their own experience and their own take on these things. I think that... Well, if nothing else, I do think that there is something, you know, when you see someone who has the same sort of preoccupations that you have, that there is something powerful about that, when you see that in someone else's work. Certainly that's something that I've always responded to and it's something that I hope to accomplish with my own work. I don't know. I just think that there is something to it. I also think, you know, this idea that someone might be annoyed by something that you're doing in your work or that I'm doing in my work, I do think that's an interesting thing to consider, but also I think it's a little bit unreasonable, you know? Like there is this sort of demand that many of us place on artists to have made the thing that we wanted them to make. You know what I mean? And I think if anything, that's the more problematic piece of it, to me anyway. [laughs]
RZ: Yeah. Yeah. I have a whole armchair psychology sort of response to why you might also share—or why you might like this. [laughs]
MS: [laughs] I'm here for it.
MS: I don't know about you, but I actually love it when people tell me about me. [laughs]
RZ: [laughs] I love it too. Yeah. I mean, I think obviously it's much more complex than this and we don't really know each other. But just even from listening to your podcast and seeing some of your work online, your photographs and your writing. I was just thinking about that Catapult piece that you wrote and I think it's your grandmother who says to you that the Japanese Americans are the quiet minority. Is that the phrase that she used?
MS: Yeah. The quiet people.
RZ: Yeah, the quiet people. I think that one of the things that, as you're talking about it, I think there's a desire that perhaps we share, to both be troublemakers, and to push ourselves to be outspoken and to say the thing that maybe people don't usually say, and we appreciate when others say the thing or ask the question that people don't ask. Those are some of the things that I think appeal—certainly appeal to me in art, and in people. But then I think there's a lot of tension because—I hear it in you and I definitely see it in myself—there's another part where, you know, we both have day jobs, we both have kids. We both seem to me to be pretty organized, responsible, show-up-on-time type of people, for lots of reasons. And, you know, even the fact that we chose to be podcast hosts, there's a certain element of that that I think requires someone to be a good listener and to be somewhat patient and be willing to put the other person in the spotlight, even though there's a lot of power in being the person asking the questions and presenting. And so I think that there's an underlying kind of conflict, an interesting struggle between both of these aspects, of wanting to be the person who says it all or at least says something and does something.
RZ: And also kind of—I mean, I'll just say this part for myself. I'm surprised at how much I care about what other people think of me. And I think that I've largely acted as if I haven't cared. And I think that other people sometimes perceive me as someone who is very bold and is not going to care. But I think that that's more and more clear to me. And so there's a tension between those two things. I think I have a fantasy that other artists are much bolder and less self conscious than I am. I don't know if that's really true or not—
RZ: —but I think that's part of the back and forth, also. Like if you say the thing, but then you're like, "Oh my God, what did I just say?" Or it's like self-exposure with shame immediately following.
MS: Yeah. [laughs] I certainly can't speak for anybody else, but I do find that I have these sort of competing desires to want to express myself, to want to say the things that I feel like need to be said and that I don't notice other people saying, at least not in the way that I want them to be said. But then also just constantly feeling this overwhelming shame of like, "What gives me the right to be that person?"
MS: You know, these competing impulses to make myself large but also to make myself as small and compact as possible. Who knows where that actually comes from? I think it's interesting, the thing that you just said about feeling that other artists in some way or another have their shit together more, or are more confident. I know that you said a thing in your "Inside Commonplace" episode—which, I said to you this to you when we met at AWP but I'd like to say it again on the show, that that was one of the most just fascinating and illuminating and exciting pieces of audio I've heard maybe ever, and certainly in the interview podcast space. It really opened up a lot of things for me. One of the things that you said in that interview about your process and your motivations with these things that you're always asking other people how to be. And I was like, "Oh yeah, me too!" [laughs].
MS: But don't you kind of feel like—I mean, you've talked to a lot of people on your show now, I've talked to a good number of people on my show, and I think that one thing that has become clear in the course of talking to so many different artists and writers and what have you, is that it seems like most people, not everybody, but most people who do this stuff never really get past that sense of, "What am I doing?" You know?
RZ: I... Yes... Yes? Maybe? I don't know, but I never seem to get past the sense that I have that everybody knows exactly what they're doing. Which I think is not true, but somehow I can't seem to let that go. I think that a lot of people I talk to, I envy them or I'm kind of in awe of them for seeming to have their shit together more than I do. But then there's all the people that I am in awe of who seem to have their shit together a lot less than I do. And that also seems kind of miraculous. As if that's how to live your life, to not care so much about certain things, or to only care about the things that really, really matter. Yeah. I don't know. That's not really a good answer or response to what you said.
MS: [laughs] This is—it's an interesting experience to be talking to someone who has many of the same sort of anxieties and preoccupations that I do.
RZ: [laughs] I know.
MS: Because that's—I haven't been interviewed or recorded that many times as the guest, but I do know that I have said basically exactly that thing. "That wasn't a very good answer."
MS: So one of the things that—I can't even remember now, I tried to go back and figure out which was the first episode of Commonplace that I ever listened to and I can't remember anymore and I can't remember how I found the show. I'm sure that it was [that] somebody on Twitter shared an episode and I checked it out and then became a regular listener. That's also how I eventually became interested in reading your writing. One of these things that—and this sort of, to go back a little bit to what we were talking about at the beginning—in this book, in The Pedestrians, you're working in multiple modes. And then adding in MOTHERs, that's a third way of touching on similar themes, similar experiences, and processing them in different ways. I'm always very interested in people who do more than one kind of creative work and I'm always sort of interested in, like, why? Because I do more than one thing and I have no idea why. And I kind of always find myself wishing I could just do one thing, you know?
MS: But it just doesn't work out that way. And the bigger thing too is that for the past, I don't know, maybe year or so, I found myself questioning a lot what the actual site of my work is. I find myself saying things like, I'll talk about my work, but when I talk about my work, I'm not including the show. But on a certain level that feels like, "Well, this is where I'm spending almost all of my creative energy these days." For three years now, I've been doing the podcast more regularly and spending more hours on it than I am on my writing or my photography. So in what way is that not my work? You know? And I was just sort of wondering if—I guess if there's a question here it's: is this a thing for you, too? [laughs]
RZ: Yes. I mean a constant, constant... How do I even... Yes. [laughs]
RZ: I'm so interested in this question in so many different ways. First of all, the question of doing different kinds of creative work. In the sense of working in different genres or different mediums. And what's interesting to me, again, to go back to "scenes of self-castigation," is that I still have this firm belief that all the great artists that I admire are all working in many different media except for me. Which is crazy because of course I do work in different genres, and audio being kind of a different thing altogether. But then pulling back to say, okay, well what is creative work? Is it, you know, is it writing? Is it the podcast? Does it include teaching? And then even further back like, well, does it include being a parent? Does it—for you, I notice on your website and other places you say you also work as a electrical engineer "to pay the bills." And that addition of "to pay the bills" is an interesting one. It sort of indicates, okay, but that's outside of your creative work. But is it outside of your creative work? I really don't know anything about being an electrical engineer, but I'm thinking of the things in my life that would not normally be thought of as part of my creative process. You know, I was a doula for a long time. And I was a photographer—but for a while, you know, the only money I made as a photographer was more commercial stuff. So I think the question is—or what about other things that aren't even work? Is that part of your creative life? Like I no longer have an exercise practice, but people do. Or a spiritual practice or—you know, I think it's really interesting to think about why it's important to delineate creative from non-creative, work from not-work, and I think there are good reasons to do that. But then I think if I'm being honest about my own process, all of the things are overlapping and mixed together. I mean, certainly I can't separate my family life from my quote-unquote "creative work" because most of my writing is about my family. But it's not just that it's about my family as subject matter, but it's also that the writing process, my mind, my body, is very much connected to being a mother and my relationship with my children. And more and more the same is true for my teaching, which does not happen outside of my creative work. It's really more and more part of it. And for sure I would say SoundMachine is the first book that I've had that's come out since I've been doing Commonplace, and every single piece in there, certainly in the editing but also somewhat in the composition, is related to the experience of having talked to more than 70 people for hours about art. You know, I can't separate that.
MS: What I find—and, you know, this is just the distinction that I make, because, as you say, I am an electrical engineer "to pay the bills." To me it's unquestionable that all of the experiences that I have inform the work in one way or another. Like to make a really literal example of that, I spend eight to ten hours a day in a cubicle at my office, looking at a computer and designing circuits and what not, and I made a photo series that is semi-abstract office-scapes, I guess. The point being that I get really bored when I'm at work. All of these things come into the mix because they all are part of what forms me and my experience. But I think what it has to do with for me is that the creative work feels different when I'm doing it and it satisfies a different need for me, if that makes sense. I definitely can't say that my life as a parent or my life as an engineer or my life as a husband or a son or any of these things are completely separate from my creative work. But when I'm doing my engineering work, it doesn't feel expressive to me. It doesn't feel satisfying to me. What it feels like is just something that I'm doing in order to survive. Whereas if I make a photo series about my engineering job, if I make a photo series about being bored at work, or being sad that my kids are getting older, or being wistful about the fact that I can't go home anymore in the way that I want to, that those things feel like they're accomplishing something that the other things don't and they all feel like they're accomplishing something that is in common with each other. The podcast actually does feel that way. I mean, it's different, but it still feels of a piece, you know.
RZ: Wait, say more. You're saying it feels much more like creative work. Does it also have anything in common with work-work, for lack of a better term?
MS: Well, I mean, all of these things have a certain amount of tedium to them that isn't necessarily pleasant, whether it's writing or editing photos or trying to figure out how to properly compress audio or whatever. There is that sort of work-work kind of stuff. But, you know, the making of the podcast feels like it is accomplishing something similar to what writing a poem or taking a photograph does, for me at least. But I don't know how that feels for you or for anybody else.
RZ: I mean, one of the things that I was thinking about—and I'm trying to say this without sounding sorry for myself or asking for some kind of sympathy—
RZ: —but I realized that I've written... I wrote one new piece—whether it's poem or prose, I'm not quite sure—last April. And I wrote one very long piece the June before. So April of 2018 and June of 2017. And other than that, I haven't been writing. And I think there are a lot of reasons for that. And I also was about to say I haven't been making things. It's not like, "Oh, I haven't been writing poems, but I taught myself to paint." No, I didn't. So I was feeling concerned about that. Not in terms of productivity or like, "Oh, what will happen? Am I done?" You know, I'm always like, "Oh, I'm never writing any poems again." It's very boring.
RZ: But it is strange to have a new book out and not feel like a writer. And I don't feel like a writer unless I'm writing, and by writing, for me—like I never have written every day, but more regular than one piece a year. And so that's a strange feeling. But then I go back and I think, "Well, how could you possibly say you haven't been making anything?" Because that's the same time period basically that I've been making all of these Commonplace episodes. And also that I've been working on this audio project—that's also called SoundMachine—of pieces from the book. And so Commonplace feels, and the audio project feel very fully sacred and close to my heart and I care about them so deeply, and more and more I care about them. But I guess that there is something that is different for me about the experience of being inside a piece of writing, the kind of concentration or something happens for me in writing that doesn't quite happen in making Commonplace or in making the audio. In part I think the audio is because it's a collaboration and mostly the sound designer is doing the manipulation or something. I don't know exactly how to describe it. So, I don't know. I'm interested in that. I used to say—and I don't know if I still think this is true—but I used to say that when I was writing it was the only time that I didn't hear that incredibly self-critical voice in my head, that it was sort of like this holy space where even if what I was writing was negative or negative about myself or self-critical, that the experience was not self-critical, and that it was kind of like a drug. That, you know, as soon as I was done writing it, I would first think, "Oh, this is the best thing I've ever written." And then as I moved away from it, I would lose that confidence, lose that feeling of just sort of being okay. And then instead it was like a drug. The only way to get that feeling again was to go back to the writing space. I don't know if that's as true for me now as it used to be, but whatever that quality is, there is something that feels different to me about writing and particularly maybe I would say writing poems or writing something that is within the world of the poem. Because I don't feel it to the same extent when I'm writing prose. I find writing prose to be one of the most painful and horrible things in the whole world.
RZ: Just brutal.
MS: [laughs] I want to keep talking about that, but I think we need to take a quick break and then come back and do the second segment. [laughs]
Mike Sakasegawa: So for the second segment, I always invite the guest to bring a topic of their own, which could be whatever you'd like to talk about, whatever happens to be on your mind. So what would you like to talk about today?
Rachel Zucker: Well, as usual, the problem for me is that there are a hundred things I really want to talk about and I have a really hard time choosing. And also I have a really hard time separating all the things. So I sort of had wanted to talk about my hysterectomy because I feel like it's very, very present for me. And people don't talk about health issues very much and they don't talk about hysterectomies in particular. I also had wanted to just talk more about Commonplace. I'm also interested in talking about, you know, SoundMachine is coming out and it's my first book in five years. Which, in and of itself is not a long time, but it feels like a long time for me. Some things have changed since my last books were out, and so I'm sort of interested in that. And just like this interesting to me moment of being 47 with a 20-year-old, an 18-year-old, and a 12-year-old, and sort of having a very boring—but fascinating to me—midlife crisis. But all of those things are the same thing. And then I was—oh, and then I was like, "Oh, maybe I should talk to Mike about photography," because that's a big interest of mine and you're a photographer and it overlaps with all this other stuff. And yeah, I can't separate any of those things—.
RZ: —because they're all the same. None of those things exist outside of my physical experience or what my life has been like for the past six months with the anemia and the hysterectomy. But the anemia and the hysterectomy also don't exist, or the context of them, or my feelings about them don't exist without, you know, everything that came before. So now I will say to you: what would you like to talk about? [laughs]
RZ: Since I refuse to choose.
MS: Yeah. You know, it's really funny, sometimes people—I mentioned this to you in our correspondence beforehand and it's the same thing that I tell everybody, that the purpose of the second segment is to just make sure that I'm not dominating the conversation and to make sure that you get a chance to talk about something that you'd like to talk about. I do find it's really interesting—and since we've talked about ways that we might be similar, I think maybe you might be able to relate to this—that there's a certain amount of, the word we used before was "shame" [laughs] about having this sort of weird power in being the host, and so doing everything I can to try and disperse that a little bit. I think it's funny how some people really don't end up wanting to pick for themselves. [laughs]
MS: One thing that occurred to me when you were saying all that is it really makes sense to me, they are all connected. And actually I feel like in the title poem of The Pedestrians—so the book is the called The Pedestrians, the poem is called "Pedestrian"—is a really great example of that. How in this poem it's sort of this stream of consciousness of the poem's speaker as she's out on a walk through the city and all of these different things that are going through her mind all at the same time, interrupting one after the other. I think it's interesting to hear you say that now given that I just re-read that poem yesterday. Yeah. It's funny how it all kind of goes together that way, don't you think?
RZ: Yeah, absolutely. And I think that... I'm trying to pick positive or at least neutral words—
RZ: —instead of self-critical ones. Because I was going to say like "neurotic," "self-interrupting." But what if I say that kind of fluidity and porousness to what's happening inside and outside all around me, an openness to allow all of those things into the poem. I think that that's, as I was saying earlier, both kind of temperamental, possibly even neurological, but also political. A kind of version of "the personal is political," both in terms of allowing the domestic space to be the space of creativity instead of the space that's usually pushed to the side, or the thing that we don't look at, or we think is antithetical to work or art, to allow that to be seen. And the same thing, you know, I think with women's bodies, both men and women's bodies but in particular women's bodies because of the history of male domination over science and history and literature and basically everything, in which there's so little genuine understanding of women's bodies. So I think, you know, allowing all of those things into the poem is not something I could have actually controlled or chosen not to do, but I think it also has political, social implications. And so maybe that's just a way of feeling less guilty [laughs] for my interrupted mind. But right now, today, I'm going to try to confidently say it is a style. Or an aesthetic.
MS: [laughs] I mean, it's certainly a choice, and I think it's one—to me, you know, when I read that poem, I was like—I mean maybe not everybody is quite as, the word you used "porous" I think, maybe not everyone thinks in quite this way, experiences in quite this way. To me it felt very familiar. But I do think there's something to this idea that we all have—that we don't think linearly, that we do experience simultaneity. All of these things. That we're more than just one thing at any particular moment. And I think that sort of bears on all of these different topics that you're talking about. And to me, both in that poem and Commonplace—in the first segment I mentioned that episode 50, "Inside Commonplace," how it was really revelatory for me. I think one of the things that was the big revelation for me about that was that it is really okay to be the host of something that is at least nominally an interview show—I know you always like to call what you do "conversations" and not "interviews." That's something that I also prefer. But the genre, if we want to call it that, is the interview podcast, I guess. But that it is acceptable—and at least for me as a listener to that episode was even exciting—to see the host of the show inserting herself into it and exposing herself in a way. It's very the opposite of what Terry Gross does, for example. Right. You can listen to Fresh Air every day for 20 years and really have very little idea of who Terry Gross is. And that's by design. There was that series that Jesse Thorn did, The Turnaround.
RZ: Yeah. I love that series.
MS: Yeah. It was great, right?
MS: And she talked about how she doesn't want to be in the interview, right. She doesn't want to be a character in it. But to me, what you were doing in "Inside Commonplace"—something also, I think, you're doing in these poems and something I feel like is in the dynamic between you and me right now—that there is this... Uh, this might be a little bit of a fraught thing to say, but I feel this sense of permission when I read these things, listen to the things that you've done before, of not having it have to be one thing or the other, of allowing it to be expressive of oneself, that there's something very freeing about that, you know?
RZ: Yeah. Well, thank you for saying that. When we started the second segment I resisted the impulse to say, "Well, maybe we should both take this opportunity to each say what we will likely regret most when we finish this conversation.".
RZ: Because now I know you well enough to know for sure we're going to get off the phone and both of us are going to be like, "Oh God, why didn't I..." or "Why did I..." Or at least I know I will. And I suspect you will.
RZ: And the reason I'm saying that in part is because you've acknowledged that you've tried to build into the structure of the show at least one way of making sure that you don't get off the phone and think, "I didn't let them talk about what they wanted to talk about. I had too much power." So you're trying to build that into the show. And I think it's similar to my trying to say, "Oh, these aren't interviews, these are conversations," because that implies a more equal playing field. I think that's really interesting and I think that "permission" is such an interesting word. I'm glad to know that something that I'm doing in writing and in Commonplace is giving at least you—but other people too, and they've said this to me—a sense of permission. And I think to some extent it is because of that thing that you're saying where I'm sort of saying two things at once, both of which are true. And so there's a permission in that, in not having to choose and not having to have one thing or one judgment be the end of everything. But I think also I'm constantly searching for and hearing permission in other people. I kind of want to say something about what you just said, now that I said something slightly nice about myself, I'm going to say something not nice. [laughs]
RZ: It's not not-nice. But I think, again, Commonplace has so many of the same challenges and benefits as every other part of my life. And I think that's just kind of how it is for me. And I think putting myself in the poems, putting myself in the show in the way that I do, like I said, it is a choice, but it's not really a choice. I don't know how to do it otherwise. I can't be Terry Gross. I'm not cut out to be Terry Gross, I don't want to be Terry Gross, I'm glad Terry Gross is Terry Gross, but it's a totally different dynamic for me. And I think that people do respond to that positively. A lot of the feedback that I get about Commonplace is particularly around that, you know, liking the way that I reveal stuff about myself. But there are some really potentially yucky consequences to that as well. And I don't know if you find this in your podcasting experience but, you know, it can happen with anyone. You mentioned—I'm just being so inarticulate right now and vague, and I think it's because I'm getting to a topic that's uncomfortable to me.
You mentioned to me—or, no, you tweeted something about it online, about my conversation with Mira Jacob. The thing that I'm trying to describe was definitely present for me in that conversation. And I think it has to do with a lot of things that I'm just kind of trying to understand. Part of it is about empathy and identification and how that works between two people, especially when there is a power differential. And there's always going to be a power differential in the podcast. But then on top of that, when I feel like whiteness is very much present in the room, because I'm white, I certainly have white-passing privilege. And I think that there's something that's complicated around identification and empathy. So to be more explicit, if somebody says something to me about their experience and then I say, "Oh yeah, me too, me too! Oh, I had that exact same experience!" Which, hopefully I don't say that, but that's an extreme version of what it is sort of like when I'm bringing my own experience into the room. And, you know, to say you have the same experience as someone else is not great. It's also never true. And then on top of that, if you are a white person saying like, "Oh, I understand exactly what you're saying because I had that same exact experience," that's, you know, a pretty Racism 101 starting point. So I think that that's an interesting thing that I've been thinking about a lot, and thinking about in terms of the podcast just, you know, how to be really present in the room, how to be really thoughtful about the difference between my experience and the experience of whomever I'm speaking with and how to make connections and be respectful of distance, both in shared experiences and experiences that are not shared. And that's all really, really complicated.
MS: It is. Anybody who pays attention to what I do on Twitter knows that I will go on at length about this kind of thing. [laughs] I think that the Twitter thread that you mentioned was actually one of my shorter ones. But I was actually—I was talking about your conversation with Mira Jacob and also, I think it was David Naimon's conversation with Miriam Toews on Between the Covers. I definitely think that one of the things I was talking about at that time was the potential pitfalls of, you know, when you have a guest on your show there is a power differential. And then also how is that going to work when you're trying to communicate across difference. But also one thing that you didn't mention was that one of the things that I found really striking about both of those conversations is that that there are ways in which you and Mira Jacob were talking about things—that, yes, you were talking about things across a difference because you're white and she's a person of color. But also there were parts where you were talking about things across a similarity because you're both women. And I just thought it was really fascinating to hear the difference in not just how the conversation unfolded in terms of the content, but in terms of what each of you sounded like in each of those different—like whether you're speaking across a similarity or a difference. So I think there is that moment of connection.
One of the things that I also am thinking about as you're talking about this is, I'm always, always very tentative—I was actually thinking about this before we started talking this morning, when I got out of bed, I was eating my breakfast and I was thinking exactly about this. Like "What are the ways that Rachel and I are similar? What are the ways that we are different?" I was thinking, well, we're not racially similar and we're not similar in gender. We are both podcasters who write and do other things. I'm always very tentative about these things is I don't—I was actually just talking to my wife about this last night when we were coming home from dinner and I was saying to her that so much of the energy that I put into how I present myself is to avoid being "that guy," you know, to avoid being the stereotypical awful man. And that is something that I actually think—I mean, it's a site of a certain amount of shame and tension for me, sort of emotional distress, I suppose. But I also think that that is maybe my responsibility as a man. I think that more men should be doing that right now.
But when it comes to the podcast, one of the things I'm thinking about, this tentativeness that I have to want to claim a certain common experience or to claim a certain similarity because I don't want to presume. Like a few times I've had guests on my show who were Korean American, for example. And I am not Korean American. We are both Asian American in this case, but not of the same ethnicity. And, as you might know, the history of Koreans and Japanese, and Korean Americans and Japanese Americans, has at times been very fraught. And the relationship between Korea and Japan right now is still very fraught. And so when I would have Korean American guests on my show, I have this thing where when I read their books, because of the fact that we're both Asian American, I'm reading these things where I—and some of them are writing memoir, right? So they're talking very specifically about their own experience, and I will latch onto these things in their books and be like, "This is exactly the thing that I experienced." Like, I had, almost verbatim, this exact interaction with someone when I was a child. And so I want to make that connection there, right? But then when it comes time to actually record the conversation for the show, I will say something like... Like I'll preface the whole thing by saying, "I know that like we're not the same in this way. I want to be very careful of not claiming this as my own because I'm not Korean, I'm not Korean American, and so I feel a little hesitation." Like I actually would say that explicitly in the recording. And every time I've done that, it comes out of this impulse to not be "that guy," right? It comes out of this impulse to be protective and respectful, right? But I feel like it actually comes off a little off-putting [laughs] to the guests. I think every time I've done that—and I try not to do that anymore, actually, very consciously—because I feel like they don't know what to do with that, you know?
MS: It's not what they were expecting me to say. And I feel like that's an interesting dynamic, too. That by putting that out there, what am I asking of that person? You know what I mean?
RZ: Yeah. Because even though I think that impulse comes from such a good, respectful place, to say, "I know we are not the same, I am not taking your experiences my own"—and, you know, we know that the idea of the universal experience is so problematic and doesn't really exist. But then, yeah, as soon as you say that you run the risk of exoticizing the other person or putting them in a position where they're going to in a way have to be the representative for all the things that are different about them than you, or even the strangeness of... There's a way in which that comment—and I've made very, very similar kind of... What's the word? Not an apology, but like, "Hey, I just want to say I notice that I'm white and you're a person of color." Obviously I have never said it in that way.
RZ: But, you know. because to not notice is a huge problem, but to notice and point it out is also very strange.
RZ: And yet I guess I do tend to err on the side of pointing out every uncomfortable thing.
RZ: I mean, this comes up for me in every single episode. I mean, this morning before we spoke, I was working on my introduction for the Ilya Kaminsky episode, which is going to come out next on Commonplace.
MS: I'm really looking forward to that, by the way.
RZ: Thank you. I am also really looking forward to that. And I'll tell you something that I've been trying to write in the introduction, that I might just take out. It's interesting also to think about like why am I willing to say this in the context of your podcast but not necessarily as the introduction. And I think that partly has to do with different forms and different positions of power and the way in which an introduction in my podcast is a kind of authoritative stance. Whereas being a guest on your podcast maybe allows me to share this thing that I'm really thinking through and I'm full of doubt. And I think in the context of being a guest in your podcast, it will hopefully come across more accurately as something that I'm really not sure of. So when I was recording with Ilya, Ilya is hard of hearing and also has a strong Russian accent.
RZ: And so there were moments where I couldn't understand what he was saying. Also when—I don't know if you've ever seen Ilya read in person, but he hands out either copies of his book or Xerox packets of what he's going to read so the audience can read along with him.
RZ: And I think it's a pretty straightforward accessibility question for audience members who are deaf or hard of hearing, but he hands them out to everyone. And so someone like me who is hearing, I have the experience that I don't usually have at a poetry reading where I am looking at the text and listening at the same time. And there were some really interesting things that I noticed in my own experience of what it was like to have the text in front of me and hear Ilya read. And there were some really interesting things that I noticed about the process of talking to Ilya in person and not knowing—having to slow down, having to be more careful about making myself understood to him, and of making sure that I understood him. So asking sometimes for him to repeat things or having to ask for clarification sometimes. Or at one point there was a critical word that he was pronouncing differently than you would expect if you were a native English speaker. And I could not tell from the context of what this critical word was. And it was very exciting for me, actually. And then when I finally figured out what the word was—he kept using the word "sinjin." And I was like, "I just don't know what that is." And then I realized he was saying "singing."
And so I was trying to write in this introduction about how one of the things I love most in art is the way in which you can experience the process of something taking shape and something coming into focus and something beginning to gather and have meaning rather than just seeing it fully formed. So whether it's a novel or a short story where you don't know what the story is going to be and then all of a sudden the story starts to take shape, right? Or whether it's a poem in which the language is doing something that's not traditional, that it's not just easily accessible or transparent or clear in terms of its narrative, and then the meaning sort of begins to take shape, rises to the surface, that that's one of my most, most favorite experiences. And that to some extent that's happening every time we have a conversation with another person, but it's not so clear because we think that we are understood and we have very little tolerance in normal daily life for understanding someone else. But that in my conversation with Ilya, this was one of the things I enjoyed the most of my conversation with him. But how do you say that without either idealizing or, you know, glorifying a hearing loss issue, right? Or even metaphorizing it and being insensitive to issues around accessibility. Because I'm saying, "Oh, as a hearing person it was so interesting to me, it was so exciting to me." And there was no way—I could not find a way to really—or I haven't yet. And we'll see, I might just leave this out of the introduction. It might not be a place where I can get at some of these ideas without seeming—I'm trying not to use the word "tone deaf" in this context.
RZ: You know, but even that phrase, how do you do that while recognizing that that's a completely... You know, that handing out the text might be interesting to me, but it's the difference between having access or not access if you're deaf or hearing-impaired, and making it clear that you understand the difference between those two experiences.
RZ: And I think that's kind of what you're also talking about. I don't really have a set of guidelines or rules for myself about that, but I'm starting to realize that so much of that has to do with what kind of power I have at any given moment. And the context of that, of course, keeps changing. And so you as the host of the podcast have a lot of power in that. And so in that moment saying, you know, "Oh, I just want to recognize that we don't have the same experience" might come across very differently if you are the guest or if you are in another context.
MS: Yeah. I mean, when I think about this, right—well, first of all, I actually have heard Ilya give a reading before, just once. He actually is here in San Diego, he teaches at SDSU, and he gave a reading at Grossmont College earlier, I think in the spring. I did get to see him do that. And as you say, he passed out Xerox copies to everyone in the audience. What I think is kind of interesting in the context of this conversation that we're having—he also had sign interpreters while he was reading. To me, what I thought was interesting was that he actually very explicitly made that act of passing out the handouts, he made that very explicitly about accessibility for people who can hear, because he actually calls this out. He said in the thing "You're not going to be able to understand everything I say, so this is to help you." And I thought that it's interesting because the thing that you're talking about with this intro and the struggle that you're having with it is like you don't want to put that person in the position of being the other, but it means something different when they do it themselves. [laughs]
MS: And the thing that I keep coming back to—and it seems like we go through a similar process—I'm trying to figure out what are the consequences of the things that I do? What are the practical effects of the other choices that I make? Because I have this desire... I think what it is, when I made that move in those conversations that I had with those previous guests, the desire that I have—and I might do this then, I might do it in an intro or in the outro or like maybe in a separate piece of writing—I want somehow for it to be made clear to anyone who is consuming this content, I want them to understand that I'm aware of these things and that I'm not just taking these things for granted, because I don't want to be "that guy.".
MS: But then where I go after that is, well, what does that serve for me to make it clear? What am I actually asking? Isn't that—is that more for me that I'm doing that? Is it more for me because I don't want people to think I'm "that guy" or is it that I am actually doing something for the world or for the guest or for the listener. Which of those things is it? And the only thing I can come up with is that it's both, right? That it is out of a desire to put helpful or at least non-harmful things out into the world. But also it is a desire to have people think of me kindly. Right? It's both of those things. [pause] [laughs]
RZ: Right, right. I mean, yeah, absolutely. And I think if you're prone to shame [laughs] you're going to feel badly no matter what. Because it really is both of those things. Yes, Ilya is handing those handouts out, not only for deaf and hearing impaired people but also for people who can hear easily, and he says that part of it is about his Russian accent. And, indeed, people have various abilities to hear through accent. But I guess what I'm saying is, it's fascinating to me that... I mean, haven't you been at many, many poetry readings where the person is a native English speaker and speaks loudly enough and you can't understand them? [laughs]
RZ: Right? Do those people hand out or give context to their work? Often not. And that's interesting to me that we have a—and I think that this is a personal issue for me because I think that my work, I think maybe it has a lot of doubt in it and simultaneity and whatever neuroticness to it. But it's pretty transparent. It's pretty, to use this word in both its meanings, accessible. And I think that I have both very positive feelings about that and very negative feelings about it. Like, "Oh, I'm not a real artist because maybe my work is too accessible." But I also have the feeling that I don't like making other people feel dumb or outside of. It's just kind of obsessively my way to, if I'm speaking to another person, to try to include them on almost every level. Not because I'm a great person or whatever, but maybe I just really want to be understood or something? I don't really know. But I think that it's exactly what you're saying, that there is a real generosity and kindness to including everything. Of course, you can never include everything but including context, including, you know, for the listener, for the reader, for the person that you're interacting with, treating that other person with as much kindness and respect. And part of that is about sort of letting them know all the things, right? All the things that are going through your head. But then, yes, of course there's for sure, like, I don't want to seem like that guy who is not aware of how I sound, or is making a million mistakes, even more than I could make if I'm careful. Or including so much that you don't respect your audience enough to know what they need to know, or to have the experience that I just said I enjoyed, which is of not everything being clear. So, I don't know, I just said a million different things, but I find these things totally fascinating. And you know, I don't know if this is your experience, but in part I started Commonplace because I found writing to be increasingly full of ethical pitfalls. And I thought that a podcast, especially a podcast in which I was speaking to the other person that I was representing, they were then representing themselves, that this would enable me to not have the same ethical pitfalls or complications. And of course it has all the same and even, you know, different ones than writing does or any kind of art.
RZ: And I'm trying to just embrace those a little bit, and do what I hear you saying, which is to learn from them and figure out like, okay, well, if I do it this way, I feel this kind of shame. If I do it this way, I feel this kind of shame.
RZ: [laughs] Could I at least get to the point in my life where I'm feeling new kinds of shame rather than the same kinds of shame over and over again?
MS: Oh my God. [laughs]
RZ: [laughs] And also, I guess I'll say one other thing—I'm talking on and on, I'm so sorry—but I think it is moments like these, talking to you, where... That is not how I feel when I hear you on your podcast, and I am hearing you say to me that you are hearing something that's useful, permission-giving, and positive on my podcast. And so taking those kinds of support and encouragement in order to have, you know, to take the risks, to know that you're not that guy.
MS: [laughs] Yeah. [sighs]
MS: So, I actually would love to continue talking about this, but I think that we probably need to wrap things up. There's one question that I always like to end with and that is if there is a piece of art or literature or creativity in some form that you've experienced recently, that meant something to you.
RZ: Oh yeah. Well, I just since my return to somewhat of a clearer mental capacity, I read Darcy Steinke's book, Flash... No, ugh. Now I'm not going to get the name right, but Pause, no, Flash... Flash Diary. You're going to have to look that up and fix that for me somehow.
MS: [laughs] Okay.
RZ: It's an incredible book. It's about menopause. There's almost nothing written about menopause that's useful. I really hope I can get her to come on Commonplace and talk more about it. But also the form of the book is really fascinating to me. It's one of these kind of historical scientific memoirs, and that's a kind of form that I really love. And then yesterday I finished Tina Chang's new book Hybrida, which is fantastic and, you know, about motherhood, about language, about race, about raising a mixed-race child. It's a really, really great book. So those are the two things I've read in the past few weeks that I've just really loved.
MS: Well, thank you so much for talking with me. I really had a good time and I appreciate you coming on the show.
RZ: You too, Mike. I love your podcast and it's fun and horrible, but mostly fun to be on the other side. [laughs]
Mike Sakasegawa: OK, so the name of that book that Rachel mentioned, which she asked me to fix, that’s Flash Count Diary, by Darcey Steinke, and there is a link in the show notes for that. You will also find links for The Pedestrians; for SoundMachine, both the book and the audio project; for Commonplace; and for Rachel’s book MOTHERs. Do be sure to check out any or all of those.
And that is our show. If you enjoyed today’s episode and you want to tell me about it, or if you have a question you’d like to ask, or if you just want to tell me what you had for breakfast today, you can find me and the show on Twitter and Instagram at @ChannelOpenPod, on Facebook at facebook.com/keepthechannelopen, and you can get me via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you’d like to do something extra nice, you could leave a review on Apple Podcasts, and if you’d really like to knock my socks off you could make a monthly pledge to our Patreon campaign, which you can find at patreon.com/sakeriver—that’s sake like the drink and river like river. Our theme music is by Podington Bear, you can find more of his music available for licensing at soundofpicture.com. We’ll be back on August 28th with a conversation with photographer Robert Calafiore, so do be sure to come back for that one. And until then, remember: keep the channel open.