Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Great Canadian Writer's Craft Interview: Rachel Zolf

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Rachel Zolf

This spring, Toronto high-school students from two Writer's Craft classes conducted interviews with some of Canada's finest poets. The interviews will be posted on The Great Canadian Writer's Craft page on Open Book in June and July 2011.

Sam Agro:

Masque was published in 2004. In six years, you’ve had three more books published, and while they all possess a similar power, each has a very different feel from the others. What drives you to make those leaps between each book? Do you ever feel less attached to your previous works as you create new ones?

Rachel Zolf:

I am driven by the desire to create the form that fits the content for each work. By form I’m including tone, affect, rhetorical devices, level of disjunction, etc., as well as structure and shape. So, Masque looked and felt like an exploded book in the form of a play, because it was dealing with the implosion of the nuclear family drama. Neighbour Procedure was composed almost exclusively from assembled documents and scraps of gleaned knowledge, because I wouldn’t dare profess to speak in the “I” making claims on the crisis in Palestine-Israel. I am no expert, even though of course my assemblage has an opinion.

I definitely feel differently towards books once they are out in the world. In many ways, the book object represents the “death” of the inquiry that drove it. But I still always harbour a certain fondness for each of these objects that has slithered out of me, much as it is sometimes difficult to look at them!


When I read Neighbour Procedure, I noticed a great deal of the things inside would have had a much different effect if I had only heard them, as opposed to seeing them, letting my mind process them along with the layout of the poems. On top of that, the other works are unlike others I’ve seen in the past. What inspired you to write in the way you do? If you were unable to organize your pieces the way you want people to see it, would you search for different inspiration until you found a way that you could both have the effect you want and still publish, or write how you want to write, regardless of whether it gets published?


I often compose my books so that there is a different experience on the page than in performance. For example, I read Human Resources as fast as I can in performance in a kind of anxiety-inducing speed-blur, but when the reader opens the book privately, they will likely find it takes time to tease out each poem’s multiple threads. I don’t write with the consciousness of whether or not a certain form or structure I use will be publishable. Maybe I’ve just been lucky so far. I’ve been inspired by the writers I’ve read (some of them in English class at Malvern Collegiate!), the writers I’ve worked with, the writers who are my colleagues — and by other artists who take risks in form and content.


My favorite pieces of your work were in Neighbour Procedure, both “Day 2” and “Day 3.” The way they were set up with the cross dividing it in four was strange to me, but I had a lot of fun with it. I wrote out the word segments on slips of paper and, in no particular order, assembled them. I did this over and over, and was unable to find any way it didn’t seem to just fit together. So I have to ask, what was your original intention with the "L’eveil’" section in general, specifically those two parts? And while I’m asking about it, I noticed there was no “Day 1.” What was the purpose of that?


That sounds like a fun exercise you came up with to play with that poem! Interesting that each assemblage fits together somehow, isn’t it?

There is a note in the “Afterthought” section of the book about the impetus behind “L’éveil,” so I won’t go into much detail here, but the poem is composed from newspaper articles on Israel’s 2006 invasion of Lebanon, and it was reading coverage of that war that drove me to start research for Neighbour Procedure. “L’éveil” means awakening, here my awakening to my own denial and disavowal. There is no "Day 1" because the poem (and, incidentally, the book) starts in the middle of things — and ends long before these “wars” that never seem to end.


While I was reading Human Resources, a lot of the work really had me re-reading it over and over. It seemed very straightforward, professional even, when skimmed, but once I actually read it, it seemed very chaotic, mind-boggling, especially on page 16. This is the one that slapped me right across the face from the beginning, opening with “Early in the new millennium (G18) hello (Q18) of vagina america bitch cat..” It seems like writing this, the entire book, would have been:

a) very fun
b) tiring and stressful

What was the primary emotion you experienced throughout writing Human Resources?


I was pretty stressed out trying to find time to write that book while writing all that plain language crap for money! I actually wrote most of the book in two intense patches dogsitting for friends in New York. I was also scared of being sued by one particular corporate client whose emails I had butchered, but she ended up loving the book, phew! And I (think I) am glad you found the book “professional” and “mind-boggling” at the same time — that’s very funny!


All of the books you’ve written are brilliant, but I’m curious of one thing. Was there ever a point in your life you just decided, “Hey, I’m going to be a poet.”? If not, what exactly made you want to become one? What was your drive to write poetry?


It took me a long time to call myself a writer, and it’s really only been in the past several years that I’ve taken my task seriously. It’s difficult to describe the drive for encounter in and through language, but I feel continually privileged to find myself driven and fallen, picked up, plucked, driven and fallen.


You’ve covered a lot of topics and emotions in your completed work, but what are you working on now, or planning to do in the future, if anything? Do you think that there will ever come a time where you will not want to write?


I’ve started research on a book looking at “contact zones” between immigration and colonization on Turtle Island (yep, that’s North America). I’m also working on essays reexamining the poetics of witness. I don’t think there will come a time when I won’t want to write, nope.

Rachel Zolf’s poetic practice explores interrelated materialist questions concerning memory, history, knowledge, subjectivity and the conceptual limits of language and meaning. She is particularly interested in how ethics founders on the shoals of the political. Her fourth full-length book, Neighbour Procedure, was released by Coach House Books in 2010. Previous collections include Human Resources (Coach House Books), which won the 2008 Trillium Book Award for Poetry, Masque (The Mercury Press), Shoot & Weep (Nomados), from Human Resources (Belladonna books) and Her absence, this wanderer (BuschekBooks).

Zolf’s poetry and essays have been widely published and translated into French, Spanish, Portuguese and video art form. She was the founding poetry editor of The Walrus magazine and has edited several books of poetry. She has been awarded a Chalmers Arts Fellowship and a New School Teaching Fellowship, as well as multiple poetry, non-fiction and video grants. Zolf has collaborated with other artists on experimental film/video and performance projects as well as what could be the first collaborative MFA in Creative Writing ever, The Tolerance Project. Born in Toronto, Zolf is presently living in Brooklyn and teaching at The New School. Her literary papers are housed at York University archives.

Sam Agro is from Toronto. Adopted from birth, his upraising has been different than that of most adopted children, as he is friends with his birthparents. The musically inclined one of his family, Sam prefers writing music to essays, and has motivation issues for things he finds uninteresting. He plans to write more in the future, most likely nothing but fiction. He will continue to play music until the day he dies, regardless of how he lives.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Related item from our archives

The Great Canadian Writer's Craft

Each year, students from Malvern Collegiate Institute's Writer’s Craft class interview Canadian poets as part of a class project. The students study Canadian poetry under the collaborative tutelage of teacher John Ouzas and poet a.rawlings. We are delighted to feature the interviews on Open Book.

Go to The Great Canadian Writer's Craft’s Author Page