my love letter to “the poetics of wrongness”

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If you’d like to skip my intro of The Poetics of Wrongness1 by Rachel Zucker (published by and available from Wave Books) and go straight to my response to specific essays or other resources, here are the jump links –>

Clearing My Throat

In recent weeks, I’ve considered — and rejected — a bazillion approaches to this “review.” I mention it because it mirrors the kind of configuring/re-configuring, imagining/re-imagining, building-something-only-to-burn-it-at-least-partially-down that Zucker does throughout The Poetics of Wrongness (TPOW). In my case, this spinning is most likely overactive self-doubt and self-consciousness paired with a deep desire to get it right — sensibilities which are also present in TPOW.

When I write about books here at the blog, I purposefully call them Reading Notes because they’re not book reviews in the traditional sense. They’re informal and personal, and I write them not as literary criticism but as opportunities to celebrate work I love.

Still, I sometimes sweat it out. This is one of those times. What if I fail to capture what’s so important about the book? What if what I write is too personal and so not of interest to anyone else? What if I overthink it then somehow end up not being thoughtful enough? And what if it goes on too long?

(Spoiler alert: It’s going to go on too long.)

One of the things I fretted about was whether or not it’s okay to call this post a “love letter” to the book. Certainly it’s not a love letter exactly. Maybe it’s a love letter inexactly?2 In practical terms, it’s not even a letter, so why did I stick with the term? TPOW makes me feel seen, and I feel lots of gratitude to Zucker for pushing through her own objections and discomforts to give us this book. In parallel, I’ve been thinking about the idea of fan mail for poets — writing to them (privately? publicly?) to tell them, “I love this book. Your work is important. Thank you.” Why not start here? Why not start now?

Introduction, or Why The Poetics of Wrongness Matters

As a self-professed process nerd who believes in being a good literary citizen, this book is right up my alley. TPOW challenges existing spoken and unspoken rules of poetry. It asks us to think hard about what poems can be, why they matter, ways they may cause harm and why it can be so difficult (sometimes impossible) for mothers to also be writers.

TPOW, published earlier this year, is made up of four sections of newly edited texts originally delivered as lectures as part of the Bagley Wright Lecture Series (2016). Publisher Wave Books calls it Zucker’s “first book of critical non-fiction” and refers to its sections as “lecture-essays of protest and reckoning.” It says the poetics of wrongness itself — the list of anti-tenets Zucker offers as a new poetics — offers a “way of reading, writing and living that might create openness, connection, humility and engagement.”

Wave notes that the book is in conversation with writers and artists like Sharon Olds, Bernadette Mayer, Emily Dickinson, Adrienne Rich, Alice Notley, Natalie Diaz, Allen Ginsberg, Marina Abramović and Audre Lorde and concerned with “dismantling outdated paradigms of motherhood, aesthetics, feminism, poetics and politics.”

I’ve been so excited to read TPOW for all those reasons… and a bunch of my own.

Earlier on this blog, I gave a shout-out to the pedestrians, a poetry collection by Zucker that helped me find clarity in what I was going through at the time. And, based solely on hearing her talk about her poems and other projects on Commonplace and in interviews, I feel a kinship with her. We share a connection with the state of Maine and struggle with depression. We both have fraught relationships with now deceased mothers. We both have three sons, have gone through divorce and have been brutally honest about the conflicts between motherhood/marriage and making art.

This is the first book I’ve published since my divorce. The process of writing this book and revising it and giving the lectures and talking about them and being with a live audience made my marriage and my domestic life even more unbearable. I struggled so hard to make these forms (like marriage and cis straight white motherhood) fit me, you know, to be lady Allen Ginsburg out in the world yelling, while I also had healthy snacks for my kids’ soccer team.

Zucker in an interview in Bomb

Zucker’s writing has helped me feel seen for years, but my interest in TPOW isn’t just personal. This book matters to you, too. It matters to all of us. Here’s why:

THIS BOOK IS INCREDIBLY BAD ASS — This book strips off the itchy robe of what’s presumed to make poems successful (“Oh, teacher, I say you are wrong,” p. 8) and streaks through the halls of academia and publishing. It jumps over gates. It walks on the grass. It picks locks. This book encourages a build-our-own poetics. This book is a middle finger to the tools of the patriarchy embedded in so many of the “rules.” It disturbs the universe that makes oppressors comfortable and offers renewed, modern senses for beauty and time.

A CONVERSATION ABOUT PERMISSION — All ye gatekeepers who enter here, abandon hope. Zucker writes, “I am not advocating any one kind of poetry. I want neither a prohibition of lived experience nor a tyranny of lived experience. I want poetry to lead us into less binary ways of thinking and living and writing and reading. I want a poetry that is catholic only in its lowercase sense: diverse, inclusive and all-embracing” (81).

IN WHICH THE POET FINDS HER OWN WAY — Plenty of people (most of them who don’t have your best interests in mind) are willing to tell you how you’re supposed to do poetry and why what you’ve attempted really isn’t that good. Zucker seems to anticipate that her arguments for a new poetics will be met with this same kind of judgment, and instead of cowering from it, she digs in.

FREEDOM AND AGENCY — Seeing Zucker dig in helps me understand that I can create my own poetics, too. I feel so much freedom and relief in what she says and how she says it. There’s an endearing amount of clumsiness (i.e. humanity) in this book, and I say that in admiration of how Zucker puts it out there. I consider my own awkwardness part of my aesthetic. When I’m at my best (translation: when I’m not judging myself for it), I’d even say it’s a super power. This book makes space for something besides grace.

IT’S PERSONAL AND VULNERABLE — I love that scholarly writing can be imbued with the personal, including what’s at stake for those who haven’t traditionally been given a seat at the proverbial table.

IMPORTANT QUESTIONS — Big questions can twist us up in knots, and those are the types of questions TPOW tackles. This includes something Zucker seems to be asking of the book itself: Can you write “literary criticism” without insisting you’re the one who knows? that you’re the one who’s right?

I write to talk back (sometimes to myself), not to tell you what I think but to figure out what I think, which is always a process of proving myself and others wrong. It is the job of poems to undermine, to refute, retort, re-see, disrupt. To tell you nicely or aggressively that you’re wrong, that the world is fucked up, that all our modes of understanding and expressing are suspect, that there is nothing and no one above reproach or scrutiny.

Rachel Zucker, The Poetics of Wrongness, p. 5

The Poetics of Wrongness, An Apologia

In the book’s first section, Zucker rejects some of the most commonly held beliefs about what makes poems “good” or successful. These rules have been used to say which poems and poets don’t belong, and I’m in love with the idea of dismissing them, in love with the arguments Zucker uses to show them the door and in love with what may be possible in their place.

To help you also fall in love with the possibilities of a new poetics, here are quotes from each tenet (what’s commonly “acceptable”) /anti-tenet (what we might consider instead):

POETRY SHOULD BE BEAUTIFUL / “The pursuit of beauty is … inextricably bound up with the history of human cruelty” (9). … “The poetics of wrongness admires poems that enlarge and/or subvert the definition of beauty or attempt to redeem beauty by redefining it — poems about people and bodies and things that have traditionally fallen outside the frame the beauty-makers or beauty-proclaimers make” (10).

POETRY SHOULD BE SLANT / Objecting to the meaning most commonly ascribed to Emily Dickinson’s “Tell all the truth but tell it slant,” Zucker says, “She was wrong. Actually, the people who interpreted her directive to mean that poets should intentionally try to make the truth more obscure than it is — they are wrong” (17). … “The poetics of wrongness does not abide the glorification of slantness if it leads to commandments about how one should ‘tell all the truth’ or to a mandate of abstraction” (22). … “The poetics of wrongness rejects slant = obscurity but reveres slant = positionality. The poetics of wrongness celebrates slantness as a subversive/survivalist tool used by Dickinson and many other poets, especially poets who are not cishet white men” (22).

POETRY SHOULD BE SHORT / “A poem should be as long as it needs to be” (22). … “The poetics of wrongness prefers … exhaustive exhaustedness” (27). … “The poetics of wrongness wants poems that are expansive, inclusive, contradictory, self-conscious, ashamed, irreverent. It’s hard to be those things in 100 words or less” (28).

POETRY SHOULD BE TIMELESS / “The poetics of wrongness wants a poetry that is conscious of time (time-full), that is of a particular time (timely) and that is relevant (timely). Some poems will last and continue to be relevant, but the poetics of wrongness wants a poem that will not last forever because it is fresh, alive, unstable, potentially (hopefully) useful at a now moment even if sometimes the poem is on its deathbed. … The poetics of wrongness wants poems with a shelf life, made with living ingredients” (31).

POETRY SHOULD BE UNIVERSAL / “Insisting poets write about common experiences that ‘everyone’ can relate to but expecting them to write only about male, white, heterosexual, cis, ‘normative’ experiences that according to straight cis white men are ‘universal’ is a weaponized scam of white supremacy, settler colonialism and the cishet patriarchy. … The poetics of wrongness prefers, instead, to write out of and about difference, to write from the peculiar, personal, specific parts of our brains, bodies and souls that are broken, disrupted and atypical” (34).

What We Talk About When We Talk About the Confessional and What We Should Be Talking About

I love conversations about confessional poetry, and this is among the most engaging and interesting I’ve read. This essay spends time with the typical cast of characters — Robert Lowell, John Barryman, W.D. Snodgrass, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton — while not only talking about gender but also race. She writes:

[Confessional] became an epithet critics leveled against poets and poems as a sexist (and later racist and heterocentrist) gatekeeping strategy (42). … Who decides what one can or should write about? Who gets to write from the ‘I’? Who has the right to speak? … The question of who gets to say what and in what way is central” (75-76).

… To be against the confessional is to be against writing about women and women’s bodies, people of color and the bodies of people of color, queerness, trans bodies, differently abled bodies, individuality, oppression, perversity, diversity, class, the domestic, the non-normative, the personal, the political, the specific, the urgent, the spiritual, the banal, the direct, the relational, the screamed, the whispered. To be against the confessional is to be against coming out, against emphatically bringing the unwanted and repressed and hated and oppressed into the public view, into the poem” (81).

Rachel Zucker

Zucker also addresses an often overlooked element of the confessional: “To call the stylistically diverse poetry in which women speak truth to power despite enormous pressure ‘confessional’ is to ignore the important fact that [these] poets [are] not confessing. Confession is the wrong word. These poets [are] not saying, ‘Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,’ and they [are] not asking for forgiveness” (71).

(By the way, don’t skip the writings/notes at the end of TPOW. One of the pieces features a satirical “Short Quiz to Determine Whether or Not You Are a Confessional Poet,” and it’s delightful!)

A Very Large Charge: The Ethics of “Say Everything” Poetry

In this section, Zucker asks us to consider the ethics of “using other people’s lives as creative fodder” (83). She writes, “My mother’s death sparked a traumatic crisis around the question of how my writing might have harmed others, but these questions were there for me long before … While the answer might vary from writer to writer, I can’t imagine not asking myself: Are there things I should not or would not say? … If there should be guidelines, what should they be” (99)?

I’ve considered this in my own writing, and I’ve made some mistakes. I cringe at how I aired tension between my now-ex and me by reading a poem about it at an open mic… with him in the audience. I was comfortable being honest publicly (i.e. in my writing) about where we were; he wasn’t. And I hadn’t bothered to ask. And while I’ve made it a point to not name my kids in my poems, they’d likely recognize themselves, and people who know us could identify them, for sure. I haven’t bothered to ask if this is okay, either.

I’ve never asked permission. I’ve never even considered asking permission. Should I establish a set of guidelines for myself? Here’s what Zucker decides:

In order to write ethically, I need to think … about the ‘charge’ to myself and to others of re-presenting the world, especially when re-rendering harm and when exposing the personal narratives of myself and others. I need to acknowledge that everything I write is on the spectrum of song and betrayal. … Like many poets today, I am searching for poetry that goes deep, that is disruptive, provocative, offensive, disturbing, high-risk, complex, personal, political and capable of helping to dismantle oppressive systems, but I also want a poetry that does not harm, reenact violence or engage in cultural strip-mining. There is no easy solution or formula to the problem of how to write courageously about self and others without harming self and others (111).

Rachel Zucker

Why She Could Not Write a Lecture on the Poetics of Motherhood

In this essay, although it is itself a written thing, writing occupies a kind of negative space. In this essay, we know writing by its absence, and we know it by the way the speaker frets and chases instead of writing. And in this essay, we get a third person POV for the only time in the book.

I understand Zucker’s need for distance here and not just emotionally. The subject itself necessitates a kind of distance. Despite a brief period of gestation, motherhood is a disembodying experience — quite literally, in the way a body actually leaves our bodies *and* the the way it makes our bodies strange to us. But it’s also disembodying metaphorically; motherhood, for example, causes me to other my self. Or it causes me to other motherhood. It feels impossible to embody both the self-self (i.e. the writer-self) and the mother-self at the same time.

Zucker’s poetics of motherhood essay exquisitely captures this tension. As a long list of tasks and thoughts that prevent her from writing both logistically (the physical and emotional labor of care taking) and spiritually (fear, anger, doubt, etc.), this essay illustrates a dichotomy. We feel as though we’ll die if we don’t write and we’ll die if we don’t. It embodies dilemma.

We follow Zucker’s journey of writing and not-writing the lecture. She makes lists. She triages the needs of her children, her family, her students. She is in various stages of crying and trying not to cry. She wrestles with the practical (finding only moldy jam for her PBJ) and the intellectual (scholarly fault lines in the imagined lecture, the troubles with workshop models, etc.). She triages. She wonders if she should push through or quit. She tends grief. She argues with the husband. Wonders again if she should push through or quit. She takes ruined trips and attends her boys’ sporting events. She disappoints others. She disappoints herself. She triages. She skips lunch. She flashes back to 9-11 and forward to a world where she hopes we’ll have our first woman/mother president. She tangles with the way “having enough time” is knotted up with privilege. She triages and wants to talk about anything other than motherhood. Wonders again if she should push through or quit. She reads to her son, listens to podcasts, cries with others about election results. She finds old scraps of paper and makes new lists. She considers mistakes and miscalculations and sleeps in a separate room from her husband.

Like all writers, she also struggles with how to say what she’s trying say. For example, on Between the Covers, Zucker describes the experience of trying to talk about the poetics of motherhood:

I don’t want to essentialize gender, I don’t want to essentialize motherhood. I don’t believe that I’m talking only about an experience women have. I don’t believe I’m talking about experience only biological mothers have. Not all mothers have this and some fathers have this and some parents have this and some people who have never been parents. … You certainly don’t have to be a mother to be in the position of caretaking, of having a radical responsibility for someone else.

… Motherhood really precludes, in certain ways, a room of your own, it doesn’t mean you can’t find one, it doesn’t mean you can’t go in there for a certain period of time, but in my experience as a mother, and I don’t know if I would have been this way if I had not had children, there is no room of my own. Even if I’m in a room in a faraway city, nobody is bothering me, it’s never true that no one knows where I am but imagine that sci-fi world in which I went away and no one knew where I was for a period of time, my kids are still in the room with me.

Zucker in Between the Covers

Of course, since we have the essay, we know she pushes through. (Isn’t that what we do?) And through the fog and amid the chaos, she seems to arrive at a definition for the poetics of motherhood: “The poetics of motherhood … is the song of being born, of caring for another above oneself, of needing help, of a lost goddess, of the long, long night of love and pain” (156).

In addition, she offers several important details about this kind of poetics:

  • Reflecting on work by Mayer (Midwinter Day), Ostriker (The Mother/Child Papers) and Derricotte (Natural Birth), Zucker writes, “She was thinking about the ways in which these works were long and messy and relational and exceedingly interrupted and interruptible. … She was thinking about how these works often included lists and questions and domestic details, sometimes fascinating, sometimes boring, like what people ate, what the children were doing, what the children were saying. She was thinking about the ways in which these works subverted patriarchal ideals of what poems and art should be — concise, condensed, linear, rhetorical, lyrical. These poems were durational, cyclical or phasic and radically inclusive” (119-120).
  • “Nothing could compare to the feeling of ambivalence and rage she felt when torn between her mothering and her art, and this was her poetics of motherhood, and she wanted to write about it” (133-134).
  • “She was staying up until two or three in the morning writing or actively trying to write the lecture and having to get up at six to make breakfast. Her goal was to be kind to the children and to the husband before they left for school. She was failing. She was tired and angry, and the election was a week away” (149).

That’s a lot, right? And isn’t it glorious?!

Bottom line — these experiences and questions matter. They are, in fact, vital. I’m grateful for the way Zucker tends to them, for the energy and care she invests in this book and for the way it tries to make space for something new.

We’re so lucky to be living in this moment with writers like Zucker as companions.

What Others Say and Where You Can Learn More

Here’s what a few others have written about The Poetics of Wrongness:

  • from MPR News’ Ask a Bookseller: “Zucker engages with the idea of wrongness in a number of ways, from the practical — the ways her teenage children correct her — to the societal. She explores the work of other poets who are pushing the bounds with their work, despite the risk of being told they’re doing it wrong. She delves into the work of Sharon Olds, Bernadette Mayer, Emily Dickinson, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde and others. In the process, she challenges outdated paradigms of motherhood, feminism and poetics.”
  • from Poetry Foundation: “a book that has the energy of a manifesto.”
  • from Vika Mujumdar’s “Seeking Joy in Wrongness” in ANMLY: “The Poetics of Wrongness is an incredibly generous, moving text. It is one of those rare texts that gives you permission to be honest, to be generous with the self, to move and be moved, to be. It is a precise text, a text that knows exactly the work it aspires to do. Zucker’s lectures are kind and compassionate and wholeheartedly love literature. … [It] is contagious in its love of literature, its devotion to literature despite everything — it is devoted to literature as the space, perhaps the only space, where one can be one’s full self. The Poetics of Wrongness will give you permission for whatever you are seeking.”
  • from BOMB: A “fearless collection” … “[not] theory for theory’s sake but rather emerges always from a way of being, from life itself.”

And finally, in her own words! Here are some places Rachel Zucker talks about The Poetics of Wrongness:

1 I received a complementary review copy of this book from Rachel Zucker and her team — none of which made any requests or inquiries about the content of this review. In other words, all ramblings/responses are my own!

2 This is a reference to Marvin Bell’s “To Dorothy“.

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