Poet Rachel Abramowitz on How She Created “The Birthday of the Dead” [INTERVIEW]

We spoke with Rachel Abramowitz, author of the recently released collection of poems, “The Birthday of the Dead” (Conduit Press), about her new book and creative process. Below are excerpts from the full interview, available now on the Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast:

Poet Rachel Abramowitz on How She Created "The Birthday of the Dead" Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast

Rachel is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the University of Oxford. She has been the Editor-in-Chief of the literary magazine Wave Composition, an intern at the Paris Review, a stock analyst (for three months), and has taught English Literature at The University of Iowa, the University of Oxford, and most recently at Barnard College in New York. She is the author of The Birthday of the Dead, the winner of the 2021 Marystina Santiestevan prize from Conduit Press, the chapbooks The Puzzle Monster, winner of the 2021 Tomaz Salamun prize (forthcoming from Factory Hollow Press in 2022), and Gut Lust, the winner of the 2019 Burnside Review prize (Burnside Review Press, 2020). Her poems have appeared in numerous prestigious journals. Rachel is currently based in Brooklyn.

Rachel Abramowitz

James Morehead: “The Birthday of the Dead” is a surreal, dreamy, at times macabre, and thoroughly mesmerizing read. “Anniversary” in particular struck a chord with me, lines like:

"I married the last spoon

in the drawer, the one with a chip

in it from when it got caught

in the disposer and whirred

and whirred the sound that

hell"

Do you start with a surreal image or myth or story, and then try to ground it in something personal, or do you find the surreal in personal experiences?

Rachel Abramowitz: “I would say both. I think that life can be so surreal if you pay enough attention to it. It’s so odd when you step back and think, ‘why are we doing this?’. How did this system get set up and why do people just go along with it?

“I think at a certain point you, if you step back enough, you are able to see how bizarre life really is. So there’s definitely an overlap between life and the surreal. So in that poem, for example, I’m sure people have gotten silverware stuck in the disposer before. It’s such a horrific sound that makes you panic and then you grab out this tool that was meant to be functional, smooth and comfortable, but now it has become monstrous and you can’t use it anymore.

“The spark for this poem was marrying that with the idea of a commitment to a particular kind of life. Often by the end of a poem, I snap out of a bit of a trance and ask ‘what did I just write?’. It feels like I’m following that surrealist energy throughout the poem and then break out of it. Then I ask, ‘was it too strange, too inaccessible, too private?’. Then, I decide whether I need to revise the poem with some kind of familiarity that paradoxically makes things look more surreal or perhaps pump up the surrealism somewhere else. I’m so pleased you chose that poem because it felt like a bit of a departure to take a moment that was so visceral and to really run with the surreality of it.”  

James: Many of the poems in your collection use white space very effectively – the space between phrases, enjambment, indentation. Is visualizing your poetry part of the initial writing process or something you discover during revisions and editing?

Rachel: “My sister is a visual artist and takes up large canvases with her paintings. So interacting with her over the years has encouraged me to use the page more like a canvas. It seems that there might be a glimmer of how to use the page at the beginning of the poem, but maybe halfway through and during revision, I am able to push words around a bit more like paint. I’m not so worried about what they’re saying anymore at that moment because I’ve said all the things that need to be written down and now I can shuffle the material around.

“So, maybe the metaphor is not so much paint, but more of collage that you can actually move its pieces around and see the shapes they make. All poetry, even quote-on-quote poetry without form still has a form. But, I am less good at using traditional form and so my experiments with any kind of individual form to a poem I hope is pointing me towards a kind of formality that I can start to not be so afraid of. So, writing a villanelle or a sestina feels difficult to start out with knowing that you’re going to have to write in that form. Starting with a form is new to me and a bit scary. So, in my next book, I want to challenge myself and will start to experiment with thinking of form beforehand, rather than afterwards.”

James: Your book approaches images of death in different ways. In the prose poem ‘Your Life in Art’ you write: “How easy it is to talk to the dead. I have a standing appointment. We lunch in the old ways, pretending to our great estates. The sea rattles beneath the earth, and we turn our eyes to one another.” and in “Dead-Color” you write:

               I found I had been doing great violence all along the seams of tulips, the

dusky grapes who sang to the bats outside,

               the lemon-sized body of a bird who lobbed herself at the window, and both I

and the painting began to rot like a cantaloupe, that is to say from the inside and with temerity”

How did this theme of death, that flows from the title poem, become so central to this collection?”

Rachel: “I am fascinated by entropy and the ways in which most of our lives are all about combating. We try to maintain so many things, from the physical world to our physical bodies to systems and institutions. Changes are very scary in our culture and death is very foreign to our American way of life. There isn’t a lot of room to investigate decay, death and absence in that way.

“I’m sure some people have a much better relationship with death, but I’ve chosen to write about death because I didn’t grow up with a lot of understanding about it. Death is something that fascinates me and is still mysterious to me. I find everyday that my instinct is to combat death and yet in my writing it is to face it. So, there’s a very strange tension between those two energies.

“In a funny way, it’s a safer space to encounter death and look at it from different perspectives. In the second poem that you quoted, I love those wonderful Dutch still lifes that look so vivid and alive at first glance, but when you look closer, there’s always something rotting. There’s always something reminding you of Memento Mori and death, which I think is very wise. I think the way I was brought up was to avoid any hint of those things and to structure your life so that you I’d only face life because life is wonderful. There is a balance to be struck and a lot to learn from entropy and change and those kinds of cycles. So, ‘The Birthday of the Dead’ involves birth and death at the same time. The idea of a death day that is not currently in our lexicon might be interesting to incorporate even on a linguistic level.”

James: On a recent episode of this podcast I spoke with A.E. Stallings about her wonderful use of received forms. She spoke of how starting with a form removed one of the decisions so she can focus on other elements of the poem. For me the reverse is true – I start with images, raw material, and then find the form that suits the poem. You employ a variety of forms in your book. What is your approach to finding the form that best suits the poem?

Rachel: “I think I’m a bit more in your camp. I think that there’s a period of reading, so just sitting down and starting to write cold, but it has never worked for me. I think I have to get into that space and lower myself into almost an incantation. Reading other poems feels spell-like. I spell myself into this space which does take a couple of attempts of those first couple lines with overcoming that inertia. Once you have those first couple of lines, you might get rid of them. I’m sure you’ve had this feeling of the warm up that’s happening. But then you get into the world of the poem. You’re wandering around a little bit and seeing what’s under this rock, and what’s behind this door, and what kind of creature you are and figuring out who’s in this space. Then you have to leave the space. I’m always a little bit relieved when I finish a poem or run out of steam to be honest. I have not written very long poems as I might be a little afraid of being stuck in this mental place. My guess is the portal is going to close and I better rush out before I’m there forever. Those are the images that come to mind because I’m wandering around that atmosphere.”

James: ‘Lives of New Saints’, with lines such as “I do not complain of my injuries. I would take more, more! / Give me the spear! Give me the mace, the ax, the broadsword, / the Catherine wheel spinning in a lake of fire, so above mortal pain / am I.”, is an example of the diverse influences in the book, pure invention, myths and mythology, and your experiences. How do you approach finding sources of inspiration?”

Rachel: “I always have a couple of books of poems or criticism, or even history next to me. They’re there almost like talismans or something. I have to have them in that space in order to be like, all right, this is poem time. I’ll hear a story that that reminds me of a Greek myth or something. And there’s the fact that I’m an English literature major, so all these things are swirling around in my mind, and I can never escape them. They make connections in your mind because they’re all the same stories — there’s nothing really new. So, you’re going to make those references and inferences.

“Sometimes what’s fun is using Wikipedia to go deeper into a myth. I know maybe one version of the myth or an incomplete version, so it is interesting to go down a bit of a rabbit hole and see how many different versions there are. I’ll click on this name or this creature or this city and get into the history of that space. That is another way to inhabit a mental, emotional, and historical space. It is interesting to see how human behavior and patterns are solidified throughout space and time.

“The story itself is interesting and the way that it has been retold and revised and conceptualized in different times in history. Those thoughts are all swirling around and sometimes I really don’t know where to go in a poem or how to start one. Maybe I’ll take a line from someone else’s poem and use that as a first line, as a launchpad. It serves as a sort of scaffolding to build off of. And then generally, I can either get rid of the line or use it and credit the person. It feels a bit like hunting and gathering. It’s figuring out what to put in and leave out. It feels very physical and feels like exploring an actual landscape.”

James: Do you have a writing routine, a favorite place or time to write, a technique for getting into “flow”?

Rachel: “Those rituals of reading first do very much help with that. I know people who light candles or put on certain music or something like that. I think I’ve tried almost everything to get into that flow and I’ve given up on any routine because life is so unpredictable. I’m working on Zoom thinking about business all day and then I’m able to come back to my real self and write a poem which feels like a relief.

“I went to business school and I had never written more than when I was there. I was in English literature graduate school and poetry graduate school, and I was in it all day and then there was no relief from it. But after having been in statistics class all day, you come home and that’s enough of that brain, let me nurture this other brain. It almost became a ritual: if I get through this decision science class, then I can go home and write a poem. That would create momentum for creativity because it was so quashed during the day. I was so glad to come back to something other than an Excel spreadsheet and write some verse, something that was the antithesis of all the things that I’d have been doing during the day.”

James: “Feedback and critique are so critical to the poetic process. What have you learned both as a poet receiving feedback, and as an instructor giving feedback, that can help listeners be better receivers and givers of feedback? And how do you approach the critical revision and editing process?”

Rachel: “I’ve been so fortunate to have wonderful readers, editors, and people who think and hope like me, that want to succeed artistically. One of my first readers is my sister, and she is one of the most incredible thinkers and aesthetic understanders of art that I have ever met. She will tell me when something’s not working and when she loves something, and I trust her. Finding those people takes a long time.

“I went to Iowa when I was around 22 to 24 and I was much too young and insecure about my work to have that kind of critique. I had wonderful classmates who understood my work and others who never will, which is fine. It’s hard when one is young to discern between which critics understand what you’re trying to do, and want to preserve your voice while helping you evolve to embody your voice more, and which critics just have a different style or some kind of resistance to the poetry. You can sit with those critiques for a little while and see if there’s a nugget that resonates with you and work towards experimenting with that kind of feedback, or you just say thank you, but no thank you.

“You get to choose what things work for you and find your people and readers. It’s one of the most validating beautiful experiences when you have that exchange. I’ve been working with someone as an editor on their first forays into poetry and it has been so rewarding to watch them experiment with my feedback. They take some and leave some, which is exactly what I encourage them to do. I’m not God-like and I’m not going to have all the answers. I have my experience and perspective and if something resonates with this person, then I’d love to see what comes out of it. And if it still doesn’t work, drop it. Detaching from any of those comments is a healthy thing, not only for poetry but generally for life.”

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