Lit Chat: Meet Rachel Moritz
Rachel Moritz’s firstbook, Borrowed Wave (Kore Press), was a finalist for the 2015 Minnesota Book Award in Poetry. Her second collection, Sweet Velocity, was published by Lost Roads Press in 2017. She received an MFA in Poetry from the University of Minnesota and teaches regularly with Alzheimer’s Poetry Project Minnesota, the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop, and the Artful Aging and Creative Classroom programs at COMPAS. Rachel lives in Minneapolis.
Sun Yung Shin: Rachel, you have been writing for most of your life. You’ve lived in different places in your life: Singapore, Boston, Pennsylvania, and the Twin Cities. Do you have a sense of how these places influence your poetry, either visibly or invisibly? Does a sense of belonging figure into any of these influences? (I’m thinking of Roberto Bedoya’s ideas on place.)
Rachel Moritz: I love this question of visible and invisible place. Because I moved frequently as a kid and lived outside the US, belonging (and not belonging) held a lot of power for me as a younger person. It resulted in my perpetual tendency to feel like an outsider. In my first book, I was interested in exploring lost place as an element sort of radiating beneath the surface: what’s missing, what’s not here, but somewhere else. This proved a fertile lens for exploring queerness, too, as a kind of formal landscape. In terms of belonging right now, I’m not thinking about my own life so much as the generations before me, and how whiteness shaped my family’s experience. This seems like the question to be asking in the age of Trump. What does belonging mean and who’s defining it? I’m definitely trying to excavate some ghost history and think through these questions on the page. Ancestral energy feels big right now—our collective hauntings as a society.
SYS: You have been working as, among other things, a teaching artist with patients with Alzheimer’s, and in memory-care units. You have a beautiful essay you’re working on in this territory. Has working with these students changed the way you think about how time, memory, or lifespan works in your own writing or writing practice? Or has it mainly been a human experience that isn’t so much about “being a writer”?
RM: It’s moving to see how poetry helps people connect to themselves. Language gives us access to selfhood, right? And to lose language means you’re losing parts of yourself. In a memory care setting, we recite poems out loud and orally “write” a group poem. Stories and memories may appear, but we’re mostly engaging in the present moment. Poems are like prayers—magical spells that connect our bodies to the universe. They exist in the present, and we experience them like music. For myself, I’m probably more aware that each stage of life is like its own geography, a place we’re surprised to find ourselves. We need language in all the places, illuminating all the experiences. If I ever doubt my own writing practice, or think I should give it up, it’s helpful to just come back to this.
SYS: You and I are both introverted, somewhat obsessive people in terms of our sometimes arcane/eccentric/morbid poetry and subject matter interests, is that fair to say? What are you interested in lately? What fun or weird things are you reading? What books are on your shelf that you haven’t gotten to yet? Prose writers?
RM: A few poetry books I read recently and adored: Aracelis Girmay’s Black Maria, Lauren Haldeman’s Instead of Dying, and Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude. All so good. I’ve been exploring books of prose that merge the past and present in fascinating ways. For example, a gorgeous memoir about the Latvian experience after WWII, Among the Living and the Dead, by Inara Verzemnieks, which was recommended by a friend. I’m also making my way through the wonderful Coffee House Press book, How We Speak To One Another: An Essay Daily Reader. Highly recommend.
SYS: Can you talk about your prose projects and what you’re exploring, learning, and trying to accomplish? How does being a long-time poet seem to help or hinder your prose work?
RM: I began writing prose for an anthology I’m co-editing on Caesarean birth; an essay for that project spurred more. In some sense, this work has been about capturing stories that need the connective tissue of the sentence and paragraph instead of the poetic line. I’m interested in writing about the past (the 1870s, for one familial story) as part of this question of what we owe the dead, or what the dead owe the living. I love writer Sadiya Hartman’s idea that history is “a secular fascination with the dead.” One challenge (beyond the time that prose demands) is that I’m drawn to the ephemeral. With poetry, so much is about what we can’t articulate or the gaps inside articulation. Lyrical prose chases the same thing, but you have to know when to expand and stay with an idea for a while. I’m learning about enactment in prose, how to flesh out scene and think on the page in ways that are generative and messy. I definitely head to those poet muscles of image, compression, still-life. Right now, the manuscript I’m developing is landing in hybrid territory—more like a series of lyric essays/prose poems.
SYS: What do you think the literary “world” could be doing better to dismantle various hierarchies and forms of oppression? Any thoughts or dreams or witnesses of things you or others are doing that give you hope?
RM: It feels like the literary world is where there’s actual hope! Small press publishing is doing so much to transform our culture. I’m inspired by all the collective endeavors, whether it’s groups of teaching artists coming together or writers sharing creative sustenance. Radical generosity. Honestly, I guess I’ve been thinking about failure a lot. The literary “world” can function like any other capitalist venture with its focus on success, slickness, performances of ease: production, prizes, beauty, popularity, etc. But the flipside of success is always failure, right? Someone else’s failure, usually for structural reasons erased from the frame. On a personal level, I’m trying to de-invest from all notions of success as a writer. I still don’t know what this looks like, exactly, but it’s a work-in-progress.
SYS: You are a Libra. Is that a good sign for a writer, why or why not?
RM: We Librans love to communicate. We’re interested in harmony and balance and justice and beauty. I blame my overuse of the prepositional phrase on my (double) Libran tendency to think in relationship. I will have to ask other Libras if they struggle with the same thing; my theory may not hold up!
SYS: Thank you for sharing some of your life as a poet/writer!
Sun Yung Shin is the author or editor of six books including two books in 2016: Unbearable Splendor (poetry/prose), which won a Minnesota Literary Award, and the best-selling A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota (an anthology of essays). She co-founded the Native Women Artist and Women of Color Artist Collective with filmmaker and writer Xiaolu Wang, as well as Poetry Asylum with poet Su Hwang. She lives in Minneapolis and can be found on Facebook, twitter, sunyungshin.com, and agoodtimeforthetruth.com.