A Conversation with Rachel Abramowitz & An Excerpt from The Birthday of the Dead — curated by Kristina Marie Darling

Rachel Abramowitz is the author of The Birthday of the Dead, winner of the 2021 Marystina Santiestevan prize from Conduit Books, the chapbooks The Puzzle Monster, winner of the 2021 Tomaž Šalamun prize (Factory Hollow Press), and Gut Lust, winner of the 2019 Burnside Review prize (Burnside Review Press, 2020).

Kristina Marie Darling:  First of all, congratulations on your first book, The Birthday of the Dead.  It’s a pleasure to feature this bold and gorgeously written excerpt.  Can you tell me a bit about the collection as a whole, its concerns, and its arc?  

Rachel Abramowitz: Thank you for these kind words about the book! The poems in this collection were written over the past 15 years or so, so if there is cohesion or an arc, it appears mostly as matter of ordering (and, I suppose, as might follow the non-linear, majority-subconscious recurrences of artistic anxieties and social shifts). Consciously, at least, I am fascinated by entropy, by the process of continual decay and the efforts to slow it. Many of the poems feature death as a transitional moment, of a beginning (a birthday!) of a new form of existence. I’ve often felt a kind of freedom wandering into that speculative space—the constraints of the living world (rich and varied as it is) fall away, and I can look back at that living world from a shaded distance. 

KMD:  Your poems expertly use the uncanny to evoke powerful emotional truths.  What advice do you have for writers who struggle to balance a sense strangeness and wonder in their work with emotional truths that strike a chord with readers?  

RA: In Grief Lessons: Four Plays by Euripides, Anne Carson writes, “Myths are stories about people who become too big for their lives temporarily, so that they crash into other lives or brush against gods. In crisis their souls are visible.” Strangeness and wonder are universal to all human origin stories, and what is a poem, really, than a retelling of a personal origin story, of a crashing into other lives, of brushing against gods? Any emotional truth a poet investigates, as Carson says, temporarily expands one’s life beyond livable boundaries, and so anything created within that space will naturally strike a balance—even if it is a purposeful imbalance—of strangeness and truth. If a poet is open to artistic—and therefore emotional—crisis, the soul will do that work.

KMD:  Speaking of surprise and wonder, I admire the formal and tonal range of your collection.  How do you negotiate surprising shifts in a book-length work – a sense of wonder on the level of architecture — with cohesion?   

RA: Each individual poem, as I’m sure you have also found, requires and reveals its own internal architecture. Perhaps it’s more akin to a sculptor releasing a form from a block of marble than an architect building from the foundation up—or perhaps these actions happen simultaneously! And maybe subject and inquiry contribute to both cohesion and, when a particular angle on a subject dictates the formal container, variety. I can’t say I’ve quite figured out the answer to your wonderful question, but I like to think that reading the poems in the book might be like wandering around a very old city in which centuries of different architectural styles layer upon one another to create an idiosyncratic cohesion. 

KMD:  You are one of the most impressively educated poets I’ve ever met.  What is the best or most memorable piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?  Why did it stay with you?  

RA: To sort through all the advice you’re given to find what really resonates with you! If we can extend education to Twitter, Sara Benincasa, a comedian I follow (@SaraJBenincasa) tweeted: “I love learning how different artists work. I find it so comforting: ‘Oh, okay, so Mr. Nobel Prize in Literature wrote once a week for five minutes at a time for eighty years, on coke, and Ms. MacArthur Genius Grant wrote every other hour for a full week, in a tub of jam.’” I think this sums up writerly advice (especially when it comes to following someone else’s routine) nicely: try out any given piece of advice at least once; over time, you’ll consciously and subconsciously create your own routine, your own means of entering your mental work space. If it involves jam, great; you can never go wrong with jam. 

KMD:  In addition to your achievements as a poet, you are also a generous literary citizen, reviewing collections of poetry by other writers, as well as editing and curating exciting work.  What has a sense of literary and artistic community made possible in your poetry?  

RA: I love diving into other poets’ work from a reviewer’s, in addition to a reader’s, perspective. I find myself formulating (and reformulating) a thesis about their work from the first page; I love being proven wrong by the next poem and the next, so that the thesis evolves alongside the reading. Applying the same technique to one of my own “finished” manuscripts (insofar as one can be finished) yields similar discoveries—what would I say about this collection as a reviewer? Often answering that question forces a reordering or addition/subtraction of poems, which I can only hope makes the whole thing better. 

KMD:  What are you currently working on?  What else can readers look forward to?

RA: I’m working on a second full-length collection, which is turning out to be rather ekphrastic. British artist and author Brian Catling’s paintings have been major sources of inspiration—I’ve stolen many a title from him. The man can title a painting! Their weirdness has felt so generative so far; they’re like mini poems in themselves.