Our “Pew Fellow of the Week” series focuses on the artistic lives of our Pew Fellows: their aspirations, influences, and creative challenges.
Syd Zolf (2018) spoke to us about their works in progress and the “conscious choice” to live and work in Philadelphia. Zolf is the recipient of the Trillium Book Award for Poetry and has been a finalist for two Lambda Literary Awards for Lesbian Poetry and the Vine Award for Literature. Their work explores memory, history, ethics, and the limits of language, with five published books of poetry including Human Resources, Neighbour Procedure, and Janey’s Arcadia. They currently teach at the University of Pennsylvania. Find more about Zolf’s online, print, and interdisciplinary work at sydzolf.com.
What was the first work of art that really mattered to you? Did it influence your approach to your work?
I don’t remember the first work of art that really mattered, probably Goodnight Moon or something like that because it influenced me to get to sleep. But the first work that comes to mind is a poem by M. NourbeSe Philip, “Discourse on the Logic of Language,” that I encountered in the 1990s and still read, teach, and am influenced by today, in its polyvocality and its grappling with language as anguish.
What is your daily art-making routine?
I wish I had a daily art-making routine! I tend to go for long spells not making any art at all, then I make it all in one delirious swoop. I don’t recommend this method to others. But seriously, because my work is so research focused, I spend a long time reading about and around the topics I am interested in; then I spend a long time gestating and working through ideas, before I turn my ideas into something that resembles a poem or something else. So I guess that actually is a daily routine.
Tell us about your current in-progress work, A Language No One Speaks: The Dangerous Perhaps of Monstrous Witness, which entwines your study of philosophy and poetry. What are you hoping to convey to readers in this new work?
A Language No One Speaks is a theoretical book that is also a kind of poem. Each chapter of the book is a word from the last three lines of Paul Celan’s poem “Aschenglorie/Ashglory”: “Niemand / zeugt für den / zeugen”; “No one / bears witness for the / witness” (one possible translation). I theorize No One as a figure of the im/possibility of bearing witness to one another. Instead of the idea that no one can or should bear witness for the witness, a manifold No One im/possibly does. The book is a kind of reckoning and a call to an undercommons social poesis, to risk being monstrous together, not just as an out form of collective becoming, but with monstrosity also meaning a pointing, a showing, a demonstration of something possibly miraculous.
Why do you choose to work and live in Philadelphia? In your experience, what makes this arts scene distinctive?
I made a very conscious choice to work and live in Philadelphia as I moved across a border to come here (I am from Toronto, Canada). I came here for the love of a particular person but have stayed in part because Philly has a very open and friendly arts scene where people come together across different backgrounds and support one another in making the work they need to make. And I think they can do that in part because Philly is a relatively affordable place to live and there are some supports available to help artists (like the Pew Center! or the Leeway Foundation, etc.).
Whose opinion about your work do you respect most?
There are certain friends and mentors whose opinions I have benefited greatly from, but the longer I make work the more I realize that it is my opinion about my work that matters the most to the work being what it needs to be.
Which books are on your bedside table?
Right now on my table are I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem, by Maryse Condé, Whereas, by Layli Long Soldier, and These Truths: A History of the United States, by Jill Lepore. I am reading these and many other books as part of my research for a new book of poetry, tentatively titled We Refugees, that examines the racial formations and attendant ongoing traumas of this part of Turtle Island where I am a guest.
In reflecting back to the beginning of your career, what is the most useful advice you ever received?
Probably the most useful advice I received was to apply for arts grants. Receiving that kind of material support has been invaluable to the development of my practice. To apply and keep applying and not take it personally if you don’t get the grant; to see the process as arbitrary but to have enough faith in your own work to keep going.