Disorder and Response-Ability :: A conversation with “The American Policy Player’s Guide and Dream Book” creator, Rachel Zolf

Celebrating the first release of our inaugural digital chapbook series, available now!


Drumroll please!
We are so thrilled to officially announce and welcome you to download, experience, and thoroughly enjoy the first title in our inaugural digital chapbook series, The American Policy Player’s Guide and Dream Book by Rachel Zolf. Below, you’ll find a conversation between Zolf and our founder Elæ, about this book and the creative process behind it.

Greetings comrade! Thank you for talking to us about your process today! Can you introduce yourself, in a way that you would choose?

I am a Sagittarius sun, Libra moon and Virgo rising.

Why are you a poet/writer/artist?

I write to survive.

When did you decide you were a poet/writer/artist (and/or: do you feel comfortable calling yourself a poet/writer/artist, what other titles or affiliations do you prefer/feel are more accurate)?

Decision means to cut off some choice or course of action, not sure I decided. I started writing creatively when I couldn’t write anything at all — letters, postcards, college essays. Dropped out and did things in and with the world, community. Then I could write.

What’s a “poet” (or “writer” or “artist”) anyway? What do you see as your cultural and social role (in the literary / artistic / creative community and beyond)?

I dunno what a poet is or isn’t, or my role (sorry). But here’s something I wrote in a grant app:

At the center of my work is a preoccupation with responsibility and response-ability, how we are born into relation and the potential to bear witness to one another. This claim to ethical and political sociality is reflected in the forms, voices, and risks of my work.

For over twenty years my artistic practice has investigated questions of memory, history, ethics, and politics: Whose lives matter? Whose bodies are deemed grievable and whose are not? What oppressive histories am I complicit with? How can language reimagine this wounding and wounded world? What are the limits of my language? When can those limits become thresholds to new possibilities of space, time, and sociality?

Talk about the process or instinct to move these poems (or your work in general) as independent entities into a body of work. How and why did this happen? Have you had this intention for a while? What encouraged and/or confounded this (or a book, in general) coming together? Was it a struggle?

I am interested in, as Saidiya Hartman writes, “disordering and transgressing the protocols of the archive and the authority of its statements.” I am not sure what American Policy is. Is it a card game? Is it a joke? Regardless, the American domestic and foreign policy game’s unconscious is richly disturbing, and this archival document demonstrates that. But I am not interested in just representing “found” material. I make subtle changes to the document, such as censoring certain offensive language, putting certain other language under erasure, or inserting comments in places, mine a few subtle times, and in one place, Christine Blasey Ford’s.

Have certain readings/writings/work of other creative people informed the way you work/write?

M. NourbeSe Philip’s work has always been important to me. And Gail Scott’s, Kathy Acker’s, Paul Celan’s. In the past few years, I have been challenged in really productive ways by the work of black theorists such as Hartman, Fred Moten, Hortense Spillers, Denise Ferreira Da Silva, Alex Weheliye, Jared Sexton, Sylvia Wynter, and Frank Wilderson III.

What does this particular work represent to you as indicative of your method/creative practice? your history? your mission/intentions/hopes/plans?

I intervene less in this document than I have in the past with historical documents I have worked with to make poems. This document is weird enough on its own. I mean, is the latent content of the dream the opposite of the manifest content? This document is inconsistent, which I like.

What does this book DO (as much as what it says or contains)?

From the grant app again:

I want to make art do something. Different art forms can mobilize affective or feeling responses in readers, viewers, and listeners, whether that response be anger, shame, delight, disgust, or many other affects. Although I’m not claiming that art in and of itself can foster deep structural change, I believe that the experience of art can shift consciousness and response-ability, especially in relation to profound disavowals of collective responsibility for such ongoing disasters as settler-colonialism and the afterlives of plantation slavery. Art can sneak up on you and change the way you think, feel, and respond.

What would be the best possible outcome for this book? What might it do in the world, and how will its presence as an object facilitate your creative role in your community and beyond? What are your hopes for this book, and for your practice?

I dunno, this is the first poem I’ve written in four years. With my last book, published in 2014, we organized collective actions, we made a film, we made sound performances, all towards the project of waking up settlers to ongoing colonialism in Turtle Island (North America). All towards abolishing whiteness. But I’m not sure these actions did much at all. So I stopped writing poetry and started developing community writing projects here in Philly with trans youth and people in prison and youth in schools. This is my first foray back into poetry. As my friend Bob Majzels says, in the end writing is just consolation.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rachel Zolf is a cross-border transplant from Toronto to Philadelphia whose thinking and artistic practice explores questions about history, knowledge, subjectivity, responsibility, and the limits of language, meaning, and the human. Their writing and other artwork queerly enacts how ethics founders on the shoals of the political, imagining other possibilities of sociality, space, and time.

Zolf’s five full-length books of poetry include Janey’s Arcadia, Neighbour Procedure, and Human Resources, all from Coach House Books, and a Selected Poetry is forthcoming from Wilfrid Laurier University Press. They have published six chapbooks, with poetry and essays widely published in journals and anthologies, and poems translated into French, Spanish, and Portuguese. Zolf has been awarded a Pew Fellowship in the Arts and has won a Trillium Book Award for Poetry. They have also been a finalist for several other prizes, including two Lambda Literary Awards, the Raymond Souster Memorial Award, and a Vine Award for Literature. Art videos Zolf has written and/or directed have screened at such venues as the International Film Festival Rotterdam, White Cube Bermondsey, and the Wexner Center for the Arts. They have received over thirty poetry, video, nonfiction, and academic research grants from institutions including the Leeway Foundation, the Canada Council for the Arts, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. Zolf’s work has received extensive critical and scholarly attention and is regularly taught in university courses in Canada, the U.S., and the U.K. They hold an MFA from The New School, where Zolf conducted the first collaborative MFA in Creative Writing ever (The Tolerance Project), and a PhD in Philosophy, Art and Social Thought from the European Graduate School, where they worked with Judith Butler and Fred Moten. Zolf’s current book in progress is a theoretical text entitled “A Language No One Speaks: The Dangerous Perhaps of Monstrous Witness.” Their literary papers are housed at York University Archives and Simon Fraser University Special Collections.

Zolf teaches at the University of Pennsylvania and facilitates community projects that harness the power of writing for personal and social change. You can find out more about their work at rachelzolf.com.


Cover art by Heidi Rezsies from the series Collected Objects & the Dead Birds I Did Not Carry Home, mixed media collages with encaustic on 8 x 8 wood panel, 2018. More about the cover art and artist, here.