Moments Like Tiny Razors

Zoë Hitzig’s debut, Mezzanine, explores a late-capitalist purgatory. 
Portrait of Zoe Hitzig.

Zoë Hitzig leads a double life. She’s a PhD candidate in economics at Harvard University, where she has written papers on economists’ roles in redesigning public school allocation algorithms and FCC spectrum auctions. She’s also a poet, whose work has appeared in the New Yorker, the London Review of Books, and Boston Review. Her elegant and offbeat debut, Mezzanine (Ecco, 2020), has just been released, and it seems to reconcile Hitzig’s two halves. The new poems examine affairs philosophical and financial, environmental and historical, concepts “simple to explain but difficult / to understand without explanation,” as Hitzig writes. Widely read and wildly allusive, Hitzig draws on Laurie Anderson, the Bible, Stephen Hawking, Milton Friedman, and more to craft brainy, gamesome poetry that recalls the directions in her poem “Generalized Method of Moments,” which instructs: “Find moments like tiny razors. / Arrange into blades. Harvest them / as a leisure gardener […] impose structure. / Inspect roots.”

These sharp, dart-like poems are nonetheless rife with connections and causal relationships—between organisms and markets, chaos and control, capitalism and humanity—almost too massive for the mind to comprehend. This spring, we corresponded over email about neoliberalism, ecofeminism, and how the architectural feature of the mezzanine evokes a kind of “familiar late-capitalist purgatory.” The following exchange was condensed and edited.

How did you come to study economics and why?

Joan Robinson, a formidable mid-20th century economist, quipped, “The purpose of studying economics is to learn how to avoid being deceived by the economists.” She’s right. But it took me some time to realize that. I was deeply suspicious of economics when I was an undergraduate. I studied mathematics and philosophy. I thought, as many do, that studying economics was only for aspiring business types who want to restructure debt on Wall Street or fix bread prices as a management consultant. It's not! But it’s still strange to me that I’m doing a PhD in economics; some days I feel like Gregor Samsa: “One afternoon, when Zoë was waking up from a stress-nap, she discovered she had been transformed into a monstrous economics PhD student.” Other days are naked-in-the-classroom nightmares: fast-talking economics professors scribbling obscure equations on whiteboards shouting, “You there, yes, you! Maximize this utility function! Find the equilibrium!”

What excites me about economics is its power to expand social and political imagination. So far, the artifacts of economic theory that have been most powerful are the ones that pit the individual against the collective. Think of the Tragedy of the Commons, for example. But economic theory can help us imagine lots of other ways of organizing ourselves, too! In fact, a central message from the field of economics I work in is that individual and collective demands align when the right institutions are in place.

Poetry and economics can intimidate people outside of those fields. Do you have tricks to help make these practices more intelligible to, say, people you meet at parties?

I try not to talk about economics at parties. As for the poetry skeptics we all meet, I think many of them probably had a bad experience with a strict teacher who enforced some narrow notion of what it means to “get” a poem. There’s this idea that a poem needs to be analytically dissected in order to be understood.

My view is that all you have to do to “get” a poem is to show up and be willing to undergo it. If the poem doesn’t do anything to you, then that’s that. Find another one. If it does something to you, you’ll probably want to read it again, and again, and maybe again. Each time you read it, it will do more to you, and maybe you’ll start walking around with fragments or phrases or images turning over in your head as you go about your day. Maybe a fragment will pop into your head years later, when you’re watering your plants or buying a drill bit at the hardware store. Maybe those fragments stick with you because they make you feel something you have felt before, or something you have never felt before. Maybe they make you understand something about your life or nature or politics more fully than you did before you read the poem, or less fully. Maybe the sounds simply delight or surprise you. Or perplex you. I have a pretty pluralistic idea of what it means to “get” a poem.

I have a pluralistic idea of what economics can do, too. And beyond my pluralism, poetry and economic theory have a lot in common. Both activities involve distilling some aspect of reality, into a concise expression that highlights a core human insight, emotion, or predicament. But they’re also opposites. Economics flattens the visceral elements of social experience into cold mathematical and statistical abstractions. Poetry swells experience into expansive, irreducible, and unparaphrasable language.

Do you have concerns about the role of ideology in economics?

Definitely. In fact, much of my work tries to address this issue head-on. Ideology has distorted economics, and as a result, economics has been complicit in extraordinarily harmful decisions. A toxic mix of economics and ideology threw open the door for the brutal reign of neoliberalism. Thomas Piketty’s new book Capital and Ideology is great on this topic­­, though it’s a bit of a slog. I’m most inspired by the economists who are self-aware about the threat of ideology, and who try to protect against the threat by explicitly incorporating concerns about justice, fairness, and democracy into their models, analyses, and policy advocacy. A wide swath of the profession devotes itself to learning about market failures, documenting where the seamless, frictionless fantasy of beneficial market exchange breaks down. I should also say, there’s a whole other part of academic economics that is so abstract and technical it’s more like pure mathematics or metaphysics. It’s not particularly useful, but it’s no more ideological than the Westminster Dog Show or the National Poker League.

Why did WhyWow you title this book Mezzanine?

To me, the mezzanine is a purgatorial space. It’s the floor between floors, it’s in-between, it’s neither down here nor up there. The mezzanine is also ubiquitous in our built environment­­. There’s a mezzanine in every shopping mall, office building, concert hall, opera house, stadium. It’s a familiar late-capitalist purgatory. That’s exactly where I wanted to situate the book. I see the book as transitional—it’s losing sight of a prior world while still in it, an elegy for a way of being we haven’t quite yet lost. I wrote most of these poems years ago, but it feels right for the book to release itself now, into the tortured waystation that is Q2 2020.

I’m a sucker for a good epigraph, and your epigraph for Mezzanine—a passage from Carolyn Merchant’s seminal 1980 book The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution—is great. At what point in the composition of the manuscript did you settle on this quotation, and what do you hope it offers to readers as they make their way into the book?

The Death of Nature, one of the founding texts of ecofeminism, changed my life. In it, Carolyn Merchant, a historian and philosopher of science, shows how the mechanistic worldview that emerged out of the Scientific Revolution licensed the domination of nature, the rapid expansion of extractive industrialized capitalism, and the oppression of women and minorities. It’s a tour de force. It has influenced me so deeply that I always feel like I’m stealing from it! So, that’s the first reason I chose this epigraph: to give credit to Merchant and other ecofeminists for what follows. Second, I wanted to give readers some kind of compass with which to navigate the bizarre province of Mezzanine.

In several of your poems, inanimate objects deliver dramatic monologues, such as “The Lotus on Marina Bay Speaks,” “The Tamping Iron Speaks,” and “The Levee Speaks.” It’s a funny and defamiliarizing way to deliver critique, as when the title item in “Object at the Department Store Speaks” urges “take me home. Do it. Slip me into your pinkish hand / in the dressing room” and concludes, “We are all stolen. What is possessing. Who was / our clientele during the last great recession.” How did you embark on that short series and how did you pick which objects to give a voice?

Mezzanine is sort of an emporium of objects—sometimes they speak, sometimes they are spoken about. I have to acknowledge some debts. These poems took shape under the dizzying influence of Robert Browning’s dramatic monologues, Francis Ponge’s object poems, and the scholar Timothy Morton’s book Hyperobjects (2013). By giving objects voices, we see more clearly the ways in which both humans and objects are shaped by complex interconnected webs of social forces. It throws subjectivity and objectivity—and how they each relate to agency—into question. The monologues are sometimes playful and sometimes deadly serious in their suggestion that whatever you think “objectivity” is, it’s not. Further, for me, writing through objects is a way to write outside of gender. It’s escapist.

In your twitter bio, you identify yourself as a “middle child.” I’m fascinated by pop science theories like birth order, and I’m curious: how does your middle child status shape who you are as a person and as a poet?

I am such a middle child! Forever in-between, the sister between sisters. The middle child is the forgotten one, the rebel with a cause, the black sheep, the begrudging mediator, the sanctimonious stoic quietly passing judgement on the excesses of the first and last children! I have two, and only two, modes of assessing third-party interpersonal conflict: either I am overly empathic and take both sides, or I maintain a steely remove.

Several of the poems in the collection deal with the wrongful convictions and subsequent exonerations by DNA testing of death row prisoners. What got you interested in that topic, and what made you decide that poetry was the genre in which to explore it?

Our criminal justice system is a particularly heinous manifestation of how the veneer of objectivity, the illusion of fair and objective procedures, ruins and ends already fragile lives. I wrote that series in conversation with Taryn Simon’s amazing collection of photographs The Innocents (2002), which also centers on individuals who were wrongfully convicted and spent time on death row. Why poetry? No good reason. I don’t have a camera, I don’t have paintbrushes, I don’t have clay, I don’t have a film crew, I don’t sing, I have no microphone, no charcoal, no chisel, no brayers. I have words, and rage, and I can put them together on a page.

The luminous Grace Paley has shaped much of my thinking about poetry and activism. I think often of a quote of hers (from her essay "Of Poetry and Women and the World"): "One of the things art is about, for me, is justice. Now that isn’t a matter of opinion, really. That isn’t to say, 'I’m going to show these people right or wrong' or whatever... [It's] the illumination of what isn’t known, the lighting up of what is under a rock, of what has been hidden."

The poems become longer near the end of the book. There’s the 11-page, six-part “Division Day,” the four-part “Fragments from the Imagined Epic: The Island of Stone Money,” and the fairly dense sequence of  “Atlas” poems that sees the book to its conclusion. Many of the subjects you touch on throughout the book seem as though they could be endlessly expanded upon, so how did you know which poems to keep brief and which to let spool out? 

I rarely set out knowing the form of a poem. The poem decides how long it needs to be as it’s being written. The long poems were much longer when I first wrote them. “Division Day” had 10 sections instead of six. The “Island of Stone Money” poem had 20 parts instead of four—yikes. I stopped writing when I got to the section that is now numbered “Four.” When I completed that section—which is a deranged villanelle voiced by a centuries-old stone used as currency while “lodged in the fold of the sea”—it felt completely foreign, as if someone else had written it. The voice is baffling to me­. It’s somehow deeply human and fragile, pompous and playful, wise and wistful. Bafflement is usually a sign that it’s time to stop writing.

Do you write in other literary genres, or think you will someday, and if so, what do (or will) you write?

I have written some short stories, but they’re more like bloated prose poems. They have no plot. I don’t understand how people write novels. Sustaining plot over hundreds of pages seems impossible to me. I write book reviews and other nonfiction occasionally. I'd like to write more essays as time wears on. Perhaps there will be a general audience nonfiction book informed by my academic work at some point. But for now I’m focusing on my dissertation and my next book of poetry.

What poets and poetry have you read lately that have excited you?

Oh, there’s so much good stuff these days! Monica Youn and Tracy K. Smith are stacked on my desk; they have been guiding lights for many years. They’re next to Robyn Schiff. I constantly found myself going back to Schiff—especially her first two collections, Worth (2002) and Revolver (2008)—when putting Mezzanine together. I’ve learned so much from her intricate and shifty-yet-precise descriptions of moments and of matter. Gabrielle Calvocoressi's Rocket Fantastic (2017) is the crown on a lopsided tower of books on my dresser. When I read their poems, I feel like a sharper version of myself is speaking to me through a vocoder from a terrifying future I want no part of. In this tower beneath Rocket Fantastic are some recent-ish debuts: Phillip B. Williams’s Thief in the Interior (2016),  Jenny Xie’s Eye Level (2018), Franny Choi’s Soft Science (2019), sam sax’s madness (2017), and some others. Brigid Pegeen Kelly’s The Orchard (2004) and Srikanth (Chicu) Reddy’s Facts for Visitors (2004) are mixed in there with the recent debuts. Alice Notley’s new book For the Ride (2020), which I just finished yesterday, is on my nightstand. It’s freaky brilliant. Below Alice is Jedediah Purdy’s This Land is Our Land: The Struggle for a New Commonwealth (2019), which isn’t poetry but is a beautiful book everyone should read.

Originally Published: June 29th, 2020

Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press, a publisher of literary work in hybrid genres, and a founding member of Poems While You Wait, a team of poets and their typewriters who compose commissioned poetry on demand. She teaches English and creative writing at DePaul University and is...