INTERVIEW: Zachary Pace, Author of I Sing to Use the Waiting

Interview by Lara Lillibridge

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Book Cover: I Sing to Use the WaitingI was excited to Zoom with Zachary Pace and talk about I Sing to Use the Waiting: A Collection of Essays About the Women Singers Who Made me Who I Am, out January 23, 2024, with Two Dollar Radio. The essays each center on a singer (or group of singers) who were influential, and Pace’s style is smart and analytical, while still being vulnerable and personal. The essay collection as a whole forms a mosaic of Zachary as an individual along with the 1980s-2000s so familiar to many of us.

From the back cover:

With remarkable grace, candor, and a poet’s ear for prose, Zachary Pace recounts the women singers—from Cat Power to Madonna, Kim Gordon to Rihanna—who shaped them as a young person coming-of-age in rural New York, first discovering their own queer voice.

Structured like a mixtape, Pace juxtaposes their coming out with the music that informed them along the way. They recount how listening to themselves sing along as a child to a Disney theme song they recorded on a boom box in 1995, was when they first realized there was an effeminate inflection to their voice. As childhood friendships splinter, Pace discusses the relationship between Whitney Houston and Robyn Crawford. Cat Power’s song “My Daddy Was a Musician” spurs a discussion of Pace’s own musician father, and their gradual estrangement.

Resonant and compelling, I Sing to Use the Waiting is a deeply personal rumination on how queer stories are abundant yet often suppressed, and how music may act as a comforting balm carrying us through difficult periods and decisions.

Lara Lillibridge: So your book is unusual in that it is in one way academic in tone, and yet filled with pop culture, and still personal with bits of memoir interspersed. I’ve not really seen that form, and I was just curious how it came to be. And I know you are a professor, so I thought that the academic tone made a lot of sense.

Zachary Pace: I’m very newly teaching. I primarily work in book publishing, and I went to grad school for poetry, so I didn’t have any academic writing training at all. But I did start to read a lot of queer theory at a certain point, and that was around the time when I started moving from writing poems to writing prose.

I was also in a long-term relationship with an academic at the time that I wrote the first draft, and we were reading a lot of the same stuff, and we were talking a lot about this stuff. And I think, in some ways, when I had my reader in mind, I imagined his cohort, just because those were the most unforgiving readers who I’d ever met. At the same time, I was coming to prose through poetry, and for a while, I was uncertain how far into the academic approach I wanted to go.

I think I went as far as I knew how, and then filled in the gaps with more poetic and memoiristic material. And that kind of mash-up was inspired by Maggie Nelson, who is also a poet who began writing prose that mixed memoir and poetry and theory. And that was definitely my model when I got started.

LL: I love Maggie Nelson.

ZP: She’s inspired so many people and I’m just another one of them for sure. But it says something, that she really does move and speak to so many people. And that’s what I wanted to do—I wanted to move and speak to many people. And my writing as a poet was just not doing that. I was not able to find a subject that felt new, interesting, and important enough to reach people and to speak to them.

LL: Your subtitle, a collection of essays about the women singers who’ve made me who I am—I think this perhaps comes from poetry in the way that you don’t like overexplain your connections to all of these people in the book. Certainly on some of them there’re some strong connections, but others are more sort of standalone. And yet, all of these pieces stand in for something else. You know what I mean?  You’re talking about vocabulary and misheard words in the essay “Mariah, Fiona, Joanna, and Me,” which I loved.

ZP: That’s a subject that I’d be interested in learning more about—mishearing lyrics—everybody is familiar with that. And I think it speaks to something really profound about learning language, and learning to speak as kids. That sort of joy and euphoria of making meaning out of music—mishearing lyrics puts you back in that mind-space in a way that I think people get a lot of original joy from.

Headshot of author Zachary Pace.

LL: Yeah. And it’s sort of willingness to laugh at yourself, too. When you mentioned all of these words that you that you associate with these different singers, and it’s sort of I thought, a way to set us up when we get into Cher in the next chapter. It is priming us to look at this as more than just a story about Cher, like, these are the words you got from the songs. And then here’s this big story of the negligent mom—you had some very small section about your own experiences of feeling abandoned and being actually abandoned as a child. And it sort of prepped me to think that this is more than a story about Cher this is the metaphor through biography.

ZP: I had not thought of that, but it’s very cool to me that that comes through. And it sounds true. And I agree with it. And it’s funny timing, because the book goes to print in about a week, and a week ago I got a surprise round of very specific, but sort of heavy edits from Two Dollar Radio, geared toward bringing each piece back to the main theme of why these singers made me who I am, because it wasn’t as clear in certain pieces as it was in others. With the Rihanna essay, for example, I intentionally left myself out of that one. I did not want to be present in that story. But I do tell the narrative that I hear or read through the four songs with Drake, so I feel like I’m present. But with the Cher piece, they have asked me to fill in some gaps in terms of what these films and what Cher as a performer meant to me. And so I am working on that. And I do have some ideas about how to either braid it in or to add a short section at the end.

LL: But it’s interesting, because I didn’t feel it was missing. For me, it totally made sense.

ZP: Well, I thank you so much. I did make intentional decisions about where I want to be present and where I choose not to be. With Cher, I have been thinking more about why those films mattered to me and why Cher mattered to me, and it all comes back to my mother. My mother resembled Cher from the 70s to the 90s. They aged together—they looked very similar for that stretch of time.

LL: Oh wow.


ZP: I noticed their resemblance back then, through Cher’s role in those films. And not only were they entertaining films, they also helped me recognized that my mom was not those characters, because she did not prioritize her needs over mine, and she did not prioritize her pleasure, in order to give me the resources I needed to survive. And so while she was absent because she had to work and had to take care of the house and had to put energy into separating from my father, she was doing all of that to provide for me.

And in that way, I knew that she wasn’t these characters Cher portrays. And I was grateful for that as a kid. At the same time, I recognized how they looked so similar. But it was their differences that helped me appreciate who my mom really was, helped me understand what kind of caregiver she was.

LL: I think, in the Cher piece, it also speaks about intergenerational trauma—that our parents’ choices are oftentimes informed by their own upbringing and their own mothering. And I also like how you talked about Chas, and about how Cher wasn’t perfect, right? Like she did struggle, but in struggling, I think allowed other people the grace of saying like, sometimes it’s hard even when you love someone and want to be supportive, to come to terms with something about them. And I think, in this world where people can be so polarized and so quick to judge, it’s nice to see that moment of growth, you know what I mean?

ZP: Absolutely. That moment in time also shows how queer rights have evolved in the struggle, because, you know, gay rights used to be one thing and trans rights were another, or nonexistent. And now we talk about queer rights as involving both struggles, you know, rights for gay people and rights for trans people. And that’s why I love the openness of queerness, because it puts the fight for rights into a more intersectional place.

LL: And, you know, that expansion is what I saw in the Rihanna essay—you were sort of redefining queerness as larger than just sexuality or gender, but in terms of not fitting the white heteronormative sort of patriarchal society that we live in. You expanded queer love to be more than just LGBTQ, which I thought was really interesting, and I really liked that.

ZP: Thank you so much. Rihanna has a sort of queer icon status as well, but it’s probably the most subtle of all of them. And I do believe that there is no true liberation for anyone until there’s liberation for everyone.

I saw the ways that the same standards of normativity that oppress queer people apply to all oppressed people in the world, and Rihanna’s successes were successes beyond the limitations imposed by white, heteropatriarchal standards of normativity. And that is why I believe she’s so inspiring to queer people. And the same goes for Cher. I mean, Cher was a such strong female presence—there’s even been a meme revival of this famous interview footage of her saying that she’d told her mother, “Mom, I am a rich man.” She played with gender and power in a way that is inspiring for queer people.

LL: Well, it’s funny, because back in my 20s, I had a roommate named Adam, and he loved Cher. And I used to ask him, “What is it about Cher?” And he would just say, “She’s flawless.” He just could not put it into words. And so for me, it was really interesting to see this deep dive on her. I feel like I know more of her backstory now. And she’s more three-dimensional after reading your chapter.

ZP: When I listen to her music now, it doesn’t get me the same way as it used to. So I don’t actually end up talking a whole lot about her music. She had this second career as an actor, and one of the inspiring things about that story is that she got into acting because her music career was on the decline, and it revived her career. She had an unsuccessful period, and then she made these films and became very famous, and then she recorded “If I Could Turn Back Time,” and you know, that song endures as one of the most touchstone anthems of our times.

LL: The other thing I like about your book is that while some of these people I know, I’m a bit older than you, and so some of these people are just outside of my personal pop culture references. But I didn’t need to know the music to appreciate what you were saying. And I’m really grateful for that, because I don’t like to feel confused or old.

I’d like to talk about the essay, “Hop Along; or, the Pronoun ‘They.’” As someone that has had so much stress about my own pronouns, I appreciated that chapter a lot. I just wanted to say, I don’t even know if this is a question, but just that I appreciated how you were able to make it relevant to someone who has no reference to the music itself.

The Band Hop Along

The Band Hop Along
source: Wikipedia

ZP: That’s greatly reassuring. It’s something that I’m obviously pretty worried about. Especially because I have a tendency to be obsessive in my information-collecting, as well as my information-processing. And I know that there are lots of names, dates, and times that conjure such specific contexts and backstory to me, but I worry that if somebody comes to them without that context, that it may be sort of uninteresting.

So, that piece in particular was a turning point for me, but it happened at the very end, because that was the last piece that I wrote from scratch for this book. And while I was writing it, I had this realization that any at any time, my reader could go to the internet and hear exactly what I was trying to describe. So it made me hyperconscious about choosing ways to describe the sounds that could only be noticed through my kind of obsessive, repetitive listening and noticing. And, because that was the last piece for this book, I wondered about everything that came before it, when I hadn’t been thinking about the fact that people could just listen to it at any time. My main intention there was to tell the story of encountering a singer who was a female-identified person at the time, and then re-encountering the music after this singer has come out as nonbinary, or had started to use gender-neutral pronouns and who now identifies as nonbinary. It wasn’t a jarring change in my perception. It was actually more fitting in the end—it clicked into place, as I say in the essay, and that’s what I’m looking for personally.

I don’t always feel like gender-neutral pronouns click into place for me. But I do feel more and more removed from masculine pronouns. I don’t identify with those. And I don’t feel like it sounds true when they’re used to describe me. But so many people in my life struggle with that, because they’ve known and spoken of me through the masculine pronoun for all this time. I just don’t think it’s that hard to reconceive of somebody in this way. But all these people seem to have great difficulty with it. I just wanted to show an example of my being able to reconceive without any difficulty.

LL: And I liked the paragraph about the problem that if you correct someone, then it becomes awkward, and it’s feels punitive.

Quite frequently, my loved ones refer to me by the masculine pronoun and then bashfully self-correct, generating further discord. On the few occasions when I’ve corrected my loved ones, I’ve regretted the punitive dynamic that results.

I find it so hard to navigate that space. For me, I don’t even address it with most people, because I just don’t want to have the conversation. “She” is easier. I really liked neopronouns personally, because I’m not a huge fan of “they,” but that seems to be the pronoun with the most traction. But the idea that there’s more than one way to be in this world, and the fact that people recognize that even if they don’t like the discourse to me, is pretty amazing.

 ZP: If I can be honest, I think and refer to myself most authentically as “she.” My friends call it “the gay she,” and it feels true to me in kind of a spiritual way. But most of the time I have chosen “they” because it’s the most familiar alternative.

LL: I know exactly what you mean about the “gay she.” I worked in a flower shop in high school, and everyone was very male presenting, you know, but everyone was “she” or “Mary,” you know, that was just how everyone referred to each other. It was fun and playful, and it didn’t feel like a put down and it didn’t feel wrong.

ZP: It’s an acknowledgement of divine female energy that all things have. A close friend of mine refers to a lot of things in nature as “she”—like, when we go to the beach, “She’s really windy today.” Or once, I was in a cafe where this kid took a sip of coffee and said to their friend, “Try her, she’s good.” It’s so sweet and endearing to think of the coffee or the beach as “she,” because it gives more life to the nonhuman.

I think a lot of a great essay by Robin Wall Kimmerer, about how in the American Indian language that’s native to her, they use a pronoun “ki,” instead of “it,” in order to give, say, the trees or the birds their life instead of objectifying them. The nonhuman is given a personality by this pronoun. So, now, when we go to the beach and say, “She’s windy today,” the beach has this humanlike personality, and this divine feminine energy. It’s a beautiful way of experiencing the world.

I visited a class at the New School earlier today was talking to the students about matrilineage, a term I learned thanks to Jessica Hopper, the great music writer and thinker and critic. Matrilineage is a way that we can think of history through strong female leaders and characters. I realized that most of the time, we’re defining our history in terms of presidents and dictators, men in government and the military, instead of defining our history through the women, and women artists, who have who have created a lot to sustain us in spite of the horrors of toxic masculine historical figures.

LL: Now, let me back up a minute. How did this become a book? And how did you end up at Two Dollar Radio? And how did you survive their excruciatingly long reading period? Because they generally have a yearlong wait, and that requires a lot of a lot of patience.

ZP: I did wait a year, or fourteen months, after submitting to them.

In 2016, I wrote the first piece for the book, when the new president was elected and took office, that was when my poetry-to-prose transition took place. I thought that things that I cared about—matrilineage, queerness—those things were going to become more imperiled by this new presidency. And my calling was to try and preserve it through writing. Cat Power has been my favorite singer for a very, very long time. And I wanted to praise her, but also to interrogate why I liked her so much. I read a book by Greil Marcus about Bob Dylan’s bootlegs, and I thought, Oh, you know, I have this huge collection of Cat Power bootlegs, maybe the answer’s in there.

poster image of a bob dylan tribute show by Cat Power from 2024

Image: Cat Power’s Facebook page

I self-soothe by listening to music, and I’m an extremely obsessive-compulsive person. I listened repetitively. And I started to think that this has to be research—I have to make something out of this, otherwise, it’s wasted potential. And so the Cat Power piece came first. I had a lot of fun with writing that—it was very fulfilling. And I thought I’d try again with Kim Gordon. I was really intrigued by the last song on the last Sonic Youth record, because it was accidentally the last song, but it’s so appropriate for a last song in their catalog, even though they didn’t know that they were going to be breaking up when they made that song.

So I followed that trail, and again, was very fulfilled by that process. I wanted to write a little bit about Chan Marshall [Cat Power] again, and I chose this bootleg, “My Daddy Was a Musician.” I use that as a way into talking about my voice—a queer voice—which led me to the documentary Do I Sound Gay? There, a speech-language-hearing expert named Benjamin Munson says that a big influence on a kid’s vocal development happens when they choose their role models, and we often choose role models from television and movies and music. That was deeply relatable to me, and it got me thinking about all the women whom I loved and admired and was obsessed with growing up. And, I thought, well, I want to write a book about all of these women because I had so much fun writing about Chan and Kim. By that time, my longtime partner at the time found a copy of Hanif Abdurraqib’s They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, a collection of music essays that had just been published by Two Dollar Radio. And I thought, this is what I want to try and do.

By the summer of 2020, I’d finished a first draft. I’d worked in book publishing for ten years or more at that point, and I had a very long list of contacts, agents and editors who I’d worked with over that time. I sent it to every agent on that list. And they all turned it down, except one, then that one agent took it to every editor on my list, and they all turned it down.

Now, this was in the early days of the pandemic, when book publishing was in a very uncertain place. This was also a very messy first draft of the book. So this agent tries for a year to pitch it around and then lost steam. It was turned down by about twenty-five editors. Two Dollar Radio was always at the top of my list. But for whatever lucky reason, this agent never sent it there. I don’t know why. It was just luck, because I chose to part ways with the agent and try it for myself. And I sent it through Submittable to twelve or fourteen places, and Two Dollar Radio was among them. Over twelve to fourteen months, I get turned down from everybody on that list except one, Two Dollar Radio. I submit to another round of about eight or nine publishers. And about a month after that, Eric Obenauf from Two Dollar Radio writes to me and says, “I’m reading this and loving it, is it still available?” And within a month I signed with them.

LL: That’s amazing. I think sometimes you wind up where you are meant to be.  I mean, that’s cliché, and it’s not always true. But when you’re getting all those rejections, I tell myself, “Well, if they couldn’t see the beauty in this or the importance of this, then they’re not the right person to promote it.”

ZP: Exactly, and that was discouraging to me, because these people were my colleagues, why couldn’t they see what I saw? But many of those people did give me very useful, generous feedback. And I went back to that manuscript probably fourteen to sixteen times and trimmed and built it out and developed and altered it, and it got better and better all the time. The version that went to Two Dollar Radio was pretty good. But by the time I heard back from them, I had already revised it two more times. Then I revised it about four times with their guidance. So it’s been refined time and time again. And it’s really getting there. I mean, even the version in the galley is outdated and inferior at this point. And it gives me so much anxiety to think that people are reading and judging that, knowing now that I have far improved most of those pieces.

LL: Don’t feel bad because I loved it. And I would not have guessed that it needed another revision, or that there was more to get out of it. So I would not feel bad about that at all. But it’s hard, because we are always revising. And the one thing that I love about independent presses, well, there’s two things. One is that they open the publishing space to voices that traditional publishing, or the Big Five at least, just doesn’t have a lot of room for.

I don’t mean that as judgment, but that’s just the truth—they don’t have a lot of room for a lot of different voices. Small presses and independent presses really pick up that slack. But the other thing is that they oftentimes care passionately about the work and really want to help you make it the best it can be, and put in a lot more time. The process can really elevate your work to a place that—when we submit originally, we all think it’s pretty close to perfect. And then by the time it comes out, you’re like, wow, it’s a version I didn’t even know I had in me.

ZP: Two Dollar Radio is really unusual, in that they publish one book per list or season. So they can put a lot more time and attention into what the individual book and individual author needs, where larger publishers are pumping out dozens and dozens of books a season. Two Dollar Radio is highly intentional and mindful and soulful in everything they do. They saw what I saw in the manuscript, and they became deeply invested in thinking through it with me until it said what it was meant to say.

LL: What are you most excited about or terrified about with the book coming out?

ZP: I’m struck sometimes by the honesty and intimacy of some of the things I disclose. Writing it felt so necessary, cathartic, natural, and obvious that I only very infrequently slip into the place of a reader coming to this out of the blue. I’ve been a little more vulnerable than I tend to be in person. I’m very shy and kind of aloof with strangers. I’m just worried that it’s a lot more honest and vulnerable than even I realized.

LL: That is so understandable. I think the most anxiety I had was when the ARCs were printed, and now it’s a done deal. Like this book is coming into the world, they’ve invested money, all of that. But it’s not out yet. So you don’t really know the reaction. And that time period for me was very anxiety producing. Because it’s so easy to be brave when it’s hypothetically a book, right? And then you realize that, like, people are gonna read it, and it can be a bit terrifying, you know, but exciting, too.

ZP: Your reaction to it is hugely reassuring, because you’re one of the first completely objective readers that I’ve talked to. I’ve really only been told by people who know me that it’s good—I don’t know how it reads to people who don’t have that bias already.

LL: I hope you could tell I was very excited about this book. I enjoyed it a lot. And I just love how it’s a different perspective.

ZP: Thank you very much. I appreciate it so much.


I Sing to Use the Waiting: A Collection of Essays About the Women Singers Who’ve Made Me Who I Am  releases January 23, 2024, with Two Dollar Radio.

Zachary Pace is a writer and editor who lives in New York City. I Sing to Use the Waiting: A Collection of Essays About the Women Singers Who’ve Made Me Who I Am is his first book. Zachary’s has been published in the Baffler, BOMB, Bookforum, Boston Review, Frieze magazine, Interview magazine, Literary Hub, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the PEN Poetry Series, the Yale Review, and elsewhere. Come see Zach on tour.

Headshot of Author Lara Lillibridge

Lara Lillibridge

Interviews Editor

Lara Lillibridge (she/they) is the author of Mama, Mama, Only Mama: An Irreverent Guide for the Newly Single Parent; Girlish: Growing Up in a Lesbian Home, and co-editor of the anthology, Feminine Rising. Her essay collection: The Truth About Unringing Phones, releases March 2024 with Unsolicited Press.

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