Making the Poetry Engine Tick: An Interview with Cynthia Atkins

When we asked Cynthia Atkins these questions about her writing life, she treated her responses like poems themselves. We are so happy to start off the new year by sharing her thoughtful, thorough, and enthusiastic answers with you. Find out more about Cynthia and her writing on her website, and read her Pushcart Prize nominated poem here in the September 2015 volume of Hermeneutic Chaos.

 

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1.In “Mirror, Mirror,” you start the poem with an epigraph by Anne Sexton. What does her writing mean to you? How does this quote affect the reading of your poem?

 “I am a collection of dismantled almosts”. That line is one of those show-stopping lines that makes you stand at attention. We begin any medium with infinite possibilities, but as soon as we start to make choices, we begin limiting those possibilities.   Life and Art are reflected by the choices and decisions we make—Voila, then throw the fates into the mix.   As I look at fragments of my own life, I can see all the flaws, mistakes, missteps and false starts that lead to the wide-range of my multifarious experiences.   In some ways, these ‘almosts’ can become the impediments, the reminder that there are no guarantees, Art involves taking risks. “Mirror, Mirror” is a poem about false starts, confession of a very tough incident in my life. But any experience is made up fragments, and layered with uncertainties— it is that energy of both potential, and failure that seemed the crux—all embroiled in the great conflict of living.

I am grateful to Sexton for borrowing me that brilliant line, as it really seemed a perfect tuning fork for the poem, and her work has always haunted me in all the good ways.

 

2.I’ve noticed that your poems often have a wide perspective covering a large cast of characters, rather than a narrow focus on the speaker. Is this important to you?

 Interesting that you ask and notice that, as the process of considering any event from different vantage points interests me greatly—experimenting with different personas and voices makes my poetry engine tick.  The opportunity that Art offers us to experience life from different angles is what keeps it vital and alive. Every event is seen differently according to who is doing the perceiving and will determine umpteen different outcomes and scenarios. This is truly fascinating to me and what makes me want to write.   As humans, we are so fallible, idiosyncratic, quirky, and what happens to us depends the context— who is doing the perceiving and the telling. Life offers a composite of complex perspectives and inter-relationships, writing is giving those voice to those that may not have it otherwise.

 

3.Have you ever considered writing fiction? What makes you interested in poetry particularly? 

I wish I had that something that it takes to write fiction—being a better typist for one, and endurance. I have always been smitten with image and detail, and small suit-cases of language that can pack a punch. I like the compression of poetry.  The instrument of time is measured differently in a poem, as in a painting, there is a kind of co-mingling of the senses that happens—for me, in a way a poem works on the  viewer more like a painting than a work of fiction, in narrative time.  The senses are being bombarded all at once, rather than in the way a story unfurls–that is the magic of the poem, a layering of mood, sense, intellect and emotion—that is, when the aesthetic train is on the track.

The cadence of the vowel sounds repeated, making a pattern, a line break that furls into a juicy enjambment— these are the quirky and idiosyncratic strokes and moments at craft that challenge and give me a lot pain and pleasure.  Trying to engage with words and making them mean and say something more than I am capable of saying in my every day speech to another human being. “A poem is really a kind of machine for producing the poetic state by means of words,” said Paul Verlaine.  I guess what I am saying is that for me part of what people go to Religion for is what I go to poetry for—Jettison the material world for a while and ask the deeper questions, and poetry is my way in.

 

4.Do your family and friends often make appearances in your poems? If so, have you ever faced a situation in which you worried about infiltrating their privacy? 

 Oh that is a big question and one that I grapple with often, as many of my poems deal with the subjects, themes and conditions of family, the most complex bevy of people and inter-relationships. Crossing into the threshold of another person’s privacy and material that deals with the intimate privacy of another human being is very tricky business. My poems are always composites. I try to stray from using direct references, and usually I am speaking in a more iconic way—I may use aspects of my mother, but somehow I am trying to capture something larger than a particular person—but more the idea of motherhood  with its myriad complexities.

When trying to write about the elusive subject of mental illness and family, and especially when dealing with family members who have suffered and been afflicted, I’ve had to find different voices for that.   Poets tend to be like dentists, extracting decay and pain from the patient, but trying not to touch the tongue while doing it.   It is a delicate balance, and one I am very aware gets more complex as my life goes through different cycles and different characters—from my own immediate family, to now my son, my husband all the off-shoots that make ‘family’ such interesting material to cover—endless complexities, sorrows, enticements. We have to find a way to write truthfully about the crux of our subjects. As Artaud said,   “We have the right to lie, but not about the heart of the matter.”

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5.How does the natural world influence your writing?

I believe in the oppositions the world presents to us—they are critical to our understanding of the world and our experiences in it, these forces that make us function in both the Yin and the Yang of our conditions: the world where we are put in a logical and domestic milieu, only to be thwarted by what Mother Nature serves up to us—what unknowns happen, the things we can’t plan on, the weather, how long our life will be, who to invite for dinner.  The control we think we have is moot, because everything is clouded by the fates.  The natural world is everything that is in flux, change, and in opposition to the control we try to maintain. My writing mostly exists in the yin/yang of interiors, pathos inside in response to the natural forces of the world. “I tried to drown my sorrows, but the bastards learned how to swim,” said one of my great heroes, Frida Kahlo.

 

6.Are you working on a collection right now? If so, what can you tell us about it?

 These words by Transtromer spoke to me recently: I walk slowly into myself, through a forest of empty suits of armor.” I have been feeling those many suits of armor in the world as of late. We wear many hats, more and more hats, more and more layers to get to the solitary place you need to make Art.

The self adrift in this new swirl of the social media age— this is the subject matter that is calling out to me.  I am mired in as anyone else. I also very clearly see the way the culture has diminished as a result.

Our lives are lived button to button these days, and we have to wade through so much superficial frippery to get to the core of self.  The quality of alone that one must achieve to get to a place to purge has changed with this new madcap paradigm where we engage with several hundred people in a day. That is insane when you think about it.

My new body of work seems to be grappling with where the self and spirit exist in this pre-fab, multi-persona, commercial, material, hand-held world, and by hand-held, I don’t mean our hands our held, I mean our lives fit into a device that we carry around at all hours of the day, a device that may just have stolen our souls—or maybe my book is trying to probe these matters, with a gentle fork-lift.

This is a whole new frontier, and a cosmic shift in the way we perceive the world and ourselves in it, as well as how we absorb and infiltrate it. It may be the end of us—or Us, as we used to know ourselves.  The Selfie culture is ultimately so seductive and so reductive, and tends to reduce us to a kind of ‘group think.’  We live in a pseudo- indoctrination popularity telethon—one that never shuts off—and it is our new addiction.  A veritable vacuum sucking us dry of all the tangible things we used to engage in: Hands–on things—writing letters, birthday cards, calling someone on the telephone.  So much of our life is now reduced to the palm of our hands, and this mechanism has diminished the value of doing things. And yet, it is love/hate, as it has connected me to so many people and cultures—artists and writers, I would never otherwise been introduced to.  But thank you for asking, it helped to me explain the process and the things I have been thinking about while writing the poems in my new book.  Two titles I am battling with: “Somewhere In The Vicinity of Self” and “Still-Life With God.” Keep you posted where the coin lands. .

 

7.Do you have any poets/journals/books to suggest? 

Well, Hermeneutic Chaos has been at the top of my suggested journal list to writer friends list as I have been most impressed by the quality and the aesthetic beauty of this journal, how it shows such utmost respect to writers at every corner. These things have begun to matter greatly to me in a market that doesn’t pay us living or livelihood, so when my work is presented, I want it to be presented in the best light possible. I have experienced great sloppiness from some journals, and I understand that too—low budgets, interns, too much work over-load, so just as editors are selective about the work they include, I have become more selective about how and where the work appears. All this to say, it is rare and greatly appreciated.  I am so grateful to the few really classy journals that have housed my poems, and especially with the long intervals between books—these junctures have saved me and kept me writing. There are so many cool journals out there—doing really cool and provocative things with the language, the visuals and audio.  It has become a much more three-dimensional experience—one that is vital, global and keeps us connected:  “And one by one the nights between our separated cities are joined to the night that unites us”, said Neruda, and that is exactly language. It is the glue that unites us.

 

 

 

 

Cynthia Atkins was born and raised in Chicago, Il, receiving a an MFA from Columbia University’s School of the Arts. She is the author of Psyche’s Weathers and In The Event of Full Disclosure (CW Books).  Her poems have appeared in numerous journals, including, Alaska Quarterly Review, Afrikana.ng,  BOMB,  Cultural Weekly, DelSol Review, Florida Review, Green Mountains Review, Harpur Palate,Hermeneutic Chaos, Le Zaporogue, North American Review, Seneca Review, Tampa Review, Valparaiso Review and Verse Daily, among others. She is an assistant professor of English at Virginia Western Community College, and formerly the assistant director of the Poetry Society of America, and artistic director for Writers @Jordan House, she lives on the Maury River of Rockbridge County, VA with the artist Phillip Welch and their family. More info at www.cynthiatkins.com