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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Contributor Spotlight: Christina Cook

There’s a bit of Jekyll and Hyde in all of us, and perhaps that was Robert Louis Stevenson’s point in writing a book about the Strange Case of these conjoined characters. My own contradictory nature finds expression in my poetry, if not in my personality in general (but that’s a topic for another essay). When I opened the current issue of Hayden’s Ferry Review to pages 110 and 111, I saw the journal’s spine draw a distinct dividing line down the middle of myself: on one page, my poem “Blue, Orange, Red” was written by the me who can’t seem to stop mourning her mother, the me who finds inspiration from bird flight in a twilit sky, while on the opposing page, “Burlesque Acoustic” was written by the me who feels fur fill in over the smooth skin of her cheek and prowls her imagination’s strangest streets, letting any rabid dog guide her, if it will lead her to write an interesting, provocative poem.

I prefer to think that my poetry’s split personality comes out of a literary precedent set in our culture rather than personal issues best left to a therapist. As Cole Swenson notes in her introduction to American Hybrid, American poetry has long been seen as being divided into two camps, one threading from the British Romantic poets, the other from the French Symbolists. And if we look at the very founders of American poetry, Whitman and Dickinson, we see the seeds of two very different defining senses of form and content. When I was a teenager trying to find a toehold in writing, the unfettered world of Whitman’s poetry cast a spell over me. I found its unbounded, unreserved nature infinitely appealing. As an undergraduate, I planned out an independent study to focus on writing in the style of Whitman. My mind was spilling over with ideas and enthusiasm—until the professor I asked to mentor me said no: I wasn’t old enough to write like Whitman. I could have filled notebooks with (okay, probably quite bad) poetry that expressed my vision of the world I hoped for, the world I desired, in the absence of a world I had experienced long enough to grow wise from.

My professor’s denial was devastating to me at the time, but then when adulthood hit, it became truly puzzling. The more difficulties I weathered and the more wisdom I gained from simply living in the world longer, the closer my affinities actually grew to the spare style of Dickinson. By the time my mother died of breast cancer, after an eleven-year battle that ended in six slow weeks of hospice care, my poetry had whittled down to bone. I could no longer relate to Whitman’s exuberant celebration of the colorful masses of people and possibilities and the word-filled style it took to accomplish this. I don’t know how he was able to express his horrific Civil War experiences on such a large canvas, because after seeing death so close, words for me had become thin brass rails of a birdcage. And as for the small bird inside, its song was the silence of trees. My poems became spare, in order to balance the emotional weight I imposed on them.

After nearly a year of writing such Jekyll-prim poems, though, the Mr. Hyde in me became restless and hungry. I had nothing to feed him. All I was able to find for raw material was places in nature onto which I could project my grief, such as poplar trees and loons and the pastoral surroundings of the lake cottage I’d inherited from my mother. So he started to scavenge his own raw material: the “Living” and “Style” sections of the New York Times. Edgy haute-couture photos in the W magazines students would leave on tables in the coffee shop. Old avant-garde and noir films being shown at the local college. Anything for the food he needed to survive. Anything to stop my Jekylly obsession with writing poems about nature and death.

Fast-forward a few years: the veil between the Jekyll and Hyde of me is now so thin that my writing will often contain both in the span of a single stanza (but then, I contain multitudes, as I tried to convince my undergrad poetry professor). “Blue, Orange, Red” may have come from Jekyll’s nature-inspired ruminations on the death of my mother, but its form is Hyde-like: elliptical, abstract, self-consciously shaped in the form of Rothko’s painting by that title . . . and “Burlesque Acoustic” may have come from a New York Times’ article Hyde read about a burlesque dancers’ 50th reunion, but it is more traditional in form and its content is narrative-driven and accessible, per Jekyll’s refined tastes.

What I am finding the most enjoyment in, at this point in my writing, is being surprised by what, or who, comes out of my pen. Sometimes I’ll write a more spare, quiet poem than I expect to, and wonder how words bearing a Haiku-like delicacy can come from reading a W article on craft punk. I’ll wonder how poems written in long (dare I say Whitman-like) lines, full of edgy images and fast, energetic phrasing can come from sitting at the end of the dock on a quiet evening. But I try not to wonder too much. Mostly, I just try to enjoy the surprise and help Jekyll and Hyde dine together in each of my poems.

Christina Cook’s poems, translations, essays, and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in a number of journals, most recently including Prairie Schooner, The Dos Passos Review, Harpur Palate, Packingtown Review, and Cave Wall. Her manuscript, Lake Effect, was a semifinalist for three poetry prizes in the past year. Christina holds an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and is a contributing editor for Inertia Magazine. She teaches writing at Colby-Sawyer College.

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