Monday, February 25, 2013

Interview with Cynthia Cruz

this interview originally appeared on the Four Way Books blog.

Four Way Books: What are you working on right now?

Cynthia Cruz: Right now I am working on a fifth collection of poems. With this project I am attempting to strip the poems of their backbone, the narrative, leaving only glitter or afterglow. In other words, the poems I am working on are a kind of mosaic, with each word or sound communicating with the other words and sounds. There is a narrative but it isn’t being told through sentences but, rather, via the disparate words themselves.

When my students ask me what a poem is, I tell them it is as though you have a strip of fabric with different bits of color and jewels embedded in it. Each of these bits and jewels necessarily create a relationship and a story just by being near one another. As a poet, I am interested in using words and sounds and space in this manner. Also: I am very interested in how visual artists present their works. I am thinking in particular of Rosemarie Trockel and her recent show, The Cosmos. Her entire project revolves around how what is presented becomes the object: the work of art. Each of these varying objects, set aside from one another, yet living in the same shared space, then, as a result, form a story, not a linear story per se—this is also what I am thinking of and the template for my new work.

FWB: I love this description of, essentially, the power of association. Would you say this kind of story telling is, in a way, more personal? It seems to get much closer to mimicking how we actually experience things.

CC: I don’t know if I’d say this kind of storytelling is “more personal” but it does, to me, mimic more the way I experience the world, and, perhaps, how others also experience the world.

FWB: What or who are you reading lately?

CC: I have been reading mostly fiction and non-fiction. I am currently reading Georg Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual, Rosemarie Trockel’s catalog for her recent show, The Cosmos, and Paul Klee’s Hand Puppets, and I am also reading Pamuk’s Istanbul. I am working on a memoir of sorts and looking to this work, which seems to be, like Sebald’s, a quasi memoir/fiction piece. I am also currently rereading the work of Clarice Lispector.

FWB: What sent you back to Clarice Lispector?

CC: Benjamin Moser’s beautiful new translations of Lispector’s work were published in June of this year. I had been waiting for their arrival and then was so happy to see them at McNally’s in Soho, my favorite bookstore, by the way. They presented the books, all four of the new translations with the gorgeous photos of Lispector on the covers, all together so that the books became a beautiful puzzle of sorts. In any case, when the new translations were released, I rushed out and bought them and this, the new translations, are what sent me back to her.

FWB: I saw that you have a relatively new blog focusing on fashion and style. In a recent blog post, you mention the designer/blogger Ilyana Sergeenko, applauding the way she embraces a kind of “edited, refined” excess in the midst of what you perceive as a trend toward “hyperminimalism,” and it struck me how in very broad terms, I see a similar kind of aesthetic minimalism in many of the magazines and journals to which I subscribe. Can you talk a bit about what draws you to fashion, and perhaps how it might connect to your poetic sensibilities and practice?

CC: Well, first off, fashion is about beauty, in my eyes, at least, and I am always interested in beauty. But also, the way pieces of fashion work is the same way words or sound work in a poem and, of course, also, similar to the way art objects are presented in the gallery or museum. Finally, fashion is about fantasy. This is no different than the act of writing. When I say, for example: Yves Saint Laurent’s pale pink bow blouse tucked into a worn pair of boy cut jeans with a pair of soft black Repetto Camille heels, this, these words, creates a world, a fantasy of its own. Add into the mix “short black hair slicked back like a boy” and we create one look while,” long blonde hair coiffed into a lion’s mane” creates quite another. Writing is engaging in the world of fantasy; creating a fantasy world. I am interested in creating an alternative world. A parallel universe, which is related to ours but in a stronger key. Fashion does this. Fashion allows one to accent the characteristics one wishes to and this, again, returns me to writing and art. I choose which words to use, which words to omit. Same goes for art. I am also very interested in curating. Fashion is the act of curating one’s self.

And, finally, I am deeply interested in masquerade and dressing in drag; fashion fits the bill. My grandparents were actors and dancers. I have photographs of them before the mirror backstage removing their stage make up. This becomes a metaphor to me for the two disparate worlds: the private and the public. When I am out in the world, I am Cynthia, the teacher, lover, friend, and daughter but when I sit down to write, I put on the make up, I become someone else entirely. This is true also for fashion. I can choose to enter the world in a pair of beat up sweats and sneakers and an Old Navy t-shirt. Or, I can decide to wear, instead, a smart tuxedo with my face made up in eyeliner, rouge, and lipstick. The woman who enters the world in both these instances is the same, essentially, inside but the performance is quite different. The curatorial choices we make are key.

FWB: Many of your speakers seem to work through a tension between spirituality and the body (“I’ve got a halo on my head and these animal fangs,” you write in “Strange Gospels” on p. 63), and I’m wondering how you would characterize the relationship between these speakers and questions of faith. Can you talk a bit about the way belief plays out in the book?

CC: All or most of the characters in the book are struggling with faith. They are moving through the darkness of the world. Some make it through and some do not, remaining in the constant questioning that occurs when one has lost all belief.

FWB: So many of your poems seem to tangle with the idea of childhood and girlhood, terms you seem to use in contrast to one another in the collection. What would you say is the difference between “childhood” and “girlhood” in particular, and how does that difference manifest in The Glimmering Room?

CC: I was a tomboy when I was a child. It wasn’t until a man looked at me, when I was 11, and assessed me (he was a friend of the family and he said, I remember this vividly, in the kitchen, “One day she’ll be a knockout”) that I became aware that I wasn’t “just a child,” that I was something else; I was about to leave, forever, this wonderful kingdom of childhood. That moment of knowing is pivotal. It happened for me too, with regard to class. I was happy living as a child playing with my friends until a friend of mine, whose father was in the same line of work as mine, pulled me away from the other children and said, in a whispered tone, “Aren’t you ashamed of what your father does (for a living)?” I wasn’t, but that moment, her assessment of what our fathers did for a living in comparison to what other fathers did, broke a spell, separating me from the others. And so the same is true for childhood, in general, and the inevitable move to “girlhood,” becoming a girl. It didn’t have to do with conforming, feeling the need to “behave like a girl,” but, rather, just that moment of “knowing,” of being made aware that I wasn’t just a child, I looked like a small woman. So regardless of the fact that I still lived like a tomboy, I was a tall lanky girl with the beginnings of a woman’s body behaving like a tomboy. It didn’t matter anymore how I felt— the world saw something different.

This moment of strangeness is integral to me, is included and worked out in my poems and my prose writing, and is one of the reasons I am so interested in the idea of drag and gender bending, (and, perhaps also why I have piles of Chanel nail polish, and Tom Ford make up in my drawers) in a way, I am still that tomboy unaware that I have become something else and so, as a result, when I go out, get dressed up in “girl’s clothes,” I am dragging, I am always aware of the artifice in it all. Make up and dressing up is great fun for me but it is always an artificial performance; never an organic matter. Dress up, or drag, rather than what my sister, for example, does when she puts on her make up: she wears make up daily, as a natural enhancement of her beauty while, again, for me, it is always a come on, an act of play, the (tom) boy putting on make up and a gown before the armoire.

I have always adored drag and related to it and also, too, women who “perform” in their presentations: Helene Cixous in her exaggerated sphinx-like look (the cat eye, liquid liner), Shirin Neshat’s exaggerated eye make up, and Anna Dello Russo with her exaggerated costumes, her drag like appearance, and her separate apartment of props (clothes, and shoes and bags). All of this is integrated and absorbed into The Glimmering Room. Girls become boys and boys become girls. Also, there are characters who are gender neutral (Billy changes from male to female to male). Finally, the characters are exaggerated: the endless sparkling and platforms, and yes, the drag. In fact, the book opens with the “I” pronouncing this very issue: “Dressed in my black cape of smut glue and / Subterranean, they mistake me for / A man in drag in my nasty / boots. So the whole issue of gender confusion (internal as well as appearance/performance) is brought in and worked out in this poem and throughout the book. 

Other examples, here from the poem “Eleven”:

The traveling minstrel show

Called girlhood—



Here, the coming up against the arrival of “girlhood,” and the abrupt end to childhood:



I burned it

down to the ground

And from “Strange Gospels”:

Eleven year old girls on Polk

Street in heels and white blonde wigs.

Here, the idea of girls coming up against “girlhood,” enacting “girlhood,” dragging, really and the idea that a child becoming a girl is of course still a child but this, the Fall, the abrupt realization of the end of innocence, this realization, ends childhood even if the childhood weren’t coming to an end, otherwise.

Anyway, you get the idea. These themes (drag, childhood/girlhood) are beaded throughout the work. The poems, the book, were a means for working these ideas out, for coherence.

On the topic of drag and enactment, childhood and the shock of the advent of girlhood: I was anorexic, on and off, from the age of eleven and there is no mystery in this. Anorexia was, for me, an attempt at staving off what I saw as a fanged world. It was the direct result of being seen as a woman when I was just a child. I was working against the end of this innocence, an attempt at (not that I knew this at the time, of course) returning myself to the kingdom of childhood, which, of course, was not possible. I lived inside this world (anorexia) for a very long time, and like any addict, I changed as a result. I have no question in my mind: in many ways it saved me, I needed that mental out. But, also, the very act of anorexia, whittling one’s life down to its bare essentials (whittling not just the body down, but one’s life, one’s world, one’s mind) was a kind of poetry. Long before I ever wrote a poem, I was an expert in this work: in enacting, in finding other ways to say what I needed, to express the inexpressible. Rather than say, I feel alone, I’m afraid, I stopped eating. Rather than say, I want my childhood back, I want to be seen for my mind and my soul, I stopped eating. In essence, I became the poem; I was my own objective correlative. So by the time I began writing, in my late twenties, I was already a natural at this work of compression, metaphor, working off an objective correlative, etc. When the time came, I switched rails and began to write, put the focus on the minutiae on the page rather than the minutiae of my life.

Anorexia was a whirring machine into which I poured everything and, as a result, through anorexia, I was able to survive these feelings and experiences. With poetry, I do much the same thing: it is also a whirring machine I put all my thoughts, feelings, and experiences into. I compress and revise compulsively (again, like anorexia, a kind of compulsive repetition and deletion of parts of the self {the self being poem or self}) until I have a perfect box of words that then stand in for experience, feeling, thought, a kind of perfect diorama, a world in miniature. I would not be alive today were it not for both anorexia and poetry.


About the Interviewers:
Sara Sams is a poet and translator from Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Her work has been featured in or is forthcoming in The Drunken Boat and Blackbird; she also serves as international poetry editor for Hayden’s Ferry Review. She is currently pursuing her MFA at Arizona State University.

Rachel Andoga is a recent graduate of the MFA program at Arizona State University and her poems have appeared in Yemassee, Coal Hill Review, and …And Love…, published by Jacar Press.

1 comment:

Francesco Sinibaldi said...

A sense of quietness.

Like a
young dove
in the breath
of a feeling,
with a tender
desire in the
light of a
dream....

Francesco Sinibaldi