“The ‘I’ in my poems changes from poem to poem”: An Interview with Cynthia Atkins

The first time that I encountered Cynthia Atkins’ work was when I read “Contronym Dinner,” the poem of hers we published early last year in Pine Hills Review. Upon reading it, I experienced a personal connection with finding the roots to my own concepts around recovery and overcoming trauma. 

Cynthia Atkins is the author of Psyche’s Weathers, In The Event of Full Disclosure (CW Books), and Still-Life With God (Saint Julian Press 2020), and a chapbook forthcoming this year from Harbor Editions. Her work has appeared in journals such as Alaska Quarterly Review, Anti-Heroin Chic, BOMB, Diode, Indianapolis Review, North American Review, Tinderbox, and Verse Daily. Atkins has worked as the assistant director for the Poetry Society of America, and has taught English and creative writing, most recently at Blue Ridge Community College. She is an interviews editor for American Microreviews & Interviews.  

Atkins’ newest collection, Still-Life With God, is both accessible and affecting to people who have endured trauma. It’s a book about moving through life despite what we and our families may face. In this interview, we talk about overcoming trauma, poetic form, and the importance of changing the “I” as the speaker from poem to poem. 

Your latest book, Still-Life With God, seems to be about a fall of faith due to trauma throughout life, among other things. Where were you—physically, spiritually, artistically—when you wrote this book? What was writing this book like? Was it difficult? Did it bring up old memories or emotions?

Well, I have always felt a bit rudderless when trying to define a word like faith—because I felt like we’re born into a kind of prescribed dictum telling us that God is good and we need to obey the laws of God. I began to question a kind of dogma, a kind of Patriarchy—and trauma has led me to try to excavate just what my belief system is and tell myself that it’s OK to question these things. Writing is investigation into the unknown, and often it is a scary, vulnerable, and raw place. But it is also a place to find truth and understanding, and I believe that is a place of self-empowerment.

I am an empath, and the feelings that you write about so eloquently in “Skin Deep” made me cry—and I mean ugly cry. Your writing style and the kind of state of consciousness flow that you give to many of your pieces is such a strong suit to your writing. Is form something that you intentionally pay attention to when you write certain poems? What do you feel that poems gain or lose from this?

I appreciate hearing that the poem struck a chord for you, and yes it was a painful, indelicate poem to write. It first appeared at SWWIM Every Day. “Skin Deep” is about racism and antisemitism. Back when I was a teenager, and sad to say we are experiencing this same kind of social chasm today—ever more so. I wanted to face the evil in that poem because it is so prescient today. Sometimes, using a form helps to give order to disorder, difficult subject matter: “Pain is important: how we evade it, how we succumb to it, how we deal with it, how we transcend it.”―Audre Lorde.

My poems are loose in formal scaffolding of the traditional kind, but I do feel a kind of form in how I deal with line breaks and enjambments. I like for those pauses or silences to hold the tension and complexities. And I am a big subscriber of image and what they can relay, ‘no ideas but in things,’ as Williams said. An image shouldn’t be placed carelessly. It shouldn’t feel formless like a cloud held up by toothpicks. Images should be woven into the narrative arc of the poem, be there for a reason, to push the subject matter forward.

While reading “Tree Of Life,” I noticed comments about family, with lines such as “when your boy cousin led you into the crawlspace where your ancestors hid their crowns of madness.” Throughout the book, you mention this madness. Is this madness a reference to mental illness, or something else, duende perhaps? 

Yes, “Tree of Life” is a poem dealing with lineage and heritage and the ways in which our identities are shaped by both nature and nurture. The DNA is there in the family unmentionables—all the secrets, flaws, failures and successes, are part and parcel of the DNA of the self—via the imprints of family. My family has had a history of mental illness challenges—my late sister had schizophrenia, and my father was bipolar, and I have a few screws loose myself, like anyone, my mental health has good days and bad days. Especially, in this pandemic new normal, it has been a challenge just to function. The world is upside down in all respects. 

Family is a strong component in my work—all the complexities of these relationships really interest me, as these facets are the many myriad parts we are. This Nietzsche quote always makes me laugh, because we have to laugh at all the chaos in our lives or go mad: “Family love is messy, clinging, and of an annoying and repetitive pattern, like bad wallpaper.”

The cover of Still-Life With God features an image “Perseverance” by Lisa Telling Kattenbraker, which shows a person in a dress or gown of some sort on the surface of a planet. There are stars and what seems like a galaxy behind the person, and they are juggling colorful orbs. Can you tell me a bit about the cover and its relation to the book? What do you interpret this picture to be? What do you imagine it to be? What does it say about the contents of your book?

Yes, Lisa Kattenbraker’s work spoke to me for its mystery, spatial magic, subject matter, colors and buoyancy. In “Perseverance,” the title of the piece that graces the cover, I love how the figure is wearing a celebratory hat and standing on the round universe, juggling a set of colorful balls—in this image there is gravity, chance, faith, destiny, mystery and a sense of solitude in the world. I love the joyful feeling of the image, and I feel it’s a good balance and counterpoint to some of the subjects and the trajectory of the lone self in relation to the universe and all the ways we tender it as humans—love, growth, joy, sorrow, uncertainty, and revelatory questioning of our place here. Lisa’s work speaks to me in the representations of the cycles of life. I truly love her work and I’m so honored to have it gracing the cover of my book.

“Cracker Jacks” sent me looking online to see if I could find relations between the different things that are mentioned. What I found is that all of these things relate to the 1960’s and 70’s. What does this time period mean to you? Was this a time in your life that you remember vividly? A memory from someone else’s life?

Yes, this was the era of my childhood, my girlhood and selfhood.  The Vietnam War was on the news every night, vivid war scenes. Back then, things were more real somehow—things going on in the world felt palpable. There wasn’t the 24/7 news cycle or the internet—there were record players, Transistor radios, princess phones, tiddlywink in the Tricks cereal, toys in the Cracker Jack box, the smell of the old crank pencil sharpeners, the ink on the mimeographed handouts your teacher would distribute, and you’d get your first gateway buzz off the smell.

All this to say, it was different—it felt very vivid and very focused. I remember things more vividly. I always tell my students ad nauseum, “write through your sense.” We relied more on our sensory world then—now we have so much content flooding our heads. The time period of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s was artistically quite sublime—the music, films and art was mimetic of the times, political and otherwise—free love, hippies, Watergate. I arrived just on the cusp of it. So when I write about these things, I am marking my territory with it, my little piece of the world as I tell it.

In an interview with The Poet, you say that trauma is what got you writing in the first place, that writing was a sort of escapism and coping method in order to deal with your life. As a poet myself who writes on her own trauma, is it too far to say that the speaker in many of these poems is you? What is the relation between your poems’ speakers and yourself? Who do you look to for inspiration in writing about such difficult topics?

That’s a very interesting question and I’m so glad you asked it, because the “I” in my poems changes from poem to poem—sometimes it is an up close and personal me, sometimes it is a more distant, objective speaker, and sometimes I am speaking in persona—which in turn, are sometimes my most personal poems. Sometimes it’s easier to reveal things about the self, through another’s voice.

I choose to not be at all accountable to how I tell a poem. People can wrongly presume in a poem, as opposed to fiction, that the speaker is always the up close and personal I. And of course, there’s you, in the second person, and that one might be the rawest of all. 

As artists and writers, we use the form to speak truth to power, but we are not beholden to any rules to tell it, or at least, for me, it’s all a composite of voices—me, myself, I, society, we, you, they, our—the pronouns can fall short and try to define us. The voices are many, let them speak—I, You, They, Us, We.

In your work, you allude to sexual trauma, or times that the speaker’s body hasn’t belonged to themselves. More times than I can personally count. Can you talk a bit about that? Would you say that’s a theme across your work or this book? Do you think your work brings light to something such as the #MeToo movement?

Yes, Art transcends the impediments of our times and helps to guide us through moral difficulties. Art makes us smarter, too. Back in the 80’s, feminism hadn’t quite reached the suburbs yet. Our mothers didn’t know to tell us, warn us about the real monsters out in the world, not the ones under the bed—but our teachers, coaches, bosses, many preying on young women. People in positions of power, using the prestige to sexually assault or harass.  I have had professors and bosses that have abused their power. My mother never warned me about any of this, so as a young girl I felt unequipped to know how to deal—our jobs, our degrees often rested on these people making decisions concerning our lives.  In “Still-Life With God” many of the poems are trying to address these polarities, “Skin Deep”—getting assaulted in a Denny’s getting racial epithets, antisemitism, white supremacy, toxic masculinity, all in the mix.

The #MeToo movement was long overdue, and I’m glad these things are enough in our general conversations that mothers and fathers know to talk, prepare, and empower their daughters and sons about the real monsters under the bed. I guess that is what all those Grimms’ Fairy Tales were about also, ‘Big Bad Wolf’ and all, preparing us for these evils.

You’re fairly well-published in literary journals big and small, including Pine Hills Review. Can you talk a bit about how you move from placing poems into journals to assembling a manuscript? Were these poems always part of this manuscript, or did they evolve over time? 

For me, publishing a poem in a good literary journal, where the work is presented with an aesthetic eye, and it feels like a beautiful stage for words,I am always humbled by any acceptance, as I know how competitive it is out there—how much good work there is and how space is limited.  It’s crazy, especially for such a low-paying market (we need to fix that—I have ideas, another time….). But having my work presented in that way is really special for me. Even better than publishing books—after my third, I realized how much pressure it is for a writer to put out a book—the marketing, PR, reviews, contests—all the different social media venues. It takes up so much time and it’s also a lot of pressure—and all you really want is to be writing.  Between books, the lit journals are like lovely breadcrumbs that get you from here to there. 

There are a few recent poems I’m quite proud of: “Crickets” in The Night Heron Barks ; “Diminution, 11am” in The Indianapolis Review; and “When The Internet is The Loneliest Place on The Planet” in The Los Angeles Review.

I like to have work out in a slush pile, or several. That keeps me writing. 

Speaking of Pine Hills Review, you had your poem, “Contronym Diner,” published here earlier this year in March. In this poem, you write of one of the most important themes that can be found throughout your book, recovery. What does recovery look like to you?

Yes, thanks for noticing that—that’s exactly what “Contronym Diner” is after—the idea of redemption through art, self-care, and speaking truth.  Empowering the self through a cleansing and a catharsis, but not glossing over or erasure.

It’s always a learning curve, there are always more weeds to pull, but establishing our boundaries, and finding the will to seek your dreams and answers on your own terms, that’s what recovery looks like to me.

I self-identify as a confessional poet. No aspect of my life seems too personal for me to write about. I find it therapeutic to write about many of the less-than-beautiful moments that have occurred throughout my short life. Would you consider yourself a confessional poet as well? What advice do you have for young confessional writers who are just starting out?

Well first, Read. Then use memory as a tool. And it’s okay that memory lies and to remember this is a poem—it’s not real life, it is a piece of art that you are creating—stitching, assembling, and composing. 

This poem is not real life. It’s Art—therefore it is a composed made thing and it’s okay to tell your truth any way, in any voice or persona you see fit. Look for and hear your own voice and style. It’s hard, but try not to compare your laurels to theirs. Write for yourself first, but keep your audience in mind. Private to public, Art makes its indelible contrails. As one of my favorite writers, Clarice Lispector, said, “So long as I have questions to which there are no answers, I shall go on writing.”

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