It was a snowy afternoon when I met with poet Cynthia Cruz in her cozy little office space on the Sarah Lawrence campus. As we sat in the same seats we do for our bi-weekly conferences, I couldn’t help but think about how funny it is to suddenly change roles—especially when you are sitting in the very same seat. All semester, it had been my ideas and work we were exploring and now, here I was interviewing her. As was typical, though, the conversation was easy as we discussed where her ideas come from, labels in the poetry world, and the risks she is willing to take in her own work.
– Adrianna Robertson, Poetry Reader
LUMINA: When did you first consider yourself a poet?
Cynthia Cruz: In graduate school.
LUMINA: What does your writing desk/workspace look like?
CC: It changes…but I have my own room, which is great. We used to rent it out but now I have it to myself. We call it “Headquarters” and no one else is allowed in there—not even the cats. My desk is really a card table with numerous piles of work (projects) on it. It looks like a mess but I know where everything is. It’s organized chaos.
LUMINA: Do you write every day?
CC: Probably not. I am in school full-time and teaching…but I do manage it. I have just finished my fifth manuscript.
LUMINA: That’s pretty incredible to be so prolific. Where do the ideas for the manuscripts come from?
CC: Each of my manuscripts has to be different. The first (and I have heard this many times) was very much something I just had to write. The others have been more project-based. By the time I was writing the last manuscript, I was interested in work that is raggedy and rough. Specifically, I looked at the work of CA Conrad, Dana Ward…Nick Twemlow—whose work is more perfect, but still different.
LUMINA: When you say raggedy and rough, what do you mean exactly?
CC: It has to do with form mostly…my poems until more recently have been really tight with (what I would describe as) mean lines.
LUMINA: What about the subject matter though—how does truth factor in to your poetry?
CC: Well, it’s the poetic truth factoring in vs. the literal truth. I like to include the things of the world in my poems…the stuff…the junk of it.
LUMINA: You’re referring to specific named things and/or people like Care Bears, My Little Pony, Iggy Pop, Bowie, Michelob, Paxil etc.?
CC: Yes—the stuff of our everyday lives.
LUMINA: You and I have spent a great deal of time this semester talking about the way that poets/artists portray themselves. Do you think poets are truthful?
CC: No, not always. Poets are a lot of different people. Not all people are truthful so of course not all poets are going to be truthful either. It’s odd though—how there seems to be this expectation of poets (to be honest) that doesn’t apply to everyone else.
LUMINA: Yes, I recently heard someone say that poets are some of the most honest people—and, I found myself thinking about how this oddly might be true and yet couldn’t possibly ever really be true either.
CC: Oh, how interesting that someone actually said that.
LUMINA: It made me think about the way poets are labeled one way or another. I have been becoming more and more interested in the way that labels exist in the poetry world, how we can escape them and/or if we need to. Can you tell me how your work may have been labeled in the past and what were your feelings about it?
CC: I don’t think there is any way to escape labels. I had one bad review with my last book. The reviewer from Publisher’s Weekly said that it was just a book about a bunch of Goth kids. It was an unfair way to label the book because not only was it not true but it wasn’t talking about the work. I believe we have a responsibility when we are reviewing each other’s work to actually read it and refer to the work itself in the review, rather than just slapping a label on it.
LUMINA: And in this case, especially a label that is not even accurate. Not that getting one negative review constitutes any kind of real failure whatsoever, but it makes me think about how you have been talking a great deal about writing failure—about embracing it in writing in order to see what may surface in the work. Have you done this in your own writing? If so, how and what has come from it?
CC: Well, for one thing the subject matter of (all of) my books is about failure. I think that failure is reaching beyond what you are capable of. It’s about trying to do something that you feel you can’t do. For me, in the last book (titled Dregs) I was specifically trying to do something I had never done before with the form. I felt like I was crawling on my stomach, that’s how uncomfortable and slow the process was. I sent it out to the publisher feeling as if they would never take it but it got picked up and it will be out in 2018—if we are all still here then.
LUMINA: When you say that your subject matter is all about failure, you mean that in your most recent collection, The Glimmering Room, for example, there are speakers talking about drug use, being homeless, anorexic, poor, lonely…that these are speakers who are opening up and making their vulnerabilities known, correct?
CC: Yes, exactly.
LUMINA: And, in this collection you created these taught, precise mini-worlds within each poem. When you set about writing these poems, what was most important to you?
CC: I wanted to portray these little worlds—give voice to these speakers, to these (perhaps underrepresented) voices in the world.
LUMINA: Did this seem risky—given these speakers and their situations?
CC: Yes—and this was part of what it meant to me to write failure as well.
LUMINA: The Glimmering Room starts with a quote from The Gospel of Thomas “If you bring forth what is within you, what is within you will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what is within you will destroy you.” Why did you choose to begin the book with this?
CC: I was using it as a sort of “rabbit’s foot” or a talisman—as something to ward off fear, to keep me safe against my fear (of taking risks) in writing the collection.
LUMINA: There are also countless references to God and Jesus in the book. Why? Does God play a prominent role in your own life?
CC: Are there? (laughs)—it has been awhile…the book was actually written over ten years ago. However, these references really kind of work in couple of ways. For one, when one is at rock-bottom (as all of these speakers are) there is nothing else. There is either God or death. So, in this way, these references offer a kind of hope. In another way, I am elevating these speakers—the homeless, the drug user, the lost—and putting them where they should be. The God that I believe in doesn’t see these people as different and/or bad.
LUMINA: In one of the last poems in The Glimmering Room called “The Inheritance of Amber Schloss” there is a line that says “A museum of curiosities, a means of holding/ The shores of the mind back…” and there are a number of German references, along with clear indications that there is trauma and a need to forget. Is this a nod to the next collection Wunderkammer?
LUMINA: I admire the artistry of this—the idea that it’s not just the poems in one collection placed so precisely with thought to meaning and relationship—but that this extends between collections as well. So, you said that title Wunderkammer means cabinet of curiosities and that you began that project with thoughts about clutter and your mother, who is in fact German. Are these references an indication of the autobiographical within your work? Was there specific trauma and a need to forget (in your own life/childhood) that keeps surfacing in the work?
CC: No, not for myself. I see my life (history/memory) as a never-ending, vibrant source for use in my art—an endless junkyard of beautiful objects, ideas, images, words, music, and so on (what one might, in fact, call “clutter”).
LUMINA: And other than your own life being a source of inspiration, which artists have most influenced you in terms of the new book, Wunderkammer?
CC: German artists: Hanne Darboven, Dieter Roth, Martin Kippenberger, Isa Genzken, & Rosemarie Trockel.
LUMINA: What is the publication date for Wunderkammer?
CC: Fall 2014
LUMINA: And, finally, what advice would you give to aspiring poets?
CC: If you feel that you have to do this—that you have to write poetry—then do it. If there is something else that you feel you might be interested in doing—to be an architect, for example—then do that. This has to be something that you are compelled to do.