Tag Archives: poetry

Poet Cynthia Cruz on Madness, Bodies and Bodies of Work

I was fortunate enough to be able to study with poet Cynthia Cruz at Rutgers -Newark while completing my MFA. She’s a generous teacher and her poetry rattles me in the best way possible. (Her first collection Ruin is what I consider to be “required reading.”) Anticipating the release of two new poetry collections, Cruz sat down with Lisa Wells from The Rumpus for an amazing interview. Here’s an excerpt:

Lisa Wells: Can you talk about the madness in your work? Or is it religiosity operating there? Some marriage of the two?

Cruz: To begin with: we are all mad, it’s simply a matter of where we are on that continuum. My mind is what saved me, as a child. Thank God, I was able to vanish into the world of my mind. But, conversely, it can also be a dangerous thing. The mind can play tricks. Was Joan of Arc mad? Simone Weil? Glenn Gould? Where’s the line between bravery and honesty and genius and madness? Sometimes it overlaps. I suffered from anorexia for many years (from the age of eleven) and that is quite certainly a kind of madness. My mind told me things that quite simply were not true. I had to fight against my mind.

And then, as you say, there is the spiritual. Back to Joan of Arc and Simone Weil: mystics or mad women? Virginia Woolf? Was she “mad” or driven mad? Finally, I am not content with the idea that people who suffer from madness of any kind ought to be marginalized. Nearly everyone I know in New York City is on one kind of medication or another for anxiety or depression or what have you, so again, it’s a matter of where we fall on the continuum which is really, in the end, just luck.

And later in the interview, Cruz gives a response that I’ve been reading and re-reading.

I was anorexic for many years (from eleven years old well into adulthood), and it has not gone unnoticed that the entire “project” of anorexia is not dissimilar to the act of making poetry. Both are a kind of miming, a kind of spectacle, a way of enacting how one feels. With anorexia, I, for one, was, of course without being conscious of it, performing as a means to show the world how I felt. I wanted both to be noticed (I felt invisible) and I wanted to not be seen (I felt I was too intense.) Anorexia served its purpose. It was a deliberate translating of experience, a means of communication: by compressing all my feelings, which were overwhelming for me, I made a kind of porcelain figurine of myself. I became a symbol, a code. 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.

Read the interview in its entirety here.

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Re-reading “Song” by Brigit Pegeen Kelly

by Olsen Zander

In the last semester of graduate school, Rigoberto Gonzalez my workshop great advice about what to do when it seems we’ve fallen out of love with poetry: “Go back to what you were reading when you were in love with poetry. Find those poems & see what was in them that made you fall in love in the first place.”

And so, this gloomy December morning, I’m re-reading “Song” by Brigit Pegeen Kelly. Here are the concluding lines, but read the entire poem to see how Brigit drives us to this point:

Not a cruel song, no, no, not cruel at all. This song

is sweet. It is sweet. The heart dies of this sweetness.

Amazed, but Mostly Terrified

by Marissa Textor

Several years ago, Kim Addonizio wrote “everyday I am both terrified and amazed to be here.” I was a junior in college when I first read that declaration and it seems to have resonated more and more every year since.

Lately though, the balance is increasingly being tipped toward terrified: the Texas Education Board’s decision to literally revise history textbooks to please right right lobbyist, Arizona’s apparent desire to become an apartheid state (in regards to its noxious immigration law as well as its anti-ethnic studies policy,) the fact that BP ruined/runs the Gulf Coast, so forth and so on. (I dare you to make a list of your own.)

And then this morning, I read about Israel’s attack on the humanitarian flotilla. I can’t explain my reaction except to say that something inside me broke. Maybe it was a hairline fraction or a fault line that’s been threatening to tremble for awhile, but I went from being shocked to outraged to empowered (I started looking up plans for rallies and plan on attending one in Times Square tomorrow) to exhausted to helpless. I couldn’t get anything done. I would try to read and re-read some of my favorite books and I wouldn’t make it ten minutes. I would try writing and couldn’t get past the first sentence without wanting to cry.

I should confess that I tend to get highly emotional when I’m in a creative stretch and since I’ve been writing everyday and will continue to do throughout the summer, my emotions have gone from technicolor to HDTV. But I think it runs deeper than that. Today was about more than me being sad or weepy for no good reason. It was about me sitting at my desk and wondering if there was in fact a place for my poetry (or any poetry) in this world? If people are doing what they should be doing (reading as much current events publications as possible, rallying in the streets, volunteering,) would they have time to read the imperfect poems I’m constructing?

Recently a person asked me if my poetry was inspiring. Without a pause, I said that it was not. I stand by that self-assessment and yet can’t help but (from time to time) wish that I could write a masterful poem that provided some kind of answer, however partial, however complete: a poem that amazed more than terrified, a poem that answered at least one of the impossible questions we’ve been posed with, a poem that said “Here it is. Here we are. Now, walk this way.”

The post was supposed to be about literary escapism but it appears to have gone in a very different direction. That’s fine with me. It’s not my intention to get encouragement from you or anyone about my work and this world. Rather, I think that it’s our obligation as artists to pause for a moment and honestly consider where we are in this world and what our work has to do with it.

I’m not going to write a poem about Gaza tomorrow. At least, not that I know of. I will find a way to write to that tragedy through metaphors and veils and words tucked behind more words but it will take time and it will most likely happen months or years from now. All I’m trying to say, I suppose, is that I’m amazed and terrified and trying.

Rich Villar on Nuyorican Poetics & Waterboarding Dick Cheney

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This is the first part of my interview with poet Rich Villar. He directs Acentos, an organization dedicated to supporting latino/a writers. He also looks great in a fedora.

I often start off with a question that allows the poet to write a wild bio… so, how would you introduce yourself to Dick Cheney?

Rich Villar is the product of a joint eugenics program conducted in secret by researchers in collaboration with the paramilitary groups Alpha 66 and the Macheteros.  He was created in 1977 using the spliced DNA of Hatuey, Agueybana, Anacaona, Eugenio Maria De Hostos, Ramon Emeterio Betances, Antonio Maceo, Lola Rodriguez de Tio, Julia De Burgos, Jose Marti, and Pedro Albizu Campos.  On his 35th birthday, in the final year of the Mayan calendar, it is predicted by various cowrie shells that he will return to Puerto Rico in a bow tie and whittled cane, where he will raise a modernized army and navy of 10 million revolutionaries to liberate the Caribbean from the United States, the IMF, and the World Bank.  He will install Sasha Obama as the first President of the Antillean Confederation, step down from his military duties, and retire to a 300-acre hacienda in the mountains of Fajardo, where he will spend the rest of his life writing love poems to his wife and periodically waterboarding Dick Cheney, who will have been captured during the aforementioned war for liberation.

I’ve read that hearing the work of Martin Espada gave you the permission to write about things you cared about and in the language(s) you grew up with. What about his work had this impact on you?

I met Martin in 2002 at a reading at Montclair State University, back when I was a lowly undergraduate poli sci major.  When I heard him do a surrealist-inspired poem about a cockroach, coupled with poems like “En La Calle San Sebastian” and “Mariano Explains Yanqui Colonialism to Judge Collings,” I heard the voices of uncles, aunts, cousins, and especially my dad.  In other words, I heard the true and insightful voices of some true wiseass Boricuas and Cubanos, voices through which I understand the world, even now.  The idea that I could marry a multilingual, codeswitching voice (i.e. MY voice) with my poetry AND my politics, and not sound like a preachy schmuck, was a revelation.  I also toyed with the idea of becoming a lawyer-poet, but I soon discovered that I value my sleep too much.

Your fiancée Tara Betts is also a poet. I was wondering if living with & loving another poet has any impact on your writing process. Are you collaborators or more independent in how you approach your work respectively?

I think we have expanded each other’s spheres of influence.  I am diving into her personal canon of African-American poets and poetics (Big ups to CC!) and she is diving into the poets of the Nuyorican movement.  She can sing La Lupe songs and I have cultivated an appreciation for Prince Paul.   That sort of thing.  As far as collaboration goes…well, we enjoy doing readings together, and we like exploring where we intersect and where we diverge creatively in that public space.   We also try to navigate the mine field of the “poetry business” together, which I think would be a thoroughly maddening experience if we didn’t have each other.  But we don’t exactly write exquisite corpses together.  Playing Wii Sports together makes up for it, though!  She thoroughly destroys me at boxing on a regular basis.

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Thinking about Revision

After a great discussion with poet Rachel Hadas yesterday about some poems I’ve been working on, I’ve been thinking about revision nonstop. One of the funny things about writing is that so much of it takes place in private (often in pajamas). Even if you’re in a workshop, like me, you rarely get to see the nitty gritty of people’s work. Welp. I think this is a problem for several reasons. One – I think we have a lot to learn from one another and not just about our finished products. I’m always really interested in other people’s writing habits and processes. Two – I hadn’t given much thought to my own revision habits until Rachel brought it up. I took out my notebook and showed her a poem that I had been working on. She pulled out some of her notes and did the same. In doing so, I noticed some patterns that I thought were interesting. At the risk of embarrassing myself, I’ve typed up some of the aforementioned notes so that you can get a glimpse into my weird little mind. Hopefully, this will motivate you to think about your own choices. Continue reading

Featured Poems on Splinter Generation

Splinter Generation is an online anthology of work by and for people under 35. Three of my poems are featured on the website. Yay. It’s worth mentioning that “It Means Something Different in Arabic” originally appeared in the May 2007 issue of StorySouth.