Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Interview with Publisher, Editor, and Poet, Emily Vogel: Cat in the Sun Press

Michael: Hello, Emily.  Thank you for agreeing to an interview. 

Cat in the Sun Press is a new press.  Its first book, Micah Towery’s collection, Whale of Desire, was published only at the end of last year.  I’m interested to find out why you and poet Joe Weil decided to start a press.  What need did you see that prompted such a large undertaking?  What void do you hope the press will fill?

Emily: The original idea for the press arose when Joe and I were visiting with our friends Lucas Rivera and Sharon Zetter. We wanted to launch an online journal and also each Joe and I and Sharon and Lucas a kind of consortium. Sharon and Lucas named their press “Called Back Books,” and we named our press “Cat in the Sun” because I kept thinking about our cat, Pushkin, languorously sleeping in the sunlight. Joe had always wanted to launch his own press. He was the editor and publisher of the journal “Black Swan,” and also one of the founders of Monk Books, as well as various other low budget journals over the years. One of the original intentions of the press was to curate “art books” by painters or photographers that were also poets in their own right.
Michael: What in particular about Micah Towery’s work drew your attention?  What singled it out as a good book for the press’s debut collection?
Emily: We had been wanting to do a book of Micah’s for a while. This was his first book, and we liked his poetry and thought it should be recognized. We wanted to do first books as well as the books of well-known poets with extensive publishing histories.
Michael: What are your plans for the press?  Do you foresee Cat in the Sun Press publishing a certain number of books per year or only as you come across those you want to publish? 
Emily: We’re planning to publish two a year---one in the spring/summer and one in the fall/winter. We’ve just completed an art book (with poetry) of Maria Gillan’s which will be made available on Amazon very soon.  (Since this interview, Maria Gillan's book, The Girls in the Chartreuse Jackets, has been published.  An image of her book is at the end of the interview.  You can click it to be taken to Amazon.com where it can be purchased.)
Poet Joe Weil, cofounder
of Cat in the Sun Press
Michael: Sorry to ask what may be rather pedestrian questions, but I think it might be interesting to see what a poet and publisher thinks on these things. What do you think is the role of poetry in American society?  Are our poets doing their part?  If not, what should they be doing differently?
Emily: I tend to consider poetry that is being written today as being circulated only amongst other poets. It feels very self-contained to me (and almost “incestuous”) because from what I’ve seen the only American citizens that actually read the work of living poets are other poets, who are ambitious perhaps and seeking to emulate their work. I don’t see a lot of people other than “poets” who are reading poetry. And if they do read poetry, then they seek to compete with the poets that they are reading. Poetry has lost its purpose in being an exclusive art that ordinary citizens admire and appreciate. If my students (who are not English majors) have read poetry, it is the work of dead poets, like Robert Frost, Edgar Allen Poe, and Emily Dickinson. Good poets, and rightfully so---but in my opinion poetry has become a “scene” which every aspiring poet wants to leap upon. It has, in my opinion, become more of a business than an art. There are more MFA writing programs than I can count on my fingers, toes, and my children’s fingers and toes (and furthermore) and it seems to me an industry. Some even call poetry a “career.” I write poetry, so I can tell you just how much I loathe the utilitarian “ins and outs” of the poetry biz. Because I am a writer myself, I can tell you that I do everything I can to stay away from this nonsense. Sure, everyone needs a publisher, but in the meantime I’d like to muse upon the trees without contingency and write well, and write out of something rhapsodic and holy. America prides itself on trophies and awards, and everyone gets one because this is an equal opportunity society. But which poets do we remember from the past who are now dead? I can tell you from the romantics: Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelly, Keats, and Blake. That’s six. And how many so-called “important” poets do we now have swarming our nation?
Michael: You say that “poetry has lost its purpose.”  What is that purpose?
Emily:  When Shelley said "poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world" in his Defence of Poetry---I think he meant something quite different from the way that poets see themselves in today's world. I think he may have meant that there are (or were) very few poets that could rightly refer to themselves as "poets." Wordsworth said something similar in Preface to the Lyrical Ballads: something along the lines of the poet "being a very particular kind of person." There are so many poets who are publishing their books now that I think poetry has become too commonplace and ordinary---maybe even mainstreamed? Poetry was once written by the drunks and madmen---eccentrics and recluses. Now it seems to be written by any academic that writes well enough to be accepted into an MFA program. When the business of submitting work online, filling out applications for residencies, and collating manuscripts becomes just as important (if not more so) than the actual art, I do think at least some of the purpose gets lost.
Michael: What American poets do you see as great voices that aren’t being acknowledged or, perhaps, even published?
Emily: John Richard Smith, a poet from New Jersey is one of my favorite poets. Also Adele Kenny (another NJ poet), and Nicole Broadhurst, who writes this really wacky and almost religious poetry, which reminds me of Ginsberg.
Michael: What are the press’s current plans and projects?
Emily: For the fall and spring, we’re looking to do a couple of art/poetry books, or collaborations. We also want to do conversation books. We’re eclectic. We want to tailor our press to those voices of artists who are damn good and sometimes don’t get the credit they deserve. We want to do beautiful books that you wouldn’t dare leave under the passenger seat of your car.
Michael: Thank you, Emily.  It will be a pleasure to see what poetry comes out of Cat in the Sun Press. 
Please click the image to be taken to Amazon.com
where you can purchase Maria Mazzioti Gillan's book
The Girls in the Chartreuse Jackets

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Interview with Poet Micah Towery

Michael T. Young: Thank you, Micah, for agreeing to an interview.  
Your new collection of poems, Whale of Desire, has such a wonderfully provocative title.  I wondered if you could comment on the title itself and the significance it has for the collection.  What is it meant to suggest? 
Micah Towery: I misremembered a line from my own poem, but it stuck. It also seemed to evoke the whole gist of the book, the idea of largeness, the appetites. Also, I like whales. 
Michael T. Young: The poem “It’s Not That I Don’t Like Charlton Heston,” says, “who among you/would rather be understood than//thrown over my shoulder/and hoisted to/the highest point in the city/with the thrilling fire of bullets/from jealous fellows following?”  This suggests that being desired is greater than being understood.  Do you feel this is true?  How do you see this as significant in the collection?
Micah Towery: Well, certainly that line tugs at those two possibilities. I want to say that what we often desire when we desire is to be known. One could differentiate mere understanding from fuller knowledge. In that sense, desire is bound up with true knowledge. In most theistic traditions, bliss is the fulfillment of the desire to know, to be mystically unified with the source of being.
Michael T. Young:   Your poem “On the Closing of the Coca-Cola Plant in Binghamton, NY,” seems central to the collection, bringing together both spiritual and economic realities.  In fact, the end of the second section where the milk men say, “You Coke guys eat more shit//than my dog,” made me think of near the end of “To Elsie,” where Williams says that we are “degraded prisoners/destined/to hunger until we eat filth.”  Your poem somehow seems to be the belly of the whale: where we descend into the murkiest depths to recover that little bit of light.  Could you comment on its place in the collection and its importance: what it addresses in the arc of the book?
Micah Towery: Those 5 poems took me several years to write—most of which was not spent writing but processing those feelings and experiences. In one sense, they layer together various parts of my life and unify them in a way that I can’t do outside of poetry. It catches the kind of strange feelings of how I related to the other men at the Coke plant and how, in them, I saw the ghosts of my family history. The connection with “To Elsie” is perceptive because the whole series is unified around working with America’s best known “pure products”: Coca-Cola. 
Michael T. Young: The poem “Poem in Honor of My Own Birthday,” says, “I think it’s clear I like/cold things, like the chilly offices/of love.”  There is also a series of love poems in the collection.  What do you see as love’s place in the collection’s progress and development?  
Micah Towery: Most of the love poems are pretty personal in the sense that they arise out of personal experience. Because the book spans some 10 years, it’s hard for me to not feel there is some deepening/development of my idea of love in the book itself. Yet on the more ‘cosmic scale’ of love, as a Christian, I believe that “God is love” and, therefore, love animates the universe itself: the awe of being, the unfathomable diversity of it and the almost terrible creativity—unaccountable and unable to be accounted for—the kind of thing that mystics speak of as both God’s darkness and light. I hope there is an arc in the book in which the personal experiences and that cosmic sense begin to meet.
Michael T. Young: Roethke said, “I believe that the spiritual man must go back in order to go forward.”  I was reminded of this because so much of your work engages the past.  I wondered if you could comment on the importance of engaging the past within the collection, referencing or engaging everything from Psalm 39 to Miles Davis.  Do you feel a spiritual journey must engage the past in this way?  If so, why is it important?
Micah Towery: I think it was Faulkner who said “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” I am a little obsessed with understanding how different peoples conceive of time and what that says about their aspirations, their sense of history and memory. We use the past, in combination with our aspirations for the future, to construct our present. And poems are nothing if not an attempt to be present, to present and make living a self for the world. This is a spiritual act, a tradition of speech you learn from other poets. The biblical Psalm writers, as well as contemporary writers like Michael S. Harper, are powerful models for these modes of poetry.
Michael T. Young: Your poem “Image of a snake striking the eagle while being carried away,” ends saying “In this way/we rescue the light/from the darkness.”  Much of the collection seems to be an effort to do just that, dive into the dark areas where light has been stolen away and bring it out.  It reminded me of the old Gnostic view that the serpent was the true god who stole into Eden to free Adam and Eve from the false god that kept them enslaved.  Do you see this as an element in the arc of the collection?  What do you see as its significance in the collection or in a spiritual journey?
Micah Towery: The telling and retelling of stories creates an interesting space for the exploration of truth and human recognition of it. What I think is interesting about the Genesis accounts is that, taken on their own terms (literally), they are pretty clearly redacted versions of polytheistic creation accounts. In it, the divine figures are petty, jealous of their prerogatives. Yet, at some later point, they became the cornerstone of the major monotheistic religions. In that sense, the redactions are not a flaw, but rather the very integrity of the text: evidence that people over time have ‘sat with’ the elements in the text and tested them against collective knowledge and experience, recognizing what they saw as truths. I reject gnosticism generally, but insofar as I think humans generally seek the truth, there must be some genuine truth. I do think the ‘slow emergence’ of truth is a theme in the series you mention.

Click image to be taken to Amazon.com
to order Whale of Desire
Michael T. Young: The spiritual yearning of the collection takes place in contemporary America with gas stations, a Coca-Cola factory, Jazz, etc.  What do you see as a particularly contemporary problem in man’s spiritual needs?  What do you see as the solution to that problem?
Micah Towery: For some time, art denied the spiritual aspirations of ‘low’ art, art that didn’t fit class or race assumptions. Now we tend to embrace low art but deny spiritual aspirations. I see this true in a broader sense as well: the inability to recognize something as a spiritual need, generally. So, for example, we look at unemployment as a social or economic problem, but we don’t recognize that it’s also a spiritual problem. I think our common discourse suffers from this flattening. We live in “a secular age,” it’s true, but I believe we need to find a way to bring spiritual needs back into the discussion. We can probably start by acknowledging that even in our diverse and divided society we hold a lot more in common than we acknowledge. 
Michael T. Young: This may seem a rather pedestrian question, but what American poets are most significant for you?  I’m curious especially because of the spiritual engagement in your poetry.  What American poets do you find important for that spiritual engagement?—maybe poets you feel are important not just for you but perhaps for our larger cultural growth.
Micah Towery: It’s a really important question to me, actually. I have to acknowledge some of my teachers--Joe Weil and Tom Sleigh, as well as Christine Gelineau, Donna Masini, Jan Heller Levi--these folks put a mark on my poetry because they actually explored it with me line-by-line. They also had a profound impact on my spiritual outlook. In the scope of larger American poetry, though, Eliot, Williams, Bishop, Lowell, and O’Hara, as well as Michael S. Harper, Allen Grossman (at least as a poetry ‘theorist’), and Frank Bidart. Anyone with a knowledge of American poetry will see a pretty clear lineage in that list. I can’t deny it. To me, these poets model not just voice and style that I find engaging, but also a way of being in the world and manifesting that presence through poetry. Eliot really sparked my love of poetry. For a while I drifted away from him, but after many years I’m coming back to him as a touchstone. He expressed such strong critical opinions, and I suspect that people assume a similar stance underneath his poetry (especially his post-conversion stuff). But I find a profound ambiguity in a poem like “Ash Wednesday” that doesn’t cut corners.
Michael T. Young: What is your favorite poem in the collection?  Which is it and why is it significant for you?
Micah Towery: I’m really proud of some of my poems--like my Horace translation--as personal poetic accomplishments. But the poems I enjoy returning to are some of the love poems to Jill. In my humble opinion (!), the second is probably one of the best poems I’ve written.
Michael T. Young: Are there any prose works that have noticeably influenced your work as a poet?  What are they?  Can you say in what way you feel this work or works influenced your poetry?  
Micah Towery: Definitely Augustine’s Confessions. That sense of inwardness, but also his willingness to use personal events to explore profound philosophical issues. I love that he shifts from his last memories of his mother into his deep meditation on the nature of memory, time, and creation. When I first read these sections of Confessions, I felt like I was seeing into the heart of the universe itself. Further, Augustine is such an amazing writer that his ability to craft a sentence comes through even in translation! I think his prose style probably did impact my poetry on a stylistic level as well.
Michael T. Young: What do you like to do that has nothing to do with poetry or writing?
Micah Towery: I enjoy fantasy baseball. I also like to make wine & beer and roast my own coffee. Cheese making is next on my list.
Michael T. Young:  Thanks for your time, Micah.  Let’s close with your favorite poem from Whale of Desire.
Second Love Poem for Jill
. . . . . . . . . . . In Idaho

Down at the boat launch, on the river that feeds
. . . . . . . into Lake Pend Oreille,
the slanted concrete slab still warmed us where
we sat, and the mountains faded into the sky
. . . . . . . as the train went by
. . . . . . . to Coeur D'Alene.

I stared into the clear and moving water
. . . . . . . at the rocks
until I saw how full the water was of fish--so full--
such as the light--after a while I saw only
. . . . . . . the fish after the rumble
. . . . . . . passed away.

On that evening when we'd spent the day
. . . . . . . negotiating, careful,
you said to me, I'm figuring out marriage
and you and figuring out me, and the river
. . . . . . . in its wisdom
. . . . . . . said nothing wise.

And the water glinted with the last light of the bugs
. . . . . . . that broke
the surface, and it sounded with the fish that ate them.
And the mountains kept fading into the sky.
. . . . . . . Then you said,
. . . . . . . I love. . .

and didn't finish.  So we left the launch
. . . . . . . and drove
away, and the river echoed that I love.  And
afterwards, a moose began to wade across
. . . . . . . the water
. . . . . . . slowly.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Please take a look at my review of In the Event of Full Disclosure at The Philadelphia Review of Books

Click the image to be taken to the review
at The Philadelphia Review of Books

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Interview with Poet Cynthia Atkins

Photo by Alexis Rhone Fancher

Michael T. Young: Thank you, Cynthia, for agreeing to an interview.
Many have pointed out that your new collection, In the Event of Full Disclosure, is about a family dealing with mental illness. I was struck by the number of ways the collection connects those familial struggles with larger societal issues as, for instance, the way our tabloid culture wants the dirt on everyone and the idea that completely confessing our mental dysfunctions will somehow lead to a cure. Did you intend such connections and could you comment on them in the larger arc of the collection?
Cynthia Atkins: I guess I see larger societal issues as the threshold I wanted the arc of the book to straddle—that fine line between public and private, the interiors and exteriors. These things interest me and they inevitably lead to a discussion on how we exist in the world as individuals, families and societies, and yet we exist in the world for the most part, alone. We are still seriously stalled in knowing how to deal with the elusive and complex problems that arise when a family member is afflicted with a serious mental derailment. In my case, both my father and my sister had debilitating mental health issues that threatened the health of all of our relationships. Also, the whole mental health system is very broken. I am hoping that my book can help continue the conversation, and help allow some air in the room of stigmas and taboos. I hope the narratives and personas allow the reader to experience from different tones, vantage points, and personas. In our life time, most of us will know someone who is afflicted, or we, ourselves will be dealing with instabilities of our own. Daily life is stressful and complex, which is of course one of the reasons we go to Art, to help us disentangle the morass of life. 
Michael T. Young: The opening poem, “Liturgy,” concludes by saying of the unsayable thing it talks around that “It is the greed inside your prayer.” The complications of desire surface in the collection in various places. What do you see as the issue around desire and greed as it evolves in the collection?
Cynthia Atkins: “Liturgy” was a key poem for me in the book, which is why it is the first poem, and it addresses the first layer—the individual. For me poetry is the place I go to ask the questions. This poem was speaking to the place between carnal and spiritual life—our wants, our needs and our desires. I think being human and growing up is realizing that these dualities are so closely tied together, and sometimes it is hard to separate them out.  The last line in the poem was for me a kind of revelation and it was a shock to me when it came—the truth being that much of what we do in our lives starts from a place of greed, pure human greed.  Again, I think art and literature help us find redemption for this failing. 
Michael T. Young: The poem “Vessels” says, “All I learned and forgot, tallied/and catalogued in the room beyond/the room of knowledge.” And the poem “Birth Right” says, “Born to know that we’ll never settle our accounts.” How much of the cure to anguish these poems seek is in accepting that there is no cure, only a kind of reconciliation to the given? What constitutes that?
Cynthia Atkins:  Interesting that you make the connection between these two poems. I think there is a thread that connects these poems for me in the idea of knowledge—and how much of our knowledge is instinctual, rather than learned. While writing “Born to Know” I was in the throws of watching my son learn how to read and write, and thinking about the things he comprehended while I was reading to him. For instance, when reading him the legendary bedtime book, “Goodnight Moon” (Margaret Wise, Brown and illustrated by Clement Hurd 1947), I was always amazed that he understood that symbol of the moon—crescent, full, waning, gibbous, waxing—he understood that they were all the moon. That seemed to me instinctual knowledge, rather than learned, and I thought a lot about this concept while writing that poem. The way in which we take in, learn and process the world around us, as well as the knowledge that we learn to catalog and compartmentalize. “I know trees are meant/to hold the rain.” That image is made from the point where all these things fuse and come together. 
I am curious about how much luggage we come in with and how much is acquired along the way. Of course the ultimate question we ask and wonder—do we come into the world knowing we will die?  I will never forget when my 3 yr. old Eli asked me that, the hardest thing to have to tell your child. I paused and realized that I had to answer and pop the bubble at three, “Yes, you will die.” But at that moment when he asked, I realized that he already knew the answer for himself. I think we all come into the world with the crib-notes on that score: “We are but skin about a wind, with muscles clenched against mortality.” ― Djuna Barnes
Michael T. Young: In “God as a Character in the Room,” it says, “where everything is dated,/nothing is sacred.” The limits of knowledge and of confession are probed throughout the collection. Could you talk about those limits in the context of the collection? How do you see them in relation to the anguish and trying to get at the truth?
Cynthia Atkins:  Our culture is at a strange impasse between commercialism and fast-food religion, in trying to sustain any kind of spiritual life in this climate of superficial hype a la reality TV and the branding of our own images. It is a strange time to be living in the vortex of science, politics and religion. Finding the balance between the material and spiritual realm is a challenge.  We have so many millions of pieces of information coming at us all day long. Not to mention, the cadre of selves we also have to keep up with on social media. In the old days, you were interrupted by a chance phone call, or the UPS truck, maybe a car alarm. Otherwise, one felt truly alone. There is a place of complete solitude that I need to feel to get to mechanisms that allow me to write. Sometimes it is several layers to get to the bone, like the fat of the day that needs to be skimmed off. I feel it is more and more difficult to feel this sense of self and isolation. We are plugged into so many orifices, everything we say is held before a jury and court, and our self-worth is measured by how many ‘likes’ we receive in a day. We are bound to be taking a psychological beating and it is exhausting. Paul Bowles said, “The soul is the weariest part of the body.”
Michael T. Young: A number of poems indicate that language and writing are profoundly important. For instance, “As Seen From Above,” says, “words/were considered monuments.” What is the significance of writing and language in the context of mental illness? How does it help or hurt? Can this be related to the larger societal issues suggested by the collection?
Cynthia Atkins: In working with the subject of family and mental health, I was very interested in looking from completely different aesthetic angles and conceits. For me as a poet, language is my way in—images and words that allow us to perceive an object, let’s say an iron, or a bowl from so many places, depending on the context. Sometimes, I like to jettison narrative and let the language just play itself out. I let myself off the hook, sometimes just wanting to be on the playground with words, getting dirty, taking risks, failing, just having some fun with words. 
Michael T. Young: The poem “In a Parallel Universe,” says, “On the other side of the mirror, we will be stalked/by the lies we told.” The poem “Order/Disorder/Order” says, “Disclose my unbearable/junkyard of mental debris?—No dice.” How do you see balance struck between the need for limits on disclosure and the equally important need for honesty?
Cynthia Atkins:  It interests me that no matter how close or intimate we are with another human being—no one can really know our minds. It might be the last vestige of our privacy. Our lovers, spouses, kids, parents, siblings—as close as we are tied by blood, semen, history and roots—we are not kept privy to the real thoughts of another human psyche. In the end, it makes me wonder what we disclose to each other, and finally, what we really disclose to ourselves. Honesty is a very guarded enterprise and it comes at many costs. Not long ago, I read with my students the essay by Stephanie Ericsson, The Ways We Lie and I found it truly fascinating to see how she disentangled the various ways we lie to each other and ourselves. Striking the balance with my own writing has been a high-wire act. In writing about family or those we know, we have to be careful with the privacies of others in what we disclose. This is why I often write through a persona. Readers may want to see the speaker and writer as one, but this is not always the case.

Click the image to go to Amazon and
purchase In the Event of Full Disclosure
Michael T. Young: Questions of identity, of course, play out in many of the poems. The most obvious is “Google Me,” where the knowledge at our fingertips suggests that we are changing ourselves with every search and with a right to claim any of those identities. What do you see as the nature of identity in this collection?  How does it relate to the other themes of desire, disclosure, and the need to negotiate some way to handle the anguish?
Cynthia Atkins:  Id and ego are such close siblings. I teach a class called “The Ties That Bind” which deals with the roles of family in our lives—the quest of course is to consider all the things that go into the composition of our own identities. For instance, I think it is endlessly fascinating to think about the fact that in a single family, sisters and brothers may be made from the same DNA, yet all turn out so differently, even with similar histories, memories, and experience. Gratuitously, much of the material from class readings, discussions and reflections on these matters has landed in In The Event of Full Disclosure.
As I say in another poem, “anguish is harmful to live with” and “I’m wanting a text book/on the matter.”  These things I say with some dry cynicism, but at the bottom, I feel full of heart about trying to find the balance. Pain is painful, but it is the thing that makes us appreciate happiness and pleasure. I am a strong believer in yin/yang—we can’t know one without the other. Our identities are shaped by the good, bad and ugly of life experiences. I know I am a composite of all of these fragments.
Michael T. Young: What is your favorite poem in the collection? Which is it and why is it significant for you?
Cynthia Atkins:  Family Therapy IV” is a poem that for me has resonance on a few levels. First crafting this poem was a significant turn for me. Having the boundary of the couplets made me reign in and say what I had to say in a more compressed and compact fashion. I felt an affinity for the voice in the poem. I think of it as the voice of ‘the doctor,’ someone who knows us intimately and impersonally—detached indifference. I felt I had achieved what I was after with the poem in music, conceit and subject matter. I still get a faint chill when I read the poem, so it has held up to me in my own readings. I guess I have a few favorite children here.
Michael T. Young: Are there any prose works that have noticeably influenced your work as a poet? What are they? Can you say in what way you feel this work or works influenced your poetry?
Cynthia Atkins: In terms of fiction writers that have lit the poetic fuse, I would have to say some of the post-modernists—Luis Borges’ stories, Italo Calvino, Djuna Barnes were writers I was reading while writing In The Event of Full Disclosure (five years!), as well as poets like Amy Gerstler, Sylvia Plath, Kenneth Koch, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Gertrude Stein—many voices and bats in the belfry no doubt are lurking around. They’ve all taught me something about language and meaning. The best writers make you want to write. Rambling around in the attic of everything we write are these archival ghosts, they leave us such resonant contrails.
Michael T. Young: What do you like to do that has nothing to do with poetry or writing?
Cynthia Atkins: I guess I‘d have to say visual art is my other passion—but maybe that has too much to do with poetry and writing, as it is a great source for me. I think poetry and visual art are much more related than poetry and fiction. There is an immediacy and sense of time that happens when looking at art or reading a poem—a kind of synesthesia that happens as all the elements come together.  So I guess this doesn’t really answer your question, but on the other hand, not much has nothing to do with poetry or writing: “The writer should never be ashamed of starring, there is nothing that doesn’t require her attention,” said Flannery O’Connor. I guess the answer to your question is watching my son Eli play soccer—he plays with such vim and vigor. I have never been anything remotely athletic, so I really enjoy the way he uses his mind and body together to accommodate the mission. It gives me a lot of joy to watch him connect to his passion. But then, I just used a ‘goal post’ as an image in a poem, so nothing escapes a writer’s wrath. 
Thank you for your close and passionate reading, Michael—these questions were seriously penetrating, and they made me do some serious and heartfelt digging!
Michael T. Young:  Thanks for your time, Cynthia.  Let’s close with your favorite poem from In the Event of Full Disclosure.

Family Therapy (IV)

It is the thing we always fail
to mention on all the forms—
the despotic voices dancing off
the charts, and on the trail
of our acrid ancestors, haphazard
and lorn, sniffing us out like cadaver dogs.
Our chromosomes flirting
on the cordless phone—Deceases of the heart
and kidney are just the body’s bric-a-brac.
Incorporeal or obscene?  We are the doctor’s worst
unexplained nightmare. And we never speak
of the Endocrine glands—Unsavory
secretions passed down like the heirloom
nobody even wants.  We are a Rogue nation.
No country or comfort zone.  Inhospitable bedrooms,
where our parents detonated bombs, blamed
the groping in-laws. Our family trait is to remember
only the good times, like a last blown kiss
at the door—But more like a breath
blown over a bottle, forever haunting
the offspring.  Hush, we’ll never tell,
yet deep down we know, the mind’s pain
is the last inconsolable and extra gene.
Rabid dog in the school yard—
Mean and mad and frothing.
Cynthia Atkins
First appeared Harpur Palate

If you would like to read more about Cynthia Atkins and her work, please check our her website: http://www.cynthiaatkins.com/

Monday, April 21, 2014

Remembering Nina Cassian

The news that Gabriel Garcia Marquez died on April 17th has overwhelmed the news—even for those who are likely to know—that another amazing literary figure died only 2 days before: Nina Cassian.  Nina Cassian was the pen name for the Romanian poet born as RenĂ©e Annie Katz.  Cassian’s biography is the stuff of Nobel Prize winners, like that of Joseph Brodsky or Czelsaw Milosz.  She grew up primarily in Bucharest, where her family relocated when she was eleven.  Her first collection of poetry was condemned by the Communist authorities.  For a time Cassian tailored her writing to be less controversial, but she was an exuberant personality and secretly wrote satires of the government during the oppressive Ceausescu regime.  In 1985, Cassian was invited to teach at New York University.  While here, her friend, Gheorghe Ursu, was arrested and tortured to death.  The authorities found Ursu’s journals in which he also transcribed Cassian’s unpublished poems lampooning the government.  This resulted in Cassian’s home being seized by the authorities and all her books and papers being confiscated.  Realizing that her life would be in danger if she returned, Cassian appealed to the US Government for asylum and, having it granted, remained here until her death on April 15, 2014.  

I had the good fortune to meet Cassian in the early 90’s.  I was introduced to her by poet Dana Gioia at a reading she was giving in SoHo.  She had a magnificent presence: elegant in the way we think of great Hollywood actresses.  I can still hear her voice in my head, for the way she delivered a line was indelible, as was the power of her poetry, which is really the focus here.  

Cassian was incredibly prolific, publishing over 50 books in her lifetime: poetry, children’s books, fiction, translations, even puppet plays.  She had a playful imagination but also a big heart.  This may account for her poetry being something like surreal love poetry.  But don’t think of her as another Pablo Neruda; her poetry is quite different.  The playfulness of Cassian also accounts for her prolific publication of children’s books, which in turn might give you an inkling of her surreal bent.  Think of fables and fairytales, but those which don’t shy away from the darkness.  For instance her poem “Sand,” 

My hands creep forward on the hot sand
to unknown destinations;
perhaps to the shoreline,
perhaps to the arms from which they are severed
and which lie on the beach
like two decapitated eels.
(translated by Naomi Lazard)
What is remarkable about so much of Cassian’s poetry is that the majority of it seems to lose nothing in translation.  For instance, in the marvelous poem, “Orchestra,” the ethereal quality of the beloved is likened to the elusive emotional force of music as it is played.  Even in English that pursuit of an impossible spirit is perfectly rendered:
Climbing the scales three octaves at a time,
I search for you among the high notes where
the tender flute resides.  But where are your
sweet eyelashes?  Not there.
Then I descend among the sunlit brasses—
there funnels glistening like fountain tips.
I let them splash me with their streaming gold,
but I can’t find your lips.
Then daring ever deeper I explore
the depths the elemental strings command.
Their bows will not create a miracle
without your stroking hand.
The orchestra is still.  The score is blank.
Cold as a slide rule the brasses, strings and flute.
Sonorous lover, when will you return?
The orchestra is mute?
(translated by Dana Gioia)
At times she rendered with perhaps greater clarity than other more celebrated poets the problem of art under tyrannical regimes.  Though one could also see it as a kind of pride, it is a pride born of necessity in the face of oppression:
A clean vowel
is my morning,
Latin pronunciation
in the murmur of confused time.
With rational syllables
I’m trying to clear the occult mind
and promiscuous violence.
My linguistic protest
has no power.
The enemy is illiterate.
(translated by Brenda Walker and Andrea Deletant)
For Cassian, language is sensuous and even sexual.  Reading her poetry one is more inclined to think of poetry as a kind of dance, the movement of a body.
Letters fall from my words
as teeth might fall from my mouth.
Lisping?  Stammering?  Mumbling?
Or the last silence?
Please God take pity
on the roof of my mouth,
on my tongue,
on my glottis,
on the clitoris in my throat
vibrating, sensitive, pulsating,
exploding in the orgasm of Romanian.
(translated by Brenda Walker and Andrea Deletant)
Clearly that appeal to God also shows a keen awareness of the danger involved, that one is not only exposed to the single lover as a poet but to the authorities who are in power.  If poetry is a form of lovemaking, it is, once published, also public and, therefore, a terrible kind of vulnerability.  This may also account for why the majority of her poetry is love poetry.  But also Cassian is masterful in her embrace of being fully human.  That may be the core of her poetry.
Her face was striking with its prominent chin and aquiline nose.  And so she made these powerful features the point of her poem “Self-Portrait.”  Perhaps few poems so well exemplify her desire to fully embrace the great range of our humanity.  Pointing out the oddities of her own face, plunging into them, and insisting on them even as others might mock them, results in an enlargement of what we call “human” as so much of her poetry does:
I was given at birth this odd triangular
face, the sugared cone that you see now,
the figurehead jutting from some pirate prow,
framed by trailing strands of moonlike hair.
Disjoined shape I’m destined to carry around
and thrust out steadily through endless days,
wounding the retinas of those who gaze
on the twisted shadow I cast upon the ground.
Disowned by the family from which I came,
who am I?  Earth conspires to turn me back,
the white race and the yellow, the redskin and the black,
till even to the species I lay little claim.
And only when—a self-inflicted woman—
I cry out; only when I face the cold;
and only when by time I’m stained and soiled
do they find me beautiful: and call me human.

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