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.

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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/