Poetry Q&A with Cynthia Atkins

By Kate Eber, Co-Editor, Poetry

As part of my credit requirements for a Creative Writing minor, I had to take a Poetry Comp class. This was my first formal interaction with writing poetry—I had dabbled in writing terrible verse in high school—and I immediately fell in love. Our professor, Cynthia Atkins, taught us the craft with a definite energy, talking about poems as if they were living, breathing beings, which was a brand new concept for me. Poetry became something I wanted to do, not just write.

When we decided on our theme of “Truth” for this issue, I immediately thought of Cynthia’s latest collection, In the Event of Full Disclosure. The book focuses on mental illness and family, two subjects that I feel are the hardest to tell the truth about. But Cynthia does tell the truth, using a great sense of reality that pulls you in and refuses to let go.

We know that all genres of writing tend to engage writers and readers in different ways, but how does poetry demand that both its writers and its readers tell truth?

I think “Truth’ is a tricky word when talking about Art—if we mean do we render things exactly as they happened or in accordance of the facts as they happened, then I think we are talking about a different kind of truth. Picasso says, “We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies.” Convincing the reader that we are after a different version of the truth, and trying to get to the essence and crux that allows us to understand experience. That is what we are after as writers. The facts can be pretty bald and dry, but this is where image and metaphor and composition come in. A poem is about crafting. A poem is a made thing, it is not reality. In my poems, I am recording a version of the truth—tweaking, cutting, embellishing, riffing—using language to assimilate the facts and “lies” to hopefully, imbue meaning.

How does the title of your book, In the Event of Full Disclosure, address the idea of truth in poetry? Is it ever possible for a poet or a narrator of your poem to fully disclose?

I guess when we talk about “full disclosure” it is important to keep in mind “context.” Everything is relative according to timing, setting, mood. A single action in one context will be received completely different in another. The title, In The Event of Full Disclosure, for me encompassed a sense of panic and tension. “In The Event of…”—If this happens, then what?—A kind of cause and effect is implied, and the “what if” is the underlying question. In part, the title suggests that the “truth” might be too much to bare—it is bald and raw and makes us look at things that are hard to accept about ourselves and the world. The truth depends on how it is received by the reader, and in what context. So much of poetry is open to interpretation, and poems resist a definition. That Williams statement, “No ideas, but in things”—is an important aesthetic idea for me. I think images hold complexity, and they do the revealing. When images are doing their job, that is the kind of honesty I am after. These poems are made out of Images that are compiled from experience—then reinterpreted by memory, then by pen. Again, I reiterate, a poem is a made thing, it reflects a shade of reality—hopefully, when working on all the burners, language allows us to capture the essence of truth.

Emily Dickinson wrote: “Tell the truth/ but tell it slant.” What do you think about prismatic truths, the idea that each individual’s truth is filtered through their own perspective?

The only way we experience the world is through our own slant vision, our own context. We filter experience, we sift and jettison. We make our memories and we have selective memories, and we have secrets. Our psyches can deal with and jettison the memories we’d rather not visit.  To write deeply and honestly, one has to surrender and go to a deep and raw place in the gut and the mind. For me, it is getting rid of the many layers of fat (the banal tasks of the day) to get down to the honest nitty-gritty. Language is pretty direct, and you can’t hide behind it.  I hope my reader is reminded that the writer and speaker of the poems are not always the same. I am not trying to write strictly about biographical experience.  I am using bits and parts and composite of reality and comporting it together to make it tell a story or narrative, that I hope has resonance to a reader outside of the absolute facts. It is a deep well. Andre Dubus said it well, “Most of the time I feel stupid, insensitive, mediocre, talentless and vulnerable—like I’m about to cry any second—and wrong. I’ve found that when that happens, it usually means I’m writing pretty well, pretty deeply, pretty rawly.” That rawness is what we seek I think.

Your book In the Event of Full Disclosure deals with family truths and secrets. You write “I faked it and faked it well./ I hear our ancestors yelling/ from the mental ward of hell.” How do you think mental illness in the family affects each individual’s ability to tell the truth?

For me, negotiating the process of writing about “mental health” began with thinking about my own moments of uncertainty and anxiety. Moments when we are in the most familiar or banal surroundings and we feel a sense of unease, inadequacy, rage, confusion. I’ve had moments like this—a crying baby, a bad day, the world caving into a world that accepts only our perfections and our “health” and demands that we behave a certain way. Those kinds of pressures are insurmountable obstacles when we feel unbalanced and unhinged. I wanted to speak in this poem for many women and people I see out there who are just trying to deal with stress, unspeakable sorrows, depression, etc.—but still of course are expected to go on with all routines and act as though “happy talk” is only means of relating to one another. I wanted to capture the voice of someone caught in a moment of discord—outwardly, nothing is in discord. But our interiors tell a different story. Having just lost the warrior of words Maya Angelou, I am thinking of her words today, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” As writers, we have a need to tell our story in hopes that it will speak and connect to the reader.

The five-part architecture of your book is very interesting. You begin each section with a quote. For Part I, you begin with a quote from T.S. Eliot: “There’s no vocabulary for love within a family, love that’s lived in, but not looked at, love within the light of which all else is seen, the love within which all other love finds speech. This love is silent.” Can you speak a little bit about the idea of truth connected to this silent love “that’s lived in, not looked at?”

Familial love is very intimate, founded on time, shared experiences, DNA, the family table. So much of our complicated relationships goes unsaid, and sometimes it is what isn’t said that reveals we exist on a plane beyond words. We are connected by our experiences. We have to be kind to one another and respect boundaries. As a writer, I think the silences are what create the text, the white space creates the foreground. Yin and yang. Voice comes out of silence, silence creates the noise. Our love for one another moves between these worlds—speech and silence. We read body language and the tone in voices—we modulate and interpret according to all the nuances. It’s not what we say, but how we say it, and determines the way we read any given statement. That old cliché of “reading between the lines” is so true for every interaction we have.  I think it is really art and literature that helps us read these dense and complex symbols of our lives—moral choices, the platitudes and the politics. Life is full of subtleties and complexities, and literature helps us disentangle and make sense of the innumerable and beautiful mess of our lives, helps us to move forward.

Cynthia Atkins’ poems have appeared widely in journals, such as Alaska Quarterly Review, American Letters & Commentary, BOMB, Caketrain, Clementine, Cultural Weekly, Del Sol Review, Denver Quarterly, Harpur Palate, The Journal, Le Zaporogue, North American Review, Tampa Review, Valparaiso Review, and Verse Daily, among many others.  She is the author of Psyche’s Weathers and, most recently, In The Event of Full Disclosure (July 2013, CW Books). Atkins poems were nominated for a 2013 and 2014 Pushcart Prize.  She was recently interviewed about her new book on the Huffington Post Blog and Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour.  She holds residencies from the VCCA and Breadloaf Writer’s Conference and is currently an assistant professor of English at Virginia Western Community College. She lives in Rockbridge County, VA, on the Maury River, with artist Phillip Welch and their family.  More info at her website (www.cynthiaatkins.com) and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/pages/Cynthia-Atkins/190490067665164?ref=hl.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s