Cynthia Cruz’s latest collection, Dregs (Four Way Books 2018), is a soul-stirring book of atmospheric poetry that glistens in the gutter.
Cynthia Cruz was born in Germany and grew up in Northern California. She is the author of four previous collections of poems. Her fifth collection is Dregs (Four Way Books, 2018). The editor of a new anthology of contemporary Latina poetry, Other Musics (forthcoming in 2019), and author of the upcoming essay collection Disquieting: Essays on Silence (forthcoming from Book*hug Press), Cruz is the recipient of fellowships from Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony, and a Hodder fellowship from Princeton University. She lives in Brooklyn.
Here, Cynthia talks to Paul Rowe about her work and influences.
ROWE: Hi, Cynthia. What have you been up to? And what are you most looking forward to in this new year?
CRUZ: During the fall, I was reading lots of work on the dialectic. In particular, I was reading Hegel, works on Hegel. I was interested in finding a new way of thinking, one that veered from the simple binary of good vs. bad, right vs. wrong — a kind of reactionary and reductive mode of thinking that seems so prevalent in contemporary culture. I taught a class at Columbia on the archive as a form of resistance in which we were examining modes of creating and thinking constructed from a dialectic—works that resisted simple reductions: the work of Mark Fisher, Laura Oldfield Ford’s Savage Messiah, John Ahkomfrah’s Handsworth Songs, Tina Campt, the films of Jane Jin Kaisen, and others. Also in the fall, I was editing a collection of essays that will be published in the spring.
Over the winter break, I began compiling a novella/novel I’d written over ten years ago, and surprisingly, began writing a new series of poems. I’d been thinking about my origins, where and what I derive from, and how I left all that to become a writer and what that means, what was lost in the process. Until recently I’d seen my collections as progressive: beginning with Ruin to Dregs I saw each book as a distinct progression forward. I looked at the earlier works with shame. But now I have begun seeing the work differently—that Ruin was, rather than a “ruin,” an origin, and then each work has become more and more diluted as I became more and more immersed in these worlds outside of where I came from. I am interested now in returning to the place of my origins (this is not new—this theme appears throughout my works—the desire to return to where I come from, a place that no longer exists) and writing, again, out of that place.
I’m most looking forward to this new work—where it leads me—but also of course, the publication of my collection of essays in April.
ROWE: It’s fascinating that you view each book after Ruin as a further removal from your origins. What we leave behind certainly seems like a key exploration in your poetry, especially in the movement from Ruin to The Glimmering Room, with “Eleven” treating the detonation of girlhood and the memory of that time, and the “Strange Gospels” sequence, where memory becomes a mind-altering drug that distorts the past and present.
In Wunderkammer, I feel the genuine catharsis of exploring such cabinets of curiosity, but there is also some sense that you leave some essential themes of your previous books behind as you move into new territory. To quote “Autobiography,” there is a sense that these poems “tunnel through” the buried past, and in some sense at least, they succeed in putting the past to rest.
Tell me more about where and what you derive from, and how you left that behind to become a writer. There are several clues in your books following Ruin, but what do you feel you may have left behind in life?
CRUZ: I have a lot to say about this—and so it’s a bit overwhelming to attempt to respond to this excellent question.
And yet the answer has something to do with class and home. I grew up in a small town in rural Northern California—there were hawks, rabbits, snakes. We had animals and acres and I spent most of my girlhood outdoors chasing these creatures. In the long driveway were cars and the carcasses of cars, engines and pieces. So, there’s that—that landscape shaped me, made me who I am.
Coming from a working-class family, the first of my family to even consider college, it was unbelievable—the idea of leaving the state, of traveling East to attend school. When I left, I left with anger and with the idea that I was going to make it; I would become someone. And in a sense, I did—I became a published poet, something, again, that was unimaginable coming from where I come from. But what I didn’t think about then was the necessary trade off—what becomes of someone from a place, a distinct class, who leaves that place?
In order, of course, to survive, I have had to assimilate—and over the years my work and I began to reflect the worlds I was moving in—I, my work, became slicker, more stream lined, polished. I think of the shy, awkward young poet who first came to New York, how blissfully naive and hopeful I was and the ways I accommodated automatically to what people wanted. Moving in circles of people whose parents attended Ivy League schools, poets who began writing poetry when they were 7, 8, had never held a job until their first teaching gig post MFA—it was excruciating to be that vulnerable—
What precisely I’ve lost is hard to articulate—I would call it, rather, a haunting, a melancholy that I live with that my work carries—for the parts of myself I have lost that I cannot retrieve. This experience leaves holes and silence in its wake—you see this in the work of Clarice Lispector, Marguerite Duras—both writers who grew up poor. When they “became” who they were, these other parts of them remained invisible to the predominantly upper middle class literary world. Interestingly, the musician, Mark Linkous, also speaks directly of this form as a way to “carry” the place or space of his origins. In an interview, he said “When I was a kid, all I wanted to do was escape, but in moving back here, I’ve since come to appreciate different things, like the holes and rests in our music. You know, the other night, I listened to a cricket for an hour. That’s the thing I’d like to contribute — making people remember those sounds.”
ROWE: I can imagine how difficult it must have been for you to travel across the country and enter into such a bizarre atmosphere. That sense of entering into something unknown shows up in Dregs quite frequently. The speaker is on the lamb in the following lines of “Bell in the Water”:
I thought I could stop
The incessant hum
By moving from city
By starving clean
The miraculous leveling out
Obsessive archiving and collecting
As a means to stop the tremulating drone
Of memory, the diamond-white
Rush of doom.
The poem itself seems to level out the past’s meaning. The work itself, in its archiving, in its collection of the dregs of the past, in a sense, levels out the past. And yet your past—its rust and grey skies, scrim and static—haunts the collection as well.
Fantastic point about Lispector and Duras. It’s especially true for Lispector that her past was, and still is, invisible to the largely upper middle class literary world. That’s somewhat surprising to me, considering the squalor of her protagonists. For example, Macabéa from The Hour of the Star performs her difficult and unacknowledged life while seeking recognition and fame. Maybe she achieves her moment of self-recognition in death. She lives her own “hour of the star,” something Lispector reminds readers to embrace in the following line for the conclusion of the book: “Do not mourn the dead. They know what they are doing.”
And Cynthia, there’s also a sense of embracing death, or something like death—perhaps oblivion, indolence, or forgetfulness—in Dregs. You seem to embrace that presence in lines such as “Why am I / Always crawling the never / Ending hallway / Into the dead end’s / Ink black dot” and there is a real sense of entry into doom here. Yet, it’s not all darkness. Where do poems like “Bell in the Water” and “Dregs,” with lines like these below, take you?
it will take us
To the sweet
And filthy water,
Where does this boat take you when reading through Dregs?
CRUZ: Such a great question. You’re correct, this otherwhere is never death, but, rather, an interior or a flight to an externalized interior: someplace away from the slick and sleek exteriors of the Neoliberal city and suburbs and all that these places require. Where can one go to escape the constant aspirations thrust upon us—The endless competition and the necessary self-promotion—all requirements of the current neoliberal society. One such place or places are place/s set off from where “success occurs,” places people thrive to acquire money and fame. This topic is the main topic of my forthcoming collection of essays:
how does one survive in such a world while, at the same time, resist these ideologies and desires introjected into us? One way is to “fail”—and “failure” as an act of resistance is something I have been both thinking and writing about for some time now. So, the “death” is another kind of death—the possibility of surviving within a system one does not wish to or is unable to assimilate into.
As Mark Fisher writes in Ghosts of My Life:
“Six million ways to die, choose one: drugs, depression, destitution. So many forms of catatonic collapse. In earlier times, ‘deviants, psychotics and the mentally collapsed’ inspired militant-poets, situationists. Rave-dreamers. Now they are incarcerated in hospitals, languishing in the gutter.”
ROWE: Your forthcoming collection of essays sounds like a marvelous project.
On this note, did anything specific inspire you to further pursue your paramount theme of dropping out as a form of resistance?
CRUZ: While at the School of Visual Arts (2013-2015) I wrote my master’s thesis on silence and the work of Ingeborg Bachmann, Hanne Darboven, Marguerite Duras, and Clarice Lispector. In this project, I looked at how these artists utilized silence as a form of resistance. Previously, at SVA, I had written about the artists Eva Hesse and Cady Noland and their “dropping out” or disappearance. And while studying at Rutgers in the German department my focus was on failure as resistance in the works of four German filmmakers/writers. I also wrote a number of pieces for Harriet on the topic. So, I’ve been thinking and writing about this topic for some time now. More recently I have become interested in artists, musicians, and writers who stay where they are from, resisting, in this case, moving to the cities to pursue what the cities appear to offer (and, more often than not, do not offer). Remaining where one comes from is, of course, a form of Resistance to Neoliberalism—and an incredible act of acceptance (rather than believing one needs to become something else (more slick, packaged).
I’m also interested in the vernacular of silence and the gesture—how these alternative forms of “speaking” or conveying can express resistance. How does one speak when one cannot or will not speak in the majority language (the language of ad-men: Ted-talk style, faux optimism)? What happens to the beautiful pauses that occur when thinking? It seems we, as a culture, have lost our ability to endure hesitations, pauses, silences, and other forms of language related to thinking, to learning. We seem to be caught in a constant stream of unrelated, pre-digested data. It appears we are beginning to speak and react in similar cadences.
So, yes, my forthcoming collection of essays explores this idea of failure as resistance and taking the term “failure” and its many associated actions to be a, I hesitate to say ‘positive,’ but no longer a derogatory term. “Positive” is of course what we are all expected to be in Neoliberalism—optimistic, constant workers, taking meds, reading self-help books, and watching Ted talks in order to become more “positive.” This is in sharp contrast to being who we are, especially when what we are is non-middle/upper middle class/white.
ROWE: Now I’m thinking about that Mark Fisher quote you mentioned earlier and Fisher’s idea of “capitalist realism” in connection to what you’re saying about the constant pressure to remain positive in Neoliberal society. There’s the crushing, sober omnipresence of capitalism in what you just noted about the Ted-talk style faux optimism we encounter on a daily basis.
The world of your poetry is feverish, dreamlike, intoxicated, and in some ways, it does connect to Fisher’s idea that it might be impossible to imagine a coherent alternative to our current system. The world of Dregs is certainly dark, but of course, it’s also redemptive. It might connect to Fisher’s belief that “we must listen for the relics of the future in the unactivated potentials of the past.”
CRUZ: Thank you. I’m afraid what you are seeing in Dregs has been missed by many readers. Thinking about the Bloch quote made me think of the terrible importance of history, of the importance of connecting work to its historical context, something that seems to have been lost in contemporary discussions about art.
Instead, it seems works are either connected to current ideological discussions in the US media or they are considered to be non-political/personal only. The historical, the trace of trauma of history, unless it is made overtly clear in a work, is missed altogether. Ironically, much of US culture seems to be ahistorical—there is a sense things are simply what they are without looking at what brought us here: the original colonization of the land, slavery, and also unions, workers, the many laws created as the result of the work of unions to protect workers, the working class, and, overall, how capitalism informs all of this.
Dregs is, among other things, an attempt to shore up some of the debris of what was—the trauma of what was, its historical detritus—allowing it to glitter and glimmer at the shoreline.
ROWE: Up until this point in our conversation we’ve brought up several thinkers and novelists. Now I’m wondering what poets inspire you, or have inspired you, of late. Who are some poets writing today or yesterday that move you? What are a few of your essential books of poetry right now and what is it about them that resonates with you?
CRUZ: Right now, I’m rereading the work of Frank Stanford, the two recently released Hidden Water and What About This, primarily, but I am also rereading the poems of Larry Levis as well as Levis’ prose and interviews from The Gazer Within. I have been thinking about the idea of the melancholy of class and place and these two poets are the two poets I have mostly in mind for this project. Of late, I have been reading and teaching the work of Marni Ludwig, Allison Benis White’s Please Bury Me In This and Dawn Lundy Martin’s Discipline.
I am finally coming to terms with the fact that what I am seeking in poetry is to be transported—not to another place but to another place that does not exist. I want to be changed radically. As a result, what I am looking for in poetry, and what I want my own work to be, is a poetry that utilizes leaps and ellipsis—ruptures and interruptions; I want to feel like I am awake and asleep (here I am paraphrasing Stanford). Who I have always loved is Lucie Brock Broido—her work, of course, but also herself as a teacher. I was fortunate to work with her and it is through her thoughtful guidance that I was introduced to Stanford and Levis but also Linda Gregg, Thomas James and the Wrights, Marni Ludwig, Trasntrömer, Trakl, and many other poets I love dearly. All of these poets are poets I love and return to over and over.
ROWE: Thank you, Cynthia. I’m adding these works to my growing list as we speak.
You mentioned earlier that you started writing a new series of poems while compiling a novel/novella that you wrote earlier in your career. I’m very curious about them, and I’m sure our readers feel the same way.
Now I’m thinking back to your interview with Kaveh Akbar in Divedapper. You described “using silence as a form of the language in the poem.” Are you “writing around something that doesn’t have a language yet” with these latest poems? Of course, I also understand if you want to let them speak for themselves.
CRUZ: The poems I have been writing are rooted in the idea of Melancholia of Class/Place. They are, so far, mostly longer poems that speak to this rural place, though not literally. I am trying to make the poems work sonically. They are, of course, lyric poems, not “sound poems,” but my work is always deeply informed by music. In this collection, I am interested in warp, in creating ruptures and breaks, interruptions, glitches through sound (and language, of course). So far, unbelievably, I have 22 poems already.
The novella is based on my own experience as a teenager living in an abandoned building. This project is similar to the poems in The Glimmering Room that circle around the same topic.
About silence—there is always something left out and that something leaves a hole or holes in the poem. The white space on a page enacts this but so do the interruptions, ruptures, breaks, glitches, and so on—these dead ends perform what cannot be said, what must be left out, creating a kind of haunting.
ROWE: What would a brief playlist that informs your current work look like (or sound like)?
CRUZ: I prefer albums but to avoid listing ten Sparklehorse and Songs: Ohia albums, I’m going to list the top ten songs that I’ve been listening to of late:
A Brief Playlist That Informs My Current Work (in no particular order):
Sparklehorse, “Painbirds” and “All Night Home.”
Sparklehorse, “Maxine [Nice Evening (Transmission Down)].”
Sparklehorse, “Saint Mary.”
Magnolia Electric Co., “A Little at a Time.”
Songs: Ohia, “Back on Top.”
Songs: Ohia: “Blue Factory Flame.”
Sparklehorse, “More Yellow Birds.”
Sparklehorse, “Piano Fire.”
ROWE: Thanks, Cynthia. I hope our readers will check these out and listen for connections to your work.
I actually have a question that I’ve been asking writers and editors I know and admire. Does the role of the poet change in the face of frightening political fiascos like Brexit and the Trump presidency? If so, how?
CRUZ: Excellent question. I am currently teaching a workshop called Writing from the Disaster based on Blanchot’s book of the same title so I have been and am thinking about this very topic quite a lot. I have a lot to say about this, but in the end what I think is that we are both beneath numerous disasters—past, present and current—and we are also, as Americans, perpetrators of disasters—too many to count.
So that’s a lot, already—writing then from this place of both imminent disaster and with the terrible knowledge that I, as a US citizen, am responsible for much of this (I pay my taxes which then pay for weapons we use on innocent civilians in the numerous never-ending wars, I use up water, electricity, food, etc.—and this means others no longer have access to these)—so how to write with all of this informing the work and not necessarily, and I would add not explicitly, in the work.
Here is one of my favorite quotes by the great Joy Williams:
We are American writers, absorbing the American experience. We must absorb its heat, the recklessness and ruthlessness, the grotesqueries and cruelties. We must reflect the sprawl and smallness of America, its greedy optimism and dangerous sentimentality. And we must write with a pen—in Mark Twain’s phrase—warmed up in hell. We might have something then, worthy, necessary; a real literature instead of the Botox escapist lit told in the shiny prolix comedic style that has come to define us.
Then, form—the form must, in some way, show signs of derangement, of exhaustion, of being pushed beyond human capacity because that is the human experience in contemporary culture.
Paul Rowe has produced literary criticism on topics ranging from Romanticism to the indigenous cultures of New England. Residing just north of Boston, Paul is contributing editor at Pen & Anvil Press and Rhythm & Bones Press. His words appear in Literary Imagination, Berfrois, Queen Mob’s Tea House, Moonchild Magazine, The New England Review of Books and FIVE:2:ONE. His feature articles on music and film appear in PopMatters and The Boston Hassle.