Questions for Cynthia Good on her book, What We Do with Our Hands
Stelios Mormoris: Many of your poems are nostalgic, and dwell on signs of loved ones or the past. Your poems are meditations on memory, and memories. Why? What motivated you to write the poignant poem “My Dead Father Comes Back As A Brown Bird?
Cynthia Good: Well, I was literally sitting in my open-air hallway and this bird flew in, hit the glass railing, and landed at my feet. The bird seemed fine; just a little stunned. I sat down in front of him as he recovered. He looked at me in this almost human way and I remembered my dad saying he’d come back as a regular, small, run-of-the-mill, basic brown bird. This happened following a time in my life when, over a short period of a few weeks, I had lost a lot—my mother one month to the day after what had become an abusive 27 yearlong marriage, lost my home, and my adult children moved away to begin their own lives. I guess I wanted to hold onto some of the cherished memories and maybe make sense of the most difficult ones.
SM: I feel much of your writing is saying “good-bye” to things dear to you, or things that are troubling, or not reconciled. Do you feel that writing poetry is a form of therapy?
CG: I tend to write when I’m in the middle of the storm, so perhaps some of the poems lack the perspective of having healed, or the perspective that comes with time. I write when it comes to me rather than sitting down to writed with a particular agenda. I wouldn’t say writing these poems was “a form of therapy,” although sometimes when the poems take over, which some do, I learn something new or see things in a different light. While I don’t write for therapeutic reasons, sometimes these things, beautiful or troubling, just can’t stay inside me any longer. I think you’re right and that’s an excellent observation, poems about saying “good-bye,” and trying to let go, hoping maybe to understand if not reconcile the past. It would probably be more therapeutic to simply witness, then let things go and move on, rather than excavating experiences for some greater understanding or deeper inquiry or meaning, which ends up like digging beneath a wound; which can result in more pain. It’s true that I needed to say goodbye to certain hopes, to things that didn’t turn out the way I thought I wanted or the way I had planned. For me, this is life, this glorious, terrifying, uncertain, exquisite and unpredictable place.
SM: Your poems have an immediate, and intimate, voice–devoid of artifice. Like someone having a secret conversation with the reader. The voice seems consistent across the whole book. How conscious are you of who–or what–your voice is, as you write each poem?
CG: I know a lot of writers, write for an audience. Many wonderful writers I admire are ultra-sensitive to the readers experience and would never break your heart without putting it back in your chest, as one of my favorite poets once said in a craft talk. I appreciate that approach. Conversely, someone once said to dance like no one’s watching. I like to dance like that. I like to write like that. For me this gets closer to the core of the genuine experience. I’m trying to not self-censor since for me, in part, poetry is an answer to silence and feeling silenced for so much of my life. Muriel Rukeyser once wrote, “If one woman told the truth about her life…the world would split open.” I think if more women told the truth about their lives, it would give more of us permission to be who we really are and release some of the shame and trepidation that seems daunting. Sometimes readers tell me there are poems that resonate and help them because maybe they’ve experienced something like this too, which is wonderful to hear.
SM: Your father, or “the father”, seems to occupy importance in your writing. What relationship did your real father have to your writing, and how did he inspire you, or not?
CG: My father was a complicated and larger than life person who grew up dirt poor, was brilliant and entirely self-made. Like so many others, I admired and maybe idolized him. Because of his work ethic and critical nature, I felt a lot of pressure to achieve, and that I could never quite measure up. He rarely said I love you or handed out compliments. But now that you’re asking, I do remember when I was about 9 or 10 I wrote a short story. He was very moved by it and told me so. I think that was the first time I ever did something that impressed him or that he acknowledged in such a positive way. Maybe that had some profound impact. I lost him to suicide in 2001.
SM: Your poems are short, concise, and extremely rooted in hard imagery. I struggle with keeping poems concise, and short. How do you know when to end a poem? How do you know when a poem is finished, and ready for the printed page?
CG: So often I think a poem I’ve written is done but it’s not and I have to go back and sit down and keep going. Often, when I’m writing initially, I force myself to stay in the chair after I want to stop. This is grueling sometimes. It seems it’s always those extra few minutes or half hour that is what’s needed to finish the poem. I’m always glad I stayed with it. I think my best endings come from those extra minutes with the page.
SM: Fire, and ashes, and burning, are a recurring leitmotif in your poetry, beautifully visualized. What is it about these images is so compelling to you? “Then it sparked into flames, Christmas/ in the fire pit, a burst three times/ the size when it stood in the den…./. Great poem, “Controlled Burn”, and great title, with many possible meanings.
CG: For sure burning seemed to be repeating metaphor for what was happening in my life during this period of time; my parents ashes, the past seeming to disappear through my fingers, so little left and yet so much life for those of us who still live and still have a chance to create a beautiful life. I like that contrast. The Christmas tree we waited till May to burn—by then it was so dry, it lit up in a moment and as it was disappearing, the light was glorious.
SM: Animals, pets, and people (as animals) populate your narratives. “What We Keep After It’s Gone”: “I saw a dead animal every day/ for two months, one by one/ five white chickens, a different/ hen every morning, dead/…. What is the significance of animals in your writing? Do you find solace in them? Understanding? Companionship? It is easier to describe and relate to animals than people?
CG: This happened, finding a different animal dead every single day, so this wasn’t something I could easily ignore. I am fascinated by animals and their messages. They are so unincumbered by many of the things that torment us. To me they seem wise in different ways and deeply compassionate. They are able to be fully present and vulnerable and honest and unabashedly happy. I’ve always loved them. Growing up in LA and allergic to dogs, I had a pet goat. Later I took care of a horse at the stables, and we had miniature horses when my children were growing up in Atlanta. Where I live in Mexico, I am surrounded by wildlife; the magical whales in the winter, the mobula rays and bats in the summer. There are scorpions and snakes, owls and wrens, and the witch moth. When I stay in Malibu there are hummingbirds, crows and dolphins I can see swimming in the morning when the water is calm. There are wonderful and varied mythologies around different animals that I find fascinating. I always learn something valuable from them, and maybe they remind me to be more hopeful and to live fully.
SM: When did you start writing, and why? When did you consider yourself a poet? I am always fascinated by other poets’ path toward productivity, and creation.
CG: I came late to poetry, graduating with my MFA from NYU in 2019 in my late 50s.
I was a bit nervous going back to school to study poetry, and I mentioned this to one of my sons. He said, “Mom you’ve been doing this for your whole life.” In many ways he was right. I have always written, for as long as I can remember. I have hundreds of journals I’ve kept over the years since I was a young girl. I worked as a writer and reporter in TV news, then launched two magazines and had written six books before turning to poetry. Still, it took a long while to feel like a real poet. I remember taking a workshop with Pulitzer Prize winning poet Forest Gander. He recognized my vacillating confidence and shook his head emphasizing his words when he said, “You are a poet.” Slowly I began to get used to that idea.
SM: What places inspire you to write? I smiled when I read “Off Boulevard Saint Germain Des Prés”, in Paris….and “the cold scent of piss on Rue Jacob”. There was an instant I swore I was in that very place when you wrote this line. We may share a love of Paris…..I am curious how foreign places influence your writing.
CG: That’s the great thing about travel and living abroad. When I’m in an unfamiliar place, I feel like I’m on higher alert and more attuned to observations, and more curious. It’s amazing to me how different places can make you feel a certain way physically, how different places smell. The varied landscape, animals and birds, the quality of the light all fascinate me.
Questions for Stelios Mormoris on his book The Oculus
Cynthia Good: Stephen, I love how place figures so prominently in these poems; Paris, the Aegean, San Francisco, the Catskills, Pamplona and Piraeus. Did you decide in advance that this would be such a focus? How did this happen?
Stelios Mormoris: I grew up divided among three worlds: America, France and Greece. Born in New York, to Greek parents, who spoke French….I ended up spending childhood summers in Greece, and living in Paris most of my adult life, working for the beauty industry. Although part of me, of course, is very American. My poetry is a sort of mural of where my life has taken me. I think the theme of THE OCULUS is this idea that the eye has “power”, and can see beyond what it sees outwardly, but also sees what is behind the eye, in memory, and imagination.
CG: Most of these poems are in first person, beginning with the very first poem: “Mimosa,” you write, “You cut me, / …I curled into the fabric / of lawn chair…” Why did you decide to use first person? Do you think of your poetry as confessional and how do you think about that?
SM: I do not think my poetry is confessional, in that it is autobiographical, or the real “me”. It probably shows parts of me, but it imbued with the character of a fully invented speaker. Besides, lying is much more beautiful than telling the truth. In this poem, the “I” of the speaker is recovering from an illness, possibly a mental or physical illness, or both, and the poem is a meditation on the hyper-sensitivity one feels for color, and smells, and sounds when one is in a state of distress.
CG: Would love to know more about your powerful title, The Oculus, and how you decided on that. It seems so much is seen through our eyes—life and longing, lust and loss and how we deal with it, with themes of impermanence and yearning, of course all set up with your excerpt from the “Return of Icarus,” as you, the poet left behind the safety of the familiar “soft villages and flew straight into the sky’s pandemonium” with the bravery of your poetry.
SM: I love architecture. I was an architecture student at Princeton and my thesis advisor was Michael Graves, who was a neo-classicist, or “post-modernist” for his time. I liked the idea of a physical object being the anchor for many metaphorical ideas in my poetry. Clearly, The Oculus, is a piece of architecture, or, more specifically, a dome with an opening, inspired by the eye itself. One aspect of the title is that inside The Oculus–or inside the eye–the art of observing is protected; one can meditate on memories, or keenly observe, or change the narrative through imagination. And, I think on some level, the title imbues this whole collection that the reader is experience what this “I’–or “eye”–is seeing and feeling. Thank you for this question.
CG: I so appreciate the beautiful, evocative imagery: “in a field of torn milkweed / as long as I could / until one giant white hawk broke / the fringe of the tree line …” I also appreciate your musicality and the lyrical flow of the poems, “Your flung cup with the rough / glaze that pained to be polished / strayed as it sank in water, / away from our interlacing hands.” How did you become so attune to imagery and sound?
SM: This is an insightful question. Thank you. I do love music, all kinds of music, from classical, to rock, to pop, to electronic, to jazz. The phrasing, the instruments, the timber and the volume, and the structure….all are clear ways in which sound can play a role in kindling emotion and is a visceral form of communication. I am very concious of this, as well, in my writing. I do literally read aloud my poetry while I am writing, and then read it to myself, and ask myself “what is the music here?” Sometimes that music is formal with meter and rhyme, and other times the music breaks into jazz, or enjambment, and sometimes it is the flat music of plain diction, punctuated with elevated music. Yes, I am keenly aware of what my poems SOUND like….and I am grateful for your observation.
CG: Many of these poems are love poems and I’m moved that they seem uncensored and brave. The poems are often direct and sensual, even erotic. You write, “into the dung-filled soil / of the clattering barn— / to even fucking on / the highest rungs / of the varnished oak / library ladder, sliding..” Do you wrestle with the sensitivity of this as others, such as family, read the work? Do you wrestle with this in terms of being exposed personally? And how do you see the intersection between speaker and poet in this context? While these are sensitive issues, I feel poetry is an answer to censorship and an important voice and rebellion against the censorship that pervades our society. If something is taboo then it deserves a poem. I’m interested in your thoughts on this. Of course sensuality in poetry isn’t new. It brings to mind poems like “Love Sonnet XI” by Pablo Neruda, “After Making Love in Winter” by Sharon Olds. And of course “Erotic Poems” is the title of a book by e.e. cummings.
SM: Reciprocally, I love the bravery of your question. I am not ashamed of sex, or sexual themes, or themes of passion, or even vulgarity. I am not ashamed of exploring the spectrums of love, as it includes sex or not, or how it can venture to different places, such as companionship or friendship or casual intimacy or transactional relationships. This is an interesting dilemma because Americans are quite puritanical, and seem to judge sexual expression so readily, which is ironic since it is the culture that is the biggest consumer of pornography. That said, the issue, for me, is to write a poem true to its voice, true to its subject. I do appreciate the word “brave” you use to describe these types of poems, and I suppose they are, but in the end sex and love and everything in between is as integral to life as food, thought and air. So it is a part of my repertoire, and I am not afraid, no.
The reason? I make a distinction between me, the real person, Stelios (and, I might add, I am quite introverted and private….), and the subject I am writing about, who could be a total slut, or lovesick fool, or hyper sensitive romantic…..who knows where the imagination can take anyone?
CG: I notice some flood subjects in your poems, recuring themes, like love, heartbreak, impermanence and the ocean which is a ‘flood subject’ for me as well. How do these recurring themes figure into the book and how did this happen?
SM: Cynthia, I guess I never realized I touch on recurring themes of floods….and water….but now that you raise it I see a flood of questions coursing through my analytic brain. We have that in common. LOL. I am not sure, excatly, why this is the case, but, I think I like the power of water, and water bodies. I like the changing shades of blue in water, and how water can take on the color and light of what is around it. It feels like all water is curative, in some way. As a child in Greece, I remember my grandmother taking me to a small rocky beach in her little village, and at 70+ years old, she would tell me she is taking her daily “salt bath”, becuase it erases sin, improves the skin, and heightens mental acuity. (She told me this in a mix of French and Greek, mind you._). I believe that the focus on anything in nature–in this case water in its many forms–is a powerful reservoir for metaphor, which makes American poetry particularly resonant and meaningful to the ear, the eye and the mind.
CG: You write eloquently about heartbreak, “I decided to leave / / you while idled watching / a leaf, burnished and crisp, / flaunt its weightlessness, / rise in a spiral before the wind / stole it like a kite, then left it / to cantilever, find its child stride / … in the soft crevice between paws / as if breaking prayer, / the leaf trembling as it landed / on strong tips of grass.” Such a beautiful, visual and powerful ending. How are you able to go so deep into the moment or experience you created or recall?
SM: Thank you for observing this. In early drafts of a poem, I find the verse littered, sometimes, with cliché, extraneous words, borrowed phrases, inept music, and, all of this seems like “dead skin”, that simply occurs because I am starting to burrow into the subject. It is symptom of natural laziness. So I write over and over, and go deeper into the subject: it is almost, literally, physically, painful. I ask myself “what do I really want to say here?”, or how do I make this line stronger, more powerful? How do I pack in words, without muddling the mix? How do I condense? It does require challenging one’s self, constantly in the revision process. I believe Hemingway did this, and so did Rodin, whereby they created a mass of words, or stone, and built on it….and then each of them started to sculpt away until they were left with a sort of essence that gleamed with concision. “The Leaf” is such a poem–what I would call a giant “conceit”. I focused over and over on a simple leaf, falling and falling, and injected into it all the possiblities of emotion, of the possibilities of new life, abandoning an old one, the feeling of heartbreak, and, of love yes….imbued into the descent of a leaf. This was a hard poem to write, and keep “credible”, and I hope I succeeded.