A PEN Ten Interview with Poet Cynthia Manick
The PEN Ten is PEN America’s weekly interview series. This week, guest editor Della Green, the workshops and administrative fellow at Cave Canem, speaks to poet Cynthia Manick, author of the collection Blue Hallelujahs (Black Lawrence Press, 2016).
1. How does your identity shape your writing? Is there such a thing as “the writer’s identity”?
This is such an apt question because I’m currently writing a suite of self-portrait poems where I ask how do I see myself? When I’m not looking at myself in the mirror, what does that me look like? And finally who would I like to see that I don’t see? I wrote a poem called “What Little Girls Are Made Of” where I remixed the fairy tale of sugar and spice and everything nice, and the first lines of the poem are “Breadcrumbs, flour filling,/ ginger for eyes and a splash// of rum and gasoline.” I’m a woman all the time and I’m Black all the time, so those intrinsic parts of me are the lens with which I write, whether I’m talking about the past, current cultural events, or nature. I think the writer’s identity is admitting to yourself and others that writing is a core part of you and it affects the way you move through the world. It’s also an amalgamation of subjects you write about and personal tropes. For me it’s family, body, erasure, and lyricism but that may change as my writing changes.
“I think the writer’s identity is admitting to yourself and others that writing is a core part of you and it affects the way you move through the world.”
2. In an era of “alternative facts” and “fake news,” how does your writing navigate truth? And what is the relationship between truth and fiction?
When writing we create a different type of language; an escapism or body underneath the words. That body is filled with stories both imagined and factual, fanciful images and sometimes real human monsters, all created to shed light on something. Someone once said that art exists in that space between a hammer and nail. When writing poetry, I’m creating a state of fiction which vibrates close to the truth we exist in today. When I’m writing a nonfiction essay or if I’m using social media to share information, truth and intent is paramount. But as writers, we don’t leave behind the emotion attached to truth. For example, carnations are a flower typically used in funerals. But when you see them in the supermarket, how do you feel? What do you imagine? If that flower could talk, what would it say? What has it seen? It’s a writer’s job to take truth and empathy and stretch it every direction; to make sense of things that don’t make sense.
3. Writers are often influenced by the words of others, building up from the foundations others have laid. Where is the line between inspiration and appropriation?
I’m honestly inspired by everything around me, conversations in the halls, books I read, and attending readings where words flow unchartered. I think influence sparks creativity and you can’t go forward without looking back and around you. We’re all in an organic creative pot that ebbs and flows. If you read a poem by a writer you admire, and you want to write in that style, go for it because the poem will still sound like you. But there is a definite appropriation lines that can be crossed when entire lines are taken from a poem without attribution. I’m in the middle of guest editing a literary magazine and an entry came in that was an obvious allusion to a famous Claude McKay poem. The writer didn’t include an attribution and if I didn’t know McKay’s work, I would’ve assumed the poem was completely original. To me that’s appropriation.
4. “Resistance” is a long-employed term that has come to mean anything from resisting tyranny, to resisting societal norms, to resisting negative urges and bad habits, and so much more. It there anything you are resisting right now? Is your writing involved in that act of resistance?
I’m resisting so many things. Some are fun, while others are not. I’m resisting going to HomeGoods and installing the McDonalds app on my phone; anxiety about the current government and the urge to constantly write about it; the literary canon; Netflix over my various deadlines; saying yes to things I don’t have time for; hibernating because it’s getting cold outside; and reacting to various microaggressions so I can get through the day. We are full of flesh and heart and constantly in motion, so there’s always a mix of push and pull going on. But I believe the act of writing is a form of resistance. Writing your story is the resistance to silence, censorship, invisibility, and the blank page. I’ve noticed that writing your truth, whether it’s what you’ve seen, experienced, or believe, can make people nervous. But let them be nervous.
5. Tell us about one of your most memorable moments experienced within the Cave Canem community?
It’s a tie between two moments. In writing workshop at white institutions you get used to being Other; the one with the dark skin, unruly hair, and poems that mention the Black body which can make people uncomfortable. In my first Cave Canem retreat I had a moment in workshop where I was reading a poem about my family’s history in South Carolina and everyone around the table nodded. It’s a simple thing, a nod? But that type of consensus had never happened to me before. I realized then that I would never be Other at Cave Canem. The second would be Chicago fellow Avery Young performing a poem about the murder of Emmet Till. He’s a fantastic performer because of the way he uses his voice and body to push out a wound. So an injury to the world and a person which was far away and removed, suddenly felt like it was happening to my little brother. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room and we all felt how far poetry could go.
6. What’s the most daring thing you’ve ever put into words?
There’s a poem in the last section of Blue Hallelujahs called “When I Think of My Father,” which describes the night my parents split. Toi Dericotte would call it the hard poem, meaning a poem that has been dragged out of you and you’re better for it. The poem begins with an admission:
I live in constant fear of extinction,
that I’ll be pulled back to muddy toes
and pear trees. Praised for wide hips
and a silent mouth that wants
to scream, echo, grunt, but can’t.
Or that I’ll meet a man just like my daddy,
tether my back to his name like a spine
That was a first time I wrote about my parents with all of their faults. In African-American households secrets are house business and you don’t tell your business in the street. But writing is the resistance to silence and poems can be a type of spell. We can’t all be the invincible hero of our story and that’s okay.
7. Have you ever written something you wish you could take back? What was your course of action?
No not yet. When I look at poems I published when I first started out, the perfectionist in me wants to change every word. But I don’t regret them.
8. Post, stalk, or shun: What is your relationship to social media as a writer?
Yes to all three! I’ve been lucky to meet writers from all over the world via workshops, residencies, conferences, etc. and social media allows us to keep in touch. I do curate my Twitter in various lists, so I no longer have to scroll through nonsense. There’s a necessary business/networking part of being a writer where you should connect with literary magazines, book publishers, or literary organizations with which you partner. I also created a quarterly reading series called Soul Sister Revue back in 2014, and advertising is a big part of the curator process; tweets from online literary magazines are where I discover a lot of emerging writers. But I freely admit that social media can feel like walking into a room of people shouting with megaphones, so I’ll shun it for days at a time. As I rule I don’t have Twitter or Facebook on my phone, so media hibernation is easy to do.
9. In your poem “What I Know About the Blues,” you state “Yes,/I know how to name things./I’ve been called little lady,/pickaninny, gel, mamacita, the black one,/the big one, the dark one, woman–/each name makes a map of me.” —which I interpret in one way as a testament to the power of language to co-create reality. As a poet, what are you trying to name or map (or re-name and re-map) in the world?
I like the idea of co-creating reality. There is power in naming things. In having ownership of your name, identity, and body and in African-American history we didn’t always have that power. I’m trying to name all the parts of myself and take ownership of the way the world sees me. A body viewed by others, is a body seen. I’m more than one thing, and everything that I’ve experienced in life—the people I’ve met, the relationships I’ve had, the places I’ve traveled—are all branches of my tree. The world likes to put things in bite-sized digestible categories, but as poets we hold up a mirror, walk over those categories, ask questions, and re-map as needed.
10. Which poets have had the most profound influence on your writing and what are some lessons their work has taught you?
There are so many! The first literary ancestors are Mama Lucille Clifton and Gwendolyn Brooks for normalizing Black stories that are rarely told; Nikky Finney for teaching me to look outside myself, my house, my city, and world toward the larger universe; Jayne Cortez and Tyehimba Jess for balancing sense and music; Vievee Francis and Greg Pardlo for advocating that you should write toward your obsessions; Linda Susan Jackson for teaching me that colors can represent feeling; Sharon Olds for obliterating the imaginary line between the public and personal; Angela Jackson for her poem “Man With the White Liver” which showed me how to merge Black sensuality and the Blues on the page; Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon and Ada Limón for advocating that poetry can be more than a list of traumas; and lastly, Natalya Handel is currently teaching me to interrogate self and my relationship to poetry.