Responses to American Poetry
The aim of this online space is to host the research work of university students or young scholars as this emerges from larger projects focusing on the American poetry scene. The objective of this initiative is to bring this kind of research activity to the attention of the general public in an attempt to further promote the exchange of ideas with regard to the process of reading, understanding and appreciating poetry writing.
Cynthia Arrieu-King Aris Kleiotis
A Conversation Between Cynthia Arrieu-King and Aris Kleiotis:
Touching Upon King's Craft and Her 2018 Poetry Collection, Futureless Languages
Introduction to the interview
Discussion about a potential interview with writer Cynthia-Arrieu King started in late 2019-early 2020. I was lucky enough to be introduced to the writer herself during my academic visit to Stockton University, NJ, in April 2019, towards the end of my undergraduate studies at School of English at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece. Dr. King is Associate Professor of creative writing at the Literature Program of the School of Arts & Humanities at Stockton University. I can still recall the sincere kindness and cordiality with which King introduced me to her literary circle as she escorted me to local literary events in Atlantic City. Following our acquaintance, King gifted me her then latest book release, a poetry collection titled Futureless Languages (2019). I couldn’t wait to hop into the plane back home to devour each and every line of the collection. After a few evenings examining the book’s content, I was overcome with its stark/intricate contrast of human vulnerability and fragility with human strength and willpower. Following a series of e-mail exchanges with King herself where we discussed the book, I decided to propose the idea of a potential interview in order to introduce King and her craft to the Greek audience in general and Poeticanet’s readership in particular. Although we started building on the project in early 2020, complications due to the pandemic resulted in constant delays. The use of our first names, Cynthia and Aris, instead of our surnames aligns with the sense of intimacy the title itself suggests; this interview resembles a conversation.
Cindy, before we delve deeply in your artistry and your 2018 poetry publication, Futureless Languages, I would like to know more about your first steps as a poet. How and when did you start writing? Was there a crucial moment in your life that sparked your need to write and express yourself? But also, how many years have you been writing?
I wanted to go to art camp, mostly to get out of the house and meet other people who liked to write and paint and so on. So I literally started writing poems so I could put them in my application. I think I was 15-16. Then a friend who was older than me wrote me a letter. In it she’d written out all of “Der Schauende,” “The Observer” by Rilke. I thought it was the most familiar and eternal sounding thing I’d ever heard, and I went to get his books, and then other poetry books. I discuss this story extensively elsewhere.
Is there an all-time favorite artist, that is however non-living, that you would love to be able to share your work with and collaborate with and why?
I wish I could collaborate again with Hillary Gravendyk who was my poetry collaborator (she had many). We met at Vermont Studio Center. We wrote many poems that were eventually published by 1913 Press as Unlikely Conditions. We worked on googledocs while I lived in Philadelphia and she lived in Claremont CA. There was so little ego at stake--we moved each others’ words around and made jokes about certain lines, like “hey, can we say ‘grey goose’ or is it vodka-y?”, followed by a huge list of ridiculous synonyms for grey goose.
Sometimes I think it would be great to go back and hear and learn from an old Icelandic saga writer, to hear them say their poems. I do like Björk, but who doesn't? I think I take a lot of inspiration from Stars of the Lid, the electronica band: they definitely put me in a good writing state of mind by creating music that is so organic and expansive.
Has there ever been a role model and/or mentor that encouraged you to continue writing or influenced your writing process in general?
My father definitely encouraged my writing. Mostly he supplied blank pads of paper, empty journals, and when I was very young, put the typewriter in front of me. I think my teachers influenced my writing by giving me space as well. I think that in turn has influenced my teaching: How can I create a recognizable container for you? If I leave you to your own devices (with a little push in a direction), what are you going to come up with?
Has your artmaking and writing experience influenced your sense of self? If yes, how?
I think I always saw my parents making things, clothes, dumplings, or gardens. It seemed like writing was just another avenue for that and I think the fact that my father made writing seem like the most everyday hobby took a lot of the psychological difficulty of writing away from my own practice. There is a lot of stability for me in thinking of art as a part of life rather than a role, an aspiration, a goal. I was allowed to make quilts, and many crafts, and given journals as I was growing up, and so to me making things feels a bit more like a way of participating in my own nature or family rather than culture. And that’s fine by me.
How would you define your identity as an individual and as an artist?
As an individual, I feel like a fleeting being who happens to be a human right now on earth, struggling to do the most for others in this lifetime. As an artist, I am a US poet and maker with Chinese heritage who tends to use her positionality towards the betterment of the lives of people of color, in particular Black people and in a different avenue, Asian anglophone artists. I work in experimental modes that edge toward the accessible. My subject in the end is samsara--to me the ways we are unable to see that we live in the same world--and all the mental moves around it: recognition/misrecognition, listening, blindspots, war, violence, language itself, themes around artificial intelligence, futurisms, and translation.
The poet, Sylvia Plath, has described her artistic vision in her essay “Context” as a “deflection” of her own self and experiences rather than a mere “reflection” in order to allow her art acquire universal dimensions. Artistically, are you more interested in representing a universal self or your individual self?
The paradox I repeat ad nauseum to my students is that the specific is universal. The specific and objective carry emotion. I need to create containers and vessels for immense feelings, personally. I definitely prefer to reach people, and I have found that the more I do not reduce the detail of who I am, the more people I reach, the more people my writing seems to touch.
How important is it to you to retain a unique voice rather than engaging in a collective conversation? In other words, which would you prefer to be ascribed to: an artistic outsider or a mainstream artist?
Both in a balance. I like to ride the line between the freedom at the margins and being read by actual people; the collective is important to me, though I’m not sure how much value I put on collective artistic conversation. Actual community, actual collectivity among citizens is incredibly important to me. Judging by the emails I receive from people who read my work, I’m engaging all sorts of people with my poetry; a mix of people who are quilters, artists, teachers, and poets.
I mean, what do we mean when we say mainstream, I guess is part of my reaction to the question. There’s no more monoculture of poetry as there once was. There’s Instapoets that younger students all seem to be aware of and spoken word poets everyone seems to know about. And the establishment wants to be really horrified about them? Being an artistic outsider, to me, is a funny notion here in the States. One can be kind of an antagonist towards what one has learned or found in institutional structures, one can be apart from what one’s peers do, but I do think once you’ve gone to school for your art, the “outsider” status is modified. Especially since we’re in a culture where going to school means either you have immense privilege in the form of cultural capital, a scholarship, etc. and education is not available to all. I think I did say to a friend, now that I am really in middle age, that I’m fine with being a sleeper hit for the rest of my life. It means I am able to write as I like and not be shaped by editors, etc. into something more accessible.
I interviewed the poet Eric Baus many years ago: He mentioned that his poems being received as difficult; however, his uncle who is outside of the formal art world has always been able to read and appreciate them. And so what is this idea of difficulty and “outsider” really about?
Do you feel that in order to appeal to the mainstream community one has to let go of their unique artistry?
No. Unless your art has something empty or inhuman at its core, in which case, the mass reaction is likely not going to be positive.
Do you think one’s identity (cultural and social background) can affect or restrict one’s self-expression? If yes, how does it resonate within your own writing?
If you don’t think formal experimentation and narrative about diaspora go together, which some don’t, then it could, for a specific writer/reader, restrict it. I do think silence is part of how I write and I am aware that it seems free or deliberate, but wonder if that is part of the silence of privilege or the silence of a learned self-erasure, a large part of being Asian American in the context of the States, and maybe even specifically in academia or learning institutions.
Do you ever feel constricted from touching upon specific social, cultural and political issues? Does it make your self-expression “uncomfortable”?
In my poems, no. I think I may feel uncomfortable incorporating other peoples’ stories if they don’t know that I am (such as in The Betweens, an experimental memoir). As far as subjects, I think there are “risky” subjects that just don’t interest me, and those are for others to do more with.
What do you feel are the greatest or most tenacious barriers to creating art as a contemporary artist in general, but also for yourself?
Poverty, lack of time and space, and the hierarchic forms of valuing art. You can also see people going for status conscious placement within the successful figures of one’s art. For them, that is part of their artistic freedom, finding their living artistic mentors, and so on. I think if you find a strong collaboration, that’s great. That’s the real work. Everything else you do as an artist has little to do with being celebrated or a public figure. Baldwin said something along those lines. I find it hard to disagree.
Are there specific incidents-moments that can “mute” your muse and introduce a dormant state of a writer’s block?
I have taken a break from my poetry writing practice since September of 2018. Though I ended up writing poems and revising them to complete Continuity and prose to finish The Betweens, I switched gears toward making crafts, working on the courses I teach, etc. I wrote prose, short stories, journaling, etc. instead. I do think both the worsening of the climate crisis, the political populism that stressed everyone, and the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic both, separately, caused me to feel disinterested in writing.
What is your artistic relationship to loss? Either personal loss, or lost works of art, or other kinds of loss?
I think I have written a lot about loss, deaths of friends, elegy, etc. especially in Futureless Languages. I think first books often are about family and then you imagine your next work will have no death. Life thinks that’s hilarious. Also, we are living through the start of a mass extinction, so it would be tough not to depict this/dream this.
How important is it to you that others connect and understand and appreciate your work?
I think I do wish people would see it, but I don’t need to know much about it. I’ve been lucky enough to have peers, whose work I admire, say they enjoy my work, and that’s huge. If someone misinterpreted my work, which I think they have, it’s a little disturbing, but there’s never been a misinterpretation that I would consider dangerous. In that case, I would intervene, I think, somehow. Like when certain filmmakers have seen that their film inspires actual violence and murder and they pull the film forever.
What is your relationship to your audience, real-life or digital?
At readings, pretty warm, conversational, a two-way street. As far as people who reach out from other places, sometimes they tell me wonderful things like a woman who made a quilt out of some words in Futureless Languages. Very abstract. There’s the audience I imagine during a reading, but I don’t feel a lot of responsibility to particular readers who might want to know more. Sometimes people reach out and write to me and sometimes I write back and sometimes I don’t.
Do you have a relationship with the distant future – in other words, are you making artwork that bears a message or impact for coming generations?
I don’t know about that. I think we are up against our abstraction of the future in such a life or death fashion right now--with climate change. So many poets are activists who want to rouse people right now. I think that whatever happens to my poems in the future is out of my hands. My effect on the future comes, to me, more from my relationship to family or community than the words in my poems.
Now, Cynthia, I believe the readers of Poeticanet are getting a grasp of you as a person and as a poet. But, let us move to your 2018 poetry collection, Futureless Languages, which you kindly handed to me in person in 2019 on an April afternoon during my visit at Stockton University, NJ.
In general, throughout your book there are explicit references to the future. Specifically, the book includes three homonymous poems “Futureless Languages” that appear in separate places in the book. Was this choice intentional to create a semantic continuum -rather than a textual one- as the reader would scroll the page and suddenly meet another “Futureless Languages” further down the book?
It seemed that having three poems named the same thing was a way to tell the reader they couldn’t get away with ignoring the concept. And the three poems each seemed to need that title.
Every time I read your book, I feel trapped within a contradiction; on the one hand, Futureless Languages touches upon various social, cultural and political issues in an explicit manner, which at some point triggers emotionally the reader. On the other hand, this manner is usually combined with a sarcastic and often cynical attitude. Is this your personal defense to a “world without a future”, a world of nihilism?
I think that the poems imply and are imbedded with the message that what must be done to combat evil happens within ourselves and through action: these activities are not what I personally would include in a poem. The performance of goodness is quite dangerous and in US culture, the performance of goodness has become a very chewed up piece of gum. That is not the same as actual goodness. I also think cynicism requires you to think that everything has the same value, that one thing could work just as well as another. I could imagine someone seeing the surface of the poems and thinking that is what I am saying, but that is not what the poems add up to. My first readers show that to me, that I have a faith that I and we must continue to be a moral being/moral beings, no matter what. But that human impulses to goodness should not be for show, that urge feels beyond conversation and measurement. Less talking, more effectiveness. I do think this is also implied in several different poems, especially at the end of the long “Futureless Languages” poem. Hence the suspicion of believing in “goodness”. My friend once said, “No grant for us, we don’t write about the triumph of the human spirit,” which I thought was really true. As Rilke said, “When we win, it’s with small things, and the triumph itself makes us small.”
How did you choose the title “Futureless Languages”? Does it truly reflect upon a culture of nihilism and the vanity of modern human existence?
The future on the horizon has been a dangerous and destructive abstraction. The more we think of the future as what is happening right now, the more we are likely to behave with generosity and forethought towards our actual futures, our children’s lives, future generations, resources, money, etc. I don’t intend it as nihilism, however, I do think the feeling that the future is much shorter for humans than what we had been accustomed to, is quite common.
Throughout the book, there are disparate references to death through instances of homicidal/suicidal thoughts, militaristic actions, but there are also references to mental instability. Do you believe these references which address perilous actions to humanity could be the reason for the excessive depression that is prevalent today?
We’re depressed because we are crushed by the machine of late and overgrown capitalism. We cannot produce breakneck like that forever on less and less. The COVID virus has caused us to find out what it would be like if we had no oil futures, no direction from the government, no excessive travel. I asked my friends, “Are we becoming weird or were we always this weird underneath?” I mean, how can you know your humanity if you’re so disconnected from yourself all the time? To me, the expression of death is not the cause, but the effect.
Do you feel that writing about such disheartening topics helps you alleviate your own personal pain as well as your readers’ as you make public issues that are considered taboo or tend to remain private?
Yes, through confirming and connecting with the pain that other people are feeling, we confirm a reality, a community. Also, I don’t feel these disheartening subjects are taboo, per se. Everyone feels it. One of my best friends, Jesseca Cornelson, is a poet and she said my book is the only one she took with her on a writing retreat. And it’s because we need the relief, I think, of someone who will address how bad things are instead of covering it with the useless resolve to be positive. If your friend is drunk, you don’t let them drive home. Letting them drive home is not really being their friend. Actual faith and hope is necessary, but the performance of hope and its tropes have really lost their power at this point. Since the last president has been replaced, I don’t think there’s necessarily a feeling that things are “corrected,” and so we remain vigilant.
What motivates you to write right now? Are there specific issues-topics that you would like your future publications to touch upon?
I’d like to write about languages more, translation as a concept, AI, and more poems about love. Ana Bozicevic said at a reading I did with her that she feels it’s time for love poems. She is so right. I’m also working with Corinna Berndt on some visual and conceptual art projects.
Would you hope that your art practice will be recorded in history? What aspects of your artistry should you wish to be preserved?
I do not believe my own poetry will be recorded in history. I do want my poetry pedagogy to have a peaceful or healing effect that spreads exponentially. Maybe to help others be free. Or: destroy illusions such as perfection.
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