“Transformed this way into your own atlas of being”: A Conversation with Gillian Cummings

December 17, 2018

Gillian Cummings is the author of The Owl Was a Baker’s Daughter, selected by John Yau as the winner of the 2018 Colorado Prize for Poetry (The Center for Literary Publishing at Colorado State University, 2018) and My Dim Aviary, winner of the 2015 Hudson Prize (Black Lawrence Press, 2016). She has also written three chapbooks: Ophelia (dancing girl press, 2016), Petals as an Offering in Darkness (Finishing Line Press, 2014), and Spirits of the Humid Cloud (dancing girl press, 2012). Her poems have appeared in Boulevard, the Cincinnati ReviewColorado ReviewDenver Quarterly, the Laurel Review, the Massachusetts Review, Tupelo QuarterlyQuarterly WestVerse Daily, and others. A graduate of Stony Brook University and of Sarah Lawrence College’s MFA program, she was awarded the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Memorial Fund Poetry Prize in 2008. Cummings lives in Westchester County, New York.

Kristina Marie Darling:  Each poem, and each line, in The Owl Was a Baker’s Daughter is gratifyingly dense, and historically sedimented in a way that readers will find interesting. The voice in these poems evokes Ophelia, as well as Buddhist sutras, Sylvia Plath, and the King James Bible.  What archival texts were most transformative for your thinking about the voice that we encounter in these poems?

Gillian Cummings: To write the poems, I must have read Hamlet about twenty times, until I felt that I had taken to memory Shakespeare’s Ophelia and the other characters’ treatment of and reaction to her. This was by far the most important archival text, as is probably obvious. The Buddhist texts crept in without planning, as did the quote from Plath. With the Buddhist sutras and the writings of Dogen, well, they were references that I had internalized from six years of study under my late Zen teacher, Susan Jion Postal. I didn’t expect to include them, but at that time they were so much a part of my daily life, it was almost like, “How could they not surface?” And I had taken to memory so much of Plath over the years. She has been one of my icons. I took her version of Ariel, not Hughes’s, as the text by which to model the structuring of my book, with that little bit of hope, like her bee poems that “taste the spring,” gathered near the end. Only Ophelia must die. That is the pain of living with depression. There can be hope but there is always the chance of relapse, even of the fatal kind. I think that Sylvia and I both have lived with this knowledge since we were very young.

KMD:  I’m intrigued by your reframing of Ophelia’s familiar narrative.  Within this collection, her soliloquies are placed in dialogue with other texts, cultures, and historical milieu.  In this way, each poem becomes a space for conversation within the archive, which takes place across geographic and temporal boundaries.  How did the language of Shakespeare’s Ophelia metamorphose as you placed her in dialogue with other voices and texts?

GC: That’s a good question. I should let you know that when I originally wrote the prose persona “Ophelia poems” of the second and fourth sections of The Owl, I made the language very antiquated, using phrasings like “o’er” instead of “over,” and “’twill” instead of “it will.” These poems were published with this antiquated diction in my chapbook Ophelia. Then, as I was continuing to write the sonnets of the first and third sections, with other voices coming through, Buddhist voices, voices that told of things like railroads and tin cans that would not have been around in Ophelia’s time, it became harder to make the overall voice sound uniform enough for the manuscript to cohere. That is where the good help of editor friends came in. I was told by several editors to make Ophelia’s diction more plainspoken. And I did. And this seemed to work. In addition to making the diction more contemporary throughout, the other archival sources made Ophelia and the chorus of voices stranger, I think. For this, I was inspired by the prose works of the German novelist and artist Unica Zürn. The Man of Jasmine gives, I think, the most accurate portrayal of what it’s like to go mad of any text I have ever encountered. And I wanted my Ophelia and my “Moon Girls,” etc., to be as strange as Zürn made her protagonist.

KMD:  What advice do you have for emerging writers who might be working with archival texts, and struggling to make the language their own?

GC: Find what you love, what holds you, what keeps you, whether it’s a poem, a novel, a religious text, an excerpt from a book of critical theory… It could be anything: a television commercial or dialogue overheard in a diner late at night. Remember it. Repeat it. Memorize consciously until the words become part of your breath, part of your bones. Know the given text as well as you think you know yourself. Then when you write, forget about it. It has already entered your being. Write from the place where images and sounds just surface of their own. It doesn’t matter if they make sense, especially not in a first draft. And the texts, the influences, if you have absorbed them well, they’ll surface, only they won’t just be references anymore. They’ll have become part of your inner vocabulary of dreams, whether idyllic or macabre or even absurd. And they’ll stand out all the more in the work, having been transformed this way into your own atlas of being.

KMD:  Tell us about the greatest risk you took when writing The Owl Was a Baker’s Daughter.

GC:   In large part, I was writing out of heartbreak and loss, though not of a romantic kind. I wanted to give voice to my experience as someone who had been completely devastated, as Ophelia had been devastated, but I had to try really hard not to give away too much that was personal to the people who had caused me harm. I wanted to protect their privacy, and there were reasons for that. They are not the ones to whom the book is dedicated. I think the risk was to “walk the razor’s edge” between disclosure and nondisclosure. And at the same time as I had this artistic conundrum, I was literally walking the very edge of being, because some days it felt impossible to live, and at one point I came very close to dying. What saved me with these risks was help from others, help from other writers who carefully critiqued my work, and help from my loved ones and those who have been my guides, some of whom I lost during the writing of the book.

KMD:  The poet Eva Heisler has said that to travel is to experience oneself as foreign.  What does travel make possible within your artistic practice?  I’m thinking in particular of your recent poems in Tupelo Quarterly, which were inspired by your time in Iceland.

GC:   Eva Heisler—I love her book Reading Emily Dickinson in Icelandic! That book made me feel what it might be like to aim for complete immersion in the customs and language of another country, and to fail at that immersion because of barriers both internal and external, of culture clash and the difficulties of intimacy with a beloved who comes from a background so different. This is something I’d experienced myself as a teenager studying in France, first as an exchange student and then as a participant in a summer class at the Sorbonne (my first boyfriend was French). I must confess to you, Kristina, that I’m an American who, from the age of thirteen, didn’t want to be an American… Back to Iceland: I went there for the first time in the summer of 2015 and fell in love with that country, its moonlike and eerily beautiful landscape, its culture which seemed so much more liberal than ours, the kindness of strangers who talked to me about everything from “hidden people” to Philip Glass. When my husband and I arrived back in New York, I couldn’t stop crying. I cried for three days straight and didn’t stop until we booked a trip back there that Christmas. And that December, when the far north is at its darkest, steeped in dreamtime of twenty-hour nights, I started writing very strange poems that seemed to be coming from somewhere other than inside me. This is what travel can do to me. It can make me channel voices that seem “other.” I kept going back for visits every six months for two and a half years, and out of those experiences, I wrote the poems I call “the Iceland poems,” for lack of a title. They’re not finished. I’m still editing them, still trying to arrange them into a collection. I think I’ve been avoiding them, though, because some of the voices I channeled were male, and I feel funny about being such a timid woman speaking, at times, in somewhat brutal men’s voices.

KMD:  If I were to name three poets who have not yet garnered the recognition and readership they so deserve, you would be one of them.  Which poets, whether contemporary or historical, do you feel deserve a larger audience for their work?

GC:  Thank you so much, Kristina, for saying that! You are much too kind!

For under-recognized writers, I would again mention Unica Zürn, whose novels, including The Man of Jasmine, are eerie and disturbing in the best of ways. She was also a visual artist who made cryptic, hypnotic line drawings, often of eye-shapes twisting into one another and dissolving.

I’d also like to mention Blueberry Elizabeth Morningsnow’s Whale in the Woods, a book that I don’t think garnered the attention it deserved. It’s a very, very quiet, very lyrical meditation on violence and gratitude, nature and metaphysics, and it includes language like: “we will become one person, huckling down into one shape of time. the child leaps in the womb, the forests combine their bright and their death, their valeria and their small white strawberry flowers, and burst into children…”

Then, because I’ve been working on a novel that partially takes place in Medieval Poland and partially has to do with a child in America being told fairytales of why her mother doesn’t exist, I’ve been reading both Polish poetry in translation and poetry that uses fairytale as springboards. I will say of the former, that while in the States many of us are familiar with the works of Miłosz, Szymborska, Zagajewski, Swir, and Herbert, to name some, there are other Polish poets who are lesser known here whose works I feel should be known, like Julia Fiedorczuk, Julia Hartwig, and Jacek Dehnel. Then there is a poet of whose poems I have known only a few in English, but each of these is a small, precious stone I’ve placed in my mind’s pocket: Bronisław Maj: he does not yet have a book translated into English. If I could translate Polish, I would translate him.

And then fairytales: This year, 2018, two poetry collections based on fairytales came out that changed my way of understanding how we can talk about them: Jennifer S. Cheng’s Moon: Letters, Maps, Poems and GennaRose Nethercott’s The Lumberjack’s Dove. Both of these poets subvert the very fairytales they’re trying to relate and do so with a grace and quirkiness of language that I deeply admire.

These are only some of the writers I think deserve more recognition than they have so far received.

Thank you so much, Kristina, for the opportunity of this interview and for your wise questions! Your questions have helped me to understand my own book better and, in understanding my book and my influences, to better know my crazy self.

KMD:  Thank you for your insights, and for these fascinating book recommendations!