Verve {in} Verse: Cynthia Arrieu-King

Rosebud Ben-Oni
July 31, 2020


Verve {in} Verse is my poet-focused feature here at The Kenyon Review in which I converse with poets about their work and interests both on and off the page. I had the pleasure of talking with Cynthia Arrieu-King, whose most recent book is Futureless Languages (Radiator Press, 2018). An Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Stockton University, her books include People Are Tiny in Paintings of China (Octopus, 2010); Manifest, which was selected by Harryette Mullen for the Gatewood Prize (Switchback, 2013), and the forthcoming Continuity (Octopus). Her poems have appeared in Bennington Review, BOMB Magazine, Crazyhorse, jubilat, TriQuarterly and elsewhere. Here she discusses language as the only homeland, terrain as the only language, and more.

Rosebud Ben-Oni: In the opening poem “Futureless Languages,” the namesake title of your collection, the speaker declares that “Languages with no / future tense use / the present instead, / make future a suite / next to the present.” How do these lines in particular and the poem itself resonate in the other poems bearing the same title throughout the collection? I’m especially thinking of the second poem, a longer sequence of prose poems that makes up this “Futureless Language” in which the speaker, reflecting on post-war Germany, the German language, and returning to the U.S., proposes that “That / if you think you’re basically good, we’re doomed. That if you see truth / as interchangeable, we’re doomed.”  How does speaking as writing serve as a means of creation of a future (futures?) that lives beside the present—instead of after it—and in which “the most radical thing” might just be to “stay put”?

Cynthia Arrieu-King: “Speaking as writing” might refer to the way there are often speech acts in my poems or even just speech. I think this insistence in my poems on the fourth wall—through utterance, through emphasizing certain words or even languages, means we are all in this together. And “this” is the present and the secondary present which is just about to happen.

It seemed intriguing to me that Germany has had to keep living despite the reality of the Holocaust. Supposedly, there’s no art after the Holocaust, but there they are, putting on art shows and plays, etc. I was watching some productions of Shakespeare in German and a journalist had pointed out that it feels like Germans get to work something out in Shakespeare’s plays. As if, through some cultural algebra, they can express something through his villains that their culture of remembrance (i.e. their culture of solemnity around the Holocaust) does not allow. And it might be part of a reckoning that’s a bit more id-oriented. I mean, what German art is not? Anyway, I wondered if by visiting their aftermath, their future which is happening now, could we find something out about the collapse of the American empire that would be instructive? The impulse is, or was, at the start of this Presidency, to leave. Many people expressed this and I still have friends outside the US telling me to get out of here. I think the USA culture has surrounded itself with invented history rather than actual history. And running away is never going to break that toxic cycle.

RB: “Inheritance” was one of my favorite poems: “His axe spoke about deprivation and graffiti and mold. / His blood speaks on the rocks / and the lava speaks about building new land with your rage / the rages speaks in lightning and bats / and the bats speaks sonor…” I love the relationship to living things and seemingly inanimate objects as prompting each other to speak. Would you say, though, these things are simply speaking out, or are they in conversation?

CAK: This might be a further extension of language as the only homeland and its flip side— terrain as the only language. There’s a strange feeling in Iceland that one has stepped back into a very vibrant and living past, partly because the language has not changed as much as a language usually does in 1100 years because of the remoteness of the island. And the culture has only recently been changed by globalization—a process that started maybe in the late thirties. It’s also a kind of love song to the way English still has a conversation with Old Norse, even though we don’t think about this much. Only rather than expressly talk about this in the poem, I resorted to just using the music of the words and also allowing the objects to converse with each other. I teach a course where material culture is used as a lens. And it’s always very stark in that discipline how much more truthful an object is when you listen to what it has to tell you about what’s valued in its culture—more truthful sometimes than the story a culture tells about itself through History. (I mean, that seems true for the USA, though Iceland has its sagas.) So I guess I wanted to hear what it would sound like if the words led the poem rather than the culture.

RB: In your poems about Iceland, its inhabitants seem to speak and sometimes even become the very terrain they transverse in your collection: the “immense landscape of vigilance” with people “who memorize the ice instead / who say wake me when it’s here” in “Waiting for Northern Lights,” or “to hear a language that came back into use from the villages after a colonizer’s language was pushed out. To hear something old, ethereal, musical from every person’s mouth” in “Saga,” or how a beloved’s hair becomes a “black line above” what the speaker sees “out on the window wondering at pink skyline” in “Ancient Map of Iceland.” Can you speak on these linguistic-topographic transformations?

CAK: I think that habit you noticed was a way that language really was performing, through or for me, that idea of language as the only homeland. I was extremely aware in Iceland of being in a place that wasn’t “mine” but that was constantly being loved by people who were from outside of it. So maybe the only way to really solidify my experiences there was to express images or build images from words about terrain, lava.

RB: How does silence, too, play a role in the collection?

CAK: I think in the “Futureless Languages” poem, the light that is shone on the future as merely the proximal present means that the silence of the future is pregnant. I also think that the kinds of disobedience alluded to in the poems are the kinds of disobedience most effective when not obvious, not talked about, a kind of subtler sabotage/love.

RB: What was the most difficult poem to write?

CAK: “This is Actually Happening.” I had to rewrite it a few times to nuance the underpinning and make it emerge subtly. I think of it as a “to be or not to be” poem. Or maybe “Saga” was the hardest because I had to really balance the ugliness of what’s happening in the USA against depicting Iceland as some kind of Eden. Because that’s definitely not what it is, nor what I wanted to emphasize. But they do seem to have invented a kind of freedom.

RB: Who are you reading now? What poets excite you?

CAK: This year my favorite poets have been Harmony Holiday, Laura Jaramillo, and MC Hyland. All incredible. I also love Ross Gay’s Book of Delights—gonna teach that in my Advanced Poetry class. I also read, at the start of the pandemic, a LOT of Banana Yoshimoto novels as well as Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel—a profound book about a fictional pandemic which is quite convincing in its messages about what makes life worth living.

RB: So what’s next for you? What are you working on now?

CAK: I’m just finishing up edits with Harper Quinn—forever my poetry therapist now—on Continuity, which will come out from Octopus Books in the next few months. It’s a book that was accepted a few years ago and hit some delays. I was concerned that times are changing so fast now that it might not still feel quite relevant, but it’s about violence, policing, and family. I’ve also got a book of creative nonfiction called The Betweens coming out from Noemi Press. It stems from the short prose passages about microaggressions that appeared in my first book, People are Tiny in Paintings of China (Octopus 2010). It folds other things into the mix, such as quotidian, religious, and scientific metaphors for cognition, discernment, recognition, listening, and how one fixed racial subject position contributes to and structures another. I’ll start on the edits with Emily Alex, the creative nonfiction editor, at the beginning of August and continue to rely on the poet Evan Chen as a supplementary editor. It’s supposed to come out in the spring of 2021.

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