Cynthia Cruz is the author of four collections of poems, and her essays and art criticism have been published in the Los Angeles Review of Books, the American Poetry Review, The Rumpus, Guernica, and Hyperallergic. In anticipation of the publication of her newest collection of poems How the End Begins (Four Way Books, 2016), Cynthia spoke to us about the images inform her writing, how words can fail to satisfy meaning, and her commitment to creating an alternative language in her work.
The cover of Wunderkammer (2014) features a stunning photograph of a woman mid-dance, her body bent back is if in a trance. You once told me that the woman in this photograph is James Joyce’s daughter, and that she ended up dying in a mental asylum. The poems in this collection describe an opulence that is both glittering and tragic, reflecting back to the this image. How the End Begins (2016) also features a photograph of a woman whose wild hair and solemn pout are separated by a thick black line that frames the book’s title—in fact, it covers her eyes. Why did you choose this photograph? Do you find that this woman haunts the poems in this collection?
In the original image the woman is “blinded,” a band covers her eyes. The image is by the collaborative team Broomberg & Chanarin and is, essentially, a found image. It is from their series “People in Trouble Laughing Pushed to the Ground” which contains images chosen from thousands of black-and-white contact sheets in the Belfast Exposed Archive, each a unique perspective that documents the Troubles in Northern Ireland. In the artists’ description of the series, they write:
The marks on the surface of the contact strips – across the image itself – allude to the presence of many visitors. These include successive archivists, who have ordered, catalogued and re-catalogued this jumble of images. For many years the archive was also made available to members of the public, and sometimes they would deface their own image with a marker pen, ink or scissors. So, in addition to the marks made by generations of archivists, photo editors, legal aides and activists, the traces of these very personal obliterations are also visible. They are the gestures of those who wished to remain anonymous.
The image, then, is already fused, or filled, with many symbols and meanings. The original image of the girl: Who is she? Who does she love? Who loved her? What was her role in the Troubles? For me the look on her face is a look of resilience, of resistance. It’s very punk rock. Her stance, in fact, is what drew me to her in the first place. The image carries this look, and I imagine she was part of the political resistance, part of the struggle for freedom under British occupation.
But then, on top of this image are the marks of the many experiences of the many people who came across it in the archive. And then, finally, the image on my book cover becomes something else entirely, changed again in this new context. An image is like a word in that it carries within it a world of meanings.
When thinking of what a poem does, what a word in a poem does, one of the definitions I have come up with is this: each word carries within it a series of referents. It is as if each word were a placeholder for myriad meanings, of references and symbols but, sadly, no one word is the perfect word for anything. Of Paul Celan, and specifically his prose piece, “Gespräch im Gebirg (Conversation in the Mountains),” the scholar Rochelle Tobias writes, “We are condemned to speak with words, words which forever misstate and mistake what we address.” This is the inherent sadness in all poetry, all writing, and indeed in all conversation in which words are used. What exists under the word—the inexplicable—still remains. It is a hunch that we cannot relay to another being.
Returning to the book cover, I chose this image because the image itself appears to me to be an image of resistance, of refusal. The woman is not being gazed at, she is not contained within the confines of the photograph, or of that moment—she refuses it with her look and her stance. This refusal, this resistance, is what I remain interested in, and how this resistance can be relayed with silence and, perhaps, the silence of oppression. This image resists. The woman in the image, unnamed and voiceless, has a voice through her stance.
Last year you wrote a series of blog posts for the Poetry Foundation titled “Notes Toward a New Language.” In the first post you write, “I am examining the ways these female authors [Ingeborg Bachmann, Clarice Lispector, Hanne Darboven, Marguerite Duras] refuse the language of their culture (authoritative, hierarchical) and attempt, instead, to create an alternative language–because it isn’t just a refusal of power, it is a refusal of the language of power: the two are intrinsically connected.” Can you speak more to this, and how your own writing attempts to create an alternative language?
First of all, something I became aware of recently was how I was actually erasing myself in my poetry. I had come to believe that strong poetry was poetry that was “perfect,” meaning poetry which included the perfect line, perfect word, perfect sounds, perfect stanza. A perfect poem. Revising became a means to erase the parts of the poem that “don’t make sense,” or were otherwise potentially troublesome. I found that articulation comes easier, or I should say more natural, to those with more confidence, those who feel more comfortable taking up space.
Another thing I realized was that the quality I am trying to convey, a sense of despair and/or shock at the state of the world, can’t be expressed with a perfect sentence or a perfect line. To respond, to convey the state of the world, to attempt to express the sense of where things are in this time we are living, I must come up with a new, alternative, language. This new language does not attempt to join in the clear, articulate byte used by nearly every sector of our society. What I want to get at is not reducible, it is not compressible, so the language I need cannot summarize or compress. It cannot attempt to describe because any of these means will serve only to reduce. Instead, I need a language that allows for complexity, and for nuance.
People read with their experience. This means if someone reads a poem about poverty who has not experienced poverty, she will either not see it or she will equate the word “poverty” with an image or text she has read somewhere about it. Neither option will suffice—both are ways of not seeing. My goal is to find ways to make the reader see the things she has not seen. These are often things she has not had to see or has chosen not to.
In addition to your poetry, you write art criticism that explores similar themes of silence, repetition, and clutter. How does writing about art differ from writing poetry, and how do works of art inspire your writing?
This question goes back to what I said earlier about the language and the word’s impossibility to convey meaning accurately, how an image can perhaps carry more meaning in(side) it. Words refer to images while images refer, in my mind at least, to themselves only. They refer to ideas. It seems to me that images are nearer to the source.
For me the perfect world would be one where there are no labels, no reduction. Why do art and poetry have to be exclusive from one another? I am happiest when I am around art and when I am reading. Making, for me, comes from a need to find something out. I write essays and poetry and art writing in an attempt to get closer to the truth, whatever truth that might be. I go in blind, not knowing. To be honest, for me there is no difference between really good poetry and really good visual art. They are doing the same thing—attempting to convey something that can not be described or otherwise reduced. Great art and great poetry are not attempts at explaining or telling. They are not utilitarian.