“I felt like an outsider, which is probably why I am a writer,” a Conversation with Cynthia Atkins

Lit Youngstown’s summer intern Danny Gage asked poet Cynthia Atkins a few questions about her work and writing life. Cynthia will be a featured writer at the online 2020 Fall Literary Festival September 24-26.

DG: In what ways has your home, Southern Appalachia influenced your writing and your views on existence?

cynthia atkinsCA: I’m a native Chicagoan, by way of New York City, Brooklyn, and I wound up living in Rockbridge County, VA by way of love. I met my partner and hubby, Phillip at Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. We fell head over heels, and so I moved to these parts 25 years ago. I guess this is my forever home now. I raised my son here and I feel I now have roots in these parts. But at first, I felt like a Yankee, very much a fish out of water—A proud feminist and a Jew, living in a college mountain town where Confederate flags still hang and so much Civil War history.  Bathroom wallpaper had Civil War generals.  As a Midwesterner, this was all foreign to me. So while this has been a peaceful and very loving community, I have often felt ‘an outsider’—Perfect strangers thought they had every right to ask me ‘what church I belonged to’—when I’d respond, “I’m a Jew”—a few mouths dropped open. As a writer, I’ve found I’ve never felt comfortable belonging to any one group or grouping. I felt like an outsider, which is probably why I am a writer.

These are times of great civic unrest and polarity. A culture and race war. My town has been hit with many tensions in this regard—the old South letting go or not/of The Confederacy and that long history that has caused so much hurt and pain. As a Jew living in the South, I have felt it more ‘my duty’ to stand up and be counted as a Jew. When I lived in New York City, I felt there were plenty of others to answer the call. But since moving here, I feel it important to celebrate and pay tribute to our differences—what we aspire to in the beauty of the American ideal, and presently, falling far short of. I think this is also an inflection point. I think change is coming, old white men are dying.  I am proud to be among so many writers and artists speaking out against fascism, bigotry and oppression right now. It’s an important time to be speaking out, writing and making art.

Some of your poems, My Body is a Vessel, for example, must not have been easy to write. Are writing these poems sort of therapy for you? What do you wish most for others to retain from this poem?

Clarice Lispector, one of my favorite writers, says these words and I am in total agreement: “No it is not easy to write. It is as hard as breaking rocks. Sparks and splinters fly like shattered steel.”—

Yes, sometimes it is like pulling teeth, getting to the crux of the matter. In this poem I am attempting to address a myriad of things—domestic and sexual violence against women.  So it’s not pretty subject matter, and the poem is not pretty either. It is trying to show abuse of power and patterns that are repeated through generations. I think stopping the cycle is key.  What I’d like for readers to retain from this poem is that the bodies of women are not the properties of other people or governments. We need to break down a system that has objectified and abused women for generations, by a  systemic abuse of power. We witness abuses, we stay silent—we need to speak up and speak out.  We need to take back the power, with whatever voice we have; for me, it’s poems.

My Body is a Vessel

My body is a vessel of dictation, forever told
what not to do. Always under investigation
with finger prints on the banisters,
pocks and dents on the wood tableau.
My body’s invisible, but listen hard, you’ll hear
the gut rankle and the refrigerator
in the apartment below, where the moans
of a woman are being twisted and squashed
like a spent cigarette. My body has been
burned to Eden and back. It has been
sent to endless zip codes and put through each
government test like a desk clerk smile
of dread. My body has flirted, endured the gaze,
lost the gaze, caught between the manly
battlefield of wills. My body worked
hard at being anonymous, a paper clip.
Harder at being lonely. Under my body’s
floor, a woman irons the shirt her body will wear
to be beaten and torn and entered. My body
listens to him crack a beer after.
Through the floor boards, past the humming
appliances, in my body like a dormant
pebble stuck in a shoe. Long ago, this body doodled
on an unmade bed, listened for a tooth fairy
with nicotine on her breath—This body worried
for the body of her mother getting bruised
under the lintel in a doorway, a tooth
knocked out. These limbs hear too much,
fasten to the shade of trees, on tender hooks.

How does the title of your book, Still-Life with God, translate the messages within the book? How are you trying to explore God outside of religion? 

Still-Life Front CoverThe epigraph in the book is from the poet, Tomas Transtromer, “I walk slowly into myself, through a forest of empty suits of armor.”—For me, these words explain a lot what a I feel about the self in relation to the liturgical world. It feels like many doors and panes of glass and forests and trees, to get to the place of solitude, where a poet lives.

I did feel the title was risky, as the very word God makes me feel very naked and vulnerable. For me the word holds a lot of platitudes and polarities—complexity, good, bad and ugly. Religion has been the cause of conflict and wars.  I wanted to take God ‘out’ of religion and look at this indelible largeness in our psyches through a different lens.  I wanted to ask questions of myself— I wanted to look at faith through the lens of the contemporary society we are living, fraught with social media, capitalism, oppression despots. We are at an inflection point in all cross-roads of life. I think there is a holiness and an unholiness in everything, depending on the context we are looking and perceiving.  The quotidian functions in the ordinary things in our lives.  We have been taught that God is an authority figure, I wanted to question those values and see for myself what voices I will listen to, in deciphering meaning from faith, and my own philosophy of life.

I wanted God to be in lampshades and medicine cabinets and libraries. God is what are.

I wanted this book to serve as my guide to excavate the self and find a certain solitude that depends on stripping down and debunking all the other layers and wires. Writing this book was a process,  and there is no closure, only more questions.

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