The Rumpus Interview with Cynthia Cruz


Most people in love with poetry have, at one time or another, opened a journal and felt disgusted or baffled by the poems inside, and wondered why the hell the editors chose them, and speculated subsequently about nepotism and clique adherence, and what about my own poems if this is what it’s come to? We have at least this much in common, even if the very poems that fail to move you are my favorites and vice versa. We keep coming back to the journal because occasionally it introduces us to a poet who grabs us, moves us, and the discovery gets us high.

That’s how I found Cynthia Cruz, in 2006, in a hand-me-down copy of the American Poetry Review, two poems that later appeared in her debut collection Ruin. I read,

Woke on the highway,
Thin in my dead brother’s clothes.
I was gone but still dreaming.

A desert city strobing in the distance like sex

and fell instantly in love. Her poems were spare, fierce, dark little packages that managed to feel both mystical—almost like fairytales—and contemporary with their references to drugs and Greyhound stations. The speaker in those poems was consumed with guilt and self-loathing, precariously navigating her ruined world, the forfeited kingdom of childhood. She seemed, in my grim 24 year old brain, to speak directly to me. Ruin was the first book I’d ever ordered before it was released. That was six years ago and I am seriously giddy about her second collection, The Glimmering Room, due out from Four Way Books this October.


Rumpus: One of the things I really admired about Ruin and admire in the new work is your willingness to let filth into the poems. I don’t know if I’ve read anything like it. I came of age in the 90s, in apartment complexes in the west coast suburbs, and there’s something very familiar about your imagery. It reminds me of the grunge princesses of that era, tiaras and heroin and all that. Your speaker is describing herself with words like sleeze, and grime, little Glitter of her father’s Spit. That feels risky to me.

Cruz: Thank you, Lisa. I don’t know if you know this: but I am also from the West Coast (Northern California) and also came of age in the 90s so the landscapes you describe, the atmosphere you sense in my work, is exactly what I imagined when I was writing these poems. Though I haven’t lived in the West for more than 10 years, it, the landscape of my childhood (the California suburbs, the soft gold of its hills, the malls and beach towns, the terrible hopelessness) still informs, still sits, in a sense, at the center of everything I write.

And as for the terrible and the beautiful: I have always been drawn to this, have always wanted to turn the terrible into the beautiful. This is the aesthetic I am drawn to, whether it be in poetry, fiction, nonfiction, music, film or fashion. I want to get to the center of the truth, regardless of whether or not it is my truth (i.e. persona poems.)

Rumpus: I recently visited the Cindy Sherman exhibit at MOMA and have been thinking about her portraits of average women, the ones with their lipstick overdrawn, women you’d see at a nail salon in a strip mall. The portraits are sort of pumped up, like Glamour shots, and it turns the average women into icons. In your poems there are these big, mythological words living next door to convenience store words, “Groom of the Netherworld” and “warm cola” or “Strawberry Ensure” etc., vulgar subjects thrust into epic contexts. Where are you pulling your characters and images from?

Cruz: Well, regarding the “big, mythological words living next door to convenience store words,” the idea, in other words, of incorporating both the “high” and the “low” in my work: I love to do this, have always done this, exhibit this in my own life, and am a product of this. For example, when I was a child and we didn’t have much money but still, my parents saved up so we could go to the ballet in San Francisco, my mother still brought us to museums, and they saved their money all year round so we could travel to Europe summers. So I experienced beauty and what would be considered “high culture” from a very young age despite the fact that we didn’t have much. I grew up with piles of fashion magazines on our living room floor and so I saw, early on, the possibilities: haute couture, fantasy, art, painting, literature—it was all in these European fashion magazines my mother brought home. So, though I was growing up in a Northern California beach town (beaches, bikinis, skateboarding, etc.), I had access to this other end of the spectrum.

Now, back to the actual aesthetic of the high and the low. Much of the work I am drawn to, whether it be writing or visual art, is comprised of these two worlds: Albert Oehlen, Martin Kippenberger, Kai Althoff, for example. The contrast of the two make for a powerful tool I like to use in my work.

I always tell my students to take notes on their lives: to literally write down, indiscriminately, everything in their world: the Chekhov on the old wood nightstand near the bed, the chipped tea cup, the pile of French Vogue magazines stacked on the floor. These objects reveal far more than we can say about our selves—and more honestly. This is the stuff of our poems. Not necessarily lists or list poems, but, rather, incorporating, in some way, the objects which hold meaning into our work.

Rumpus: In both books there’s this thread of imagery that seems almost hallucinogenic. Sometimes it’s drug-induced, like in the poem “Molotov” (I got my dream pills. // They’re wrapped in tin foil / And it’s going to be alright) Sometimes it feels more spiritual, sometimes mad. Can you talk about the madness in your work? Or is it religiosity operating there? Some marriage of the two?

Cruz: To begin with: we are all mad, it’s simply a matter of where we are on that continuum. My mind is what saved me, as a child. Thank God, I was able to vanish into the world of my mind. But, conversely, it can also be a dangerous thing. The mind can play tricks. Was Joan of Arc mad? Simone Weil? Glenn Gould? Where’s the line between bravery and honesty and genius and madness? Sometimes it overlaps. I suffered from anorexia for many years (from the age of eleven) and that is quite certainly a kind of madness. My mind told me things that quite simply were not true. I had to fight against my mind.

And then, as you say, there is the spiritual. Back to Joan of Arc and Simone Weil: mystics or mad women? Virginia Woolf? Was she “mad” or driven mad? Finally, I am not content with the idea that people who suffer from madness of any kind ought to be marginalized. Nearly everyone I know in New York City is on one kind of medication or another for anxiety or depression or what have you, so again, it’s a matter of where we fall on the continuum which is really, in the end, just luck.

Rumpus: Well said. Kay Jameson offers some fascinating stats on the disproportionately large representation of artists with persistent mental illness, poets in particular, in her book Touched with Fire. I think also of Louise Gluck’s struggle with anorexia. Her assessment in the essay collection Proofs and Theories really made an impression on me:

I had great resources of will and no self…I couldn’t say what I was, what I wanted, in any day to day, practical way. What I could say was no: the way I saw to separate myself, to establish a self with clear boundaries, was to oppose myself to the declared desire of others, utilizing their wills to give shape to my own. The conflict played itself out most fiercely with my mother. Insofar as I could tell, my mother only wavered when I began to refuse food, when I claimed, through implicit threat, ownership of my body, which was her great accomplishment.

It struck me that the stance doubles for what motivates so many of us to begin writing in the first place; articulation of self, asserting ownership of experience.

Cruz: I love Kay Jameson. She is a perfect example of one of the “mad” among us: creative, brilliant, prolific, and ridiculously articulate. I have all her books, and admire and adore her in so many ways. Here is a woman who has struggled with bi-polar who has come out of the fire to tell about it and, in doing so, she has paved the way for so many others, often silenced and marginalized, to pursue their callings as well.

And I’m glad you brought up the Gluck excerpt. I was also anorexic for many years (from eleven years old well into adulthood), and it has not gone unnoticed that the entire “project” of anorexia is not dissimilar to the act of making poetry. Both are a kind of miming, a kind of spectacle, a way of enacting how one feels. With anorexia, I, for one, was, of course without being conscious of it, performing as a means to show the world how I felt. I wanted both to be noticed (I felt invisible) and I wanted to not be seen (I felt I was too intense.) Anorexia served its purpose. It was a deliberate translating of experience, a means of communication: by compressing all my feelings, which were overwhelming for me, I made a kind of porcelain figurine of myself. I became a symbol, a code. Anorexia was a whirring machine into which I poured everything and, as a result, through anorexia, I was able to survive these feelings and experiences. With poetry, I do much the same thing: it is also a whirring machine I put all my thoughts, feelings, and experiences into. I compress and revise compulsively (again, like anorexia, a kind of compulsive repetition and deletion of parts of the self {the self being poem or self}) until I have a perfect box of words that then stand in for experience, feeling, thought, a kind of perfect diorama, a world in miniature. I would not be alive today were it not for both anorexia and poetry.

Rumpus: As an educator, you’ve worked with populations that run the gamut—students at Princeton and Sarah Lawrence, homeless youth, women struggling with eating disorders—and I’m curious to know how those different contexts shape the experience of teaching poetry, and how they inform your writing if at all.

Cruz: What I “get” from teaching whether my students are kindergarten children with severe autism, a homeless women with her baby, or students at Sarah Lawrence College, is the opportunity to share everything I know about writing. My number one goal when teaching is to share all I know and to do all I can to help another writer to better express herself, and to improve her work.

Rumpus: You have another book after The Glimmering Room coming from Four Way Books. What can you tell us about The Glimmering Room and the other forthcoming collection?

Cruz: The Glimmering Room will be published in October and I am very much looking forward to it. The other two are “Wunderkammer,” which is the collection I wrote while a Hodder fellow at Princeton. I don’t usually have a specific theme I write about but in this case, I did. The idea of collection, archiving, as a means of dealing with trauma and memory interests me greatly. In particular in the work of the German artists, Hanne Darboven, Gerhard Richter, especially, and of course Aby Warburg. The idea of collecting and archiving vast amounts of photographs and/or miscellanea as a means of (attempting to) control one’s memory, history, or trauma captivated my imagination and this was the seed for this collection. In addition, I was and remain interested in clutter and chaos which is, in my mind, a sibling of archiving, a parallel activity. When one simply cannot get rid of a piece of clothing or a photograph it is because one has an emotional attachment to it, one’s mind has a memory connected to this piece and it is the memory that one cannot let go of. Memory, not dealt with, is what this is all about. Once one has digested, as it were, the memory, dealt with it, then one can let go, is free. Anyway, these ideas are what Wunderkammer attempts to think about.

My fourth collection, How the End Begins, began in Italy during the summer of 2011 while I was traveling, visiting tiny churches with statues of Mary, and reminded of my Catholic upbringing, also, at the time, I was dealing with some very sorrowful stuff, reconsidering everything I ever knew. I wrote three quite long poems while in Italy exploring all of this: religion, God, my life up until then, and these three poems were the beginnings of this collection. Much of what happens in books one and two are finalized in this book. It is a very dark book, I think … though probably no darker than my other three.

Lisa Wells is the author of Beast, a collection of poems, and Yeah. No. Totally., a book of essays. Born and raised in Portland, Oregon she currently lives in Iowa City. More from this author →