The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Cynthia Marie Hoffman about her new book, Paper Doll Fetus, twilight sleep, and the importance of giving voice to the voiceless.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month the Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts an online discussion with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To learn how you can become a member of the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, click here.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Jennifer: Maybe we can start with the speakers/personae? Where did they come from? Or, why these personae?
Cynthia Marie Hoffman: The idea for the book actually came from a documentary I was watching that included information on twilight sleep. I always work in projects, so I immediately decided I would write a book about twilight sleep. It turned out to be just a couple of poems, but the voices emerged from there.
Jennifer: How did it move from twilight sleep to the focus on birth, pregnancy, etc.? Was there a particular poem that shifted things?
Cynthia Marie Hoffman: I remember vividly writing “The Lamb’s-Wool Strap Speaks from the Gurney, 1915” as the first poem. And I honestly don’t remember which poem came next! But what I do remember is the research. The more I learned about women giving birth under this amnesiac state, the more I became interested in the history of birth as a whole. I dug deeper and deeper, and before I knew it, I was reading things from the 1800s back to the 1500s.
I created a list of all the poems I wanted to write. The list was two pages long.
Jennifer: Cool. I like the idea of an aspirational poem list. What was that list like? Was it titles, concepts, something else? And while I’m at it: How did you conduct your research? You’ve got such striking quotes…
Cynthia Marie Hoffman: Some of the items in the list were titles, but usually I don’t start from a title. The list was mostly a compendium of interesting things related to birth—somehow, they were mostly focused on abnormalities, the things that could go wrong. They were mostly just broad subjects. Even a list of tools physicians used centuries ago.
The research began with twilight sleep—newspaper articles, books—and one source pointed to another. I got to know the names. I discovered John Maubrey and Ambroise Pare—several quotes come from those figures I think mostly because they fascinated me in terms of their place in history. The way physicians treated women and birth in the 1500s or the 1700s is (obviously) so different from today. Their work seemed filled with magic in a way. Superstition. And that magical world really opened up for me in terms of finding poetry and magic in the world of the unborn.
Brian S: I was talking about this book with some friends of mine about my age—we were all born with our mothers in the twilight sleep, and how odd that seems now, even with the argument over whether or not too many c-sections are being performed.
Jennifer: Do you think of these poems as being connected to those more contemporary arguments around birthing and pregnancy? There is something magical about the poems, but maybe also something political.
Cynthia Marie Hoffman: That’s fascinating! I had never heard of it, but I discovered among my parent’s friends some who experienced it. Certainly it was a precursor to the epidural of today. Strange how things have come full-circle, but back in the 1910s and 1920s, “painless babies” were seen as a woman’s right. Women pushed for the right to have pain medication during childbirth just as they were pushing for the right to vote. Of course, there were downsides which led to its eventual disappearance.
Brian S: Also, Cotton Mather was a jackass.
Cynthia Marie Hoffman: Oh, Cotton Mather. Well, Dr. John Snow, who is featured in the poem “At Twenty Minutes Past Twelve by a Clock in the Queens Apartment…” was a fascinating character to me. His use of chloroform on the queen during childbirth in the 1800s really popularized chloroform. This was a far cry from the religious-based beliefs that women should suffer in childbirth. I think for me, the book was less about making any sort of political statement about women’s rights during childbirth than it was about going on a historical journey, remembering that our ideas as a culture have evolved, and continue to evolve.
Brian S: Was the twilight sleep an American phenomenon? When my wife was pregnant with the twins last year, we watched “Call the Midwife,” and one of the big revolutions for them was the introduction of laughing gas to relax the mothers, but they weren’t knocked out.
Cynthia Marie Hoffman: Twilight sleep was studied quite heavily in Germany, actually. Oh, I was going to write a whole series of poems about the hospital where the research was conducted and where the women stayed to have their “painless babies.” But it was used in America too. Overall, what I was going for in the poems was to present an underlying stasis… no matter how much things have changed, the experience for the fetus inside the womb has stayed largely the same. People go on reproducing, and it’s really a miracle.
Jennifer: Do you think you’ll revisit any of that research that didn’t end up in poems? Or have you moved on to other projects?
Cynthia Marie Hoffman: There are so many poems I wanted to write that I just couldn’t get to. Once I’d written the poems that appear now in the book, I felt finished. I realized that, although it wasn’t intentional and I wasn’t aware of it at the time, I was really writing toward that underlying argument of magic and, well, love for humans and how we all come into this world. I felt I had written that. So, it’s tempting to write more, but I’ve moved on to other things.
Jonterri: The poems with religious themes bound the sections together for me. Can you talk about how you structured the manuscript? How did you arrive at four sections?
Cynthia Marie Hoffman: I never set out to divide the poems into sections, actually. But once they were all there together in one big pack, I felt they needed a little breathing room. The poems are a bit heavy, I think. It’s a lot of wild subject matter to take in. The poems fell into sections intentionally to give the book that breathing room. But they also fell into sections unintentionally—more organically—as they seemed to kind of cling to each other, I don’t know why. The religious poems did end up together. And the twilight sleep-type poems fell into the opening section. It felt right.
Brian S: So often the answer comes down to how something feels. I love that feeling of mystery. What’s the reception been like when you’ve read these in public?
Cynthia Marie Hoffman: I’ve gotten great reception reading these poems in public, actually. But I have found that it’s best to devote the entire reading to Paper Doll Fetus poems. It’s not the kind of thing where one can successfully toss a fetus poem into a collection of travel poems or something else. The poems are strengthened by each other and create their own world, so I have found it’s useful to create that world in the space of a reading, as well.
In terms of ordering the manuscript, I had the same experience in ordering my first book, Sightseer. I laid the poems out on the floor, and month after month trying it again and again, the poems just kept falling into the same places. I knew I was done with the order then.
Brian S: Do you have a couple of favorites that you always read?
Cynthia Marie Hoffman: Reading Paper Doll Fetus now, even just the other night (now that I have the actual book in my hands!), I noticed connections between poems that I hadn’t seen before. There is something magical about placing poems in a certain order and making a book. I always like to read “The Paper Doll Fetus Speaks to the Viable Twin in Utero.” That’s the only poem of my own I ever had memorized. I had done so much research on the fetus papyraceus, and I was happy with the way the poem came out. I wanted to give the dying twin something powerful to say. I suppose that’s the root of the previous question about voices—it was always important for me to give voices to things that don’t normally speak or can’t speak.
And to give them something important to say. I believe every poem should have a message, which is why I love the epistolary form. I used that form a lot in Sightseer, my first book, and I think the poems in Paper Doll Fetus that are called “The X Speaks to the X” are really epistolary as well.
Jennifer: I thought about that idea of “giving voice” a lot as I read your book. So often poets use that term to describe giving voice to marginalized people—I appreciated that your speakers were so often literally voiceless.
Brian S: That’s what I kept coming back to as I read this book—that these voices were ones that wouldn’t usually be heard from.
Yes, Jennifer. Yes.
Cynthia Marie Hoffman: Thank you. I think that’s one of the things that made writing this book so much fun. It was exciting to play with perspective and to really sit and think, what would a liver say? What would the calciferous substance say? So many of these poems, I think, are love poems. It is also easier to avoid sentimentality when, quite frankly, an ovarian dermoid cyst is speaking.
Brian S: Ha! I imagine it is! The poem about the c-section—did that happen in real life? Did the medical staff really forget to get the father? I’d have been irate.
Cynthia Marie Hoffman: A good friend of mine shared that story with me—for the book, and although I remember being on the phone with her and hearing her story, my envisioning of it in the poem has sort of replaced the real story. Perhaps my poem ends differently. Or, rather, my re-envisioning.
Brian S: I can totally see it happening, though. I was there for my first daughter’s birth (via c-section) 24 years ago, and then again earlier this year for the twins, and it felt true to me.
What are you reading these days?
Cynthia Marie Hoffman: Thank you. I was so deeply touched to hear from my friend that the poem felt true to her experience. And I think it makes the point that if you understand human emotions, and if you can combine that with research, you can write about anything. You know that old creative writing adage, “write what you know”? I never have taken that to mean “what only what you yourself have experienced directly.” Human emotions transfer to different experiences, and that’s the key to applying research to your writing, making anything you can learn about seem truly real, truly human.
I just finished reading The Book of Joshua by Zachary Schomburg. And I just started reading Gabriel: A Poem by Edward Hirsch. I’m curating an interview website with Nick Lantz on project books (www.thecloudyhouse.com), and I’ve enjoyed my reading for that site. I recently read Adrian Matejka’s The Big Smoke, and Oliver de la Paz‘s Post Subject: A Fable.
Jennifer: And what are you writing these days?
Cynthia Marie Hoffman: I’m writing another project book myself. This one, however, is more personal. It’s a series of prose poems (I’m also obsessed with the prose poem lately), a memoir of sorts comprised of obsessions, compulsions, and fabrications of the mind.
Brian S: I just accepted an interview with Hirsch about that book.
Cynthia Marie Hoffman: Fantastic! I’m looking forward to reading it.
Jennifer: Is there something nameable that draws you toward prose poems?
Cynthia Marie Hoffman: I started writing prose poems when I began writing what became my chapbook, “Her Human Costume.” The poems are about that fuzzy, dreamlike, sleep-deprived time when you are home with a new baby. But they are also about illness, dementia in old age, and dying. The prose poems seemed to fit the content because of the way the lines all seem to meld together. I enjoy the lack of breathing room, the tight compressed working space. I also enjoy the way the prose poem form invites me to make leaps while enforcing a juxtaposition of imagery and ideas. Everything is packed tightly into one little clump.
Brian S: That’s interesting—when I’ve written poems about my dad’s dementia recently, I’ve felt drawn to the prose form as well, for very similar reasons.
Cynthia Marie Hoffman: There’s a sort of rambling compression yet intentionally constructed feeling to a prose poem.
Brian S: And it feels right with those subjects—they just seem to fit together. Did you feel the tug of any particular influences in the writing of this book?
Cynthia Marie Hoffman: I did. But the tug came from the medical and historical texts I was reading more than anything else. I felt that I could interact with their diction and ideas in an interesting way, adding the tension of poetry and emotion to their scientific (or, at times, lack thereof!) writings.
Thank you so much for having me. I’ve enjoyed this chat. And I want to thank The Rumpus, and particularly Jennifer Perrine, for selecting Paper Doll Fetus.
Jennifer: Thanks, Cynthia!
Cynthia Marie Hoffman: Thank you all for reading.
Brian S: It was our pleasure. Good night everyone!
Jennifer: Good night, all!
Cynthia Marie Hoffman: Good night.