A Little Bird Told Me: Summer Updates from Cynthia Hogue
As we inch ever closer to the upcoming release dates, our Q&A fall preview continues with poet Cynthia Hogue, whose new collection, Revenance, is available August 26th. Read through the interview below for her thoughts on writing, what draws her to stories about “ghosts,” and more.
1. What’s one event you’re most looking forward to this summer?
How could a poet who has essentially written a book of mystical poems in the tradition of New Spiritualism (albeit that, by coincidence)—including a number of otherworldly stories that people shared with me as I traveled across country to various places of power (Taos, New Mexico, Saratoga Springs, New York, among others)—not be excited and honored to be reading at the Annenberg House? My LA sister, a KABC news producer (formerly of the ABC West Coast office), Elaine Hogue, mentioned that the Annenberg had been part of Marion Davies’ estate, and I thought, Why, I’ll read a few of the ghost poems. Although my poems are very not-Hollywood, I am fascinated by the ghosts of the old Hollywood days. I mean, really, who isn’t?
2. How did your title, Revenance, originate? Did you consider other titles for the book?
I didn’t consider other titles, no, because of the nature of this book. As I say, quite a few people gifted me with their visions, their “ghost” stories, some of which transformed into poetic material for me. As I traveled a lot across country helping out my other sister, Chris Stegel, who was on the parental caretaking frontlines in New York, I witnessed things that can only be described as inexplicable, unless one accepts that there are extrasensory elements of existence to which we open as loved ones pass from one world to another. For instance, literally in the moment my father was dying, my very deaf mother turned to me and asked if I had just said, “We love you, we love you.” I hadn’t heard anything myself, but I said, “We aren’t alone,” and together we held my father’s hand and he died. My heart was pretty much open, vulnerable, breaking during this time—it is very moving, as anyone who has been through this knows—but I wanted to reach beyond the sentiment for that which is at once so awesome—the mind cognating the end of life—which enlarges our capacity to perceive and to empathize, and also for that which we see but cannot explain.
“Revenant” is French for “ghost,” which I’d been thinking about simply because my husband is French and I’m studying and translating French with him each summer. Revenance came to me as I sat with the poems a few years ago, putting them together into what would become the book, meditating on how the poems were working together. I made up the word, but it sounds like the plural in English: Revenants (which is the title of Mark Nowak’s wonderful collection of poems).
3. What’s your spirit animal?
If one has a spirit animal, or rather a spirit guide, one cannot divulge that so lightly, but in Revenance and in the new book I’m working on right now, there is a good deal about eagles.
4. What did you learn about yourself while writing Revenance?
I’m not sure that I learned this about myself, or that it was a confirmation of what I already knew about myself, but I write by listening, by “bearing witness,” to others, to another, or an otherness, and also, that if I’m not careful, I am sentimental. It’s fine to be sentimental in person, I think, and I probably am more often than not, but the poem suffers if it is rife with sentimentality (a danger in the elegy, of course, of which there are several in Revenance).
5. Are you a social writer? Who do you trust to read the earliest drafts of your work?
I think of myself as a private writer, because I don’t often show early drafts to anyone while the poems “brew.” But for each book there are a few readers of individual poems I have consulted, and with this manuscript, they are Kathleen Fraser, Jeannine Savard, Alan Michael Parker, and Alicia Ostriker. There are others I have learned from over the years, whom I thank in the acknowledgements. On the other hand, once a manuscript is assembled, it is really hard to ask of anyone such a gift of time, reading the whole book in advance, but three friends graciously agreed: Karen Brennan, Norman Dubie, and Elizabyth Hiscox. In the past, I’ve also consulted Sarah Vap, Afaa Weaver, and the Icelandic poet, my friend Christopher Burawa.
6. First book you read and loved?
I am probably misremembering that I read and loved A Midsummer Night’s Dream first, but when I was 11, I saw a Royal Shakespeare Company production in Regent’s Park, and I got fascinated with the era, Queen Elizabeth I, Sir Walter Raleigh, Shakespeare. My mother bought, I believe, a young adult set of the plays (or a set translated into modern English) for me. Then, soon, it was on to Jane Eyre and Gothic romances! I have been writing poetry since I was 8, but to be frank, I don’t remembering reading a lot of it when I was young. Hiawatha, yes. And Evangeline, which was my mother’s name.
7. Do you stick to a daily writing routine?
When I have time, which is rarely. I had time this past spring, and wrote every day for almost two months, but I had a book project, so I was mining a particular subject. Usually, I don’t have that, or the time to write every day.
8. What’s your best method for overcoming writer’s block?
Just do it. Don’t think, just write.
9. Did your own writing ever surprise you during the process?
I think your writing always has to surprise you or you aren’t going where you need to be going. I mean that formally as well. I have poems that experiment with form—both traditional form, which is always a surprise when I happen into that terrain, as well as innovative free verse. Poetry isn’t about reviewing what you already know, at least, to me it isn’t. I lose interest. If my poem doesn’t interest me, why would it interest anyone else?
10. Favorite writing instrument?
I used to have a sacred pen (well, I still do and love to write with a Mont Blanc my sister gave me), but mostly, I write on the computer. Not sure I’d call it a “favorite writing instrument,” but I do find it liberating because you can work so fast.
11. Can you imagine exploring the content of your upcoming title in any other genre?
No. Well, maybe prose poetry, or film. But actually, there are a couple of pretty wild and experimental ekphrastic poems, some dialogic poems, and poems of eco-ethical conscience, and I don’t see other genres accomodating the linguistic flexibility and experiment that the lyric does. Poetry best approaches the unsayable, the unknowable, but it also best stretches and explores language’s expressive capacities down to the level of syllable, morpheme, down to the elemental. I say these poems are “ghost” stories, but that is just a way to describe them briefly. They aren’t really narratives, but more about tracking the sensory impressions, the mind making sense or trying to process something that actually doesn’t “make sense.”
Cynthia Hogue has published seven previous collections of poetry, most recently, Or Consequence and When the Water Came: Evacuees of Hurricane Katrina (interview-poems and photographs), both in 2010. Among her honors are a Fulbright Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in poetry, the H.D. Fellowship at the Beinecke Library at Yale University, an Arizona Commission on the Arts Project Grant, and the Witter Bynner Translation Residency Fellowship at the Santa Fe Art Institute. She is the Maxine and Jonathan Marshall Chair in Modern and Contemporary Poetry in the Creative Writing Program at Arizona State University. Her new collection is Revenance, available now for pre-order from Red Hen Press. It will be released August 26th.