Recently, Mexican poetry journal Periodico de Poesia conducted an interview with Red Hen author Cynthia Hogue in which they discussed, among other things, the importance of poetry's cultural work in the world.
Here's the full English text:
“Reflexiones sobre la poética educativa y el poder del verso crítico.” An interview with Cynthia Hogue by Maria Fernanda Oyarvida Ibarrola, published in Spanish inPeriódica de Poesía 76 (Febrero 2015).[Trans. Maria Fernanda Oyarvida Ibarrola and Benjamin Palmer]
1.- Can you tell us when you first fell in love with poetry?
I started writing, quite spontaneously, at 8 years old. I don’t remember falling in love with poetry, but I do clearly remember falling in love with books. My mother brought me to the local library—a wonderful old turn of the century Carnegie Library, which is still standing in my hometown of Gloversville, New York—and I would get a lot of books, a stack of them, and sit with them when we came home, reading for hours. I wrote things by 10 years old in all genres (I tried to start a neighborhood newspaper with friends, but I had to write everything, and so only one issue came out). In high school, I took a special class in creative writing—very rare in those days, the 1960s—and began seriously to write very bad poetry, which I did for a number of years in college as well. Somewhere along the line, it started getting better.
2.- Poetry can help us understand our emotions better. How can we encourage the creation and use of this tool that contributes so much to increasing sensitivity?
That is such a wonderful and important question, because it is important to “encourage” creativity, as you put it, and it is also important not to discourage the making of poems, even bad poems, by being too critical too soon. Teaching young students is a privilege, and what they will do with the lessons is very unpredictable. A teacher cannot always tell—as my teachers could not tell for a long time—whether a student will persist or whether life will distract her forever. I know that there are fine arts schools where the teachers are very rigorous, very critical, and they have produced some brilliant and well-trained poets, but those schools are very selective, so the student body is already prepared for the serious labor of making art. But in public schools—I teach at a large public university—students come to class for many reasons. I have veterans in my class who are writing about their war experiences for the first time; I have slam poets who are trying to make the transition to lyric poetry in order to enlarge their range. I have a lot of fiction writers who find learning poetry helps their prose. In every case, the goal is to get them writing, teach them craft along the way, and teach them to observe and to listen and to hear their world with great attention, to bring the artist’s attentiveness to the world and the page. Whether they will grow up to be great artists is never the focus; but increasing their sensitivity incidentally through the artistic training is the objective. It develops alongside of the artistic training, like a natural side effect, an unlooked-for benefit.
3.- Do you think that the presence of poetry, even in environments which are not necessarily art-friendly, can become a seed that transforms our view of education?
Another wonderful question! We mostly all of us live now in environments no longer “art-friendly,” especially at times when the economy is depressed. What classes are cut first? The arts classes, of course. But there is now research being done on the healing effects of art, for instance. I have a student currently who has some brain damage from IEDs in the war, and she almost accidentally discovered that writing poetry helped restore her cognitive capacities, helped her brain to make new neural connections. Art opens new vistas in our brains. The hand-mind connection (that is, writing poetry by hand as opposed to on the computer) is actually very important (although I admit that I don’t do it anymore but I think I should). Such research, because it is scientific, helps to explain why the arts persist, why humans continue to create art, even when in art-unfriendly environments.Some urban planners I met in Arizona were making the case for the quality of urban life that a lively art scene provides. As artists begin to populate downtown Phoenix, for example, which for a long time urban development had devastated, the life of the city returns: people want to live downtown and the crime rates went down. It has been exciting to watch.
There is a wonderful project I learned about, funded by Poets’ House in New York, to bring poetry to zoos. Poets from around the country were paired with zoos and their staffs to create “poetry walks” throughout the zoos. Now, what was the goal? It was a program devised by scientists involved in the protection and conservation of the earth and its species, and these scientists reached out to poets, because poets help people to feel. The objective was to encourage people coming to zoos to see the animals not as objects of entertainment, but as sentient beings, and to understand how zoos are helping to keep some species from going extinct. I recommend Alison Hawthorne Deming’s new book, Zoologies. That is where I learned about this project. Because both poets and scientists activate and advance creativity, albeit differently, we discover (or create) unexpected routes of action that have social impact.
I believe that projects like these are seeds that help to transform our sense of what makes education important. Of course, some of the issues facing education right now are class-based, that those who are more privileged, affluent, never question education and its importance, and they can ensure that their children have access to excellent education, but those who struggle through economic crises, whose children are maybe working two jobs to support themselves as they try to get an education, are seeing the school budgets slashed and access to affordable education questioned. I have been disturbed, as many educators are, by the widening gap between what the resources available to rich and poor.
4.- Do you have any advice for a nation that marginalizes the potential of poetry in the educational process?
Goodness! Change it up! Something that has helped to define what makes us human, Art, which has been around for at least 30,000 years that we know of, must be doing something essential to us! I guess I might dare to speak to the nation like one of Shelley’s unacknowledged legislators (which is how Shelley described poets in his “Defense of Poetry”). But in truth, the poet Muriel Rukeyser had high hopes during the Depression and WWII for poetry being an essential part of the polis, but then, as she said in The Life of Poetry, our “will to win” took over, and after the war, “advertising won.”
Mexico has traditions that we don’t, however, which could be re-energized. Unlike the U.S., Mexico has a long tradition of poets, writers, intellectuals serving in some public office. I so respect that legacy of writers like Octavio Paz. Of course, that isn’t possible for all, but when I personally despair of things changing in the States, or let us say in Arizona, I think of each of us teaching artists as working in a collective effort that goes beyond us as individuals. We plants seeds with each of our students, but we need (and should demand) that scientists explain how crucial the arts are to healthy cognitive function. We need (and should demand) that the social scientists add their public voices to ours to make the case. We need (and should demand) better budgets, that allow us to bring this essential work, which we contribute to the betterment of the young, to schools. I think my advice is not to the nation but to the teachers, but I realize how challenging this task is, but I and my colleagues live it here in the U.S. as well.
One last thought: for a long time, Arizona was one of the states that did not have a Poet Laureate, but last year, I was a small part of the larger effort over time to establish that office in this state. I was one of four nominators of Alberto Álvaro Ríos to be the first Arizona State Poet Laureate. To have a poet engaged in community outreach across the state is invaluable in changing the people’s and the government’s minds about and experience of poetry. I would suggest that a conversation about establishing public offices for poets, like laureateships, be started. This can even start at the local level: the Poet Laureate of Guadalajara. Ríos visits rural and urban schools, libraries, all sorts of gatherings and associations around the state of Arizona. He brings poetry to people who have never met a poet or read a poem. That is to say, he brings them inspiration and hope. One cannot change a nation anytime soon, but starting from the ground up, things change over time. Don’t think of the desired outcome for a while, but just of the process, which you can influence. If it is possible to start at the top, do find the way, but don’t forget that change can often come from the ground up.
5.- As educators, how can we encourage our students in the act of poetic creation tohelp stimulate their intellectual activity?
Get them reading poetry, especially out loud, and make sure that they share the poetry they begin to write in a safe environment (make the class a safe space so that students will begin to write honestly and frankly). Teach them to understand the techniques of poetry, and celebrate their achievements. Check in with them through asking them to keep writer’s journals. Show them how to do this. Show them how to take a journal entry and draw out a poem from the material (follow the at emerge in the images). Students themselves will begin to see the magic that art brings to their lives, somewhere along the way, usually even in spite of themselves. Mirror them back to themselves as fully capable, full of potential, so they honor themselves. Respect them.
6.- Could you tell us about how your own approach to poetic creation influences the way you teach the writing of poetry?
I write intuitively, trying to stay alert to the material. I sometimes think that each class is a work of art. I mean, you have a class plan like you have an idea for a poem, but once you start to teach (or to write), you have to go with the material as it develops. Each class becomes a collective focused on everyone writing better, to their utmost, and each class synergizes differently. So I will adapt classes as they evolve, tailor material to the particular class or a particular student. Insofar as it is possible, as I have time and energy, that is what I do. I will often write with my students, if we write in class, to demonstrate the working writer, but I don’t always share what I’ve written—sometimes, if it’s bad, I will, so they see that everyone, at whatever stage, is in process. Sometimes I will share what I wrote with them to illustrate something, too.I will show my classes drafts of a poem so they understand the importance of revision.
7.- You won a prize for your co-translation of Virginie Lalucq and Jean-Luc Nancy’s Fortino Sámano (The Overflowing of the Poem). What benefits can poetry in translation offer to students in today’s globalized society?
What comes to mind most immediately, but it is specific to the U.S., is that we here are very ignorant of the rest of the world, and art crosses boundaries that politics keeps closed. Art knows no boundaries among human beings. It can speak to everyone, although like parables, not everyone can understand the underlying message. Poetry in translation can, then, broaden our students’ minds, introduce them to points of view, to other cultures and ways of thinking that are, unlike much that is on the global web, thoughtful and considered, with careful use of language (which poetry exemplifies). Poetry in translation can help educators to resist the homogenization of culture, as well as to resist the acceleration of things (it takes time and attention to read and to understand poetry).
To share with you: I had a very exemplary experience in Idaho reading and discussing Fortino Sámano with undergraduates unfamiliar with the history of Mexico or of the poem (that the person, Fortino Sámano, was a Zapatista lieutenant executed almost 100 years ago,or that the French poet Virginie Lalucq, was writing the poem at the time that the U.S. coalition was invading Iraq, and France was one of three countries refusing to join that coalition). I tried to explain all this in the simplest of terms, and received a thank you note from one of the undergraduates, who was most impressed that I shared with them the trauma of witnessing Fortino Sámano’s execution myself!. So, I am in such ways reminded that whatever I translate may be misread, fruitfully, perhaps, as a life lesson, but unpredictably. Down the line, this student may receive the corrective, but in any event, she was encouraged to think outside her box and world. That is what translation encourages.
8.- Some poets shy away from writing about sociopolitical events, often with the arguments that overtly political writing tends not to make for good art or that it dates too quickly. You have written poems about the social repercussions of Hurricane Katrina [When the Water Came: Evacuees of Hurricane Katrina, published by UNO Press in 2010] and slavery [the “Ars Cora” sequence included in Or Consequence, published by Red Hen Press in 2010] . Do you believethat such poems canaspire to a lasting artistic authenticity and succeed in transmittingthe impact and importance of these events to future readers?
First, it is important for poets consciously staying away from material they deem political to acknowledge that that stance is in itself political. Second, it is true what Robert Pinsky, a former U.S. Poet Laureate once said, that we don’t need an anti-war poem that simply tells us that war is bad and awful.
And, as to your question about my own work, yes, I truly do think that good poetry can be “political,” although the understanding of what is political must be nuanced. Whether we like it or not in the U.S., whether it is our direct subject or not, we have been writing in a politicized context or atmosphere since 9/11. The distant wars that we advanced were happening and it doesn’t help anything to pretend that they weren’t. Because there was so much dishonesty and misrepresentation around the lead up to the Iraq War, I began to think through the phenomenon of lying in my poetry, and also to think about why people kill, telling themselves that there is righteous and wrong killing. That was one approach I tried, finding ways to address the war without simplifying it. The challenge is not to get carried away with moralizing, of course, and that is why some poets reject “political” poetry in the first place, but I think that attitude limits us, too.
Poetry can also offer “face to face” encounters (this is Adorno’s notion) that help the reader to reflect on another, on others. Such poems can take readers out of themselves and into someone else’s world, not necessarily like novels, through character and story, but through ethical reflection, thoughtfulness. At its best, such poetry helps us to activate the capacity to empathize, but it can also function didactically, to inform readers about lives of which they are ignorant. One model is Rukeyser’s “Book of the Dead” for me. On another level, though, I couldn’t not write about Katrina and slavery. I saw myself as becoming one of the many artists responding to the disaster, finding a way (through interview-poems) to tell individuals’ experience that one would never hear on the news, so that readers would understand what it was to go through and survive such a crisis, to lose everything. How does one (does one?) come back? That material called to me. My new book, Revenance, is very different, and much more personal.
9.- Mexico is a country seemingly plagued by tragedies. Sometimes these come in the form of natural disasters, such as earthquakes or hurricanes. But frequently they are manmade events, resulting from the brutal power of organized crime and the corruption of the political establishment. What advice might you give to Mexican poets who wish to speak to these issues? Can they hope to make a difference as poets?
I suppose we all have to acknowledge that no poem will stop a bomb, but a life lived driven by violence is a life that art hasn’t touched, that misses beauty. I do believe that many who commit such crimes eventually are haunted by them. Maybe that’s naïve of me, but one hears stories about torturers seeking redemption. Maybe they are urban legends, or so few as to be negligible. I do not know if this is advice or consolation, but art does outlast such lethal pursuits. Virginie Lalucq, writing at the time of the bombs falling on Iraq, observing from afar (from Paris) the fall of Saddam Hussein, mentions in passing how today’s dictators are tomorrow’s headlines when they fall. Living our lives making poems, poets help to forge paths toward beauty, empathy, thoughtfulness.
Of course, poets are fully capable of shocking readers—take a protest poem—but the poem will have more than its shock value, and it is that which the world needs to offset the energetic fields that violence generates. After the incredible horrors and hardships of WWII, the poet H.D. wrote a book in which she used a system of sounds, along the lines of prayers and chants, to activate with each reading a feminine principle that could balance the over-the-top, out-of-control maleness that generated the war. I’ve thought about that a lot and also about ethical poetics. Poets writing to issues will probably not change the structures of crime and corruption, but the attentiveness and acuity poets bring to those issues, as they are critically presented and scrutinized in the work of art, can change the energy field and change readers. It is the same principle as prayer.
And as William Carlos Williams said in “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” “It is difficult / to get the news from poems, / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.”
10.-You have said: "I've been very aware that a lot that is accomplished by individuals is simply done 'under erasure.' Nothing marks the passage of the person, or the actions they took, which at the time made all the difference to them and to others." Is this why you write? To mark your own passage, and that of the people you write about, through life?
In that instance, I was speaking of the last slave, Cora Arsene, who had access to the courts of Louisiana to sue for her freedom before the Fugitive Slave Law was enacted in 1850, before the U.S. Civil War. I just kept thinking of her fierce will, of all that was against her to succeed, but that she did succeed—and then she disappeared from history. I researched that poem for almost a decade off and on, because the legacy of slavery in the U.S. was something I only knew about in general, but not in any specifics. I really don’t write to mark my own passage, no, but I have written to memorialize that of others who remained marginal, anonymous and overlooked (often women and minorities).
As I get older, I am more and more aware of what disappears when a life is over. My parents have died in the last few years and I helped to care for them and was with them both when they expired, and part of my grief was the shock of discovery that all they had built—from a business to two houses to the home where family gathered (more or less joyously) for so many years—all had vanished (the business lost and the houses sold to care for my parents). That each generation repeats this was, to my shock, something I’d never thought about before. I feel myself to be very humble, and I am aware as well that many women poets disappear utterly after their deaths, so no, I don’t write to mark my own passage, for I believe that like everyone, I will disappear, but yes, in that sense, I write to mark—to excavate—the paths of those of the people I write about. My writing is—not always but sometimes—characterized by an empathic act of witness.
Thank you so much for these deeply thoughtful questions. It has been moving and challenging to answer them, and I am honored that you reached out to me.
The interview has been translated into Spanish here.