2012 National Book Award Finalist,
Southern Illinois University Press
Interview by Katie Peterson
Katie Peterson: How did you react to your nomination for the National Book Award?
Cynthia Huntington: When I got the call I was away from home―visiting here at the MFA in Writing Program at UNC-Wilmington. Told not to speak to anyone about it until it was announced the following morning, I looked around my rented room: computer, cell phone both buzzing with promise. I knew I couldn't trust myself so I got in the car and started driving. I drove around Wilmington, down to some beach towns, out to a Civil War memorial, visited the aquarium, sipped coffee in a deli, walked on a beach―you name it―as long as I didn't see anyone or get near a phone or internet until dark. It was a strange time-out-of-time day that I'll always remember. Somehow big news seems bigger and yet more intimate when held for a while.
When the finalists were announced the next morning I called my son at work and asked him to be my date for the reading. That was probably my happiest of many happy moments.
KP: What tends to start a poem for you? Is it an interest in subject matter, or something else?
CH: It might present itself as subject matter but that would indicate a convergence of subject matter appearing in the place where an emotional question already lurks, seeking something to bring it into form. Poetry is about feeling―sensory, emotional, intuitive, even spiritual feeling. I think strong poetry is well acquainted with mind and not out of sympathy with intellect but for me that is not where it originates.
Writing Heavenly Bodies, I found that speaking through myth and history gave me a way into writing further back into memory than I had gone before. For some reason (many reasons) most first books are origin stories, dealing with family, childhood, and coming of age. That material had never been accessible to me, so when I started to work with those materials in my 50's rather than in my 20's, it had to come out differently. Some of the poems in the collection invoke myth and fairy tales, approaching memory through some of the influences I knew as I was growing up; other poems look at the historical context and the kind of social myth of the 60's that also influenced my coming of age.
KP: The exclamatory tones of your book include imperatives, warnings, and pronouncements. What qualities of voice do you gravitate towards and why might that be the case?
CH: There is a certain ventriloquism in these poems—a performative element. Rather than say, "well, as Ezekiel said," or just talk about how people thought through the sexual confusion of the '60's, I tend to let these speak through me. There are many characters in this book and they are all me, parts of me, voices internalized or channeled at various points. In one poem, "Meds," the voice even takes on the inflection of the prescription drugs the speaker relies on.
I gravitate to a voice that doesn't talk about a question or experience but speaks from it, including subliminal influences from religion, literature, popular culture, and whatever else is informing my response in the moment.
KP: You speak with great candor about illness, medication, and (embodied and psychological) suffering. What is the relationship between the body and the poem?
CH: Ah, the body and the poem. Everything we know and experience is through the body. We have to see feel touch smell taste the world or there isn't any world as far as we're concerned. The brain is part of the body and I suspect the brain is really located all throughout the body, that the brain and the nervous system aren't really separate. I've thought a lot about this since I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis twenty-seven years ago. Really, the most interesting thing about having this disease was the way it made me look at how the brain is part of the body and the mind is something else―not a thing but an event, or a series of events. I would wake up one morning and my legs didn't work. But there was nothing wrong with my legs―damn good legs they were and are―it was that the brain/nervous system couldn't get the message to them to say what "I" wanted them to do. And I started thinking constantly about mind/body and mind/brain questions that are still inexhaustible, and also thinking, "who is this 'I'" aside from the body? Well, this has probably gone pretty far off your question by now but I think the body/mind question is always pretty active when I'm writing.
KP: The long poem that makes up the second section of your book has an incredible title, inspired by a Velvet Underground song and a memorable era in cultural history, “Shot Up in the Sexual Revolution: The True Adventures of Suzy Creamcheese.” Like many of the poems in Heavenly Bodies, the sequence makes a connection between two themes: history and erotic love. Could you talk a little bit about the connection between these two themes?
CH: I'm going to answer this one a little askance of what you asked. I took up the idea of history in this particular book as context and influence and I don’t have much to add to that. But erotic love! That is the question that's kept everything humming forever. Our sweetest desire, our deepest hurt and disappointment, our disguised power struggles, our Freudian regression and our spiritual aspiration. Or the figure for our spiritual aspiration, it depends how you think about it. Always possible and always just out of reach. Always pure and always dragged in the mud. It is no accident that the myth of Adam and Eve has popularly substituted the sin of sexual knowledge for the biblical sin of disobedience because erotic love embodies the incarnation, our fallen and always almost reparable condition, the broken and still barely possible bridge between the world of body, soul, and spirit. What else would anyone ever want to write about?
Katie Peterson is the author of a book of poems, This One Tree (New Issues / Western Michigan University Press, 2006), and two forthcoming collections, The Accounts (University of Chicago, 2013) and Permission (New Issues / Western Michigan University Press, 2014). The recipient of fellowships from the Radcliffe Institute and the Foundation for Contemporary Arts, she is Professor of the Practice of Poetry at Tufts University.