5 March 2006 | Vol. 6, No. 1
Interview with Cynthia Hogue
Cynthia Hogue's most recent works include The Incognito Body (Ren Hen Press 2006), Flux (New Issues Press 2002), and The Never Wife (Mammoth Press 1999). With Laura Hinton she edited We Who Love to Be Astonished: Experimental Women's Writing and Performance Poetics (University of Alabama Press 2002). Hogue directed the Stadler Center for Poetry at Bucknell University for eight years before joining the Department of English at Arizona State University in 2003. She has received numerous awards for her work, including NEA, NEH (Summer Seminar), and Fulbright fellowships, as well as a Residency Fellowship from the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation of Taos, New Mexico. Cynthia Hogue is currently an H.D. Fellow at Beinecke Library at Yale University.
In reading Flux, I was so impressed with Cynthia Hogue's work that I found myself impelled to this interview, conducted over email from April 15th to April 23rd, 2005. I was excited to see in her work an emotional precision and a keen observer. By reading her poems, I learned to follow, to watch—to see, as Hogue states, "behind the surfaces...the invisible, alternative realities, or lost histories."
Marisol Teresa Baca: To begin with, I would like to ask what you see as the main themes of Flux—what tropes did you feel yourself working with?
Cynthia Hogue: As a rule, I'm an intuitive and exploratory poet. I'm interested in the discovery, and when I've tried more consciously to work with theme and trope, especially extended trope, the poem's energy dissipates. Or maybe it's my energy. Anyway, it doesn't work as well for me as a process. In the new book, The Incognito Body, there's a long central series exploring the embodied experience of mind/body separation—not philosophical, but lived metaphysics—because of illness. As they say, the "gift" of illness. Did you know that in Icelandic, "gift" means "poison"? I think that doubleness still inheres in that word in English.
In Flux, I was working often with the unconscious in fact—dreams and visions, at times—and sort of feeling my way along the images, the sound, and sometimes the narratives that come through. I wrote much of it in dialogue with what I'd been reading and thinking about, so in that sense, there may be a very conscious thinking-through a problem or issue or "matter" that runs in the poems. Sometimes it's as wordless, or beyond expressibility as are emotions. The images are writing around an inexpressible center.
There are some elegiac poems, very personal losses, but there are also poems that register signs of forgotten losses, for example the children's graves happened upon in the woods while skiing. There had been a farmhouse—you still see the stone wall they'd built, but everything else is gone. Just the graves. The children had died I guess in the influenza epidemic of 1918. They come in at the end of the poem ("The Sense of Being Watched by More than We Can See") as a trope on the theme of vision, how we go along blind to all the signs of something, some disaster, so it's a shock when at last we notice. But it was there all along, but we weren't—not even looking, we were looking—we just weren't seeing. There are signs of environmental distress that we humans don't know how to read unless we're scientifically trained, so we say it's not there. We place such stress on the planet, as if nothing else matters, and yet we're also so fragile. One day—poof!—so many people just gone. I think about the gender dynamic going on in the world right now, at least among the various fundamentalisms into whose vortex we've all been whirled, and I want to get to another paradigm. Maybe older, maybe other. I can only get to its border. That is in Flux the nature of the reoccurring tropes, "borders," "thresholds," and "signs" (signs from nature/ legibility and/or visibility).
MTB: It seems that Flux is immersed in the stories, the settings, and the images of Iceland. How did your time there on a Fulbright shape this book?
CH: Iceland was, for almost twenty years, part of my identity. I lived there for three years, met my first husband there (part of the elegiac in Flux is our divorce), and became fluent in Icelandic those last two years, although now, all that's left is some verbal comprehension. I was drawn there by the medieval literature especially, the Norse sagas, which I'd studied while I was finishing my M.A. work at Buffalo. I also loved the wild, spare world of Halldor Kiljan Laxness, World Light, Christianity under the Glacier, Independent People. So, the first connection was the great literature; then came the landscape, then the people, my Icelandic in-laws and a number of close friends I made in Reykjavik. The whole central section of Flux pays tribute to that time and that landscape. It's very stark and striking, and the light of summer, the midnight sun, is lambent, the shimmering blue of the North Sea ringing the island.
I ended up translating quite a few poems from their most famous modernist, Steinn Steinarr, although the publication of those translations failed when the editor's marriage failed! The Iceland poems are central, but Flux ranges geographically—from the Northeast, where I used to live, to Iceland, to the Sonoran Desert, where I now live. The desert has the feeling of presences that you can feel in Iceland, a similar sense of rich starkness, but it's harder to find now. They're paving it over and building housing developments around Phoenix. It really saddens me, because the desert is truly a fragile ecosystem.
MTB: How difficult was it to work with the uncanny in relation to the Icelandic folktales? It seemed at times that the images took on an almost mythic quality, such as in the poem "The Sorcerer." An example of this can be seen in these lines: "...and two horses in the distance, / one riderless, the other becoming one / with his rider, gallop into sleet." The horse actually changes, a metamorphoses that causes that strange effect to take place in the eyes of the watchers. What kind of obstacles in relation to the uncanny and mystical did you come across when writing "The Sorcerer"?
CH: I have experimented with the "vatic,"—and the uncanny, if you will—especially so in Flux but also here and there elsewhere, in a section in The Woman in Red, and a poem or two in the forthcoming book, The Incognito Body, less so in The Never Wife. Why would I even attempt the vatic?
I mentioned Buffalo—and I was trained by Robert Creeley, who was very unvatic, but Olson—who was like an Old Testament prophet-poet—had just died, so Bob talked about him quite a bit and we read the work, and he gave me a cloth edition of H.D.'s Trilogy that I still teach from, covered in my notes now, and really cherish. He was a very generous and gentle mentor, and I mention him here really as a tribute, because he just died last month very suddenly. I don't think he liked my work much, but he recognized that mystical interest. I guess maybe he respected it. At least, he didn't try to drum it out of me, but encouraged it. Pointed me towards H.D., Duncan and Levertov. Their frank mysticism is fissured with the unheimlich, the uncanny, and that always fascinated me. It fascinates me in Rilke, too. I spent a long time learning German just so I could read Rilke's Duino Elegies in the original. It freed me up from the personal lyric, but also from the pared-down, objectivist poem that Bob himself was writing.
But there's a political awareness, or call it social awareness in folk tales that I was exploring. In "The Sorcerer," it's the gender violence—that the impregnated girl is walled in, literally. The tale is anonymous, and the one voice is mythic, but the other voice—that poem is structured dialogically—is historical, social, noting that gender violence is part of the story, part of the rise toward power. Folk tales were often handed down by women, and they memorialized lost histories, but you have to learn to read them historically. Think of "Hansel and Gretel." There were in the 17th and 18th centuries in Germany several huge famines, and that tale records the practice of infanticide by marginal families that would have fed their children in times of plenty. The blame is placed on the step-mother—the real mother, who isn't acting maternal by suggesting that the father leave Hansel and Gretel in the woods to die. So, in "The Sorcerer," I think there must have been an ambitious monk who was known to have done this thing in his youth in order that he not be prevented from becoming a priest. I was very interested in the way power works. In Flux, it's the power to see behind the surfaces, to perceive the invisible, alternative realities, or lost histories. In The Never Wife, and more now in The Incognito Body, I'm interested in social-economic power: how it is used; whether it is shared; what happens when one shifts the dynamic to power-sharing, for example, which listening, on a very deep level, can begin to do.
MTB: Would you consider what you're doing in Flux, in part, to be a kind of appropriation?
CH: You ask whether inhabiting another point of view is appropriative, and that's such an important question. In the sense that my background is Scandinavian (my grandfather was a Lutheran minister still preaching in Swedish), the Icelandic folktales lent themselves to my voice. I never felt that I was appropriating the material, because I had very deep cultural roots and I had made such a serious study of them, even at the level of dream, but also of language—I'd read them all in the original, and had been collecting the folktales at the antiquarian bookstores in Reykjavik.
But I've been thinking a lot about that issue of appropriation more broadly, because I've been developing a course in Bearing Witness (in Carolyn Forché's and Shoshona Felman's sense of that term, and Dominik LaCapra's, the historian of the Holocaust) because of some of the kinds of poems I wrote beginning in New Orleans. In The Never Wife, in the New Orleans series, I tread very carefully, intuitively, because I hadn't intellectualized the position of "bearing witness" yet. Forché had published The Country Between Us, but hadn't yet formalized her thinking, hadn't published Against Forgetting. And even after she did, I didn't think about my poem being in the voices of others, an African American woman, for example, and a racist, white Creole, as anything other than dramatic personae poems. In such poems the "I" is not me; the "I"-surrogate is the listener-observer who sometimes does and sometimes doesn't announce her presence.
What I observed of race relations in New Orleans, as well as began studying by way of teaching and writing, I felt could be presented in the lyric without polemical comment. But I hadn't thought as deeply about the problem of voice as I have now, the problem of speaking for someone else. It's different if it's a narrative from an already anonymous folktale, part legend, part myth, speaking in the voice of a Sorcerer. The voices in The Never Wife are my neighbors' voices. They spoke to me, but did they give me their stories? I was very ignorant. I cared a lot, but I literally could not read the body language; I could not always read between the words or be anything other than a woman marked by her race who didn't know that she was racially coded.
MTB: I would like to talk about landscape's fundamental relationship to Flux. There is a kind of floating between the "real" places and the world that is felt, and heard, and unseen that comes through intense meditation and observation. However, it never seems to be far away from the brutal landscapes chosen for the poems. How do you maintain the tension and mood throughout the book while changing places within it?
CH: I was, in both of the harsh landscapes I write about in Flux, a "foreigner": literally, in Iceland, as someone from another country, and in the Sonoran Desert, which I find very strange, beautiful in its own way. Not obviously beautiful to an easterner. Like many Anglo-easterners, I exoticized the Indians, and I really had to curb that tendency in Flux. The connection was grounded, well, by the ground, the land. The first connection is with the very different landscape than I was used to. But I also, even in some of the opening poems that are set in winter, in fact in the Northeast, I'm looking at the place at its barest bones, the no-thing of winter. That is the point at which vision seems the most stripped-down, that the seam between visible and invisible is almost perceptible. The way the "real" landscape keeps hovering between external and internal is the way the contemplative can be yoked to the actual. It's the betwixt and between that fascinates me. So, the places aren't webbed together by anything but the engaged and attentive mind.
MTB: Because animals also play such an important part in the book and they seem to reflect the environment they inhabit, what relationship to the landscape do they possess in the poems?
CH: The animals—well, they're important, yes. Often, they are unreadable signs, but they aren't symbolic. They're simply separate from humans. They live in a domain to which we aren't privy, except destructively, when we intervene through killing them or ruining their habitat. I wanted to approach their separateness, their right simply to be, with respect. In Nature, I am also a foreigner.
MTB: How important does the belief in portals become in Flux? We travel through them, we are confronted with them. Is there a reason for the specific placement of the poem "Portals" and is there a connection to that and the retelling of the folktales?
CH: Well, what can shift our consciousness? Our consciousness—humans—can shift for many reasons. Some sort of shock can open us up, and it's important that we don't shut down again out of fear. That's what I think we've done since 9/11, and I try to look at that fear in The Incognito Body. But in Flux, there are portals to that consciousness that have opened because of contemplation and peace. One portal is the unconscious, that we bring into consciousness when we write; there's a lot of knowing in dreams, that we either forget or ignore, but can really help us if we cultivate it as knowledge coming from the unconscious (rather than uncontrollable drives, for instance). Another portal is the threshold between the visible and invisible worlds. When you get close enough to that other world, as you do out in nature in certain places at the edges of things, as Iceland is, the Sonoran Desert is, you can actually feel the wall between the worlds.
The poem, "Portals," though, is about the threshold between blindness and insight. There are the folktales in the middle section of Flux, followed by "Portals," which is about seeing the Northern Lights burst into the shape of an angel across the whole sky. It was real—a real form, a real sight, although I asked around and nobody else had seen it. But the Northern Lights happen almost every night in the North, so people get used to them, like anything else. But I wasn't used to them. So the portal is back to the magical real, you might say, the "Strange Land," the poem that follows, the same yet different. This is one way of making it constantly new, the "it" being life as well as the poem.
MTB: There are places such as in the poem "Like Exile" that the speaker of the poem seems to be creating his/her own ritual: "where I line yellow palo verde flowers / upon an unused bridge / and listen for the hour's chiming...." What do you hope to evoke with this pattern of rituals throughout the book?
CH: That's an interesting idea. I am not creating rituals consciously. I wish I were that organized about my reverence. No, any rituals are those of a bricoleur, one who is impulsive, who gathers what's at hand and makes do. The serendipity might be there, but I am not aware of it. I wrote this book in very deep meditation—not constant meditation, but in that deep trance-like state into which one goes to make art. If there's an organizational principle like creating rituals that helps create the openings, that's happening at the unconscious level. As I say, though, the unconscious has a wisdom that we might access more often. Things it has noticed, information it can give us—things we don't know we know. It is our first Adept. That sounds so corny, but it's actually an insight culled from experience.
MTB: In the poem "Storm Versions," for example, there are several ways of reading the actual narrative—does the placement of the stanzas harken back to the ritual? This play with stanzas and significance also shows up in "Tracks of Sound and Water" and "Flux." What are you trying to invoke through form here? What is your relationship to form and meter?
CH: All of these poems have to do with various ways of learning something, surviving something—a snowstorm, for example, or in "Flux," the "death" that is divorce—and trans/forming awareness, consciousness, being. Becoming adept at realizing, vision into reality, as in "Tracks of Sound and Water." So there are instructions in each of those poems, directions, but there's also the dialogue, the dialogic structure of shifting voices, which counter the tenor and stance of the main, the opening voice. The rhythm is musical, not metronomic. I listen, I read aloud to hear the music. These poems follow the trope of what "flux" does, which is solder together two disparate things—it's the term for the substance used in jewelry-making. At least, that's how I came to know of it. Flux helps you to bring two things into close proximity that still retain their own identity, but also, by contiguity, create new form, the energy of the juxtaposed. You can use enjambment to run the double weave of the meanings.
MTB: On the blending of metaphysics with mysticism—in many of the poems there is an observer, a place (a direction at times, even.) The poem is working on the intellect. It follows a narrative and then, swish!—there is a change to the intuitive and the mystical. In "The Gathering Beyond Fog" the change comes at the center of the poem "If I could see in, / the forms of a different / matter would be visible: the after- / death we've been trying to bring / to that level / of mist." The poem jumps from the literal to a landscape of in-between—a landscape of uncertainty or mysticism. What is the force or inspiration behind this merging?
CH: The anthropologist Victor Turner said that the great creative cultural moments are in the betwixt and between, the liminal, where transformation (both social and existential) can be imagined, envisioned. The landscape is actually never literal in "The Gathering Beyond Fog," and the shift is therefore in the focus of attentiveness in the poem, from external to internal. Sight is obscured, the speaker longs for clear sight, really, but instead has community, a community of women of which she both is and is not a part (she is a midwife, but not a mother). That will have to suffice, or maybe, more than suffice—the newborn is threatened but saved in the poem. Perhaps there's a safety, a security beyond the patriarchal system that is threatening everyone. Yes, I would say that this force is what helps the book to cohere without the overarching sense of a theme, that it's more a sense of possibility that came to me in a dream. The tone is mythic, not mystical.
About the author:
Marisol Teresa Baca is currently a candidate for a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing at Cornell University. Her poetry is featured in the anthology, Mosaic Voices: A Spectrum of Central Valley Poets, as well as other publications; she has twice been a recipient of the Andres Montoya Poetry Award.
For further reading:
See the complete list of work by Cynthia Hogue at 42opus. Browse the contents of 42opus Vol. 6, No. 1, where "Interview with Cynthia Hogue" ran on March 5, 2006. List other work with these same labels: nonfiction, interview.