Interview with Cynthia Cruz, Professor and Poet

By The Editors on 11.23.09

Letter from a Young Poet” is an ongoing series from Poems Out Loud which aims to chronicle the experiences and insights of young poets as they find out what it means to call oneself a writer: from contests and rejections, to themes and obsessions, to what bids each of them to write. Now we bring you the third installment of the series featuring Cynthia Cruz, a professor at Sarah Lawrence College and the Julliard School.

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As a way to start off the interview, listen to the recording above of Cynthia reading “Nebenwelt”, a new poem featured in the November/December 2009 issue of Boston Review.

Cynthia Cruz‘s work has been published or is forthcoming in the New Yorker, the American Poetry Review, Paris Review, Kenyon Review, and the Boston Review. Her first book, Ruin, was published in 2006 by Alice James Books. Her second collection will be published by Four Way Books in 2012. She lives in Brooklyn and teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and the Juilliard School.

What is your day job?

Cruz: I teach at Sarah Lawrence College and the Julliard School.

What is your ideal job?

Cruz: My ideal existence would be, and this is what I am always aiming for, to, like Joseph Beuys, live art. Or, more specifically, live poetry. Not being caught in the vicious cycle of working to pay rent and trying to squeeze in moments to read and write.

Who do you read?

Cruz: I am always looking for work that hits all the poetry levers: language, music, imagery, concept, and spirit. The poems I am drawn to are these mean, tiny machines. The poem I am currently in love with does just this. It is the Scottish poet Robin Robertson’s poem “Lithium.” The poets I turn to include Lucie Brock Broido, Shakespeare, Denis Johnson, Liam Rector, Thomas James, Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, T. S. Eliot, and Gjertrud Schnackenberg. Only recently have I discovered the fabulous work of Frederick Seidel. I want a poem to be a gorgeous ticking time bomb. Other writers I go back to again and again, non-poets, are Joan Didion and Helene Cixous.

How did you come to write poetry?

Cruz: I came to poetry late. The first poetry I came across were the albums my parents played in our homes when I was growing up: Janis Ian, Jim Croce, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Marianne Faithful, Jose Feliciano, Johnny Cash, and Willie Nelson. It was all terribly sad music and I cherished it. Everywhere we went, there was music: there was a record player in the playroom and we had an eight-track in the family van. One Christmas we all climbed into the van and my father drove us (from Aptos, California) down to Guaymas, Mexico. I will never forget looking out the windows at the desert, the wild horses racing in the white landscape, the huts with people living in them, and, all the way, music playing in the background. This was my introduction to poetry: the beautiful and the terrible with music as the elixir.

The first actual poetry I came across was Shakespeare (his plays) in AP English in high school and then, again, in college when I was in my twenties. The first actual poems I recall reading were by Adrienne Rich in my last year of college. I wrote poems before I read them: angry, desperate poems. I didn’t know anything about form, didn’t know what a metaphor was, nothing. I didn’t take a poetry workshop until my final year at Mills College. I took one graduate-level class with Chana Bloch and didn’t take another class until I was enrolled in the MFA program at Sarah Lawrence College years later. I’m relatively new to poetry. I meet other poets who tell me they’ve been writing poems since they were eight years old, and here I didn’t write my first proper poem until I was twenty-five. I’m just a baby.

How often do you write?

Cruz: I write every day, though not always formally. On the days I don’t teach I try to save my errands, schoolwork, and important phone calls for the afternoon so I can write all morning. On the days I teach, I carry whatever new poem I am working on with me, and work on it obsessively when I can: on the train and subway, in between meeting with students, while walking down the street.

What do you sacrifice in order to write?

Cruz: Well, we sacrifice everything for writing, don’t we?

To begin with, I don’t have children. The other things I do in my life—marathon running, for example, or my volunteer and advocacy work—none of these things receive anywhere near the amount of attention that writing does. Writing is my first love. Everything else must come after. I am fortunate because I am married to an artist (the painter Steven Page), so we share this unspoken understanding: there was never any pretense that we would be trying for a house in the suburbs with a garden, a family with children, a garage with two cars, that sort of thing.

How did having your first book published change things?

Cruz: When Ruin was picked up, I felt validated. Though most of the poems in the collection had been published in journals or anthologies, I still felt sheepish when, for example, family members asked what I did for a living and I answered, “I’m a writer”; I couldn’t then give them concrete evidence. Also, having my first book published did, in a way, open, for me, the doors into a larger family, this lineage of writers. Coming from a working-class background, this was important to me. I had, in a sense, to prove to myself that in fact I could do this thing, writing, that I hadn’t been delusional in thinking I could be a writer (as opposed to a more realistic career). It was deeply gratifying for me.

How do you feel reading your book now?

Cruz: Surprised. Each time I read Ruin it is as if I am experiencing the poems for the first time. Though time has passed and what I am working on now is different, ultimately my writing has not changed that dramatically. I am obsessed with the same themes and ideas, am still trying to make musical-language machines out of beauty and pain.

What is the best advice you’ve received?

Cruz: The best advice I received was from the wonderful Reginald Shepherd. One time when I was feeling sorry for myself for receiving yet another journal rejection, he told me that for every two hundred submissions, I could expect one acceptance. Where he came up with this, I don’t know, but at the time I didn’t doubt him. And since it never took me that many submissions for an acceptance, I felt 1) enormous relief and 2) absolute validation.

Reginald was an amazing writer and thinker, and yet, I think, more than anything, his mentorship to myself and other young struggling poets is what sets him apart. Anytime, and I do mean anytime, I began to despair, he always shared a personal story with me that made me feel that I was not alone. I would tell him that I could not find a job, could not get my work published, had no time to write, wanted to quit writing, become a social worker or a lawyer, was tired of adjuncting at three colleges or tired of selling clothes (which I did for two years), and he always reminded me where I came from and that I could not quit, that it was quit simply not an option. He reminded me that, despite my circumstances, I had an obligation to continue fighting. In other words, I wasn’t writing for myself, I was writing for everyone else who was lost, all the others who felt alone. I was, in fact, my obligation to write.

He would tell me all this and then, in closing, as an aside, when I asked, tell me he was okay, getting by, when in fact he was undergoing chemo or recovering from yet another horrendous surgery. He was always suffering and never said a word about it, and all the while he was writing, putting together his amazing anthologies, writing his essays. He was a saint.

Do you feel there is a community of writers where you live? Do you participate in it?

Cruz: I do think there are communities of writers where I live (both in Brooklyn and in Manhattan). I am not a part of any of these groups.

What’s the best poetry reading you’ve been to and why?

Cruz: The best poetry reading I have been to was the recent Kenyon Review Celebration with David Baker at the Community Bookstore in Brooklyn. What was so wonderful about it, aside from David’s amazing work, was the actual space. It was a truly intimate setting: all of us sitting amid the aisles of bookshelves of children’s books and novels, near the immense aquarium with the large lizard in it. It was like sitting in the living room with your family before the fireplace.

What are your feelings on the state of poetry today?

Cruz: I think we may be stuck. I think we are living under the immense shadow of modernism and postmodernism and, as a result, feel we have to create the new big thing. Sometimes it seems our need to be “new” trumps our need to be good. The term “avant-garde” has lost its meaning. How would one knkow if she or he is “avant-garde”? When I think of Stein or Eliot, what they were doing with concept and language—they were, of course avant-garde. But if they were alive now, I somehow doubt they would be doing the same things now, with words and language, that they did then.

Personally, I don’t worry about this stuff. I have to write; it is a compulsion for me to take the mess of the world, cram its symbols and imagery on a page, and then obsessively try to make sense of it. When I am revising, I try to make my poems work, as I said earlier, on all levels. This doesn’t always happen, but I do try. And this is what I do. Alone at my kitchen table in my tiny apartment in Greenpoint. I can’t worry about who will like my work and who won’t like it. Actually, that isn’t any of my business. My job is to make the things and then let them go. I can just hope someone on the other end gets something out of what I am making.

Filmed at the Stain of Poetry reading series in Brooklyn, NY on January 30, 2009.

Poems by Cynthia Cruz:
What God Gave or, Instructions on How to Live A Nomadic Life

topics: Letter from a Young Poet