Christina Cook on fragments and the writing lifeby Anna Lena Phillips, Christina Cook • 04.16.2012
Christina Cook is our featured poet this week. Poetry editor Anna Lena Phillips asked for her thoughts about remnants, the poems, and (a perennial favorite question) how she makes time to write. At the end you’ll find a writing prompt courtesy of Christina. Happy NaPoWriMo!
When you think of remnants, what’s the first poem or poet that comes to mind?
Definitely Sappho. All we have of her poems are remnants of the full poems she wrote. She is a poet whose work we will never fully know.
How did “21st Century Sappho” begin?
The poem began when I was reading a new translation of Sappho’s poetry, Sweetbitter Love, by the extraordinary translator Willis Barnstone. As I was reading, it occurred to me that there are two ways to read these poems, one being to read them as the remnants they are, in which case we are conscious of reading incomplete, excerpted poems. The other way was much more interesting to me: to read the fragments as complete poems, which is not really a stretch since this approach simply transformed them into elliptical poems. Most all poems are elliptical to some degree: Part of the essence of poetry is to engage the reader in completing the meaning of the poem for him or herself. I am drawn to particularly elliptical poems, because they tend to rely more on prosody and spectacular word choice, and less on narrative. I don’t read poetry to hear a complete story or get a complete picture in my mind: I read it to be led into a wilderness that I have to find my own way out of.
So I finished the book, reading the poems in this way, and the idea occurred to me to try it myself. I went about writing the poem using the same form as the Sappho remnants, with brackets indicating lines of missing text, except I inserted brackets to make intentional gaps in the poem at moments which might most intrigue a reader to go wandering off into the wilderness of the poem on his or her own. I wanted to keep Sappho as a voice from the distant past, but at the same time reinvent her voice to fit a contemporary context. I used high fashion, in part, to do this. I love W magazine and the New York Times Sunday style magazines, and one I recently saw struck me as fitting in with the styles similar to what Sappho may have worn: gladiator sandals and breast-baring shifts, updated for expensive 21st-century tastes.
You’ve chosen to work in the academic world, as many poets do, but not as a professor. How did you come to do the work you do, and how does it intersect with , affect, or coexist with your work in poetry?
Some time ago, I started writing book reviews and essays in addition to poetry, as many poets do, and found that the requirements of this prose writing helped sharpen my poetry: I couldn’t get away with writing something just because it sounded musical or conveyed a crisp image. The writing had to be crystal clear, while at the same time fluid and rich. When I began to make my poetry meet these requirements, too, in its own way, I found my poetry became sharper and more accessible—without sacrificing complexity or depth. Around this time I was teaching college composition, and although I loved working with the students, I thought about having a job where I could write every day rather than correct student writing. I wondered about how it might further sharpen my creative writing. I was fortunate to end up in the position of senior writer for the president of Dartmouth College. He has incredibly high expectations of my writing in terms of quality and also expects the writing to be very tight, with no flourishes or extra verbiage. I have found that after spending eight hours a day writing this way, these qualities carry over into my own writing, and have definitely sharpened it.
You’re also a contributing editor for Inertia and Cerise Press. What do you feel is the relationship between your work as an editor and contributor for literary magazines and as a poet?
I have a different role in each of these journals. I contribute pieces to Cerise for regular publication—all sorts of pieces, from poetry and translations to essays, interviews, and book reviews. My work for Cerise underscores how important it is for me as a poet to engage with the literary world beyond poetry. The variety of my writing projects requires me to interact with other writers, languages, and genres. Early on, I only wrote poetry. Nothing else. And for some, this may work very well, but I have found that variety invigorates my poetry.
For Inertia, I read poetry submissions and help in the selection of poems. We receive poems from writers at all different stages of development. Because I actively submit poetry myself, I make sure to be as kind as possible. The number of submissions I read doesn’t permit me to give feedback to every poet, but I try to give some feedback, especially when poems are close to publishable but have an identifiable flaw that’s holding them back. And I’ve also worked with poets to help them revise their submissions for publication in the journal. I figure we’re all in the same boat together.
In a summer 2011 review of Adrienne Rich’s Tonight No Poetry Will Serve, you wrote, “What makes Rich’s poems matter is that the speakers are not distant voices calling for change. On the contrary, they always have a stake in the issue at hand.” Do you have a favorite poem of hers? What have been your thoughts about her in the past weeks?
I have always held Rich up as a role model for me as a poet, a woman, and a mother. Her poetry matters, as I wrote, because she takes on critical political, social, and environmental issues in a very personal way. She never gets up on a soapbox, which makes her message powerful: It lodges itself deeply into the reader’s enduring thoughts and feelings. And her poetry matters to me on another level, because she struggled with—and overcame—the same challenges in her career as I have, as a woman working to balance a full-time job, a family, and a writing career at the same time. She did it with grace and persistence, in a time that was even more challenging for women than right now, and that tells me that my goals, too, can be achieved.
One of my favorite poems of hers is “You, Again” in Tonight, No Poetry Will Serve. Her elliptical language and tight control is masterful. It is a reflective poem in which the speaker looks back on life as the collage of memories and emotions it is—incomplete, powerful, all she will ever have—and is secure with that. She accepts life for what it was and is.
In an essay for Cerise, you talk about the refuges writers find in which to devote time and attention to their work. Yours is situated in the Connecticut woods; you seem to imply that you internalize the landscape, in a way, so that it’s available to you at times when you’re not there. What about the connection to the landscape, to land, is important to you?
My intimate connection to the landscape in Lyme feels like an exchange: I project my thoughts and feelings onto the nature around me—the trees and angles of light, the birds, the body of water—while at the same time I have the very real sense that these aspects of the landscape are projecting new ways of seeing onto me. The landscape affects me in a way that endures beyond physically being there because after many years of this exchange, it is part of who I am.
What helps you make time for your writing?
An obsessive drive to write; and knowing that it would be so easy slip into thinking I don’t have time for it—I work full-time and have a family. If I don’t consciously make time for my writing, it won’t happen: Time won’t magically appear for me, so I have to do whatever it takes to carve it out. I get up early, stay up late, disappear into the Dartmouth library for long “writing nights” while my husband considerately takes care of the kids, write while waiting for them at a soccer practice or orthodontist appointment. . . .
Your chapbook, Lake Effect, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press. What would you like readers to know about it?
How nice of you to ask. Most of the poems in the chapbook were written at the rustic lake cottage which was passed down to me from my mother after losing her to breast cancer when she was only 63. The work expresses how the natural surroundings of the lake and the rhythms of the subsequent summer there with my children reveal an understanding of death, and through that, life.
What’s a favorite poem you’ve read in an online journal of late?
Jared Carter’s “Artifice” in the current issue of Valparaiso Poetry Review. It captures the experience, so familiar to me, of seeing a spider’s web illuminated in the sun. The visual imagery is stunning, the language is very musical, and the voice pushes the limits of formality in contemporary verse. I like the risk he takes with that.
Help make an instant writing prompt for our readers? Name a word or phrase you’ve overheard or read in the past week—a remnant, if you will.
I was just at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and have some wonderful scraps of text I copied from descriptions of works for just this purpose. I would be delighted to share a couple. One is:
“I found there his ear to the side of the Sphynx”
“the head of a youthful god”
Now, with your permission, our readers can use these as they wish to begin a poem. Thanks!
Yes, absolutely! And thank you for inviting me to plant the seeds for future poems—it’s a privilege.