Petals as an Offering in Darkness, your newest chapbook from Finishing Line Press, opens with “Entreaty”, an evocative, startling first poem. It gave me pleasurable chills to read it—my own personal mark of an exceptional poem. In her contribution to the interview feature on poets.org “How Do You Begin a Poem?”, Evie Shockley writes on beginnings, “There is a fullness in my mind, a crowding and jostling and rumbling of ideas, outrages, phrases, and images….” Talk about openings. How do you begin your poems and begin your chapbooks? How do you open the door of your work to invite the reader inside?
Thank you, Madeline, for calling the poem “Entreaty” exceptional. That poem was the second poem I wrote for the small collection that wound up being Petals as an Offering in Darkness. About openings: I don’t know if I knowingly open a poem or the poem opens me or opens in me. There is something very mysterious about it. I guess I would have to say that when a poem is beginning, I hear—out of the wind blowing through a meadow or out of the sound of cello music, out of a nowhere, so to speak, that is a somewhere—I begin to hear rhythms under rhythms and the rhythms then accrue words to match their stresses. Only later do meanings emerge. This poem “Entreaty,” though—I knew a little what I wanted from it to begin with, which is like cheating for me. Because the first poem I wrote for this chapbook was the last poem, “Recantation,” a poem containing the command “Take life,” meaning “take life away,” I knew I wanted to write a poem that would counterbalance “Recantation” with affirmation. So the “Give,” that first word of “Entreaty,” came immediately.
Reading your prayer poems in Petals, I felt inspired to write a prayer—thank you for that! What inspires you? What inspired you to write this lovely chapbook full of nature and place, longing and questioning?
I am so happy that you felt inspired to write after reading the chapbook! What inspired me to write that chapbook? That is a hard question to answer. I think it came down, basically, to the title of Anne Sexton’s book Live or Die. There was a poem that never made it into my chapbook that began, “When the fear of death is equal to the fear of life, /O God, I walk through the rooms I have walked through/for ten years, and the rooms pretend they don’t know me.” I was writing those poems at a time in my life when I was secretly miserable. I tried hard not to show my husband or my friends—anyone—what was happening inside me, but I really didn’t know how I was managing to survive. There is a quote from The Cloud of Unknowing, a very old treatise by an anonymous monk on how to merge with God—for lack of a better way to express the unnameable—and the quote goes like this: “And yet in all this, never does [she] desire to not be, for this is the devil’s madness and blasphemy against God…. At the same time, however, [she] desires unceasingly to be freed from the knowing and feeling of [her] being.” That quote expresses another aspect of the longing to die; there is a longing for what some call “the death of the small self,” a longing not for the ultimate end of the body but for some experience of enlightenment. I had that in me, too, not enlightenment, but a desire for it, this small seed of hope that there could be something greater. I think that is why all the poems in Petals are addressed to an unknown “God.”
Anne Sexton is one of my favorite poets, one of the first poets who gave me access into poetry, perhaps because of her close attention to the gendered experience of being female. Your chapbook Spirits of the Humid Cloud published by Dancing Girl Press opens with an evocative epigraph on that luminous place between girlhood and womanhood, being a girl and being a woman, and suggests a third space. Talk about how gender informs your poetry.
When I first started to write poems, I never thought of them as being informed by gender. I just wrote what I wrote out of necessity, though I had read writers like Sexton and Plath at that time. Then, years ago now, I read Larissa Szporluk’s Dark Sky Question and I entered this very mysterious world she created that somehow managed to recreate trauma in a way that seemed markedly feminine and both vague and visceral at the same time. I consider her to be a huge influence on the work I have done recently. And I should mention, that though my chapbook Petals as an Offering in Darkness was published later than Spirits of the Humid Cloud, the writing that forms the chapbook Spirits was written after the prayer-poems of Petals and is much more characteristic of the recent work I’ve been doing. These days, often, I need to write using the pronoun “she.” There are some things too difficult for me to approach directly and claim as my own experience.
There are many women poets who have written about nature like May Swenson, Mary Oliver, Elizabeth Bradfield and many wonderful nature poems. Both of your chapbooks approach nature. What writers and literary sources enabled you to consider how a writer might make nature a troupe in poetry?
Oh, since very early on in my life, Keats’ “To Autumn” has been a favorite poem of mine. To me, it seems like a perfect poem and I often think, “If only I could write something that beautiful!” Very old-fashioned of me, right? But I am a little old-fashioned in some ways. And then there is Robert Hass: I love the way his poems manage to be so specific about landscape, how he will not say “bird” or “jay”—it has to be “Steller’s jay.” I think I sound so stupid saying this, because it is such an obvious characteristic of his work, but after reading him for the first time, I felt I must try to be as accurate as possible when naming plants and animals. Though I do love thinking of them as “Nature’s People,” as Dickinson calls them.
In the January/February 2014 issue of Poets & Writers, Celia Johnson examines the walking habits of Virginia Woolf, Charles Dickens, William Wordsworth and more in her essay “Pedestrian Adventures: Walking to Inspiration.” She argues that exercise promotes creativity as it lessens anxiety. Given your focus on nature and the careful descriptions of the natural world in your poetry, do you spend time in nature exercising? How does exercise tie into your creativity, inspiration, and general well being as a writer?
That is a question I can almost answer in two words: Rockefeller Park. I live in Westchester County, New York, basically in the suburbs. But my apartment is only fifteen minutes away from pure bliss, and by that bliss I mean the park. There are acres and acres of trails to follow—through woods, through meadows and farmland, around a lake, beside a river and its many streams—it seems endless. It’s very strange to me that often the people I encounter on my walks are foreigners who are sight-seeing or Americans who are there to walk their dogs. I can’t really understand running on a treadmill in a gym with four TV screens flashing images in front of you, when there exists this park and others like it. But as far as how it ties into writing: in the park, while walking, I often enter a kind of deep inner silence in which I am not separate from the landscape around me. After I come back from instances in which I experience this state of mind, I often hear words and rhythms forming, as I had mentioned before. These words seem like gifts from the park and they are. I don’t know where I’d be without my park pass!
What support have you received thus far that has enabled you to have two chapbooks published, an MFA, and publications in Cutbank, Quarterly West, The Cincinnati Review, and elsewhere? What kinds of support does a budding or mid-career writer need today?
Friends have been there for emotional support and for the mutual sharing of poetry. As far as having poems accepted in magazines, it has largely been luck—luck and perseverance, though once a kind man who was a reader for one publication took me under his wing for a while, because he liked a submission I sent. I owe him deep gratitude. What this means for other writers: I think it’s important to have 1) quiet time, quiet space, 2) the ability to build some community for yourself as a writer, whether this means an MFA program or poetry workshops at a local literary center or connections you discover through online networking, 3) belief in your own worth, as a writer, as a person, and 4) a love of reading.
How are you trying to get better as a poet? By reading the work of other poets and memorizing poems when I can.
Your chapbook credo: I’m not sure I have one.
Number of chapbooks you own: 48 and counting
Number of chapbooks you’ve read: 47
Ways you promote and serve other chapbook poets: I have a favorite chapbook, Kathy Garlick’s The Listening World. Though it’s out of print and often hard to find, I search for copies to give to friends. I have also, recently, organized a reading for poets published by Finishing Line Press. I would like to organize more readings of this kind in the future.
Where you spend your chapbook earnings: My chapbook earnings are not so substantial. Were they substantial, I’d purchase chapbooks with them. Were they really substantial, I’d take a long trip to Norway in the summer and drive up the Western coast to see the fjords and the midnight sun.
Your chapbook wish: For more people to read chapbooks. For more people to write amazing chapbooks and have them published and for these chapbooks to somehow fall into my hands.
Residence: White Plains, New York
Job: Not currently working.
Chapbook education: I mentioned Kathy Garlick’s The Listening World. Louise Glück’s October and Jennifer Militello’s Anchor Chain, Open Sail have also been important chapbooks for me.
Chapbook Bio: Spirits of the Humid Cloud (dancing girl press, 2012) and Petals as an Offering in Darkness (Finishing Line Press, 2014). For a longer bio, please see my website http://www.gilliancummingspoet.com