Gillian Cummings is the author of , selected by John Yau as the winner of the 2018 Colorado Prize for Poetry (The Center for Literary Publishing at Colorado State University, 2018) and , winner of the 2015 Hudson Prize (Black Lawrence Press, 2016). She has also written three chapbooks: (dancing girl press, 2016), (Finishing Line Press, 2014), and (dancing girl press, 2012). Her poems have appeared in Boulevard, the Cincinnati Review, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, the Laurel Review, the Massachusetts Review, Quarterly West, Verse Daily, and others. A graduate of Stony Brook University and of Sarah Lawrence College’s MFA program, she was awarded the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Memorial Fund Poetry Prize in 2008. Cummings lives in Westchester County, New York.
1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
When my first book was published, I was very scared. I know that’s probably the opposite of what you’re supposed to feel, but that is the truth. The poems in My Dim Aviary were persona poems written in an attempt to heal from sexual trauma. But to write them, I pretended to be someone I wasn’t. Now that my second book, The Owl Was a Baker’s Daughter, is in the world, I feel happy about it. It feels more like the “me” I know.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
When I was a freshman in college, majoring in English, I became friends with someone who was a poet. I had always loved writing stories as a child, and I’d turned to journaling sometime later, but even as an English major it didn’t occur to me that you could be an actual living poet. My friend opened my eyes to this possibility by recommending books by contemporary poets and showing me his own drafts of poems. Then I decided to try it myself. My first poems were awkward and unoriginal, but they were a start.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
It’s a very spontaneous process with me. I’ll find something in the world that corresponds with a feeling I have inside, and I’ll use that image or sound or concept to start writing a poem—the “objective correlative”. Most often, when poems have come to me, they’ve come through a voice that starts speaking in my mind. It’s a different sounding voice than my usual worried-thoughts voice, because it speaks more rhythmically and slowly. When I hear that voice, I try to stop everything and get the words down. That’s the first draft. And while some poems I’ve written come out being close to finished in the first draft, others need many, many drafts, and yet countless others I simply abandon at some stage. The poem in The Owl that came out nearly perfect on first try was “When World Is Whale.” And “Cloud of Ancient, Cloud of Old, Cloud of Platinum, Cloud of Gold,” which took the most drafts, isn’t even in the collection, because it became too difficult to get right, though it was published at one point in Whiskey Island.
4 - Where does a poem or work of prose usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
After my MFA at Sarah Lawrence, where I was just writing single poems and getting them to cohere became a problem, I began working on “project books.” My Dim Aviary was a project book, almost a novella in prose poems, and this new book, The Owl Was a Baker’s Daughter, began as a series of sonnets in third person, all on the similar theme of loss and suicidal depression.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I couldn’t write if I thought about having to read what I was writing to an audience. I’m very shy. The performer “Gillian” is not the same as the “Gillian” writing the poems, though when I give a reading, the audience can still sense, I think, this shyness that is so much of who I am. And when I give a reading, if it goes well, I do feel tremendous gratitude.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I think that it’s important for writers to help foster acceptance of all people for who they are, without passing negative judgment due to race, religion, ethnicity, sexual identity, or abilty / disablity. In The Owl, I try to present the topic of mental illness in a way that sheds light on its potential to expand limited notions of how a person should feel and be. I try to say that if you feel like someone who “wants to die and does / not know…” essentially why you feel this way, feeling like this is okay, too, it’s human. I purposefully didn’t tell a recovery story, because I believe that the insistence upon so-called “recovery” in our society actually perpetuates the problem of stigma. This is a question that I am concerned with as a person with Bipolar 1 and PTSD.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
I don’t write political poetry, so I guess this is a hard question for me. I think that those writers who are dealing with the bigger issues in their works—such as racial injustice, rape culture, poverty and homelessness, and ecocide—are doing the important work. But I think it’s also okay to “write what you know.” And what I know is mental illness and the devastations of trauma, so I start from there.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Essential. Definitely essential. My poet-friends, my teachers, and editors are always much smarter about my own work than I am.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
My late Zen teacher, Susan Jion Postal, once gave me a little printout of a saying by Lin Yutang. It goes like this:
“Besides the noble art of getting things done, there is the noble art of leaving things undone. The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of the nonessentials. Awareness of one’s true place in life cannot be hurried or forced. Dialogue with oneself that leads to awareness and action must come of its own.”
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction to visual art)? What do you see as the appeal?
Everything happens organically. With writing especially. I don’t choose what I write about or in which form / genre the writing comes. I just hear words and let them guide me. Most times what begins is poetry, but once I heard a novel beginning… With visual art, well, I draw as a hobby, as a form of relaxation. When I draw, I have to concentrate so hard on the still life object, almost always a plant, that there isn’t much room in my mind for words. No words. A freedom from them. I need that for balance. And so drawing has become an integral part of keeping me sane and keeping me writing. And I can draw when I feel blocked with writing, and then at least I feel I am still creating.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
When I write poetry, I write whenever I feel inspired. I don’t follow a routine with poetry. I can’t. When I am working on fiction, I wake up in the morning, have a cup of tea with honey, and—when I am awake enough—start writing wherever it was I left off.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Other writers. Reading. But I have to say that I went into a daylong coma during the time I was writing The Owl Was a Baker’s Daughter, and for a long time after the coma reading became really difficult. I would look at a page of writing and the words wouldn’t form meaningful sentences. So when reading failed me, it helped to go for walks in the woods for inspiration or to museums to look at great art.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Parrot feathers and—not that these go together—baked apples.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
I go for walks in the woods all the time, and sometimes I hear poems forming as I’m walking… My husband, Rich Panish, has for the past eight years dedicated his life to composing music, and when you share your life with a composer, music becomes a very big part of it. He has written three albums so far and is now at a stage where the first one is being recorded. This is an album we collaborated on. I wanted to remain invisible and let the work be all his, but he is insisting that he give me credit as co-composer… And then visual art. Visual art is a huge influence. I love going to museums and galleries. I keep art books scattered all over the coffee table. My living room, because I live in a small space, is half art studio, and feels like the heart of our home to me. It’s where our stereo speakers are. It’s where we go after our parrot falls asleep at night.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
When I was writing The Owl Was a Baker’s Daughter, I read Hamlet over and over, and King Lear, and Shakespeare’s sonnets. I read the sonnets of Keats and Hopkins. I read Dickinson and Plath. And Unica Zürn’s two novels (I also loved looking at her ink drawings, which were created in an asylum). Also Gérard de Nerval’s Aurelia. And lots of contemporary poets, including but not limited to the recently deceased Lucie Brock-Broido, and living poets Cynthia Cruz, Allison Benis White, Larissa Szporluk, Jennifer Militello, Jennifer Chang, Brenda Shaughnessy, Joanna Klink, Rachel Eliza Griffiths, Kristy Bowen, Blueberry Elizabeth Morningsnow, Jennifer S. Cheng… The list could go on. And I am purposefully naming only the women poets I read, because I wanted the collection to sound very feminine—and even feminist, though in a quiet way.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I would like to travel to Norway to see the Western fjords, the stave churches, and the Edvard Munch museum in Oslo. I would like to do more collaborative work with other artists—I’d love to put together an artist’s book or two with someone else’s artwork and my poems. I would like to co-author, with my husband, a book of critical theory about the mental health recovery system. And I’d like to do more to help others who are suffering.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
If I could choose another career and go back in time, I would have liked to have been a botanical illustrator.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Fate, I guess. This question might be beyond me to explain. It felt like something was pulling me. I was writing in my spare time and working in libraries as a part-time clerk, and I was sad that my work wasn’t really being picked up by magazines, so I went for an MFA at the age of thirty-six, which is late, I know. After graduating, I had a breakdown and became suicidal, not because of writing but because of a great loss in my life. The losses kept happening, one after the other after the other. And I chose to write through them, because what else could I do? Those poems became The Owl Was a Baker’s Daughter.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I recently read GennaRose Nethercott’s The Lumberjack’s Dove, which is a beautiful fairytale / folktale in the form of one long poem, an extended meditation, also on loss, in this case the loss of a hand that turns into a dove and what that can mean and not mean. Her book left me wanting to read more and more books of poetry that incorporate fairytales—I always love when a book opens a door to other works.
Film—that’s hard. I don’t own a television and don’t watch movies that often. I did love Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson. I also loved a French / Russian film called Polina, about a dancer trying to find her way in the world and struggling.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I’ve finished the first draft of a novel about a five-year-old girl named Lily who lives with her grandparents and doesn’t know why she doesn’t have a mother. I’m struggling with it now, because I don’t know how to edit fiction so well... I’ve also been writing new poems of two kinds, poems about the landscape of Iceland, and some new poems that are the saddest works I’ve ever written, but I can’t say much about them yet because they are too new.