Cynthia Hogue’s new poetry collection is instead, it is dark (Red Hen Press, 2023). Her ekphrastic Covid chapbook is entitled Contain (Tram Editions 2022), and her new collaborative translation from the French of Nicole Brossard is Distantly (Omnidawn 2022). She served as Guest Editor for Poem-a-Day for September (2022), sponsored by the Academy of American Poets. Hogue was the inaugural Maxine and Jonathan Marshall Chair in Modern and Contemporary Poetry at Arizona State University. She lives in Tucson.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first book in the States was published about thirty years ago, The Woman in Red (Ahsahta Press, 1989). I also had a limited-edition collection published by Whiteknights Press in the U.K. earlier in the decade, Where the Parallels Cross. Both books were published around the time that I was working on and finishing up a Ph.D. at the University of Arizona, and thanks to them, I was offered my first job at the University of New Orleans as a poet-scholar. Now, that job changed my life.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I started writing poetry as a child. It's true, I also wrote in other genres. I created a neighborhood newspaper when I was 10. I would assign the other children articles to write, but in fact, I wrote and produced the only issue I was able to make by myself. In high school, a special class in creative writing was offered by my favorite English teacher, and in that class, I wrote poetry. I attended Oberlin College in the year they offered their first creative writing class in poetry, in the Experimental College. I tried other genres, but always returned to poetry. I had fun trying out fiction in New Orleans, but never finished anything I wrote. And I labored on a memoir-essay about living with someone, my first husband, with Tourettes Syndrome, and also about the onset of Rheumatoid Arthritis in my mid-forties. I was pleased with those essays, but the first took me a decade to finish, since I didn't know what I was doing!
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?
Really depends on the project. In the last decade or so, as I explored drawing on research for book-length projects, my whole creative process shifted from writing individual poems in short bursts to a slower, longer framework for completing a book, even if poems were arranged in series. I discovered a remarkable slave story in New Orleans right before I was leaving for another position, the last slave to use the courts to sue for emancipation on the eve of the courts being closed to slaves with the signing of the Fugitive Slave law. This slave, Cora Arsene, won her case. Dred Scott, in a different state but the same year, did not. Writing that long poem entailed a decade of research about Southern slave history (including the Haitian Revolution), and much much consideration of genre. The new collection, instead, it is dark, began with the shock of my husband's massive heart attack. He was born into occupied France, and my rather inchoate impulse as I began the book was to honor his life by turning some of his memories and dreams into poems. I conducted a lot of research and ended up interviewing his extended family in France for this collection.
4 - Where does a poem or translation 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?
For the translation of Nicole Brossard's Lointaines, which I published last year with Omnidawn as Distantly (with my co-translator, Sylvain Gallais), I eased into that serial project as if it were hot water, translating poems in the series here and there until we finally decided to translated the whole book. With my last poetry collection, In June the Labyrinth, I had been going on a sort of annual pilgrimage to Chartres Cathedral every year for a decade when I decided to challenge myself to write a book-length serial poem around the subject of the labyrinth. I wanted to see if I could sustain a book-length project, but I adopted a loose narrative structure to do so.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I rarely do solo readings, preferring group readings, and they are certainly not part of my creative process, no.
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 just returned from the wonderful New Orleans Poetry Festival, where I was on a panel called “Uncanny Activisms” (Lesley Wheeler’s terms for poetry in the tradition of spells and prayers), so this is what I’ve been thinking about of late: How can/does poetry effect change? How does poetry matter (I actually never question that it matters, being such an ancient art form, but realistically, how many people does it reach?) In his essay “On Poetry,” Velimir Khlebnikov raised the question of spells and incantations, magic words that are sometimes “beyonsense” in sacred or folk language. Great power is attributed to these words, and to magic spells, he says, because they are believed to contain magic and be capable of influencing our fate. Such poems and incantations go straight over the heads of leaders to Spirit. Khlebnikov said that “the magic in a word remains magic even if it is not understood, and loses none of its power.” These days, I am thinking very pointedly about the humane, inflected in spiritual and activist terms, in the hopes of changing, affecting, or raising consciousness. And sometimes, because I greatly admire many works in didactic tradition, I write poems with dryer, discursive statements inflected by sonic lyricism.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Do they even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
In the past, great writers could be cultural and political voices, like a Yeats, Orwell, Pablo Neruda, Gore Vidal, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus. James Baldwin. Toni Morrison. Margaret Atwood today, Barbara Kingsolver, Ta-Nehisi Coates. The larger culture, I believe, benefits from the voices of writers and artists speaking in a more public arena, but now, with social media, there is a levelling effect. A real democracy of voices. It can be hard to judge which voices are worth listening to. What writers offer is a thoughtful, attentive, perhaps an ethical viewpoint. Many writers make their living teaching, and one by one, as students of literature and creative writing learn the field, they are changed, at least potentially. Writers play the role of mentor, sometimes guide, teaching students the skills to think for themselves. Maybe that isn’t the role I think they should have, but I’ve come to see it as important.
8—I’ve skipped that question, as I don’t have much experience with an outside editor.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Go where you are loved. Over the course of a life, one receives much advice and counsel, sometimes requested and sometimes offered. This piece of advice is to be found in H.D.’s Trilogy, I think, and it is likely from the Bible. Once I took it in, during a dark time in my life, I never forgot it, and sometimes, I follow it.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to translation)? What do you see as the appeal?
I don’t see translating poetry as moving between genres. It’s certainly moving between languages, but in my experience, I feel I know my way around a poem that has been translated literally from another language—even if I don’t immediately understand what the poet is doing. The strong appeal of translating other poets is the work enlarges your horizon, your language, and replenishes and inspires the imagination.
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?
Every day, I begin with some kind of writing. If I don’t have many interruptions, and especially, if I’m working on a longer project, I’ll usually write a poem or at least a draft. When I was writing my pandemic chapbook, CONTAIN, in the first months of lockdown, I had received a gorgeous visual series from an artist I met at MacDowell, and I went into a kind of altered state of consciousness, meditating each day on one of the visual forms and writing an ekphrastic poem. Since there were no interruptions at that stage of the pandemic lockdown, I wrote 40 poems in 40 days. Very unusual for me, but then the circumstances were intense and extraordinary.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I turn to poetry, reading some or many of the books piled on floor and desk, and I turn to nature.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
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?
As mentioned earlier, visual art (in the case of CONTAIN, the series by the remarkable Morgan O’Hara), sometimes history (as in the slave narrative, “Ars Cora”), sometimes architecture (such as Chartres Cathedral, which has one of the few labyrinths that survived the French revolution), and in the beginning and for many years, and even now, nature.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Dickinson and H.D., to some extent Marianne Moore, Stevens, Eliot, Gwendolyn Brooks, Muriel Rukeyser, Adrienne Rich, C.D. Wright, Forrest Gander, Lissa Wolsak, Nicole Brossard, Kathleen Fraser. Gary Snyder was very important to me at one point, and Robert Bly, William Stafford. Nathaniel Mackey and Rachel Blau DuPlessis are amazing. I read deeply into Afaa Weaver, Alice Fulton, Brenda Hillman. Seamus Heaney’s North, his translation of Beowulf. Paul Celan. Those are some of the poets I return to. I am always open to prose that is as beautifully written as poetry. I always read Barbara Kingsolver. There was a German writer I was much taken with, and she was beautifully translated: Christa Wolf. I am friends with a prose writer of great gifts, Karen Brennan (who is also a fine poet).
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Actually, I went to Greece once many years ago, and I would like to go back. The last time I saw an eastern autumn was ages ago, and I plan to return to New York next fall to see the leaves.
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?
I’d been planning on being a doctor. A scientist. Or perhaps a naturalist. I loved the outdoors. I began college as a biology major. But I loathed dissecting piglets and frogs and I fell in love with poetry. My grandmother had a gorgeous soprano, and had I inherited her voice, I might have tried to be an opera singer. I do love music.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I seemed to be good at it. I was otherwise very messed up when I was young, and writing poems was like my North Star.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
20 - What are you currently working on?
I published three books over the last year, so I am in a fallow period. Gathering my thoughts, doing some readings and writing micro-essays.
rob, Thank you so much for these questions! This has been fun.