Editor’s Note: Cynthia Manick, June’s Poet in Residence, graciously answers our Take Five, a feature where we ask writers of various disciplines the same set of questions to ascertain where our commonalities converge and divide. Afterwards, spend some time with Cynthia’s deeply layered “I See a Dirt Road Inside Myself.” —Camille Griep
1. Can you tell us about your writing environment (an office or a coffee house or the whole world)? What are the essentials you need around you, if any?
Well the 1st writing environment is a piece of scrap paper and an idea. I could be on the train, home, or coffee shop (even though I don’t like coffee.) I also have these little books of words that I’ve collected over the years. I use them to launch an idea or take the work in a different direction. The 2nd writing space is my desk with my laptop, so the scrap paper transfers to the screen. My essentials includes clear space on my desk—it may be a little OCD but I have to physically see the clear spaces around me when I’m working. It helps clear my mind or it could be the placebo effect where I simply think it’s clearing my mind? I also love to have music playing in the background. A favorite is Melanie Hsu who plays cello like an upright bass and she has 3 albums online. And if I have a deadline, soda/chocolate is a must.
2. Where are you from (if you claim one or more places) and where are you now? How (if at all) does sense of place factor into/inform your writing?
I think there are many geographies in my DNA. I was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. But my parents are from South Carolina; they migrated to New York before I was born. I vividly remember visiting the South during the summers (it’s a long Greyhound bus ride) and my grandmother on my father’s side had a lot of kids, so a lot of relatives live down there. Sometimes the lexicon in my writing is southern in nature. Family has a lot of phrases and foods that seep into my poems. Also as more of the older generation moves on, I get more interested in origin stories. How does one discover personal history when there is no one to ask? I found a 1940 census report with my dad on it and my grandmother was in her early 20’s. I like combining history and imagination. Sometimes I think poets are undercover anthropologists.
3. What are the basics of your process (if applicable)? Do you start with a word or idea? Do you write immediately or let it simmer for a bit? How do you edit? Do you ever give up on ideas?
Definitely an idea, words come after. I rarely write the poem immediately because I work full-time. But I will write the idea down immediately so I don’t forget it. I have many post-it notes turned poems. I actually have a whole folder of ideas on my docket that I need to work on. Editing is my least favorite part of the writing process. When you first write a poem you think it’s amazing. You read that same poem the next day and all the cracks show. I’m always sending poems to friends for feedback or I’ll workshop a piece in a class or writing group. I don’t give up on ideas but I have given up on certain poems. Sometimes the framing in the work is off and only by keeping certain lines can a new poem take shape.
4. What other art forms factor into your work? From what and where do you draw inspiration?
Occasionally photography will inspire me. The last poem in my book is based on Carrie Mae Weems’ Kitchen Table series. I also draw inspiration from pop culture, historical figures, news, and sometimes an overheard conversation. Once I overhead “I’m great at walking down hallways” and I’m still trying to get that in a poem. Other poets inspire me as well. Every time I go to a reading or read a book, I learn something new. No one knows everything so there are always questions to be answered. One of my poems is being developed by Motionpoems, an organization dedicated to video poetry. In a conference call with the filmmakers, I was talking about the elements and said “who knows what the stars are doing when you can’t see them? But isn’t it our place to wonder.”
Who knows what the stars are doing when you can’t see them? But isn’t it our place to wonder.
5. If you had to give a good friend three books to read while spending a month stranded on a (well-stocked but isolated) tropical island, which books would you give them and why?
I’m glad you added the “well-stocked but isolated” caveat because first on my list would’ve been a book on plants so my friend could grow their own food and antibiotics. But my three would be:
1. The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton—so they can learn the gambit of life experience.
2. The 100 Best African American Poems, edited by Nikki Giovanni—because they are just amazing.
3. Nora Roberts’s Bride Quartet—this is a cheat because it’s really 4 books in one volume, but it’s a great beach read. In addition to poetry, I like romance and sci-fi. If you’re stranded on an island, you gotta believe in a happy endings. Romance novels make you believe that it’s possible.
I See a Dirt Road Inside Myself
Longer than a country mile
only I and the dead can see.
It passes by those crooked houses
in the Carolinas, the kind made
of silt, spit, and a board or two.
My uncle with his trailer stands
like a clay figurine. Church cornmeal,
cans of spam, scratch offs clutched
in hand, tying to keep something at bay
but the wind comes—
the kind that whips, carves out his
dark parts til nothing is left.
The road forks at the v of my chest.
On the left I see the crack
of my father’s Dogwood, his hand
splintered by bark, eyes blind
from another ache—my mother
threw piss in his face, and later clothes
in a black Hefty bag. Put my ten-
year-old self on the phone
made me say daddy, come get your shit.
The path ends behind my knee.
There you’ll find bramble thorns
of cotton, my near white
grandmother screaming like some-
body rocked you dead, and little
scraps of poems I splash after
to understand it all.