in Conversation with Octavio Quintanilla
Cynthia Atkins is the author of Psyche’s Weathers and In The Event of Full Disclosure. Her poems have appeared in numerous journals, including, Alaska Quarterly Review, BOMB, Cleaver Magazine, Cultural Weekly, Del Sol Review, Florida Review, Green Mountains Review, Harpur Palate, Hermeneutic Chaos, Le Zaporogue, North American Review, Poetry Fix, Prairie Schooner, Seneca Review, Tampa Review, Valparaiso Review and Verse Daily, and nominated for a 2013, 2014, 22015 Pushcart Prize. She is formerly the assistant director for the Poetry Society of America, and currently teaching Creative Writing at Blue Ridge Community College. Atkins earned her MFA from Columbia University and has earned fellowships and prizes from Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the VCCA. She lives on the Maury River of Rockbridge County, VA with artist, Phillip Welch and their family. You can find her on Facebook. Below, Cynthia discusses the challenges of living with mental health, our relationship to social media, and ‘the black dog’ of the creative mind.
Octavio Quintanilla: Cynthia, not too long ago, for Fact-Simile Magazine, I reviewed your most recent book, In the Event of Full Disclosure, a poetry collection that touches on some complex issues such as our relationship to social media, our relationship to our families, and the challenge and hardship that mental illness can be. Did you intend for this last issue to be at the core of this collection? What is your experience with mental health/illness?
Cynthia Atkins: Yes, thanks for asking this question, Octavio. I think we write through and towards our obsessions and the subjects we are closest to. The last two things you mention here, family and mental illness/health are so interwoven into my history, that it would be hard to escape writing about them. When they were alive, both my father and my sister experienced mental health disorders. My father was bi-polar and my sister, a schizophrenic. (In my early teens, I saw my sister dragged out of the house to be hospitalized—an indelible image.) From these illnesses bred other impediments, further complexities, stresses, behaviors on the family dynamic. I felt that my family wasn’t alone in dealing with these complex hardships, and I believe there is a serious disconnect in our cultural awareness in addressing these familial and personal collisions. Families have bizarre and unique codes of behavior. The taboos regarding mental health need to be deflected, and the issue itself be given more attention on all fronts.
The thing about depression is this: it’s an unseen wound—and when that dark beast hugs close and hangs the fog around you, nothing is more bleak or debilitating. I have suffered bouts that were heavy as brick and mortar. Days when it is damn hard to get out of bed—so depleting. But we have lives to live that require we get out of bed and make lunches, drive car pools, teach classes and to lead our lives. We mask it, keep it under wraps, tell the world we ‘are just fine’ when they ask. No one wants to be ‘Debbi-the Downer” in this super-happy-culture of public crowds, multiple threads and lives that now intersect, often, with complete strangers. Many of us suffer a ‘concealed depression’ and spend a good deal of time privately trying to conquer our own demons. But hey, it is an enormous job seeking answers to all of life’s perplexing questions. It requires concentration, solitude, energy, synergy, and most of all, confidence that what you are putting down on the page has some truth, relevance, and breath that gives new life, order and meaning to the world. “Breathe in experience breathe out poetry,” said, Muriel Rukeyser.
OQ: In a recent interview, you say that, “In writing about family or those we know, we have to be careful with the privacies of others in what we disclose.” How is this assertion a challenge, if at all, when writing about difficult issues such as mental health?
CA: On the subject of writing about the pain and privacy of others, it is one thing to disclose your own pains, heartbreaks and privacies, and quite another to infringe on the private territory of someone else. When writing about the hardships of my family members, I had to approach the writing through a different lens—writing about the illness and pain through differing perspectives. I felt it would be an injustice and an infringement to appropriate the pain of someone else; that is none of my business. But my own baggage, along with images and the imaginative powers, allowed me to find different ways into what is inherently complicated material. I think art helps deflect the taboos.
OQ: You are an advocate for mental health awareness. What do you think still needs to be done for the general public to be more informed and aware of this issue? What role can poetry play in this endeavor?
CA: “The feeling of emptiness is a pre-existing condition,” said poet, Rae Armantrout. If you offered me a dollar for every one of my writer/artist friends who isn’t afflicted with some strain of bi-polar illness— I bet you, I’d lose my shirt. I am not a neuro-scientist, just a poet, but I believe there must be a genetic component to the Artistic process that gives us the tenacity, mood-swings, and scull-duggery to transcend experience into a poem, a painting, a music composition. Most of us who live in the ‘creative zone’ suffer, more or less, with the knowledge of the black dog in our psyches. We are plunged to the depths or soaring to our creative fires at all hours of the day or night. Most creative people are ‘touched’ and I am here to say, this is okay—This is also part of life and living and looking at the innards of our psyches and souls in a way that the average person is not bound to do. Pain makes us look and analyze in ways that we cannot muster when we are flat-out happy, giddy, garrulously in love with life—At the core of Art is the melancholy, the contemplative mediations, and the Purple Rain.
OQ: The title of the collection is compelling: In the Event of Full Disclosure. Would you discuss the title? What should we do “in the event of full disclosure”? And, in terms of the collection, do you feel satisfied with what you have disclosed? Has the disclosure brought closure?
CA: Glad you asked this, and it makes me think of these words by one of my favorite writers, Rene Char, “A poet should leave traces of his passage, not proof.” Titles are a tricky thing, they of course hold a lot of weight, and you want to give clues, but not give away the store. One of my favorite writers for titles, Grace Paley, Enormous Changes At the Last Minute, and Later The Same Day—her titles so exquisitely capture the thing a title should do—bring the reader in, and then let the reader fly right off the page. Tell us, but don’t; let us explore it, analyze and question. My title, In The Event of Full Disclosure is attempting this feat, to tell the reader there is something to disclose, something a little taboo and risky—danger might implode from the telling like a cautionary tale that warns of disasters to come. In my book, they are internal, interior, familial, dysfunctional—good titles plant dynamite in hearts and minds. I don’t know if I ever really answer the ultimate question, but then, I’m not sure any religion can do that for us either—it is always more about the questions.
OQ: Another theme you write about in your poems is that of identity, specifically of the identity we try to create within our family. In the poem, “Family Therapy (I),” for example, you write: “I am learning how to be a member / of my family, of my society.” Do you feel like you have an “identity,” finally, within the sphere of your family and that of society? How does this sense of identity inform the writing of your poems? And by identity, I mean in terms of class, race, gender?
CA: I think we are composite of every aspect of our life that comes before us—where we come from, what kind of neighborhood, what ethnicity, religion, sex—all these connections make-up parts of who we are and who we will become. There is no future, the present is right this very minute, and so we are composed and comprised solely of the past, and how those pieces and fragments make us who we are, not to mention, the chromosomes and the particular way your mom walked through a room and how the house smelled, and whether you were dog or cat people. I am a dog person, and this goes so deep, I have never even dated ‘a cat person’—totally out of my element, and by the way, my mother was not a lover of cats and the apples fall not very far.
I was raised in a middle class home, one of four children in a divorced home. My mom was a teacher and my dad was a salesman. We had strong ethnic traditions, but no education, surrounding our Jewish heritage—but the bonds are threaded and seeded around the tables of latkes or the Seder plate and big family dinners, with my grandfather pounding on the table. All these things have shaped who I am, even the departures.
Today, we are ‘seen’ by hundreds/ maybe thousands of people in a single day. We are all celebrities in this new paradigm, where our lives are like a diorama. Unlike days in the past, when you spoke to one or two people in a room, or on a telephone. The sheer number of people that we keep up with is mind-boggling. Sometimes I wake up and feel gob-smacked by the amount of intimate information I know about virtual strangers, and by that I mean, we may have never heard the sound of their voice, which, in my book, is the uniqueness about us, and part of the intimacy between us. I just worry that we have become lambs to the slaughter, being led, almost without question, down a path where we live in a ubiquitous time-capsule with thousands of other people, daily—After a while, it is bound to wear on the soul. Not to mention, I believe that social media, ala Facebook/Instagram /Snap-Chump, are the new drugs of the 21 century, and we are addicted, indeed. Just look at all the definitions of addiction: “Does this drug disrupt your daily life?”—Yes! And most of us would fall into this category—but there are no social media re-habs built yet, and they are sure to be coming….
OQ: One of the recurring subjects in some of your poems is the role social media plays in our lives. What’s interesting to me, however, is the role social media can play in our lives as writers. In a recent interview, you say, “There is a place of complete solitude that I need to feel to get to mechanisms that allow me to write.” With that said, I must confess that I, too, need this place of solitude in order to write. With all the noise around us, how do you get there? What must you sacrifice?
CA: Ultimately, we are writing to reach out and connect, and perhaps be held by the virtual arms with our readers and compatriots. But at what point are we sacrificing that piece of ourselves that needs to be whole, one, private, uno?—the unadorned self that is sometimes placid, manic, lonely, contemplative. When we are truly alone, all the demons can be let out of the bag— good, bad and ugly. Through this new lens of social media, we are continuously being censored, voted on, affirmed or not, depending on how many ‘likes’ we have garnered, it is hard not to wonder how much we and the words are being influenced by the need for affirmation. How is this mucking with our confidence, taste and arbitration of our own work and worth? It is really so much more about perception now, more than reality. Henry Miller said it so well, “I need to be alone. I need to ponder my shame and my despair in seclusion; I need the sunshine and the paving stones of the streets without companions, without conversation, face to face with myself, with only the music of my heart for company.” Social media now rows us further and further from the sharp, intuitive, shore of self—where the disclosing and understanding happens
The public and private boundaries have become quite blurred with the advent of a new social model, one that beats us, drugs us, implores us to be plugged in to every orifice for several hours a day—soaking in the lives of hundreds of people: their whereabouts, diets, pets, travels, awards, birthdays, hirings, firings, and birth announcements. These are all beautiful things in the lives of people you have come to care about. Some of these people you’ve never met, but they have made a lasting impression on you, and have made you care about their lives. But when we speak, we are now speaking not to a sole individual, but to a throng—a crowd, a mob that changes according to the context—those who may include our employer, friend, nephew, mechanic, professor or neighbor in one fell swoop.
It seems natural to want to talk about our happy things, to want to be ‘happy,” whatever that means—but maybe the aim should to be more conscious and aware of our lives. As writers, we tend to a ‘bipolar’ attitude and lifestyle. If I am at home ‘working’ on writing, I don’t want to get out of my bed-clothes until 4 pm, nor come in contact with the outside world. Many times, when I think I am running out to have a brief interaction with a bank teller, and come back to my desk to find I had broken the spell. The dirty little secret is that we stay in our pajamas until 4 pm probably sounds a little dysfunctional. The self I use to write is isolated, and it takes hours of stripping layers of life’s old paint—bills, life, school, all the many hats we wear that we have to discard as we move closer to the moments of putting words to paper.
I probably drink too much coffee, and perhaps other vices and self-meds. I live on little sleep. I wallow in the past, and think about things most people would rather avoid. I like the dark. I like to be alone. We are not like other people in many respects. We tend to be the observers, not the participators. And as writers, for the first time, we are asked to actively participate in this madness of posies and posse and groups and chats, and we row out further and further from the sharp, intuitive, shore of self—where the art happens. “I've often lost myself, in order to find the burn that keeps everything awake.”—Federico García Lorca
OQ: Cynthia, you know in our lives there are things we can control, and other things that are beyond our reach. In terms of writing poems, could you talk about what you can control and what you can’t? To what extent do you go into writing with these notions in mind?
CA: This is an interesting question, as I have been about this very thing in relation to my role as an artist/mother/parent—My son is about to leave the nest and go off to college. I remember worrying so hard prior to having a child about whether I would ever write again—I had much anxiety over this. And now that he is leaving, I worry about the same thing; but I’ve been writing long enough to know now that it is in my bones and blood, and I have no other choice. It is how I go on and make sense of the world. But what control means to me is what and how am I influenced and how does it weigh into my perceptions. I think realizing that ‘my actions, my intentions, my voice—are now also reflected onto another person, my kid—and as a poet, that felt like a huge weight. All of the sudden, my very free-spirited, very outspoken self was a shadow over someone else. Now what I ‘wrote’ (would be read and scrutinized by a whole range of censors—not only editors, but community, teachers, and other parents. The idea of this made me self-conscious, and again, I felt I had to strip though many layers to get to the place where “Art” happens.
I had to grow-up and realize that my son had to learn to accept me, reject me and appreciate for who and what I am, what I write. But it also has made me think twice about my actions in a good way. My manuscript-in-progress, Still-Life With God, is trying to grapple with these issues as well—what do fate, destiny, and faith have to do with this this new paradigm in living and how do we proceed?— The world is ever more complex, dangerous, chaotic—at times it feels like it is all spiraling out of our control. And I think that is exactly the reason we go to art, music, poetry—these are the things that allow us to find a little calm and order and beauty in the maelstrom of life. Just as your questions here have done for me, Octavio—made me sit down and see what it is I am doing in these poems, and see some of the scaffolding for myself. Thank you for this probing conversation into my own motives and interiors.