In Conversation with Cynthia Atkins
Lindsey Royce earned her Ph.D. in Creative Writing and Literature from the University of Houston in 2006. She also holds an M.A. from New York University and an M.F.A. in poetry from Brooklyn College. Her poems have appeared widely in such journals as Cutthroat, Mudfish, New York Quarterly, Poet Lore, and Washington Square Review. Her first collection, Bare Hands, came out in September 2016, and she recently completed a second manuscript. The recipient of a Cambor Fellowship, along with several residency awards, she is Professor of English at Colorado Mountain College in Steamboat Springs, Colorado where she teaches literature and creative writing. In this conversation, she discusses the role of identity politics and the ways in which the cross-sections of race, cultures and class are markers for the trajectories of our identities, as well using the power of language to work towards understanding the pain in family dysfunction.
Cynthia Atkins: In your new collection, Bare Hands, it seems pertinent to investigate a sense of place in your poems, particularly the raw and painfully drawn vignettes of a family in crisis in the pristine suburban landscape, where on the surface, everything is supposed to be ordered, but below we see the imperfections and the dysfunctions. Could you address how the setting, with regard to class, identity and environment has influenced or worked against your narrative aesthetic: “Starter home in the suburbs, summer home by the sea”?
Lindsey Royce: A sense of place shapes who we are, and the settings in Bare Hands reveal an aspect of family dynamics that permits universality, while prohibiting genericism. Specificity in setting allows me to write about abuse, class, and race through the lens of privilege, which was my experience and intention. The pristine suburban landscape in which these poems take place indicates class and reveals that dysfunction occurs in all types of families—also that classism is not just other-abuse but self-abuse by members of the economically privileged group. Classism is toxic and limiting not only to the people who experience it from a position of poverty, but also to those wealthy classists who are desperate to keep up appearances. In the collection, I want to show the complexity of abusers and the abused by fleshing them out as individuals and members of communities. I hope to show that the grass is “not necessarily greener” for the wealthy and that each of us is responsible and accountable for choices we make that affect other persons, classes, and races. I felt passionate about making a book that revealed such intricacies, not a book solely about injustices towards me. Also, I wanted the setting to resonate with readers from different classes and racial backgrounds to offer insight and perspective to all readers.
CA: Audre Lorde said, “Your silence will not protect you.” I was struck by the candor and painful truths that debunk the veneers in your poems. In writing about ‘the family secrets’—is there a point at which you questioned the boundaries of privacy for those you are writing about, and how do you strike the balance in writing about your personal relationships vs. your artistic ones?
LR: Silence equals death. This statement that emerged from the gay community in response to the AIDs crisis is essential to the making of Bare Hands. It was difficult to break the silence of my abuse and, in essence, betray people I love, however complicated that love may be. There’s no way around the guilt of exposing those I’ve written about except to come to terms with an “us/them” mentality that ultimately allowed me to survive an abusive upbringing. There came a point where, if I was to heal, I had to put myself and my needs first: us/them. It is true that this book helped me to heal and survive, and that making shit circumstances into art was cathartic and transformative. Sadly, I have been demoralized by some workshops in which leaders mocked confessional poetry, no matter how well written. Nevertheless, I had a vision and something to say that I believed worthwhile. I kept with it and wrote Bare Hands. My immediate family knows my writing the book was generally about survival. We are largely healed as a family now, and I requested that surviving members avoid reading the collection. Thus far, they have respected my wishes. My manuscript for the second book has nothing to do with family, and I look forward to sharing that collection with them when it’s published.
CA: In your poem, “Nakedness” the lines “How grateful/ I am to stand and take/ my place among the vulnerable,” seemed to validate something for the speaker, in the wake of so much heartache and pain. The poem is inspired by Ellen Bass, so I am wondering if you could expound on these lines, as well as give some background on how the lineage of this poem responds to Bass’ piece.
LR: To me, one of the themes in Ellen Bass’ Nakedness is wholeness and an acceptance of good and bad without prejudicing either circumstance. I’m reminded of the popular avowal, “It’s all good.” People who suffer extreme abuse don’t necessarily understand this concept, but it is as valuable for living as profound gratitude is. People who suffer abuse tend to grow compliant or rebellious and to hold some black and white views of the world. I was rebellious and spent the greater part of my life armored against any hint of mistreatment. Psychologists call this disorder hypervigilance. The lines quoted validate the speaker profoundly because they show a genuine ascension, a resurrection of the vulnerable self that existed before the abuse began, and a glimpse into the original wholeness lost in layers of maladaptive survivalist-types of behavior. Those lines represent a fresh start, a death to separateness between the speaker and other people, a welcome acknowledgement of her place in the human family.
CA: Artaud said, "No one has ever written, painted, sculpted, modeled, built, or invented except literally to get out of hell." Your collection speaks to this kind of hell. Do you see writing as a catharsis for healing or escaping or both? Now that the book is completed, do you feel there is redemption?
LR: Yes, there is redemption and freedom. Publishing this collection felt like flock of starlings had alighted on a wire then suddenly lifted off and took what little of was left unhealed with them.
CA: I am curious about the title of the collection, Bare Hands—Of course the hands are riddled with iconic and metaphorical associations, so I am wondering how you came to it and how it resonates for you in terms of the collection as a whole?
LR: Hands can help and hurt, give and receive, grasp and let go. With 27 bones and opposable thumbs, they are complex miracles. Certainly, I thought of physical abuse when I titled the collection, but I also thought of the planting, building, and loving that hands do. In addition, I wanted to convey that we are both good and bad and there is no separation between people, that each of us has the potential to become persecutor and victim, and in reality, all of us are both but for our choices.
CA: What would you like people to know about your artistic process? Do you have particular methods or rituals? How do you go about the preamble, research and scope of setting pen to the page?
LR: Oh, I have a ritual. I enjoy getting up early, making coffee, and sitting at my writing table. I do the following things but not necessarily in any order: a proprioceptive write to get in touch with what’s inside me, reading the news and Facebooking to see what’s out there in the world, reading a few poems by someone I admire and feel inspired by, calling my dearest friend to discuss ideas that arise, and writing a draft of a poem. If I need to do research, I do it later, during the editing phase. I practice this routine nearly every morning except when my college teaching schedule gets too heavy. I also read often because I enjoy continual learning and growing and know it informs my writing.
CA: As a culmination of our discussion, I wonder if you could possibly pick a poem or passage from Bare Hands and talk about your aesthetic choices with regard to language, subjects, and form. And lastly, where are you going with your next project and artistic endeavors?
LR: “My Father the Bard” was a challenging and interesting poem to write.
MY FATHER THE BARD
The British say bonk, shag, chat her up. You
chat her up so you can bonk her. My father
is delighted. Princess Diana is bonking him,
but he’s shagging the other broad. Bonk, bonked,
has bonked. Shag, shagged, is shagging.
The Irish call it fecking or getting into your gowl.
Feck off, feck out, feck up, feck up up and away—
A dexterous reviler, he worked his sounds well,
hitting with iambs, maybe a spondee to wind up:
Cocksucking motherfucking dizzy little bastard.
Shut your fag hole, you mollycoddled can of piss.
No loving words for his namesake, who’d run to the arms of trees.
While I hid in our fort, my father’s words broke branches like fists.
Mom was keg legs, bitty titties, battleaxe bitch,
alliteration that cracked whips to strike and strip her
of her dignity. When I wasn’t cut by his words,
I was dazzled by their power to make her rage
and cry as she smashed commemorative ashtrays
over my father’s feet. And though I’d rooted for his head,
and Lincoln came close, she settled for his knees.
Nothing helped the void inside when he called me cunt,
slut, whore, slapper, scrubber, words that etched blue
tattoos even though I didn’t know their meaning.
He fumed at Eleanor of Abington who would gallivant
and waste money with friends, while he was stuck
at a desk in a government shithole buying
airplane parts for those who had adventures.
Worse, he would phone her all day to get an endless ring
fearing she’d flown abroad, left him for the handsome dentist
who wanted to spirit her away to Paris or Venice,
despite his best cadenced hate, words thrown to cripple,
yet compelling, alive—and worlds away
from everyday speech in pattern, variation. My ear
wholly open for collisions of sound—stupid git, brazen
brat, effin’ eejit, omadhan, his demand that we listen up,
choke down his filth, his droich-chaint digging
graves for us. Did he know his crude rhythms would forge
the spade I would use to dig my song free?
Once I learned about meter and realized my father’s cursing rants could be subjected to scansion, I understood why his use of foul language had always fascinated me. The poem conveys the duality of hating my father’s severe verbal abuse while being fascinated by his “poetic” use of language. My father’s words generally shaped my writing in that they both damaged and delighted me in childhood, entertained in a way like my Robert Louis Stephenson poetry book and my Dr. Seuss books.
Initially, I published the poem in free verse and then rewrote it in sestina form, which forced the narrative to open. With fresh material added to the original, I took the poem out of sestina form to tighten it. Regarding my aesthetic choices, alliterative sound greatly attracts me. I also use forms but mainly as vehicles, as parameters to get to a truth that I generally change back to free verse, which of course, is a form in itself, sprung from an inner organizational principle unique to any poet. With regard to subject, I enjoy conveying complex emotional characteristics in poems that are honest, brave, useful, and artful. In Bare Hands, I enjoyed revealing the multifarious nature of human beings, our interactions, and what drives us apart and brings us together in the family of things.
As for my next project, I recently sent a second full-length manuscript to a friend-editor to help in polishing the work for submission to presses. My subject matter in this second collection is (quite generally) love—of others, of country, of nature, of the damaged condition in which we find our world and many of the people in it. It has been argued that all poems are love poems, and I agree. So my next project is to keep on loving and writing about our imperfect world in hopes of affecting what change I can through the wonderful medium of poetry.