Kristy Bowen & Cynthia Manick: A Conversation

CM: So what does the word “Salvage” mean to you and how did it become the title of the collection?

KB: I had been thinking terribly literal (as I always maddeningly do…lol) about “salvage” as the things that get taken from a wreck, the leftovers of a disaster. I guess I didn’t even think about the second meaning — that it also means “to save” until I read the blurb that Laura Madeline Wiseman wrote for me that mentioned it. Since mermaids featured prominently, “salvage” was obviously a sound choice, but other sections of the book, that are definitely more landlocked, sort of resonate with both definitions, whether it’s the “wreck” of illness or bad relationships or just situations that don’t work out in an ideal way.

CM: Both of our books have a strong connection to “body” whether it’s a mermaid in fo0bowenamy lingerie, a woman growing birds in her chest, or the realization that body can be armor or a pathway. How does “body” inform your work and what impression of “body” should readers leave with?

KB: I feel like this whole book is about the body that is endangered, whether it’s the illness-guided poems in the first section or the mermaid guide poems in the last section. There’s endangerment, but also transformation, sometimes through that very same endangerment, particularly in the “ghost landscape” series. I feel like the body in these poems is always at odds with everything, the mind, the language, the environment, probably more so than anything else I’ve ever written.

KB: When I’m reading, I keep thinking your concept of “body” is almost inseparable from language and history, more maybe more of a deep entanglement..I’d also be interested to know how would you describe the “body” in your work as well.

CM: For me body is the first thing people see when they look at you; its color, shape, height, and from there they judge you. Now sometimes the judgment is innocuous – oh she’s a woman, oh she’s brown, oh she reminds me of xyz but at the other times it can be harsh – oh she’s too brown, she’s not that attractive, she has nothing of importance to say, etc. Then the body becomes how you judge yourself, – you walk taller, you slump, you know your best outfit, you model behavior based on levels of safety, and you’re uniquely aware of every exit in a room. In my book, the body is endangered but is aware of its endangerment. So in the poems, the body questions, posits, celebrates, and it mourns.

KB: When reading BH, I was struck so intensely by the lush sensuousness of the first section of poems, the writing so bodily present, but also swimming amidst history, both on a grand scale and a more familial scale. As I moved through the book, I almost got the 0kristysense of a widening lens—first the body and the individual, the sensory, out on through the family and society and history. By the end of the book, you are dealing with larger universal questions and epistemology. Was this intentional? How did you decide the order in which the sections occur? How did you decide on the overall organization of the manuscripts?

CM: When I writing Blue Hallelujahs, I didn’t know I was writing Blue Hallelujahs (lol, if that makes sense). So the poems came first and arrangement came second. I was writing poems sparked by some thing, phrase or memory and then as time went by I was thinking of the speaker’s place in the world. So the poems contain multiple geographies and lenses. And you’re right, in the beginning our world is so small, we only know what surrounds us. But then you look to your senses and that expands, then what expands, expands again to witness. I definitely learned from poets like Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon and Nikky Finney who taught me to think of the speaker and what’s outside the speaker as two parts happening simultaneously. When organizing the book, it really came down to which poems talked to each other but I knew I wanted to end on “Blue Hallelujahs from the Hands.” Surprisingly the order of the sections came easily like plot points along a curved line, but order within the sections was more difficult. I have to thank Leigh Stein and Brooklyn Poets for their helicopter view because at one point I was just too close to it. Having other poets read it in its entirety helped me decide the organization and remove poems that tripped when reading.

CM: It was difficult for me to think of my work visually when it came to my cover art. What about you? Was your cover art a journey and what was thinking behind it?

KB: Since I bounce back and forth between writing and visual art and do so many cover designs for dancing girl press, it’s usually almost second nature to me, but weirdly, I was drawing a total blank on this project. I thought about just a lot of blue, watercolor abstract seascapes, something oceany. I initially didn’t want a mermaid at all because it seemed so literal. Around the time we started thinking about the cover, also been totally jonesing to get an old-school Sailor Jerry mermaid tattoo somewhere on me (it would be my first, so I’m still procrastinating even now.). When Diane asked me what I was thinking, I sort of offered it off the cuff but was totally convinced when she sent me some options. I mean, really, what is more bodily than a tattoo? She did amazing work with the text and the banner and the whole thing turned out more beautiful than I could have imagined.

KB: Your cover design is so beautiful and so perfect. How did you decide to use that particular piece?

CM: I’ll admit it was tough. I knew I wanted a woman because the books’ identity is formed around woman, body, memory, and race. I wanted a woman looking toward or away because there’s a duality in the word Hallelujah – its praise and its lament and you can’t have one without the other, and you can’t go forward without knowing how to go back. Diane gave me the option of finding my own cover art or having Black Lawrence design something. So I was researching and I had to come to terms with the fact that Blue Hallelujahs isn’t a “light” book (lol) There is definitely levity and joy, but I knew the cover color palette couldn’t be purple, yellow or pink – it just didn’t fit 😉 Then I found the artist Ify Chiejina and she had a gorgeous piece that stopped me in my tracks and it was unavailable (gasp) but she was willing to draw me something similar. So I sent her a picture of my Mom in her 20’s and a couple of chapters from the book. She created silhouette and pattern that’s on the cover. But then Diane, Amy and had to agree on the color palette which took a couple of weeks. I know appreciate all shades of blue!
CM: Tell me about the making of house made of mothers
Sometimes, mother is a nesting doll, a doll-faced mess,
feral beneath her skin and skimping on potatoes.
Sometimes she’s a hotel fire, and I’m on the wrong side
of the door.

KB: The series of poems about houses is very much about houses as actual location, as place, and as a more abstract concept of “home”. So many of us have complicated relationships with our mother’s in terms of body image and eating, so this poem stems from that. The image of the nesting doll at the beginning seemed perfect, how the larger body can be reduced and made smaller and yet somehow still live inside the larger, almost as if women, especially those who have fluctuations in body weight, can have all of these smaller women existing simultaneously inside her. My own mother once stood in front of mirror and admitted that she had never in her whole life been happy in her own body and it kills me. This poems is sort of a dialogue with that.

KB:I feel like place plays such an important role in this book… Can you talk a bit about where you grew up? Where you write from? Places that inspire your work? (past or current)

CM: The poems are set in different parts of the North and South. I was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, but my parents and relatives are all from South Carolina. So I remember traveling down South on the greyhound bus with my mother. And even though my parents are separated, when they see each other, they always end up talking about who’s alive or dead from back home. (lol) So in a lot of the poems the speaker is looking back, trying to create a tapestry or trace an origin story from overheard conversations, imagined events, recipes, and music. In other poems, the speaker is in Brooklyn or up north and the actions in those poems follows the geography. Also kitchens appear a lot in my work, you’d be surprised at how many things come together and break apart in kitchens.

CM: In the poem codex the love of language is apparent to the reader as you describe perfect words. “I write glottal but I mean goldfish . . Butterfly becoming butter knife becoming flying buttress.” What are some your personal perfect words? Are their words you avoid? One of mine was peaches . . . I used it all the time until someone pointed it out me.

KB: I have certain words I use way too much—girl, dress(es), dark, throat, water. I am conscious of them now and try to be sparing, but they’re still there in places. One of my favorite words is “dulcet” which I use as a name for my online shop, but have never used in a poem because it seems weirdly pretentious and too “poetic.” I think as I get older, I have more and more odd mental misfirings where I can’t recall the perfect word for things, which is where the boggled language in the radio ocularia section stems from.

CM: Your book is a mixture of the physical and the ethereal with lines like “my mouth spewing wildflowers” in contrast to “if only I can sleep late and break shit” (which I love by the way!). How do a balance the real with the fantastical? Is it a conscious decision?

KB: I sometimes say I’ve spent the last 20 years writing poetry that is attempting to get away from, well, poetry. My initial impulse is to fill every piece with as much image as I can layer on, and the prettier the image, the better. Since I have a tendency to do that, I try to balance it with the opposite as much as I can. If I can strike a balance between the “poetic” and the sort of normal stuff that comes out of my mouth on a daily basis, as mundane or crude as it may be, I find I’m happier with the work.

KB: There is so much music here, some of which I’m familiar with and some I went of searching for as I was reading. A publisher I worked with a couple years back (Sundress Publications) had their authors make a mix-tape of musical influences, a sort of soundtrack for our books after publication. I’d be so curious to see your list for this project, including both things already explicitly named and others behind the scenes.

CM: Music is such a big part of my writing life. I usually have it on while I’m writing and when I think of life events, it’s music that I remember first. There are a couple of artists and songs mentioned in the book: Etta James “Groove Me”, Koko Taylor “I’m a Woman”, Louis Jordan “Ain’t You My Baby,” Ella Fitzgerald “Summertime”, Cab Calloway “Minnie the Moocher,” and “Down Down Baby” is chant we used to sing in elementary school; it’s a clapping game. In passing I mention Lena Horne, Diane Ross, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker because those are the artists I’d hear on the radio when the elders got together. But there are also phrases that are sung but aren’t necessarily song like I’ll be your Clementine which is play on “Oh My Darlin Clementine”.

KB:I find the rhythm and internal music so beautifully wrought in your work. Do you compose out loud or more visually when you form your lines?

CM: I actually don’t compose out loud; it’s always via paper from one image to the next. In real life I’m a fast talker (I think I get that from my mom). So I’m careful with line breaks, so that when I’m reading the poem, I know not to read it too fast. Visually I’m also looking at line length because that can inform the breath. For me couplets equals fast past, blocks of texts means “I’m working stuff out” and tercets are usually a rolling narrative. After a poem is page ready, then I’ll start reading out loud and realize yes this part works or no this line feels uneven, or this word feels too rough for a particular line. Luckily the actions of my poet brain equals a poem with rhythm.

CM: I always consider every poem I’ve written a part of me, almost like a baby and you can’t have a favorite baby 😉 That being said, what’s your favorite poem in Salvage? Is there a lynchpin poem; the poem that made you nod and say “this is definitely a collection?”

KB: Oh yeah, that’s tough. I think I can look at older books and say that this or that poem is something that I like better than others, but that’s only after time. My first book, the fever almanac, which was published in 2006 has only a couple of pieces I look at now and think they are solid and the rest are annoying in some way. With SALVAGE, it’s all still pretty new, the majority of those poems having been written in the past 4 or so years, so I’m not sick of them yet.lol. I think the “care and feeding of mermaids” segments in the last section are my favorites though, and the entirety of that section holds the entire book together. I tend to work in small series that I usually publish in small edition zines alongside visual components, so the majority of my longer projects are these small projects stitched together based on similar themes and feel. Only when these smaller projects start to constellate somehow, do I start thinking about pulling them together.

CM: This is your second book with Black Lawrence Press, so I’m curious about your writing practice. I recently attended a talk with the talented Shonda Rhimes who said that you have write everyday and writing is a muscle. Do you agree?

KB: Definitely But like exercising daily I don’t manage to do that very well..lol.. Writing takes a backseat to all the other things I have to do in a day, be they the things required to make a living (I work full-time in an academic library) or other things I do out of passion but that require a big time commitment (like running dancing girl press as a one woman operation). Add in errands, bus commutes to and fro, sleep, etc, writing is the bottom priority and sometimes at the end of the day I’d just rather go to sleep. I had some good momentum going when I wrote the first book Black Lawrence (it was my MFA thesis and, at the time, the third full-length I’d completed.) The books since then have been slower going..I’ll go through spurts where I’m writing and finishing projects, and then months of writing very little. But even if I’m not writing myself, do get to spend a lot of time with the press immersed in other people’s work. I also am usually working visually (I dedicate my weekends to art-related projects, usually collage, but lately painting) so I keep the creative impulses flowing even if I’m not getting things down on paper.

KB: Can you also tell me a bit about your processes as a writer? Do you write daily? What is the spark that sets a poem in motion? How much revision tends to happen after that spark, or do things arrive more or less intact? Has your process changed over time?

CM: I know we’re supposed to have as many hours as Beyoncé but maybe poets need extra hours? I don’t write creatively daily. By day I work at a nonprofit, where I edit and do critical writing. I’m also involved with Jamii publishing and the Soul Sister Revue reading series. So when I’m not writing, I’m engaged creatively. I honestly write best when I’m in workshop or I have a deadline, without a deadline I think I’d over edit and no poems would get finished (lol). In terms of what sets a poem in motion – it’s usually a word or idea that I can’t shake. Images arrive intact but arrangement and focus can take awhile to come together. I have learned to put a poem away after its done. Many of time’s I’ve written something and thought it was great, 24 hours later I realized that it doesn’t work because of a, b or c. My process hasn’t changed that much, but I do send poems for feedback more than I used to; poems can’t live in a vacuum,

CM: As a writer, what experiences have shaped you the most? Is there advice from a writer that served as light bulb moment?

KB: In 1998, I was 23 and taking lit seminar in 20th Century British authors and got to spend a good amount of time with Eliot’s The Wasteland. I had been writing for several years at that point, but not very well, and while I was a grad student in lit and could talk to you endlessly about Bronte novels and feminist theory, outside of a bit of Plath and Sexton, I wasn’t all that acquainted with more contemporary poetry at all and it showed. I had only that spring began reading more current women writers–Louise Gluck, Jorie Graham, Rita Dove, Anne Carson–and those influences combined with the Eliot, sort of formed my poetics for a time and actually made me much, much better as a writer. It was still a few years before I started publishing on the regular and another 5 years until my first book was accepted, but I think of that period as setting the groundwork for whatever my “voice” became as a writer.

KB: What are your three greatest influences (writing, other arts, etc.)? What are 3 current authors or books you are loving now?
CM: In terms of a single writer, I’d have to say Lucille Clifton because she was so great a filling small spaces with infinite emotion. In terms of writing, the workshop experience has really influenced me because I’ve taken workshops with great teachers along with other poets, who were eager to learn and create communities within communities. You forget that people can be magic until you’re in a room and things click. I’ve been lucky to have a lot of clickable moments. Lastly, I want to buy a round for libraries because that’s where I discovered books. I also learned it was okay to be quiet and think because with words you can go anywhere (okay now the theme to Reading Rainbow is in my head lol). Authors I’m loving right now – Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib, Robin Coste-Lewis, and just started reading the graphic novel adaptation of Octavia Butler’s Kindred.

KB: What are you working on currently?

CM: I have such a backlog of poems that I started and I need to finish. I just finished a poetry fellowship at the Poets House, so I have poems from that class that are on the editing block and an entire page of prompts given to me by Adam Fitzgerald. I have about 45 to 50 poems outside of Blue Hallelujahs, and I think I was in denial, but I’m pretty sure these poems are on the way to being book number 2. I’m still waiting for the light bulb moment. A while ago I found a 1940 census report that listed my grandmother in her early 20’s, so I’m interested in poems serving as a type of census report or found literature focusing on identity and femininity. Maybe poets are really under cover anthropologists. If people 100 years from now, found our poetry, I wonder what they would say?

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