Devil’s Lake


Interview with Cynthia Marie Hoffman

Q: Your book, Sightseer, centers on travel and the place of the tourist in foreign landscapes. Could you talk about the origins of the book?

This book started in St. Petersburg, Russia, where I was taking a workshop with Sandra Gilbert as part of the Summer Literary Seminars. She asked us to write a St. Petersburg poem, and so I wrote "Dear Alexander Nevsky." I had just visited the monastery where the saint's relics were housed, and thanks to my handy guidebook, I had read the legend that he moved his hand while he was lying dead. This chilled me. I felt I had something to say to him; I felt close to him in the peculiar way you can feel close to a historical figure because you spent many hours walking a street named after him, because you read about him in a book.

I wrote two more poems to St. Petersburg while I was there, and once I got back home, I couldn't stop writing them. By the time I had arrived in Russia, I had already traveled through England, Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Portugal, Spain, France, Morocco, the Czech Republic, Poland, and Germany. So most of the poems in the manuscript were written at home from my own photographs and notebooks, as well as from well-thumbed guidebooks and additional new research. Writing from the past allowed me a necessary distance from the subject, and it meant that my original travel experience was not bogged down by the task of finding the poem.

The epistolary form allowed me to focus more on my relationship to the places I had visited rather than just on the place itself. Letter poems allowed me to fantasize that the places could actually receive my words, and that gave the poems a more urgent, driving purpose. You don't write a letter unless you have something to tell someone, and that's important to me—it respects the similar relationship between poet and reader.

Q: I understand you do quite a bit of research as you write. What's the role of research in your writing, and how do you move from reading material for research to actually writing poems that include that information?

I agree with the old creative writing adage "write what you know," but I don't think that we should feel limited by that statement – we can always know more. Writing is a partnership with the outside world, and even to write the most personal poems, we have to reach out to claim the things that populate them – light, trees, the history of another country.

Writing is a partnership with the outside world, and even to write the most personal poems, we have to reach out to claim the things that populate them—light, trees, the history of another country.

I think of a poem's beginnings as a mingling of several sources, my own mind being only one. I often begin on the page with a list of words I like, a description of the scientific explanation for how a fly can walk on glass, a picture pulled from the internet, a list of title ideas. Then I leave my sources and write, come back to my sources, leave them, come back, until I have a poem. This process means that my poems often capture my mind at the moment when I am first learning about something, when it is still magical.

For Sightseer, research was necessary because I had to get the facts right. But in learning about the history of a street name, Alexander Nevsky for example, I was often able to form the subject and shape of a poem. For my second manuscript, Paper Doll Fetus, I immersed myself in all things fetus – books on the history of midwifery and birth, articles about medical anomalies, television specials on life inside the womb. I feel at home writing this way – it's much more the life of a novelist in the sense that your subject and characters are always there to greet you when you sit down to write.

But research also has a place in poems that you wouldn't normally think of as being "researched" (back to the fly on the glass for a moment). For Paper Doll Fetus, I was writing a challenging poem about abortion, and it was important for me to have something else going on in the room – I ended up placing a fly at the window, and that little creature took on an important significance for me. The poem ends: "The fly drags the delicate hairs of its feet / across the glass a trail of sweaty little footprints." You'd think anyone knows enough about ordinary flies to write a couple lines without much effort. But the time I spent online studying fly anatomy (and the secretions on the pads of their feet which are partly responsible for flies' ability to walk on glass) expanded my imagination in an unexpected way. Without research, I never would have thought of a fly leaving behind sweaty footprints.

Q: This book is such a cohesive whole. It seems like "project" has become a pejorative term recently, but I really think your project takes up a series of questions, ideas, themes (particularly around travel, religion, and the way tourists move through foreign spaces) in a way that unifies the book without it ever becoming boring or claustrophobic. How do you balance wanting to write in a series, or wanting to write poems that hang together as a cohesive whole, without becoming repetitive or too "project-y?"

I am very interested in the book itself as the synergistic bonus poem that couldn't have been written alone. I may even be more interested in the idea of the book than I am the single poem. But in every case—writing or reading—the poem comes first. I think "project" has taken pejorative overtones lately because everyone seems to be doing it (a themed manuscript is an easy way to position yourself in the increasingly flooded contest circuit) and in some cases, the strength of the single poem suffers.

When writing sequences, the stakes are high. I spent a year writing about tuberculosis. Trashed all those poems. I spent many months devouring an ancient history of epilepsy. Wrote one poem. I spent another year writing a whole manuscript of prose poems. Trashed them all.

Once I started writing Sightseer, it was hard to stop. The possibilities for poems were endless. When I was writing Paper Doll Fetus, I felt a sudden invigorating culmination of all the years I'd been fascinated with medicine. When I was writing a manuscript about researching my family genealogy, I felt history stepping nearer such that I expected my great great great great grandfather's ghost at the foot of my bed.

Robert Frost said "No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader." This applies to the poetic sequence. And if you're not continually surprised, you have to be willing to lose it all.

Also, for the sake of the reader, you have to be open to cheating on the rules you set for yourself. In the beginning, almost all the poems in Sightseer were letters, they were almost all written in couplets, and the manuscript was structured as a travelogue – all the poems about the Czech Republic, for example, were grouped together. Eventually, I realized that although these constraints had been useful for generating poems, they made for a far more tedious read. I had to find the form which best served each poem, and I had to listen to the ways poems were speaking to each other on the level of argument.

Also, for the sake of the reader, you have to be open to cheating on the rules you set for yourself.

The poems truly took shape as a book when I understood that I was trying to say something about the tension inherent in being a tourist. I wanted to show how awkward and revelatory it can be, how simultaneously kitschy and profound. What truly makes a sequence of poems cohere is not that they are similar in subject or shape, but that they work together to form a global argument. That's the meat and bones of the thing. Everything else just makes it pretty.

Q: I'm also wondering how your interest in poems that work in sequence affects how you read poetry or what you want from a book of poems.

I am drawn to books which evidence the author's attention to the book. I get a kick out of a sequence of poems. I'm in awe when the poems keep surprising me. Goest and The Glass Age by Cole Swensen. Deepstep Come Shining by C.D. Wright. National Anthem by Kevin Prufer. After reading The Blizzard Voices by Ted Kooser, I had a nightmare that a wall of snow slammed into my porch.

I do enjoy settling down with a book in the way that one can never truly settle down with just one poem. I often feel jolted if a collection seems too casually assembled. It's not that all the poems must be on the same subject but that the poet must have something to tell me on the level of the book, whether it's a political assertion or a subtle tonal experience. I am most delighted when the book makes an argument in addition to the argument each poem makes separately.

Q: I'd like to talk about the position or identity of the speaker in these poems. We learn about her primarily through what she notices and what she chooses to record, and because the speaker herself is so elusive, when we get a small personal revelation (as in “Rain at the Dresdner Frauenkirche”: “I was baptized / Lutheran, with an understanding of the heritable sin, the root / and fountainhead of all sins”), it's kind of a delightful surprise. So how did you think about where to place the speaker of these poems? Did you consciously play to avoid writing more “personal” poems?

Noticing and recording are ultimately autobiographical acts; what we pluck from the world betrays our deepest sensibilities. So while these poems do look outward more than inward, I still think of them as personal. While the occasion of the poem may have been a cathedral or a starfish, it is also on a deeper level about the struggle to find my identity in the very dichotomous arena of tourism.

Tourists are inherently cordoned off as outsiders (or outcasts) – there are endless ways to ensure that we are shuffled through a very isolating and commoditized experience. Yet, despite finding the random souvenir sweatshirt deeply irresistible, I was also having a profound, even spiritual experience.

In a sense, stating that I was baptized Lutheran was a means to justify my right to feel connected to the ruins of that church in a more meaningful way than is often granted the tourist. It was a way of excusing myself from being an outsider.

I do think that no matter the external subject, the universal human element is essential to the poem; otherwise, why do we care to read it? I am more interested in the human ideas about things than the things themselves. A poem is an idea. At its best, a poem is an argument. Even a single image is an argument for a particular way of seeing, and that is, though we don't always acknowledge it, a very personal thing.

CYNTHIA MARIE HOFFMAN is the author of Sightseer, winner of the Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize in Poetry. A former Diane Middlebrook Poetry Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and the recipient of a Wisconsin Arts Board Individual Artist Fellowship, Cynthia's work has appeared in Pleiades, Mid-American Review, Fence, and Crab Orchard Review.