A Virtual Interview with Cheney Crow

Poet Cheney G. Crow will be the featured reader on September 10, 2015 from 7:15 to 9:00 at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar) for September’s 2nd Thursday Poetry Reading and Open Mic.

Background

Cheney Crow began writing as a young girl in Washington DC.  She earned her BA at Sarah Lawrence College, and in 2014 she completed her MFA in poetry at the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers, The hiatus between arts degrees included more than a decade in Europe, a PhD in Applied Linguistics, and many years of teaching at UT.

In the last year Cheney’s poems have appeared in The Cortland Review, the online journal Human Equity through Art (HEART), the arts magazine Terminus, and Tupelo Quarterly, where her poem was a semifinalist in theTQ7 contest, and will be included in the anthology Best of Tupelo Quarterly. Her ekphrastic poem “Execution at the Temple” was selected for honorable mention in the 2014 Maine Media Character Contest. Last fall Cheney gave a workshop called “Claiming Collective Wisdom” at the Austin Feminist Poetry Festival. In 2016 one of her poems will appear in the Texas Poetry Calendar.

The Interview

CH: How long have you been writing? When did you first begin to think of yourself as a writer?

CC: I first remember writing in second grade, a “book” (based on Nancy Drew), called “The Mystery of the Hidden Staircase.”  I bound the pages by hand, drew a cover illustration and took it to school, where I added a library-style card that allowed my classmates to check it out. About the staircase – IT was hidden, but not in the sense one might think — one day it was missing! Ah, suspension of disbelief…

CH: II understand you spent many years as a sculptor. I also know that you have a PhD in Applied Linguistics, in addition to your arts degrees (including your MFA in poetry). As an artist, how would you describe yourself?

CC: I don’t believe one chooses art;  I believe art imposes itself, announces itself as a compulsion, something that must emerge. The form art takes is personal, and might be based on opportunity.

For me it was dance and music early on. I began writing songs as a 10-year-old, when I got my first guitar, so if you don’t count my spontaneous public ballet performances for my parents’ friends or my highly vocal enactments of my mother’s favorite opera arias (death scenes of the female leads in Madame Butterfly, Tosca and La Bohème)…I’d say performing music for wounded veterans air-evacuated to military hospitals in the DC area was the beginning.

By the time I was a senior in high school I was writing essays about the role of the artist in society.  The main argument of these essays was that the artist has a responsibility to society.  In a world where total annihilation was possible, I argued that the artist must present work that the public can both understand and participate in — that public interaction with art creates a dialogue necessary to society.  All this before I considered myself an artist.  I was preoccupied with the anti-war movement, politically active, working summers at the Capitol.  I got permission to spend the first anniversary of MLK’s death in my dorm room meditating and reading Gandhi.  I was a high school senior.

I still believe all those things. The critical decision in my life was the shift in focus from politics to art as a vehicle for change.  This happened when I was in my early 20s — I realized the inconsistencies and the ephemeral nature of political movements and attitudes; I began to believe that change can only come one person at a time. I looked to what lasts over centuries, and can change a life.  The answer was art.

Until this time I was performing music, learning sculpture, but my focus had been political. When I chose sculpture as a way of life, it was also because the pursuit of art is an evolving question; each piece leads inexorably to the next, in ways grossly evident in sculpture; one can begin with a two-ton piece of stone and keep revising until it fits in a pocket!  The challenge is stopping.  That’s true in all arts.  Carving stone, your second draft is a new sculpture, begun with what you learned by the end of the first one – how it should have begun, or what should be altered, how or when it should end.

CH: For me, image and sound in poetry can inform it in a way that seems similar to material choice in sculpture. How would you describe the relationship between sculpture and poetry? How does your experience as a sculptor figure in your work?

CC: Sculpture in stone is a full-body experience.  That’s not part of poetry, but all the rest of sculpture is: choice of subject matter, line-by-line decisions, rhythm of form and coherence of line, a certain inevitability that should emanate from the piece — the need not to have a favorite side, section, or line.

In the carving process there are many tools, each with a different rhythm, so rhythm is part of sculpture, too. Sculpture shapes my poetry: all my poems begin as image and feeling, not words.  I seek words to embody the image, but I don’t feel a need to be totally clear.  I know that comes from my training in sculpture —“if you have to explain it, you haven’t finished”…

I like making something that engages the reader, viewer, listener, with something recognizable, but with room for interpretation. A sculpture does that: it’s an offering.  A viewer can see it all at once, or look into its lines and shadows, its many angles, its subtleties.  It’s all about discovery, despite the obvious form.

CH: I recall Gertrude Stein attributing the expatriate environment of France with helping her distill and create English anew in her work. Were you engaged in creative writing during your many years abroad? How did your expatriate experience influence your relationship with language?

CC: Goodness, yes (was I engaged in writing)!  Writing has always been how I kept track of my emotional world, which was constantly changing. I have an essay on 2 rolls of floral-bordered paper towels about the nefarious influence politics of the cold war would have on love. I knew everyone at my school would melt if Washington were bombed.  I wrote that essay as a suicide note in seventh grade!

When I moved to France I was 19. I stayed in Europe for all but one semester until I was in my mid thirties. Before email or cell phones.  Eight of those years were in France, six without speaking English.  Although I was fluent in French at an academic level when I arrived (Sarah Lawrence required fluency for working individually with French professors) —I could read and discuss Marx or Plato or Jean-Jacques Rousseau — I was not fluent in culture or identity.

Joining another culture is the ultimate work of translation, finding a “voice” for your self – your cultural equivalent — in a somewhat familiar, but truly unknown environment.  One begins from scratch.  This was self-evident in France and Spain, but England took me by surprise.  A very different language from American, even East Coast/New England American, and a culture far more foreign to my upbringing than France.  I moved to Spain aware of the challenge, and welcomed it.  One becomes a bit of a chameleon, I suppose, fitting oneself to each culture in ways that are most comfortable, with the perennial “get out of jail free” card of being a foreigner if one guesses wrong.

CH: How is your training as a linguist reflected in your poetry? Are there linguists whose work you would cite as an influence?

CC: My focus in linguistics was phonetics and neurolinguistics —  specifically speech production, a miraculous dialogue of the brain with all our articulators, a dialogue that differentiates for each language, each set of speech sounds. The rules that govern them, their order, their melody and rhythm.  I love the discoveries of language at both extremes, the physical and the philosophical.

As influences I’d cite Bjorn Lindblom, Harvey Sussman and Peter MacNeilage for opening my mind to phonetics, neurolinguistics, language acquisition, and speech production, then Wittgenstein because of his interest in the relationship between language, culture and thought, a sort of chicken-and-egg question, since the vocabulary and gestures of each language describe relationships that are often intrinsic to the social and cultural ethos it enacts.  Every bilingual person knows there are thoughts you won’t have in a language that has no word for it – that a language is a doorway to a new relationship with both the physical world and the humans around you.  We’ve all heard about the many words for snow in Eskimo.  It’s that kind of thing: what you can conceive of is limited by the words and concepts we have at our disposal! Wittgenstein says it well. Of course, in German you can invent a word if you need it.  In English we do less of that, use the same word for multiple contexts, like “like”… a paring down of expressive vocabulary is hard at work in our American language. Did Hemingway start that trend with his abbreviated syntax?

CH: What launched you on a trajectory toward poetry? What made you decide to get an MFA?

CC: My mother launched me. She was very musical, and she loved poetry.  She read to me rhythmically. Long before I could read she insisted I learn and recite poems by heart at every occasion: birthdays, holidays, bedtime.

I began writing my own poems in grade school, and never stopped, although I kept sculpture and music in the foreground of my artistic expression.  All that ended with my arm injury, which required a new career and a different arm. Hence the linguistics, which (barely) paid the bills but never fed me as an artist.  When I couldn’t draw, carve, or play music, writing became my primary expressive mode.  The compulsion to art was instantly limited to writing, which, over time, refined itself, but I knew I lacked craft.

Having assiduously devoted myself to the craft skills of the arts I had practiced professionally (music and figurative sculpture), I knew craft was the path to more options, better tools, for what I had to express.  I think that’s true of all arts.  Anyone can have a moment of inspiration that produces something magical.  I’ve seen it happen – a composer who wakes up in the night with an entire piece in a dream.  Lots of musicians talk about that gift.  But writing it down takes a set of skills.  So does improving the work we generate in poems.

As soon as my daughter finished graduate school, and I could quit teaching, I devoted myself full time to learning craft.  I approached it as a beginner learning piano scales. I went to workshops with experienced poets, beginning with a Sarah Lawrence professor, until finally I was working with Ellen Bryant Voigt, founder of Warren Wilson College, who encouraged me to apply. I had taken workshops with three poets who had said the same thing. It was time.

CH: How did you go about choosing Warren Wilson for your MFA program?

CC: I knew Warren Wilson was the right place for me because equal weight is given to craft analysis and creative work. There is a huge analytical focus that forces students to delve deep into a single craft features in one poem, sometimes even one stanza. Working one-on-one is what I knew as an undergrad, and Warren Wilson sustains a blend of brilliance, rigor, and freedom of investigation reminiscent of what I had fallen in love with at Sarah Lawrence.

At Warren Wilson there isn’t just one star teacher; they are all brilliant poets and demanding teachers, pushing students to discovery through extremely hard work. A different mentor each semester helps you design and carry out a program that adapts your individual writing needs and goals to the program’s analytical exigencies.

I could describe my experience as something akin to being pushed out a high window by someone with a net you can’t see. The student body was as astounding and varied as the faculty.  I felt myself a newt among ancient frogs; most of my fellow students were new BFAs or English PhDs, long-time poetry profs.  Very deep water. Thankfully, about a quarter of us were less-versed professionals from non-English-major backgrounds.

CH: Name three or more poets whose work has influenced your own. How can their influence be seen in your work?

CC: My earliest influence was Akmatova.  I began reading her work in college, and it’s obvious now that her raw emotions and compact, image-laden small stanzas shaped what my work would become years later.  More recently, I would say Frank Bidart, for his ability to use multiple voices, the seamless interweave of emotion and idea. Finally, I’ll name Ilya Kaminsky, for what feels like a sprinkling of magic that renders even poems about Soviet atrocities beautiful to read. This brings me to a fourth poet I want to name, my friend and classmate Laura Swearingen-Steadwell, a Cave Canem Fellow known on the slam circuit as Laura Yes-Yes.  Laura said something in a workshop at Frost Place last month about how dark poems need a “release valve.” Just the right word.  What I’m looking for lately.

CH: What’s the most recent book of poetry you’ve read?

CC: Last Psalm at Sea Level  by Meg Day, who read at Bookwoman in July. Her images are extraordinary, and even her titles are compelling.  The poems themselves are as evocative and other-worldly as some of Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s, yet they are grounded in a terse, tense field of reality. Impressive.

CH: What are you working on now? Where do you see your work going?

CC: I have a book-length manuscript that follows something of a narrative arc around a particular theme.  I’ve been sending it out, but I’ve also come to believe it needs a lot more work, or that I’d like to reshape it.

Currently I’m focusing on a series of poems that came out of the two months I’ve spent in Valencia, Spain over the last year, and where I’m returning mid-September. My experience there was equally external and internal.  Living in a city founded long before the Roman empire, in a building with a convent, during months laced with enormous religious celebrations, day-long processions honoring Christianity and Valencia’s Moorish history, it was impossible not to address questions of history and faith.  I believe these poems will become at least a chapbook within the next year. That’s the goal I’ve set for this work.  I never know where the work is going.  I follow it as it comes and then do my best to craft it.  For some poems the process takes years.

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