Poet Cindy St.John is the author of the newly-released collection Dream Vacation, published by H_NGM_N Books, as well as four chapbooks: I Wrote This Poem (Salt Hill), Be the Heat (Slash Pine Press), City Poems (Effing Press), and People Who Are In Love Will Read This Book Differently (Dancing Girl Press). . She holds an MFA from Western Michigan University. She lives in Austin, Texas, where she teaches at a public school.
CH: I’m always interested in how writers get started on the path. How did you first become interested in writing? When did you start thinking of yourself as a writer?
CS: In elementary school, my teachers often praised my writing, so I guess I just assumed that writing was something I was good at and therefore something I should do. However, I didn’t think of myself as a writer until I was much older.
CH: When did you start to write poetry? How was your identity as a poet forged?
CS: I can’t remember when I started writing poems. I think poetry has always been a part of my life. Just the other day my mom gave me a book of poetry I made in the fifth grade. It was illustrated, bound with a plastic clip and I even invented a publisher. Most of the poems were about puppies and trees. I became a serious reader of poetry as a teenager. I used to skip class to go to the library to read Sylvia Plath and Allen Ginsberg. This makes me laugh now. I did not identify myself as a poet until my mid-twenties. Then, I lived in a small city in Michigan where many other writers lived and people identified each other by what they wrote. People called me a poet, so I started calling myself a poet.
CH: How did you select Western Michigan University for your MFA? What were your expectations of the program before you entered it? Did it deliver?
CS: I applied to Western Michigan because former professor suggested it. I didn’t have any expectations for graduate school and I’m still not really sure why I applied. I just wanted to get out of Texas and live in a small apartment by myself where I could think and write. It was clear during my first few classes that it was going to require quite a bit more work than that because I was severely unprepared. I had not read many contemporary poets and I didn’t have the vocabulary of my classmates. But at Western Michigan my professors and fellow writers were kind and it wasn’t competitive like many other MFA programs. They really helped me become a better reader, and introduced me to so many writers that have influenced me.
CH: I understand you were a Millay Colony artist-in-residence in 2013. What did that experience bring to your work?
CS: The Millay Colony helped my feel validated as a writer, like if a foundation was willing to support my work, then maybe the work had value. It was a wonderful experience to spend my days living in Edna St. Vincent Millay’s barn and walking in her garden, then have dinner every night with other writers and artists.
CH: You have four chapbooks: I Wrote This Poem (Salt Hill), Be the Heat (Slash Pine Press), City Poems (Effing Press), and People Who Are In Love Will Read This Book Differently (Dancing Girl Press). How has your work evolved through these collections?
CS: The chapbook format is what I write in naturally; for whatever form or subject I am working with, 25 pages is usually a good length. So, I just keep writing them. Each of my four chapbooks feels like it has its own identity, but I do see an evolution. I am a writer very centered in place. I think my poems have evolved from a physical place to the poem as place, and that is reflected stylistically as well.
CH: How did you first conceive of your collection, Dream Vacation? How were you drawn to the haibun form for this work?
CS: Dream Vacation took a long time to write, and that is because, as I have said, I usually write in shorter formats. My time at the Millay Colony helped me to write poems as a longer work. I actually printed out all the poems and arranged them on the wall, then I found some pink butcher paper and literally mapped out the poems into a structure. At times it felt forced for me to write a full-length collection, but I don’t feel that way about the finished book. Now, it feels solid.
CH: Dream Vacation was a finalist for the 2015 TS Book Prize from Tarpaulin Sky, part of whose tag line is “Lovely Monstrous Hybrid Texts, Amen.” When did you first become interested in hybrid forms? As a poet, what do hybrid forms of poetry deliver that non-hybrid forms lack?
CS: For me, hybrid forms, particularly the haibun, allow me to write more closely to the way I think. We spend our days in prose: we make coffee, go to work, do the dishes, etc. But there are also small moments of beauty that open to us throughout the day, and I experience those moments in verse. Neither has more value than the other, hence, why I write in both prose and verse.
CH: We met in Hoa Nguyen’s workshop here in Austin, an incredibly rich environment. In what other ways have you nurtured yourself as a writer since finishing your MFA?
CS: In Kalamazoo, I was nurtured by such a rich community of writers. I was nervous about finding and meeting other writers in Austin outside of the university. At some point, probably as AWP, I picked up some beautiful chapbooks from Effing Press and shortly before moving, I saw that they were based in Austin so I emailed the editor, Scott Pierce. Right away, he asked me to give a reading with some other poets at 12th Street Books. There I met poets Hoa Nguyen, Dale Smith, the artist Philip Trussel, and later Farid Matuk, Susan Briante and Kyle Schlesinger, all of whom very much influenced have influenced my work. When many of those writers left Austin, I started a reading series, Fun Party, with Dan Boehl and I published an art and poetry publication called Headlamp as a way to keep myself connected to the writing community.
CH: What role does poetry take in your work as a teacher? Is it something your students resist? Embrace?
CS: Honestly, I think my students like poetry because they know I love poetry so much. I teach wonderfully open-minded and open-hearted teenagers, and when I am passionate about a text, they are excited about it too
CH: Who are some of your favorite poets? What’s the most recent book of poetry you’ve read?
CS: Favorite poets: Frank O’Hara, Brenda Coultas, Mary Ruefle, Frank Stanford, Jack Spicer, Kate Greenstreet, Alice Notley, James Schuyler and all of my friends. I often wonder how I have come to know so many amazing writers. I recently read two books: Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong and The Market Wonders by Susan Briante, both books I admire.