In 2022, the Academy of American Poets invited twelve poets to each curate a month of poems. In this short Q&A, Cynthia Hogue discusses her curatorial approach and her own creative work.
Poets.org: Welcome to the Guest Editor Q&A, hosted by the Academy of American Poets. I’m Mary Sutton, senior content editor at the Academy, and I’m here today with the Guest Editor for September, Cynthia Hogue. Cynthia is the author of In June the Labyrinth, Instead, It Is Dark, and Contain. Hello, Cynthia, and welcome.
Cynthia Hogue: Hello, Mary. Thank you. Thank you. I’m so glad to be here.
Poets.org: And we’re so glad to have you. Let us please jump right in, shall we? How did you approach curating Poem-a-Day for September?
Hogue: Well, I approach curating Poem-a-Day as being on an exploratory journey. I tend to be an eclectic reader of poetry, and I’m interested in having a sense of the rich and diverse range of poetry being published in the U.S., including translations. Thanks to the pandemic, there was a multitude of Zoom readings offered around the country that I could catch, which I otherwise would maybe not have known about or have been able to attend.
I listened differently last year because I was open to discovering the work of poets I’d never read before or heard read. I also thought long and hard about a theme or a concern that might determine the range of poems I began to gather. Very generally, I realized that poems were often linked by their sense of urgency because of how the last two years have felt.
For some time, I’ve dwelled on a question Brenda Hillman asked in Practical Water: How do we live a moral life? That question I’ve just gone back to again and again, and it never fails to move me. I was interested to see how a range of poets, from debut collections to mature poets well along in their careers, responded in spirit to that question and processed living through our fraught times.
Poets.org: Interesting. We may return to that question about morality in poetry a little bit later because it does interest me. For now, if you could direct readers to one poem in our collection at Poets.org that you haven’t curated, what would it be and why?
Hogue: Well, because of the ongoing war in Ukraine this year, I’ve returned to Ilya Kaminsky’s “In a Time of Peace” recently and recommend it now. Written well before the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, the poem is actually responding with power and nuance to the racialized violence that has characterized the U.S. in what is, but is not, really, a peaceful time. The emotions and insights seem analogous to me.
Actually, along those lines, I’d like to add that I have also returned to Afaa Michael Weaver’s, luminous poem “Midnight Air in Louisville,” dedicated to the memory of Breonna Taylor; and Pierre Joris’s poem, “September 14th, On Dante’s Death Day,” which becomes, with such exquisite eco-outrage, a piercing meditation on the paradise of Earth that we’ve made a purgatory and are in the process of turning into a hell. So, little bit of cheating there, perhaps, Mary, but I found all these poems powerful and more, but these to name today.
Poets.org: Indeed, indeed. For those who are interested, Ilya Kaminsky was Guest Editor for Poem-a-Day in December of 2021. The Afaa Michael Weaver poem was published in February as part of John Murillo’s curation in February 2022. While Pierre Joris’s poem was our most recently published in June’s Poem-a-Day, and that month was curated by Jos Charles.
That Kaminsky poem is especially interesting to me because, when I read, it seems that the underlying concern is how easy it is when you haven’t been deprived of your everyday conveniences to become apathetic. I think, particularly in the case of racialized violence, even after the Black Lives Matter movement, it becomes very easy for some observers to consider a situation and think, this doesn’t concern me or this wouldn’t happen to me, and then just to continue on with their day, with their mundane concerns. So it—
Hogue: Or even to get...
Hogue: ...even to get used to it.
Poets.org: Right. Which is worse. To become inured...
Hogue: Oh, yes, yes.
Poets.org: ...with this violence. Yeah. Absolutely. So, I think that poem serves as a powerful reminder of how engaged we all really, really need to be, to go back to your earlier point about morality and what that really is.
Hogue: Absolutely. It’s an awareness and a consciousness that we must actually work on and cultivate.
Poets.org: Part of the responsibility, one could say, of being human. What are you reading right now?
Hogue: Well, I think, like most poets, having a large pile of books by their bedside that I tend to dip in and sometimes to read in one fell swoop. I tend to go everywhere with a book of poems, albeit not necessarily traveling. But, over this summer, I’ll just name a few that have been particularly memorable: Shara McCallum, Linda Hogan, Gia Skiskum, Pamela Uschuk, Karen Brennan, Cole Swensen, Solmaz Sharif, Louise Glück, and Claudia Keelan. Inspired by a gorgeous study of [Rainer Maria] Rilke that I recently read in manuscript, I’ve become dipping into a book that meditates on the philosophy of gentleness, The Power of Gentleness in English. It’s by the late French philosopher Anne Dufourmantelle, in translation. You may know her work, am I right?
Poets.org: It’s because of you, now I do. The Power of Gentleness. There’s a chapter in there titled “Intelligence.” In that chapter, Dufourmantelle describes gentleness as, “Primarily an intelligence, one that carries life, that saves and enhances it. It is an understanding of the relationship with the other, and tenderness is the epitome of this relationship.” The Poem-a-Day poems that you mentioned are, arguably, meditations on gentleness. Do you think that poets have a role, or even an obligation, to foster gentleness?
Hogue: I’m not sure that poets have an obligation because poetry is much larger than any one purpose or objective. But I think that the consciousness that poets cultivate can participate in a larger conversation in our culture to address what seems to me a time of just unavoidable and tragic violence. Not that poets can fix that by being anything other than the conscious beings they are in the world, but that bringing that to the table—that awareness, that consciousness, that choice to be aware and to work through particular matters that we might be considering, whether they’re ethical, moral, or a choice of a kind of ethos behavior. I think that poets remember that it is a responsibility that they care, that they bring that to the table. Not that they’re responsible to bring that into the world, but that that’s a responsibility to perhaps to bring to the page.
I know from my own experience that gentleness is a choice, and I think I’m recalling correctly, it is often associated with weakness and yet it’s a strength, right? It’s a restraint to let loose. So...
Poets.org: Yes. Thank you. Thank you for that response. I think it’s also worth mentioning that, earlier in the book, perhaps it was in the foreword, it’s mentioned that gentleness shouldn’t be confused with some of the ways in which it’s been perhaps sanitized by a lot of new age self-help literature. No offense to those who like to read new age and self-help literature, but it requires more of a self-rigor, I guess we can say, than what is presented in those new age and self-help texts.
Hogue: That’s such a good term. Yes. Perhaps that was what I’m trying to grasp that with—self-restraint, self-rigor. To be figuring out how to bring that consciousness, how to bring that ethic to the page so that it goes beyond the page, is something that I think a lot of poets think about. It’s not just a lament or a protest, but an awareness that extends beyond the frame of the poem.
Poets.org: Absolutely. What are you currently working on in your writing, teaching, and publishing life?
Hogue: I wish I could say that I have a project gelling on gentleness, but it hasn’t reached my consciousness yet. Although I might be ruminating. But, as it happens, I’ve been working on some writing projects that aren’t poetry: a review of a biography of H.D. and Bryher focusing on their love story, which is fascinating and argues that these women influenced the direction of Modernism significantly. I found that argument very persuasive. If one reads the biography, incidentally, one understands the vision in the poem by Bryher, published in Poem-a-Day a month ago, I think that was also in June, entitled “The Pool.” That the boy in the scene is Bryher herself, who, in the biography, is revealed as always thinking of herself and referring to herself as a boy—a very contemporary sense of identification.
I’ve also been finishing an essay on alchemy and place for a symposium this fall. And I just loved doing that. I’d love to do more such essays around an idea and exploring it, taking that idea and exploring it through a number of contemporary poems. I’d like to find a form myself for eco-alchemical poems, which I haven’t yet.
Over the next year, I’m publishing three books. I’m actually between projects, and, if I’m being generous to myself, I would say I’m in a fallow period. I’m writing other things, but jotting down some notes for poems, but not poems that I’ve finished. It feels a luxury to be in this place of resting, but it also feels like a burden that I’m staring at the nothing that is. So...
Poets.org: You might know, and our listeners and readers would be interested in knowing, that New Directions Press is reissuing Hermione in October of this year, which is H.D.’s, or Hilda Doolittle’s, autobiographical novel. I’m interested, too, in your mention of eco-alchemical poetry. Based on my understanding of it, which is very limited, it is work that engages with materiality, as Ecopoetry and Ecocriticism do, but it also engages with the mysticism that we have seen in medieval and Renaissance literature. Is that right? Or is it more than that?
Hogue: No. You’re spot on. Also, I think of it as, not simply a description of place, but a transformation of place. That transformation may come as a kind of clearing and blessing of the place. The idea started with me from a couple of actual experiences, and I think other people have had these experiences, where you’re visiting a place that has known great violence, and you can feel it if you have a particular intuitive awareness or you bring that to the place or you know the history of the place. Describing the place in a poem is not enough. You want to, or I think of it as wanting to transform that violence into something that isn’t haunting the place, but blessing it, that the process is [an] alchemical process. At least, perhaps not physically, but spiritually, mystically, as you say.
It’s a very strange experience to happen upon unexpectedly. But when you happen upon it, you’re taking in all sorts of stimuli that you’re reacting to, but perhaps on an unconscious level. When you sit down to write the poem, you’re bringing that up into conscious level. So, the place is not the place you visited. It’s not the literal place you visited, but the place that you bring to it.
Poets.org: It also makes me think of the concept of placemaking, which figures into landscape studies. We tend to think of places as static settings, and, physically, in certain ways, they are, but we play a huge role in our creation and recreation of spaces and of places, and that seems to be one of the concerns of eco-alchemical poetry.
Hogue: Yes, absolutely. There’s a philosopher [Angus Fletcher], I’m looking through my notes here, of place... And this might be a place where I’m flubbing, but he’s theorizing space, not place, as holding the vibrations that the place has witnessed. That’s what I began to think about, the poem as being able to signify and to process in its material, sometimes through sonic experimentation, sometimes through the transformation of description into vision. But I don’t think I have done it myself yet. I think I’ve been reading others who have done it.
Poets.org: Well, I’m interested in it. If you do, I’d love to read that poem. I think many others would, too.
Hogue: Thank you.
Poets.org: Thank you so much, Cynthia, for joining me.
Hogue: It’s been a great pleasure, and thank you for this conversation, Mary.