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Our Subjects Pick Us: Cynthia Atkins Talks About Love, Loss and Poetry

03/10/2014 06:31 pm ET | Updated May 10, 2014

Cynthia Atkins was born and raised in Chicago, IL, receiving a BFA and an MA from the University of Illinois and an MFA from Columbia University's School of the Arts. She is the author of Psyche's Weathers (2007) and In The Event of Full Disclosure (CW Books,, 2013). Her poems have appeared in numerous journals, including, Alaska Quarterly Review, American Letters & Commentary, BOMB, Del Sol Review, Fact-Simile, Harpur Palate, The Journal, North American Review, Seneca Review, Sou'wester, Tampa Review, Thrush Poetry Journal, Valparaiso Review and Verse Daily, among many others. Atkins' poems were nominated for the 2013 and 2014 Pushcart Prizes. Formerly, Atkins worked as assistant director for the Poetry Society of America. She is currently Assistant Professor of English at Virginia Western Community College. Atkins lives on the Maury River of Rockbridge County, VA with artist Phillip Welch and their family.

Loren Kleinman (LK): Your poetry explores themes of mental illness, wellness and family life. What attracted you to writing about mental illness? Do you think that poetry is often saturated with these themes?

Cynthia Atkins (CA): I think our subjects pick us, rather than the other way around. The subject of mental health picked me because it was a seamless part of my biography -- childhood, teen hood and adulthood. I don't' know any other reality. My father was bi-polar and my sister had serious mental health disorders too. Being able to transcribe experience into art has saved me and allowed me to look at these things from different vantage points, perhaps conflating the real with the imagined to find some kind of peace and grace. The artist Louise Bourgeois hits the nail on the head: "Art is a guarantee of sanity. That is the most important thing I have said."

I don't know that poetry per se is saturated with these "themes," but I think mental illness and wellness are part of the human condition, and we may as well accept that they are here to stay like cancer and heart disease and death. I think art helps us find the joy that we are privy to only when we stop and pay attention to our lives -- this is what art helps us achieve and find the art between the consonance and dissonance. In art it is important to know tension, but we are looking to disentangle and deconstruct it, make it a worthy tension, a tension that instructs us towards a better calm in our lives.

LK: Talk about In the Event of Full Disclosure. What can readers expect? What was your writing process like? How do you write poems?

CA: I started with a project/poem I called "Family Therapy" and it began the thread or a framework. The five sections of this poem move through the book: each section of the poem starts a new section in the book. I mean it to be a somewhat cynical riff and commentary on the "victimization" and our dependence on how-tos, self-help and one- size- fits all remedies in our culture. The family is in a kind of crisis mode, coming apart at the seams, but we're always hopeful for the positive outcome, the way we smile into our cameras. In the book I was working with certain themes, but I wanted to render them from various angles, tones, conceits and structures.

LK: I see a surge in poetry that explores themes of mental and sexual abuse. I think that these are incredibly difficult topics to write about well. And by well, I mean, the poet has had some distance from the subject matter. What's the difference between writing the feeling versus writing from the feeling? Do writers need a healthy distance from difficult matter before translating those feelings to the page?

CA: I guess if by 'distance' you mean a life-time yes, it has taken me many years to grapple with material that deals with the allusive weavings of the mind, health, illness, family, love, death and loneliness. All these things are the subjects of the book, and distance is relative of course. Artistic distance is important. Recently, Anne Champion's insightful review appeared in Pank and she used the word 'abused' in connection with my work. It struck me how that word abuse had never occurred to me before in connection with my own work -- survivor's guilt, yes, pain and loss, yes, confusion and conflation, yes, but never abuse. So I have been thinking about that ever since, and I realize now that for me, that word implies, victim and somehow I have never wanted to be thought of as a victim. I never felt abused by the mental illness issues in my family; it was more the feeling helplessness. Pain and inchoate obstacles are always the Teflon that we try to dent, and the easing is the learning process of living and making sense of the chaos. "I'm learning how to be a member/ of my family, of my society /I'm wanting a text book/ on the matter" (from "Family Therapy").

LK: I write about love and loss, and I'm concerned about how to reconcile the two themes in the sense that after loss there is always the possibility to love again. Would you agree that after tragedy there can be peace? How do you represent peace in your poetry? Do you think that tragic poetry should deliver a sense of peace to the reader at the end?

CA: I am going through a period of great loss in my life. Just in the last weeks, I have just lost one of my older sisters, and I am about to lose one of my oldest and dearest friends. My sister suffered physically from the thirty year toll that mental illness had taken on her body. The meds really play havoc with internal organs. My friend is dying from colon cancer. I have complicated and mixed feelings about both of these relationships and have asked my maker why I have to deal with both of these losses so close together. It seems I should be able to have some to time to build an emotional shrine to each -- and give heed to their lives. But of course there is no fairness or justice in these matters. The holes that loss leaves are devastating. I think we make and take-in art to help us deal with loss, complexity, devastation, loneliness, and moral choices. Toni Morrison said it better than I: "We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives." For me, writing, art, and music are sanctuary. It is the place I go to ask the questions. There are not always answers, but there is comfort and growth in re-shaping experience into the archive of language, where I can ponder and examine it. James Baldwin said, "I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain." For me, making poems is the best medicine for pain and hate is a waste of time.

LK: What are your thoughts on postmodern poetry? Does it resonate with you? Why? Why not?

CA: If you mean 'can writing embrace complexity, contradiction, ambiguity and diversity, mainly through a common emphasis on discourse and the power of language in structuring thought and experience,' then yes, I definitely do embrace it. I like the idea of living language for its own sake. I also love the narrative poets. I am fascinated by language poets and the new formalists. Bishop, Lowell, Stein, O'Hara, Komunyakaa, Ashbery, Stevens, Berryman, Brooks, Plath -- I have learned a great deal from all of them.

The beautiful thing about being an artist in a post-postmodern age is that we can beg, borrow and steal from all of our histories and schools and I do! Bauhaus, abstraction, surrealism, post-expressionism, nihilism, punkism -- we have all these choices at our fingertips; push the boundaries on form and content. Well, you should see the furniture and art in my house -- eclectic and full of funky. Art in the modern age is an intellectual and spiritual enterprise, especially important in this techno-period. Simply put, whatever the medium, time, genre -- reading, writing and art have saved me. It is both the beauty and the beast of language, which is what keeps me moving forward.