Yemassee Interview: 5 Questions with Cindy King

Cindy King's poems "After the Audition" and "Aubade" appeared in Issue 23.1.

1. How would you describe your journey as a poet?

I’d have to say that my journey as a poet began long before I had read any poetry—before I could read and write, for that matter. At about five years old, I developed a fascination with song lyrics—and hardly those most would consider poems. But I had a small portable record player—the kind that was enclosed in a little paisley suitcase—that with its orange, fuchsia, and goldenrod exterior could have just as easily contained a funky hat, or one of my mom’s wigs. Among my collection of 45s—castoffs, no doubt, of my older brothers—were “Fox on the Run” by Sweet, Jerry Samuels’ ever-terrifying “They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haa!”, and Queen’s “Killer Queen.” I still recall the old Elektra logo, a striped caterpillar, spinning around on the turntable. I soon graduated to the “grownup” stereo, and my parents’ LPs, which included the likes of Neil Sedaka, John Denver, and Elton John. My mom, in addition to being a licensed beautician, was an avid reader of writers like Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and Danielle Steele. Though empty of poetry, our house was always filled with books from the local library. The first writer to really inspire me was Ray Bradbury, again not a poet, but the author who made me want to become one. Initially I was captivated by the wild narratives and imaginative details of the stories, but then by his language and syntax. His writing at the sentence level thrilled me. Some of my first “serious” attempts at writing were imitations of passages from Something Wicked This Way Comes. At around that time, my brother Jeff, whom I always admired for his drawing and writing talents, worked collaboratively with me to write a sci-fi short story called “A Keychain for Your Birthday.” As I recall, the story revolved around the eponymous keychain that allowed the protagonist to travel through “space and time” and concluded with a Maupassantian twist, as only it could, informed by our budding adolescent irony.

I didn’t really “discover” poetry until college, where I read mostly traditional, canonical writers like A.E. Housman and Thomas Hardy, whose poems my friends and I would commit to memory. On a good day, I can still recite “With Rue My Heart Is Laden” and “Neutral Tones” (almost) without error. Needless to say, I was quickly recruited as an English major by faculty at a university starved of students in the humanities. I completed the degree with a literature concentration. It wasn’t until grad school, where I pursued degrees in creative writing, that I discovered the women writers and poets of color who I believe have also shaped my aesthetic and work.

It has taken time to develop the confidence that puts words on paper and the guts to send them into the world. It’s been a decade since graduate school, and I have been publishing poetry since 1995, but I have only just begun to submit my book-length manuscript for publication. Not that I wasn’t always writing and revising, but I just never considered anything “ready.” Energized by some recent successes, I have finally begun to see myself as a poet, even though I have been a practicing poet for a good 20 years. In many ways, perhaps, my journey has just begun.

2. What kind of poems/poets are you most drawn to?

My favorite poems are those that are surprising and surreal, ones that encourage us to view the world in new and unusual ways. I’d like to see more poems that really take imaginative risks, that incorporate a sense of otherworldliness. I’m definitely drawn to poems loaded with unforgettable sensory images. In fact, a student once said to me, “You don’t want poetry, you want a hamburger.” (Just for the record, I’m vegetarian.) I love audaciousness and bravado, poems that are freewheeling and irreverent, that sometimes employ comic means to serious ends. But I also like poets whose work reflects honesty, humility, and meditation. I’m a fan of poems that juxtapose “high” and popular culture, as does, for example, the poem “What It Look Like” by Terrance Hayes. Informed by my love of music, I enjoy work that pays attention to sound. Poems with a sense of immediacy often get my attention, poems with which I can connect in one read. But I also don’t mind spending a lot of time with a single poem. My analytical side prompts me to examine the way a poem works—not only its syntax and diction but also its overall rhetorical strategy, what one of my former teachers called its “moves.”

3. Has there been a particular something (idea/image/phrase/quote/obsession) knocking around in your head lately?

The lyrics to Andy Razaf’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” Whenever I’m nervous, which I guess is pretty often, I find myself whistling the tune, or singing the lyrics under my breath “…like Jack Horner, in the corner, don’t go nowhere, what do I care…” Perennially guilty, perhaps. But I love the playfulness of those lines, and the entire song, which to me, especially in Fats Waller’s performance of it in Stormy Weather, screams, “I have been misbehavin’!” The rhythm and rhyme scheme. The linguistic pyrotechnics of those Tin Pan Alley lyricists, particularly in the 1920s, and Broadway songsters of the 1940s—their clever, smart, and funny lines—continue to fascinate and inspire. Though I almost never incorporate formal elements into my own poems, I certainly admire those who can. Nevertheless, I have attempted to write some song lyrics—a country song called “Mr. You and Mrs. Me” and a blues riff called “The Thank-God-I’m-an-Atheist Blues.”

4. “After the Audition” and “Aubade” are both re-visions—“After the Audition” reimagines the suburban garden of Kelly’s “The Dragon” as an urban, glitzy scene, while “Aubade” dusts off that centuries-old meditation on matutinal love. In poems like these, how do you reconcile your own voice with a source poem or tradition?

I tend to read as a writer, which again involves enjoying and understanding a poem for the way it moves. I love the “The Dragon” for its imagination, and as it reflects how its speaker thinks, the workings of her mind. Often poems can supply scaffolding, frameworks upon which I can hang my own words and ideas. Again, I like to understand the mechanics of a poem—the line breaks, the syntax, the rhetorical twists and turns. I often practice writing, and sometimes good poems, for me, can serve as training wheels. If I like the way a poem operates, which I very much do here, I ask myself, How can I do that? Or, what if I tried that but substituted this, turning the original on its head while retaining something of its essence? I like how in my poem, our voices can be heard simultaneously. Not quite a sample or remix, but I guess something along those lines. Maybe like playing a cover, Johnny Cash doing “Personal Jesus,” or better still a song with the same melody but different lyrics, as in “Little Liza Jane” and “This Little Light of Mine.” With “Aubade,” I had been thinking about the “Hateful Things” section of Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book, the part about the elegance (or lack thereof) of lovers taking their leave. I also wanted to explore, perhaps even challenge (or mock), the conventional subject of monogamous, romantic love.

5. If you could share one piece of advice with your fellow poets, what would it be?

It’s a reminder to myself that I wrote at the top of one of my notebooks: More observation, fewer judgments. More recording, less analysis. I think sometimes the tendency to make connections, to look for meaning and make sense of the world, overshadows the act of sustained looking. I believe writers should experience the world through all of their senses. Allow connections and meaning to arise organically from there.