An Interview with Cindy King
What was the first poem (or piece of writing) that you wrote that you were really proud of, that made you happy and so fully satisfied to have written it? Why?
I think it would have to be “Only in America: On Being Turned Around at Don King’s Estate, Ashtabula County, Ohio.” It’s the longest poem I’ve ever written. You can find it in Nashville Review. I wrote it while taking a workshop from Bruce Smith at the Colgate Writers’ Conference in 2013, so it wasn’t all that long ago. It may not be the best poem, but writing it felt honest and ambitious, risky, like I was really reaching toward an understanding of the place I’m from, and ultimately who I am. It’s also an attempt to connect my experience of place with Don King’s, the boxing promoter, who was also born in Cleveland. I am product that place, and of my parents, for better or worse. I come from a blue-collar, rustbelt family. Writing, poetry, it’s just not something you do (or you just don’t talk about it). It took me a while to feel some sense of legitimacy as a poet. To call myself one. When I say it now, I still wince a little inside. It sometimes feels decadent to write, especially since it serves no practical purpose, has no utility—or at least that’s what I was taught to believe. Ultimately, the poem is kind of a self-portrait, trying to make sense of how I got here, what I might share with Don, other than a last name. And it’s strange to be lost fewer than 20 miles from where you grew up, and completely bewildering to come upon this crazy-big mansion with Corinthian columns and Greek statuary in the middle of farm country.
What is the most difficult part about putting a collection together (or the most challenging aspect at any stage in creating a collection, making it whole, and seeing it through to publication)?
I’d have to say figuring out which poems go where. And when you’re writing new stuff, where does it belong? In an old, unpublished manuscript, or in something entirely new?
Do you have any necessities of place/setting when it comes to your writing process? For instance, do you require music, silence, the bustle of a busy coffee shop? Windows open or windows closed? Favorite beverage?
Yes, I always write in the bed Tom built for us. Mechanical pencil and a “freebie” sketch board, brown, the kind with elastic bands that hold the paper in place. It’s from the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth. Tom gave it me. The bed is king-sized, and since now it’s just me, I sleep with a pile of books, pens and pencils, notebooks, and drafts. That side of the bed is kind of a desk/nightstand. Needless to say, there are ink stains on most of my sheets. My bed is the place where I feel safe. And I always write at night, before I fall asleep. I work up drafts in pencil—again, pencil’s not permanent, soft lead, safe, like my bed. I then type them up and print them in my office in the daytime. I like hard copies and never compose drafts at a computer. For me, computers are for revision, not for writing.
What is your favorite body of water?
Wow, this is tough one. I used to live in Tampa, and my mom “snow birds” in Fort Myers, so I have a great love for the Florida Gulf. In Tampa, I used to spend Fridays at Fort Desoto State Park and Clearwater Beach, drifting around on a float, this Yo Gabba Gabba kite I used to have soaring above me. Big fan of the Atlantic, too. Long Island beaches and Provincetown. Now that I live in the West, the Pacific is growing on me. Palos Verdes. Venice. Santa Monica Beach. And a recent trip to Baja California and the Sea of Cortes. Kayaking in what Jacques Cousteau called “the world’s aquarium.” A flying fish flopped down into my boat. For real! Just teeming with marine life. Stingrays flipping and flopping around me. You can see like twenty feet down. But, at the risk of my family disowning me andthe revocation of my Cleveland card, I have to say Lake Erie.
I grew up swimming in the shadows of the hyperboloid cooling towers on its shores. My first memories were of the beach—raw sewage, Blatz beer bottles, cliff-nesting swallows and all. We lived in Willoughby, Ohio, a block or two from the Lake. My grandfather—never met him—drown in boating accident, so my parents sent me for swimming lessons around the time I was just trying to learn to walk. Having mastered both, by high school, I joined the swim team, and ultimately became a lifeguard. As a gangly teenager, I even pulled a 6 foot 4, 250 pound blue-lipped man from the bottom of a hotel pool.
Some summers, I spent every day (and some nights) at the beach. I still go to Headlands and Edgewater with my mom and brothers whenever I’m home. And someday, my brother Kevin and I want to take a boat all the way to Miami using inland waterways. Needless to say, the water in the Lake is cleaner—or at least clearer (thanks, zebra mussels), if not cleaner. I always say that on a good day, if you squint, you can pretend you’re at Martha’s Vineyard. Despite my love of the water, I currently live in Southern Utah in the middle of the desert, where I don’t know my butte from a bluff.
What small wonder makes your heart leap with joy?
Robyn, my long-haired tabby cat (maybe Maine coon?). I absolutely love when she chirps and trills at the birds outside the window. It’s completely hilarious and adorable.
What words of wisdom or writerly advice would you like to share with our readers?
Don’t ever stop. Writing is an act of subversion. We are socialized to be consumers—buy, eat, spend, consume. Produce! Make something instead. Poems, art, music, whatever. Even if people tell you it’s bad, or even if it isbad, keep doing it. There’s a blank page, you write, then it’s not. You made something, and no one can take that away from you. Sure, they can take the poem away, but not the experience of writing it. And that process, to me, may be the most important thing about writing.
This next question is from our last Photic Zone participant, Jack Bedell. He asks, “It’s one thing for writers concerned about the environment to inventory damage and injustice in the world, but what steps can we take in our work to turn this recognition into action?”
I’m not sure if poetry can “make anything happen.” Except for the writers themselves. All of the madness, injustice, and insanity surfaces in my own work in various ways. For me, poetry’s a kind steam valve. And it’s the only way I know how to express/address the absurdity of my own life—and in the larger world. It’s the mouthpiece that suits what I have to say. And maybe the only place where anyone listens. I think poetry about injustice, environmental destruction, disturbs people, but whether it calls them to action? I guess that’s for them to decide.
Cindy King’s work has appeared in The Sun, Callaloo, North American Review, African American Review, American Literary Review, TriQuarterly, Black Bird, River Styx, Black Warrior, Cincinnati Review, and elsewhere. You can hear her online at Weekend America, RHINO, and The Cortland Review. Her freelance work can be found at artsATL. She was born in Cleveland, Ohio and grew up swimming in the shadows of the hyperboloid cooling towers on the shores of Lake Erie. She currently lives in Utah, where she is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Dixie State University and Editor of The Southern Quill.