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"From Outside Me": An Interview with Cynthia Arrieu-King

Cynthia Arrieu-King teaches creative writing at Stockton University and is a former Kundiman fellow. Her poems appeared in Fence this year and a creative non-fiction piece will appear in The Volta later this summer. Her poetry collaboration with the late Hillary Gravendyk, Unlikely Conditions, came out from 1913 Press this past spring.

Her story, "Boxes," appaered in Issue Sixty-Nine of The Collagist.

Here, she speaks with interviewer Dana Diehl about secret skulls, haunted beds, and quilting.

Please tell us where this story began for you.

When I was sixteen, a neighbor showed me that she had kept a skull someone in her family had given her. She’d received it under circumstances similar to the one in the story. Told me not to tell my mom. She thought it might be haunting her. That afternoon stuck with me. Then, one day in graduate school, I had a dream from a particular side of my bed that I started to think was haunted. The dream seemed to be coming from outside me: skeletons walking in robes. This dream was pretty vivid and ghastly and I actually made my boyfriend at the time sleep in that spot without telling him about the dream, and he woke up complaining of terrible nightmares on that side of the bed. These two things came together and seemed to allow in many mini-narratives and details I knew from my growing up in Kentucky.

The objects in this story are so vivid and physical. I can feel the shapes they make on the page. For example:

“Clink. One medal. One handkerchief. Smelling of cedar. He heard what he knew were a few baby teeth skitter across the table: his mothers, his. He crushed one accidently simply by trying to pick it up.”

Can you speak to the power of objects in fiction? Why do you think some objects feel flat on the page, while others come alive?

I was just talking to the poet Joel Dias-Porter: He had read that concrete objects make a more measurable reaction in the brain that abstract language. They did a study! But I think some objects feel incidental and some objects operate in a system of icons that the reader perceives as relevant emotionally. Whether to their own emotions or to the character, I think it can be a diffuse system. I don’t know if it matters if an author intends for objects to be world-building.  I think the medal and the teeth in this little passage you’ve kindly excerpted make me think I probably wanted to create as well a symmetry between the American story and the Japanese story collaged together in “Boxes.” Someone told me once my poems don’t have symbols but icons and I think maybe this means that the object doesn’t have a preordained abstract meaning; the icon means as much as possible both the actual object and all it means plus something about attention and reverence, but in a private or idiosyncratic way. So without really consciously thinking about it, I probably wrote that the Japanese people have their cold hard metal (in the medal, military) and their bones (the baby teeth) that no one knows what to do with as a way of gesturing to the American story which is where, ironically, the missing Japanese skull ended up. The objects help me lay out a kind of algebra that says we may be playing out in our emotions a kind of law of conservation of mass both with ourselves and with our cultural counterparts. This also works on the level of trauma, comeuppance, and the quotidian. I also think objects are a good way of making chaos or order specific to a story.

You are doing some interesting things with the movement of time. We flow so quickly, so seamlessly, from Frank’s toddlerhood to his adulthood. What are the challenges and joys of writing a short story that spans such a large amount of time?

Thank you! Great question. I honestly think I have trouble sticking to a short amount of time in a short story. I’ve taught for so long that a short story can be an important moment or an important single day in someone’s life. That way the student doesn’t bite off more than they can chew. But it’s hard to follow suit and even feels weirdly eighties to me. I feel the whole world trying to cram its way into a narrative once I get going, so it’s almost like I feel obliged to show that largeness and experience, people getting old. I’m big on the elderly and all they have seen. I recently saw a photo of the woman in Italy who is 116 and the last person to live in the 1800’s and I was totally overwhelmed and tearful. To me it is a joy to show how time is passing and doing so through detail. It is a challenge to say exactly what is the outcome—in wisdom, in acceptance--of that passage of time.

Are there any other forms of art (music, visual art, etc.) that inform or inspire your writing?

Oh dear, I think about paintings, color, and photographs obsessively. I’ve quilted since I was a teen and the other night I dreamt a whole color scheme for a quilt made out of my clothes and each kind of square represented a season. Give it a rest prefrontal cortex! Probably this informs my poems in the sense that quilts and poems tend to ask you to see why two things are together and to be okay with the pattern and the breaking of that same pattern. I grew up in a house full of books of paintings. I’m terrible at remembering exactly what someone said, only retain the value of it, but can almost always recall how something looked or what someone wore. Movies are a big deal to me: RAN by Kurosawa informs a very long poem in my third book manuscript. I think a lot of people use music now to change gears and prepare to write. Jazz and songs like “You Drink a Lot of Coffee for a Teenager” by Don Caballero shape I think both my prosody and my Main Idea. I probably wouldn’t know how to articulate my Main Idea except that my friend Jesseca Cornelson, awesome poet, once said she could see that my idea of order is faith in and through and beyond the heartbreaking disorder. So jazz in its way helps me see that and those great old quilts that shatter and reconstitute and vary the given pattern also do that.

What projects are you working on now?

I’m just finishing up a long issue of dusie for Susana Gardner dedicated to Asian Anglophone poetry. I think of it as a really really long mixtape of my favorite poems people sent me. Susana told me “the sky’s the limit” and I’m really grateful for that. Hope to see many more collections out there gathered by others!

Also working on short stories with an eye towards a collection, including “Boxes”. My friend the poet Emari DiGiorgio said she could see my short stories were about someone struggling to be a caretaker. I believe these will revolve about how women, especially elderly women deal with coming to terms with the way things are rather than prefabricated ideas of marriage, lifestyle, career, etc., all that shit they try to sell you: I want to show what those negotiations look like.

I have a third manuscript of poetry about war and the idea of order versus chaos in the aftermath of war, Continuity. I think it might have another couple major poems heading its way before it’s really complete.

This coming fall, I’m also slated to work on the late Hillary Gravendyk’s last collection of poems, a chapbook that’s coming out from Omnidawn in the fall of 2017. I’ve been working to make sure that gets its proper reception and publicity. We collaborated seriously and had a book of our collaborations come out this past March: I can say that American poetry should always remember her, her contributions to lyric, to California poetry, to illness studies. It breaks my heart to say it, but I think everyone who knows her poems knows she was at the beginning of the career that would have shown her to be one of our most major poets. You know, ever. So get Harm, everybody. (I’ll send you one if you e-mail me.)

I’m aghast, in love with, feel totally at home in Lily Hoang’s The Bestiary and she and I are supposed to have a conversation about that on paper and about a collaborative book of poems I did with Hillary called Unlikely Conditions. That should come out in the summer from The Conversant.

There are always collaborative poems lurking in my e-mail between myself and Sophia Kartsonis.

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