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Writing Poetry That Terrifies You

Writing Poetry That Terrifies You

Saint X, the Hudson Prize winner from Black Lawrence Press, is an astounding book-length poem. Caroline Cabrera presents a cycle of questions and answers interrupted by bracketed poems that all work together to examine women, their unique stories, and their positioning in the world — not only as constructed by society’s bounds but also in the world as defined by science and its limits. This book is the third full-length collection by Cabrera, following The Bicycle Year and Flood Bloom (both with a recently folded press and now looking for new homes). She’s also published a chapbook, Dear Sensitive Beard, with dancing girl press. I had the pleasure of interviewing Cabrera this month.

Carolina Cabrera

Sarah Blake: This book constantly turned itself on its head for me. I usually feel a break at a short poem, but in this book I waited for the longer poems to take a breath. And I usually wait for a poem that will use language more simply, but here I waited for the five-syllable words and when they arrived I felt like I ate them. And the book’s content deals with expectations so directly, e.g. with the question “Are there more than three dimensions?” and the speaker mentions time and then ends that section with, “did you think / I would say / time / again.” I would love to hear you talk about expectations—of poems, of answers, of women—and how you approach them or exploit them or ignore them.

53149639Caroline Cabrera: Expectations in poetry always point me towards a place of play. As both a reader and a writer I consistently find pleasure in the subverting and overturning of expectation. The structure in this book — the questions and answers — gave me a built-in opportunity for that play. I had a voice to push against, which often allowed the speaker of the poem to be feistier and more actively engaged than contemplative. The questions throughout were found in a book called The Where, the Why, and the How: 75 Artists Illustrate Wondrous Mysteries of Science, so there’s also the fact of my own ignorance: while I have a great interest in science and nature, many of the questions I chose to answer deal with concepts I know little or nothing about, which means while writing I was answering them in ways that were purely playful or associative. This also pushed the voice towards using sleight-of-hand or obfuscation to stay engaged with the questioner without admitting ignorance.

For me, much of my interest in writing this came from the shifts in register: from answers that correspond more directly to the actual question on a topical/science level; to answers where the speaker chooses to be vulnerable and reveal something of herself; to answers where she engages with playfulness, dismissiveness, or coyness.

As a woman, when it comes to expectations I am stubborn and a perfectionist. So I either want to exceed them or burn them down out of spite, and I think I let the voice do those things in turn. The switches in register — particularly with the feistiness or sassiness of the voice — emerge as a way to push against the expectations of women: to be polite, to be a lady, to behave. She is the one being questioned, but she’s not willing to let the questioner drive the conversation. She will be kind when she wants and cruel when she wants. And she will be vulnerable, but only on her terms. She is not here for bullshit.

Sarah Blake: I kept stopping at the moments where book gets a little salty with itself, the answer-er to the questioner, like when there’s the question, “What is the god particle?” and the poem answers, “None of your beeswax.” There’s a little humor there, but it’s also a rebuff, and a little old-timey even. What’s your interest in this voice?

Caroline Cabrera: This part I see as kind of a natural evolution of my work to this point. I’ve always written with humor, and in my second book, The Bicycle Year, a lot of the humor was at the expense of a fictional character, Roberta, who I imagined largely for the purpose of humor-scapegoating. There’s something I enjoy about the cutting-ness of the humor I’m allowed in poetry (versus in my real life). I really relish in the meanness. And to have a questioner, a you, whom I could direct some of the mean humor towards, was fun for me. Maybe this makes me a werewolf.

At my thesis defense for the manuscript that would become my first book, a committee member told me that he’d noticed every time I got close to sentimentality, I used humor to diffuse it — more support for the idea that play and obfuscation go hand in hand for me. And he encouraged me to push through the sentimentality to see what was on the other side. That’s something I definitely worked for in this book. I’m writing about things I had buried for years, that I had never directly uncovered in my work. But I didn’t want to have to lose the humor in order to do that. So I let the bracketed pieces become raw and open. And I let my speaker be as mean as she wanted.

Sarah Blake: The book has this extreme balancing act going on between the Q&A sections and the sections in brackets. I found it incredibly compelling how one fed into the other, but what was it like for you to strike that balance, both when writing and editing the book?

Caroline Cabrera: For me the bracketed prose poems are where the noise (the play, obfuscation, riddling, etc.) of the questions and answers fall away. They function a little to me like lampposts where I let a little more of me come into the light, where I challenged myself to say the things I’ve long found unsayable. A way I sometimes think of it is this: the voice in the question and answers is the public-facing voice, the one who interacts and tells stories and jokes. The one who is asked, “how are you,” and says, “fine,” reflexively and then shares something interesting she heard on a podcast. There’s quite a bit of depth to her and layers of personality and engagement, but she only allows so much of herself. The bracketed pieces are the private self who speaks from a place more raw and real. And she needs both to get by.

I wrote the entire question and answer cycle first — though hadn’t ordered it or anything like that — when I realized I needed to write touch-down points that cut a little further to the quick. I realized that I was writing a book about navigating the world as a woman, a book that dealt a lot with trauma and abuse without ever directly addressing those things. And once I saw that the manuscript was creating space for that directness, I started writing the prose pieces to space throughout. After I had written maybe four or five of them I started to lay out the manuscript, so at some point I had an idea of how many prose pieces to write towards.

After that point the order and structure didn’t change much. When I finished writing the final prose piece — which is the final one that appears in the manuscript — I knew I was done writing for this book. I don’t think that’s ever happened in such a clear way for me before.

Sarah Blake: I’ll end with a question about my favorite part of the book, which is its extreme exploration of womanhood, among mothers and sisters, at odds with men, who abuse and misteach. I found this incredibly meaningful to me, especially in this moment in our country, which is really a years-long moment. Can you talk about laying all this bare?

Caroline Cabrera: Writing about these things was painful and terrifying for me. I forced myself to write directly about experiences I’d hinted at here and there in my previous work, but never laid bare, as you put it. It terrified me to write. And in a lot of ways it still terrifies me. There are pieces in this book that I think are some of the strongest, but which I’ve yet to read out loud because to do so feels too overwhelming.

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When I think about this book being out in the world, I feel proud but wary — sometimes even nauseous. It took the advice of excellent confidantes for me to keep from editing out some of the things that terrify me most. Right before I sent the final manuscript I had changed the word “abuse” to “use” in one of the poems and it was my husband who advocated for that word “abuse” to stay, who told me not to try and assuage or mollify. Using humor as obfuscation is not just a writing move for me, it’s a personal move, it’s where I’m comfortable. And in a lot of ways this book made and makes me very uncomfortable.

But it had also become increasingly uncomfortable not to share my experiences in my writing. In Saint X, I wrote, “You have made me, too, into another face of shame, seeing my reflection in every wounded woman. I have a new heritage now.” This line has resonated with me so much in watching the #metoo movement bloom and seeing all the brave people who have come forward to share their experiences and name their abusers. I’ve felt so proud and in awe of them, but also so compassionate for those who don’t feel they can speak out, whose care for themselves depends on them not thrusting that responsibility onto themselves, and the guilt that can go with that.

I had long been a part of the second group, and while this book pushes me a bit into that first group, I’m still not ready to name any names. I don’t think I ever will be. What I will always be is angry. Angry that it is my responsibility — our responsibilities — to force ourselves into the unkind public sphere of publishing our abuses or in the often just-as-unkind private hell of feeling like a coward for not doing so. I’m angry that the responsibility somehow lies with those harmed.

And I suppose that’s where my meanness comes from, when it arises: from a disdain for being questioned constantly and the social pressure to deal with such questioning gracefully, with a smile, the pressure to be nice and pleasant and, if mean at all, to dress it up as a joke, for plausible deniability. The public voice is salty because of what the private voice has to say.

Saint X by Caroline Cabrera
Black Lawrence Press
Published January 31, 2018

Caroline Cabrera is the author of two previous full length collections of poetry, The Bicycle Year and Flood Bloom, as well as a chapbook, Dear Sensitive Beard. She is chapbook editor of Bloom Books, an imprint of Jellyfish Magazine. She lives in South Florida.

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