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Featuring: Cynthia Atkins

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Photo: Anne Valerie Portriat

Is the author of Psyche’s WeathersIn The Event of Full Disclosure (CW Books), and Still-Life With God (Saint Julian Press 2020), and a collaborative chapbook from Harbor Editions, 2022. Her work has appeared in many journals, including Alaska Quarterly Review, Anti- Heroin Chic, BOMB, Cider Press Review, Diode, Green Mountains Review, Indianapolis Review, Los Angeles Review, Rust + Moth, North American Review, Permafrost, SWWIM, Thrush, Tinderbox, and Verse Daily. Formerly, Atkins worked as the assistant director for the Poetry Society of America, and has taught English and Creative Writing, most recently at Blue Ridge Community College. She is an Interviews Editor for American Micro Reviews and Interviews. She earned her MFA from Columbia University and has earned fellowships and prizes from Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, The Writer’s Voice, and Writers@Work. Atkins lives on the Maury River of Rockbridge County, Virginia, with artist, Phillip Welch and their family. Website Instagram Facebook Twitter.

TNR: What is your earliest memory of poetry?

CA: My earliest memory of wanting to write was in the 3rd grade when our teacher gave us all a visual image and we were supposed to write about it.  I’ll never forget mine, it was a cartoon of a horse in a bathtub.  When I began to ascribe words to it, this was a new sensation, and was—now I know to call it, ‘synesthesia’ kind of feeling, a comingling of the senses. I found this feeling of words and imagery to describe something—was really ringing my bell.  *I  remember that defining moment very vividly—that words and images made my boat float.

 

TNR: What are the circumstances in which you came to write poetry?

CA: Trauma got me writing. From an early age, it was a salve I turned to when I felt stressed by life’s circumstances. I was born in Chicago, the suburbs.  My parents were getting divorced, back when divorce was still very taboo.  My father was bi-polar, my parents argued.  Sometimes it was violent—just a few incidents, but those are enough to rattle a young girl’s cage. I felt pain, rage, doubt, fear, uncertainty—. So, at about 9 yrs. old, I discovered the page, and it became my secret ear. It listened to me, and I could tell it any appalling thing I wanted to.  Then I discovered image and metaphor, and cadence and prose rhythm, and line breaks in poems.

I have always felt somewhat like an outsider, or misfit—never really belonging to groups, and a sense of ‘witnessing’ things from the outside. I think this is the writer’s vantage point. Writing makes me ask the large questions of life. Yes, maybe it is my sense of the existential world I am always looking to excavate, dig up the weeds. As Emily Dickinson said, “Nature is a haunted house—but Art—is a house that tries to be haunted.” Art is my salve and salvation too. I tell my students: ‘Writing is the interior mirror.’

TNR: What does your ART say about you?

 

CA:  Well, recently, I told someone this is what I want written on my tombstone: 'Everything is context'. Poetry serves as the core to everything I believe.  Everything changes according the context: time, season, place, situation.  My art feels like this too—which is why I like to look at things from different angles. *I’ve been trying to write the quintessential cricket poem. Ha. My Art is made piecemeal from the same things I am made of: family, art, faith, health, love, loss and death. And always try to make lemonade from lemons. After all these years, it doesn’t seem to get any easier, either.

 

TNR:  Who or what have been your biggest influences? 

 

CA: Visual Artists: *Matisse, Elizabeth Murray, Anselm Keifer, Philip Guston, Vermeer, Hopper, Diane Arbus, Cindy Sherman, Kandinsky, Anselm Kiefer, Louise Bourgeois, Leonora Carrington, Marcel Duchamp, Miro.  Filmmakers: Louis Malle, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Federico Fellini, Sydney Pollock, Stanley Kubrick, Jane Campion, Kathryn Bigelow, Sofia Coppola. Musicians: Laura Nyro, John Coltrane, Nick Cave, Tom Waits, Pat Matheny, Jaco Pastorious, Marianne Faithful, Kate Bush, Joni Mitchell, Traffic, Les McCann & Eddie Harris, Rickie Lee Jones and some newer stuff: Twenty-One Pilots, Middle Kids, Vampire Weekend, Death Cab For Cutie, Benne, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Manchester Orchestra, Keith Jarrett. Writers: *William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath, Ann Sexton, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, John Ashbery, Amy Gerstler, Muriel Rukeyser, EB White, Jorie Graham, Borges, Italo Calvino, Proust, John Cheever, James Agee, Shirley Jackson, Eudora Welty, Brenda Hillman, Ada Limón, Diane Seuss, Dean Rader, Terrence Hayes, Ross Gay, Dorianne Laux, Lee Upton, Muriel Rukeyser, Robert Hass, Emily Dickinson.

 

 

TNR: What do you consider to be your greatest achievements?

 

CA:  Oh, well my amazing son, “The Physicist” and that he is well-rounded and gracious too. Creating a happy, healthy and loving home, with my hubby and partner—staying-in-love after all these years. Writing three books, and I take great pride in every single publication in every journal—I’m grateful for every hard-won space.  I am still writing and I see that as the main accomplishment. I try to be a loud mouth in my community (small southern US town in Virginia) when I feel it is warranted. I spoke out recently when my town moved my voting polling place to a church, instead of a community center.  And sometimes it goes against the grain, when you try to remind folks about the ‘separation of church and state’—in a small southern town.  Artists and poets must step out of our comfort zones and shake things up, free democracies depend on it.  I try to be in the moment that is right now.

 

TNR: What do you think are a poet’s responsibilities, if any?

 

CA: I think I answered this in the above question.  But yes, to shake things up and making the status quo uncomfortable. To quote Clarice Lispector, “I write to save someone’s life, probably my own.” And sadly, from the looks of our world at present, fighting fascism.

 

TNR: Where do you see your work taking you?

 

CA: My writing continues to challenge me to ask the bigger questions, to face my fears, and to make Art with words and sounds and line breaks. Hopefully, to extend my craft—take bigger risks, try new trapeze acts and forms. And quite literally, since the world shuddered on the very same day as the publication of my last book, “Still-Life With God” and many readings and travels scheduled. So now that we are somewhat beyond a world-wide pandemic, I hope to get on the road a bit more for readings, see friends, and sights, and eat in some wonderful restaurants. I just hope to keep writing and having something to say about the smaller particulars of life. My aim is to say more with less.

 

TNR: What is Joie de Vivre to you and how do you achieve it?

 

CA: Joie de Vivre—My great joy is my almost daily drive to a certain spot or three to look at a majestic mountain sunsets—the drive, the windows down, listening to my favorite tunes, sometimes it’s the only real sense of solitude I get anymore.  It centers me, sometimes I scream in the car, sometimes I meditate, or think about a poem.  It’s my cubicle of alone.  I think ‘social media’ has virtually stolen our souls. Our Real solitude is hard to come by and so needed.  These car drives literally got me through the pandemic.  I’m so lucky and blessed to be in love with my partner, Phillip—now that our son is off in the world, we have been enjoying our little love nest—good food, good garden, good films, books, good music—enjoying the simple pleasures, brings a lot of Joie de Vivre. We have a beautiful home on the Maury River of Rockbridge County, Virginia, and it brings us solace and joy in what’s fast becoming a very scary, crude, fascist world here in Amerika—women’s autonomy, banning books—these are scary and precarious times. So home is a sacred place now.

 

NR: Who are you in one word?

 

CA:  Writer.

 

TNR: What is the world to you in one word?

 

CA: Three words on my tombstone: Everything is context.

 

TNR: Who are you in the world?

 

CA:  A mother, partner, poet, artist, activist, humanitarian, rebel, bad-ass, pundit, truths seeker, arbiter, pot smoker, art tracker, dog lover.  Someone trying to see and feel honestly. To be a witness, thinker, arbiter, lover, friend, mother, sister, daughter, vulnerable, fallible human.

 

Thank you, Nelligan Review, for these most probing and interesting questions that made me ponder some good things. I am so grateful for all your support for my work, it means the world.

 

And thank YOU, Cynthia Atkins, for your poetry.

The world needs it.

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