Cynthia Atkins is the author of Psyche’s Weathers and In The Event of Full Disclosure, and the forthcoming chapbook, Still-Life With God (Hermeneutic Chaos Press, 2018). Her work has appeared in numerous journals, including Alaska Quarterly Review, BOMB, Cleaver Magazine, Cultural Weekly, Del Sol Review, Florida Review, Green Mountains Review, Harpur Palate, Hermeneutic Chaos, Le Zaporogue, North American Review, Poetry Fix, Prairie Schooner, Seneca Review, Tampa Review, Tinderbox, Thrush, Valparaiso Review and Verse Daily. She is formerly the assistant director for the Poetry Society of America, and has taught English and Creative Writing, most recently at Blue Ridge Community College, where she curates a quarterly Reading Series, Lit-Salon. Atkins earned her MFA from Columbia University and has earned fellowships and prizes from Breadloaf Writers’ Conference, The Writer’s Voice, and Writers@Work. She lives on the Maury River of Rockbridge County, Virginia, with artist Phillip Welch and their family. More work and info at: www.cynthiaatkins.com
In what ways has the current political crisis stymied or transformed your actual process as a poet?
I feel nervous in the groin and it’s a different kind of nervous than my normal personal angst. I feel true panic and worry for all of humanity since the 2016 election. This is not hyperbole. We have a narcissistic madman at the helm—and I worry for all of us, but especially the people who are imminently vulnerable—refugees, undocumented, POC, LGBTQ, anyone marginal—all these communities are immediately at risk The bigotry, racism, xenophobia and misogyny that have laced this administration have set us back years. They have appealed to fears, and work to be divisive, not uniting a broken country. June Jordan said it well, 'I am a stranger, learning to love the strangers around me.'
The realization that this guy holds the nuclear code--his misinformed and bullish tweets undermine national security every day. The news changes by the hour—it has been impossible to go about daily routines, let alone, the 'creative' process. Yes, it has interrupted, but it has also awakened. But writers and artists have faced persecution and oppression throughout history. This new regime has made us ‘wake up’ and take hold of our Democracy—and maybe that’s the only good thing—realizing that our liberties cannot be taken for granted. This devil is a TV Evangelist with hurricane hair and hubris—so we best batten the hatches!
The combination of extreme nationalism and extreme religion is dangerous. 'Potus' and his henchmen have surmounted a campaign of hate, greed and fear-mongering. But they have also trumpeted the working class and made them feel ‘seen.’ This last election proved that Neo-liberalism has also failed. We need a new system. The election was a perfect storm of chaos and malfunction in every part of the system. Yes, it has stymied me, but it is also propelling me—toward new subject matter, and a stronger impetus to use art as activism and make some sense of the senseless where I can. Under brutal oppression, Akhmatova said, 'I am in the middle of it: chaos and poetry; poetry and love and again, complete chaos. Pain, disorder, occasional clarity; and at the bottom of it all: only love; poetry. Sheer enchantment, fear, humiliation. It all comes with love.' I think we are holding tight to our humanity now—feeling the love deeper too.
Marcuse, a Marxist refugee who fled from Nazi Germany, said the first step toward social transformation is protest, refusal. How can poets refuse through their art?
One of the things I realize most is that artists and writers need community, need solidarity to accomplish and transform intent into action. Personally, I am such a loner, an introvert--although I hide this well too—but I know for any movement to take shape, people need to piggy-back in force and will. We need to start locally—in our own neighborhoods and streets and homes. We need to vote in local elections, turn out and show up. Also, the work we do as writers is key—writing to local newspapers, speaking out in print and in conversation, also calling out racism where we see it—even with friends and family. The apathy has been thick. It is a wake-up call for all of us. Democracy is fragile, it is a living and breathing thing, it depends on our participation. 'Action, as distinguished from fabrication, is never possible in isolation; to be isolated is to be deprived of the capacity to act,' admonished Hannah Arendt. So I am trying to step out of my ‘reclusive baggage’ and connect where I can.
#AWP #WritersResist The White House Vigil---to 'wake from sleep'--protect the marginal and afflicted, to speak up and speak out, to hold on to our liberties and rights, call out indignities, racists and fascists. To rally for a free press and be stewards of justice and our civil and human rights. Photo by Mai Der Vang
What do you see as personal/creative challenge(s) for the future and how do you intend to overcome it/them?
The challenges are many in the immediate future. I always grapple with the worthiness of what I do as a writer—how does it contribute to the better good. I think it is important to keep focused, to not get ‘spread out like a warm breakfast’ as my late father-in-law, Kenneth, used to say. That is what is so exhausting as of late—it is not one or two things we have to worry about—education, the environment, our bodies—it is everything we hold dear in our flawed democracy. In just a month, these guys have gutted everything. But the things I was focused on before the election—my writing, my advocacy for mental health, and more fairness for adjunct professors—these things are still important, and in my own small ways, I want and need to stay on course although now, I will also add calling my senators, trying to help protect those that are most vulnerable in these dire circumstances. So I am also trying to stay focused on the things that mattered before—because they still matter now.
My brand new manuscript, Still-Life With God, has just been accepted for publication by Hermeneutic Chaos Press, 2018, I’m very elated to say. It deals with some of the same obsessions as in my two previous collections—family bonds, mental health—illness and wellness, love, sex, death. In this book, I am attempting to take ‘God' back from religion for myself—also grapple with the questions of the self, in relation to this new paradigm that has sucker-punched us, ala social media. The beast has us plugged in 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and I’m afraid it has drugged us stupid. It is the new drug of the 21st Century, and we are addicted. If I were sociologist, I would be doing an autopsy on the cultural effects, but I am a writer, so I am probing with a pen. Ultimately, I think it is stealing our souls. It is also a forceful tool, one that allows us to come together--‘bandwidth’ and all--unite us with numbers and strength. It is a double edge in a culture crippled by selfies and the endless loop of the endless loop. By the same token, we have also created the monster, the evil portent of Trump—as a culture we have fed on the teats of the media and his megalomaniacal ego. We have engaged in this circus too—yes, in horror, but we are also part of the problem. We have a lot to work on—living together as humans in harmony.
Author Cynthia Atkins
Photo by Alexis Rhone Fancher