There are many hats and selves in this collection, “Still-Life With God.” In fact, you have a poem, “My Persona,” where you say, “My persona /is filled with / bird song. It carries smiles in a jar.” So where do you place yourself in these poems as a speaker and as a writer?

I think people often mistake the fact that ‘the voice’ of the writer/speaker is not always the poet. My poems exist in many voices, sometimes my own biography, but very often, I am taking on a mask or a persona of another. I’ve always loved Elizabeth Bishop’s poems for the way she acquired many selves. Ultimately, these beings are all some part of me, in some incarnation—well, because they are my creation, out of my psyche, sometimes from memory, sometimes from my imagination. I am not beholden to anything but ‘the truth’ the poem tries to excavate.


“Still-Life With God” is a pretty intense religious sounding title. Is this a religious book?

Well, if you think of a heathen as religious zealot, that would be me—not. I’ve never had a stitch of religious schooling, but I was raised as a ‘cultural Jew’—we celebrated the main holidays, but that was about it. My mother was going through a divorce and taught nursery school with four children to raise, which didn’t give her time to read or sing to us. But on holidays, we’d open the dining table up and put a nice table cloth on at Passover. I struggle with my own beliefs daily. I am confused about who and what I believe about life and death and everything in between. I think one of my motivations in this book is to ‘take back’ God from religion. But more directly, living life and writing about it is a ‘religious’ act in the largest sense of the word.


Would you please make a list of the things you have staring at you in your writing space and tell us about any significance for any of your objects collecting dust.

An Elizabeth Murray print of a kitchen table turned upside down and chair in that EM very pop 90’s kind of way—I’ve always crushed on her work. Under that is a framed photo of me and a bestie, Jodi, I lost a few years ago to cancer. I am a collage artist too, so I have a table laid out with a bunch of crap—jars of buttons, stamps, worry dolls, swaths of cloth scraps of paper. “Frog and Toad” is up there, too, and a Halloween mask of a woman who looks like a creepy Betty-Boop. A little fan sign I got at AWP/Seattle that says “Writers Are Hot,” a favorite photo of my son, Eli, when he was about 6—his first school photo. An abacus. A twill of ribbon. A still packaged Curious George toy, a statue of a big busted woman in a blue dress with big lips and a cigarette coming out of her month, which I bought my hubby as a birthday gift, and I stole it back, as I appreciated her more. A John Coltrane print. Two bookshelves. Piles of shit. More piles of shit. A can of ink. Old CDs with nothing to play them on anymore. I can’t give them away. A little magnet of a cowboy.


Okay, are you ready for the dreaded questions—what is your process?

I agree with one of my favorite writers, Clarice Lispector, who said “No, it is not easy to write. It is as hard as breaking rocks. Sparks and splinters fly like shattered steel.” I must be the last of a dying breed that still writes in long-hand. The ‘creating’ part happens for me in the physical use of brain-to-hand, the ink, the pen, the kind of pen, Pilot—G2—has to be just so. I love doodling in the margins and the whole process of pen to the page feels like the virginal part, and I will never give it up. For me it’s the cleansing, taking a warm bath part. Step 2—when I finally feel the doorstep and my way into the house, then I need to clean, fix, dust, prune—then I like to type it up, see it more objectively. Part I and Part II are crucial for me. I’ve tried to write directly on a computer screen and always feel I’ve missed the foreplay.


What is the significance for you of the Tomas Tranströmer epigraph: “I walk slowly into myself, through a forest of empty suits of armor”? Also, what is the take-away from this book and what do you think you were after?

The line spoke to me because it seems more and more, daily, there are so many skins to shed—so much real-life detritus, to get to that real place of solitude—that place where writing, thinking and creating can occur. Anymore, with social media always afoot like a puppy that always revved to play, and it’s an all-night diner, too, never closed. This world is a domain of doors and boxes, and it seems I have to walk through a forest of trees and boxes to get to the place of questioning, where a poet lives.


What’s next for you on the horizon with writing projects?

Is it ever like writing a bicycle. This biz all about words—always good to take a break. See the white space, live life, and then go back to the drawing board. I am always about the same subjects I’ve always been obsessed with—self, body, mental health, family—all the strange polarities and interrelationships. So I will probably continue to follow this trail. The news and current events also provide much fodder these days. In this damn dystopian world, I am glad to be among other poets, writers, and artists just trying to make sense of the mad world around us.

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CYNTHIA ATKINS is the author of Psyche’s Weathers and In The Event of Full Disclosure, and the forthcoming collection Still-Life With God. Her poems have appeared in numerous journals, including, Alaska Quarterly Review, Apogee, BOMB, Cleaver Magazine, Cultural Weekly, Denver Quarterly, Diode, Florida Review, Flock Lit, Green Mountains Review, Le Zaporogue, Los Angeles Review, North American Review, Rust + Moth, Sweet: A Literary Confection, SWWIM, Tampa Review, and Verse Daily, and nominated for Pushcart and Best of The Net. Formerly, Atkins worked as the assistant director of the Poetry Society of America. She has received fellowships from Bread Loaf and the VCCA, Atkins teaches creative writing at Blue Ridge Community College and lives on the Maury River of Rockbridge County VA with her family. More info at www.cynthiaatkins.com, https://www.facebook.com/Cynthia-Atkins-190490067665164/ and @catkinspoet.

3 responses to “Cynthia Atkins: The TNB Self-Interview”

  1. Thanks so much for housing this interview and poem @TheNervousBreakdown—grateful for this space! ✍🏿

  2. So much thanks, Sara—for reading and stopping! 🙏🎆✍🏿🧤

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