“Cubic Zirconia,” a poem by Erica Goss, was published Dec. 5th in Moria.
I’m fake-sick, trying to fool
my body into declaring war,
a war I cannot see, only feel.
I think most wars are like this:
once unleashed, they have their
own ways of behaving that
have nothing to do with us.
We won’t know when the worst
is over, can’t move until the all-clear
shatters the air leaving us limp
with relief. Or maybe my body
is having a torrid affair with a
lover who doesn’t exist.
Wouldn’t be the first time.
The racing heart, the prickling
skin, the dazed feeling. It’s all
too real to be real, has that tang
of the huckster, the con,
the snake-oil salesman. I’m alive,
too alive, brain lit with a cheap glow,
like the cubic zirconia rings
at the jewelry counter,
shining from their little velvet boxes
with a ridiculous optimism you never see
in real diamonds. Today, my mouth tastes
like a metal spoon, and it all smells
slightly burnt. On little ghost feet,
tiny dead creatures scatter under my skin.
Erica Goss is the author of Night Court, winner of the 2017 Lyrebird Award from Glass Lyre Press. Her flash essay, “Just a Big Cat,” was one of Creative Nonfiction’s top-read stories for 2021. Recent and upcoming publications include The Georgia Review, Oregon Humanities, Creative Nonfiction, North Dakota Quarterly, Spillway, A-Minor, Redactions, Consequence, The Sunlight Press, The Pedestal, San Pedro River Review, and Critical Read. Erica served as Poet Laureate of Los Gatos, California, from 2013-2016. She lives in Eugene, Oregon, where she teaches, writes and edits the newsletter Sticks & Stones. Learn more on her website.
Amsterdam University College’s creative writing students, in an on-going project with Superstition Review, have chosen Erica Goss’s “Cubic Zirconia” for a feature in our blog. They have also curated a variety of questions for Erica Goss about “Cubic Zirconia” and her writing process. We are pleased to include those questions and Erica Goss’s responses in an interview below. Due to the time difference, this interview was conducted by Brennie Shoup, Superstition Review’s blog editor. Please note that the transcript has been edited for clarity.
Brennie Shoup: Hello! My name is Brennie, and I am Superstition Review’s blog editor. Today, I will be interviewing Erica Goss on behalf of the Amsterdam University College students, who have curated a variety of questions for her about the recent piece she submitted to Superstition Review. Alright, would you like to introduce yourself now, Erica?
Erica Goss: Hi, Brennie. Thank you so much for having me! It’s really an honor to be here, and thank you to the students at the Amsterdam University. I’m Erica Goss, and I’m a poet and nonfiction memoir writer. I live in Eugene, Oregon, and I’m very happy to be here.
BS: Alright, awesome. We’re so happy to have you! So why did you choose “Cubic Zirconia” to be the title of your piece?
EG: Well, I don’t know if you realize it or not, but it’s actually a pandemic poem. And I realized that the world is getting really tired of pandemic poems. Who wants to read another poem about loss and death and our government’s completely bumbling response to the whole thing? So I was trying to figure out—I guess, not consciously—a fresh way to tell this same story. And I had just had my second booster shot. So I don’t usually have any reactions to boosters. I don’t have reactions to flu shots—I just don’t. But I thought about what was going on in my body. The way to protect yourself was to fool yourself into thinking you were sick. And that’s where the fake flu came from.
So in May of this year, I was writing in my journal, sitting outside in my garden. That was right after I got the vaccine. And then the idea of the fake flue somehow popped in my mind with the idea of fake diamonds—which are “cubic zirconia.” They were a big deal for a while. Everybody had a cubic zirconia. Somehow, they just struck me as flashy and fake—and that that flashy and fake thing went with getting a vaccine to trick your body into thinking it was a real thing. Like you might trick someone into thinking a cubic zirconia was the real thing—a real diamond. Those two ideas combined in my head, and then the poem took off.
And, of course, cubic zirconia is a good title. It’s probably better than “I’m having the fake flu” or something like that. It was always the title, and then I just had to figure out how the poem fit in there.
BS: I have to agree. It’s an extremely good title—very eye-catching. You know, you see and you’re like “I want to know more.”
So your last line “everything sparkles,” the students really loved it. So why did you choose it as your last line?
EG: Well, thank you for the nice words on that last line. That last line was very deliberate. I picked that last line before the rest of the poem was done. I kind of knew that would be the last line. It refers to that false sparkle that the vaccine and the cubic zirconia share. And it’s also a reference to the Shakespeare quote, “All that glitters is not gold” from The Merchant of Venice. It’s kind of a round-about way of saying everything sparkles—everything can’t really sparkle. Something’s false in there if everything sparkles, right? But sometimes when you’re sick, I’m sure you’ve had that feeling of when your blood pressure drops when you stand up, and you almost feel like you’re going to black out. And everything is kind of fuzzy at the edges. That’s also sort of what went into that. It’s a physical and mental way of connecting those two ideas.
And then maybe it was an optimistic comment on the coming of summer. I wrote this poem in May and June, and hopefully a reduction in the pandemic—which I think did happen, at least during the summer. Our numbers are probably going up now because of the winter. I was kind of like, “Maybe we can have this—maybe this fall sparkle can actually be real.” That was why I put that at the end.
BS: Yeah, yeah. I would say—it’s interesting how it’s almost hopeful but also a warning at the same time. I think that’s very cleverly done.
EG: Yes, that’s true.
BS: And then, how long did the process of writing “Cubic Zirconia” take? Did you spread it out over a long time, or was it a poem that came together relatively fast?
EG: I guess it took a little while. The poem started on May 20th, which I know because I wrote it in my journal. Students, always have a journal and put the dates on. So there’s a note on May 20th titled, “Here I am gardening after the second vaccine booster. I’m outside putting mulch around my strawberry plants like a slightly deranged mother, wobbly from poison. I’m having a fake flu; I’m having the cubic zirconia version of the flu.” And then I just sort of made those notes, and I was like, “Hmm. I think there’s something here.” That was around almost the end of May, and I finished the poem early in June. So I think it was probably about three weeks from start to finish. And from my notes and stuff, I think it went through about ten drafts. It was kind of mushing around—although I always had “everything sparkles” at the end. I had to get the poem to dribble down into what that would actually mean. How I could end on that line. I think that’s what took longer than actually composing the poem, composing it so it would end there. Yeah, took about three weeks.
BS: I always find it interesting that sometimes those end lines come to you, but not necessarily the middle ones. A lot of people know endings for stories or poems at the beginning, right?
EG: Yes. That’s true. You have to write your way to that ending. And if you’re really kind of—if you’re really depending on that ending, then it really limits how you can write the poem. If you decided to chuck the ending, you could change it. But I really wanted that to be the ending.
BS: Yeah, I think it’s a good ending. Do you write your poems through personal experience? If so, do you find it hard to put your thoughts into words? You sort of already touched on this with the journal, but maybe if you want to expand.
EG: Yeah, all of my poems come from my life. All of my writing comes from my life in one way or another. For poems, I write many, many, many, many words, and the hard part is deciding which words to keep—because most of them are removed, right? In the process of writing a poem, I’ll probably get rid of—I don’t know—a thousand words, maybe at some point. If I really count up all the drafts, and all the times that I put the word in and took it out again; I go back and forth with that.
But it’s a really good question to ask about personal experience. I think some of us writers—especially young writers—have been told falsely that they should not rely on their own personal experience. So then you get these really confusing messages. I have some teachers say, “Write what you know,” and then some say, “No, no, don’t write what you know.” The thing is that if you want to write about what you don’t know, by the time you write about it, you now know it. It all becomes part of what you know.
I think it’s a really good place to start—in your personal life—and some writers never go farther than that. Some move into different topics, different subjects—some have them kind of thrust upon them. I was thinking of a lot of the poets who are in exile, who never wanted to be in exile, and suddenly they’re faced with political upheaval that they never asked for. But they’ve got great stuff to write about; they’re writing eloquently about that. Or disasters that happen, or things in your family that you didn’t foresee. These are not things you could possibly anticipate, because you wouldn’t want to have them happen. You wouldn’t necessarily ask for that stuff. I think it’s always a good idea to start with what you know very, very well, and then keep educating yourself. So that what you know grows, right? So that you keep adding to your wealth of experience that you can pull from. And keep notes! Write all that stuff down.
I think I read somewhere there was an auction with Joan Didion’s stuff, and people were looking at her notebooks. I guess they’re selling for millions of dollars, and she would keep notes all the time. There were even some notebooks that were blank that belonged to her—but still sold, just because they belonged to her. She didn’t get to fill in all the notebooks, but it’s a good practice. So then what you know grows, and you know more and more. You never run out of ideas.
BS: I think that’s a good way to never run out of ideas, yeah. It’s a good thought. And then, how does the process of writing nonfiction differ from your process for writing poetry?
EG: That is a really good story. I look at both of them as ways of telling a story. Sometimes I’ll look at a topic, and I’ll think, I don’t know if it’s going to be a poem or an essay or a piece of prose—or an article. I don’t know, often when I’m looking at topics. Sometimes I know right away this will be a poem. Most of my writing starts out as a poem. Even a review or an article—I think I’ve written almost a hundred reviews, up to this point. And they almost all start out with the question being, “How did it feel?” To me, poetry is about how did it feel, and prose is more like what happened. So if I want to tell a story about something that’s long and involved and has many chapters and requires research—I’m certainly not going to write that in a poetic form. I think really long poems lose their energy pretty quickly, and I think people really don’t want to have a poem that’s longer than—at the absolute most—500 words. To me, that’s a long poem.
I was looking at how long most of my poems are when you contacted me. They’re usually around 200 words. That’s about it—that’s where I run out of gas, too, as the writer. If, for example, I’m writing about something that has to do with politics or mental illness—you know, all the topics I tend to write about a lot—the environment… If I really want to write a poem, I’m going to look for those—not cubic zirconia moments—but those real diamonds in there that show how a particular event in history or something recently happened effected me or somebody I know. But I’m not going to use the same approach if I want to tell the story of that event—unless I wanted to write a whole cycle of poems. And that’s something I haven’t attempted yet, but that’s possible.
I mean, some people are great at writing political poems, and that is not one of my strengths. But writing about topical issues… Like weird things you see in the newspaper, or just an odd fragment that someone says in passing. Those can be really good triggers for poetry. They are not such good triggers for prose I think—for prose I want to tell you a lot more details. And I don’t want you the reader to figure things out, so much. But for poetry, I’m giving you, the reader, a lot more leeway, and I’m trusting you to make those connections because that’s what I think poetry does the best. It stimulates your brain into making connections that—I have no idea about, that you will make on your own.
That was a little bit long-winded, but I see them as two separate ways of telling a particular story. I could tell the same story in poetry or prose, but it would be a different experience for the reader—for sure.
BS: I think it’s very interesting to see someone who writes both of them, and how those processes differ, even for the same person. And then, do you ever follow prompts when you write? And how many hours a day would you say you write?
EG: I do often follow prompts when I write. I find them very helpful when I’m stuck for something to write about. Sometimes the urge to write will just hit, but I don’t have any particular topic in mind. And sometimes those can be the most fun because I’ll just do things… I have another poet friend, and we’ll switch off words. We’ll each come up with a few words, and we’ll just toss them around to see what happens because poems are—someone said—machines made of words. And they require words to exist, but the relationship can be fairly loose and open to interpretation. So when you have good words—or any words, really—you can find the story in those words. You don’t even really need to know what it is before. It’s like going somewhere without a map. It can be more fun because you can discover things on your own. And you might get lost, but you’ll find your way back hopefully.
So prompts are really useful—like I said—if I’m in the mood but I don’t really have a topic to write about. Or if I’m sort of stuck, it’s a way to stave off the writer’s block. If I’m feeling stuck or if I’m feeling like the poem is ending too soon—sometimes that happens, it’s like, “Oh, it wrapped up.” But I know it’s not really done. My brain jumped to the end, and now we’re done.
Then I’ll go through prompt books. I have a lot of them here. Some of them are my tried and true ones, and I’ll just read. I don’t even need to know what the prompt is, just reading it will get me going. But I would have to say: the most generative prompt for me is reading other people’s poetry. If I’m stuck on a poem, especially—this doesn’t work for prose, but this works for poetry. If I’m stuck on a poem, I’ll just sit down and start reading Shakespeare sonnets, or I’ll start reading some poetry by Mary Oliver. It almost doesn’t matter, as long as it’s good poetry. And I will slowly get over the anxiety that I’m stuck, and those ideas will flow.
And the stuff that I write isn’t going to sound like Shakespeare or Mary Oliver. It just opens some doors for me, neurologically.
How many hours a day do I write? I write anywhere from one to eight hours a day, depends on the day. The days where I get a lot of writing done are really good days; I always feel really great at the end of it. The day’s a blank canvas, and I have articles to write; I have reviews; I have an essay I’m working on. I’m starting to write a book. And I just kind of go, “Yay!” And I can just lose myself in my writing. Sometimes I feel like I’ve been in a dream all day, and I wake up and I’m like, “Oh, it’s five o’clock, and I’m awake finally.”
But most days are not like that. The days I have teaching to do, or I have other obligations. Sometimes I’m waiting at the doctor’s office, and I’m scribbling things… In fact, often I’ll be writing things in my book. It kind of depends on the day, but also… If you want to be a writer, it’s one of those things that you can really fit into all the little pieces of your day. It would be very hard to fit ice-skating or soccer into these little bits of time that you find that you have. But you can do something as innocuous as writing. You can do that. You can even write on your phone, if you want to do it that way. You can end up with a whole lot of ideas at the end of a busy day, if you just pay attention.
BS: Yeah, I have to say young me really took advantage of the Notes app on my phone. And then, for our next question, do you mind if readers don’t fully understand what you try to transmit in a poem?
EG: Well, I can’t really anticipate what readers will see in my work. But I think it’s really exciting and amazing that we all bring this wealth of experience and expectation to any work of art that we encounter. I was really lucky last summer that I went to New York City, and I went to a bunch of art museums. This was what popped into my mind when I read the question. I was just walking along, looking at photographs and sculptures and art and mixed media and videos and all the stuff that they have… I was thinking, everybody in this room is seeing something different from what I’m seeing. We’re all looking at the same thing, but we’re all bringing our own life experience and our own particular biases and lack of biases to these works of art.
And I think it’s the same with reading. With writing, with encountering any written work… I also think that readers create the poem when they’re reading it. They create that as they are reading. They’re finding things in the work that I didn’t even know existed. And sometimes people will tell me that: “You know, this poem reminded me so much of my mom!” And it’s like… It was about a tree in my backyard, so who knows, right? And that’s what’s so mysterious and wonderful about sharing your art, which is why I really encourage people to try and get their art out there in any way they can. Share it, publish it, find ways to further that conversation. Because you never know who you might touch with a poem you wrote or whose life might be influenced that way.
But the gift of connecting with readers is that you don’t know what they’re going to find in your poem, and that’s really exciting I think.
BS: I love that response. And, then, for our final question, or there’s two questions here, I guess: What prompted you to start writing poetry? And then was it always your genre of choice?
EG: I started writing poems when I was very young. I think I was eight when I wrote my first poem, and from then on, I would write these little poem-like things in little spiral-bound notebooks that my parents would buy for me. I was lucky my parents would always encourage me to write, and they always praised my writing—even when it probably didn’t deserve it. And they introduced me to their writer friends, and I grew up thinking a poet was a totally normal thing. You could be a poet; that would be a job you could have, a practice that you would have.
I saw how my words could move people, and that was kind of exciting and kind of startling. Once I scared my mom to death by writing a poem about death. And when I saw her react like that, I wrote a poem to counter that one, which was about being born. I was hoping to make up for the death poem. But I think the death poem was inspired by finding a dead bird that had hit the window outside, and I was just looking at it… And it was not moving. I didn’t feel sad; I just kind of felt curious, like, “What is this about?” The poem was curious. I still have it; it’s a very strange little block of words. I can’t believe I wrote that when I was eight.
But I think poets are a little odd that way. I’m not sure it’s a gift—or the other thing. Even really young poets look at things differently than other kids, other people. It teaches you not to talk about things that you know you’re going to get a weird look for, but it can put you in a strange corner, too.
I don’t know what prompted me, but I know it was a very strong urge. I loved words; I learned how to read when I was really young. And I taught my brother to read when he was really young. I just loved how words were so important and so amazing. I love fonts; I love big words; I love word stamps. Just the physicality of words. I always did, even as a kid.
So essays and memoirs—which is the prose that I write—those are both an extension of the poetry-writing urge, I guess. Even my reviews—as I mentioned before—all start out in a form that I would call a prose-poem. I do certainly write notes that look like prose. But they feel more to me like “How did it feel?” impulse that you have in poetry. I’ll ask myself: How did it feel to read this book? How do I feel at the end of it? Do I feel confused? Do I feel anxious? Do I feel like maybe the author has taught me some new thing that I didn’t know before, that I didn’t know existed? Those are usually the good ones. Do I want to read more by this writer? That’s another signal that this was a really good book. And if I don’t feel those things, how can I present my experience reading that book in a way that is most open to the reader, who might read this book and not… Like I said, we don’t know what a reader is going to see in a piece of written work, so they may read my review and go, “I really want to read that book!” Whereas I was a little confused.
With essays, I guess I’m looking for that deeper meaning. I’m looking for the motivations in the story, whether it’s about me or someone else. But with poetry, it’s very clear to me that that is an emotional thing. That is about the emotions of that moment. And with “Cubic Zirconia,” I guess I was feeling a little bit sarcastic at the same time as I was feeling kind of terrified. Because this pandemic has been going on so long… And it’s like, “What can you do?” The only thing you can do is get your shot and then wait, and hope you stay well. Poetry’s always been my number one genre, and I think from that point, from that practice, all of the other wants have evolved. They revolve around that style of writing, that type of writing.
BS: Well, that’s so interesting! I loved hearing all of your responses to all of the questions. They were so well thought-out, and I know that the students will also really appreciate them. We really thank you for taking the time to submit to Superstition Review and then agreeing to do this interview. It really means a lot, and we really loved your work and all of that.
EG: Well, thank you, Brennie, for asking me. And I’m so happy to be able to share some thoughts about poetry and writing with more people. I’m very happy that you asked me.