Reviewing and Interviewing with Kate Cumiskey

Reviewing and Interviewing with Kate Cumiskey


Kate Cumiskey lives with her partner Mikel in coastal central Florida. She has a social justice novel, Ana, forthcoming with Finishing Line Press, and a biography, Surfers’ Rules: The Mike Martin Story, forthcoming with Silent e Publishing; both will be out in late 2022. She is currently concentrating her writing to reflect her perspective of social justice without judgement or paternalism as regards homelessness, and continuing her work in meeting the needs of homeless human beings in her community. She also leads efforts locally to ascertain safety and educational fidelity for students within the public school system through boots-on-the-ground advocacy. 

Our Poetry Editor, Bree Hoffman, read and reviewed Kate’s recent book of poems, The Women Who Gave Up Their Vowels and was lucky enough to also interview Kate about the book. The interview was conducted via email.


Bree Hoffman: “Candor” is the first poem in your book, and it lives up to the name by truth-telling right away. What was your thought process when opening the book with “Candor,” and what is the desired effect for the reader? 

Kate Cumiskey: I’ll start with answering the second part of this question. This poem, I hope, serves as a bit of a warning to readers, “there be dragons here.” I don’t want readers to be surprised by the literal candor in the book. It’s important to me that writers speak truth, and with this book I particularly wanted to focus on truths we don’t normally speak out loud, but which do keep us isolated in that they make us feel alone. In fact, such things as hemorrhoids, death, and rape, while two of those are fortunately not universally shared, are common and lose a bit of their power when acknowledged as such. I had been struggling with a bit of inertia when this book was initially accepted by Finishing Line Press – how do we speak truth in such horrific times? – and I reread Candor to get myself back into the fray of writing what is happening to all of us, right now. FLP was gracious enough to allow the book to change with the rapidly changing, deadly times through the publication process. Candor had originally been the title poem of the book, but that too changed through this process. The title reflects my own grappling with deliberately losing my deep Southern drawl as a married teenager living in California, where nobody deigned to speak to me in public. I trained the South out of my voice, and I miss it. This book is an attempt not to recover those vowels, but to speak, now, with the voice I’ve developed on issues which are absolutely vital to me. So, Candor is a warning for readers.

BH: In poems such as “Dirge” and “Favoring Boys” your activist roots come through. How does activism influence you as a writer, and how do you hope to factor them into your work in the future? 

KC: It is interesting that you choose “activist roots,” as I think of this book as very active in voice, and independent from my roots, so to speak. I do not tend to think of my parents as activists, but you are spot-on; certainly they were, both of them. I hope it is evident in the poems that my mother and I had a very complex relationship, but she was in fact the bravest person I’ve ever known. She did things I’d never dream of, and that I’d consider down-right dangerous, for example, always picking up hitchhikers no matter what, until literally the week before she passed away in 2017. That’s activism. She also reserved judgement on people outside her own circle, such as homeless individuals panhandling, saying judgement was for God-she’d give out money and when less radical individuals called her on that, saying, “what if they spend it on drugs?” She’d say, “It’s a tough life, maybe that’s what they need to get through the night.” My father was a NASA pioneer, and even though his designs were crucial to getting humans to the Moon and our technology into interstellar space, when I asked what he was proudest of in his career, he replied, “I couldn’t keep a secretary. Every one of them out-degreed me and went on in the Program. I helped them all do that.” Activism in the workplace, helping females move forward in what at the time was absolutely a male domain. So, yeah, activist roots. Right now, I’m working on a series of poems about withholding judgement. In fact, one of the central poems to that book, Cokeheads I Have Known, is forthcoming in an anthology, The Literary Parrot, Series Two. I am pushing myself hard to speak about our shared humanity, and to encourage readers to strive to leave judgement behind. Again, there be dragons here. It’s hard to examine your own boundaries.

BH: I noticed recurring themes of motherhood and generational trauma several times. Could you discuss why those themes resurface in your work? 

KC: Again, you bring up something about the book I’d not noticed! Brava; I love it! I remember discussing what I was most concerned about in my work with my dear friend and mentor, Robert Creeley. He’d asked, and I responded, “Being labeled a ‘domestic poet’.” He replied with his fabulous candor, “Well, you are a domestic poet, but you’re in good company.” He was saying he too was a domestic poet. That long-ago conversation freed me of the concern, and I allowed my work to truly reflect my domesticity–what’s more domestic than parenthood? I took a sort of semi-conscious approach to this book, letting it be whatever it wanted to, even to the point of playing with, allowing myself to play with, voice in person. That evolved into my writing some of the easier poems first person, and dealing with more difficult topics, like that generational trauma you cite, in second person, and letting the poems stand that way. It’s subtle, but there, and I hope creates a bit of chaos and discomfort and puzzlement in readers. Like trauma does. I believe the deepest root of that trauma goes back to my father’s loss of his parents before he was eight; he was a Mississippi Depression orphan, son of a sharecropper and a teacher, and although he missed them, as a practical Christian he knew he would be with them again, and told stories about them as if they were just away for a while. Which, from a Christian perspective, they are. So, I really missed my grandparents growing up. In fact, as a small child in school I was confused by other children having two sets; I thought of my Atlanta grandparents, my mother’s, as my father’s parents, too, before such things were explained to me. It came as a real blow that I had missing grandparents. This deepened as it became very apparent I most resemble my paternal grandmother, who was also incredibly domestic, and a teacher; my mother was decidedly not. In fact, because I loved these things and she didn’t, she had me take lessons in sewing, cooking, even deportment and etiquette. Because back in the day a woman should be graceful and I was clumsy as a child, I also took dance lessons for several years; I still love to dance. As far as my work, the obvious answer is also that I use these underlying specificities in my past to attempt to connect with readers. It is important to me that each reader experience each poem differently; what the reader brings to the reading through their own past is as important to me as the words on the page.

BH: What advice would you offer to our readers about writing? 

KC: Connect! Read! Reach out to writers whose work speaks to you, if they are living, and ask the questions you are burning to ask. Ask for help. If you are stuck too deeply in your own, isolating experiences, force yourself to look outward and write just what you see, sans analysis. Take a piece of rotting fruit, put it on the table, smash it to bits, and sit down and write that. Keep the self completely out of the work. That’ll get you writing. Work outward from there: write the doorway, then the hall, then the threshold. Then, write what’s outside that door.

BH: What does your personal writing process look like when you are building a book of poetry? 

KC: It’s a mess! In fact, I’ve recently opened an office in a classic old building in order to grapple with my lack of organization, and am working on a schedule. Seriously, although outwardly I’m a bit of a mess, I’m actually pretty organized and disciplined. I keep poems in print and on the computer, and when they start to build up in number, I have a serious look at them to see if they belong in a group, in a book. And I am always sending out finished poems to find a home in a journal or anthology. My mentor Mark Cox worked hard with me on how to put together books when I was in graduate school, and I still use his method, which is deliciously physical. I find a space with a large surface area – The Women Who Gave Up Their Vowels was put together in my brother’s beautiful kitchen, in the afternoon overlooking Turnbull Bay, Atlantic Center for the Arts just visible on the opposite shore–and lay out the printed verses. I choose the opening poem, and circle until I find the poem which calls to it, which wants to be next. I keep going until the book is finished. Any poems left I simply hold for another day. Another book or spoken word venue.

Kate’s brother’s kitchen: assembling the book

Review

Kate Cumiskey’s, The Women Who Gave Up Their Vowels, is her latest and perhaps most intimate book of poems published thus far. In a recent interview with Superstition Review, Cumiskey said of its origins: 

“The title reflects my own grappling with deliberately losing my deep Southern drawl as a married teenager living in California, where nobody deigned to speak to me in public. I trained the South out of my voice, and I miss it. This book is an attempt not to recover those vowels, but to speak, now, with the voice I’ve developed on issues which are absolutely vital to me.” 

The Women Who Gave Up Their Vowels expands on this promise, and provides a candid, autobiographical collection of poems relevant to Cumiskey’s lived experiences. This includes the appropriately titled, “Candor,” a poem that opens up the collection and lives up to its name.

Cumiskey’s writes,

Write your history; write that fear at 2 a.m. the night
your son overdosed. Write tile beneath your knees.
Write rats in the kitchen, raccoons in the roof, your dog
over the fence, gone all night.

I found Cumiskey’s poems to be moving and sincere in their attempts to reclaim ownership over her lived experiences. Her poems cover topics including sexism, assault, politics, loss, and hope for the things she cannot fix. It’s hard to separate the author from the poems in this particular collection, because the two feel so intrinsically linked, and it’s readily apparent when reading them.

Cumiskey writes,

Bit by bit my body settles into age: fractious, screaming all the way
down. Only in twilight sleep I feel my lower jaw shift, relax, offset
to the right, the side I sleep on. My mouth clamps, thin-lipped, crooked,
and settles for sleep into Mother’s fighting look, the one she wears
when will not be moved. Then I can rest. And it feels good
like falling into my own skin.

(From “Just Lately I Feel My Body Settling”).


To purchase a copy of The Women Who Gave Up Their Vowels, head to Finishing Line Press. Congratulations and thank you, Kate!

#ArtLitPhx: Kristin Berger & Scot Siegel Reading Hosted by Four Chambers Press

Kristin Berger & Scot Siegel

 

Four Chambers Press presents poets Kristin Berger and Scot Siegel at The Coronado. The event takes place on Thursday, October 27 at 7 pm. Both poets will be reading from their latest poetry collections. For more information, please visit the Facebook event.
Kristin Berger is the author of the poetry collection How Light Reaches Us (Aldrich Press, 2016), and a poetry chapbook, For the Willing (Finishing Line Press, 2008), and was co-editor of VoiceCatcher 6: Portland/Vancouver Area Women Writers and Artists (2011). Her long prose-poem, Changing Woman & Changing Man: A High Desert Myth, was a finalist for the 2016 Newfound Prose Prize. Kristin is the recipient of writer residencies from Playa and OSU’s Spring Creek Project, and her poetry and essays have appeared in Cirque, Facing the Change: Personal Encounters with Global Warming, Terrain.org, You Are Here, and in the forthcoming anthology, Drought, from Tiger’s Eye Press. A Detroit-native, Kristin has lived in Portland for 22 years, and is co-host of a poetry series at the Lents International Farmer’s Market. For more information visit the website.

Scot Siegel was born in Oakland, California, and grew up near Lake Tahoe where he was a nationally ranked junior ski racer. He has lived in the Pacific Northwest since 1987 and resides in Lake Oswego, Oregon. Siegel is the author of five books of poetry, most recently The Constellation of Extinct Stars and Other Poems (Salmon Poetry, 2016) and Thousands Flee California Wildflowers (Salmon Poetry, 2012). He has received awards and commendations from the Oregon Poetry Association, Nimrod International, Aesthetica (UK), Poetry Northwest, and the Oregon State Library. Siegel is the recipient of writer residencies with Playa at Summer Lake and Oregon State University’s Spring Creek Project. His poetry is part of the permanent art installation along the Portland-to-Milwaukie Light Rail ‘Orange Line’. For more information, visit Siegel’s website.

#ArtLitPhx: Caffeine Corridor Poetry Series feat. John Spaulding

Corridor Series-John

The Caffeine Corridor Poetry Series featuring poet John Spaulding takes place on Friday, October 14, at 9 The Gallery. Open mic starts at 7 p.m. and sign up starts at 6:45 p.m. This event is hosted by Bill Campana, Jack Evans, and Shawnte Orion. 9 The Gallery is located on 1229 Grand Ave. Phoenix AZ, 85007. The event is free.

John Spaulding’s work has appeared in nearly fifty periodicals, including The Atlantic, Rattle, Nimrod, Poetry, Prairie Schooner, APR, The Iowa Review, The Canadian Forum, Boston Review, The Southern Review, Hunger Mountain, Alaska Quarterly Review, and other places. His four published poetry titles include The White Train (Louisiana State University Press), The Roses of Starvation (Riverstone), Hospital (Finishing Line Press) and Walking in Stone Wesleyan). He was awarded the first Norma Millay Fellowship, and has been a Walt Whitman Award finalist, as well as a winner of the National Poetry Series. His book Hospital was selected by the Arizona Daily Star as one of the best books of 2012 by a southwestern author. John’s articles, “Poetry and the Media” and “The Popularity of Poetry,” appeared in the Journal of Popular Culture and Popular Culture Review, respectively. John is also the editor of a culinary history, Civil War Recipes, published by the University Press of Kentucky. After serving as a psychologist with the Indian Health Service for twenty years, he is now teaching writing at Pima Community College in Tucson, Arizona.

For more information you can visit the Facebook event.

Guest Post, Patricia Caspers: Hearing Voices – Women Versing Life presents Julie Brooks Barbour

JBB1When her daughter was born eleven years ago, poet Julie Brooks Barbour wanted to know why everyone lied to her about motherhood. “People would say things like, ‘It goes so fast. Enjoy these moments,’ and I thought ‘Why is nobody telling the truth?’” Barbour began seeking out poetry by women who had children, but it was a challenge to find work that was honest and not intended for a laugh. Eventually, she stumbled upon Alice Notley’s, “A Baby Is Born Out of a White Owl’s Forehead,” originally published in 1972:

My baby is quiet and wise, but I’m
a trade name and I’m
chaos
rainwater on a piano . . . .

Finally, Barbour had found someone who told the truth. “It’s one of those poems every mother should read,” she said, “because this is chaos, and for the first two years there’s no me here.” Notley gave Barbour the glimmer of hope she needed to keep searching. She went on to discover other poets who wrote truthfully about motherhood, and about the body: Lucille Clifton, Eavan Boland, and Nikky Finney, for example, and then Barbour started writing her own poems about motherhood as identity. “I’ve always been interested in the feminine and the body,” she said, “but when my daughter was born she really brought it together for me.”

The poems from Barbour’s first chapbook, Come to Me and Drink (Finishing Line Press) address the ways a woman figures out who she is once she’s become a mother. “I kept asking: How do you keep in touch with yourself when you feel split apart, when you’re only allowed to show certain sides?” Barbour said. After reading her work, it’s clear that poetry became the perfect solder for the poet’s split selves.

The title poem from Come to Me and Drink, which will also appear in Small Chimes, a full-length manuscript due out from Aldrich Press later this year, is one example of that fine weld:

Come to Me and Drink

I know what she tastes: the ambrosia
that one morning fell in drops
from my breast to my arm. Tasting it,
my tongue recalled the white and yellow
blossoms of honeysuckle sprouting wild
along a field’s edge. Collecting vine upon vine,
I’d pluck each sweet blossom, pull out
each green stamen, careful not to lose
the drop of nectar at its tip, delighting
my tongue with the watery sugar.

Now the gods put me on the vine.
The buds of my nipples are pink
and dripping. An infant plucks me dry,
a sweet smell on her breath. This liquid:
a heal-all for a stomach-ache, a sedative
for the sleepless child making her bed
in the field’s tall grass. Her lips suckle in sleep.
Her tongue clicks in her mouth, an exercise.
The passing breeze my voice,
whispering around her ear. My arms vines
coaxing her to come to me and drink.

(Originally published at Inscape / Morehead State University)

The subject of women’s identity has certainly kept Barbour inspired, as she has a second chapbook, Earthlust (Finishing Line) also due out this year. Earthlust considers the ways girls are taught to be desirable, how a woman keeps her identity in the face of sexual desire, and the institution of marriage. Many of the poems are re-tellings of fairytales; for example, the series “The Woman without Hands” takes a fairytale character whose hands were cut off by her father, and imagines how she continues to accomplish necessary tasks, such as breastfeeding: “forehead to forehead, she nuzzles him like an animal. / She cannot sling him around to her back like a bear.”

“At one point in the fairytale, her husband gives her silver hands, and I thought, ‘Dear Lord, what is she going to do with those?” Barbour said. In the end, (spoiler alert) she removes the silver hands, her own hands grow back, and she uses them to discover her body. The series acts as a metaphor for the many ways women empower themselves despite being told what they are and are not allowed to do.

In fact Barbour has been told that she should write about other subjects, should write poems that are less soft-hearted. Her response: “Just because I’m writing about being a woman doesn’t mean I’m being sentimental,” she said. “It doesn’t mean that I’m sugar-coating it.”

Other poets who inspire Barbour include: Jeannine Hall Galey, Sally Rosen Kindred, Mary Biddinger, Marianne Boruch, Susan Grimm, and Mary McMyne.

“Hearing Voices – Women Versing Life” is a continuation of a series that originally appeared at Ploughshares.

SR Pod/Vod Series: Poet Mercedes Lawry

Each Tuesday we feature audio or video of an SR Contributor reading their work. Today we’re proud to feature a podcast by Mercedes Lawry.

Mercedes LawryMercedes Lawry has published poetry in such journals as Poetry, Rhino, Nimrod, Poetry East, Seattle Review, and others. She’s also published fiction and humor as well as stories and poems for children. Among the honors she’s received are awards from the Seattle Arts Commission, Hugo House, and Artist Trust. She’s been a Jack Straw Writer, held a residency at Hedgebrook and is a Pushcart Prize nominee. Her chapbook, There are Crows in My Blood, was published by Pudding House Press in 2007 and another chapbook, Happy Darkness, was released by Finishing Line Press in 2011. She lives in Seattle.

You can read along with her poems in Issue 10 of Superstition Review.

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