KR Conversations

Cecily Parks

Cecily Parks is the author of the chapbook Cold Work (Poetry Society of America, 2005) and the collection Field Folly Snow (University of Georgia Press, 2008), which was a finalist for the Norma Farber First Book Award and the Glasgow / Shenandoah Emerging Writers Prize. In 2011 she earned a PhD in English from the CUNY Graduate Center, where she wrote a dissertation on American women writers and swamps. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her poems “Hurricane Song,” “Dancing with the Doctor,” and  “When I Was Thoreau at Night” appear in the Fall 2012 issue of The Kenyon Review.

Tell us a little about your KR piece. How was it written? What was the hardest part about writing it?

Of three poems that appear in the Fall 2012 Kenyon Review, the poem that least resembles its first draft is “When I Was Thoreau at Night.” While the first draft of this poem already explored the experience of being a woman (physically, psychically) lost in the woods, I felt that the poem might mean more to more people if I foregrounded the concerns that prompted me to write—namely, my thinking about the intersection of gender and American environmental history. I filled out the poem by including Thoreau, an explanation of the name Peregrine, and blunter declarations such as “My fields were ill. They weren’t my fields.” The finished poem uses imaginative poetic play to think about why the natural world is so often viewed as feminine. It’s also twice as long as the first draft.

What have you learned about the writing process in the last five years?

How very little control I have over what comes out when I sit down to write a poem. These days, I wouldn’t be surprised if I decided to write about the sound of a train as it passes through a valley overgrown with kudzu and ended up writing about chocolate milk instead. Even so, the control freak lingers in me. I’m still learning to let myself be carried away by the sidetracks that my process sometimes shunts me into.

Apart from this one–can you share with us the literary magazines you most look forward to reading, and why?

Gulf Coast and Lana Turner. Both journals introduce me to poets I’ve never read before and want to read more of.

Philip Larkin has a great short essay on writing called “The Pleasure Principle.” In it, he sketches three stages of writing a poem. The steps begin like this: “the first (stage) is when a (hu)man becomes obsessed with an emotional concept to such a degree that he is compelled to do something about it. What he does is the second stage, namely, construct a verbal device that will reproduce this emotional concept in anyone who cares to read it, anywhere, any time. The third stage is the recurrent situation of people in different times and places setting off the device and re-creating in themselves what the poet felt when he wrote it.” Are his stages germane to your writing process, and what you try to make when you write?

Larkin describes what I think of as the ideal transmission of emotion that happens between poet and reader. As my above description of the revision that went into “When I Was Thoreau at Night” reveals, Larkin’s second stage is the one I most labor over. In addition to wanting to reproduce an “emotional concept” in my reader, I want for my poems to reproduce the natural world environment—the woods at night, the pond before the storm, the meadow after it snows—in which those emotional concepts, often unbidden, arise.

In the 1950’s, John Crowe Ransom invited a coterie of critics (William Empson, Northrop Frye, etc.) to write a “credo” for The Kenyon Review. The results became an essay series by 10 leading critics on their core beliefs regarding literature and the critical practice, entitled “My Credo.” What would you include in your own credo? What core beliefs do you have regarding literature and books?

Books are our companions. That’s the first thing that comes to mind. I like that statement even better when I look up the definition of companion:

1: one that accompanies another : comrade, associate; also : one that keeps company with another
2 obsolete : rascal
3 a : one that is closely connected with something similar
b : one employed to live with and serve another
4 : a celestial body that appears close to another but that may or may not be associated with it in space

If we understand books as companions, they can offer us intimacy, mischief, and protection (deeper in the dictionary definition, a companion is also defined as the covering over a hatchway on a ship). Books become the stars that may constellate for us, and guide us.

Tell us about a teacher (“teacher” construed broadly!) who has been important to your writing.

Susan Prospere, my first poetry teacher. Her debut and only book of poems is the gorgeous Sub Rosa (Norton, 1993). Go find it.