October 9, 2017KR Conversations

Cintia Santana

Cintia SantanaCintia Santana’s poetry, fiction, and translations have appeared in Beloit Poetry Journal, Michigan Quarterly Review, Missouri Review, Narrative, Pleiades, RHINO, Spillway, Threepenny Review, and other journals. The recipient of a CantoMundo Fellowship and a Djerassi Resident Artists Program Fellowship, she teaches poetry and fiction workshops in Spanish, as well as literary translation courses at Stanford University. Most recently, Mary Szybist selected Santana’s work for inclusion in the Best New Poets 2016 anthology. Her poem “Hum” can be found here. It appears with another poem in the Sept/Oct 2017 issue of the Kenyon Review. Photo Credit: Rewa Bush.

What was your original impetus for writing “Hum”?

When I moved to the Bay Area some years ago, I noticed a number of hummingbirds in our yard. Despite that they are such tiny, beautiful creatures, I also knew they were highly aggressive and territorial. I began to nerd out on hummingbird information and started a draft of a poem. It remained inside a folder titled “Poems on Hold” for nine years. In the summer of 2016, I attended a new Kenyon Review workshop on Nature Writing. “Hum” was the result of that earlier draft, put into the pressure cooker of the first day’s poetry assignment along with a healthy dose of the inspiration that came with being in such an immersive and experiential workshop.

Can you talk a little bit about the musicality of your language, and the subtle rhyme? It’s so hard to accomplish well—I especially admired “little red / vials / constantly / defiled; / starvation / staved / for one / more day.”

It’s possible I owe it to my poor hearing! I keep a list of mishearings that I find interesting. While I rarely use these in my writing, I think the habit is a bit like practicing scales for me. Spanish is my first language, and because I grew up bilingual, I’ve long been hyperaware of near sounds and near words; I’m fascinated by the ways in which one letter added to—or taken away from—a word can change its meaning, its sound, even the language to which it belongs.

How has your writing or writing process changed since you started out?

I think the biggest change in my writing process has been my trust in the poem’s own timeline—always slower than what I might wish it to be. During the academic year, I write down bits and pieces of language considerably more frequently than I write poem drafts. Throughout those months, my word energy tends to be largely dedicated to the reading and writing I do for the courses I teach; summers have become my most important generative period. I’m a big fan of generative conferences which allow me time to mine notebooks and old drafts for inspiration, often putting these through the constraints of an assignment due the following day. I have seen very small bits of language—two or three very short lines, for example—written years earlier, become a fairly developed poem overnight.

It’s taken me a long time to respect that the words I write down have a trajectory of their own, one I don’t really control, and that their moment of fruition, if and when it comes, arrives on a timeline I cannot foresee. Because I have had this happen repeatedly now, I have a great deal more faith—and a lot less anxiety—in the process. But it took a long while to develop this trust! There is a part of me that would still love to be the kind of poet who is able to sit down and write a terrific draft in one fell swoop. However, it turns out that is just not me, or not at this point in time, and I’m OK with this. All I can really do is keep writing down language that interests me, day after day.

What is either the best or the worst piece of writing advice you’ve received or given? 

Not surprisingly perhaps, it relates to this trust in the long-term scale of events. Some twenty years ago I ran across a quote by Karen Blixen (aka Isak Dinesen), via Raymond Carver, who used to keep it pinned above his desk: “I write a little every day, without hope and without despair.”

What project(s) are you working on now, or next? 

I’m hoping to finish my first manuscript, The Disordered Alphabet, in the next couple of months. Over the last year, my poems began taking on an increasingly visual direction. I was fortunate enough to attend the Djerassi Resident Artists Program last fall, and this experience lead me to consider ways to install poetry in the world off the page. At Djerassi, I installed five “footnotes” to the land, using 6” x 2” redwood planks which had been discarded and beautifully weathered over some fifty years. With the help of an incredibly gifted former student, Alex Tamkin, I used a computerized wood router to engrave the footnotes. The footnotes are randomly numbered and invite the reader/hiker to consider their own temporal and physical scale in relationship to the larger page that is the surrounding land. I expect that the footnotes will become less legible with time as the freshly exposed redness of the wood comes to be weathered once again.

This past year, I also became part of Right Window, an artists’ collective in San Francisco. I just finished a window installation titled “The Sonnet Factory” which will be up on Valencia Street through the month of September. It involves a lot of lace lichen with which I’m obsessed these days! And I’m also collaborating on a short film in which I play a 216 lb. 8 oz. gold nugget; don’t ask—just see it! On the day of the presidential inauguration, I participated in an online political poetry workshop. I had just begun working on this film, and the poem that resulted became just the thing to fold into the movie’s climactic scene.