Interview with Cynthia Cruz on Ruin — January 26, 2011

Cynthia Cruz’s poems have been published in the New Yorker, Paris Review, Boston Review, American Poetry Review, Guernica and others. Her first collection of poems, Ruin, was published by Alice James Books, and her second collection, The Glimmering Room, is forthcoming from Four Way Books. She is currently the Hodder Fellow in Poetry at Princeton.


Christopher Nelson: I read Ruin as being in the Gothic Romantic tradition because of its persistent exploration of dark aspects of human nature—drug use, despair, death—while championing the emotional life of the individual and validating the realness of an apparently hallucinatory childhood. Does that resonate with you? What tradition, movement, or poets do you see Ruin in dialog with?

Cynthia Cruz: Yes, this analysis does resonate with me. The poets and/or movement I’d say Ruin might be in dialogue with are the German Expressionists, such as Günter Eich and Georg Trakl, as well as the poets Paul Celan and Ingeborg Bachmann.

Nelson: I’m fascinated by all the doubling in Ruin. Nearly half of the poems have a part two (e.g., “The Report on Horses” and “The Report on Horses II”), and many of the images double or recur (e.g., the tethered goat, the brother’s clothes, the falcon, blondness). Talk about the aesthetic decision to redo, to re-say.

Cruz: I love the idea of doubling, how it creates a refrain, an Other, but also how doubling works as erasure. The twinning that occurs in Ruin is another doubling: the brother and I, for example, but also male and female. I love that a double can do all of this; I love how one thing can work in so many ways. Finally, I am always afraid I’ve not been heard, and this may also be a piece of this, albeit a smaller piece.

Nelson: Can you say more about doubling as erasure?

Cruz: When a word or image is repeated in a poem twice it has an erasing effect (while something repeating many times has a building effect). If for example, I have an ice box cake at the start of my poem and introduce the ice box cake later in the same poem it may seem as though it has been erased or taken away. What I love about this, using something in this way is that it both doubles and erases—it does both.

NelsonRuin is in four parts, In the Kingdom (I and II) and Praying (I and II). For me, the titles of these parts place the poems in a mythic context—childhood as the paradise we all lose, and the connection we try to regain through spiritual questing or prayer. To whom or to what are the prayers directed?

Cruz: The prayers are directed at God.

Nelson: There’s something ineffable and evocative in the relationship between the speaker and the brother, and I marvel at how you’ve wrestled with that crisis in these poems—a crisis of identity, heartache, love, and letting go. Is it accurate to say that the speaker has deified the brother?

Cruz: Yes, I think that is entirely true. The brother is the better I and also stands in for a kind of Christ-like figure. The brother dies so that the sister can survive, but though the brother is gone, he remains, a kind of shadow, halo, or doppelganger.

Nelson: I love the cover art, Journey by Mike Cockrill. I sense the atmospheric connection to the poems—the allure, whimsy, and terror of the fantastic. Why was this image chosen?

Cruz: In all truth, this image was probably the hundredth or so image I chose. I had presented many others in the year leading up to the day I submitted this image, but none of the others made it. Either the press turned them down, the artist said no, or the cost was too high. I gave up many times, but funnily enough, when I came across Cockrill’s work, and this piece in particular, it resonates in a way none of the others did. It seemed almost as though the image had been made with my book in mind. In fact, many people have asked just that: whether the painting was made with my book in mind. It wasn’t, of course. I love the painting and am so grateful I came across it and that Mike graciously allowed me to use it.

Nelson: Your next book, Glimmering Room, which is forthcoming from Four Way Books—what can we expect thematically and stylistically? What direction has your poetry taken since Ruin?

Cruz: The poems in Ruin are razor sharp, anorexic in style (not subject, of course—but the immense compression). I deliberately chose the least amount of words I could to say what needed saying. In Glimmering Room, I sugar it up a bit: there is more beauty, or relief, in the poems. Some of the poems are longer as a result of this. I have now completed my third collection, and these poems are even more elaborate, more words, more beauty. I am working my way away from Morse and moving toward a richer, more layered, kind of poem.

Nelson: That’s exciting. I look forward to reading them very much.