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Cindy Childress

Cindy Childress


How did you become a writer? 


I didn't want to be a "writer" when I entered college. I wanted to be a literary critic instead, but I took an elective creative class and realized that although critics are also writers in a literal sense, I didn't want to write about art, but rather I wanted my writing to be art. Enter a whole series of phases wherein I joined poetry writing groups, participated in open mics, and started reading literature as a writer and not as a critic. That's a nuanced distinction to make, but my writing changed as the way I read changed: what became important to me was to figure out what I enjoyed about a particular poem or novel instead of finding what was "wrong" with a text or nailing down its theoretical framework. We benefit from being able to think both ways, which is why I believe literature majors and creative writing majors should take courses in both disciplines, but as a writer I privilege pleasure of the text over whether a poem is "right."   


Do you rank your stories or poems?


Not in an organized way. At any given time you could ask me what are the ten texts of which I am most proud or have the most hope for if they are unpublished, but that set of ten would always be a different answer. There was a poem I wrote just before 9/11 that I was really proud of, but it never got placed in any of the subsequent antiwar anthologies, so I shelved the piece until last year when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict arose again, and the first place I sent it to accepted it. Any ranking in terms of numbers of rejections or assessment of a poem's quality would just be really arbitrary, but we have to organize our files somehow. 


Do you read a great deal?


I don't know what "a great deal" is, but I read at least a little bit every day. I keep a book by my nightstand and read a chapter before I go to sleep, have a book in my gym bag to read while I use the stationary bike, and have a book I'm reading on my coffee table and on my desk in the study, although some of those books are literary journals--and low brow confession time, sometimes the reading material is a fashion magazine. But I tend to read in chunks, and I have to be really gripped by a book to read it cover to cover in a day or two. The last books I read that way were Sister Swing by Shirley Geok-Lin Lim and The Fan-Maker's Inquisition by Rikki Ducournet.


What do you think is the most integral quality to developing as a writer?


Perseverance. It's important at every stage; from taking an idea that might just a be a few lines long or a big poem that only has a few good lines in it and revising the heck out of your work to sending work out despite rejections, and I mean despite years of rejections when the work is something you really stand behind. If a person is compelled to write, the ideas will be there, but it takes this incredible energy that comes from belief in yourself and determination to follow the ideas through to have a finished product, which I think is what separates "would be" writers from people who are actually doing it. I don't think "actually doing it" is about publishing success, necessarily. At a Q&A I heard Salman Rushdie once say that if you have finished a book then you are a writer.


Which authors have been most influential to your own writing?


Margaret Atwood is the writer I most wish to emulate. She writes characters in such a way that I leave her novels feeling that I've lived a little more, and her poems, especially the latest collection, The Door, have a sense of immediacy through attention to small things making me feel that the works speak through me. Reading her work gives me the courage to speak about small things in big ways, and William Carlos Williams is another poet from whom I take this lesson. I love Wallace Stevens's poems for different reasons, though; he is not afraid to be difficult and hugely profound, and in that line of thinking but in a completely different way that Bernadette Mayer's poetry is important to me because she trusts her voice and its play to extents that challenge what I think poetry is or should be about.  So writers who, whether it's true or not, at least seem fearless and to be writing first for themselves and then for others are ones who give my craft the most examples and avenues for exploration.


Do you think about your body of work?


I used to be obsessed with the idea, and I would try to make sure my poems didn't contradict each other, but then later I decided to try the Yeats thing and purposefully write poems that took opposing views or voices, but as I emerge from my 20s my ego is shrinking considerably. I doubt that anyone else is as interested in the nuances of every poem I write as I am, so I concentrate more on making each poem its personal best and letting the chips fall where they may. Still, when I notice that I'm writing several poems on a similar theme I make an effort to exhaust my ideas on the subject to perhaps have enough for a thematic chapbook or at least a thematic group to submit to a journal. But that's writing for the audience instead of writing for the self, and although doing so is a perfectly smart idea, I seldom like the poems that I write "because I should." But I don't want to belabor the self/audience point too much, because in certain ways all writing can be seen as an attempt to communicate with others or participate in dialogues with other voices and texts.


Do you have a lot of work in progress?


I'm very excited about a collaboration project I am working on with several other poets using photography and poetry with a Facebook medium. In addition to continually fine tuning a poetry collection and resending out I am also working on a collection of short stories that can stand alone or be read together almost as some kind of novel.  Plus there's always a new poem that wants to be written.


Do you have the whole poem figured out before you write it?


If I think I have the whole poem figured out, then by the time I'm finished writing it I will realize that I'd been completely wrong when I sat down to start writing. I'm training for a half marathon, and on the treadmill sometimes a line will come to me and I'll start building a poem in my head that I come in and type as soon as  my workout is over, but even in those cases once I start writing it out, the poem changes. It starts shooting off into more interesting directions once I'm drafting, and sometimes it becomes something else altogether. I think the surprise, what even surprises me as I write, keeps me inspired to push my pen and see what I'll say next.


What is a typical day for you?


I do reading and respond to e-mails in the morning, in addition to running errands and working out, but I don't usually get the urge to write until the afternoon, so I might spend from 1 pm to 6 pm writing, and then a couple more hours after dinner or later on before going to bed. I don't have a day job at the moment, which is a luxury I try not to squander, but when I am teaching I end up producing about the same amount of writing.  I attribute that to all the stimulation my imagination gets when I am around more people and entertain more ideas outside my own. 


If you could have written one book in history, what book would it be?


Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Women perhaps, or for a literary title, Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. His poetry is so exuberant and tested the boundaries for what could be considered poetry and what forms it could take in his own time and has inspired many poets and readers.


What would you be doing for a living if you weren’t a writer


Well, according to my past goals I would be a literature professor, but without creative writing pursuits of my own. I'm also really interested in biology, so things like DNA, plant life, microscopic life forms, mutations of bacteria and viruses, cellular functions, and purely layman's physics occasionally creep into my poetry; I might have chosen a science major if I could have avoided taking Chemistry, but no such luck.