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back to the woods_cruz

Cynthia Cruz

Winter 2024 || Interviewed by Hannah Bonner

BRINK: (1.) I was struck by how the word “crackle” recurs throughout the poems in Back to the Woods, as if sonically signifying the unknown, the indeterminate, the preverbal. I love that your language often achieves an affective quality that conjures a feeling, rather than didacticism, explanation, or backstory. What’s your process like for achieving that affective quality in your work? Is it listening to music? I ask, in part, because Steady Diet of Nothing is the name of a Fugazi album. The radio is also a recurring motif throughout the poems that makes me wonder how soundscapes might contribute to the work overall. 

CC: Music has often been an important factor in my creative work (poetry and fiction), but the crackle you refer to is more a kind of dialectic, an intentional means of breaking harmony and seamlessness. I think often of John Akomfrah’s film Handsworth Songs, which is constructed of footage of the 1985 riots in Handsworth and London. Akomfrah, who is very interested in the dialectic, interrupts the bits of raw footage with what we might call crackle or dialectic, ruptures that don’t provide context but instead result in a fracturing, breaking apart any sense of narration.What we have is raw footage with these ruptures of, for example, archival footage (i.e., excerpts from an interview with Stuart Hall). In addition, Akomfrah introduces fragments of music and sound throughout the film; again, to trouble any easy or fixed ideas the viewer might have about narrative cinema. In this way, these ruptures or interruptions—these crackles—keep the viewer in a continued state of disorientation and anxiety, or in a state of wakefulness, of being made to stay awake and not slide back into the oblivion of everyday forgetfulness, the result of capitalism’s invisibilising of contradiction which results in indifference or an invisibilising of  difference. 

Brecht’s concept of Umfunktionierung, or “Refunctioning,” is relevant here. Brecht wanted his work to interrupt the process of shaping society. By interrupting scenes, Brecht’s work is able to both rupture the seamless narratives and ideas we understand to be reality (thereby encouraging our questioning of them) while, at the same time, libidinizing the viewer into action. 

BRINK: (2.) Similarly, as I was reading Steady Diet of Nothing, I kept thinking about how this narrative formally elides itself, often more contented to reside in the space beyond language, beyond the expressible. I’m thinking about when Candy shoots up and says, “It is a dream that haunts me though I can never remember what it is. Its residue clings to me, a trace, like a hangover. It enters into me and I can’t get rid of it because I don't have the words for what it is” (61). Or when a man is trying to barter Candy for Toby’s ring and you write, “Then I put my hand on his arm,” (90) and there’s an intimation of what might follow without it being stated. There’s a kind of cinematic quality to this formal decision to constantly cut or fade out of the scene. Was this an effect you were consciously aware of wanting to achieve as you were writing the novel? If so, what’s your relationship like to plot in prose? Can you talk about how these moments of elision in the novel compliment Candy’s interiority? And finally, were there any films that inspired you as you were working on this novel? 

CC: This fading out effect, as in cinema, is intentional. What I am aiming for is something that exists between precision and abstraction. With work that is abstract there is a lack of culpability. You see this especially in work that is called autofiction, but certainly also in poetry and fiction. This is especially, I think, a feature in US literary work, where an author will drop a concept or symbol into a work without contextualizing. This word will mark the work as edgy, though, in the end, the writer evades taking a stand on the issue. We have also on the other end work that is more narrative driven, work that announces itself as explicitly political and yet similarly resists specificity. My hope is to create work that is both clear with regard to what is at stake (i.e., class antagonism, capitalist oblivion, and so forth) while at the same time not providing any easy answers or solutions, allowing space for the reader to work things through for themselves. Also, I hope, with the structure and form to create a type of dialectic to interrupt the reader and the work to keep the reader on her toes—to jolt her out of the oblivion of capitalism which pervades all aspects of society, including our thinking. 

BRINK: (3.) I’m thinking about Back to the Woods: You often describe the liminal space between dreams and waking. In “The Overburden” you write, “struggling to walk / from the stupor // of the obscene / dream that is / American” and in “After the Dream Came the Habit” you write, “the static that occurs / in the space between worlds.” What is the significance of this liminal space to you as a writer? How do you feel like that liminal space encapsulates your interests as a writer, particularly as they pertain to class? Perhaps another way to ask the previous question: What does the landscape of the unconscious look like to you? 

CC: The space between waking and dreaming presents a brief opening of possibility and is the same space we enter and move through in psychoanalysis when we speak without thinking. In both, we are in—albeit momentarily—the unconscious, where all our repressed memories and beliefs reside: the beliefs we are unaware of, these beliefs that determine who we are, how we think, and how we live our lives.  This is especially the case in our dreams. We make up stories in order to make sense of the world we are living in. We tell ourselves lies and fictions, but if we can access just a moment of this other state, we can see reality for what it is—even if only for a moment. This space between is also the space I allude to when, in my work, I “fade out”—this moment between is the space I hope the reader will drop in to.

Finally, this liminal space is akin to both the “fading out” I mentioned previously and the cuts and ruptures I alluded to in relation to Akomfrah’s work. These spaces between are meant to interrupt.

BRINK: (4.) I feel like your work is often about social systems and the apparatus of capitalism. There’s an acute awareness of who gets the ease of living within these systems and who will always be on the edges. In your collection Hotel Oblivion and in Steady Diet of Nothing, the hotel serves as a setting in which the narrators are neither in nor of the world—they’re, as Marc Auge writes, in a “nonplace.” Can you talk about what the hotel means to you as a recurring presence in your work? 

CC: Yes, in my current work (my dissertation project), one aspect I am looking at are these in-between spaces. Capitalism has changed time and space, and one example of this are the nonspaces Auge writes of. We retreat to these nonplaces in an attempt to escape capitalism, and yet these spaces are the direct result of capitalism. Also, hotels (if we look at the idea of a hotel across the board and not one particular type of hotel) are interesting because they are, or can be, classless spaces. Hotels are for travellers, of course—tourists. But they are also sites where prostitutes work, there are also long term hotels where those without work reside, and, of course, the wealthy often reside in hotels. Hotels are a site for the nomadic; in general, hotels are a space one resides in temporarily. Conceptually, then, a hotel room works to suggest a space outside and yet inside of capitalism, and in this way such a space provides the possibility for a momentary exit out—akin to the fading out or ruptures and interruptions I alluded to in my previous answers. If a character is in a hotel or motel they are, in a sense, outside time and space, outside fixed determinations. As a result, placing a character in a hotel room allows the reader to see the character as classless, and in this way, in this small manner, the work is able to engage in presenting a utopian moment. 

BRINK: (5.) Back to the Woods ends with this remarkable conclusion “Once I was a girl...If you had asked me then / what I wanted // I would have said / Nothing” and that feels, in some ways, like a segue into reading the novel Steady Diet of Nothing. What does “nothingness” mean to you? 

CC: This nothingness, like the space of the motel or hotel room, presents the possibility for something radically new. In Hegel’s concept of absolute knowing we have an idea of having worked through every false thought or belief, having moved through an endless series of errors, of failures, and reaching, finally, this state of knowing what one did not know and yet not knowing. In other words, one now knows what one did not know but does not now know what will transpire. Similarly, in psychoanalysis, we have what Lacan calls subjective destitution, which marks the analysand’s coming to the end of their analysis. This end is marked when the analysand has moved through all the narratives they had about their world, all the precious concepts they had about themselves and their exceptionality. In both cases, we have a subject who has let go of the fantasies that protected them from reality, and, in this process, is restored to their true self. In a sense, we are returned to who we were when we were born—presocialisation. So when I say nothing or nothingness it is to this idea of nothingness I am referring to, it is what Sarah Giri describes as “the new man . . . free from all thoughts of self-interest.” 

CYNTHIA CRUZ (she/her) earned a BA in English Literature at Mills College, an MFA in poetry at Sarah Lawrence College, an MFA in Art Writing from the School of Visual Arts, and an MA in German Language and Literature from Rutgers University. She is the recipient of fellowships from Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony and a Hodder Fellowship from Princeton University. Hotel Oblivion, her most recent collection of poems, was a finalist for the Kingsley Tufts Award and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award. She is currently pursuing a PhD at the European Graduate School where her research focuses on Hegel.

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