Cynthia Marie Hoffman on Writing Paper Doll Fetus, Feminism, Motherhood, & Place
Sarah Marcus: Firstly, your newest collection, Paper Doll Fetus, from Persea Books is absolutely stunning, strange, and gorgeous in all of the right ways. You give voice to the unborn and you examine the intimacies and intricacies of grief in all of its complexity and messiness. This work is layered, politically aware, and filled with beautiful and uncomfortable imagery. Can you tell us more about this project? What inspired you? What do you hope your reader takes away from these poems?
Cynthia Marie Hoffman: Thank you. The poems came about initially years ago as I was watching the documentary The Business of Being Born, which touches on the use of twilight sleep during childbirth. I saw black and white pictures of women with ridiculous padded bandages wrapped around their heads, looking like Q-tips, and I knew I would write about it. Women were strapped down in the delivery room to prevent them from flailing and injuring themselves or the nurses in the state of panic the drugs could induce. Sometimes, they were buckled into straight jackets.
We look back at these pictures now and think how horrible it was, how these women were abused, but it’s important to remember that women were demanding “painless babies” as a feminist right, just at the time they were also demanding the equal right to vote. Of course, women might not have signed up for twilight sleep in droves if they were fully aware of—or could remember—the way they were treated in the delivery room. But it was the best medicine had to offer at the time. The fact that we no longer use twilight sleep (and instead use the far more humane epidural) has as much to do with advances in medicine as it does advances in feminism.
The first poem I wrote for Paper Doll Fetus was “The Lamb’s-Wool Strap Speaks from the Gurney, 1915,” and it is spoken in the voice of a strap that was used to restrain a woman during a twilight sleep birth. The strap, having once been a lamb, remembers the unimpeded birth of lambs in its previous life and how the newborn lambs were free to bond immediately with their mothers. By contrast, the woman who gave birth in the amnesiac state induced by the drugs was made to forget the birth experience. The baby, when it was suddenly presented to her as much as a day or two later, was a surprise. In the poem, the mother asks, “Is it mine?” This is what troubled me the most—not that childbirth should be natural, but that the early moments of bonding were stripped away.
At first I had big plans for this topic, but in the end, I wrote only two poems about twilight sleep. The rest of the book is about many other miraculous and terrifying experiences of birth and medicine over the past several hundred years.
I hope that readers will take away from the book an appreciation of the tenuousness of life’s early beginnings. So many things can and have gone wrong. Babies are born with their legs fused, women die from ruptured ectopic pregnancies, fetuses are wrapped in calcium and turned to stone inside their mother’s bodies. But somehow, through a series of miracles, the rest of us are born and survive.
SM: Do you feel as if motherhood has strongly reinforced your ideas about inclusive feminism? Has your experience changed any of your views? If so, in what ways?
CMH: When I think about the core basis of feminism—gender equality—I tend to primarily think about the ways that women have fought for equality in the workplace. In other words, the ways women have asserted themselves into spaces previously monopolized by men.
In turn, we’ve made some progress in inviting men into the realm of parenting, but mostly, there are so many ways in which the genders are not—and could not be—equal when it comes to raising children, especially when the children are very young. I imagine us feminist working mothers dragging our already heavily loaded bag of “woman’s work” responsibilities into the workplace and filling it up even more, so that sometimes we can hardly carry it.
We talk a lot about “having it all,” “finding balance,” “leaning in” (first, Sheryl Sandberg’s famous call to lean in to our careers, and then the backlash from inclusive feminists who argued for respect for mothers who choose to “lean in” to their children). I think all these interpretations of feminism can co-exist.
Somewhere along the way, I must have internalized the “having it all” ideal. I have a five-year old daughter and a full-time job at an engineering consulting firm. I also cultivate a rich creative life with publications, readings, and two poetry groups I meet with every few weeks. I’m glad I have all these things.
So does feminism include me any more or less since I have become a mother? I don’t think there has been a change; I don’t feel left out. But since having a child, I feel—or perhaps I’m just more aware of feeling—even more intensely pressured to succeed in the workplace, in the creative space, in the home, and in general to bite off more than I can chew. Is that feminism? Or just exhaustion?
SM: A significant amount of your work is deeply rooted in place, and you’ve done several interviews (especially this one at Devil’s Lake) where you address this phenomenon, especially in terms of your first book, Sightseer. Does place have a current role in your more recent writing? I’m specifically thinking of the poems that appeared in diode and how each one seems to be deeply grounded in spatial details and memory.
CMH: My first book, Sightseer, is overtly rooted in place because its very subject matter is place; the poems explore my relationship to places, and the complex history of those places, especially European places, as a tourist. But even when I’m not problematizing my relationship to place, I can’t escape its central role in my work. I think that comes from a basic desire to ground the reader. As a reader myself, I like to feel oriented, and that may mean physically oriented in the location of the poem (are we in a cathedral in Spain? are we inside a woman’s womb?) or conceptually oriented in the rhetorical argument the poem is making. A poem must take me somewhere, in terms of both its images and its ideas.
The more abstract or thought-centered a poem is, the more I find myself relying on imagery to keep that sense of groundedness. My current project is a series of prose poems about fears, obsessions, and fabrications of the mind. It’s very focused on the “what if,” and on the one hand, the poems could easily get lost in abstractions. But on the other hand, fears—although they exist only in the mind—are nonetheless intensely real, and therefore, my poems about them should be as well.
The poems that were published online in diode are part of this series and mostly focus on my childhood. And when I think about orienting readers in the experience of my childhood, I think of putting them in the forest behind my childhood house in Virginia. I think of walking them through the shady backyard of my childhood house in England. I start there, and then I build the argument on top.
I suppose, even though it’s been years since I wrote Sightseer, I’m still a bit of a tour guide.
SM: What advice would you offer to "new" writers, and what can we expect to see from you in the future?
CMH: Recently, I’ve been developing a series of interviews online at The Cloudy House with poets who write “project books”—full-length collections of poems based on a theme or structurally bound by an author-defined constraint. In other words, a book of poems about traveling or fetuses, or every poem must have 100 words, or every poem must be a letter. The more I look, the more project books I see being published. I’m particularly alert to the fact that this kind of writing is popular not only in the realm of established poets but also among young writers setting out to form their first manuscripts.
My advice to those writers would be to allow yourself the freedom to discover your own obsessions—don’t assume you already know what they are before you set out to write. Looking for ways to set limitations on your work, especially when you are still finding your voice, can sometimes be counterproductive to development. So, allow yourself the opportunity to experiment (even within a constraint, if you must have one). The best poems—and the best books—make discoveries along the way.
In the future, I hope you will see more of the prose poems I’ve been writing about fears and obsessions. In turning away from my usual process of writing heavily researched subject matter and instead turning inward to write something deeply personal, I’m making some discoveries of my own. Better than church. Better than therapy. I’m finding, perhaps for the first time, that poetry can be both particular to my personal experience and also resonant with others on a scale larger than my own life.
Or maybe I’m still trying to convince myself this is true (people will really want to read poems about the microcosm of my childhood?). Maybe I’m shy. I’m definitely shy. But still, I’m trying to write these poems that won’t let me not write them. And maybe that’s my advice to new writers and to myself: let’s try to be brave. Let’s try to write the things that require bravery (however big or small, personal or political) to write.
Cynthia Marie Hoffman is the author of Paper Doll Fetus (Persea Books, 2014) and Sightseer (Persea Books, 2011, winner of the Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize in Poetry), as well as the chapbook Her Human Costume (Gold Line Press, 2014). Hoffman is a former Diane Middlebrook Poetry Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, Director’s Guest at the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, and recipient of an Individual Artist Fellowship from the Wisconsin Arts Board. Her poems have appeared in Pleiades, Fence, Blackbird, diode, Mid-American Review, and elsewhere. She co-edits the online interview series on poetry project books, The Cloudy House (www.thecloudyhouse.com). Visit Cynthia online at www.cynthiamariehoffman.com