Thao Votang: You went to the University of North Texas for your undergraduate degree—were you born and raised in Texas? In the Dallas-Fort Worth area? What was that like for you growing up? (I grew up in Lewisville and found it pretty awful.)
Cindy St. John: I grew up in a very small suburb of Dallas called Duncanville, a typical town where families go to raise kids with good schools. At the time I hated it, the way most teenagers hate where they are from, but now looking back, it wasn’t so bad. In school, because I was quiet and could pass tests, my teachers let me spend all day in the library reading Faulkner and Plath. I had a job at Kroger that gave me enough spending money to go downtown to see shows. At sixteen, I started driving up to Denton to see bands like Bedhead and Low, and meeting older kids who introduced me to writers like Ginsberg and Lester Bangs. It was music that first drew me to writing, and to college at the University of North Texas. I thought I wanted to be a music journalist.
Denton, Texas in the late 90s/early 00s was a place where everything was cheap and there was nothing to do, the type of environment that fosters a lot of creativity. Most of my friends at UNT were visual artists or musicians.
TV: After you completed your MFA at Western Michigan University, what brought you to Austin?
CSJ: No one loves Texas like a Texan ex-pat loves Texas. It’s such an easy place to romanticize when you are far away, however flawed. I remember when Michigan started importing Shiner beer, I drank so much of it and I don’t even like Shiner. And finding a pint of Bluebell vanilla ice cream was like gold. Ultimately, I wanted to be closer to my family and I wanted to live some place cool, so I moved to Austin. I have a lot of old friends who also moved here, so it felt a little like a homecoming.
TV: How does teaching inform your writing (if at all)?
CSJ: Some days I get to go to work and teach Frank O’Hara or read Joan Didion all day. I can’t really imagine anything better than that for a day job. Teaching allows me to read literature in a critical way. My conversations with my students are thought-provoking, and I enjoy working with them, but I wouldn’t necessarily say that teaching informs my writing in a concrete way. It does provide me with sustained time away from work that I need to write.
TV: In 2012 the form of your poetry took a specific shape, one that you’ve used in your most recent chapbook, I Wrote This Poem (Salt Hill, 2014). Can you talk about what is satisfying to you about this form?
CSJ: Often when I write, words or phrases have been floating around in my head for a while trying to find a home. I was writing prose poetry, but small sparks of language that initiated the poems needed to exist outside of the sentence. So, the form: blocks of prose followed by short lines of verse. A friend, poet Susannah Hollister, pointed out that I was using the Japanese haibun form, I had no idea. I then spent one summer studying the form, particularly Basho’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, while living in Edna St. Vincent Millay’s barn in upstate New York and wandering the woods. But one can only look at the trees for so long, and at some point during this time, the poem itself became the subject. It’s strange to say, but I have such an affection for this form. It allows my poems to be weird and conversational.
TV: Every time I read this poem from Horse Less Review, I get a shiver.
I wrote this poem while sitting across from my divorced parents at a Chili’s, they on one side of the table, me on the other eating some baked potato soup and a salad, actually I think we were all eating soup and salad as if everything was normal, just regular things in a regular way on a regular Tuesday when nothing extraordinary at all was happening or going to happen:
a body shrunk to a tenth of its normal size
It’s perfect—the setting at a Chili’s, the salad that’s probably all iceberg lettuce with ranch dressing, and one of those creamy soups that have sparse bacon bits in it…Then the last line which is absolutely amazing. What was the background to the poem?
CSJ: Haha, sounds as if you have been to Chili’s a few times in your life. I spent a long time when I was younger trying to write Poems (with a capital P) and they were all terrible. But sometimes you’re just sitting at a Chili’s with your parents and you think: why can’t this be a poem?
TV: You co-organize a poetry series called Fun Party. Has that changed your approach to writing or reading?
CSJ: When I lived in Denton, I didn’t know any writers. In graduate school in Michigan, I discovered that being part of a literary community is important to me. When I moved to Austin, I met a group of poets who taught me how to be a writer without the cushion of the university. They had house readings, informal workshops and made books and magazines in their living rooms. It definitely changed my approach to reading and writing because poetry became a part of my regular life, not something confined to the academy, and in that way, my poems became tougher, rawer, more honest—at least I hope they are.
When those writers moved away, I started Fun Party (along with Dan Boehl) as a way for me to stay connected to other writers and artists. I love it when I leave a good reading and want to go home and write. And I like the dynamic of connecting the events with what’s happening in Austin’s visual art scene by hosting in an art gallery.
TV: What are you working on next?
CSJ: I’m not sure. Lately, I have just been reading a lot, spending time with friends and family, and just scribbling notes of random thoughts or things I see. I would like to write fiction, but I don’t think of myself as a storyteller. I’m in that place that is both frustrating and exciting, trying to figure out what I want to write next.
Cindy St. John is the author of four chapbooks: I Wrote This Poem (Salt Hill), Be the Heat (Slash Pine Press), City Poems (Effing Press), and People Who Are in Love Will Read This Book Differently (Dancing Girl Press). Her poems have appeared in many magazines, including Big Lucks, Fact-Simile, Better, H_NGM_N, No Tell Motel, Peaches & Bats, Cimarron Review and the Southern Review. She holds an MFA from Western Michigan University, and a BA from the University of North Texas. She lives in Austin, Texas, where she teaches literature and creative writing at a public school. She also edits and prints a poetry and art collaboration called Headlamp, and co-curates a reading series for poets visiting Austin called Fun Party. In 2013, she was a Millay artist-in-residence.
Thao Votang is co-editor of Conflict of Interest. She is the director of communications at the Department of Art and Art History, which houses the Visual Arts Center, and co-founded Tiny Park. She’s attend many Fun Party readings and used to host them at Tiny Park.