Poet Of The Week

Cynthia X. Hua

     November 19–25, 2018

Cynthia X. Hua is a poet and artist. She was previously a finalist for the Norman Mailer Poetry Award and has been published in Boulevard, Carbon Culture and the Harpoon Review. Her art has been exhibited at the Mint Museum, the Yerba Buena Center, the American Institute of Architects and the San Francisco Arts Institute, among other venues. This past fall, she was named a Brooklyn Poets Fellow for study in Marwa Helal’s Imagining a Vernacular Future workshop.

Lightning Folk

                         after Walter De Maria’s The Lightning Field

It’s death outside
but each passing headlight
is a howl through the canyons.

The universe makes a thousand copies of everything:
flat scrub grass, sawtooth mountains
paper bag bush
and the desert woolly star.

Reminds me of leaving the office,
the mirage of one last coworker headed to his car
      in the violet after hours,
      in the way out there,
a blemish on the face of the moon.

Here I have my little life,
entering numbers into a spreadsheet,
boundless scrolling
through the twinkling, untilled field,
so the cells can conduct electricity
and a flash of people kissing, chatting, staying up at night
can pass through the air.

Only metal can pierce the sky without dying
     which I guess is to say
objects may receive a violence so vast as to be beautiful.

The pain of walking the world plays me a note that is quivering
     and haunts me down into the valley of trying to sleep,
     song notes spilling from this open chest.

Following the funeral, I drove through the music all night long,
listened to the cold frost, the unnumbered, unending wake.

To confess, all the songs I love are dead songs,
                  dead folks teaching me how to love
from the radio, and all my loves are buried birds.
I hold their breaths in my silence like a graveyard,
pass through their centers like the lightning
that makes dead things
alive again.


Tell us about the making of this poem.

This is one in a series of poems I wrote about music. I associate a lot of my childhood with sitting in the car and listening to the radio. I set out to write about that feeling, and how I have even more reasons to love great music now that I am older and life is more complicated. I also wanted to write about the desert because I find it to be such a visually arresting landscape, a place where you can hear sounds and feelings clearly.

What are you working on right now?

I recently started working on a long-form poem about the Mona Lisa, and how it’s an economic object as much as a cultural one. I’ve seen the Mona Lisa at the Louvre a few times, and the floor is almost always packed with Asian tourists. While the Mona Lisa resides in France, most recreations of the Mona Lisa are made and sold from Chinese factories. The Mona Lisa as an icon contains a lot of hidden things about gender, nationality and power—like all cultural objects. I find poetry a great way to unpack the way those influences layer together into a single image.

What’s a good day for you?

I think on a good day, I’ll go see a good movie with a friend and have a bottle of wine.

What brought you to Brooklyn?

I was living in California before, but I wanted to be part of a larger literary community. I wanted a job where I could write more. I also missed wearing sweaters in the winter.

Tell us about your neighborhood. How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?

I only moved here to Crown Heights this fall, so I can’t speak much to the change. My first impression is that the neighborhood is full of beautiful old buildings. The architecture here always reminds me that Brooklyn is a place with a complex and lengthy history, and I’m looking forward to sifting through that and finding my own place within it.

Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.

I spend a lot of time camped out in the Brooklyn Public Library. The poetry section at BPL is extensive and includes a lot of contemporary books. They also have a formidable art book section. I highly recommend it.

What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?

I honestly wake up every day hoping to find more people who will talk to me about poetry. But I definitely feel that I’m in a community, spoken or unspoken, with all the people I’ve met over the years who enjoy poetry.

Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.

I took a Brooklyn Poets workshop with Marwa Helal this fall, which was a wonderful experience that I can’t recommend enough. Her class was about reconceptualizing language—and making up your own language when you need to. People in that class did stunning things with language that I won’t forget.

Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?

I haven’t studied poetry in classes much, so most of my poetry mentors are probably books and the Internet. I would say I also have great friends who find time to give me feedback on the long PDFs of poems I email them in the middle of the night.

Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.

Last spring, I read Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, and I would say my life is now divided into “before” and “after” being introduced to that book. Ishiguro is dazzling because he can write about all the ways that identity affects us—about immigration and race and money and power—without ever writing about them directly at all. And I think that’s also speaks to how our lives get shaped by bigger forces in subtle ways that we don’t notice until many years later.

What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?

The next book I plan to read is The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng, which is about some of my favorite subjects—art and history and families and flowers.

Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?

I tend to reread my favorite books over and over, which includes A Visit From the Goon Squad and A Thousand Acres and a couple others. There’s also a few poems I revisit: I have a printed copy taped above my desk of “Spin” by Frederick Seidel, which is an eight-line poem about a dog. I have saved a number of poems on my phone from Leslie Harrison’s The Book of Endings, which is all about family and time and the endless nature of that relationship. I also enjoy rereading parts of Macbeth, because it is such an old play, but it is about the future as much as it is about the past.

What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?

I have a lot of thoughts about growing up under the Bush administration that I want to put into poetry, but I think that would be a long-term and emotionally-consuming project.

Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?

I get a lot of reading done in airports, which are ideal places to read because there is plenty of seating and unreliable Wi-Fi. Last year, I had a day-long flight delay in the Seattle airport and read a book about financial markets and I felt like I finally understood what banks are.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

Pioneer Works has some fantastic programming for writers and artists. I attended a talk there with Claudia Rankine, whom I consider a literary hero.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate this silence, a whole, unbroken thing
And what I leave open, unsaid, you enter as well
For every nameless snowfall talking to me as good calls out to you.

Why Brooklyn?

Brooklyn is special because it’s not so much a geographic location as a plane of existence.