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Broken Pieces

Does the New York poetry world have a working-class problem? A profile of the poet Cynthia Cruz.

In a quiet tea shop in an otherwise industrial stretch of Greenpoint, Brooklyn, the poet Cynthia Cruz wonders why she’s so misunderstood. She has received fellowships from Yaddo, MacDowell, and Princeton; she’s published in the New Yorker, the Paris Review, and Poetry; she’s written five lauded collections of poetry, including the recent Guidebooks for the Dead (Four Way Books, 2020); she has a book of essays and a novella forthcoming. And yet, she tells me, few in the poetry world understand her or what she’s trying to accomplish.

“I’ll send [my writing] to an editor, who keeps telling me, ‘You need to rethink this thought. You’ve got it wrong’,” she says, fingering her mug of tea, which is painted with a stretching calico. 

What her editors—and the literary world at large—are missing, she suggests, is familiarity with, and respect for, the working class, one of the central themes of her work. “There are so many people who say they don’t know anyone who’s working class,” she says, referring particularly to New York’s literary gatekeepers. “They say they’ve never met anyone who’s working class, but I think, what about the Uber driver, the bus driver, the person who takes your tickets, your nanny, you know, like all of these people? It’s really a kind of violence that’s being done to the working class. That’s what I’m up against.” 

For Cruz, the issue is personal. She was born on a US Air Force base in Germany, to a Mexican American father and a German mother. After 20 years of service, her father left the military and brought the family stateside, where he searched for work, mostly as a car salesman. Without any formal education and, later, a botched glaucoma surgery that left him effectively blind, he was never able to make enough money to buy a house. The family moved throughout northern California, from San Jose to Santa Cruz. Their economic situation, Cruz says, made her feel like an outsider even as a girl. 

“When I was in the third grade, my best friend had a slumber party. She pulled me aside and said, ‘Are you ashamed of what your dad does for a living?’ And I said no, but then I was. I think that’s when I first started becoming class-conscious, but not really, because I had no language for it. I just felt ashamed. I didn’t know why.” 

She has spent her career finding ways to describe that shame ever since—and to make readers aware of the injustice done to those in lower socioeconomic classes. “The word poverty—people don’t want to hear that word, but [in my poetry I say], here it is, here it is again,” she says. 

Since her debut, Ruin (2006), Cruz’s collections have captured themes of economic injustice, although she has shifted from the clearly personal and angry toward a more nuanced vexation and confusion aimed at God, existence, and society at large. 

Ruin features a female narrator’s coming-of-age amid the death of her brother. The language is explicit and incensed (“Let’s find something still alive / Left to kill”). In Cruz’s next books, The Glimmering Room (2012) and Wunderkammer (2014), her speakers continue in this vein of angry regret, though Cruz shifts her language to a more enigmatic register: “In the bruise-like blue of the Gloomarium / You sit, nude, at your Bosendorfer/ In a Dorotheum of music.” Her following collections, How the End Begins (2016) and Dregs (2018), foreground speakers who are increasingly certain of their dire situations (“What ruined me once / Will ruin me always”). Cruz also leans in to more sensory language, culminating in her most recent collection, Guidebooks for the Dead, which mixes her typical essayistic laments with delicate indignation, as though she’s given up trying to convince herself of a better world. One poem simply reads, “The bell of death, my / Little pink mystery.” 

Throughout all of her collections, but especially in Guidebooks, she is concerned with the fragmentation of a life—how one becomes separated from her society and from herself. She calls her poems “broken pieces” because someone almost always suffers in them. “I was thinking about dominance—and the remains of people who are marginalized,” she says of her newest poems.

Marginalization is everywhere in Cruz’s work. The poet Ada Limón, an admirer of Cruz, tells me there are two distinct worlds of poetry, neither of which tends to understand the other. There is, she says, the poetry of “the academic, ivory-tower world,” and there is the poetry of “working-class communities and communities of color.” 

“I always find it fascinating when you get interviewed and someone will say, Don’t you think poetry is dead, and you think, Well what kind of community are you moving in?” Limón says. “In my community, it’s happening every Wednesday and Tuesday down at the bar.”

Cruz’s poetry taps into that second iteration: a world of people at the bar or the diner, many of them down-and-out. “Hunger, poverty, the deep / dark stain of destitution. A clamor of / dark bodies leaning against the grime-stained walls of the city,” as she writes in Guidebooks. Her poems grapple, too, with sexual marginalization, with many of her speakers remarking on their androgyny or their inability to conform to standard beauty tropes, as in The Glimmering Room: “Grew up on self improvement: endless / Beauty pageants and daily ballet. // The commonplace cruelties of imperfection.” Her speakers are broken down in almost every imaginable way; what they share is destitution.

“I remember when I first started reading her poems when she would submit them to the magazine and thinking, this is a new voice, a new style,” says David Baker, the poetry editor of the Kenyon Review, which has published a number of Cruz’s poems over the past decade. “I was really struck by how flinty and hurt or damaged or broken both the form of the poems and the persona of the poems were. It felt to me like a kind of post-modern noir—moody and dark and edgy: broken-down.”

Cruz’s poetry mostly focuses on working-class subjects, who leave their straitened circumstances to dream, do drugs, think about God, sell their bodies, or question their relationship with themselves. Hovering in the background are conflicts around their sexuality, their parents, and a society that seems to not care about them. The poems document the multidimensionality of people whom Cruz thinks are too often fetishized or simplified. 

In “Strange Gospels,” from The Glimmering Room, a group of young girls teeter in a dream-like limbo between prostitution and death. Having left or been left by unforgiving social and economic structures, they have nowhere to go:

Eleven year old girls on Polk
Street in heels and white blonde wigs.
Silver beads and burns.
Death and her sons
Coming on to me like bullies.
Oh God of needles, God of
Hand jobs, blow jobs, pearly
Pistoned handguns
I am diseased with this
Recurring dream that is
My life.

Often, the speakers in Cruz’s poems see the solution to their socioeconomic predicaments as leaving wherever they are. It’s a survival strategy that mirrors her father’s nomadism as he tried to build a life for his family, or even the nomadism Cruz practices today, in a more rarefied and bohemian way, when she travels frequently between Berlin and her home in New York. There’s also Cruz’s prodigious academic migration: Mills College for her undergraduate degree, Sarah Lawrence and the School of the Visual Arts for her two MFAs, and Rutgers for a PhD in German language and literature.

“Bell in the Water,” from Dregs, shows how physical movement in Cruz’s work is often an attempt at personal change. Her speaker travels aimlessly to try to resolve internal tumult:

I thought I could stop
The incessant hum
By moving from city
To city,
By starving clean
The body.
The miraculous leveling out
Of meaning.
Obsessive archiving and collecting
As a means to stop the tremulating drone
Of memory, the diamond-white
Rush of doom.

At the end of “Kingdom of Dirt,” from The Glimmering Room, Cruz channels Sylvia Plath’s sense of romanticized disaster, with the implication being there is nowhere to go, people’s fates are sealed no matter where they travel:

Meet me in the love-
Burned orchard
Where the beautiful doomed
Meet at last.

Cruz says the act of leaving, of abandoning one’s home and family, is necessary for the working class but a choice for the rich. For the former, including Cruz’s own family, uprooting one’s life is obligatory in order to find another temporary job or to rent a house in a cheaper neighborhood. When the rich leave their hometowns, however, it is a choice, and mostly, Cruz says, a journey to corporate metropolises. In Cruz’s view, the rich aspire to a neoliberal orthodoxy, and to a sanded-down, cookie-cutter form of themselves. She especially laments that a number of artists fall into this trap too; they mistake the notion of improving oneself with commodifying oneself.

“Aspiration to me is like this neoliberal thing,” Cruz says. “I get self-help books, improve myself, and try to make myself the most whatever—make myself a brand, sell my persona. Especially as an artist, that’s what everyone is doing now.”

Whatever Cruz’s critiques, do editors and gatekeepers really ignore poetry that deals with the lower classes? Baker, of the Kenyon Review, argues that other subjects, such as race and “sexual identity and preference,” have more or less eclipsed working-class concerns in American poetry. “I don’t know if I would say there’s a disinclination to the poems that she’s writing,” Baker says. “But there’s a lot of noise right now, and there are sort of automatic or go-to subjects that seem to be, right now—I wouldn’t call them privileged at all—on the front burner, on the forefront of problems dealt with.”

Craig Santos Perez, a Chamorro poet and an associate professor at the University of Hawai’i, disagrees. “Globally, there’s more attention on working-class poetics,” he says. He cites, as just two examples, the acclaimed Chinese poet Zheng Xiaoqiong, who began writing poetry as a factory worker in the early 2000s, and Social Poetics (2020), a recent book by Mark Nowak that examines the intersection of poetry and labor. 

From a broader historical perspective, the attention that critics and editors have paid to working-class poetics, or to any kind of ideological writing, has been relatively minimal in the United States. In Workshops of Empire: Stegner, Engle, and American Creative Writing During the Cold War (2015), the writer-historian Eric Bennett argues that this is by design. He notes that American MFA programs, especially the lionized workshop at the University of Iowa, were partly set up with the imperative to neuter political dissent. The programs were concocted to produce lightweight, apolitical fare that would encourage Americans to be more favorable toward the status quo of capitalism, he writes. American corporations such as Maytag, U.S. Steel, and Quaker Oats donated to Iowa’s MFA program throughout the 1950s. Meanwhile, magazines including Look and Life romanticized the workshop in glossy photo spreads

“No other program would attract such interest from the Asia Foundation, the State Department, and the CIA,” Bennett writes of Iowa. “The way to avoid the likes of Nazism or Stalinism in the United States was to venerate and fortify the particular, the individual, the situated, the embedded, the irreducible.” He quotes the novelist Stephen Koch, who wrote, “the intellect can understand a story—but only the imagination can tell it. Always prefer the concrete to the abstract.” Likewise, he cites the novelist Steve Almond: “If your central motive as a writer is to put across ideas, write an essay.”

When Cruz bristles at what she perceives as injustice against the working class in the poetry world, she is essentially bemoaning apolitical trends that have held sway in commercial publishing for the past 70 or 80 years. These trends thematically disenfranchise the working class while affirming the status quo,and they continue to dominate, though Perez is right to point out that a theorizing of working-class poetics does slip through the cracks. Even so, it’s telling that several high-profile poetry editors, poetry professors, and poets declined to comment for this essay.

Read the rest of this essay at Poetry Foundation.

Art via Columbia Journal.

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