Iris Marble Cushing was born in Tarzana, California. A former resident of Arizona, she has been a writer-in-residence at Grand Canyon National Park. She is the author of Wyoming, winner of the 2014 Furniture Press Poetry Prize. She lives in New York where she is studying for her PhD at the CUNY Grad Center. She also serves as an editor for Argos Books and for Circumference: Poetry in Translation.
Through and Through, an interview with Iris Marble Cushing, by Marina Blitshteyn.
It’s a pleasure to call Iris my friend, as much of a pleasure as it is to hear her talk about poetry, to witness her perform her poetry, and to be in the presence of such a warm and enlightened soul. Because the pleasure of it gets in the way of my critical mind, and it’s always so much harder to write about work you admire, I conducted an interview with Iris last year on the occasion of the publication of her first full-length collection, Wyoming. What follows is a fraction of the conversations we’ve had, and undoubtedly a taste of what’s to come in her career.
TCJWW: There’s a sense of discovery and rediscovery of the Great American West in this collection. How has your own point of origin influenced your relationship to the land and its language?
Cushing: I grew up in a pleasant, mild, mostly-agricultural part of Northern California, a place that carries the rich history of the California Gold Rush of 1849 vividly into the present day. It wasn’t until I began exploring the Southwest, and eventually moved to Arizona, that I noticed the utter strangeness of “American” names—and with them, ideas of what constitutes civilization—as they relate to a landscape. Something about the landscape of the Southwest so thoroughly resists classification, but at the same time resonates mysteriously with the names we use to talk about it. This initial noticing of the fertile disjunct between a place and its name occurred simultaneously for me with becoming a poet.
Something that really interests me about discovery is the state that exists before the new discovery is named, understood, categorized, analyzed. That raw place is where poesis comes from, in my experience. There’s an analogy there, between a place and its name and a person and her life. In returning a place to its original pre-named strangeness (and, in doing so, returning the name to strangeness as well), I may also return to a sense of intimacy with my own life, what exists beyond the labels of “poet,” “grown-up,” “American,” or “woman.”
Trying to negotiate the line between my personal origins and the origins of my poems has shown me that there is really no clear line—the two aren’t actually separate. Nor should they be.
TCJWW: How do you access that place again? How do you make time for it in your life and in your work, as an “American” “woman” “grown-up” “poet” living in New York City?
Cushing: It’s not about being “in” the West per se. It’s creating the conditions that are most conducive to experiencing language and reality intimately, which is completely possible in New York City. For me that means unstructured solitary time, and the sincere intention to listen and remain open-minded and open-hearted to my imagination. “Always to be open to it/that all of it might flow through,” as the poet Lew Welch wrote in “Ring of Bone.”
The West is a physical corollary for that internal or psychic space. From the outside, the West—the desert in particular— may seem like an empty “void,” but when you’re actually there, the space presents endless subtleties that mirror the surprises that the imagination offers.
I have been fortunate to get to spend a lot of time alone in the wilderness. Although nothing can replace an actual departure of the city for the not-city, being in the wilderness is so close to me, and I feel I can always conjure it up.
TCJWW: Do you consider the West your home, or ‘Homa’?
Cushing: There’s a story that calls up the idea of “home,” that stuck with me as I was writing these poems. Wallace Stevens spent basically his entire life East of the Mississippi. Within that space, he traveled to very few locations. But when he was in his 20s and just starting out working for the insurance firm he worked for all his life, he went on a weeks-long hunting trip in the mountains of British Columbia with his boss, as a kind of rugged male-bonding-in-the-woods experience. He was out there with a backpack, sacking every wild animal imaginable (those mountains, I’m sure, were even wilder then than they are now), sleeping on the ground, out in the rain and sun. I heard somewhere that he spoke about this experience extensively to his daughter, Holly, as he was on his deathbed.
Which space was his true “home,” I wonder: his physically safe, culturally tame space of East Coast suburbia—the chosen and familiar home, where he wrote his spiritually risky poems—or his unpredictable, barely-glimpsed, sublime Canadian wilderness? How long does one inhabit a space, and in what capacity, for it to become “home”?
As time passes, I feel “at home” in poetry—and in the company of poets and their poems—more than I feel “at home” in any particular place.
TCJWW: Do you believe this is a distinctly American drive? Is this ‘the trouble with wilderness,’ as William Cronon put it—that we artificially put a fence around that space in ourselves and then call it ‘wild’? Could this be what it means to ‘name’ something?
Cushing: No, I don’t think it’s American, or particularly modern. The truth is, Stevens’ Connecticut was no less dangerous than the wild Canadian mountains. Everywhere can be wild, in a sense. But the unmistakable shift that occurs when we call something “wild” or “tame”—the way that we relate to something emotionally in response to what it’s called—that, to me, is a poetic concern that masquerades as a commonplace thing. I want to abandon any Freudian notion of the Wilderness as the Subconscious, the Other, or the Feminine. The wilderness is an actual place, an endless number of places, and the terms we have for talking about it are real terms, as strange, vivid and concrete as anything else that exists. Or doesn’t exist.
TCJWW: What is the “provisional place” within a word? In other words, what happens between Okla and Homa?
Cushing: The poem you mention, “Dear Okla,” describes that “provisional place” as “a plain invisibly overlaid/with a grid of numbers and president’s names,” which is a very common naming schematic for cities all over America.
The state name Oklahoma comes from the Choctaw words okla (red) and humma (people). The tension between those two methods of naming—on the one hand, the abstract vectors of presidential surnames and sequential numerals, and on the other, the very concrete red people—that tension, very much alive out West, is something I wanted to consider in these poems.
TCJWW: How can we, as poets alert to the politics of names, reconcile our language with the racism and oppression it’s founded on? What poetry can be built within that tension?
Cushing: In the introductory paragraph to her famous essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” Gayatri Spivak calls out a primary contribution of French poststructuralist theory: the idea “that intellectuals must attempt to disclose and know the discourse of society’s Other.” She goes on to quickly discover problems with this imperative, specifically with the way it fails to address the ideology that creates the divide in the first place. Poets are often (certainly not always) intellectuals; they constitute the “status quo” and the “Other” and every label in between. All of the poetry that exists in America exists within the “tension” we’re talking about, whether it’s aware of it or not. I want my poems to be at least aware of the tension, to question the divide that casts some as “Others” and some not.
Poetry is capable of addressing the various phenomenologies of language in a way that nothing else can. Taking up the question of a relationship between a place and its name, or anything and its name, is something that I’d rather do in a poem than in a paragraph, because I perceive a truth or intimacy in making lyric utterance that I don’t perceive in making prose. Which is a way of saying that, in making poems, we can also make theory, make political resistance, make tension, and make reality.
TCJWW: In “Nevada” you write, “Sharpen the difference / between interior // and its opposite.” What is that opposite? What happens if this difference is blurred?
Cushing: One impression that has occurred and recurred for me when I’ve been in really dry desert ecosystems—as in much of Nevada—is that the outside and the inside are the same. Like, there is very little foliage to conceal the earth, and if you dig into that giant brown rocky mountain, you will find it is filled with more brown rocky stuff. Everything is on the surface, which is an inhospitable, inhuman surface.
Of course, that’s not at all true, as centuries of human activity have shown, such as farming, hunting, mining, archaeology, and the like. There’s a whole insanely complex network of relationships between the surface and what’s underneath it. Endless fossils and artifacts are found, and subterranean aquifers have supported life there for eons.
I was surprised when I found out that the native people of the Colorado Plateau farmed for thousands of years before the area was colonized by America. I always assumed you needed tons of water and soil and tractors and fertilizer to farm—not so! So, the line between the interior—the hidden processes of the Earth—and the exterior is always being blurred. This is true everywhere.
Still, I feel philosophically curious about that idea of digging into the surface and finding more surface underneath it. I think it represents how I’d like to be as a person: the same substance, through and through.
My father, the poet James Cushing, has a poem in his first book with the lines, “Like a leaf given me by my daughter/Who wondered aloud what lay inside it/ “More leaf?” she asked and I said yes.
Wyoming can be purchased HERE