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Photo: Erica Simone

Cecilia Woloch

A poet, writer, teacher & performer

The Wise Owl talks to Cecilia Woloch,  a U.S.-born poet, writer, teacher, and performer based in Los Angeles. Her honors include fellowships from the Fulbright Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, CEC/ArtsLink International and the Center for International Theatre Development; her work has also received a Pushcart Prize and been included in the Best American Poetry Series and in numerous anthologies. Cecilia has published six collections of poems and a novel, as well as essays and reviews. She is the founding director of Summer Poetry in Idyllwild, The Istanbul Poetry Workshop and The Paris Poetry Workshop. She has also served on the creative writing faculties of several prestigious universities around the World

The Interview : Cecilia Woloch

(Rachna Singh, Editor, The Wise Owl in conversation with Cecilia Woloch)

The Wise Owl talks to Cecilia Woloch,  a U.S.-born poet, writer, teacher, and performer based in Los Angeles. Her honors include fellowships from the Fulbright Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, CEC/ArtsLink International and the Center for International Theatre Development; her work has also received a Pushcart Prize and been included in the Best American Poetry Series and in numerous anthologies, including Die Morgendämmerung der Worte: Moderner Poesie-Atlas der Roma und Sinti (The Dawn of the Words: Modern Poetry Atlas of the Roma and Sinti.)

Cecilia has published six collections of poems and a novel, as well as essays and reviews. Tsigan: The Gypsy Poem, her second collection, originally appeared in 2002 from Cahuenga Press, was published in French translation as Tzigane, le poème, Gitan, by Scribe-l'Harmattan in 2014, and was issued in an expanded and updated English edition by Two Sylvias Press in 2018. The final poem in the new edition was featured in a commemorative exhibit by Daniel Libeskind at Auschwitz-Birkenau. The text of Tsigan: The Gypsy Poem has also been the basis for multi-lingual, multi-media performances across the U.S. and Europe.

Born in Pennsylvania and raised in rural Kentucky, Cecilia has travelled the world as a teacher and writer. She has conducted poetry workshops for thousands of children and young people throughout the United States, as well as workshops for professional writers, educators, participants in Elderhostel programs for senior citizens, inmates at a prison for the criminally insane, and residents at a shelter for homeless women and their children. She is the founding director of Summer Poetry in Idyllwild, The Istanbul Poetry Workshop and The Paris Poetry Workshop. She has also served on the creative writing faculties of The University of Southern California, Georgia College & State University, Western Connecticut State University MFA Program in Writing and The New England College MFA Program in Poetry. Most recently, she taught in the summer program at Sichuan University in China in 2019 and taught on a Fulbright fellowship at the University of Rzeszów in Poland in 2020 and 2022.

 

Thank you, Cecilia, for taking time out to talk to The Wise Owl.

RS: You are a prolific poet with 6 poetry collections under your belt. Please tell us a little about your journey as a poet.

CW: Well, that journey has covered a lot of territory, at this point! Like many, many people, I started trying to write ‘poetry’ as a teenager – that is, making secretive scrawlings in notebooks. I think it was William Stafford who, when asked when he’d started writing poetry, responded, “When did everyone else stop?” I was one of those people who just never stopped. As a teenager, I got a lot of encouragement, especially from one high school teacher in Bullitt County, Kentucky, Joann Bealmear – or Ms. B, as we called her. She was responsible for getting my first poem published – in the Kentucky Journal of Teachers of English – and it was a requirement for her ‘Modern Song and Verse’ to keep a daily journal. I’ve kept a journal for most of my life, and almost everything I’ve written has begun in my journal, with a kind of free-writing I do almost every day, at the end of the day, hoping to get somewhere I didn’t know I was going. Because that’s what I want most from poems, as a writer and as a reader: to go somewhere in language that I couldn’t get to any other way.

On my best days, language still has a kind of magic for me, a magic I first became aware of as a child, when my mother read to me. As a young poet, I worked as a poet-in-the-schools, and working with children and young people was a big part of my education as a poet. I was always trying to find poems that I responded to passionately, and that I hoped my students would respond to passionately. From that spark comes the fire of one’s own creative energy. And because my students in Los Angeles and around the world came from such diverse backgrounds, I was always searching for the kinds of poems they could relate to, so my reading and my study of poetry became very wide and deep. I was also searching for ways to engage students with poems that might be considered ‘difficult,’ to show them a way into poems whose subject matter might seem far from their own experience. I remember a student in a fifth-grade class, who was growing up in south L.A. at a time when gang violence was rampant, who wrote about sleeping on the floor beneath the window to reduce the chance of being hit by stray bullets, and how moved she was by the poems of Miłosz. So I Iearned not to underestimate the ability of children to ‘get’ poetry that was nuanced and complex.

I enrolled in an MFA program at forty, just after my first book was published, when I wanted to challenge myself to go further into the craft of poetry than I’d previously gone, and to try approaches I hadn’t tried. The MFA program also helped me to prioritize time for writing, to think of reading and writing as my job, to really think of myself as a writer. And then the kind of life I was able to make for myself, as a writer — teaching independently and creating networks of friends and fellow poets and other artists around the world — allowed me to begin to travel, and then to travel almost relentlessly, and that travel, and those connections have been an important part of what fuels my writing. So, it seems all of a piece to me, at this point; my writing isn’t separate from the rest of my life. I stopped traveling during the pandemic and was surprised to find myself contented to be in Los Angeles for a whole year without going anywhere, for the first time in about thirty years. I thought maybe my wanderlust had finally been quenched. But that seems not to have been the case. I spent part of 2021 and all of 2022 as a Fulbright fellow in south-eastern Poland and, as I type this, I’m preparing to return to Poland for several months.

 

RS: Our readers would love to know what or who were the creative influences in your life? How did they influence your poetry, in terms of the themes you write about and the structure & framework of your poetry.

CW: As I’ve mentioned, my high school teacher Ms. B. was an early influence; she introduced me to contemporary poetry when I was still a teenager, the poems of Sylvia Plath and Lucille Clifton, for example, poems that showed me that my own life, the world around me and the world within me, were sources of poetry. And then my long-time mentor the poet Holly Prado was a big influence; she encouraged both wildness and discipline but above all devotion to the writing process. And, as I’ve mentioned, the reading and studying I did on my own in order to teach myself how to teach; I used poems by Whitman and Dickenson and Langston Hughes when I worked with kids, poems by Gertrude Stein and Andre Breton, Nikki Giovanni and Joy Harjo and Sandra Cisneros and Basho and Issa and William Carlos Williams – such a wild variety of poets, and I think immersing myself in that variety had a big effect on my writing and my poetics. The poetry of H.D. has been hugely important to me, and the poetry of Akhmatova, also Lorca and Celan, and the work of contemporary poets, particularly Wanda Coleman and Sharon Doubiago, both fearless in their writing, Merwin, Bukowski and Terrance Hayes, and the friends with whom I share drafts, Carine Topal and Sarah Luczaj and Carol Muske-Dukes, who are as generous with their criticism as with their praise and whose work inspires me to keep working. I think it’s important to read widely and deeply into the canon, as well as in the margins, all the way back to Sappho and all the way into the present, to enter that long and ongoing conversation among poets throughout time and across geographical borders. In my own work, landscapes have been important, especially the Carpathian landscape and the landscape of rural Kentucky, the natural world and the human-made world, cities like Paris and Istanbul, my travels and also my family — the center of so much of my creative work — and my friends, all the relationships that make up the world in which I live, which is in constant flux. I think I always want movement in poems, and travel has been a source of that dynamic. In terms of structure, I just keep trying different things.

 

RS: I was reading your poems. I especially loved your poem, ‘My mother’s pillow’. Our readers would be keen to know the creative process behind your poetry writing- how you pick a theme for your poem, how you decide on the genre of the poem etc.

CW: I can’t remember the genesis of that poem precisely; I think I may have had a line or an image in mind when I began – ‘My mother sleeps with the Bible open on her pillow’ — which may even have been a line I wrote in my journal. But fairly early in the process, I decided to try to work with that material in the villanelle form. I seldom ‘decide on’ anything, when it comes to writing poems; usually there are a handful of words, some melody I hear and try to write toward, or there’s an image I want to explore. In this case, though, I did decide to work within the constraints of the villanelle form, just as an experiment, to see where that form, those constraints, might take me. It’s always a back-and-forth between form and content, working within a received form, one influencing the other, sometimes the images or language pushing harder against the form so that I have to bend the form, sometimes the form pushing harder, so that I have to keep digging to find language, and thus imagery, that serves the form. Really, that’s the case whether I’m working with a received form like the villanelle or inventing the form for the poem as I write.

 

RS: You are a poet of repute with honours that include fellowships from the Fulbright Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, CEC/ArtsLink International and the Center for International Theatre Development etc. Your work has also received a Pushcart Prize and been included in the Best American Poetry Series and in numerous anthologies. What advice would you give budding poets about how to grow and evolve as a poet and how to hone their craft?

CW: I would give the advice poets always give: Read and keep reading. Writing is its own reward. Focusing on achievement or prizes can be a trap. James Baker Hall once said that focusing on ‘pobiz’ can drive a wedge between you and the work that’s most sacred to you. As Ginsberg advised, follow your inner moonlight.

 

RS: You are the founding director of Summer Poetry in Idyllwild, The Istanbul Poetry Workshop and The Paris Poetry Workshop. You have also done workshops with children, senior citizens and with criminally insane. What inspired you to start these workshops? How do you structure the workshops to cater to such different participants?

CW: I don’t think my approach varies that much from workshop to workshop; I’m always trying to create a little magic, to instil or nurture a love of poetry and a reverence for language. Teaching is a two-way street for me; I’m always learning as I’m teaching, learning from my students and also discovering what I didn’t know I knew before I tried to articulate it for them. Teaching inspires me and reinvigorates my love of poetry, and working with very different groups of students stretches me as a teacher and as a poet. I’ve learned as much from working with children and inmates as I have from working with graduate students. One of my early teachers, Jack Grapes, told me that the way to teach something you love is to love it; that’s always worked for me. And I don’t know if I’ve so much been “inspired” to create workshops as looking for opportunities to teach – and to earn a living, by the way! – and creating those opportunities for myself and for other poets.

 

RS:  You have published 6 collections of your poems (Earth, Carpathia, Tsigan, among others). Our readers would be curious to know (as I am) if you write poems on various subjects and then collect the ones that have a similar theme in one book, or you decide on a theme and then write poems in tandem with the theme/subject.

 

CW: I would say that I mostly ‘write the best I can about the things that concern me most,’ at any given time, and then, at some point, when I feel I’ve exhausted a particular vein or source and might have a body of work, I sift through the material and try to discern how the poems might speak to one another and how they might cohere into a whole. I often feel that I’m trying to create a kind of narrative arc in how I sequence the poems, but that arc may not be apparent to the reader, which is fine – I’m just looking for a way to structure a whole. Although with Tsigan: The Gypsy Poem, I set out to write a long poem in sections around the theme of my own connection to that identity and about the mysteriousness of ‘Gypsy,’ or more properly, ‘Roma’ people. I wrote ‘toward’ the poem for a long time, writing various fragments and putting them into a file, and I did a lot of research and a lot of travel, and then I gathered all of these fragments and worked to put them in some kind of order, to create a kind of narrative as well as texture and music, and by then I knew I wanted the poem to be a poem of witness, in some sense, to un-erase a part of my own history and a part of Roma history. I had to create a structure that would hold all of these things, and I had to write some additional pieces to fill in ‘gaps' that I only saw once I’d started to assemble the pieces. In the end, I created a structure that interwove very personal, lyric poems, and observations about the Roma I encountered in my travels, and a timeline of the history of the Roma people. I think if I’d known, when I started, that I was attempting something this ‘big,’ I might have been too intimidated by the scope of it to continue. This is why I try not to look too far ahead, to focus on the process instead of the final product, and that’s true of almost everything I’ve written that has amounted to anything. Although I also believe that, as poets, we shouldn’t be afraid of making messes, creatively, that might not ‘amount to anything’ at all – it’s all part of the process.

 

RS: Are you working on a poetry collection now? When will it hit the bookstores?

CW: I’m working on several things at the same time, which is usual for me, and I’m a little superstitious about saying what I’m doing, or trying to do, until it’s done. Again, this is part of keeping my focus on the work in front of me as much as possible.

 

RS: If I were to ask you to describe yourself as a poet in three words, what would those be?

CW: I don’t know if I can say this about myself, but what I would like to be able to say about myself – what I aspire to be as a poet — is passionate, precise, courageous.

 

RS: I ask this question of all poets that I talk to. Do you think interest in poetry and literary & creative writing is dwindling?

CW: No, I don’t think it’s dwindling at all, although I sometimes wonder if some of the interest is misplaced – that is, if a lot of people are writing poetry for reasons that have more to do with personal ambition and a bid for attention than for the love of the art form itself, a love of what language can do. I also find it worrisome when poetry becomes kind of inbred. I mean, poets have always been speaking to one another, holding this conversation through time and space; but I want poetry to reach beyond that, too, and engage a wider audience. I don’t mean that poetry should in any way try to speak ‘down’ to an audience – or speak to an audience at all! — and I don’t mean that poetry should be yet another form of mass entertainment, or that it should be ‘easy’ in the name of greater ‘accessibility,’ rather that it should be so compelling, so engaged with what matters most, that people will listen, and maybe even be changed by it. I think of two quotations that have meant a lot to me. One is something Galway Kinnell said in an interview, something along the lines of, “In poetry, it’s mostly the inner world. But when you go deeply enough into the personal, suddenly you’re outside everywhere.” In other words, that deep engagement with one’s own inner world can, paradoxically, result in something that’s universal. And then there’s what William Carlos Williams said in ‘Asphodel, That Greeny Flower: “It is difficult to get the news from poems/ yet men die miserably every day for lack/of what is found there.” I do believe that poetry is that important, that urgent, that necessary to all of us.

 

Thank you so much Cecilia for taking time out to speak to The Wise Owl. We wish you the best in all your creative endeavours and hope we see more of your beautiful poetry collections.

Works of Cecilia Woloch
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