Cynthia Good Explores Mortality Through Poetry in “What We Do with Our Hands” [INTERVIEW]

Cynthia Good is an award-winning author, journalist and former TV news anchor. She has written six books including Vaccinating Your Child, which won the Georgia Author of the Year award. She has launched two magazines, Atlanta Woman and the nationally distributed PINK magazine for women in business. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in numerous journals including Free State Review, Main Street Rag and Terminus Magazine. Cynthia’s new chapbook What We Do with Our Hands from Finishing Line Press will be published this summer. Cynthia is also a frequent speaker and global women’s advocate.

Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast host James Morehead interviewed Cynthia about her new chapbook What We Do With Our Hands; excerpts from the interview are included below.

James Morehead: Congratulations on your upcoming chapbook What We Do With Our Hands – it’s a powerful, unflinching, and moving collection. When did you first discover a love for writing poetry?

Cynthia Good – Poet and Author of “What We Do with Our Hands”

Cynthia Good: “Really late in my life, I had always been a journalist on TV, and then in print with a magazine. That was really my life and then I got to a point where I didn’t really feel like I had the tools to say what I felt I wanted to say. It was a time where all the stuff with Trump was going on and the media was inundated with wild messages. There was such a disconnect between that and what was happening in my life. For a moment I thought I was crazy because nobody was talking about these things that were so real and compelling and consuming in my own life. I was starting to do some poetry, and I went to the Napa Writers Conference and Brian Teare and Camille Dungy were talking about language, and they were talking about the fact that sometimes there just aren’t words to say what needed to be said. I had this epiphany that I had discovered this new language that could be my own and I was really excited about that. In my late 50s, I decided to go back and get my MFA at NYU in Paris where they have a wonderful poetry program. That is a snapshot of how I was reintroduced to poetry.”

James: What poets most inspire and challenge you? And by ‘challenge you’ I’m thinking of something Billy Collins said, about reading poetry that makes you jealous, that challenges you to grow.

Cynthia: “So many poets make me jealous. I actually had a stack of the books in the other room I was going to bring in. I’m reading Ada Limón’s new book, The Hurting Kind. Adrienne Rich has a voluminous collection of poems where you can open to any page and are overwhelmed. Natasha Trethewey and Edna St. Vincent Millay are also extraordinary. I had the chance to work with Victoria Chang last summer, who I love. It’s incredible because this community of poets is so small that you can actually have access to and workshop with somebody like Billy Collins.”

James: Many of the poems in this collection are raw and personal. How did writing these poems help you through painful memories, and how difficult was it to step back and view your poetry critically?

Cynthia: “It’s really hard to look at things critically and objectively. Hopefully that’s why we have a little support from editors and people around us who can give us some input. Most of my poetry comes from a place of frustration, with seeing so much censorship. It’s so easy in our culture to censor ourselves, so I try to fight against that. I think that’s one reason why my poetry comes off as so raw. Probably unlike a lot of poets, I don’t write poems for the reader. In my other work as a journalist, we put together stories to help women advance, achieve their life goals, recreate their lives, and excel. But when it comes to poetry, it’s something more deeply personal and I try to make it a raw honest expression. I’ve heard from people that my writing is helpful and they identify with it because maybe they haven’t been able to articulate something themselves, or maybe they haven’t read anything else exactly like it that helps them understand their own situation. In terms of the poetry being healing, sometimes writing does help me sort through things, but other times it makes everything more painful. When you’re excavating and digging below wounds, it can be even more painful. But, I don’t think it’s something I can control, almost like a smoking habit. I’m going to do it and it’s going to happen whether it’s healing or not.” 

James: One of the things I enjoyed about this collection is the balance between the direct, even profane moments, and the tender moments. A beautiful example is “My Father’s Ashes” where you write:

“I have his brown eyes and dark skin.
I do not have his certainty, his calm
demeanor in crisis, his thin legs.
I have his ashes in my hands, fine,
like dust, except for the pieces
of bone we give back to the sea.”

I love how this poem, so compact and precise, compels being read multiple times. What is your approach to writing just enough – not more, not less?

Cynthia: “Some poems get so long and I guess it’s part of the editing process. It’s tough because you get the chance to put yourself back in that situation and try to reconstruct that relationship that is so dear to you. I’ve read that writing about fathers is the number one thing that poets tend to write about. I think that sometimes the poem seems to end naturally. Usually when I write I get to the end, the poem seems to be begging for more rather than less, so it’s nice to write a short poem.”

James: How do you get into “poetry flow”? Is there a place or time of day or routine that helps you write?

Cynthia: “I can be just driving down the road. I recently did a road trip from Atlanta across the country to Los Angeles and there was some writing that took place there. But, a poem comes when it’s going to come, and I love that sense you get when you know you have to write something down. The other night, I was sitting on my patio and there were bats everywhere. I had never noticed them, I thought they were birds. Now, this is my new ‘I’ve got to write about that’ and I actually spent this morning researching bats. But for me, an ideal day is to get up, maybe listen to some music, read something because it’s so inspiring to read great work, and then to spend a little while writing. That’s my time of day where I’m at my best, so I want to give that to what’s most important to me. Then after that, I can go about the rest of my day.”

James: You mentioned researching and that’s something I’ve mentioned a couple times in this series of interviews. Research plays more of a role than people realize in poetry. Poets sometimes write about things they aren’t really intimately familiar with, so they go learn about it. What do you look for when you’re researching subject matter? 

Cynthia: “It’s kind of terrifying. It’s almost like it looks for me. As you saw in the book, I had a brief obsession with mushrooms. Today, it’s bats, and it’s almost like going down this rabbit hole. I was writing a little bit about the bats and wanted to learn more, and I discovered that bats are a symbol of death or a symbol of rebirth depending on the culture. In China, the word for bat is also the word for luck. But in the Bible, the meaning is completely different. I go down this rabbit hole and it can be never-ending, but it’s very exciting to me.”

James: In “Instructions on Washing and Drying” and in other poems in this collection you confront mortality, death and the journey of dying, a universal experience. What have you learned from readers moved by your poetry, who are facing similar experiences?

Cynthia: “When you go through these major life changes, losing a parent as an example, you feel like you’re the only one who’s dealing with this. Being able to write about it and talk to other people helps you realize that death is something natural and human. We’re all going to die. We’re so good in this culture at pushing death out of mind, so it’s almost like it doesn’t even happen. But then death comes along, and you’re thunderstruck. To be able to express that on the page and then connect with others who’ve experienced it too is pretty magical.”

James: “Because Cockroaches Live in Dishwashers” is a poem that screams – literally – to be read out loud, almost a howl. Passages such as

                                                                “... You couldn't leave
because he planted pear trees in the backyard, took out trash

bags filled with wine bottles and brought in jugs of water,
couldn’t because he fell into the Caesar salad during dinner

parties, …”

What role does reading poetry out loud play in your writing process?

Cynthia: “Sound and musicality is very important to a poem. In my past life. I was a TV news reporter and anchor, but I was also a dancer. I think being surrounded by music, whether it’s in the room when you’re dancing or hearing the written word expressed verbally, brings a whole new layer to poetry just like form. How does the poem look on the page? How does it sound? How does it feel in your mouth? I don’t think of myself as a poet focused on performance in the spoken word, but I love that part of poetry.”

James: Has your prior experience as a journalist impacted you as a poet in any way?

Cynthia: “Certainly it’s helpful being really comfortable reading. I could stand up in front of thousands of people right now and read and I would love it. The sense of the presence and importance of the usage of the language is wonderful. The skills in terms of research have absolutely been helpful, but it’s been a huge struggle to unlearn that repertorial approach because that’s not what poetry is and I continue to fight against that. I have been reprimanded many times by my teachers who say I really need to let that go, so it is almost like a liability. My teachers have had to disabuse me of the idea that poems have to be accurate. It is important to allow poetry to be art and an experience rather than be journalistically sound.”

Hear the rest of the interview including Cynthia reading selections from What We Do With our Hands on the Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast.

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