Margaret Cipriano Interview, with Davon Loeb
I fell in love with the first line of your poem, “How to Grow Up Beautiful,” when you said, “Creek kids, who took to the water.” And instantly, I was thrown back into my childhood—with the formation of little gangs, playing in the outdoors, and the way the nature became one of us. So how important is it for your writing to capture and evoke nostalgia?
It’s interesting that the line you mention recalls your childhood in such a visceral way, because that line comes from my own memories of playing near a creek where my friend and I fantasized we were “children of the forest.” That being said, I’m never sure if I explicitly write nostalgia into my poems—I think it’s a manifestation of my love for the Romantics. When I first read writers like Wordsworth and Keats, I was fascinated by the way they grappled with mutability and impermanence, and I saw the nostalgia in their poems as a response to their concerns about transience. Something similar happens in my poetry, I think, where the feeling of nostalgia becomes as important as the memory itself, managing to combat temporal anxiety even if only briefly.
Referring to your poem, “How to Grow Up Beautiful,” the narrator in the fifth stanza says, “& now, doesn’t every move feel / like a frantic rain dance.” There, the poem seems to take a turn, and compares the past to the present. If so, what changes do you feel are most evident in either the narrator and or the “Creek kids” today?
At that moment, the poem is interested in refuting the “belief” mentioned in the previous stanza. The notion that one could state: “let’s believe / in something like that,” and mean: “look at all these things we can convince ourselves of,” is called into question in the stanza you point to. For me, this poem is not only about nostalgia, but how these memories and beliefs can fail us in the end—can be as futile as a “frantic rain dance.” Ultimately, I think these changes are a response to aging that posits the consciousness of the creek kids’ erasure against the imperative of “bring me down” to fashion the past as something desired but, if achieved, destructive.
In your poem, “At the Racetrack,” there seems to be a continued conversation about beauty and its definitions, like in, “How to Grow Up Beautiful.” You personify the narrator to a race horse with such suavity and precision; you said, “nail shoes to my feet it shouldn’t hurt / a bit we all need to hear a woman / when she walks.” Furthermore, the pronoun “they” are the ones instructing the narrator to behave, like telling her to curtsey. Thus, if out of context, who would you say the authoritative “they” are?
The easy answer to this question would be anyone imposing themselves on, or thinking themselves in control of the female body. In “How to Grow Up Beautiful,” for example, this pressure is coming from the maternal figure in the poem. In “At the Racetrack,” I position the authoritative “they” in the regulated world of horse racing. Here, I imagine a patriarchal voice that interacts with a woman as one might interact with a horse they felt they had “trained” and thus “owned” in some way. I was certainly interested in exploring the authority I afforded to this pronoun, especially as the “they” revealed the insidiousness inherent in their commands.
How to Grow Up Beautiful
Creek kids, we took to the water
with our mouths & dark whisperers,
took it whole & cold like that—like sisters
who knew when to hold each other
We wanted to fill up with a drowning—
look at her hair, so wet it glitters.
Our mothers kept timers & waited
for our crocusing. Pointed to the suburb’s
wildflower daughters. Soon, they said,
you might be beautiful, like that.
Sister, revisit that drowning—
how we took our bodies to the water
like two dark matches we didn’t expect
to come back lit. Let’s believe
in something like that.
& now, doesn’t every move feel
like frantic rain dance, a way to rub
out our erasure? Bring me down &
hold me there—place of breath’s
inconsequence, place of no small want.
At the Racetrack
& again I am that little darling
winning horse named Regret shoulders full
of roses while everyone’s tongues press mint
against glass we name all women regret
& celebrate again
I imagine a different orbit & a thousand
dizzy rings but when they decided Pluto wasn’t
good enough they X’d it & my telescope
-rimmed eyes want more pity no good woman is
so needles these silks need fixing
there’s a hole in every seam & a spine
that they tell curtsey they tell dream & dream but please
curtsey & I guess I’m available but first
nail shoes to my feet it shouldn’t hurt
a bit we all need to hear a woman
when she walks
horizon I’d rather have
you at my throat rather the distance
& the cold & the name we make for history &
forget for now this bridle I bite
This red thrush’s belly-dive—
a brief unseizing like the fist I knew you wanted,
knew you curled in your deep pocket. Always
the want to raze this prairie. Always the want
for dirtier knees & a bottle that never empties.
Don’t be so careful. I’m beginning to see you’re all
amber & just a body I happen to be trapped in.
Bright holder, if you leap like this you take me
down with you. Cross my red throat with your own
holy wreckage & take your due. Every hot little second
chance leaps up. There’s always someone hidden
in the reeds—it’s never the one who can promise
your ending: what you fold inside disguised
as any ordinary dinner. I’ve been tricked
by that lick for years—so now, easy, deer. Locked.
Whisper with me. You are hunted, hunted, hunting.