Sunday Sep 22

Hollenbeck-Poetry Cindy Hollenbeck lives in Moscow, Idaho, with her three children. She received her MFA in creative writing from the University of Idaho. Her work has appeared in Fourth Genre, Pearl, The Ledge, Meadow, Blood Orange Review, and others. Cindy works as a technical editor at Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories in Pullman, Washington, and as an instructor at Walla Walla Community College. Visit her blog.
Cindy Hollenbeck Interview, with Monica Mankin
What attracts you to poetry as a reader? Why do you write poetry? And how do you find (or make) the time to write with two jobs and three children?
As a reader, I am drawn to poetry that tells the truth using elevated language in a subtle and careful way. Before I started to write poetry (circa 1998) I thought poems were supposed to be difficult to understand and lofty, not for a “blue collar” reader like me. And then I read “The Tooth Fairy,” by Dorianne Laux, a poem that describes a dysfunctional family with vivid moments of beauty and rage. Its language was plain, but poetic, and the images were striking and unusual. The poem was like a punch in the gut. Afterward I realized, “Hey,” I might be able to do this. Back then I was so excited and in love with writing that I woke at 4:00 am every day to write. Now, I scribble on notepads or in my phone’s notebook whenever I get a chance. I try to keep my mind always in “writing mode”, waiting for an idea to visit…

Some of the poems published with
Connotation Press this month seem to indict the mother, as a trope, for what she’s done or for her absence. In “Another Fall,” a mother is present, but, with her “heavy / eye-shadow, breasts spilling from her blouse,” she is painted as the antithesis to the Virgin Mother whom the young girl admires for her “averted eyes and covered cleavage.” This mother doesn't really seem "to be there" for her daughter. In “Origami,” the mother has died and the girls in the poem are left with their father who “swore / he’d teach [them] everything [they] needed to know: // Salt the water before tossing the noodles. / Peel the potatoes after they boil. / Make noise when I’m inside you.” And in “Ruby Slippers,” the young girl Sissy is taunted by her schoolmates and left at the end of the poem calling for “the love of a mother.” What is the significance of this theme throughout these poems? Is it merely personal or do you feel there is a larger concern brewing in regard to the role of the American mother?
My poetry is mostly autobiographical. My father and mother separated when I was six months old, and my father dated lots of women. When I was six he remarried an abusive, immature woman who would become my “mother” for the next twenty-five years, until he finally divorced her. I grew up with a deep-seated emptiness left by the mother who left and resentment for the mother who stayed. As a mother now myself, I am probably too involved in my kids’ lives. I have complicated and conflicted feelings daily, which I think are universal. (No one likes to admit it, though.) TV and movies and Hallmark cards tell us that simply being a mother is deeply fulfilling and joyous. For some mothers, it probably is. But, it is difficult to feel joy when you are cleaning up vomit or scraping hardened milk off the floor, arriving late to work because a kid was grouchy and slow to get ready that morning, when you’re exhausted from cleaning or work, or when every word you say is challenged by the kids you raised to be assertive. So, I do think there is a universal assumption about motherhood that needs to be challenged. Being an American mother, where everyone expects us to keep it all together at all times is hard—and not always fulfilling.

In your poem “Another Fall,” you pull us into the world of a young Catholic girl who is coming of age, who is deliberately trying to lose her innocence, transitioning from a ten-year-old who is completely enamored with Christ, God, and the Virgin Mother–to the extent that her own mother tells her “
You love God so much? Become a fucking nun”–into a twelve-year-old who smokes, drinks, and swears. As a woman, what do you think happened? Do you think such an experience is natural and experienced by all young girls, or do you think it’s got more to do with circumstance? Thinking of American girls who are currently the age(s) of the girl in this poem, what would you want them to take from this poem? Do you think a sufficient dialogue exists these days about the expectations placed upon girls as they become women?
Looking back, I believe what happened was that a girl who had been told to sit still, be quiet, and smile her entire life finally came to awareness that those good behaviors gave her zero power. I was born rebellious, I think, and probably drove my family crazy with my insatiable curiosity. Why do I have to wear a shirt and my brother doesn’t? Why do I have to go to bed at nine o’clock? Why do I have to sit still when I want to hang upside down from that tree branch?

Maybe all American girls go through some sort of rebellion, but I was a wild child being raised by a twenty-two year old hippie father who disliked authority himself and always questioned everything. But my father was also very strict when it came to giving him respect—I was not allowed to talk back, or interrupt. As a girl coming of age, I was not allowed to date, go to parties, and had an eleven o’clock curfew until I moved out of the house! These contradictory messages made me rebel more. Growing up, I had many straight-and-narrow friends who were “attracted” to me because I always tested the boundaries and helped them break out of their shells.

What I want people to take from this poem is the recognition of coming to new awareness. In sixth grade I was so pious. And then, within a year or so, I was like “screw this!” I want to be bad. To be honest, my life hasn’t changed that much. Inside me is a constant struggle to do what’s “right”, for society, for my kids, etc., and then, that rebellious girl rears her head and says, Life is short. Do what you want!

I do not believe enough dialogue goes on between women and girls. I have two daughters; one is 19 and the other 15. We are incredibly open in our house. I have been honest about my wild past. Our personalities are so similar that we cannot hide anything from each other. We are more like sisters. My daughters cringe when I talk to them about life, sex, womanhood, etc., but I know when they are older they will brag to their friends about what an open relationship we had. I missed out on all of that with my own mothers, and I try to make up for it with them. Mothers need to talk to their daughters—we understand girlhood.

Who do you envision your audience to be? Who do you write for?
I envision my audience to be people just like me: women who’ve been through plenty of struggles and want to hear about other people’s stories as a way of feeling more sane, more “normal.” A poetry teacher once told me that my work wasn’t universal because he didn’t feel connected to it. But I didn’t feel connected to his stories about male bonding, hunting, and the outdoors. I simply write what I know and hope that others get something from what I have to say.

While each of your poems leads us through the darker experiences of human cruelty and loss, the power of faith still asserts itself. Where does this sense of faith come from? How do you define faith and what do you have faith in?
Several years ago I was having a faith crisis and sought advice from a very smart woman who has been my long-time mentor. She said, “At the end of the day, you have to believe in something.” I consider myself an agnostic, because I can’t quite claim to be an atheist. I don’t believe in “God” or a “god.” During all the significantly painful experiences in my life, from losing my beloved older brother to losing a husband at age 28, I have relied on myself to get through it all. Plus, I have an incredible network of the most forgiving, gracious, and wonderful friends—people from all walks of life and from many different phases of my life. To me, faith means moving forward even though I have no idea what the future might bring. Walking in the dark with my head held high. That can be very scary. But, I have gotten this far and am still moving forward. I have to have faith in me.
Another Fall
When I was ten, during Lent,
I attended Mass every day,
fasted on Sundays, my belly
tight with the body and blood
of Jesus Christ. I draped
Rosary beads over my bed
post, shoved blest palm leaves
beneath my mattress.
That year, I was chosen to crown Mary
at the May service—in a church blazing
with tall white candles, Ave Maria moaning
from the choir, the nose-stinging aroma
of incense, I rested the wreath of baby’s
breath and blue ribbon on her head, admired
her averted eyes and covered cleavage,
so different from my mother’s heavy
eye-shadow, breasts spilling from her blouse,
her constant complaint:
You love God so much? Become a fucking nun—
When I was twelve, I smoked
my first cigarette, choked down
my first beer, earned five demerits
for swearing in the school library.
The principal asked what had happened to me,
but I hardly knew myself.
All at once, I became a girl who believed
in nothing—who needed to sate herself
with things she could touch, feel. I ached
for the weight of smoke inside my lungs,
burn of alcohol in my belly, tangle
of unholy words in my throat, lying in wait,
dying to be loosed out into the world.
for Wanda
Father was a paper folder,
our birthday parties magic
scenes of origami pigeons,
Frisbees, and puppets. Our
first word was fold, but we cut
before we could talk. For hours
we pressed, pleated and sliced
and when Mother died, months
after we’d turned nine, Father swore
he’d teach us everything we needed to know:
Salt the water before tossing in the noodles.
Peel the potatoes after they boil.
Make noise when I’m inside you.
You took wing, folded yourself
into something pointed, while he
bent me into a wife, my heart
in my hand like a burning coal.
Years later, they found you,
wrists sliced open like Chinese
fortune tellers from grade school.
I sneaked into our childhood
bedroom, lifted the lid to the box
where we hid secrets, spun the first top
you creased from thick stock,
lit the match stick and sent
it spinning like a fiery cyclone—
the whirling flame, stink
of sulfur, cut into the deepest
part of me, a stain as black as ink.
Ruby Slippers
Sissy Wilson had no eyes,
just brown blurs beneath
smudged lenses, flattened
curls framing her doughy
face.  In the crowded gym,
boys in Windsor knots played
Dodge Ball while girls
in pigtails and plaid jumpers
skipped rope to Jesus loves me.

Sissy stood before the stage
where days earlier we’d performed
The Wizard of Oz: five-foot tall
Glynda, foil-covered wand in hand,
gown of pink tulle, granted Dorothy
her wish for home with a pair
of glitter smeared slippers—
Sissy tucked the folds of her skirt
beneath her chin, dropped her panties
to her knees while we kept time
on the faceless school clock,
a rowdy crowd of kids unaware
of the bare ten-year-old girl
standing a few feet away.
Sissy smoothed her skirt over her knees
and asked, Now can I join your club?
We glanced at each other, slinked
past the boys, the girls, the nuns
in black and white—an unholy trinity
in pressed green vests, blessing
ourselves past Mary, Saint Thomas,
the crucifix, bowing before a god
we could no more comprehend than see.
Sissy stood tall in her pleats and plaid,
hands curled into fists, clicking together
the heels of her Buster Browns, calling
on anyone for help, for escape to the
safety of home, the love of a mother,
the faith to believe in more than us.