BY JOANNA C. VALENTE
When I first heard Gillian Cummings, she was reading poetry. I was transfixed. I didn’t know who Cummings was before, but now I had to know. Her latest book, The Owl Was a Baker’s Daughter, was selected by John Yau as the winner of the 2018 Colorado Prize for Poetry.
Generally, Cummings’ poetry creates quiet, stark worlds that sometimes focus on isolation, on introspection. For instance, in “Ear, Ear, Unasked,” Cummings’ speaker says:
too slow and hollow to make
the echoes stop, you of nothing, nowhere-gone,
forever going, without cease of unwilled waves,
without cease of slurs, those incidents of insults
that ring scales to the blurred beat of no timpani,
never but a heat fevering over the hurt, the hurt:
it hears, you hear, all songs ever smugly sung, sung
And then closes the poem with a question, in vain, because there is only silence - and isolation and loneliness:
will you let their talking wicks be an almostness of
silence, a prayer of wax spilled in your caverns, your
chambers of fluid-filled, firm-fast lovelessness that won’t,
that won’t but give?
I was lucky to be able to speak with Cummings, who told me about her fears, goals, and favorites:
Describe your favorite meal.
The wild mushroom pizza at Blossom on Columbus (NYC). The menu describes it this way, “cashew cheese, mozzarella, arugula, marinara, truffle oil.” The mozzarella is non-dairy. Sometimes even a vegan needs pizza to survive.
What have you been listening to lately?
Bachfest on WKCR, which runs from Christmas Eve through New Year’s Eve and is one of the highlights of every year for me. Then, for the sake of my writing, well, I’m writing a novel which foregrounds Poland and fairytales, and every time I sit down to work on it, I play the YouTube video to Sutari’s “Siostra” (“Sister”), one of the most hauntingly beautiful music videos I’ve ever seen.
Choose three books that you've always identified with?
Because I am too close to poetry, I am going to name three novels for you, in the order in which I encountered them:
Alice Walker’s The Color Purple
Virginia Woolf’s The Waves
Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things.
Choose one painting that describes who you are. What is it?
I love botanical still life paintings and my favorite painter of them was the artist Giovanna Garzoni. She is the artist I’ve learned the most from when it comes to creating my own drawings. A favorite painting of hers? There are so many. But if my choice is meant to describe me, it would have to be her “Still Life with Fruit and Birds” at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Why? Because while most of her other still life paintings also include fruit, this is one of the few with birds, and I’m completely obsessed with beings of the avian family.
If you could only watch three films for the rest of your life, what would they be?
It’s a Wonderful Life, because it reminds me there are always reasons for living and I’m someone who often forgets that. Plus, I grew up watching this movie every Christmas Eve, so it reminds me of my childhood.
Fanny and Alexander, because Bergman is by far my favorite filmmaker and this film in particular knows what it’s like to feel like a child: that terror, that awe.
Bright Star, because I’m a Keats fanatic and I also love Jane Campion’s films in general. The cinematography in this film is stunning.
What’s your favorite animal?
Easiest question ever: my African grey parrot Winslow.
What do you carry with you at all times?
My wallet and cell phone. In my wallet, business cards from foreign cities, to remember things about them.
What are you afraid of?
What it would be like if my husband were to die before me. I don’t think I could go on. Honestly. I think if either one of us becomes terminally ill, we’ll have to commit double suicide. That is how bad the fear is. For both of us. And he is eleven years older than I am, so I likely won’t have a very long life.
What are some of your daily rituals or routines?
Writing in the mornings, after my two cups of tea. Every evening after dinner, giving my parrot “petting time” in which he comes on the bed with my husband and me, and I stroke the back of his neck. After Winslow kicks us out of the bedroom by standing on his cage and sternly announcing, “It’s bed,” going back into the kitchen where my husband sits on one side of the table and composes on guitar, while I sit on the other side and catch up with things on my laptop. Later, very often, when we are too tired to do much, going into the living room and—shame on us—keeping the neighbors up ridiculously late while we listen to music.
What are your proudest accomplishments?
My second poetry book, The Owl Was a Baker’s Daughter, and the novel I’ve been working on, tentatively titled Dragonfly Blue.
Define happiness for you.
Riding the horse Frakkur down the beach in a remote part of Iceland, cantering, feeling as if Frakkur and I were one body, arrowing though the briny air, with a glacier to one side of us and to the other the North Sea, knowing that somehow, in this way, we were very close to God, and that somehow Frakkur could feel this, too.
What’s something you want to do in 2019?
Travel to Norway with my husband for our 25th anniversary. He’s been there, but the only place I’ve been in Scandinavia is Iceland. And he has always said that Norway changed his life.
Gillian Cummings is the author of The Owl Was a Baker’s Daughter, selected by John Yau as the winner of the 2018 Colorado Prize for Poetry (The Center for Literary Publishing at Colorado State University, 2018) and My Dim Aviary, winner of the 2015 Hudson Prize (Black Lawrence Press, 2016). She has also written three chapbooks: Ophelia (dancing girl press, 2016), Petals as an Offering in Darkness (Finishing Line Press, 2014), and Spirits of the Humid Cloud (dancing girl press, 2012). Her poems have appeared in Barrow Street, Boulevard, The Cincinnati Review, The Colorado Review, The Crab Orchard Review, The Cream City Review, Denver Quarterly, The Journal, The Laurel Review, Linebreak, The Massachusetts Review, The New Orleans Review, Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, in other journals and in two anthologies. In 2008, she was awarded a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Memorial Fund Poetry Prize. A graduate of Stony Brook University (BA, English) and of Sarah Lawrence College’s MFA program, Gillian lives in Westchester County, New York, where for five years she taught poetry workshops to women at New York Presbyterian Hospital. She is currently at work on a novel and a third collection of poetry. She also draws botanical still lifes and occasional other subjects, and is currently seeking out professional training in the visual arts.
Joanna C. Valente is a human who lives in Brooklyn, New York. They are the author of Sirs & Madams, The Gods Are Dead, Marys of the Sea, Sexting Ghosts, Xenos, No(body) (forthcoming, Madhouse Press, 2019), and is the editor of A Shadow Map: Writing by Survivors of Sexual Assault. They received their MFA in writing at Sarah Lawrence College. Joanna is the founder of Yes Poetry and the senior managing editor for Luna Luna Magazine. Some of their writing has appeared in The Rumpus, Them, Brooklyn Magazine, BUST, and elsewhere. Joanna also leads workshops at Brooklyn Poets. joannavalente.com / Twitter: @joannasaid / IG: joannacvalente / FB: joannacvalente