Conversations with Contributors: Gillian Cummings

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. Her poems have appeared in The Adroit Journal, Barrow Street, Boulevard, The Colorado Review, Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, and in other journals. She is currently at work on a novel and a third collection of poetry.


E.B. Schnepp: The first and most pressing question, I believe, has to be, who is Ophelia to you? As the underlying ghost haunting your latest collection, and one can assume you as well, I would love to hear you speak more about her.

Gillian Cummings: Ophelia, in The Owl was a Baker’s Daughter, is meant to be two Ophelias, or maybe I should say many. The first is Shakespeare’s Ophelia, or more specifically, Shakespeare’s Ophelia as I interpreted her after many readings of the text. This Ophelia is the one portrayed in the prose poems of the book, the poems in sections II and IV. In Hamlet, I saw her at first as rather innocent and obedient, possibly even naïve, but then gradually shifting in personality, from the moment Hamlet begins to reject her to the time after he has killed her father, shifting through madness into someone almost the opposite of who she used to be, as I see her becoming coy and rebellious. I try to capture this shift in the unspoken moments between the poem called “Like sweet bells jangled” and the opening of the next poem, “A grass-green turf.” The prior poem ends with an unnamed Hamlet telling Ophelia to “Go. Home. To the silence. To death’s chapel of bells.” The next poem opens with a reference to the song Ophelia sings at the start of Act IV, Scene V, a song where Shakespeare mentions “sandals shoon,” and so the poem begins, “Pilgrims, we, if God wrinkle a shell in our shade.” There’s supposed to be a tiny transition there into derangement. I try to communicate this by making the language stranger and stranger.

The prior poem ends with an unnamed Hamlet telling Ophelia to “Go. Home. To the silence. To death’s chapel of bells.” The next poem opens with a reference to the song Ophelia sings at the start of Act IV, Scene V, a song where Shakespeare mentions “sandals shoon,” and so the poem begins, “Pilgrims, we, if God wrinkle a shell in our shade.” There’s supposed to be a tiny transition there into derangement. I try to communicate this by making the language stranger and stranger.

And then, well, there is Ophelia’s death. It’s not a part of Shakespeare’s text that she sought her own end. Gertrude says that in her madness, Ophelia was hanging flower garlands from willow boughs when “an envious sliver broke” and Ophelia fell into “the weeping brook.” But then Gertrude couldn’t have witnessed this accident, so Ophelia’s death is left to conjecture, her body denied hallowed ground. I imagine an Ophelia of my own making at the end, an Ophelia who both wants to die and doesn’t. This is where the Ophelia who is personal to me comes in, or the other Ophelia or Ophelias. This / these Ophelias are based on who I was when, as a sixteen-year-old, I made my first suicide attempt. And who I became years later, when in my forties I found myself in a decade of my life when I lost loved one after loved one after loved one and tried to kill myself again twice. This is the voice in the short poems or “once-sonnets” of sections I and III, the poems in third and second person. The sections that really were or should have been me speaking as myself.

EBS: Since your collections include recurring figures like Ophelia and Miss Fernande, how do you go about reinventing and utilizing these archetypes and figures? Why are you so drawn to speaking in their voices?

GC: I think I became drawn to speaking in their voices out of necessity, because I was too afraid to claim my experiences as my own. This reluctance to be myself was more pronounced with my first book, My Dim Aviary. In My Dim Aviary, I chose to write as Miss Fernande, a sex-worker and model living in Paris at the beginning of the twentieth century, because I was working with the question of how to feel at home in a body that has been sexually traumatized. I wrote in the persona of Miss Fernande as a way to escape the truths of my own body and to inhabit them at the same time. In my poems, Fernande—about whom very little is known—seems like someone who is to some degree comfortable with sex. She is my opposite in that way, but I was trying to become my own opposite through writing, in an attempt to heal. This, of course, never worked, but the book is testament to my trying. With the Ophelia poems, they were much closer to my own experience, even to my lived voice. I’m very shy and quiet, and the poems in The Owl was a Baker’s Daughter employ a much softer, more inhibited voice. Why I chose Ophelia in the second book? Again, I think I needed distancing, this time from my experiences with depression. And speaking as Ophelia allowed for this. These days in my writing life, I am doing something new. I’m writing about these same topics, but I’m telling the truth. And I’m using the first person singular. The device I’m employing for the purpose of distancing now—because I still need distancing—is that I’m making the poems a little surreal.

EBS: I don’t believe Ophelia is named at any point in The Owl was a Baker’s Daughter (with the exception of her quote in the epigraph), which is a departure from other work you’ve written. Her name being removed feels very deliberate, especially considering how her name was edited out of “A Dream of Sea Urchins,” between its initial publication and its appearance in the collection. Why was it so important for you that for this collection Ophelia was felt more than named? Is this a difference between who Ophelia and Fernande are to you, or more of a difference in you as a writer now and how you approach giving a voice to these women?

GC: This is a very good question, so I hope my answer is not a disappointment. A lot of editing went into The Owl was a Baker’s Daughter. Some of the editing was my own, but some very important decisions came from the help of poet friends and editors who read over the manuscript. In what were for a long time the working versions of this manuscript, Ophelia was named fairly often. For the longest time, I had included four sonnets, one to start Section I, one to end Section I, one to begin Section III and one to end Section III, and all of these sonnets had Ophelia’s name in their titles. Just as “A Dream of Sea Urchins” was originally “Ophelia Dreams of Sea Urchins,” so the first poem of the collection, now titled “All of it Alive,” was originally “Oh, Ophelia, Why without Wonder, When Wings.” Taking out Ophelia’s name was not a decision that I came up with myself. It was the suggestion of the last editor to work on the manuscript. This editor’s suggestions were often radical. The shorter poems had all been sonnets and she often had me cut them down to much shorter forms. And she was the one to tell me that it would be better if Ophelia’s name were taken out of the collection. She felt that Ophelia should “haunt” the collection, without her presence ever being noisy. So she made my collection even quieter. And I think that it feels right this way. I think it allows the reader to inhabit the poems more, bring their own stories to the story I present—at least I hope so.

EBS: We see so much of Ophelia’s lyric interiority in this collection and so little of Hamlet (who is also unnamed, but who I can see peek out in poems like “Could Beauty”). While Shakespeare put him at the forefront of Ophelia’s madness, and while for you, Ophelia does say, “if he must, he’ll break me” and that “he once implied that he could be mine,” he seems more tangential to her experience of the world. So I have to ask, who is Hamlet to your Ophelia? And, if I’m reading him properly, if love-sickness isn’t the cause of her madness and eventual death, where does that stem from in your imagining?

GC: The answer to this question has a lot to do with the editing process this collection went through before it became a book. As for Hamlet, he was once much more present, but he partially vanished over time. If you read the chapbook Ophelia (dancing girl press, 2016), you can see that I originally intended a sequence of fourteen prose poems—in the book, there are a total of twelve, with the twelfth poem presented as a final poem in Section IV—and that these poems originally used a combination of very antiquated language and also direct address. By direct address, I mean that when I spoke as Ophelia, I spoke directly to the other characters in the play and named them, poem by poem. The poem that became “The steep and thorny way” originally began with “Dare my love wear a dandified hat and dance a dainty galliard?” And then all mention of Hamlet was cut from that poem completely. Likewise, in the poems that became “Perfume lost” and “Could beauty,” Ophelia addressed Hamlet as “my lord,” and “good Prince”; these references were eventually erased completely, along with lines that were more directly related to things Hamlet says in Shakespeare’s play. The two prose poems that were completely erased from The Owl both centered on Hamlet. One was set during the play-within-a play scene that happens in Hamlet Act III, Scene II, where Hamlet is acting quite bawdy, maliciously so, towards Ophelia. The second poem to be cut from the final manuscript was a poem about valentines that alluded to the fact that not only was Ophelia “love-sick,” but she was aware that it had been Hamlet who killed her father, the awareness of which was too much for her to bear and was causing her madness. This is my interpretation of Ophelia’s behavior in Hamlet, but I think that for The Owl to work the focus had to be narrowed more exclusively to Ophelia’s emotional state, the feeling of that derangement, and less to a more rationalizing explication of what I believed to be true of the play.

EBS: Going back to “A Dream of Sea Urchins” and its changes between its initial publication and its appearance in the book, how and when do you change a poem to make it fit a collection? I’d love to hear you speak more about that process of building a full collection.

GC: I think that this may be a fault of mine. I write poems and edit them, maybe showing them to a few people, and then I send them out to journals, thinking that they’re ready, that they’re done. But they never really are done to the extent that they need to be for a collection. This happened to me with both of my books. I wrote the poems, some of them were published, and then I needed to change them, sometimes radically, for the sake of the cohesiveness of the collection. With The Owl was a Baker’s Daughter, it came to a point that for the sake of readability, the once-sonnets had to maintain consistency of point-of-view within Sections I and III, so that the poems, with few exceptions, are spoken in third person in Section I and second person in Section III. Previously, the poems were continuously shifting back and forth from second to third to second person, sort of willy-nilly. That is an example of how I’ve had to change individual poems for the sake of a collection. And this was only one consideration. Another was the diction shift from archaic language to more contemporary speech that I mentioned before. And there were even more edits. I never anticipate just how much a collection will need to change as I’m writing it until I’m very far along, years into the process, and so the poems that were once in journals are not the same poems in the book.

EBS: To keep with the craft questions, in The Owl was a Baker’s Daughter, your poems are extremely short, within the range of sonnet or near-sonnet with an end poem and middle section of prose poems, and your book itself is an extremely tight perfect square shape. How do you feel the condensed forms these poems, and the collection as a whole, take make them possible?

GC: What makes them possible? I’m not sure I know how to answer this question. Most of the poems were always short. I intended to write twenty-one sonnets each for the first and third sections and then a fourteen-section prose poem in the middle as a kind of meta-sonnet. Then everything—or most everything—became shorter with editing. So there was always a concept of brevity, and this brevity just increased with editing. I think the poems and the collection wanted to be short, because there was a need for silence to surround what is spoken, for silence to be itself like the countering voice of death in life and life in death, the void from which all arises. I was aiming for that, anyway. About the shape of the book—it is almost a perfect square—what I can say is that the book’s shape and cover design were decided by Stephanie G’Schwind, Director of the Center for Literary Publishing at Colorado State University. She also suggested that The Owl was a Baker’s Daughter be the title. My original title was Of rue and violets, and Stephanie thought that was too Victorian in feeling.

EBS: While the last poem of the third section (“If Wings Neither Waxed nor Waned”) gives us death, you gift us with a single poem fourth section “All My Joy” and let us linger, in the end, on a lovely dash-ended prose poem, structurally reminiscent of those in My Dim Aviary, and the line “oh here—stay bubble, stay bubble, stay bubble, stay—,” which feels to me like an opening and invitation to more Ophelia, that there will always be more of her. Why was it so important to give us this ending and this dash, rather than ending with her death?

GC: I had originally ended the collection on a final sonnet within the third section titled “Ophelia Once Saw a Rainbow.” This poem may not have been very good, but it gave a feeling of hope at the end of much misery. Through the process of revision and the help of good editors, the last poem was changed, so that a fourth section was added, the section with the poem “All My Joy.”

It was always important for me to leave the ending a little open, so that the reader does not really know, “Does she die, or does she live?” In my mind, she has to die—we all do, eventually, even if not by our own hand—but I didn’t want the book to end with actual death. I wanted Ophelia to be in that moment of embrace, the kind of moment when you see the world’s beauty and you do want more of it, precisely, like the bubbles which soon break, because you realize that the world won’t last, that you won’t last, and this ephemerality is close to the utmost of beauty. I know that I didn’t achieve the utmost, but my goal was to hint at it.

EBS: And to end on a more personal note, and on you more directly, as a poet who is also an artist, how do you feel that your art impacts your poetry and vice versa?

GC: I’m not a professional artist, though I’d like to be. I draw as a hobby. I like to draw detailed botanical still lifes in graphite, mostly of dried leaves and gourds, apples and pears: autumnal subjects. Sometimes drawing comes in handy, because when I’m going through a block with my writing, I can turn to drawing and feel that I’m still doing something creative. And the focus required for me to draw in such a precise way is an antidote to writing, because when I draw, my mind becomes quiet and free of words. I’d like to do more drawing than I’ve been doing. I have these overly ambitious goals sometimes, and I’d love to one day be able to draw with the skill of someone like the still-life painter Giovanna Garzoni. There is so much feeling in her work! But I’m getting ahead of myself, because I have limits to my abilities. I think I write and draw because I’m terribly, terribly shy, and whatever comes of any of it, my writing and my art are just two solitary pursuits I use in order to survive. I’ve always needed them, because often I am unable to speak out loud.

Thank you so much, E.B., for interviewing me! Your questions made me think really hard about the decisions I made with my book(s)!


E.B. Schnepp

E.B. Schnepp is a poet hailing from rural Mid-Michigan who currently finds herself stranded in the flatlands of Ohio. Her reviews can also be found in the Mid-American Review, and her poetry can be found in QU, The Evansville Review, and Roanoke Review, among others.