An Introduction by Emma Bolden
In her stunning experimental memoir The Betweens, Cynthia Arrieu-King writes of an “unexplained force” she remembers from childhood, “a thing hard to see because I had no language for it” that “had been both shortening and lengthening distances, erasing and pulling them longer.” In The Betweens, language itself becomes this force, constructing and deconstructing distances and similarities between culture and culture, the personal and the political, the representation and the represented, the metaphor and the meaning, even between her previous book, People are Tiny in Paintings of China, and her current work. In Arrieu-King’s memoir, form is so deeply integrated in this narrative that it is, in a sense, the narrative itself. In her description of quilting, Arrieu-King writes that “[...] to sew together all the layers – with scrolls, feathers, spirals – you have to use a needle so thin and short that it can penetrate all the layers, and that needle is called a between.” This interview with Joanna Penn Cooper explores the ways in which Arrieu-King uses form to stitch together the layers of human experience – and to illuminate moments in which that’s impossible.
Cynthia Arrieu-King was raised in Louisville, Kentucky, and earned her PhD from the University of Cincinnati. A former Kundiman Fellow, Arrieu-King is the author of the poetry chapbook The Small Anything City (2006) and the full-length poetry collections People Are Tiny in Paintings of China (2010) and Manifest (2013). With Sophia Kartsonis, she coauthored the chapbook By Some Miracle a Year Lousy with Meteors (2013). She also cowrote the collection Unlikely Conditions (1913 Press, 2016) with the late Hillary Gravendyk.
Arrieu-King is an assistant professor at Stockton University and has been a featured poet at the Dodge Poetry Festival.
Joanna Penn Cooper: Hi, Cindy! I love your new book of prose pieces, The Betweens, and I was so interested to learn that it grew out of the prose pieces that appeared in your first book of poems, People Are Tiny in Paintings of China. I read that book when it came out and really admired it. My interest in your process of coming to the form of The Betweens is partly a personal one, as this form shares similarities with the flash memoir form I’m currently working in. Can you talk a little about your process of putting the book together?
Cynthia Arrieu-King: Sure, thank you! Back in about 2001, I just put down a bunch of moments that kept pinging around in my head, made a list of them, and they became the prose pieces that appear between sequences of poems in my first book of poetry People are Tiny in Paintings of China. And some friends encouraged me to do more of that prose. So I kept a notebook where I jotted down scenes, ironies, metaphors, facts, coincidences, for a few years. I wrote longhand; dumped everything into a doc. I just picked up pieces and put them next to others and shuffled them which made me so ill. I found that really the four pieces per page gave me a way for things to articulate an undefined unit of complication. Then Emily Alex from Noemi and I chatted: She said she didn’t think sections or chapters made sense (which had been suggested to me but did not feel right) plus a lot of other savvy questions and advice, mirroring to me how the book sounded.
JPC: I know the feeling of shuffling pieces around and making yourself sick! I did that at a residency recently, too. I love that Emily Alex at Noemi was so helpful to you as an editor.
I saw a panel at AWP a couple years ago of women poets who write autobiographical prose, and it struck me that a fair amount of the discussion was devoted to staking a claim and delineating the boundary between poetry and prose in their writing lives. I’m often more interested in how genre blurs, I think. I love work by women (mostly/especially by women) that blurs genre boundaries or makes its own form to say what needs to be said. I’m thinking of people like Claudia Rankine and Toi Derricotte, whom you thank in the acknowledgments. I also love and often teach Carson’s “The Glass Essay.” I often return to Brenda Coultas, especially her book The Marvelous Bones of Time. Maggie Nelson’s Bluets is another book like that– you feel that the form was arrived at to suit specific needs.
So, your book takes the form of vignettes made up of smaller scenes and reflections with white space between them. I think in some ways that the memoir-in-vignettes and/or the woven-together prose segments feels like “the new thing” to some people, but it isn’t exactly new. I’m thinking of Gloria Anzaldúa. Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson. Rachel Blau-DuPlessis’s The Pink Guitar. Cixous and her ideas about écriture féminine. There are definitely examples to build on. Can you talk about your influences for this book?
CAK: Absolutely, I’ve read each of those writers you named (except Blau-DuPlessis). I think Cixous especially said we have to do it our way, we have to get away from logic and linearity; That affected me in undergrad. And if that’s the voice of nature–the voice of women or the body, the voice that helps us get around these painful structures and demands we’ve been left by Western Philosophy or being correct or white supremacy–then we’d better give those styles or those forms maximum space. I’m grateful that it’s not been necessary for me to wage battle for belief that I could write as I liked–a huge privilege. I know a lot of people stay concerned with what they think is correct or else showing their cred badges to get people stuck on received forms to stop pointing or policing. As for genre, my colleague and friend the amazing poet Emily August was chatting with some of our colleagues and I one day about genre. And when she heard us saying maybe we should make sure our students learn genre as a matter of building their vocabulary and showing them “the basics,” she said she really thinks that the generation of students we have now don’t “get” genre because it has become, in their personal experiences of identity, quite irrelevant (I think she said this back in 2016 or 2017). Young people are instead interested in forms for which we (and/or academia) don’t yet have names. So in writing, in life, in politics, etc. what’s perceived as their inability to read a genre is an ability to see and reflexively gloss over the limitations of genre. That’s such an encouraging idea, and I think that rings true for anyone who spends time hearing what young people say.
As for influences for The Betweens, I genuinely blurted a lot of it onto the page, and then realized I wanted for the pieces to follow each other associatively, like a slowly morphing, mise en abime sequence-a mimesis of endless navigation. Back in the late 90’s, Toi Derricotte encouraged me about a first version of this kind of narratives mixed together. And later, Noah Eli Gordon and Sommer Browning told me they noticed the prose pieces in People are Tiny in Paintings of China, a few of which are in The Betweens, and Noah said I should write 200 pages of those prose pieces. I know he was looking for genre bending CNF at the time, maybe 2011. So that motivated me, it was a foundational idea: just do that for 200 pages. I think I could definitely make it longer. A few readers said they’d be fine with the 200 page version. My brain keeps wanting to jot a thing down here or there that would extend the book, a book that won’t finish trying to get written. It’d be obnoxious.
JPC: I love the idea that students now are interested in “forms for which we don’t yet have names.” And your idea of the movement in this book as “mise en abime”– that’s great. I think a lot about how the forms I enjoy are a good way to reflect on “in-betweenness” or liminality in various forms. Your book is specifically about racially motivated microaggressions you’ve faced as a person with a Chinese father and a French mother, and you weave in meditations on hyper-visibility and invisibility; your experiences in the academic world; and your experiences navigating relationships and friendships– how you’ve found both solace and the need to negotiate assumptions there. I love your title, The Betweens, and the reader learns that the “between” is a certain kind of needle in quilting that can pierce all the layers of a quilt once it’s put together. What was your experience of stitching together all these memories and scenes?
CAK: My experience is that I saw these as prose blocks to be sequenced, almost in a big Jenga tower, and that if I shuffled them enough the way I “moved the furniture around” when writing a poem, that something would happen. A lot of the book came at the very last minute when it seemed old prose blocks expired and had to be replaced. I think I cannot overstate the amount of cringe I felt knowing some of these pieces of my life were being put on to the page, and I certainly kept a lot to myself.
As I started to work on major revision to get it ready for publication, I realized each piece had to lead to the next for the whole book, and that it might be possible to actually do that. Honestly, I plucked out pieces I didn’t like or which didn’t allow me to go from the bottom of the page to the bottom of the page with an associative leap or a metaphor connecting the last and first pieces. From there, I would find a spot that needed an entirely new prose block, go walk the dog, think of the paragraph that would go in the slot where I’d removed something, and run back inside and add them in. Definitely purposefully meandering with my body helped me recall the exact thing that could go in a gap.
JPC: I love the analogies for books like this– Jenga blocks. Quilts. Mosaics. Sometimes I think of the prose pieces I write in relation to those puzzles where you slide the tiles around until you put the picture together. I’m also interested in that idea of prose blocks expiring and needing to produce new work for the “open slots.” That’s a helpful way of thinking about the work that happens toward the end of the revision process, finding the work that you “prefer to put out in the world.” Yes, the clarity and urgency that can come before publication can be really compelling!
I’m curious about the voice and tone in The Betweens and how you arrived at it. I’m thinking of a book like Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, in which the flat, numb tone of the pieces feels central to the strategy– a building up of observations about cultural horrors and individual griefs using declarative sentences and parataxis. She writes about depression and the national psyche post-9/11 and the toll it takes on the speaker’s mind to follow news reports about racially-motivated violence. There’s something unflinching about how Rankine’s speaker records her observations. She can’t unsee (or unfeel) what she’s observed, and she asks us not to look away, either.
I also think about something I heard Bernadette Mayer say in a craft talk once. She said, “I think that anything factual is more interesting than any other sentimental thought we have about it.” I can relate this to your strategy in The Betweens. Were you conscious when you were writing of getting down the details of “what happened” and letting those details accrue and build on each other, rather than spending time unpacking and having “thoughts about” what you describe?
CAK: I definitely wanted to create a text in which the speaker did not aim to digest the moments for the reader. Someone early on told me that the draft reminded them of a documentary in which there’s no voice over guiding the viewer. And I also heard someone say that white space is a formal device of Whiteness. But I also wanted to create an experience of learning from what accrues without having to influence the reader directly. What if you did minimum interrupting while they watched the movie, so to speak? But if you are passing, and/or observing how people see you and others, being able to go into a kind of invisible mode becomes your default. You just feel the separation between you and people who ostensibly understand and like you whereas they sometimes have zero idea there’s any separation there. Or at least they didn’t for a very long time. Whereas I think the younger generation is so much more practiced at point blank speaking truth to power.
As for the artifact of the moment, the fact, the science, the coincidence–these all have their own magnetic charge and they know how to assemble themselves. I also hate the sound of explanation, especially when I’m doing it. But I also think maybe this is how we get closer to thinking more communally–by focusing on dialogue and facts and objects, primary sources.
JPC: “Learning from what accrues” and the documentary quality of that is such a helpful way to think about what you’re able to do in this book. I was also really struck by what you say about how that’s part of “get[ting] closer to thinking more communally.” Primary sources! How to make of one’s own life a primary source that adds to the larger narrative– you do that well in The Betweens.
What does your creative practice look like now? Do you have periods in between books when you let “the well” (of life material) fill up again? Do you turn to other creative practices besides writing?
CAK: In September 2018, I stopped generating new projects and individual poems. Since then I’ve started a couple of short stories, and have revised or completed poems for Continuity and The Betweens which both came out in 2021. It was not my druthers to have two books out at the same time, but the production schedules fell that way. So, I’ve been sewing clothes for friends and nosing around in my friends’ gardens, reading on Libby all the books I’ve wanted to read in the last few years, so maybe I’m constructively resting. But to tell the truth, I’m trying to get better at actually doing nothing. NOTHING. I think we’re all heading for a big pivot. New callings. New priorities. New duties to the environmental crisis and to politics. Better sit and gather ourselves.