“Fearlessness and willingness”: A Conversation with Cindy Savett about Elegy & Jean Valentine

Cindy Savett is the author of Child in the Road (Parlor Press) and the chapbooks The Story of my Eyes, Battle for the Metal Kiss, and Rachel: In the Temporary Mist of Prayer. Her work is also found in the anthology Challenges for the Delusional. The sudden death of her youngest daughter generated a fierce reckoning in her poems. She lives with her family on the outskirts of Philadelphia, where she leads poetry workshops for psychiatric inpatients at several area hospitals.

Kristina Marie Darling:  Tell me how your relationship with Jean Valentine’s work began. 

Cindy Savett: When I discovered The River at Wolf and Home.Deep.Blue in Politics and Prose Bookstore, it was somewhere in the early 90’s and I needed revival. My writing had been tamped down by day-to-day routine. I was only seeing what was directly in front of me. Then Jean laid out a private invitation to me, “walking into the river at Wolf with/the animals. The snake’s/green skin, lit from inside. Our second life”. 

Some years went by and my youngest daughter, Rachel, died suddenly. An intense hunger erupted and I needed to read poets who felt grief in their bones. I discovered in one of Jean’s more recent books a dedication or address to a girl, the same age as Rachel, who had passed away. Jean answered my letter that she’d not known her but came across the family while in Ireland, was compelled by their mourning. I ached when I heard the echo of my pain, realizing that I’d known this about Jean before I actually “knew” it. Several months later, Jean and I began a mentor/mentee relationship that lasted for a few years and developed into many heartfelt conversations over the years leading up to her passing. 

KMD:  I was struck by the artful and affecting use of fragmentation in this set of poems.  Here, we encounter a fracturing on the level of form, as well as on the level of narrative.  I was reminded of Julia Kristeva’s description of mourning as a loss of language, a splintering of the stories that make us ourselves.  To what extent does the elegy as a literary form demand some degree of fragmentation?  

CS: ‘Fracturing’ describes well the state of mind and spirit that I often find myself. It arises in many aspects of my life, yet experiencing death so intimately almost makes it permanent. I believe, though, language is not actually lost in those moments, but that a new transcription emerges. The lexicon radically shifts and we create new stories about ourselves. Their truths take hold. 

Elegy comes to me as a legitimization of that rupture. It permits the longing to abandon, and yet in its alignment with grief it seeks to befriend and repair. The form enables us to confront the deaf boldness that takes hold when we fear change.

KMD:  What are the most important lessons that emerging poets can learn from Valentine’s body of work and her presence in the larger literary community?  

CS: Jean’s generosity and intelligence pervade her poetry. The changes that take place in her work over the years describe a beauty of precision, the degree to which a narrative can be distilled into bare integrity, truths that surprise with their accuracies. Lessons to be learned are about fearlessness and willingness to let nothing be unknowable to ourselves, unwritten. 

The spaces of her life were taken up with an intense commitment to the poetic community, both in her personal and professional being. She was an uncertain person with the world, though, and it manifested itself in a quieter literary presence than someone of her gifts and accomplishments. 

KMD:  With new titles scheduled for publication by BlazeVOX Books and Dancing Girl Press, you are clearly a master of the long poem and the book-length sequence.  Which brings me to my next question:  Is this folio part of a larger project?  

CS: Sequences consistently catch me unawares. I’m driven to give expression to an individual experience or thought-train and many times find doors fling open that I wasn’t able to see when I began. Another poem starts to speak. Then more. It can be difficult to recognize when the series completes itself. During an 18-year stretch, I advanced the stories created by my daughter’s death without quite understanding their trajectory. I’d begun to write about my grandchild, Judah, as an attempt to test whether that sequence had come to its natural end. Jean’s departure demanded that I notice where I had been led and shepherded me into this new set of poems. Now a shift has again occurred, opening a curious gate into a strong urge to be in relationship with what is unnamable. I’m struggling to embody this on the page. I’ve only in the last few weeks come to understand the arc these differing groups of poems are forming, all likely to be of one whole. 

KMD:  What advice do you have for writers who struggle to balance the integrity of the individual poem with its place in a longer sequence or book-length manuscript?  

CS: A single poem is sturdy, much like a small well-built house. It has all the accoutrements of design and substance that make it beautiful, inviting. Its décor is personal and curious for all the guests who experience it through their own senses. Yet the sole poem is a still only a snapshot, albeit one that needs much love and cultivation. Most times I find that regardless of how complete it seems, there is a partner or a group of partners that are in the wings, waiting their turn. A worthy manuscript is like the entire neighborhood, with all the interrelationships that keep it enriched and growing. 

KMD:  What’s next?  What can readers look forward to?  

CS: This time of Covid 19 that’s required such isolation for so many of us has given me a great gift of undisturbed time to write. So much to learn, stir up, listen for...   

A Folio of Poetry by Cindy Savett