Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Cynthia Marie Hoffman

Cynthia Marie Hoffman is the author of Sightseer, winner of the 2010 Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize in Poetry. She was the 2004-05 Diane Middlebrook Poetry Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and is the recipient of a Wisconsin Arts Board Individual Artist Fellowship. Cynthia received her MFA from George Mason University. Her work has appeared in Pleiades, Mid-American Review, Fence, Best New Poets 2005, and Crab Orchard Review. Cynthia has taught creative writing and composition at George Mason University, the University of Wisconsin, and Edgewood College. She works at an electrical engineering firm in Madison, WI, where she lives with her husband and daughter.

At first sight of the World’s Light, it commonly
Yells and Shrieks fearfully; and seeking for a lurking
Hole, runs up and down like a little Daemon,
which indeed I took it for.
– John Maubray, MD, 1724

On one such occasion I chanced to deliver a woman of a mole
as herein I describe this true and certain happening. The woman
was of the country. I entered from the gate where bees leapt forth
from the carcass of a small animal. And at the door a spoiled
mound of hay where countless squealing vermin bred, I saw
their naked tails swiveling about. And inside her chambers
the woman crouched upon a sour heap of rags. The fetus
inside her thrashed about so that I saw from cross the room
her belly boiling. She was hard to still I begged her push.
I readied my hand. And now I must report upon the midwife
who was taken of her post beside the open stove
which presently was coughing up a raucous spitting smoke.
And all the while the clouds were hurtling past the sun
so what I saw a moment in light the next was fraught with
shadow. A donkey brayed in the yard, whence upon a stillness
settled in the woman’s belly and she looked to me with opened
lips as if to ask a question but the answer came too quick
the hairy beast shot forth from her legs, such speed
that in its flight it struck my knee and bowled me to the floor
I can attest I felt its pointed snout. I saw its stubby tail its claws
clacked along the floor it spun about I can attest. The woman
shut her legs and drew her toes from off the floor
as if to keep the loathsome thing from touching her. And
again I must report upon the midwife who presently was
calmly stepping forth and bending to the ground
as if to shoo a chicken from the roost she clapped her hands
upon the Daemon and it wriggled there its paddle paws
flapping at the smoke through which she waved it I suppose
to douse its wickedness and then she tossed it in the stove
and shut the door. Indeed the Hand of God
thus spake. The smell of burning pelt flushed the air.
And thrice we knew the fire was requisite.

When was this poem composed? How did it start?

This poem was written in February of 2009 in the midst of a flurry of research and writing on the subject of birth and medicine which culminated in a manuscript called Paper Doll Fetus.

I uncovered a scholarly article about the early eighteenth century physician John Maubray and his insistence that he had delivered a Dutch woman (and indeed later many women) of a mole-like animal while traveling aboard a ship. According to him, the animal had a “hooked snout, fiery sparkling eyes,” and ran about the cabin while others on board tried to catch it. The occurrence among these “sea-faring, and meaner sort of people” was so common that it was almost expected, and women who attended these births were often prepared with a fire to dispose of the creature.

I had been keeping a list of about a hundred ideas for the manuscript, and they couldn’t all become poems, but I couldn’t stumble upon this kind of information and ignore it.

How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?

Probably a week of intense drafting followed by several months of tweaking. I tend to revise as I write, so that by the time I have something that resembles a poem, it is already very close to its final form. The first things I put down on the page were a picture of a mole, notes from my research, a list of words I liked, the epigraph, and a title. Then, I started playing with the language until images arose and the people in the poem began moving about. I usually type each sentence several different ways in a list, rearranging the order of the phrases and clauses, before I commit to it. I never trust my original syntax, and trying the sentence in different ways helps me listen for the rhythm of the poem that wants to come out.

I don’t think I knew when I started writing that John Maubray would be speaking the poem, but perhaps because I had been reading his original work published in the early 1700s, a kind of formal and vaguely antiquated voice arose which was sort of my own twenty-first century reinvention. Once I heard him, the poem moved swiftly from there.

Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?

I believe in inspiration, but I do not believe that inspiration writes the poem. And I don’t believe that you have to wait for inspiration, either; you can go out and get it, whether that means living your life better attuned to receiving it or hunting it down deliberately through research.

How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?

The voice determined a lot of things about the poem – the musicality and diction of how the story was told, how the speaker transitioned from the woman to the midwife and back, and the length of the line. I was also conscious of running thoughts together without proper punctuation in some places, which I felt intensified the tension and urgency of the event.

How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?

Two years. About a year after the poem was finished, it was accepted – along with five other poems from the series – as part of an “Intro Feature” in Pleiades. The issue was published a year later (February, 2011).

How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?

I have no rules about how long a poem must sit. I never send poems out right away, partly due to my distrust of a new poem but mostly due to my deplorable submission habits.

Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?

I had been looking at several original physicians’ texts from the 15-1700s which each contained accounts of “monstrous” or unnatural births, and I noticed that the most unbelievable events were always relayed with strongly insistent language, such as “this true and certain happening,” or, in Maubray’s case, “in order to convince others of this admirable Truth.” There is something distrustful in those excessive declarations.

Physicians were still periodically subject to the guile of superstition, as was the rest of the population at the time. I can understand that they might have believed a story told them by others, but what is the excuse for diagnosing the birth of a mole firsthand? Didn’t Maubray know better? Or, was he lying? At the time, his claim was hotly contested, spawning the publication of a rebuke by another surgeon, and the whole controversy may have increased book sales. If that’s the Truth, I’m disappointed. Not that I want to believe that a woman could birth a mole, but I want to believe that somehow a collection of mysterious circumstances had aligned such that Maubray could have believed it.

In the poem, I simply let the (albeit suspicious) claim of “Truth” speak for itself and allow the speaker to bear witness to a specific event. It’s up to the reader to decide whether it is true, but certainly the idea that it may be true is more captivating than the lie.

Is this a narrative poem?


Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?

If I were reading poetry at the time, my memory of it is not tied to this poem. Of course I am influenced by other poets, but what I remember most is the language of the sources I was encountering during my research.

I was reading, or trying to read, John Maubray’s “The Female Physician” which, in the version I had access to, is essentially a photocopy of the London publication from 1724 – unbearably tiny, wobbly type with strange capitalizations, italicizations, and rarely a distinguishing feature between the letter “s” and the letter “f.” The article that started the whole thing was A.W. Bates’ “The sooterkin dissected: the theoretical basis of animal births to human mothers in early modern Europe,” which inspired at least two poems.

I was also heavily informed by my reading for the rest of the manuscript, which included numerous articles and books, as well as online forays into anything related to something I might include in a poem, such as a mole. This includes a bunch of useless fascinating junk, such as the fact that moles can exert a digging force of thirty-two times their body weight.

I always feel that there is more than just one poem to be written, that just one poem is insufficient. I don’t think I could have written this poem successfully if I weren’t in the midst of writing all the other poems, too. There was so much pre-writing going on that by the time I actually sat down, I was bringing a world of characters and images and stories to the table. Being so fully absorbed in a topic allowed the poems to flow more freely and be, even in their earliest forms, more fully realized.

Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?

I don’t write for a particular reader in the sense that I would change what I’m writing to fit the needs of an imagined readership. I want my poems to be both accessible and surprising, so I think they would find a good home with a reader who values user-friendliness, so to speak, but is also willing to work just a little. Also, since my projects tend to vary stylistically, I imagine that each manuscript would find a different ideal reader.

Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?

At the time, I had two poetry groups who met regularly every three or four weeks. I shared this poem with one group shortly after it was drafted, and I shared it with the other group as part of the completed manuscript. Having those two sets of trusted readers was invigorating, albeit a little exhausting. During the four years I met with both groups, I was fiercely productive.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

Every new project I begin has its own set of governing traits or obsessions, so this poem has a lot in common with the other poems in Paper Doll Fetus, but that collection differs a great deal from my first book, Sightseer, and from my other projects.

I suppose this poem would be categorized as a persona poem, and although there are other persona poems in this manuscript, it is not a technique I normally gravitate toward. I sometimes find that persona poems can detract from the cohesiveness of a collection. However, they can be a driving force when many voices speak collectively toward the overall message of the manuscript.

What is American about this poem?

Given that the speaker is a re-imagined John Maubray, who was a Scottish physician working in London, I’m not sure I can claim much American-ness here. Perhaps the presence of God. Perhaps the voyeurism.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

Somehow it seems less worthy to say a poem is finished, as if there were a failing on the part of the poet to continue to see all the endless possibilities of language. But ultimately we have to say that we made our choices. This poem is finished.


  1. I applaud Cynthia for saying that we make our choices in writing poetry and that is the bottom line on the discussion about a "finished" poem. In my mind finished can mean either "dead" or "decorated." Therefore I like the proactive choice making.

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