Interview with Logen Cure
Logen Cure is the author of three chapbooks: Still (Finishing Line Press 2015), Letters to Petrarch (Unicorn Press 2015), and In Keeping (Unicorn Press 2008). Among other places, her poetry has appeared in Word Riot, Radar Poetry, IndieFeed: Performance Poetry, and The Boiler. She earned her MFA in 2010 from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She lives in Texas with her wife and teaches creative writing at Tarrant County College.
As a current student of Logen Cure’s graduate alma mater, I can’t help but be fascinated by every small detail of her work with Still: the composition and order of the poems, the impetus behind them, the poet’s overall philosophy about writing. On every fresh read of this amazing chapbook, I am struck by the compelling interplay of theme, voice, and narrative binding it together. Talking craft with an alumna of my program has proven instructive in a number of ways, not the least of which is the opportunity to see how a poet—especially one with Logen’s insight—can translate her own experience and emotion so that a reader will not only understand them, but share in the journey.
MICHELLE ROSQUILLO: Hello Logen! Thank you for agreeing to talk with me about Still. From what I’ve read here, and from my research about Letters to Petrarch and In Keeping, I can tell you have an abundance of inspiration and technique, both of which infuse your writing. As a starting point, I want to talk about the choice of “Still” as the title poem for this chapbook. In another interview you said that the word still resonates with so many meanings which crop up in their various iterations in this collection. You mentioned also that you envisioned “Still” as a through-line tracing the speaker’s shifts in perspective, maturity, and emotional welfare. Why “Still” with its strong implications of blurred lines, blurred morals, blurred definitions, and not “Say Yes,” which haunts the same territory but pushes past boundary lines in both a literal and figurative sense? Especially in the current cultural obsession with consent, crossing lines, empowerment, and action/consequence—what ultimately told you that this collection centered more around the ideas in “Still” and not “Say Yes”?
LOGEN CURE: I had a few different ideas about the title for this project. Still was the original title I gave the manuscript. I sent it out a couple times as Riddles or Threats, which is part of a line from “Allen.” I considered Say Yes as well as Landmine. I might have gone with Make it Memorable, but I produced a spoken word EP using that title. Ultimately, I came back to Still, both because of the poem and because of the meaning of the word. The poem touches on many of the major concerns of the collection: coming of age, memory, nostalgia. The poem is fraught, but it’s also tender and optimistic. I feel like it speaks to the spirit of the book. Also, the word “still” has so many meanings: lasting, motionless, hushed, nevertheless. I felt like that word could shed light on every poem in a different way.
It’s curious that you pinpointed “Say Yes.” That piece is certainly integral to the conflict the speaker is grappling with, but the collection is about so much more than that. I don’t think of consent as a “current cultural obsession.” When I think about the obsessions our culture has, I am reminded why conversations about consent have always been important and necessary. While I think it’s positive that consent has been a more frequent topic in the media lately, I am troubled by the idea of framing the book through “Say Yes” to capitalize on that. This is the story I had to tell regardless of popular topics.
ROSQUILLO: I really loved being able to follow the journey of the speaker growing into herself and into the world and people around her. I find it interesting, too, that while the “I” in the poem is consistent—providing a cohesive narrative—the “you” shifts from poem to poem as the speaker addresses lost loves, as in “Condolences,” and new loves, like in “Braggadocio.” My curiosity was piqued most strongly in “Make it memorable—” because the “you” addresses, on some level, an implicated audience as well as the speaker herself. How did you conceive of Still’s narrative arc? Given that you didn’t set out to pull all of these poems together deliberately, at what point did you become aware of the story contained within them, and which parts of the story were most important for you to tell? (That everybody has a dumb, youthful past before growing up? That first loves are not necessarily last loves? That loss is inevitable and essential? What are you telling your readers about your speaker?)
CURE: Yes, the poems in Still were composed during mental breaks from working on Letters to Petrarch, which is a very specific and cohesive project. I realized I had enough not-LtP poems to make a chapbook so I printed them all out and spread them out on the floor. In my mind, they were disparate poems. It’s amazing how literally putting them next to each other revealed the story to me. Everyone has their obsessions. It makes sense that the poems were not as disparate as I imagined.
In general, I followed a fairly standard arc. The opening poems introduce various threads of conflict, the book takes a pretty harsh turn near the middle, and the closing poems are much more tranquil and optimistic. It was important to me to leave the reader with a sense of hope. Beyond that, I don’t have expectations about how a reader will interpret my work. You characterized the message in several different ways, all valid.
Not all of the poems had a first person speaker originally. There were some poems I shifted from second person to create a more cohesive manuscript. Revision is such an interesting process. Each individual piece felt “done” to me, but when I put the poems together, I revised to highlight how they are in conversation with each other.
“Make it Memorable,” however, can’t have a first person speaker. I like to write poems that borrow language from other contexts: letters, lists, textbooks, and in this case, instructions. That poem both instructs and implicates the reader directly, whereas the other instances of “you” in the collection are directed at various other characters. I considered trying a first person speaker but it didn’t feel right. The imperative tone makes the piece work and I decided that allowing the speaker to acknowledge the audience in a single poem might be interesting.
ROSQUILLO: You’ve mentioned in all of your previous interviews that you weren’t looking to compose a chapbook with the work in Still, and that these poems were a kind of respite from your active project at the time. At one point you describe the process as a kind of search. Given that you’ve labeled yourself a confessional poet, what do you seek?
CURE: For me, poetry is about expanding the imagination. That requires asking questions without being overly invested in concrete answers. Confessional poetry at its best seeks the truth and leaves room for the reader to do the same. The most powerful experiences I have as a reader both validate things I have deeply felt and invite me to imagine beyond myself. That is my goal with my work—to seek connection and make space for the imagination.
ROSQUILLO: I agree that poetry aims to establish those points of connection between speaker and reader. It follows, perhaps naturally, that poetry is often associated with ideas of vulnerability, transparency, and risk—that is to say, that poets not only run the risk of becoming vulnerable and transparent through their writing, but that we risk challenging or alienating the reader. What do you think of this viewpoint? Do you ever consider yourself a "risky" poet? Or a vulnerable one? Or do you try to subvert ideas like that? What, to you, does "risk" mean? How does Still (or any of your work) play into it?
CURE: You know, I think the associations with vulnerability and transparency are specific to particular kinds of poetry, like confessional and spoken word. I teach college-level creative writing and many of my students perceive poetry as opaque and esoteric until I help them learn otherwise. I see why my students feel that way. Most of their prior experience with poetry is limited to what they were taught in high school. It’s exciting to watch them make connections as they realize poetry isn’t some unsolvable riddle.
I think poetry ought to be risky. Being human is risky. If there’s nothing at stake for the writer, there’s nothing as stake for the reader. Writing poetry is always a challenge. How do you push the boundaries of language? How do you use something so common as words to accomplish something surprising? The poetry that has affected me the most in my life has been incredibly courageous. If what I’m writing scares the hell out of me, I figure I’m doing it right. Still contains some of the most difficult poems I’ve ever written. Even so, I’m trying to raise the bar with the work I’m producing now.
ROSQUILLO: After you graduated from the MFA program you “burned out for a while; didn’t write a single word,” though you’ve also admitted that when it comes to writer’s block, “looking for something usually means getting out of my own way, mentally or emotionally, and allowing the work to surface.” I guess I’m really interested in the idea of being a writer—a seeker—with nothing to seek out. Or a writer who seeks too much at one time and, to paraphrase you a little bit, loses momentum. What was that like for you?
CURE: I think it’s tough for anyone to exit MFA-land. Grad school offered support. The primary expectation for my time was writing. I’ve never experienced those same circumstances in any other context. I experienced such drastic changes after grad school: I spent a year commuting an hour each way for a full time office job, I got married, I moved back to Texas. Writing takes a particular kind of energy. With so much transition, I think I was just too exhausted to make poems. It was about a year into being back in Texas before I started writing again.
It’s not that I had nothing to seek out. I never stopped reading. I developed good habits about sending out work for publication. I started teaching. I found other ways to be productive and engaged. Now, I’m intentional about making time for my work and careful about how I expend my energy. I think I just needed time to find a new balance in life.
ROSQUILLO: You’ve talked before about your current work involving desert landscapes and small-town childhood, and that it’s a research-intensive, ongoing project. What music are you listening to while you work? What paintings, photographs, movies are giving you the right vibe? And of course, whose work are you reading?
CURE: I prefer to read and write in quiet settings. No music. For my research into my hometown, I watch a lot of nature documentaries. There’s an incredible artist, Michele Mikesell, who made some paintings inspired by one of the poems from the project, “Rainmakers, 1891.” Her work is surprising and illuminating. I’ve played tourist in West Texas, visited museums and historical sites. I’m particularly interested in the concept of storytelling for this project—things like legends, rumors, lore, the narratives communities share. I find things like newspaper articles and personal accounts particularly useful. Lately, I’ve been reading Carrie Fountain, Sharon Olds, Anya Silver, and Patricia Smith.
ROSQUILLO: I've heard a well-known, widely published writer talk about poets having—or needing to have—a kind of functional paranoia when writing: the belief that someone must be reading our work, for why else do we write? I go back and forth with this because I've long defended my writing as being primarily for myself, without significant reliance on a readership. However, if that were completely true (I self-analyze) why would I enter an MFA program? Would I still be an adequate writer if I didn't have my cohort, my instructors, my degree, and whatever readership I pick up through those connections? Did you ever have questions like these, during or after your time in the MFA? The crux of my question is: why do you write, for whom do you write, and what is poetry (your poetry, anyone's poetry) ultimately for?
CURE: I’ve been writing poetry since I became capable of writing. It’s such a clear drive that I’ve never really questioned why I do it. I just have to. Even during the burn-out, I knew I’d find my way back. My work is in part for myself, but it’s bigger than that. It’s not like writing a diary, which is solely for the self. It’s not like a dramatic monologue, where the actor pretends the audience isn’t there. It’s more like being a storyteller, who acknowledges the audience as an integral part of the experience. Even if you don’t speak directly to the reader in a poem, there should be space for them. It’s that space that makes it powerful. Of course, I learned that as a reader and listener. Poetry taught me that I am not alone.
I became aware that I could accomplish that same power as a writer when I self-published a book at age 19. I started reading my poetry at open mics and slams so I could sell books. Going public with my work was a gift in many ways. I didn’t have to imagine my audience anymore. My connection with them was no longer an abstraction. People would tell me outright that my work was meaningful to them and why. I sold maybe 100 books, largely to people I met at readings. I got to see their faces, shake their hands, write their names for inscriptions. That experience was tremendously valuable for me as a young writer.
I heartily disagree with the idea that anyone needs an MFA program to be an adequate writer. You just have to love words, read voraciously, and never give up. I think having a community is important, but you can find that without an MFA program. People arrive at writing and reading poetry in so many different ways. I see teaching as part of my responsibility as a poet, to help lead people to this thing that has been so life-changing for me. I am endlessly delighted when people find meaning in it. Poetry is for everyone. Like all art, it helps us feel connected and whole. It makes us better humans.