CDR interviews Heather Cousins
Danielle Sellers: Your first book, Something in the Potato Room, was chosen by Patricia Smith as winner of Kore Press’s first book award. The book has been touted by Smith as being “sparse and stunning, [an] addictive cinema [which] unwinds with lyrical and dramatic certainty.” Judith Ortiz Cofer describes your work as “fanciful and menacing, a strange pairing of the quotidian with the macabre.” How did the idea for this book come about? Did you have any reservations about finding a publisher for a book-length poem?
Heather Cousins: Something in the Potato Room emerged from a variety of autobiographical experiences. The “potato room” in the book is an imaginative re-visioning of a little room in the basement of my childhood home—a cold room with a creaky wooden door. My interest in anthropology and archaeology fed the details of the story and its plot. My mom grew up in a funeral home, and I’m sure her stories about my grandfather’s basement embalming room also influenced the story.
I wanted the book to reflect a version of the world I have experienced: absurd, awkward, overwhelming, and tragicomic. I also wanted the book to reflect the sense of search I experience in my own life. Against the absurdity of the world, I’m always looking for a purpose, a sense of meaning, which will allow me to transcend my fears and uncertainties—to, ultimately, transcend the black hole of death. I suspect this may be a common human experience
When I was finished, I sent Something to about a dozen first-book contests over the course of a year. I didn’t believe it would find a publisher. The book was too strange. It is an odd little thing. Kore’s contest was one of the last I entered. I would have shelved the book if they had not published it. When they called and told me that I had won their First Book Award, I was in a parking lot at the University of Georgia. I hung up my cell phone after speaking with Kore’s editor, Lisa Bowden, and ran around my Toyota Camry four or five times.
DS: For someone who writes shorter narrative poems, a book-length poem seems like a daunting task. How did you keep momentum going? What other book-length poems served as models?
HC: It wasn’t terribly daunting because I didn’t know what I was in for. I always thought that I was a step away from being finished. One year into it, I thought: just a few more changes. Two years into it, I thought: let me just try re-writing it one more time. In the end, it took me about five years, working on and off, while involving myself with other projects.
When I wrote the book, I wasn’t self-consciously thinking about other book-length poems. Something in the Potato Room was very intuitive for me in its development. Some suggestions, such as layout on the page, came during a workshop with Judith Ortiz Cofer in 2006. I know that what I conceived of would not have been possible if I had not read The Dream Songs by John Berryman, Thomas and Beulah by Rita Dove, The Babies by Sabrina Orah Mark, and Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse.
DS: You grew up near Bear Lake, Michigan. How does the Michigan landscape speak to your work?
HC: Winters in Michigan were stark, brutal, and long. The winter landscape could be beautiful, but it was always severe. I think there’s a bareness to my writing that symbolically connects to my formative years, spent in a northern place with long winters.
DS: You live in Georgia now. Does the southern dialect affect your ear at all?
HC: I think so. I’ve lived in Georgia for eight years now. My husband makes fun of me because I slip into a strong Southern accent when I’m speaking to other people who have one. I’m sure real Southerners can hear the falseness in what I adopt. I love listening to the way different people speak—their word choices, inflections, and facial expressions.
DS: The unnamed character in Something in the Potato Room is very quirky, but endearing. How closely relatable is she to the real Heather Cousins?
HC: I’m not sure every reader would necessarily find her endearing, though it’s a slight relief to hear that you think she is. I would describe her as a hyperbolized version of myself. Like her, I can be a hypochondriac. I’m enthralled with historical artifacts and the stories of bones. I’ve worked in museums. And I’ve struggled with depression and anxiety for all of my adult life, which has led me to periods of isolation during which I rarely leave my own house or even bedroom. These periods of isolation directly connect with the experience of the main character.
She is unlike me in several ways, too, the most important of which, I think, is the absence of other people in her life. She has no network of support and no real sense of camaraderie with her coworkers. Throughout the text, there is no mention of any family and friends. I think she is who I would be if I were more alone in the world. My family and friends save me from my worst eccentricities—from being too self-centered and from sealing myself up with my own obsessions and fascinations in a potato room.
DS: Why did you ultimately make the decision to keep your character anonymous?
HC: Something in the Potato Room contains purposeful gaps and mysteries. Having an unnamed protagonist, I think, adds to the mysterious energy. Anonymity is also appropriate considering the protagonist’s feelings of powerlessness and lack of purpose: she doesn’t perceive herself as having an identity—in her work or in her personal life. And leaving my character unnamed allows her to more easily function as an everywoman. As I said before, I see my character’s frustrated search for purpose and feelings of isolation as being a fairly prevalent problem: that difficult-to-locate hankering—an ongoing sense of search—that is common in the human experience.
DS: How does a background in anthropology inform your writing? How important is it for writers to have outside and seemingly conflicting interests?
HC: I majored in anthropology as an undergraduate and am particularly interested in archaeology and physical anthropology. In all of my writing, I think that objects and specimens play an important role. I love things. I love how an object can resonates with its own particular story—how it is weighted with its own history. Maybe I’m a little bit of an animist.
I don’t believe there are any “conflicting” interests for a writer, and outside interests are natural—it’s impossible not to have them, isn’t it? Certain writers have benefitted from an intense relationship to a field other than writing—Frank O’Hara’s interest in art pops into my head, and Ernest Hemingway’s interest in travel, fishing, and hunting. But I don’t think, as a writer, one ought to self-consciously cultivate—for one’s writing—additional “interests.”
DS: You received training in form as a Master’s candidate in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University. Do you like writing in form? Does it affect what you’re writing now?
HC: I’ve always believed that studying form, meter, and the poetic tradition is important to one’s development as a poet. Although it is certainly possible to create something original and exciting without formal training, why eschew the formal training if it is available to you? It will only make you better and more sensible as a poet. Forms and meter are something that I have practiced, but these days I rarely set out to write a sonnet or villanelle, and I even more rarely set out to write a sonnet or villanelle in meter. Right now what excites me more than forms and meter is the image. I’m letting images drive my poems. That might change at some point in the future.
DS: Congratulations on recently graduating with your doctorate in Creative Writing! Care to weigh-in on the ongoing debate about MFA vs. PhD? Why did you decide to go the PhD route as opposed to receiving an MFA?
HC: Thanks! Nearly every student in my creative writing PhD program already has an MFA, so, from my end, it appears that most creative writers believe strongly in the MFA, and the debate is not “MFA vs PhD” so much as “Is it worthwhile to get a PhD in addition to an MFA?” (My MA from Johns Hopkins was in the Writing Seminars—a creative writing program; since I graduated, the degree awarded by the Writing Seminars has become an MFA instead of an MA.)
The primary reason I decided to pursue a PhD was because of the additional writing time it would provide. After my year at the Writing Seminars, I spent a year teaching ninth grade in Baltimore. I had imagined that I could hold a high school teaching job and find time to write. I was wrong. The teaching and lesson planning left me exhausted and spiritless. I wanted to get back into school and stay in school for as long as I was able, so I began to investigate PhD programs.
I received a fellowship for five years of funding. Most graduate fellowships provide just enough money for one to get by, so one should be prepared for a life of relative poverty and weigh the pros and cons of the experience against the financial sacrifices one must make.
Bonus of the PhD: One spends a significant investment of one’s time in traditional English courses and takes comprehensive exams in literature. Thus, one becomes qualified to teach not only creative writing workshops, but literature courses as well.
Drawback of the PhD: It isn’t necessarily going to help one’s immediate job prospects. Colleges are interested in hiring a writer who can not only teach, but who also has a substantial publication record. Many of us who have recently graduated with our PhDs—both in English and in creative writing—are struggling to find tenure-track jobs.
DS: Best summer concert:
HC: This is a terrible question for me. I don’t enjoy concerts. I get bored at them. Music is something I like to listen to, mostly, while I am doing something else. My husband drags me to concerts, and I am always grumpy and irritable at them. I don’t understand how people can enjoy listening to music being played at them for two or three hours. Why aren’t concerts only about twenty minutes long? That sounds like a pleasant amount of music. Am I really in the minority here?
DS: Best summer festival:
HC: The National Cherry Festival in Traverse City, Michigan: fireworks, parades, a Cherry Queen, races, arts and crafts, and pie-eating and cherry-pit-spitting competitions. Almost every town in northern Michigan celebrates some fruit, fungus, fish, tree, or vegetable. Traverse City’s Cherry Festival is the biggest and best, honoring one of my all-time favorite fruits.
DS: What are the essential summer smells of your childhood?
HC: The smell of lake. My childhood home sits on a small Michigan lake, Bear Lake. My backyard was a beach. In summer, the windows of our house were always open. If I wasn’t outside, I could smell the lake through the mesh screens: fresh wind and water, hint of gasoline from the boats, hint of rotting fish and seaweed. That mixture sounds kind of awful, but I love it.
DS: When you were a child, what books grabbed your attention the most? What books have stayed with your consciousness?
HC: The Golden Key by George MacDonald. I found an edition, illustrated by Maurice Sendak, in the Manistee County Library when I was maybe ten years old. I read the library version again and again. Then I bought my own copy. I don’t know how many times I’ve read it. It’s a search story—mythic and archetypal. I am obsessed with it. I read it every couple of years.
Also: The Secret Garden and A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst, The Babysitter’s Club books, and anything by Roald Dahl.
DS: If you could have a writing cottage anywhere in the world, where would it be?
HC: Northern Michigan. I want to move back, but my husband has difficulty walking because of muscular dystrophy—winters would be impossible for him to navigate. Someday, perhaps when my husband retires, I hope we can buy a summer cottage there.
DS: Is your work taking off in new directions, or have you found your long-poem-niche?
HC: I’ve gone the opposite direction of the long poem, lately. I’ve been reading Kenneth Rexroth’s translations of Chinese poetry, and I’ve been writing small, spare poems.
DS: What are you excited about in your near future?
HC: My husband and I are expecting. I’m very excited, but also nervous. I’m not sure I can successfully pull off the triple axle of motherhood, writing, and teaching--at least not while giving the proper attention and energy to each. I'm anticipating that the writing and teaching will have to take a backseat for a little while. When I begin to feel overwhelmed, worrying over the challenges ahead, I think of all the amazing women I know who are successful writers and mothers. Judith Ortiz Cofer, who was my major advisor at the University of Georgia, has beautifully managed writing, teaching, and motherhood. I’ve got some good role models going in and a wonderfully supportive husband. I am about to take a great leap. I'm sure, one way or the other, I'll find my footing on the other end.
Heather Cousins holds an AB in Anthropology from Bryn Mawr
College, an MA from the Writing Seminars of Johns Hopkins University, and a PhD
in English and Creative Writing from the University of Georgia. Her first book
of poetry, Something in the Potato Room, was selected by Patricia Smith
as the winner of the 2009 Kore Press Book Award and was published in January
2010 by Kore Press. Two of her poems have recently been nominated for Pushcart
Prizes. She is a Park Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Georgia, where
she teaches creative writing, literature, and composition. www.heathercousins.com