Binder Q & A: Cynthia Manick on Blue Hallelujahs

…remember that no one sounds or writes like you. Hold onto your own spark.  

This Q & A was originally a feature of our Binders Book List bi-weekly email newsletter, in which editor Julia Phillips interviews members of the Binders community who are releasing new books. These treasured Q & A sessions are just too good to relegate to the archives, so we are now sharing them on our blog. For our first installment, we’re featuring poet and storyteller, and co-chair for the NYC BinderCon attendees committee, Cynthia Manick.

Your bio is filled with amazing credits, ranging from a Cave Canem fellowship to a Hedgebrook residency to a finalist spot for a New York Foundation of the Arts fellowship. Of all those experiences, is there one that most shaped you into the writer you are today?

I’ve been really lucky to write and study craft with great people. In terms of influence, workshop experience was the most important for the book [Blue Hallelujahs]. So workshops taught by Cave Canem and the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop helped the most because each meeting, whether it was with Tyehimba Jess, Nikky Finney, or Vievee Francis, taught me something I didn’t know. Those lessons ranged from letting the outside world into poems to recognizing my obsessions and writing within that framework. More importantly, the peers I met in those workshops are people I still send poems to in the middle of the night. Having a safe space and spaces that challenge you to write the hard poems are vital to the writing life.

Blue HallelujahsWhat role does physical detail – bodies, clothing, specific places – have in your poetry?

When I describe Blue Hallelujahs I say the book asks the question: if you’re breathing, what makes you alive? Is it family, sex, blues, gender, race, or is it the way the body interacts with the world? It could be any and all of those things but we enter every dark place with our hands, eyes, and then the body follows. There’s a section of the book called “A Body Full of Verbs” where the black female body is at the core of the poems. I’m obsessed with the concept of beauty and erasure. Place is a circular concept in the book because the poems have multiple geographies. Some poems are based in the South where my family originates, while others exist in present imagination. For example, I have a poem called “Dear Black Dress” where the speaker knows that dress will get her in trouble, but it’s a trouble she likes.

You placed your collection with Black Lawrence Press after sending it into BLP’s open reading period. Any advice for other poets submitting to the slush?

I never had much luck with contests but I was a finalist twice for two other open reading periods before BPL said yes. First off, don’t be in a rush. You see all the announcements of people’s success and it’s easy to think, “Oh, I better get my stuff out there,” but don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Some people can write a book in a month while others take five years. Ask yourself if the book is ready. Do the poems talk to each other? Then I would have someone else read the entire thing, either through a manuscript class or some other venue. We get so close to our own poems that at some point self-editing isn’t useful. Lastly, remember that no one sounds or writes like you. Hold onto your own spark.  

Cynthia Manick is the author of Blue Hallelujahs forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press. A Pushcart Prize nominated poet with a MFA in Creative Writing from the New School; she has received fellowships from Cave Canem, the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop, Fine Arts Work Center, the Hambidge Center for the Creative Arts & Sciences, Hedgebrook, Poets House, and the Vermont Studio Center. She was a 2014 finalist for the New York Foundation of Arts Fellowship in Poetry; serves as East Coast Editor of the independent press Jamii Publishing; and is Founder and Curator of the reading series Soul Sister Revue. Select poems have been performed by Emotive Fruition, a performance series in NYC where actors bring life page poetry for the stage; the 92nd Street Y Words We Live In project, and is currently being developed by Motionpoems, a organization dedicated to video poetry. Manick’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in the 2016 Argos Books Poetry Calendar, African American Review, BLACKBERRY: a magazine, Bone Bouquet, Box of Jars, Callaloo, Clockhouse, DMQ Review, Gemini Magazine, Human Equity Through Art (HEArt), Fjords Review, Kinfolks Quarterly, Kweli Journal, Muzzle Magazine, Obsidian: Literature in the African Diaspora, Passages North, Pedestal Magazine, Poetry City, USA, PLUCK! The Journal of Affrilachian Arts and Culture, St. Ann’s Review, Sou’wester, Spillway Magazine, The Cossack Review, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, The Wall Street Journal, The Weary Blues, The Wide Shore: A Journal of Global Women’s Poetry, Tidal Basin Review, and Up the Staircase Quarterly. She currently resides in Brooklyn, New York.

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Writer Interview: Julia Phillips, Post Editors: Andrea Guevara, Leigh Stein