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“One of the joys of Cecilia Woloch’s poetry is that it so beautifully and skillfully intermingles humour with emotional intensity, sensuality, and existential profoundness…” — The Cosmopolitan Review
Editor In Chief, Kristen D. Scott
Interviews Cecilia Woloch
KS: Cecilia, you are an avid traveler, and I find it fitting that your works have been translated into several languages, bridging cultures with your writing. Could you discuss how your travels intertwine with your novels and poetry?
Travel is so much a part of my life, and my life is so much a part of my writing, and writing is so much a part of my life, I’m not sure how I could disentangle one from the other. I think that moving through the world as much as I do encourages a kind of attention to the world around me, an alertness and awareness that feeds my writing, and writing about my experiences gives me a way to be more deeply aware of those experiences. Eudora Welty is supposed to have said something to the effect that, to be a writer, one should live a daring life, but that it’s possible to live a daring life without ever leaving one’s room.” Well, everyone is different. I seem to have an inborn need to stay in motion, or maybe I’m just an experience junkie. I think the thing is to have an interesting life, a life that you find interesting, whatever that means for you, to lead a life that keeps you feeling curious and awake, that keeps you creatively alive. Traveling does that for me.
KS: Even though you have won multiple awards and fellowships for your works, you remain down-to-earth, sharing your gift in homeless shelters for women, children, and in institutions for the criminally insane. How do you balance accolades with those who are less fortunate in life? Does your Kentucky upbringing factor into this at all?
CW: Well, that’s an interesting take on it; I hadn’t thought that having roots in Kentucky might be a factor in my “career choices” — if you could call them that — but maybe it does. I often feel as if, as a US citizen, I inhabit two very different worlds. The people I know in Los Angeles --- most of whom are artists of some kind, or professionals, and mostly pretty comfortably middle-class -- are shocked to hear about some of the problems my family and friends in my hometown face. My community in Kentucky is more of a working-class community, and it’s been decimated by those things that have decimated small towns all across America — a heroin epidemic, crime and poverty, small town corruption, the despair of a whole generation of young people looking at no brighter prospects than $8 an hour jobs in fast food or discount retail.
These problems have affected my own family profoundly, and we struggle to find ways to deal with them. My youngest sister, who is also a writer, leads creative writing workshops for inmates at the county jail. Some of those inmates are related to us, or are related to old family friends, so it’s an intimate and visceral kind of connection, nothing abstract about it. My six siblings and I were raised with a strong sense of social justice and, I guess, a sense of what you might call moral outrage. So, when my sister or I do work in the community, as creative people, there’s a sense that we’re working for the sake or our own kith and kin, and there’s a kind of passion in it, and defiance. It’s also important to me that our voices be heard – all of our voices – important and necessary. I’ve certainly found, in my work across the whole socio-economic spectrum, that the voices of those relegated to the bottom of the social ladder are often the most eloquent and original. So working in prisons and homeless shelters allows me to expose myself to the influence of those voices, and that fuels my own creative fires.
KS: In Earth (Two Sylvias Press, 2015) there are many transitions that occur among your characters. Metaphor surely plays a role in establishing images of home, or a homeland. How does Earth correlate with what is happening now in Syria with the immigration crisis, and vast displacement of refugees?
cw: I have a sort of obsession with my own sense of displacement and up-rootedness, of homelessness, of belonging nowhere and everywhere, and it may be an ancestral thing, maybe a result of that phenomenon called “intergenerational trauma.” I’m the granddaughter of immigrants on both sides of my family. My mother’s parents emigrated from Poland at a time when Poland didn’t actually exist as an independent nation. My father’s family emigrated from a place that would all but disappear from the map behind them, as a result of ethnic cleansing. So I grew up feeling that we’d come from nowhere. When I was a kid and other kids asked where I’d come from – meaning, what was my nationality – I had a hard time answering. So I spent a long time figuring out where my people came from, and exploring that landscape, and trying to understand my own connection, through time and space, to that landscape. There’s a deep sense of loss that goes along with all of that, and a sense of not fitting into the prescribed order of things.
But I’m also, simultaneously, horrified by the fascist notion of “blood and soil,” the idea that our “blood” entitles us to dominion over certain geographical places – we’ve seen the kind of genocide that notion leads to. And I believe that humans are fundamentally nomadic, migratory – or, at least, we have been, in the past, and some of us still are. The intersections are fascinating to me – between the sense of identity and the sense of belonging and the sense of home, of place. I never feel more at home or more myself than when I’m moving through the world, solitary, traveling. But I realize this might not be “normal” or applicable to other people. This may be part of my heritage, too, to be “continually in exile.”
When I think of the Syrian refugees now, I mostly think of the children – I’ve read that nearly half of the refugees are children. And I think that children have a fundamental right to a sense of stability, a sense of home. That should be inviolable. But at the same time, I think that children are also able to make themselves at home anywhere in the world – and that should be a fundamental right of children, too: to be at home everywhere, to be welcomed and to be safe and to be nurtured. What’s happening now, with the mass migrations of people across the world, will change the world. Whether that’s change for the better or for the worse is up to us. I think assimilation should be a two-way street. And I think many of us will also continue to long for a homeland we’ve never known, or barely remember, but that longing can be fruitful and creative, it can help us to dream backwards and forwards across time.
KS: Poets have powerful voices. I am thinking of Neruda, Lorca, the Misty Poets, Darwish, the Beats, Whitman, etc. Do you think poetry can still transform politically, or has this aspect of revolution and words vanished?
cw: I do think that poetry still has that power to transform, because language has that power, and poetry is, fundamentally, about language. But I also feel that too many of my contemporaries, especially U.S.-based poets, live at too far a remove from the larger world and are too often speaking only among themselves, within their own cliques and factions and academic circles. I would advocate for more and deeper engagement with the world – whether that’s the natural world or the human world, one’s local community or the global community. I know that poets need solitude, even isolation, sometimes, for access to the inner world, but we also need to be awake and alert and alive in our times, and to be making a record of the world around us, as well as the world within. And I believe there’s an audience for poetry that’s hungry for that, hungry for connection and authenticity – not for easy “accessibility,” necessarily, but for the opening a poem can provide into deeper, truer levels of our own experiences and of the world we all inhabit.
KS: In your recent novel Sur la route (Quale Press, 2015), your protagonist flees Los Angeles for the City of Lights, depending upon friends and kindness from strangers for her journey. I love this vision Cecilia of “self”-discovery via the dependency on others. How does this relate to today´s woman who has been bombarded with fear of humanity in a world of terrorist’s attacks, especially with the recent atrocities in Paris?
CW: Well, the fact is that I meet a lot of people all over the world and almost all of them are kind; it’s the disasters and atrocities that get the headlines – and that’s not a bad thing, in and of itself, and maybe it’s necessary. But I don’t believe we should let fear rule our lives, because that can be disastrous. I think we sometimes elect the wrong people out of fear, we let the wrong people become leaders, and then those wrong people make bad decisions that make the world a more fearful place – it’s a vicious cycle, fear.
Almost the last clear words my father spoke to me were, “Hope for the best.” So I live in hope. And maybe I’m a little bit reckless, maybe I take more chances than I should and have just been lucky – maybe because I believe in luck and in the basic goodness of most people. But I also stay alert, when I travel, to my surroundings, and I think I have pretty good radar and pretty good instincts. There will always be things beyond our control. Yes, the attacks in Paris make me feel terrified, but there have also been attacks in churches in the U.S., and at movie theatres and in schools. There have always been dangers in the world, and maybe if we could stop the flow of weapons and money and oil, and maybe if we could create a more just world, the world would be less dangerous. I’m going to keep hoping for that, and looking for the best in other people, and in myself.
KS: And, how would your heroine react to a different kind of fear from media in regards to the “perfect” body, plastic surgery, and the whole Hollywood, LA fixation on “youth.”
CW: I think one of the things my “heroine” discovers in Paris — and one of the things I discovered when I started to spend a lot of time in France— is that beauty and perfection are not the same thing. American standards of beauty seem to be based much more on those “perfect” media images than they are in other places. I’m not sure why that is, exactly, since those kinds of images exist almost everywhere; maybe Americans take them more personally, or maybe they seem more within reach to us. I haven’t watched television since I was a teenager; I’d never much liked it, anyway, so I just eliminated it from my life about 40 years ago. It’s much better, I think, to look at the people around you than the images on screens, to look at the great variety of human beauty in the world. There is no one standard.
When I was young and would look at models in magazines, my father would tell me, “Honey, they don’t really look that way in person; it’s the makeup and the lighting and the camera angles and everything else.” And of course he was right, and of course I was lucky to have a father like that. It’s not that I’m not subject to comparing myself and feeling that I don’t measure up, but I try to be realistic, and to be happy with who I am. And I do color my hair, I exercise, I try to look my best; I’m not opposed to cosmetics and pretty clothes. But I’ve learned that you look your best when you’re comfortable in your own skin, so that’s what I aim for. And I encourage the younger women I know not to worry about being perfect but to enjoy their beauty while they’re young, because youthful beauty doesn’t last – that’s a hopeless cause – but beauty does. I have an aunt who’s ninety years old, and she’s one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen.
KS: KNOT Magazine´s focus is “uniting and celebrating diversity through literature & Art.” If ever an artist exemplified our theme, it would be you. Could you discuss how you accomplish this in your life and work?
CW: I guess I’ve created the life I have by living by my own rules, following my passions and trying to make the best of my opportunities. It’s a mistake, I think, to try to live by anyone else’s standards, to think that what the media or society or anyone else tells you will make you happy will actually make you happy. I never wanted a house in suburbia or the kind of security a lot of people seem to want, so I’ve been freer to pursue other things. I may be wrong, but I think security is mostly an illusion. Though I’ve often thought that if I’d had children, I’d have had to live a more conventional life. But one of my best friend is raising two amazing daughters and she hasn’t followed a conventional path, at all – hasn’t followed any path but her own. And she seems genuinely, deeply happy. It’s good to surround yourself with people like that, with different models of how to live. Living in any kind of segregated community means not being exposed to all the marvelous different possibilities for being human, and that can diminish your sense of possibility for your own life. A lot of the wonderful things in my life have come about because I have such wonderful friends, a whole network of friends all over the world. But you can live deeply and passionately and authentically wherever you are, whether you stay in your hometown or travel the world.
KS: Do you consider yourself a renaissance woman? A feminist?
CW: I definitely consider myself a feminist – how could I not? I’m not sure what a renaissance woman might be. If I take the word “renaissance” as having to do with re-birth, I would say yes, that word applies to me. I’m a Scorpio, and an astrologer I admire once wrote that a Scorpio should “honor her craving for constant transformation.” That I do.
KS: Cecilia, thank you for sharing your gift with our readers.
"...A POET WHO IS PASSIONATELY ALIVE IN THE WORLD." - NATASHA TRETHEWEY
Cecilia Woloch is a poet, writer, teacher, and traveler based in Los Angeles but "on the road" across the US and Europe six months each year. She has published essays, reviews, fiction and six award-winning collections of poems—most recently Earth (Two Sylvias Press, 2015) and Carpathia (BOA Editions, 2009). Her second collection,Tsigan: The Gypsy Poem, was published in French translation (Tzigane, le poème, Gitan, Scribe-l'Harmattan, 2014) and has been adapted for multi-media performances in the U.S. and Europe. Her first novel, Sur la Route, appeared from Quale Press in 2015. Her honors include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the California Arts Council, Chateau de La Napoule Retreat for Artists, CEC/ArstLink International and the Center for International Theatre Development. Maxine Kumin said of Cecilia Woloch’s work: “To write movingly about love in an era infused with hate requires a special gift: nostalgia hard-edged with realism. She has that gift.”
Ms. Woloch was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and grew up there and in rural Kentucky, one of seven children of a homemaker and an airplane mechanic. She attended Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, earning degrees in English and Theater Arts, before moving to Los Angeles in 1979. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University L.A. in 1999. A celebrated teacher, she has conducted poetry workshops for thousands of children and young people throughout the United States, as well as workshops for professional writers, educators, participants in Elderhostel programs for senior citizens, inmates at a prison for the criminally insane, and residents at a shelter for homeless women and their children. From 2006 to 2014, she was a member of the faculty in creative writing at the University of Southern California. She has collaborated with visual artists, theatre artists, musicians, dancers and filmmakers. Translations of her poems into French, German, Bulgarian and Polish have been published internationally, and recent prose has been translated and published in Ukrainian. The founding director of Summer Poetry in Idyllwild, The Istanbul Poetry Workshop and The Paris Poetry Workshop, she currently leads independent workshops for poets and writers around the world.
Kristen D. Scott is a five time nominee of the Pushcart Prize in poetry for five works from her 2014 collection OPIATE. She is an award-winning essayist for her work on Federico Garcia Lorca and his books the Divan del Tamarit, Poet of the Deep Song, and essay, "The Duende."
She has published in several anthologies, newspapers, and ezines, including the San Diego Poetry Annuals, Nomos Review, Perigee, Alesbuyia, and published two poetry collection from Garden Oak Press; LIAISONS (2012) and OPIATE (2014). She has been translated into Arabic, Albanian, Türçe and Bengali.
Recently, her work appeared in Nacional an Albanian newspaper (translated by Laureta Petoshati), Voal, (translated by Laureta Petoshati), and she was featured poet in MeArteka (May, 2015) where she had several poems translated into Albanian as well. In 2016, Scott was included in two world anthologies, XXXI CENTURY WORLD LITERATURE (Uzebekistan) and Colors of Refuge (India).
Her new and selected poems are forthcoming from Garden Oak Press in the near future.
Scott is currently the Editor-In-Chief, founder, and web designer of KNOT Magazine, holds an MFA in Creative Writing, MA in English Literature, and is progressing with her Ph.D in Global Education and Comparative Literature.
Originally from Colorado, Scott has resides on the Riviera in Türkiye, where she has lived for several years.