Monday, October 12, 2015

author interview: cynthia marie hoffman

May as well start here. I’m curious: what’s your elevator pitch for your book?

Paper Doll Fetus is a collection of poems rooted in the landscape of the womb, the history of obstetrics and midwifery, and the many possible successes and failures of childbirth. Here, the unusual reigns: a fetus is flattened to pulp by its twin in utero! A stone falls in love with a goat’s placenta! 365 children are born to one woman! Weird and terrifying, but ultimately life-affirming. The poems give voice to those who cannot speak—a liver, a stone, a medical drawing, those unborn and those waiting to be born. I like to think many of the poems are love poems, and at its core, the book is sort of an ode to the tenuousness of our early beginnings. It’s a miracle, really, that all of us are here.

How did you come upon the subject of your book?

I was addicted to the Discovery Health Channel. I used to set my VHS recorder and then my DVR so I wouldn’t miss a thing. Face transplants, Mystery Diagnosis, parasitic twins. I always had a fascination with the capacity for the human body to create staggering mistakes, but also an appreciation of the capacity for human intelligence to understand and remedy those mistakes.

I naturally have an obsessive personality, and therefore I’ve always felt an urgency to write more than just one poem on a topic. When I first learned about twilight sleep (a painkiller and amnesiac given to women during childbirth in the early 20th century) from a documentary called The Business of Being Born, I immediately proclaimed my new mission: I was going to write a whole book of poems about twilight sleep!

I wrote two poems. But the process of researching the history of birth and medicine led me down other roads that were just as fascinating. Suddenly, I realized all those years of “research” (i.e., watching cable television) had prepared me to write this book. I kept a two-sided, two-columned list of possible topics to write about. And I dove deeper and deeper into history, reading primary texts written by early physicians and man-midwives as far back as the 1500s. I felt I had hit upon the perfect outlet for all those ideas about medicine and the human body that had been kicking around inside me for years. I wrote furiously. It was a very exciting time.

And the title? Sometimes, it seems to me, titles can strike like lightning or can be extraordinarily elusive. How did you go about finding your title?

An early version of the manuscript bore a very draft-y title taken from one of the poems, “Child Having the Face of a Frog.” The poem’s title came from a drawing by Ambroise Paré, author of On Monsters and Marvels (highly recommended reading, by the way). I knew it wasn’t the right title. Even I knew it was trying to be too strange. And I had learned the lesson from titling my previous book, Sightseer, that simple is generally better (and, not to mention, easier to remember).

The title I settled on, Paper Doll Fetus, also comes from a poem, “The Paper Doll Fetus Speaks to the Viable Twin in Utero,” in which a dying fetus composes a letter of forgiveness to its surviving twin. A paper doll fetus, known as fetus papyraceous, occurs when the small body of a deceased fetus is flattened by the body of its growing twin, and it becomes like paper. The poem itself truly exemplifies, at least for me, the message of the manuscript as a whole, which has to do with acknowledging glitches in human development—some of them shattering—while at the same time celebrating the powerful connection we have with all beings who come into (and those who don’t make it into) the world.

Plus, the book is about fetuses, no way around it, so I wanted that clear in the title. “Fetus,” of course, is a medical term, but I came to learn that not everyone is comfortable with it. Many times, my manuscript was referred to simply as “Paper Doll” or even “the F poems.” I just crossed my fingers that my publisher wouldn’t ask me to change it (and they didn’t!), because by that time I was married to it; no other title would do.

But I have to admit the title did make finding cover art somewhat of a nightmare, since the word “fetus” in combination with any image remotely representative of a human figure seemed to bring the whole thing into the realm of the macabre. But my editor, god bless him, never asked me to change the words; he just stuck with it until we settled on something entirely abstract—an image of some folded paper. I hope the title does enough work on its own. I learned a lot about design and marketing because of that title. Because of that one unexpectedly controversial word.  

Tell us something about the most difficult thing you encountered in this book’s journey.

A medical device called the “crochet,” which was a long tool with a hook on the end used by physicians to extract an unborn baby from its mother. I had encountered this device during my research and was struck by a particular account of the pioneer man-midwife Percivall Willughby in his book Observations in Midwifery, written in the 1600s, in which he used the device to save a mother who could not otherwise deliver her already lifeless baby. He wrote, “I would not offer to disquiet her with more strivings, but drew the child leasurely with the crochet.” There was something gentle about his words that struck me. The task was gruesome, unimaginable, but the motivation for doing it was loving and ultimately lifesaving.

To compound matters, I was pregnant with my own (and fortunately very alive) child at the time. I approached this topic again and again with great difficulty, with superstition starting to creep in. Should I even be thinking about such things in my state? But ultimately, I realized that just as Willughby took care of his patient, I as poet could in turn take care of him (and therefore also my readers, and myself) by granting him some distance from the gruesome details of the task at hand. So I turned his act into a dream, simple as crocheting a blanket that warms the mother back to life. And instead of tackling the particulars of removing a child piece by piece, which is what happened when this tool was used, I turned those pieces into other things, in the same way dreams can transform reality. An ear becomes a dress. Lips turn into a pair of birds.

Sometimes poetry forces us to look directly at a thing head-on. And sometimes it allows us to use metaphors to look at a thing sideways. Either way, in poetry, I have always found a way to face what I am afraid of.

And the most pleasurable?

The research. I couldn’t stop researching. The possibilities were endless, and I loved diving into original texts such as John Maubrey’s The Female Physician (1724), Percivall Willughby’s Observations in Widwifery (1600s), Ambroise Paré’s On Monsters and Marvels (1500s), Gould and Pyle’s Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine Chapter III: Obstetric Anomalies (1896). More recently, Tina Cassidy’s Birth, A.W. Bates’ The sooterkin dissected: the theoretical basis of animal births to human mothers in early modern Europe, and anything by Jan Bondeson.

I love research for the way it pulls you outside your personal experience. Research keeps your content fresh. Reading something other than poetry while writing your own poetry (especially if it’s centuries old and in another genre completely), gives rise to new diction and can beat a new rhythm into your lines.

What’s the best and / or worst piece of advice (writing or publishing or similar) you’ve gotten?

“Keep writing,” someone said to me very early in my career, with a very patronizing look I should add, after I’d read a poem at an open mic. It meant, your poem sucked! It meant, you look like the sort of person who will give up! Only people who are not writers need to be told to write. 20 years later, and I sure showed him! Ha! Whoever he was.

Tell us one of your favorite books you’ve discovered recently and say a little about why.

I’ve really enjoyed my reading for the interview website I co-edit with Nick Lantz, The Cloudy House, which focuses on project books (of which Paper Doll Fetus is one). I’ve been fascinated with all the books we’ve featured so far. Alexandra Teague’s The Wise and Foolish Builders, Brian Russell’s The Year of What Now, and Shane McCrae’s Blood have been some of my favorites.

Recently, for The Cloudy House, I had the pleasure of reading an advance copy of Reginald Dwayne Betts’ Bastards of the Reagan Era (October, 2015), and I was completely overcome by its power and beauty. He writes from the very same era and geography that I grew up in, but his young adulthood—in prison—was very different from mine. Poetry can bring a life into focus just as well as any memoir, and this book does that. I’m excited to see this one come into the world.  

Can you share an excerpt from your book? Give us a taste.

I’ll share the dream sequence from my poem on Percivall Willughby and the use of the crochet, since I’ve talked about it. These lines comprise the second half of the poem “I Would Not Offer to Disquiet Her”:

…The metal hook
warmed in my hand. I saw her eyes grow troubled
and I shut the door. In the dream I have of this moment
a ball of yarn is tangled deep inside the womb
and when I pull, pinned to the yarn comes a child’s ear
like a wrinkled dress on a clothesline. And then
a pair of lips that ride the length of the thread
and into my hand like two birds perched upon a branch.
Like this I pull again, pull until I see I am stitching
a child into the air warm as a crocheted blanket, and when
it is finished I place it upon her bed, and she looks
upon the bundle wherein lies a tiny wrinkled foot-
print, proving theirs was once a moist union
in which for many months the child swam
and swallowed. And the mother is warmed
and sleeps. And the hook cools. And the mother lives.

What’s a question you wish I asked? (And how would you answer it?)

Perhaps, how have you kept writing? I know I complained about the “advice” I received years ago to “keep writing,” but I know this is something poets often say to each other, particularly early in their careers. And with good reason. It’s all too easy to stop writing, and sadly I’ve seen this happen to more than a handful of talented poets as the years have ticked by.

Somehow, I’ve kept writing, despite an 8–5 job, raising a young daughter, and all the regular daily chores of life that pull at every one of us. Rather than devoting hours at a time to working on a draft, I’ve found ways to weave poetry into the commotion of daily life. Poetry is how I understand and process the world. I don’t know if I could successfully navigate my life without it. I scribble in a notebook, sometimes while driving. And I have a supportive husband who puts our daughter to bed while I meet with two supportive poetry groups every few weeks. Peer pressure (in the best of ways) will definitely keep you writing.  

There is so little outward, measurable reward in poetry. Who knows if anyone is reading your book? You might spend thousands of dollars on contest entry fees. Rejection is abundant. At times, it feels much more rewarding to pack a school lunch or pay bills, and certainly those tasks are far more pressing. Who cares if you don’t write a poem today? Or this year? No one is going to starve or take your house away.

With so little reward but so much investment required (most of it time, spent alone), there’s no reason to write if you don’t love it. So I’d amend the advice we give each other from just “keep writing” to “keep writing if you love it.” “Keep writing if you need it.” But if you need a break, even for years, that’s okay. Poetry will always be waiting if you want to return to it. Poetry—though it often feels like it—is not a competition.

OK, we’re smitten. Where do we go to buy your book?

You can find a local bookstore on IndieBound. Or order online on Amazon. Thank you!


Cynthia Marie Hoffman is the author of Paper Doll Fetus and Sightseer (winner of the Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize in Poetry), as well as the chapbook Her Human Costume. Hoffman is a former Diane Middlebrook Poetry Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, Director’s Guest at the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, and recipient of an Individual Artist Fellowship from the Wisconsin Arts Board. Her poems have appeared in Pleiades, Fence, Blackbird, diode, Mid-American Review, and elsewhere. She co-edits the online interview series on poetry project books, The Cloudy House ( Visit Cynthia online at

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