Friday, January 25, 2019

Cruel Futures: An Interview with Carmen Giménez Smith

Cruel Futures

an interview with Carmen Giménez Smith
conducted by Therese Marie Konopelski

Cruel Futures shines mammalian regret on a robotic present, highlighting dystopian developments in late capitalist America. The subject yields existentially complex musings on our technology warped reality, masterfully critiquing the political and personal sphere with sharp wit and burning irony. The reader is forced to examine their own participation in the American cultural hegemony; their share of responsibility, universally declining mental health, and the legacy they leave for their children.

As a member of Generation X (or Y depending on who you ask), the inherited crises that fall to us including climate change, our broken political system, terrorism, and income inequality seem insurmountable. The collection is suffused with the bitter regret, perhaps guilt, of a helpless bystander to a pervasive societal toxicity. I found an antidote to apathy in the meditations on the children of Giménez Smith. The potential in new life, no matter how slim, is our only hope to combat a defeatism that we cannot allow ourselves to embrace.

-Therese Konopelski, University of Notre Dame (class of 2020)

[Therese Konopelski]: What are the consequences of the bastardization of love, truth and beauty in a commercialized art cycle, as noted in Love Actually?

[Carmen Giménez Smith]: I think we’re seeing it in a presidency being deployed like a television show. We no longer love ourselves or each other. Capitalism’s last stand is ingenious: creating capital by pitting us against each other as citizens, incited by the artery we allow into our house through Comcast.  

[TK]: How much of the work was written after the 2016 election? Voldemort Management Style addresses the right’s toxic rhetoric and dog whistle politics. Poetry can illuminate society’s hypocrisies in a unique way, especially when CNN can fawn over a “young neo-Nazi with hipster hair.” Which of your poems in Cruel Futures do you believe are especially aware?  

[CGS]: Most of it. I had a different book, then the election happened, and I felt an urgency to create a book that responded and since I had a close time window and because I felt urgency, and because the book was with City Lights, which has a much more Romantic/Beat sensibility about making poems, I went for it and wrote a bunch of new poems. I also revised poems so that they corresponded with the dissonance of this new model of democracy. “Conspiracy Theories” was written ages ago, so it might be more prescient, but I’m more interested in the poem as forecast, so I hope the poems might retrospectively resonate. In that regard, I often think of the movie Idiocracy, which feels like a documentary now.  

[TK]: Mixed ideological phrases such as t-minus nihilism, mumblecore, and self-flagellation-industrial-complex proliferate throughout the work. Who would you say are your greatest philosophical influences? Can a poem be too symbolic?

[CGS]: I don’t know that I have philosophical influences. I actually find philosophy very difficult to read. I like writers who are good teachers and thoughtful and human. Gloria Anzaldua, Roland Barthes, Jose Esteban Munoz, Jack Halberstam, Timothy Yu, and Christina Sharpe come to mind. A poem can be too anything, but I like to make a poem as close to “too” as possible. 

[TK]: In Television Prevents Me From Seeing The World As It Really Is, you compare boredom with a comfortable life to petty Madame Bovarian despair. Can it selfish to follow your dreams? How does popular media shape our perception of a good life or a “wealth-porn lifestyle?” 

[CGS]: Being a mother/wife has complicated who I am as a wanter for myself. Selfishness terrifies me, but the roles I want to play in the world involve some type of desire for the self that contradicts what mother/wife requires of me. It requires too much because this world does not treat men and women equally. If I have more power than someone else, I will want that person to do more work on my behalf. When I think about the good life, I think about how houses were depicted in the 70s, looking very much like regular houses and how now they look like showrooms at Lowe’s. Everything we see is meant to make us feel we don’t have enough. Capitalism is starving, so they’re exhausting the well of consumption (for example, reboots).  

[TK]: All Money Is A Matter of Belief asserts that “Every poet glistens with the dew of money, but surely only some of them truly have it.” Is poetry degraded by popular culture or its economic value?  

[CGS]: We are all degraded by popular culture, so poetry is a great space to confront the degradation. This confrontation is not for everyone. As a community, poetry has to serve many different audiences, confront many different types of problems. Poets have different stories and different relationships to capital, production, and consumption. I just so happen to have been raised by a monomaniacal and failed chaser of the American Dream and I feel like I struggle with the deprogramming. I love screens (TV, film, apps: anything that asks us to interact purposelessly) because it reminds me so much of fairy tales and because I love the way it works like a drug.  

[TK]: In Ravers Having Babies, you describe the fear of being an inadequate mother, of passing on the neuroses your upbringing induced. “My kids are just figuring out their fortunes are pinned to someone who’s a little messy a little loud.” What is your parenting philosophy as a mother post-Trump? Have your kids made any interesting observations that inspired a poem in Cruel Futures?   

[CGS]: They have no interest in my poetry!

[TK]: The poems about family breathe warm life into these pages, bringing a sense of hope and meaning. Does the life of the family redeem a modern lifestyle? You mention the influence of materialism on your childhood in Ravers Having Babies: “my mother cured me with bowls of rice shiny with butter or shopping sprees for clothes.” Is materialism compromising the family ideal?

[CGS]: I don’t know what a family ideal would be, though as a young American, it certainly appeared to have something to do with consumption. I sometimes have a grudging relationship with my capitalist codependency. I listlessly do retail therapy. I think this is what my mom was offering me because it was so central to her own fantasy of what (capitalist American middle-class) ideal was told to her. I think the greatest gift she gave, and this is corny but true, was unmitigated, messy, and helpless love. In this way, she allowed me to live as I wanted, even if there were consequences because there she was. That is the very best I can do as a mother.  


Carmen Giménez Smith is the author of a memoir and six poetry collections, including Milk and Filth, a finalist for the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award in poetry. She was awarded an American Book Award for Bring Down the Little Birds and the Juniper Prize for Poetry for her collection Goodbye, Flicker. She also co-edited Angels of the Americlypse: New Latin@ Writing, an anthology of contemporary Latinx writing (Counterpath Press, 2014). She is the co-director for CantoMundo and the publisher of Noemi Press. Cruel Futures was a volume in the City Lights Spotlight Series in 2018. She is Professor of English at Virginia Tech and with Steph Burt, poetry editor of The Nation. Be Recorder will be published by Graywolf Press in 2019.

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