INTERVIEW WITH CYAN JAMES
Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: Your poem “A curved blue-veined space full of water and silence” ties issues about how women are represented in the media to the existence of racist mindsets and beauty standards. How do you approach thinking about media and representation and its dangers in your writing?
Cyan James: I wrote the poem in reaction to literally driving past a billboard portraying a conventionally attractive brunette—what caught me was not the glossiness of her hair, which I’m sure is what the shampoo manufacturer wanted me to notice, but the ambiguous expression on her face, which, if one didn’t have the contextual cues necessary to interpret as a laugh, could also be described as a grimace or the beginning of a scream. The expressions can appear uncannily similar. And it made me think of how we as an audience don’t really know a model’s interior state and feelings (and don’t, as friends and acquaintances and strangers, even always know that much about each other’s internal states.)
I liked the billboard because I could choose to notice the model’s bared teeth and fierceness instead of choosing to believe that her glossy hair had just transported her to some state of ecstasy. It showed me another possibility, which I found subversive. I enjoy any break, really, from having beauty be so constantly defined for me by media and by those around me who accept media standards. But the concept of beauty is strange to me anyway, as I was homeschooled in a rural area and wasn’t encouraged to ground my identity in how I looked—when I stopped being homeschooled, I was somewhat baffled by the importance people evidently placed on mere appearances, and I still am, to an extent, while also being conscious, of course, of the particular (market) power of perceived beauty.
So now I’d love to see media showing a much wider range of bodies and races and identities and states of being and feeling. What if we asked ourselves what was magnificent about each person we encountered, including the one in the mirror, instead of searching for “flaws” or comparing ourselves and each other to standards we just cannot (and shouldn’t even try!) to attain? Honestly, it’s also fun to revel in rejecting conventional media portrayals of beauty and insist, ‘No, I can find a wider range of appearances worth celebrating than your boring, unimaginative, non-realistic obsessions!’ Beauty can be so much more than the restrictive, limited interpretations so many of us seem willing to settle for.
RR: There is a drastic shift in focus between the two stanzas from the representation of women in advertising to a fantastical image of teaching white women about inequality, particularly in mainstream advertising and beauty standards. Do you think poetry can serve to broaden the perspective of its audience?
CJ: Yes, I do. While acknowledging that poetry has a better chance of accomplishing this if people can encounter it in unexpected spaces. The wonder of poetry, to me, is how it can fling an unexpected vista into one’s mind, like clicking a kaleidoscope into a new thought arrangement. I try to think a lot about how to forge and maintain the personal relationships and connections that can open these kinds of vistas, not only with poetry, but also with the willingness to venture outside the circle of friendships and experiences that feels naturally comfortable. I think to broaden perspectives, it’s not enough to only write; we must have personal relationships with each other, too.
RR: This poem plays a lot with the idea of who gets to speak in a modern society, and it reimagines those social dynamics with traditionally marginalized voices taking the central position. How have your personal experiences shaped your understanding of those perspectives?
CJ: I do have some traditionally marginalized populations in my background, though I also have a lot of European ancestry as well. I would say that I was conscious, for example, of how my grandmother spoke English but refused to speak Spanish, because she thought muffling her Mexican and Native heritage would better help her succeed in southern California at the time, which of course was a silencing and a severing from our past that we, her descendants, then experienced. But I would also acknowledge that another key experience for me was being homeschooled in a conservative, economically underdeveloped area, where certain kinds of people were encouraged to lead and speak, while others were expected to hold their tongues a little more firmly in check. And that leads to a lack of perspectives, plus a good deal of frustrated boredom.
Yes, traditionally marginalized voices deserve their say as a matter of justice and fairness. I also want to encourage everyone in general not to demand that these voices ‘speak up’ in a white-oriented way. What if we learned from cultures that encourage us to become better listeners and noticers; what if we didn’t insist on ‘speaking up’ as a process of putting the onus mostly on the speaker to break through all other messages and command a cultural stage, but also put pressure on ourselves as listeners to seek out others who model alternate, perhaps “quieter” forms of communication and leadership, such as those who steadily show up and get things done as a part of a community, without necessarily trying to carve out the kind of individualistic platform and persona we’re used to interpreting as successful in the US?
Finally, I’d like us in mainstream US society to consider what we’re missing out on by neglecting to seek out or elevate alternate voices. We should see that as an injury to ourselves and to society—not only are we being unjust, when we silence or ignore traditionally marginalized voices, we’re also wounding ourselves. Sometimes I’m so hungry for other voices and perspectives, I just want people who are used to talking and taking up space to forcibly restrain themselves instead, in favor of wondering what other lives are like.
RR: What is the most difficult part of your artistic process?
CJ: For me it’s choosing to engage with a limited number of projects at a time. So many things are fascinating, it feels like a struggle to balance between exploration, research, and project completion.
RR: What writers have inspired you to pursue poetry, and how?
CJ: Music often drives me closer to poetry. Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of Michael Kiwanuka, admiring how his songs encompass a sense of tiredness and gentleness and longing for alternate states of existence. I’ve also been learning a lot by reading poets such as Kiki Petrosino and Natalie Diaz, who pack so much meaning and insinuation into their poems while also presenting such an abundance of vibrant imagery.
Cyan James’ work in Issue 8.2: