Interview with the author: Caroline Cabrera

When reviewing Caroline Cabrera’s debut poetry collection Flood Bloom, Publishers Weekly wrote, “Cabrera is confident and humble, distinctly postmodern in her hyperawareness.”  In her latest collection The Bicycle Year (H_NGM_N Books, 2015), Cabrera brings the same voice and play to her work with a wiser voice.  This voice doesn’t offer answers, but seeks to complicate.

Carolina Cabrera is also the author of the chapbook Dear Sensitive Beard, published by dancing girl press in 2012. She was educated at Stetson University and the University of Massachusetts MFA for Poets and Writers. She has taught at the University of Massachusetts, Florida Atlantic University, and Metropolitan State University of Denver. She currently lives in Denver with her cat, Yossarian, and her husband, Philip.


Christy Crutchfield: Your book is made up of two long poems.  How did the book take shape? Did you know you were writing sections of longer poems or did you surprise yourself?

Caroline Cabrera: The first section actually began as named, discreet poems, each titled after cards in a deck. The two parts correspond numerically—52 cards in a deck, 52 weeks in a year; the first section had the card poems and the long poem evolved in diary-esque, week-to-week sections. I wrote one part of each every week for a year.  Or, at least, that was the plan; in reality I got ahead of and then behind schedule, so the book took me sixteen months. Once I had a first draft to Nate Pritts he questioned the card deck titles.  I realized that though those titles helped to inform the poems while I wrote, they weren’t necessary to the poems as they stood. So I lost the titles—removed the scaffolding, in a sense. Since they were conceived as a sequence from the beginning, they seemed to work well as a long poem.

Crutchfield: Your first poem is titled with a series of triangles and the cover of the book features a pattern of triangles.  What is the significance of the triangles?  How did this concept develop?

Cabrera: Following from the first question, once I lost the individual titles I had no clue how to title that section. I knew I wanted a symbol, something that would recall the four suits and their symbols. Anna Pollock-Nelson is responsible for the triangular interpretation, both cover and interior, with which I immediately fell in love.

Crutchfield: I remember one of my first writing teachers telling us to stay away from pop culture references in our work.  Something to do with making our work timeless.  Years later, I read Frank O'Hara and began questioning this advice.  Your book is full of pop culture references.  Alice from the Brady Bunch.  David Attenboro.  Simba.  In your early poems, you've written about Jaws and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  I find that in your work, these appearances are often used for humor, but are also used to catch us off guard before you bring in the hard stuff.  How do you see pop culture working in your poems?  Any advice for writers when it comes to balancing these references?

Cabrera: I have a sort of “everything in” approach to my poems.  And then of course, a lot gets edited out. I remember Jim Haug saying in workshop once “there are so many cell phones in the real world and so few in poetry,” or something to that effect. And I think that while I don’t want brand-named vehicles or products littered in my poems, I also do not want my poems to feel divorced from the real world. And pop culture, in moderation, makes up part of that real life.

I think you’re spot on with noting how lighter things act as diversions before the real stuff. I’ve always admired Dean Young’s ability to do humor and pain at the very same time. Chris Janke told me once, in regards to my earlier poetry, that I use humor to avoid sentimentality and that instead I needed to push through sentimentality and see what exists on the other side. I tried for that with this book, and even more so in my more current writing. Not sure I’ve reached that yet. But even as I push through to more raw and real emotions—even as I try to stop using humor as a diversion—I still find that when my writing goes dark, it gets darker and funnier in equal measure. I don’t aim for the humor to serve as comic relief, but for those two things—the pain and the humor—to exist at the very same time. That’s the way I like to see and deal with the world, I think.

In some ways The Bicycle Year takes things I noticed about my writing in my first book (the “everything in” nature, the humor/emotion) and pushes those a little farther—turns up the volume on those tendencies. Sort of like, ‘well, now that I know these things about my writing I can abandon them or I can really see where they might take me.’

Crutchfield: The Bicycle Year is a book about many things: relationships, family, and place.  It's a book of returning home, leaving home, and of wondering where home is.  I know you were in some periods of transition while working on the manuscript.  Do you feel that place affects your writing?

Cabrera: Yes! So much transition! I didn’t plan the manuscript thinking about those transitions, but I do think the premise of the book—the year of “everything in”—benefitted from all these changes. In the sixteen months I wrote this book, I had a cancer scare (it’s benign! everything’s okay!), finished grad school, moved 1500 miles, got my first real post-grad-school job, had my first book published and got married. And to some extent the book documents what ended up being the most tumultuous year of my life thus far.

Place has a major influence on my writing.  Personally I am very affected by place and I think that comes through. I spend a lot of time looking out my window waiting and thinking, and the change of scenery, from my cabin-in-the-woods, Massachusetts home, to my lush, sub-tropic Florida backyard (my landlady obsessed about the yard; it was really spectacular) definitely came in. I also went from feeling very cold all the time to very hot all the time, neither of which were particularly bad things, but both of which I was constantly aware.

Crutchfield: You recently moved to Denver.  How have you found the writing scene there?  Where is the best place to get a beer when I come visit you?

Cabrera: Socially I am a big disappointment. The writing community here is very warm and welcoming, but I’ve been a bit too much of a homebody to take full advantage. I intend to be better about that, as I settle in here.  But honestly, teaching is so EXTROVERTED that I tend to be a loner on my off time.

As far as beer, there are so many good places—excellent breweries and every bar has an extensive beer selection.  I am partial to Finley’s, the Irish pub around the corner from my house. (See above, regarding introversion.)

Crutchfield: You thank Anne Cecelia Holmes and Gale Thompson at least three times in the book.  Can you speak to how you all influence and support each other?

Cabrera: I am lucky to have so many smart, funny, and talented friends. Mike Wall and I were talking once about how AWP differs so much, tonally, from other conferences.  At any conference, you have exactly one thing in common with all the other attendees; at AWP, that one thing is writing, at once a way of life and a super intimate act, so friendships with writers can spring very quickly. My friendship with Anne and Gale sprung quickly. They were in their first MFA workshop together and then the three of us were in the next workshop together. We’ve been reading each other’s work for over six years now. And somewhere along the way they became my first readers for new works, and then my first editors, and then, ultimately, my last editors, who give something the okay before I let it out the door, or out into the internet. (I will likely send them this interview before committing to my answers.) It’s a codependence, maybe, but one that helps us each write our best work. We involve each other at every stage in the life of any writing we do. We allow each other that access, I think, because of closeness and trust. We know each other’s work enough to know what’s a risk, what’s a crutch. Also, in the earlier stages, we have enough confidence in each other to read generously and trust the direction something might be going. We also understand and truly appreciate our differing aesthetics. There’s a real honestly and openness and supportiveness. We understand each other as people and as writers and we communicate very well.  I’m realizing that last sentence sounds like an answer to, “What makes your marriage work” and I don’t think that’s even a little off base.

Crutchfield: What's outside your window right now?  Could you write a poem about it?

Cabrera: I’m answering this question in one of my classrooms while my students peer review, and the window looks out at Elitch Gardens (Denver’s downtown theme park) with the Front Range mountains in the background.  I have issued a personal moratorium on mountain poems for the time being.  I have always written perhaps a bit too often of mountains, and since moving out to Colorado, that’s gone haywire. So yes, I could write a poem about this view, but I won’t.

Crutchfield: What should we be reading?

Cabrera: Oh wow! I want to ask you the same thing. How about I just tell you some things I’ve read recently and loved: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers, This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz, Citizen by Claudia Rankine and If The Tabloids are True What are You? by Matthea Harvey. Also, I’m rereading I Live in a Hut by S.E. Smith because I just love it so much—a big thanks to Katie Mertz on that recommendation.

Purchase The Bicycle Year HERE.

Visit Caroline HERE.

Interviewer bio: Christy Crutchfield is the author of the novel How to Catch a Coyote.  Her work has appeared in Tin House, Mississippi Review, Salt Hill Journal, Juked, and others.  Visit her at