Book Review: Telling You Everything
written by Ashley Holloway
People often hold preconceived notions of what poetry should be. Perhaps envisioning someone like Frost or Keats hunched over a large mahogany desk, toiling away in a dimly lit room with pen in hand. Poetry is complicated, it’s messy, often misunderstood, or prone to assumptions. It comes with expectations. Yet, Cindy Hochman's Telling You Everything chapbook turns this antiquated idea on its head. Part war-cry, part confessional, part autobiography, Hochman’s collection of 26 poems is a willful, defiant expression of solidarity from a woman who speaks the truth and is unafraid to tell others what that is. The world needs more of Cindy Hochman's genius on the page.
Each of the carefully ordered poems throbs with pent-up energy, a crescendo that builds right from the opening line in the chapbook’s namesake with “I am all moan and bone and dangling participles.” The reader is then taken on a rollercoaster ride of ups and downs with "Losing My Mother at Age 5" and again with "My baby crawls," perfectly capturing the coming-of-age experience in "Swan."
Hochman strategically infuses a dose of social critique in “The world is a hot and" with “The weather betrays us, as the sooty flue of government blows useless black smoke in our faces. We are a nation of scoundrels and sock puppets.” Demanding action and criticizing inaction in "The Senators" (or, "Loaded for Bear"), Hochman still manages to leave the reader feeling a small flicker of hope murmuring in the fireplace with "Root," where she advises the reader that one must first take root before they can take flight.
This chapbook is, in essence, a complete refusal of the mundane. Full of derision and mirth in "An Arbitrary List of Words That Come Up In Just About Every Poem" and "The mercurial muse," these two pieces highlight the absurdities and predictability of human nature. Furthermore, Hochman is delightfully unapologetic about revealing wanton desires, nor should she be: she reminds us that this is as much a part of humanity as loss is. Brilliantly balancing self-deprecation with the realities of ‘adulting’ in "Poet Bio (with heavy sarcasm included)" and inviting playfulness with the tongue-in-cheek "Gladiatrix," this chapbook is an autobiography of a complicated woman: a woman everyone talks about but also wants to know.
Interview With the Author
AH: There seems to be a deliberate order to how the poems are ordered in the chapbook. I wonder if you could provide some background into how you decided this and what you wanted the reader to feel after reading the collection.
CH: Ashley, I must say, you are one heck of an astute reader. I say this because sequencing poems is my “superpower,” as they say (although my saying it may be a bit immodest). I actually get many chances to exercise this skill in various ways. For one thing, the online poetry journal I edit with Karen Neuberg, First Literary Review-East, does not, like many journals, have a separate page for each poet. The poems are all on one page, so to speak, and reading the entire issue, which I always hope people will do, means scrolling down from one poem to the next. So, I’m very mindful about putting the poems in a particular order so that there is an appealing flow to them. Sometimes this is facilitated by the fact that several poems may, coincidentally, have similar words or themes in them, and although I try to avoid any hint of redundancy, my method of putting these poems under each other seems to work. Our readers often cite this in the feedback we get on the issues, and I’m always glad when the contributors themselves mention it.
The second instance where I get to utilize sequencing is with my clients. I am a copy editor by profession and editing poetry books, whether they be chapbooks or full-length books, is my stock in trade, and here again, I have made sequencing part of my job description. I truly believe that a publisher can discern whether a poet has taken the time to think about how the book will read as a whole, and I think it does make a difference.
And finally, I used the same M.O. when putting together Telling You Everything, and since you homed in on the fact that the ordering of the poems seemed “deliberate,” I can state definitively that it was indeed deliberate, and you picking up on that thrills me. I purposely started off with a brief poem, not only because of the Charles Simic epigraph that says, “be brief and tell us everything,” and not only because it happens to be the title poem, but I honestly think that a small poem works as an opener because it’s not intimidating and it can set the stage for the rest of the poems. In the poem “An Arbitrary List of Words That Come Up In Just About Every Poem,” I ended off by repeating the word “moon” as one of those words that poets tend to use frequently. And you may have noticed that the next two poems just happen to have the word “moon” in them. That was my attempt to demonstrate what I had said in the previous poem, and also to infuse a bit of tongue-in-cheek humor into it. Equally important as the first poem is the last poem, which should leave the reader with a proper “farewell” and ensure a thought-provoking finale. As it happens, the final poem in my book, “Inner Life (With Sabotage),” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, thanks to Jeffrey Cyphers Wright, the editor of LiveMag! and since it was my very first Pushcart nomination, it seemed a fitting (and proud) end to the chapbook.
As for what I want the reader to feel after reading the collection, I’ll give you the answer I usually give to this question. In terms of emotion, I want them to feel something, anything, whether it’s happy and buoyant or sad and heart-heavy (or all those things) and in terms of craft, like every poet, I hope that readers will enjoy my work and consider me a worthy poet. And perhaps I also want the reader to be a bit exhausted after reading about my life. Ha!
Telling You Everything was released by Unleash Press in 2022. Purchase it here.
Cindy Hochman's journal is First Literary Review-East
AH: This is a very raw collection of poems, and I would imagine this must place you in a very vulnerable position. How did you prepare yourself for sharing this collection publicly?
CH: I think vulnerability is a crucial aspect to sharing one’s poetry, especially if, like me, the poet considers themselves, at least in some regard, a confessional poet in the manner of, for instance, Sylvia Plath, one of the poets I’m often compared to. I realize that there are a lot of poets who are reluctant to lay bare their personal stories, especially if those stories come with a “boatload of baggage,” as I said in one of my poems, but I’m not one of those people. As the title of the book implies, my intention really was to tell the reader everything; the good, the bad, the ugly, and then some, and if I achieved that, then I feel the poems are successful. I have been writing and sending out my work for publication for about 45 years now, so I really had no qualms about being totally honest about my past. Interestingly, I didn’t actually set out to write a poetic memoir, but those shrewd muses decided that I should, so it ended up more autobiographical than I had intended. The fact that you characterized the collection as “raw” makes me feel that my voice is authentic, and artistic authenticity is most certainly an element that I always want in my work.
AH: Is there one poem in this collection that you feel is your “best work” (this is a bit like asking a parent to name their favourite child…)?
CH: Once again I must give a rather vainglorious answer to this, since there are a few poems in the collection that I’m particularly happy to have included, but for different reasons. The poem “Losing My Mother at Age 5” is obviously highly personal and, therefore, vital to the collection. The poem “Swan” is a bit of a departure for me because, as you can see, I usually veer toward shorter poems, and this was my (hopefully triumphant) attempt at flash fiction (and gives me hope that I will one day eke out a short story). The poem “Secret” is one of my favorites to read out loud because I enjoy the poetic device of anaphora and its playful cadence, and “My baby crawls” is the first poem I ever had accepted into a prestigious anthology put out by great weather for MEDIA, and I should note that it took me about eight submissions before I got an acceptance from them, so that poem is undoubtedly one of my favorites (and it is quite ironic that the theme of that poem is “baby,” since you mentioned “favourite child”). And now, after all that blather, let me answer your question. Overall, the poem “Self-Referential” is my favored child in this collection because, as we were discussing, there’s a lot of intimate detail contained within the lines, and I think it gives a wide-angle panorama of my life. Plus, after a few rejections, it was published in a volume of Glass Lyre/Pirene Fountain’s anthology, and Glass Lyre and its leader, Ami Kaye, are very special to me.
AH: In your opinion, what is the difference between what could be considered “good poetry” versus “bad poetry?”
CH: You would think the answer to this question is more or less straightforward, and yet it’s actually a bit complex. On the one hand, poetry, like any creative form (i.e., art or music), is subjective, so separating the “good” from the “bad” is often a matter of individual preference. For instance, there are many well-known, well-credentialed, and what I call ‘highfalutin’ poets whose work I’ve never particularly cared for, or at the very least, were an acquired taste for me. Case in point: When Karen Neuberg, my co-editor, and I read the submissions for our journal, we are often on the same wavelength, but there are times when the poem I liked the least is the one Karen liked the best, and vice versa. Of course, there are several concrete nuances that lend themselves to what most people would consider “bad” poetry, such as awkward or hackneyed phrasing, redundancy, and clichés (although I would argue that the occasional cliché works in certain poems; in fact, I once wrote a whole poem consciously using overused words and expressions). Emily Dickinson famously said, “if I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” I wholeheartedly agree. If I read a poem and find myself headless after doing so, then I would probably consider it a good poem (though I might be a bit upset about my missing noggin). If my head is still affixed to my torso after reading the poem, though, I still may consider it a good poem. A good (and the word “good” itself here is subjective) poem is any poem that at least one reader in the universe finds haunting, memorable, poignant, or beautiful in some way, whether another reader does or not.
I want to close off by giving a hearty thanks to Jen Knox, Chris Shanahan, and the terrific and talented staff of Unleash Press for giving me this opportunity to express my thoughts about my chapbook and my aesthetics on poetics in general. (I must admit, giving interviews makes me feel like a bona fide poet.) And special thanks to you, Ashley, for these insightful and substantive questions. It is obvious that you really did your “homework” in formulating these queries and I appreciate that. I’m also very glad that you genuinely like my book, which happens to hearken back to your first question about what I want the reader to feel after reading the collection. If they feel as you do, then I’ll be most satisfied ... and gratified.
About Ashley Holloway
Ashley Holloway gets bored easily, so she lives her life according to an ‘&.’ She teaches healthcare leadership at Bow Valley College in Calgary, AB, and is a nurse with a Master of Public Health, a graduate diploma in Global Leadership, with further studies in intercultural communication, and international development. She writes in a variety of genres, including short fiction, book reviews, poetry, essays, and creative non-fiction. Her work has appeared across Canada and the US, she has co-authored three books. Ashley reads manuscripts and is an editor for Unleash Press. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She also really loves punctuation.