SPOTLIGHT & INTERVIEW: How to Love the Empty Air by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz
How to Love the Empty Air
by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz
Vulnerable, beautiful and ultimately life-affirming, Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz’s work reaches new heights in her revelatory seventh collection of poetry. Continuing in her tradition of engaging autobiographical work, How to Love the Empty Airexplores what happens when the impossible becomes real―for better and for worse. Aptowicz’s journey to find happiness and home in her ever-shifting world sees her struggling in cities throughout America. When her luck changes―in love and in life―she can’t help but “tell the sun / tell the fields / tell the huge Texas sky…. / tell myself again and again until I believe it.” However, the upward trajectory of this new life is rocked by the sudden death of the poet’s mother. In the year that follows, Aptowicz battles the silencing power of grief with intimate poems burnished by loss and a hard-won humor, capturing the dance that all newly grieving must do between everyday living and the desire “to elope with this grief, / who is not your enemy, / this grief who maybe now is your best friend. / This grief, who is your husband, / the thing you curl into every night, / falling asleep in its arms…” As in her award-winning The Year of No Mistakes, Aptowicz counts her losses and her blessings, knowing how despite it all, life “ripples boundless, like electricity, like joy / like… laughter, irresistible and bright, / an impossible thing to contain.”
- Tell us a little about yourself.
My name is Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz. I’m the author of seven books of poetry, including How to Love the Empty Air which is coming out this Spring, and two books of nonfiction, most recently Dr Mütter’s Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue of Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine which spent three months on the New York Times Best Seller list. For most of my adult life, I lived in New York City, but fell in love and now live with my husband and our family in Austin, TX.
- What made you want to become a writer?
My mother. In fact, the very first poem in my very first poetry collection is about that very subject, and you can watch a film of my performance of that piece online here:
- Who or what gives you inspiration?
As writer of nonfiction and of poetry, I love true stories told by the people who lived them. My husband is a fiction writer, and so our house is filled to the brim with books. Whenever I feel lost, inspired, or confused on where to go next with my writing, I just pick up a book and see what it can tell me. For poetry, my go-to poets of late have been Kevin Young, Bob Hicok, Hanif Abdurraqib, Sharon Olds, Danez Smith, Denise Duhamel, and the poets I am lucky enough to be touring with this spring: Sarah Kay, Anis Mojgani and Derrick C. Brown.
- Please give us some insight on How to Love the Empty Air.
My books are all autobiographical, all attempts at trying to capture what life is like for me at whatever time I am living it. The first poet who made me realize I could be a poet was Jim Daniels, who wrote lovingly and honestly about his working class upbringing, and his time as a worker in an auto factory. Until then, I didn’t realize you could be working class and a poet. I wanted my work to do the same: honestly depict what life was like for a college student (my first collection), a writer for porn (my second collection), an office worker by day, performance poet by night (my third collection), etc… However, choosing to record your life in this way means also having to shine a spotlight on the tougher parts. How to Love the Empty Air is my attempt to capture the before, during and aftermath of the loss of my mother.
- What’s the hardest part of being a writer?
I mean, honestly, it’s believing that you can do it and then doing it. As mentioned above, I came from a working class neighborhood: all cops, firefighters and sanitation workers. When I told folks that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up, I might as well have told them I wanted to be the tooth fairy. But being a writer means taking risks, writing constantly, risking failure, and navigating success. At each level, you are going to feel like a total fraud, but you need to push through and remember that it’s all about the writing, doing the work. After my mother passing, I was given her journals, I found a 4 item list in one of them that I use as my guide for life and writing, which I think is tremendously helpful:
1.) Know Your Purpose
2.) Be Present
3.) Act Decisively.
4.) Don’t be attached to the results.
She titled this list “True Work” and I can’t think of a better guide for writing.
- What do you need around you to write (special drink, lucky items, etc)?
No. I’ve written in coffeehouses, libraries, museum, trains, planes and tiny laundry-rooms-cum-offices. The only thing I need to something to record with – laptop preferred, but a sharpie and a stack of napkins have worked in a pinch too!) and I am ready to go.
- What are some of your favorite books?
I would wear out the battery of the computer if I listed them all, but since How to Love the Empty Air deals with processing grief, I will share the books I found the most helpful during that time in my life:
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
Dear Darkness by Kevin Young
The Art of Losing, a poetry anthology edited by Kevin Young
Motherless Daughters by Hope Edelman
- Do you have any advice for up and coming writers?
My best advice for upcoming writers is to embrace the concept of “Horizontal Loyalty.” The traditional model for finding success as writer has always been identifying mentors – writers who have been there before and will help guide your career. And while mentors are absolutely important, it has been shown that the success of an artist can more successfully be tracked by their connection to other artists on their level who are creating work they admire. Meaning, identify people your age, or doing work on a level similar to yours, whose approach, style and work ethic you really like. Make a connection with those artists, and share resources, help each other cross finish lines, alert each other to great projects, and push each other to new heights. This is what is meant by the phrase “Horizontal Loyalty.” It means finding your kinship with your peers and developing with them. And this has certainly been true for me in my writing life. While I have had incredible mentors, so many of the artists I met and connected with when we were in our teens and twenties are artists who have helped shaped my career as an adult. The gondolier and amateur magician who I booked at the show I used to run out CBGBs in the early aughts later became my publisher… and the minister at my wedding! The tech support cubicle jockey who I helped book his first NYC poetry tour in 2001 would build my first website that year (the one I still use!), introduce me to my literary agent a decade later, and would become my husband in 2016! Which is all to say, instead of looking upward to help move your career forward, just look around. The tools for success are already around you, you just need to value them!
- What, if anything, are you working on right now?
This Spring I will be touring around the country in support of How to Love the Empty Air. So you live in LA, New York City, Philadelphia, Washington DC, Chicago, Austin, Minneapolis, Portland, Seattle, and a half dozen places inbetween, please come on out and say hello. Tour details can be found on my website: http://www.aptowicz.com I will be performing along with some incredible poets, and we would love to see your face. Once my tour has wrapped, I will be getting back to work on my next nonfiction book. It’s top secret for now, but I can’t wait to share it with the world!
- Why do you love writing?
My love for writing comes from my love of reading. I love how connected I feel to the world when I read something written by someone else that truly resonates with me. The person could be very similar to me, or as different as can be imagined, and yet, we can share this same thing, this humanity. It’s humbling and affirming at the same time. I love writing because it allows me to join the conversation, and add my own stories to the mix. What greater gift could there be?
About the Author
Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz is the author of seven books of poetry, including The Year of No Mistakes, crowned the Book of the Year for Poetry by the Writers’ League of Texas. She is also the author of two books of nonfiction, most recently Dr Mütter’s Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine, which spent three months on the New York Times Best Seller List. Recent awards include a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, the ArtsEDGE write-in-residency at the University of Pennsylvania and the Amy Clampitt Residency. When not on the road, she lives in Austin with her family.
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