What Hill Are You Willing to Die On?


On an afternoon in April, Faith Jones (a staff editor) and I sat down with Aaron Quinn and Cynthia Robinson Young to discuss their poetry. Cynthia, a special education teacher originally from Newark, NJ, and Aaron, a writer from Bean Station, TN who works evenings at a local homeless shelter, hit it off almost immediately. We talked about tomato sandwiches and the ghosts that haunt the South.

When sifting through the submissions for Catalpa’s first issue, our staff quickly realized that many of them were poems. Our intention wasn't to be a literary magazine—it still isn't—and although the submitted poems were good, we struggled with how best to include them, or whether we should include them at all. We noticed that Aaron’s and Cynthia's works seemed to address similar topics, dealing with themes of racism, gentrification, and Southern identity. We were intrigued. We wanted to know more about them, and about what drove them, as Southern writers, to confront the issues present in their work. 

Aaron and Cynthia share that they are both Southern writers. But they have different backgrounds and identities. Aaron approaches the South with the perspective of a white man from a tiny Southern town, bearing the burden of the ugly ghosts of Southern history.  Cynthia approaches the South as an African- American woman who has lived in other regions—the northeast and west—but interacts with southern ghosts of her own. Considering their different perspectives, we wanted to know what Cynthia and Aaron might agree on or disagree on when it came to the South and Southern writing. 

We were faced with some difficult decisions: how could we put two people with such different perspectives in conversation together without making the  project come across as tainted and insincere—or worse, inflammatory? In his column in the Summer 2015 issue of Oxford American, Southern food writer John T. Edge engages with New Orleans chef and “provocateur” Tunde Wey. The article is difficult. Edge offers half of his column to Wey, with which Wey asks the question: “what will you willingly give up to ensure the Southern food narrative services properly and fully the contributions of black Southerners?” Edge and Wey’s column is heavy but redemptive. And although we didn’t really expect to encounter something quite as heavy and challenging as that column, we couldn’t be entirely sure that it wouldn’t be. There was still the fear that, to borrow Wey’s words, our idea was “scrubbed with a dirty washcloth.” So, for weeks we debated. It sounds dramatic—it kind of was. We decided that we would just ask them what they thought about the idea. What could it hurt? To our surprise, they both agreed—what’s more, they seemed genuinely excited.  

You both enjoy Southern writing--what drew you to that genre? 

Cynthia: My family. They’re all from North Carolina and Georgia, so I was raised by Southerners. When I came back to the South, I felt like everything that I was raised on was from the South. I feel like I’m a misplaced Southerner. Even in California, I got Southern Living magazine. I love the South. 

Aaron: I grew up in a town that didn’t even have a red light. I read As I Lay Dying, got obsessed with Faulkner, and never really left Southern literature. [It got] to the point where, when people gave me other [books], they’d be like “Okay, Aaron. There’s literature other than people who write in the South.” But that’s my reality. Like, I grew up eating tomato sandwiches.

Cynthia: So that’s a Southern thing—tomato sandwiches? 

Aaron: I hope so—I think even in my poetry that’s why I write so much about tomatoes. It’s a visual I grew up with. 

Cynthia: I’m finding out more and more that “Yeah, I am a Southerner.”

Is it that sort of regional twist that draws you to poetry? 

Cynthia: I found my voice in Southern writing first. I feel like I was raised by Southerners, so that’s the way I think. When I write dialogue, it just comes out like that. 

Aaron: All these different voices—Southern literature made the most sense to me. It influenced so much of my writing—or I hope it has influenced my writing. I tried avoiding Southern writing for so long. I was starved for “culture,” and when I started embracing Southern literature, I realized how rich the South was in its own culture. It’s very didactic in some ways because it teaches you as you grow up about the pace of life and how to treat other people—the good side of Southern culture does that. I think you have to be comfortable with the dark side of it, too. And I finally got to the point where I’m comfortable with my past in relation to my ancestors. That was important, too, because for me to say I’m a straight, Southern, white male—there’s a lot that goes into that.

Cynthia: Yeah, that’s loaded.

Aaron: It’s basically, “Well, you’ve created most of the hatred in America.” Yes, I have. Now I can fully embrace my Southern identity because I don’t have to run from the shadows that always follow us around, if we’re honest about it.

Cynthia: Yeah, the shadows—I’m going to move it into the word ghost because of one of the things my kids always say: “Mom you’re always talking about ghosts.” I feel it here. One of my sons moved to Augusta (GA), and we were downtown. It was almost as if I could see the past while walking downtown. When I’m in California—I just went back—there are no ghosts there. I cannot feel anything. I like what you said: embracing both the light and the dark side. My family said that we left [the South] for a reason. When I was going back to Covenant [College] they said, “Are you crazy? We left there for a reason. Don’t go back.” They were really freaked out about me coming back. But there’s something that connects us back to our roots. It’s the good, the bad, and the ugly of it. I think that part of what makes Southern writing so rich is because it’s rich with shadows and ghosts we can see. 

Working in that realm, is there something in particular you hope that your readers will take away? 

Cynthia: Well, with what Aaron was saying, just being able to embrace it and be honest about it. I think that Southern writers really make an effort to be honest because we have a lot to be honest about. We have a lot to face, to repent, and we have a lot of healing that has to happen. I think our writing is a part of that healing. 

Aaron: I love the terms “healing” and “repentance.” I think those are two heavy, buried terms that need to be brought [to] the surface. That’s part of my intention. What I want to do is say, “Come talk to me. Let me hear your story.” All I want to do is say “I’m sorry.” There needs to be people who are willing to say, “I’m going to take this past on my shoulders,” and start telling people, “I am genuinely sorry.” What I want more than anything is to break bread with you, and not because you're black or you're dating someone of the same sex, but to restore common humanity. I teach creative writing at the shelter I work at every other Thursday, and normally, I start off by  telling them the first thing I see is you’re black or white. I see it. That makes you beautiful and diverse.  

Cynthia: That’s great and that’s important. Because with my interactions with white people, they’re like, “I don’t see you as black.” Well, you’re just saying you’re denying who I am. 

Aaron: You see people that are black and white. One of the things that I fear inside of America is that we’re so afraid of other cultures that we’re not willing to let people have their own. I want you to retain the identity of culture in your waking being, in your walking being, because it’s important. 

Cynthia: I think there’s a hard line between people embracing culture and those who are trying to get a oneness within it. How do we stay one while being separate? That’s a struggle we can’t get to the end of.  I believe that’s the desire of most Americans—we want to figure that out. 

Aaron: Part of being from a small town is knowing that outsiders aren’t always welcome. And that’s part of the ghosts that hide in the dark. There’s an inner-tribalism that wants us to be safe, and different makes us feel unsafe. In Small Town, Southern USA, the tendency to accept people that are different is not as prevalent as it is in other regions. I agree that there is a large part of America that wants to assimilate, but I think there’s a tendency in some parts of the South—and I don’t want to demonize all the South—but I do think there is that tendency to migrate to what you know. I basically come from an all-white county. My city is called “Bean Station.” It sounds white. I loved growing up there, but there was an adjustment moving from all-white Bean Station to almost all-white Cleveland, TN, and finally to more diversified Chattanooga. And I think that’s the beauty of literature: It helps us understand to bridge that gap--

Cynthia: —In a safe space. 

It seems like there’s an element of storytelling in each of your work; there’s a certain experience that the Southern writer is trying to tell. Would you say that is a big influence in how you construct your poems? 

Cynthia: I always grew up hearing stories. 

Aaron: Yeah. You didn’t always know if they were true or not, it didn’t matter.

Cynthia: One of things I get attacked about from my family is I’ll write a poem and they’ll say it didn’t happen. I’m like, “I don’t care!” I’m trying to teach a truth in it. And that truth is true whether or not that happened at the end... That’s how I was raised: just tell the story. I don’t care if it’s true or not, just make it good. So if you have to throw stuff in, throw it in. 

Aaron: I think that’s what I had to ask: “What do I like about poetry?” I like the story. That’s what was so important to me. 

So, we’ve been weaving around this, but if you had to boil it down: what is the responsibility of the Southern poet?

Cynthia: I think we have to tell the truth. Represent our culture—the good, the bad, and the ugly. If you don’t face your demons, you’re always going to be afraid. There’s so much beauty in the South. There’s this element where—these are our roots. 

Aaron: I think a lot of it, for me—and not to get overly spiritual, if there’s such a thing—I feel this huge responsibility of stewardship in relation to religion—[specifically,] my Christianity. I think God has given us this creation to steward, whether it’s through community or treating nature correctly. My responsibility starts right there. It’s my way of stewarding the little bit of the world I was given--

Cynthia: Right.

Aaron: I may, one day, move away from the South. I don’t know how that will happen. I’m not sure what my wife can say to get me to move away from it. But while I’m here, my responsibility is, how do I steward this? When Kanye West said, “Racism is still alive, they’re just re-concealing it,” it made me stop and say, “Wait a second. What does that mean?” Part of my evolution was to start asking: “Since it was re-concealed, have I done anything to help conceal racism to where we can’t deal with this? I want to do that through poetry.” 

Cynthia: I think one thing is to always remember that if it’s not racism, it’s going to be something else. Like The Sneetches, by Dr. Seuss, we’re always going to figure out how we’re better than somebody else. We’re always going to put down someone else. I  don’t think it will ever go away. I think that we can be, as you said, stewards to try and help the healing. 

Aaron: I think that’s part of the challenge, right? When you’re writing poetry, what battles do we choose? 

Cynthia: Yeah. We talk about whatever we’re called to talk about. Whatever your passion is, that’s what you have to write about. 

Aaron: I think that’s part of developing. What hill are you willing to die on? Because, you’re going to take criticism. I’m willing to die on the hill of racism, sexism, and spirituality. 

Cynthia: That’s good. I think the hardest thing is figuring out how to love people. That’s what you sound like you’re talking about. How do you love everyone well through your work?

Aaron: Do you remember the moment where the fire of writing got sparked?

Cynthia: Oh, this is hard. I didn’t like being a child.  I needed an outlet. But I didn’t know I needed an outlet until I learned how to read. When I learned how to read—oh my gosh, everything everyone’s always said that sounds like it’s a cliché, it’s not. You can go to another world. You don’t have to deal with anything. So, I became in love with books and reading. And then, from that, I went to the library. There’s a book called So You Want to be a Writer? And I thought, “so you can actually read this book and become a writer?” That’s when I started. 

Aaron: What age were you?

Cynthia: Oh, probably 13 when I realized I could actually be a writer. 

Do you write any other genres or styles?

Cynthia: That’s a sad story. I didn’t embrace poetry, at all. I always wanted to write a novel, and write a short story. I spent most of my life writing bad short stories that I thought were really good, but everyone said, “No, they’re not.” When I wrote poetry, people said, “You should be a poet.” I said, “I don’t want to be a poet. I want to write stories and novels.” Eventually, I started submitting poetry with the short stories. The short stories came back but the poetry stayed. I guess I should start walking down that aisle called poetry. Then, a couple of years ago, I heard about the NaNo thing. You know, you write a novel in a month? And I thought, “That’d be fun.” I tried to do the NaNo thing in July, so that I could at least live through every day of July and know it happened. I ended up writing a novel that I really like. 

You mentioned earlier that you were doing some projects with genealogy. Does that have something to do with the novel, or is that a separate project?  

Cynthia: I went to New Jersey to see my family, and we were driving from Newark to South Jersey. My aunt was telling me the story of how our family migrated, and it was amazing. She died, and I came back for another funeral. I was telling my aunts and they would say, “That did not happen...She must have been starting her death at this point, ‘cause there’s no way that that happened.” Well, I thought [her story]  was good. [It] was the seed for the novel. If it’s true, then it’s really true. If it’s not, it’s a novel. That’s how that novel came to be. 

Aaron: I think I have six novels I’ve finished. I have to force myself to stop editing them; they’re never done in my mind. One of the things Stephen King said was “put it away for six months and then come back to it.” That’s what I tend to do. 

Cynthia: I do that with my poetry. One of the other things I do,which is coming up tomorrow, is a poem-a-day. I love that one. You put out  30 poems. It doesn’t matter if it’s good or not, you’ve just got to do it. They give you a prompt a day. I always get something out of that.

Aaron: I don’t know what your process is like, but I feel like I hit a writer’s high, where the whole world is just opened up. My reality doesn’t exist. It doesn’t always happen at first—you’ve gotta keep pushing through. Then it just opens up. It’s a complete reality you’re living in. You can smell it; you can hear the characters talk; visually see what they’re saying. You can feel their emotions. It’s just beautiful. But, you have to keep pressing in, like you do running, and find that writer’s high. With novel writing, especially.

Cynthia: It’s another world. With poetry, my process is [that] I can’t just do it. When I get a poem, I get the whole poem. 

Aaron: [For me], it’s usually it’s a word or an image. I feel like writing is exorcising something from me.

Cynthia: Well, [it’s] something that’s in there you didn’t know was there. It’s just got to come. I don’t know where it comes from; but, if it’s not there, it ain’t there. I think that we have to keep doing it, no matter what. So, if I’m not writing then I’ll be editing, revising things, or researching. One of the projects I’m working on right now is poems. It’s the story of my family, and it’s like a prose poem. I’m figuring out when to stop. I sit there and wait until I can hear the voice of that person and then when I hear it, I’m on it. She has a story to tell. 

*A huge thanks to Faith Jones for accompanying me and helping me conduct and transcribe the interview.

ynthia is originally from Newark, New Jersey, but after college she relocated with her family to the California Bay Area. She currently lives in Chattanooga, Tennessee. After receiving her master’s at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, she became an adjunct professor in exceptional education  at Covenant College in Georgia. She has been published in several journals, including Poetry SouthSongs of Eretz Poetry Review, and Sixfold.  She is a recent finalist in the Blue Light Press Chapbook Contest, and is currently working on a novel and genealogical book of poems.

Aaron is a former literature major at The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga currently residing in Chattanooga, TN. He works at an emergency shelter for families in downtown Chattanooga and leads a creative writing class for homeless families every other Thursday. His published works include poetry in Frontage Road, a novel, I Have Found My Freedom, and a recently published comic book through Headshrinker's Press called Grey.