“You Cannot Go on Flinching”: A Conversation with Cynthia Marie Hoffman

Cynthia Marie Hoffman’s Exploding Head is a courageous memoir-in-poems recounted in snapshots from the life of a speaker with obsessive-compulsive disorder, as she learns to hold space for the daily realities of living in a complicated brain without letting it overtake her. The narrative zooms in on various images, rituals, and intrusive thoughts the disorder has invented—counting window panes; a terrifying angel in her bedroom—and the eventual meanings they take on throughout her life. The speaker’s younger self harbors secrets that often overwhelm her; she wishes she could “take [her] body off” and laments the “waste, hours lost” to compulsive thoughts and rituals. However, the older speaker traces her journey through therapy and eventual acceptance (or at least acknowledgement) of her diagnosis, “remapping a world in which [she] will die or be reborn.” Though she continues to be haunted by terrifying thoughts, in the end, the speaker chooses life. Anxiety over things she can’t control turns into a willingness to live with uncertainty; obsessive counting rituals transform into “counting [her]self lucky to be alive.” Exploding Head is an inspiring story, not of overcoming an obstacle but of learning to coexist with it.

I was fortunate to have the chance to speak with Cynthia via Zoom on a Friday afternoon in February, as she was still settling back in after AWP. Below are some excerpts from our conversation about healing, stigma, poetic structure, and more.

Liza Katz Duncan: Can you start by telling about your impetus for writing Exploding Head? What prompted you to write it at this time in your life, or in the world?

Cynthia Marie Hoffman: I’m now in my late forties, and OCD was not something I had spoken openly about before writing poems. I found my voice to talk about it through poetry. It became the overarching philosophy of the book, to give a glimpse into my brain.

I didn’t set out to “humanize” OCD; I just wanted to tell my story. My story is not the label of OCD but how it manifests for me.

I’m always thinking, What is the next project? I go into any new project thinking it will be my next book. That’s just the way my brain works. I want to be obsessive about a topic. It’s not just an OCD thing; I’m obsessive about things in a positive, healthy way, in the way a researcher would be, or a novelist, where you sit down with a project and live with that project for a number of years. I like feeling like I’m working on something extended, something larger than the single poem.

But I didn’t know what this collection was going to be, aside from knowing the topic, and I certainly didn’t have a purpose to speak about OCD in any kind of “platformy” way, or that I had any responsibility to tell my story or to represent anyone. I was lonely, and I wanted to share this thing that I had never really talked about. It was time to communicate what was going on in my brain.

I had spoken with a few of my friends over the years, and some therapists, obviously, but a lot of the things I wrote in this book I hadn’t ever said to someone in real life. I keep telling my husband, You need to read my book, because people who read it are going to know more about me than you do!

There’s no reason to sit around talking about some of the topics that go on in my brain, in my brand of OCD, especially some of the more violent, intrusive thoughts. It’s just not socially acceptable to work that into a conversation. So I just dealt with it on my own all those years.

And of course there’s a stigma associated with OCD and with thoughts that are violent, that go so far against my personal values. OCD is egodystonic: it attacks the things that you value the most. It goes against what you believe; it goes against what you value. So, it’s not me. Why would I want to talk about that? I don’t want to talk about it. But that’s very isolating after a number of years, to not allow space for that part of my existence to be acknowledged. I think that started to weigh on me.

You mentioned stigmas. There are so many stigmas associated with any kind of illness or disability that we just absorb, even if nobody says it to you directly. In your book you refer to “the bad part of your mind.” I wondered how you acknowledged stigmas in your book, if you consciously set out to do that.

I don’t think I consciously set out to do that, but I hope I am ultimately doing it just by speaking, because for me it was a personal journey of overcoming my own idea or concept of stigma in order to go past that. Obviously I’d internalized some judgment coming from somewhere, that that part of my brain is the “bad” part. I was always, as a child, receiving messages that, Oh, you should be happy! If you were depressed, that was not OK. I had wonderful, supportive, loving parents, but they wanted me to be happy, as any parent would. And partly because of OCD, and partly just because of my personality, I tend to be a perfectionist and a people-pleaser, and I loved my parents more than anyone else in the world. So of course I wanted to be perfect and happy and all of those good things. So I thought the OCD part, the violent part, all of that is the bad part of me. And I didn’t want to share that, because that’s not perfect.

My parents were always very supportive of me, no matter what, but you don’t really know what’s going on in your kid’s mind. And who would imagine that your kid, unless they showed some physical sign or unless they shared with you and said, I’m imagining X or I’m afraid of Y, how would you know? I kept it secret for so long, and a lot of my compulsions associated with OCD are mental compulsions, so it’s mostly happening inside my own mind. If I didn’t want to share it, I didn’t have to.

You talk a lot about religion in the book.

Yes, there was an angel in my room. It terrified me for a number of years. I don’t know where that angel came from. We went to Sunday school, we went to church, but we weren’t a particularly religious family at home. It’s just a figure that appeared.

There’s a new study I learned about recently where OCD is being examined as potentially having some hallucinatory effects where the visions that you see, they’re not real, but they seem so real. There’s that line between what you’re seeing in your mind and what you’re seeing in reality. So I’m glad I included the angel figure in this book. It always seemed to exist as part of my experience of OCD, even though it was different than other types of intrusive thoughts.

I read your book as a memoir-in-poems. You chronicle the stages of your life from childhood to adulthood, with OCD as a framework. Could you talk more about how you structured the book?

It’s funny, because I thought I came up with the concept of this collection of poems as “memoir” quite late in the process, seven or eight years in. But then I rediscovered an early email with my poetry group from 2013, when I first started writing the book, and I’d said in my email, I’m writing a memoir. I guess my concept of what that could be changed as I started creating the work, and as I started thinking about structuring the manuscript, organizing these poems.

Of course, a memoir doesn’t have to be chronological, and in fact I almost thought it probably shouldn’t be chronological, so I wrote poems by theme. There were a lot of being afraid of dying poems, there were car accident poems, gun poems, the angel poems, the parent poems. And I sort of wrote into those areas as little patches, and then I was trying to figure out how to sew them together, how to make the quilt. It wasn’t until very late, when I had gone over and over these poems, that I thought, let me just try it in chronological order, starting in childhood and working up through the present day. That’s when I discovered the arc of the manuscript.

I had been looking for my arc within each of those patches, like is there an arc of healing in the car accident theme? Do I feel better driving in the car these days? And the answer is no, I don’t feel better. I thought to myself, I haven’t gotten better. I still have OCD. There’s no answer; there’s no resolution. The book is just going to be “this is my brain, this is what happens in my brain, the end.” But that’s not really a compelling trajectory.

It wasn’t until I put the poems in chronological order that I recognized an evolution in the way I had been speaking to myself over different decades of my life. The childhood poems are very dark and lonely and scary. As time went on, I had found more self-compassion toward myself, a greater sense of understanding, a greater set of tools for living, being healthy, and managing my symptoms. The arc was right there in front of me.

There’s definitely a turning point in your book where the speaker learns to live with her symptoms instead of being tormented by them. I feel like for anyone who deals with an illness or disability, there’s a point at which we have to learn to manage or at least acknowledge it. You say in your book, “You cannot go on flinching at each small thing.” I was going to ask if that happened through the writing of the poems.

I think this turning point happened in such a gradual way in my own life that I couldn’t recognize that it was happening. It wasn’t until I really had these Exploding Head poems laid out in chronological order that I could see clearly, OK. Wow. You can pat yourself on the shoulder a little bit. You’re doing OK. You’ve done OK. You’ve gotten yourself through this. You’re continuing to get yourself through this. So, in a big way, finding the right order of poems for this book was a healing experience.

It was hard actually, from a craft standpoint, to come so late in the game to a chronological order, because I had imagined all of these poems to be so independent of each other, that I had to keep reintroducing, especially in the childhood poems, that I was a child. And then once I put all those childhood poems together, I didn’t need to say that anymore. I didn’t have to keep reestablishing. Now the poems could rely on each other a little more heavily because they were right up next to each other. I had to do quite a lot of revision to make it work.

I think the line “You cannot go on flinching at each small thing” is expressing a moment of frustration with myself. It’s exhausting to live like this! But you know what? I still have intrusive thoughts about car accidents. I’m still afraid of being in the car. But I do it anyway. That’s the healing part of it, the doing it anyway.

I noticed the significance that you give particular numbers in the book. Some of these numbers have a lot of outsized power.

Sometimes OCD pins itself to numbers. You just get a feeling about numbers. Certain numbers are good and certain numbers are bad, and there’s no reason why. It’s just the rule your brain made up. Fours and sevens appear quite a bit in the book and in my life. It just so worked out that I ended up having four sections, and sixteen poems (4×4) in each section. The poems just kind of mathematically fell into that pattern. I wasn’t trying to do that on purpose. But it was so satisfying when I realized I could make the count work.

The fours remind me of the window image that’s in a lot of your poems. A window can function as a way to see out, but also as a kind of barrier. You can see what’s beyond the window, but you can’t reach it.

OCD forces me to focus on that barrier, where I’m not looking beyond or out the window. I’m looking at the window itself and marking that barrier with one-two-three-four. So it’s interesting: there are things that are in the book just because they’re things that I started doing as a child that are part of my obsessive-compulsive natural tendencies. And then there are things that start to gain significance in a literary sense or in terms of them being metaphors for something else.

For example, I had someone read this manuscript earlier on and she was suggesting that I write more deeply into the terrifying angel in my bedroom, beyond my own experience, because of course angels are iconic. There’s so much significance there; there’s a literary and religious history. I got all excited because I love writing from research. That is primarily what I’ve done as a poet. I don’t tend to write about myself, maybe because I was holding all these secrets. I tended to always look out the window at other things and reach for what I could pull from the world. The content of my three previous collections was primarily researched content.

So I got some books and I started reading, and I did write a bunch of speculative poems about the angel figure, informed by my research. I put these assumptions into the book that weren’t part of my story: What if the angel had this other history, this other backstory? How did he get into my room? How does his presence fit into the larger religious or cultural context of angels? Why was he there?

But there wasn’t a fancy, iconic reason that the angel was there. There was only an OCD reason, and that was that he was going to whisper the secret of heaven in my ear. I had to cover my ear with the sheet when I slept at night, I had to lie still as possible without moving, or the angel would approach my bed and whisper.

Why would the secret of heaven be scary? I have no idea! It just was. OCD just makes up these stories. They just pop into your head, fully formed, like you suddenly understand a new game you’ve just invented and all of its rules.

At a point, I looked over these new, researched poems and thought, wait, what am I doing here? I need to think about what I’m trying to communicate with this book and not fall back into my natural tendency toward research. All the poems I’d written that explored my poetic interpretation of angels weren’t true to my experience of OCD—and that’s what this book is about. Readers might want to know why there was an angel in my room, but the reality of OCD is you don’t get to know why.

A lot of poets write from research, but I think there are perhaps many more poets who write about themselves, or we start that way as kids or teenagers, writing in our journals and gushing about our feelings. I feel like I came to that personal side very late. This is my fourth book, but it’s the most personal thing that I have written.

Your poems have very memorable beginnings and endings in particular. I was wondering if you find this harder to do in a prose poem, where you don’t signal the ending with a line break or disruption of a pattern. In prose poems there aren’t as many ways to signal the end of a poem, and yet, as a reader, you always know where the ending is.

I love the prose poem form. I love the paragraph. It releases me from the crutch of the line break in a way. The line break is endlessly fascinating as well, of course. But it allows us to add another level of intensity within the poem that isn’t there when it’s just sentences. We can stop in the middle. We can take a breath. There’s this sort of dramatic pause. Or we can use short lines and drive the poem faster down the page.

When I have a paragraph and it’s just a chunk of text, I lose those tools. So I have to rely more on the musicality of the sentence, which is really always what I fell in love with from when I was a child. I think about moving it rhythmically from a long sentence to a shorter sentence, or a lot of long sentences followed by one short sentence. I’m playing with those dramatic pauses and breaths. I’m trying to drive it toward the end with the musicality of the sentences as well as the argument.

I have a strong narrative tendency, and so I think that that might be part of what is signaling that the end is coming, as well. I have an argument in mind when I’m crafting a poem, and the ending of that poem is the ending of the argument. Whether you wrap it up nicely with a bow, or whether you leave it kind of open and hanging, of course those are intentional choices. But they are all still a part of that argument that I’m making.

I wanted to ask you about the more-than-human world, and how this figures into your book. You deal a lot with nature and animals. This also ties in with the significance of numbers—the counting of the ducks—and the spiritual aspect of your work as well.

The poems start in my childhood, and my childhood was very much pinned to the forest with the little creek behind my parents’ home. I spent so much time by that little body of water, looking for animals in the forest. I was obsessed with foxes. I tried to write a whole novel about a fox when I was in fourth grade! I guess I felt very at home in the forest. I loved it down there. That’s where I was allowed to be alone.

As an adult, during the time I was writing Exploding Head, here in Madison, Wisconsin, I was doing a lot of my thinking on the drives to and from work. We have a lot of bodies of water here in Madison. We have lakes, and we also have a lot of marshland. I see cranes often, and I would use my lunch breaks to go to a little park that was nearby. I think constantly having that nature in my day brought nature into the work with me.

Thank you, Liza, for this conversation, and for your thoughtful attention paid to this book. Writing Exploding Head has been a journey out of loneliness and toward connection, and I’m so glad it has connected me to you and your work.

Liza Katz Duncan is the author of Given (Autumn House Press, 2023), which received the Autumn House Press Rising Writer Award and the Laurel Prize for Best International First Collection (UK). Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in AGNI, The Common, The Kenyon Review, Poem-a-Day, Poetry, Poetry Daily, and elsewhere. She teaches English as a Second Language in New Jersey public schools.

Cynthia Marie Hoffman is the author of four collections of poetry: Exploding Head, Call Me When You Want to Talk about the Tombstones, Paper Doll Fetus, and Sightseer, all from Persea Books. She is the recipient of fellowships from the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, Civitella Ranieri Foundation, and the Wisconsin Arts Board. Essays in TIME, The Sun, Lit Hub, and elsewhere. Poems in Electric Literature, The Believer, The Los Angeles Review, and elsewhere. Cynthia lives in Madison, WI.

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