Poet Cynthia Zarin writes hard truths with a soft voice, and for the first time she puts that same voice and poetic density into a book of prose. Out this month from Alfred A. Knopf, Zarin’s memoir An Enlarged Heart: A Personal History is a series of essays about her life in New York: work, apartments, relationships — all the normal things — but written about from a rare place of fierce tenderness and self-awareness. I was caught up from the very first page of the book’s first essay, “Real Estate,” and by the time I’d finished it I knew I wanted to talk to Zarin about her book and her relationship to the city came to be. We spoke by phone.
I loved the book’s opening — the rooftops of Harlem and the train. We must live only a few blocks apart. Can you talk a little about your connection to this city?
For those of us who live here, the city becomes a kind of character in our lives. A kind of person or megalopolis. I think we all have a kind of love affair with it. The map of it becomes a psychic map . . . there’s hardly any corner where something hasn’t happened. It’s all a receding mirror, or a series of overleafs. Almost seen through water.
I think one of the great difficulties of living in the city — especially as a writer — is the awareness that the events that occurred on those corners are significant only to you. How do you deal with bumping up against all those other narratives?
I think, isn’t that wonderful I think our experiences are shared. [Readers] have said to me, “You’re writing about my life.” The stories that happen to us are pretty much all the same, it’s just the details we choose to bring out. . . . I like being part of the mural.
You mention moving into an apartment “next to a dangerous park” and how you got to it by walking “down a deserted street, a street that is not in the least deserted now.” Where I live in West Harlem there’s a lot of talk about responsible living and being in a neighborhood you weren’t born to. Did you have to deal with those questions? Do you?
Yes and no. The geographical space I’ve moved in is excruciatingly small. When [my husband and I] moved here in 2001. . . . the fact of the matter is on both sides of the family, both of our grandparents had lived in Harlem in the ’20s. We felt that this was our neighborhood. I feel that every part of the city is for everybody. It keeps it changing, keeps it alive.
Where exactly did you grow up?
I was born in Manhattan, but we moved to Long Island when I was six. I always felt in exile. I always wanted to be back in the city. . . . My grandmother loved the theater, she was an actress in the Yiddish theater. She once played Ophelia. She was a fashion plate, a designer . . . she used to take the trolley up to Bergdorf Goodman to make drawings, and use them to make clothes. I would come in to the city often to visit her, and she would take me to see Chekhov and Shakespeare. I always thought that the city was where real life was.
What parts of the city inspire you, or catch you in a particular way?
I’m inspired by the sense of the dreamlike quality of the city, seeing oneself and family and friends as characters moving around the grid of the city. The routes of people you care about or have cared for. My children are now drawing their own maps . . . in directions that mine didn’t go . . . [for instance] to Williamsburg, a place that’s completely different from what it was when I was growing up.
This book chronicles a lot of hardship — being young and broke and unhappy. Have you always aestheticized experience? (Maybe that’s poetry.) How do you distance yourself enough to see or intuit connections? Shape emotions into aesthetics?
I think when things are happening, good or heartbreaking or exhilarating . . . I am as exhilarated or heartbroken as anyone else. But I think like any writer, even in the midst of these things, some part of my mind is shaping it or saving it to use for later — for much later — and that does help.
How do you let those topics distill? How do you take enough distance to do it?
I think it takes a little while until things present themselves, but I think they’re always present. The elements of our own lives are always present . . . we don’t know what our memories are going to be until after, its a mistake to know as they happen.
And for that matter, why write about all this in a memoir? I was just reading your “Late Poem,” which deals with very similar subject matter to An Enlarged Heart, in its intertwining of romantic relationship, mundane detail, great wonder, intimacy, isolation. How do you know how the words should come out?
Different things make a different shape in my mind. Poetry is very distilled. I think prose, like the writing in this book, gives a bit more breathing room a bit more space. I do just keep going on about the same thing, it’s a tragedy.
Who have you been reading lately? Do you read to influence with your writing — in subject matter, maybe, or form?
Jane Gardam, an astonishingly good British writer, published by Europa Editions. Adam Phillips’ new book–he’s a brilliant writer, always able to articulate things we didn’t know about ourselves.
The section about your time at the New Yorker was particularly interesting for me to read as a writer. About your attachment to the clock that ticked out deadlines for the magazine’s writers. Do you still feel the ticking? How do you push yourself to write outside of that high-pressure environment?
When I was at the New Yorker, there was the pressure or curse of Talk of the Town. But there was an extraordinary amount of open time in which you could take years to work on something. [In that way t]here was a second kind of expansive time. Now that I’m not at a magazine, my editor provides time, deadlines.
You write that at the New Yorker writers never spoke about their work. That puts a kind of separation up between work and life — and it strikes me that you write into the space where they intersect. Do you let yourself talk about your writing?
I never talk about what I’m working on. There’s a feeling that I have of magic, there’s a feeling that you’ll let it out and it’ll be gone. I don’t think there was a division . . . I think work was the most interior and important part of life. I think that was particularly true for those of us at the New Yorker when I was there.
In the last line of your book, you write: “I thought of the story I had read so long ago, in which the story the characters were reading was the story they had asked for, scribbling themselves into a book that they read aloud to themselves as it happened.” Do you live inside that narrative? How to put it aside and be? How to live without making decisions based on the story that will follow? Is that a bad thing?
Oh, you don’t. That’s the great calamity of being a writer. You always have one foot in the world and one foot in your imagination . . . I remember once my youngest daughter, who was quite reader — all my children are readers, but my youngest daughter especially. She was maybe eight or nine, when she just stopped still. I asked her, “What are you doing?”, and she replied to me, “She walked out into the blinding sunshine.” It starts very young.