INTERVIEW WITH BRUCE COHEN
Dream Horse Press
PO Box 2080
Aptos, Ca 95001-2080
80 pp., $17.95, Paper
Note: The following interview was conducted by Timothy Green over email during August of 2009.
GREEN: When I came across Disloyal Yo-Yo, my first thought was, Can this really be Bruce Cohen’s first book? We’ve published several of your poems and an essay at Rattle, and your work always has the consistency and depth of someone well into a poetry career. Tell me about the book’s journey. Did you only recently start sending manuscripts around, or have you been shopping them for a while? What was the lag-time between first poem published, and first book published?
COHEN: That’s so nice of you to say that, Tim. I can’t, of course, speak for other poets, but I surmise that the notion of the “first book,” for many, may be a misnomer. If anyone were foolish enough, or had bad enough taste, to publish what would have, in actuality, been my first book, I don’t think you’d be tossing around words like “consistency” and “depth.” I was extremely lucky to have studied at The University of Arizona in the late ’70s with Steve Orlen and Jon Anderson and, although I did not entirely appreciate it at the time, I was surrounded, inspired and greatly influenced by some of the most talented poets of my generation, who happened to be friends and fellow classmates. To name-drop just a few, David Rivard, Michael Collier, Bill Olsen, Tony Hoagland and David Wojahn. It was clear to me, being realistic not humble, that I was simply not as talented as those folks, nor was I as ambitious. Furthermore, I was a little intimidated, and not at all attracted to the prospect of scratching and clawing to get a book out in the hopes of landing a university job in Podunk.
I recognized a few things about myself—I was in love with my girlfriend, soon to be wife, and wanted to raise a family. And I intuitively suspected that if my career were dependent upon poetry, my poetry might get stale and suffer. I didn’t want to publish a weak book. I liked money and comfort a little more than most poets seem to. And I worshipped poetry to the point that I didn’t really feel in a rush to publish. I knew I would compose poems for my entire life; it would be a constant in my world. That knowledge calmed me, left me less anxious. I felt that I could take my time, hone my craft, and I aspired to have every poem in my book published in magazines before I would send it off, which I did. In fact, if I remember correctly, I was so un-ambitious I originally thought if I could have just one poem accepted at a really good magazine, I would be satisfied. And I was, and am, honestly. The Ohio Review. Wayne Dodd was kind enough to have been receptive to my poems. And, as corny as it sounds, the fact that my poems were in the same magazine that had published James Wright was gold star. The acceptance note literally brought a tear to my eye.
The books now are gravy. Stuff occurred though, none the least of which was one son, then another, then another. I luckily landed well-paying gigs right out of graduate school as a director of academic support programs for athletes—first at The University of Arizona, then UC Berkeley, and, for the past twenty years, at The University of Connecticut. My anti-poetic career. My wife and I balanced our lives quite hectically—working different hours, getting the boys to all their sports’ events, music lessons, their brief and painful stints in Boy Scouts, SAT prep classes, the whole shebang. All the while, though sometimes sporadically, I kept writing and working on poems. To answer your question, in a nutshell, Disloyal Yo-Yo is comprised of poems that transpired over a ten-year period, and a good deal of the subject matter is what my pal Tony called “Domestic Surrealism.” Frankly, I had nothing else to write about as that was my day-to-day. Earlier poems are stashed somewhere. I always read a good deal of poetry and kept up with the new voices, and I came to the point where I said to myself—not egocentric mind you—that a good number of the first books that I was reading seemed no better than my stuff.
Only a couple of years ago did I start really thinking about sending my manuscripts out, so I read up on the contemporary process and thought, Jeez, it’s a lottery now! My best hope, I thought, was poetry-nepotism. I had good connections, but unfortunately my friends are honorable and ethical. I wonder where they went wrong? I was horrified that poets had to pay money for even a chance. It seemed to prey on the weak. What a scam, I thought—we helpless, meek poets were being victimized by The Man. Frankly, I felt a little deflated. I assumed my work would not stand out and my chances were non-existent. Nevertheless, I submitted to a few of the big contests without acceptance, although I think I was like a semi-finalist or finalist in some. I assumed they told many people that they were, just teasing-carrots to entice poets enough to keep them sending in their dough. So I said the hell with it and began concentrating on writing more intensely. The boys got older, driving themselves to games and such, so I started submitting poems, publishing in the magazines, and I eventually applied for a grant and was fortunate enough to get one. So I decided I’d put together a couple of manuscripts and be business-like about it. I took a chunk of the grant money and sent two manuscripts out to about fifteen places. I sort of forgot about them and all of a sudden, within the same week, I think, I got lucky, and both manuscripts were accepted. Voila.
GREEN: It’s great that you can keep poetry in perspective—few seem to do that, at least overtly. I’ve always felt that the writing is what matters, having that level of engagement with your own experience, and that everything else that may or may not come with it is incidental. So let’s talk about the writing process. Most of the poems in the book seem to start with a premise—exact life-time, the deli line of the dead, etc.—and then you let your imagination run with it. You might say the poems themselves are the disloyal yo-yos—once you let them go, we as readers have no idea whether they’ll come back to where they started, of if they’ll fly off to someplace new. Freedom and surprise, not as subjects, but as aesthetics, seem central. Is that what your writing process is like? Do you ever know where you’re going before you start to write, or is it always a surprise?
COHEN: Clever-clever, Tim—I never thought of the poems being disloyal yo-yos, but you are probably right. I like that notion, yes. If I recognize, or even get a whiff of, where the poem is going while I’m writing I stop writing or take a side street, walk backwards, hail a cab, something different. I’m constantly bored with myself, like most people I guess, (maybe that’s why we write poems and have hobbies) so why on earth would anyone wish to write what he already knows? If you know the outcome, why bother. Watching reruns of Law & Order is the exception however. Most of us, it seems, are not all that sharp—language is infinitely smarter, wiser, and funnier, than we. I’ve learned to trust it, see where it takes me. If I’m not writing out of language, I follow a situation that bangs my funny bone; it hurts badly, but I laugh, and likewise, follow those impulses. I’m as surprised by the direction of my poems as the reader must be. I hardly know what I’m doing till its over. I rarely have a clue.
That is applicable to most things in my life. I find the type of art that I enjoy most, whether it’s music, painting, cuisine, poetry, whatever, is surprising, mysterious, familiar but unfamiliar, posing questions, euphonious, shocking to the senses. I like to be simultaneously startled and comforted. I guess I am in a constant state of confusion and bewilderment and I’d rather not know what I think until I see how things string out, then, I want it all to have seemed inevitable. I guess I trust my sub-conscious, my intuition, “Leaping” as Bly suggests. In life I am afraid and often paralyzed, in poems I am fearless because nothing really is at stake at the moment of composition. I can throw poems out on their ears and try again. Nobody is watching me; it’s a secret murder. I am constantly struggling to figure out my poems during composition, to recognize truths and rhetorical patterns as I go along, unravel pleasing musical and intellectual puzzles that reveal themselves to me if I’m patient and quiet. For many years, because of long work-hours and young kids—we played zone—I wrote with one foot against the door which made my poems not fully realized, rushed out of necessity. I have a stack of unfinished poems. Now that I have a little more time, as I said, as soon as I can see around the next corner of a poem I go in a different direction, but not arbitrarily though, just another choice that seems to make sense at the moment. I don’t care how long a poem sits, even if it pesters and nags me.
For poetry, I live on my own time. If the poem wants to get worked on, seduce me, tell me something I don’t already know. Force me to work on you. It’s my job to listen, which I take seriously, but the poem has to meet me half-way. Perhaps that’s why end-rhyme drifted so far out of fashion. The sound of each word restricts, limits, your word choice and ultimately handcuffs your imagination. Then again, if you listen carefully, all words rhyme, so I don’t stress much about music although I love, love, a line with an abundance of accents, muscular lines, and I like imaginary handcuffs, handcuffs that I invent for myself in each poem, and I try like hell not to repeat my patterns, although I suppose we all do. The handcuffs are not kinky; I can still type with them on. I like to let my poems have their own lives; I like my poems to be sixteen-year-old inquisitive kids with a new driver’s license. Not reckless, just a little wild, a little Marlon Brando in his youth, but not stupid. I hope I have given them the proper guidance; I hope I raised them right, but ultimately they have to make it in the world on their own. Emily said something wonderful in a poem about that but I can’t remember what it is right now. Maybe I’ll wake up at 2 a.m., remember, and not write it down, which is one of my best poetic techniques. I don’t like to remember too precisely; I find it restricting. Life is surprising, shouldn’t art be? I am in constant wonder. I was taught to reinvent poetry every time I sat down to write. This is an intimidating concept for many writers; who wants that responsibility? Who is so brilliant to invent an art form? I know it’s impossible, but I find it extremely liberating. I have my own personal rules of course, but they change from poem to poem, and I make an effort to engage in linguistic and imagistic venues that are unfamiliar to me, to fracture my own rules, even within the same poem. I like to find new, cool moves in others’ poems and try to incorporate them into my own (I probably shouldn’t admit this).
When I was a kid, I learned basketball moves from Earl “The Pearl” Monroe. After a game I’d go out to the court and fantasize that I was “The Pearl” and imitate his signature spin move. Once I mastered his moves, I’d throw in my own little wrinkle, and the personal challenge for me would be to make my new move not seem at all like Earl’s. Earl in clever disguise. There are few truly original artists, no? Maybe none. Although everything I just said is truthful, it is also a lie. Does that answer your question Tim?
GREEN: Ha, yes, in about five different ways! So given this, that wild teenager behind the wheel, how do you put a coherent book together? Of all the poems you felt were good enough to be in the book, what percentage fit? How big is the B-side? And once you have that body of work that feels like a book, how do you go about ordering it? I noticed that “Domestic Surrealism II” precedes just plain “Domestic Surrealism.” What’s the reason to that rhyme?
COHEN: Oh, nice catch! I’m really bad at math, counting in particular, and thought nobody would read the book closely enough to notice. Actually, there was a point that I wrote a whole series of Domestic Surrealism poems, most of which I had to junk. The survivors, for whatever reasons, kept their original titles so when it was time to put the manuscript together I was concerned with the poems’ content, not the titles. I thought it interesting, as well, in a small way, to emphasize that the order that poems are written is not necessarily the proper order that they should appear in a book. I like books that have varied styles, which seem to have their own logic. I like the themes of individual poems to sort of play off one another; I like poems to be reactions to previous poems in manuscripts. I like the poems to snowball so that the book feels as though it has more substance and inertia than any of the individual poems. I’m not saying I accomplished this, but that’s, at least, what I was striving for. I like record albums that have no pauses between songs. Ultimately, my favorite poems are poems that seem to be born out of necessity and some form of obsession, poems that seem as though they had to be written, that spill over into something that’s life affirming, life altering, or life-repair, ideas and language that can no longer be contained in its human perception-form.
I also like loads of personality in voice, a normal human being talking to me. The poems in this collection, in my mind, are thematically connected in that way and in voice. Many are of the domestic variety, the day-to-day with raising my family, death of parents, nostalgic memories, swimming in their mildly surrealistic pools. I threw out a lot of poems that seemed to repeat and diminish strategies. I have many stalled poems, poems that run away from home and never call. I write many poems that simply never amount to much, are not pleasing to my aesthetic. So, the B-side takes up the lion’s share of my poetry universe.
As corny as it may sound, the poems that I ultimately selected for Disloyal Yo-Yo were poems that had meaning to me. I didn’t feel that this book could endure the same whimsy as some of my more recent stuff. In some ways, I think of this book as being somewhat flat, speaking directly. Order…that’s a tricky question…I ordered the poems the same way I write: intuitively. But because the book was composed over a number of years I was graced with a variety of styles, within my own limitations of course, and I love books whose poems seem varied but from the same voice. They were poems, I guess, that I wanted to have an attachment to, that were attached to me, and were personal without being exclusionary. As much as I can muster, I think of the book as being sincere, heartfelt.
GREEN: Well I think you succeeded on all those goals—if “imaginative” is the first adjective that comes to mind, then “honest” is certainly the second…the domesticity of “Domestic Surrealism” —there’s a sense that your true psychological home is within these poems. Do you ever feel naked, now that the book is out in the world? It’s one thing to confess to facts about your personal history, but it’s another thing altogether to expose the inner-workings of your own mind. I’m thinking in particular about the first poem in the book, “Sober Trees,” which ends with a revelation about the emptiness that fills half a life. Do you ever worry that family, friends, co-workers in your “anti-poetic career,” will read the book and learn a little too much?
COHEN: Yes, on all accounts. When I was younger I was quite worried that family, friends, drinking buddies, anti-poetry pals, would get to know more than I wanted to share, or think something strange about me. I didn’t know how the polar aspects of my life would fit together. It took time; the components had to come together, like a brash wine. Many of my “athletic” compatriots didn’t even know I wrote poetry until the book came out. Naturally some teased me in a semi-good-natured way. I didn’t want to mix my worlds; outer space DNA doesn’t inbreed well with human blood…many movies attest to that fact.
But now that I’m older, I guess I simply don’t care. I am who I am, comfortable in my cross-breeding alien skin. My real friends accept me for my inconsistencies, contradictions, complexities and flaws. Plus, my wife says my friends from the other world simply scratch their heads ’cause they don’t read poems and won’t spend the time to figure them out anyway…and, they’re probably too embarrassed to admit their ignorance of art or laziness. Some were kind enough to come to my first reading, bought the book and invented a compliment about one or two of the poems. I appreciated that. I guess I’m at the point in my life that I have no qualms about being myself and I hope my new poems benefit from that.
GREEN: I like that metaphor; poetry really is its own planet. Or maybe a little moon falling forever around the regular world. What do you think poetry’s place should be? What’s its purpose? You seem very grounded as a poet, happy to have it as just one aspect of a broader life. Do you feel content with our current cultural cosmology? I guess what I really want to know is, do you think your athletic friends’ disinterest in poetry is equivalent to a poet’s disinterested in, say, football? Is there any difference?
COHEN: I’m probably talking out of both sides of my mouth here, but I think poetry is elite and commonplace; most people don’t read contemporary poetry and certainly most people don’t spend the amount of intense time trying to compose it in a serious way, but if you stopped almost anyone on the street, I bet virtually everyone, at some time or another, has written a poem and certainly has read a poem. I’m a blue collar type of poet, an ordinary, regular American guy, who happens to have read a great deal of literature simply because I like it, in the same way I enjoy a number of things.
Even though I probably could, I find it pretentious and annoying to make esoteric literary allusions in poems, so I don’t. (Yeah, I get it; you’re smart and well read.) I like accessible poems, though some might argue that some of mine are not. I’m not a footnote type of guy and I’m sort of lazy and don’t want to look stuff up. Now which Greek God was that? What was his super power? But my approach to writing is not lazy; it’s blue collar, working man. I write something every day whether I feel like it or not and put my time in. I go to work sick. I’m rarely inspired and I have no patience for waiting for some sort of Muse. In fact, I don’t think I have a Muse, I just try to talk to people in my poems who I know and want to talk to. My father got up at five every morning, went to work and never complained. I try to do that—especially with my poetry. Lunch pail stuff.
Many of the “athletic” people whom I’ve been friends with for many years are not what you might think. Many are extremely thoughtful, well-read, interesting people, open to ideas. And they work hard and laugh off failure. What I learned from them is you recruit 20 players and, if you’re lucky, you get one who is good. They move on. I have no qualms about writing twenty poems to get one decent one. It’s a sort of rain off a duck’s back approach. I’m rarely wedded to any one particular poem. If it doesn’t work out; I write another. People involved in sports still have to fracture the myth that they are only interested in physical prowess and intellectualism is not part of their lives. Athletes, by and large, respect hard work and accomplishment, in any realm. I guess I don’t see them as that different from poets I know and respect…so I guess I would respectfully disagree: I don’t think as a rule of thumb, that poets are disinterested in football or vice versa. Everyone seems different, right? After a billion gene possibilities at this point of Man’s existence, we’re all mutts anyway.
But getting back on track, I do think on some level that poems should be accessible to anyone willing to read carefully. An alien could not come to earth and watch a football game and appreciate all the idiosyncrasies and nuances or even the rules of the game, without instruction. Poetry is similar I think, except, the average person does have the linguistic skill to appreciate a poem with no training, if the poet does a good job. Why do people love Frost so much? Plain talk? There’s something to be said about the simple and direct.
There are moments in my life that something happens and a line from a poem I love pops into my brain and I have a life-insight due to that poem and conversely have a deeper understanding of the poem than I’d ever had. It’s as though I instinctively knew the poem was wonderful and I should remember it, but I didn’t know why or when I’d have to draw on it. Then it happens, and it is. I have no idea what poetry’s purpose is for anyone other than myself. It helps me digest the world so that it goes down easier. It’s comforting in that I know there are others out them like me; it makes me less lonely. It makes me recognize something I didn’t know I knew, or explains something that I sensed but never fully grasped.
And images. I love inventive images and the music of American diction. And surprises and life-insight. I like the way interesting people talk, people who are excited or resigned to something. I get bored easily so I enjoy folks who have lots of interests, lots of passion…I don’t find it inconsistent for someone to love the New York Football Giants and John Ashbery. In fact, those are the people I like best. That’s how my boys were raised and they seem fairly well grounded and normal. You can bring up any topic and they seem comfortable with the conversation; all things are simultaneously important and unimportant. In fact, didn’t the Ancient Greeks, (one son alluded to them as the Ancient Geeks) who were fairly smart guys, have to pass some type of intellectual test before qualifying for the Olympics? I think I remember reading that somewhere.
It’s a Zen thing, too, I think: all things being of equal value, having their place. As much as I love poetry and find it useful in my everyday life, I’m not sure it’s more important to me than the Giants winning the Super bowl and, clearly, I recognize that it’s not important to everyone. Should we be pedaling poetry door-to-door like religious zealots? Passing out pamphlets? Poetry helps me understand what it is I am and sports help me forget, abandon myself temporarily, as do other things: gardening, TV, etc. It’s a sort of ying and yang see-saw. If you think about the show Kung Fu, Grasshopper was quite spiritual, exploring the intricacies of the natural and human dimension, or lack thereof, with Master Po, unraveling the nature of the universe in prime time. But, when confronted with bad guys, who often were one dimensional (clue), and who demonstrated a single obsession, he would kick their ass, in perfect slow motion. Hence, you can be a tough guy and poet. I guess those type of poets are my favorites, except Rilke. I like Rilke but he wouldn’t survive in a street fight, unless Rodin had his back.
So I appreciate you saying I’m grounded. I have tried to keep things in balance, in perspective. I do the best I can at my job, raising my family, working on poems, given my own imperfections and flaws. As I said, my wife and I made some serious sacrifices to make sure the boys got to their games and music lessons, do/did well school—and did my poetry suffer, my production, as a result? Of course, but that’s who I am. And that suffering may have contributed to my development as a poet. Poetry is what I studied in college, what I have always done since I was a kid; it’s been a central passion in my life; it’s been a constant. When things are going badly in life it is a pal and mistress, when things are going well, it patiently waits on the sidelines, holding an umbrella for me, to ward off rain or the excessive sun. It has no demands and infinite demands on me. Although poetry is somewhat different, of course, from song lyrics, most everyone enjoys music, so can’t we say almost everyone loves poetry? One can almost always hear the radio blasting from passing cars in summer when the windows are rolled down. We all sing along in our cars or in front of the mirror in our private teenage rooms. And the molecules of the music evaporate into the air. So maybe poetry is a kind of artistic physics, and our cultural cosmology is that real poetry can neither be created nor destroyed. Wow! How did I get here?
GREEN: Well, that’s what I was trying to get at—I think there’s a tendency to overvalue contemporary poetry, in a way, simply because it’s under-appreciated in our culture. If I had to choose between poetry and recreational sports, I’d probably choose poetry, but it wouldn’t be an easy decision. They’re each important in entirely different ways, and I’d never thought of it in terms of yin/yan before, but that model fits. And strangely, it’s the action of sports that quiets the mind, and the inaction of poetry that disquiets.
Let’s take a little breather—tell us your five favorite poems, if you can. Not your own, but no restrictions, just the first five that come to mind. I see interviewers ask about favorite poets all the time, but I think it’s more interesting to be specific. Gives us something of digestible length to run and look up.
COHEN: Oh God, Tim, that is a wicked hard question…I love so many poems, and my favorite poems are not necessarily written by my favorite poets, but maybe they are… What do my choices say about who I am as a writer? I would say, Lowell, “Memories of West Street” and “Lepke,” two Larkin poems, “Reference Back” and “Talking in Bed,” “Musee De Beaux Art,” Auden of course, “Refusals,” Jon Anderson, and Weldon Kees, one of the Robinson poems, but I can’t remember which one…I’ll have to look it up.
GREEN: Well that’s why I asked it—three of the poems you mentioned I’ve never read. I’m going to run off to Google when we’re done and see if I can find them. There are so many great poems in the world, sometimes the best thing poets can share is simply suggested reading.
Okay, back to you. It seems this is the year you’ve cashed in on your patience—this fall, your second book, Swerve, is coming out from Black Lawrence Press, just six months or so after your first. In an email to me, you described Disloyal Yo-Yo as the “older and more civilized” book. So what does the uncivilized Bruce Cohen look like? How does Swerve swerve? Tell us a little about the book.
COHEN: I would like it documented, in this interview, that yesterday I was at the Mets’ game with two of my sons and we witnessed the first game-ending unassisted triple play since 1927!
I think in Disloyal Yo-Yo, mostly, I’m talking to myself, and if other people eavesdrop, so be it. In Swerve, the pace and voice and music are more frenetic, obsessive. I am talking to others, more publically, mostly. For lack of a better description, I think the poems are a little more zany, out there, anxious, unafraid. Stylistically, I was influenced by those poets who had a more quirky sensibility and a tone, who wrote with heavier accents and more in-your-face alliteration, internal rhymes and bluntness. Quirkier syntax. Not that I’m a very subtle writer, but I think I pushed that envelope a little and the poems are unabashedly brash and speedy. Not seeing, or caring to see, that which is in front of me, going faster than I probably should in poems—not in real life; in real life I’m a wicked slow driver, I swerve when a little girl runs into the road following her soccer ball or a couch falls off the pick-up in front of me after a tire blows out, but I keep going, because, in life, mostly that’s what we do. We close our eyes, hope for the best, and keep going. That’s what we have to do to make any sort of progress in small and large ways. We all know people who are frozen in a particular time due to some horrific catastrophe or life-altering event, and it’s sad. They live forever in that terrible moment. We pity them and secretly, or not so secretly, are glad it is not happening to us. Life gets thrown at you from every direction, meteorites hit the earth, and maybe the people who survive are the ones who dodge the flying objects, who are able to swerve. Those who are light on their toes without heavy suitcases.
And I want to be among them. I never wanted to be a helpless victim in art; I never wanted to be afraid to take risks in poems: I always aspired to say “the hardest thing.” Even though it’s possible, I never wanted my poems to sound like other people’s poems. I believe the poems in Swerve have a little more courage and gusto than Disloyal Yo-Yo, more confidence, a little more of myself. In life, I’m extremely responsible. In my newer poems, not so much. I hope that you never know what I will do or say. So you have to pay attention and hold onto your wallet or you may crash or find yourself alone on a deserted street with no way of getting home, no ID. You can’t even prove who you are, and you might have to start from scratch, re-invent the world, and would that be such a terrible thing? In art, of course not.
GREEN: Or football! Thanks, Bruce, this has been terrific.
—from Rattle e.7, Fall 2009