Susan Cohen is the author of two poetry chapbooks, a non-fiction book, and two full-length collections: Throat Singing and A Different Wakeful Animal, which won the 2015 Meadowhawk Prize from Red Dragonfly Press. Her recent poems appeared in Gargoyle, Harpur Palate, Poet Lore, Redactions, Salamander, Southern Humanities Review,, and anthologies including the Aeolian Harp Anthology Vol. 1 (Glass Lyre Press), Dark as a Hazel Eye: Coffee and Chocolate Poems (Ragged Sky Press), Lascaux Prize 2015 (Lascaux Books) and the Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry. She earned an MFA from Pacific University after a career as a journalist, and lives in Berkeley.
Alexandra van de Kamp: Reading through your poems in Throat Singing (Cherry Grove Collections, 2012), a lovely, smart and often startling book, I found the poems to have many different starting points. For example, a poem could have its source in a specific moment as in “Yowl,” which is about a neighbor’s dog, or in “Two Ways,” a poem about a bird bashing itself into your glass window, while some very poignant and sharply-written poems are grappling with the loss of a parent, either to death or dementia. And then still others seem fascinated with a work of art, music or etymology. With this variety of sources evident in your poems, could you offer 2-3 typical ways you begin a poem or describe how a poem can be triggered for you?
Susan Cohen: Thank you. The poems in Throat Singing were written over ten years or so, during which children were growing and leaving home, my parents were aging and dying, and the country began what seems now to have become an endless war. So all of that entered into my poems. Life events and world events were my triggers. In some cases, like the poem “The Woman Who Feels No Fear,” which grew out of a news report about a woman with a brain injury that destroyed her sense of fear, I knew the moment I read the story this would be a poem. Who wouldn’t opt for not feeling fear? I began to make a list of images of what a person with no fear might do—starting with petting scorpions and snarling dogs–and all the ways fear makes us feel. In other cases, like “Yowl,” I listened to a dog howling and barking next door night after night while thinking about my vague feeling that I wasn’t living the life I really wanted. When I realized this dog always barked at me as if I were a stranger at my own gate, I knew I had a central image and a poem for the inchoate feeling.
AV: I’m going to let my own poetic obsessions intrude a bit here, but I am always fascinated by how a poet uses music in his or her work. I do find you leaning on the sounds of words at times to more persuasively evoke your ideas and meanings. In your poem about Diego Rivera’s painting “Cargador de Flores,” the flower carrier in this painting is “burdened by blossoms/ piled so high they shove his sombrero down over his brows.” The alliteration of “b” sounds here seems to add to the weight that man carries on his back—a weight that is later developed by you into a metaphor for how the years of a long marriage can weigh on a husband or wife. There are also poems written in form in Throat Singing such as “Pantoum of the Blue Virgin,” in which you employ line repetition and end rhyme. I am curious to know how much the sounds of words guide you in the writing of a poem or in the development of its images or logic, and what draws you, at times, to writing in traditional form.
SC: I only rarely use received or traditional form, but I grew up on Robert Louis Stevenson, and A.A. Milne, and then Robert Frost and Shakespeare, and I find that iambic pentameter rhythms sometimes dance their way into my poems. In fact, I tried to banish them, only to be surprised when a reviewer referred to the music of my four or five beat lines. I do love language and its music. So sound, whether assonance or alliteration or stress patterns, is extremely important to me. My ear often leads me to more surprising places than logic, which is what I love about poetry. When I do turn to traditional form, typically I feel that particular poem
dictates it. For example, the “Pantoum of the Blue Virgin” describes the way the French removed the stained glass windows at Chartres Cathedral to protect them from bombs in the world wars. One of these precious windows, a startling luminous blue, is called the “Blue Virgin” and dates from the 12th century. According to our guide at the cathedral, men climbed ladders to remove the windows piece by piece, hid them in the countryside, then reassembled them when it was safe, then did that all over again. War came to Chartres more than once. So, a form that embodies repetition seemed a good way to represent this, as well as talk about it. The last line in the pantoum is the first line inverted. That struck me as perfect for talking about a past that repeated.
AV: I feel your poems do a very apt job of charting out small islands of safety or no-safety within an unpredictable, not-fully-to-be trusted world. This tension is apparent in poems, such as “Outside, the World” when you begin the poem by confessing: “Snug under my quilt, I don’t want to think/about a field mouse hunkered in dry grass/or the owl set to tear the tasty meat/of its body from the tastier meat of its head.” Do you feel you write more out of an innate trust or distrust of the world? Feel free to expand on this idea in any way you see fit based on your own writing experiences.
SC: What an interesting question. I don’t think I’ve ever fully trusted the world. Has any poet? Beyond that, I’m Jewish, and your description of “charting out small islands of safety” in a “not-fully-to-be trusted world” is as good a definition of any of my heritage. The book includes a rondeau about reading and identifying with Anne Frank as a child, another example of a repetitive form embodying meaning. The line that repeats is: “She’s my shadow.”
AV: I admire your ability to balance both a love of the world, its textures and minute, everyday beauties, with an unflinching look at loss in life. For example, you document the aging process in your parents and the inevitable diminishment of their individual powers that accompany it. The poems “My Mother’s Future, Named” and “Backstroking” try to make sense of dementia and the death of a parent. How does the writing of a poem help you confront these intimate experiences of loss? And do you believe the writing process in general can be a source of empowerment in the face of events and experiences we often can’t control or stop?
SC: I’ve never thought about empowerment. I’m not one who turns to writing primarily as a form of therapy or self-expression, though I know it can be both. For me, the need to write is something I was pretty much born with, or caught extremely early as a virus. When something happens and I am thinking about it, or an image or interesting bit of language wedges itself in my head, I feel an urge to get it down on paper and make it into something, then a compulsion to rework it until I’ve made it into something better. I’m interested in crafting the object rather than making sense out of the personal experience. I have no other excuse. But I do find a lot of humor in the world, and natural beauty.
AV: Music as a theme seems to run through your collection, which is called, after all, Throat Singing. You have poems on Coleman Hawkins (“Body and Soul”), a poem on your son’s learning to play the saxophone (“Tenor”) and even start off the book with two poems overtly about music. Your poem “Chamber Music” parallels accepting motherhood and the pleasures and pain that go along with it to learning a piece of music by “get[ting] it in your hands.” Could you explain more your relationship to music and its physicality and how, perhaps, that connects to your own writing of poetry?
SC: For me, poetry and music remain existentially, as well as historically, related. Language is music, and the music of the English language (which, unfortunately, is the only one I know) is the instrument I’ve inherited to play. Less abstractly, my son grew up playing jazz, and so that particular music infused some of this collection. I drove him to lessons when he was young, and the lesson was too short to get any errands done, so I sat through many. I miss that music being made in our home. The title poem is one of the earliest I wrote in the collection, and came about after I took my son to see an independent film about Tuvan throat singing.
It occurred to me that, just as throat singers form multiple tones at the same time, a poem also often strives to strike more than one note. So, that poem is an ars poetica for me. I love to make poems about music, like that one, especially musical. Those often are the most fun to read out loud.
AV: You have done serious writing in a variety of genres in your writing life. You had a long career as a journalist writing both daily and magazine articles often focused on science and health issues, and now seem to have moved more in the direction of book writing, poetry books in particular. What inspired you to begin to dedicate more time to your poetry writing and how is the act of writing a narrative poem on Sherlock Holmes different from, let’s say, writing a more journalistic piece on health, science or politics? Furthermore, does your background as a journalist intersect with your poetry writing at all?
SC: I spent years as newspaper reporter, then a contributing writer to the Washington Post Magazine and a journalism professor, and I remain a news junkie. So, some of my poems do emerge from the news, and more generally I find myself needing to write poems about events beyond my own life. I also brought some useful habits from journalism, including precision, an addiction to the revision process, and a certain immunity to Writer’s Block because I treat a poem as an assignment. I can make myself sit down and write. I may throw it away later, but I don’t just wait for the Muse to strike. I hope I haven’t just cursed myself! That said, the writing is very different. I get into the poetry zone by reading poetry, not by reading prose. And I’m working hard to tamp down some of my analytical brain in order to stretch language more and to push images as far as I can.
AV: Could you name 2-3 poets you have been influenced by or find yourself returning to as sources of inspiration.
SC: Throat Singing was accepted for publication just before I entered an MFA program in poetry at Pacific University. So, my work has changed in some ways since those poems. The faculty I studied with at Pacific – Marvin Bell, Kwame Dawes, Leslie Adrienne Miller, Sandra Alcosser and others—introduced me to many poets I hadn’t read, including many in translation. Before the MFA, I’d say Adrienne Rich and Ruth Stone and William Butler Yeats and James Wright. But now I also love Tomas Transtromer and Pablo Neruda and Yehuda Amichai and Vasko Popa and Wislawa Szymborska. Too many to name.
AV: And, finally, what new directions do you see your poetry moving in now?
SC: I’m excited that my second full-length collection, A Different Wakeful Animal, was recently accepted. It was a finalist for the Philip Levine Prize and May Swenson Award, among others, and won the David Martinson-Meadowhawk Prize from Red Dragonfly Press which is publishing it in 2016. The first book took ten years, the second one took three. I hope that’s progress!
I see my poetry moving away from narrative somewhat towards lyrical, and occasionally in a more surreal or fabulist direction. But I still believe in precision—the choice of exactly the right word—and that a poem must communicate with readers. A poem can strike people in the gut or the brain or the ear, but I still believe it should resonate with someone besides the person writing it.
Read poems online by Susan Cohen:
Order her book from the Cherry Grove catalogue.
Or from Amazon.
Read a review of Throat Singing: http://www.jewishbookcouncil.org/book/throat-singing