LOVE TO HATE: INTERVIEW BY ROB GEISEN
Rob Geisen: Thinking along lines of great writers being pushed to greatness by mighty nemesis (aka Hunter Thompson and Nixon, Bukowski vs. Life), is there anything, be it physical, mental, concept, actual person (living or dead) pine cone, string theory, George Bush, etc., that gets you worked up, that you enjoy on some level getting pissed off at/use that ‘ fuck you!’ to whatever it is to fuel your writing? aka What’s your Nixon? (explain)
Jim Cohn: Hunter S. Thompson was a flame throwing Houdini of idiomatic expression. He made a spectacle and mockery of politicians and the journalistic practices covering them. For me though, everybody is his or her own worst nemesis. Israel is its own worst enemy, not the Palestinians. America is its own worst enemy, not Qaeda. Look at the failure of the Big Three automobile makers and the economic ravaging their greed and shortsightedness has caused the people of Michigan. A comparable situation may be Japan immediately after WWII. So, it isn’t just the president who has faulty Intel. To paraphrase poet Randy Roark, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have some kind of emotional malfunctioning.
Nemesis is sitting at the kitchen table reading the front page of the newspaper and making swastikas on the demon-of-the-day’s forehead. I personally never had the intention to generate a poetry ruled by nemesis. I’m no Jacob wrestling with the Angels. I’m not a topical folk singer. Everything, including nemesis, fades away. I wanted to write a poetry that gave time the slip. So, there was no nemesis-muse to fuel the writing of the poems in my head. There was absolutely no originality or aesthetic quality that interested me in that. The Molachean universe, the universe of stigmatized and neurotic Otherness, had been quite well studied before I arrived on the scene. Since Rimbaud, the deep meaning of poetry is the slaying of nemesis—any conception of “self.”
RB: What do you love most about poetry?
JC: I love how a poem comes to me all at once, or a piece at a time, or not at all. Because I write much more than I publish I love how a book takes on a life of its own that isn’t separate from me but is not me either. Like Neil Young, I work for a supervisor I’ve never met. What fascinates me is how poetry doesn’t automatically keep pace with the times. Somebody must come along and get what’s happening and be what’s happening in a whole new lexicon. I love the poetry of Amiri Baraka, Andy Clausen, Joanne Kyger, Bernadette Mayer, and lesser-known poets such as Michael Pingarron, Bob Rixon, and the deaf poet Peter Cook. I love that Pablo Neruda had an enormous photograph of Walt Whitman in his Valparaiso study and that the homes of Pablo Neruda are sanctuaries where people come from around the world to pray for peace.
I can’t believe I got drunk with Carl Rakosi in Rochester, or how I lived in Boulder, the same town as Thomas R. Peters Jr., and witnessed over two decades of his nonstop Monday night “So, You’re a Poet!” poetry reading series, or that Bob Holman could have powered together the Bowery Poetry Club. I love that an ordinary palooka like me had the good fortune of studying with Alice Notley and Ted Berrigan. I can honestly say that Gregory Corso’s explanation of the monkey that ate hallucinogenic morning glory seeds as The Missing Link was something from Naropa I will never forget. I have comments in pencil by Philip Whalen on novice poems I wrote for his class that are very dear to me. Gary Snyder was so prophetic on the environment and his ethnographic writings offered me a reason to seek an advanced degree in Deaf Education.
I love that I got as close to certain volumes of poetry as I did to my record collection growing up in Chicago and then Cleveland. I love how poetry can be taken in solitude, anywhere, indoors or out, and shared among true minds. I love how reading or writing great poems makes me feel the liberation that was always there or the yearning for liberation when nothing is going the way I wish it would and recognizing that people anywhere on earth may be feeling this way right now too. I love how as I’m writing this, my daughter wakes up in the foldout couch next to me and sitting up says, “Go on.”
RB: What do you hate most about poetry?
JC: That’s a proposition that just does not compute. Hating anything about poetry is like saying you hate rocks or the tides. You might as well ask what do you hate most about the Hell Realm or what do you hate most about nirvana. Poetry sections in airport bookstores are something I find a joke. I do not like the fact that City Lights Books allowed as important a work as Antler’s Factory to go out of print or that American Sign Language poet Peter Cook may never be voted onto the Academy of American Poets website, let alone find his ASL poems in the Norton Anthology. How much truly monumental poetry never enters the canon of letters is anybody’s guess. It amounts to a staggering body of marginalized work. But none of that is poetry’s fault.
RG: Where does your best poetry come from? When you’re writing, are you more productive in bad mood or good? On a scale from Love to Hate, emotionally speaking, where do you tend to feel you do your best work?
JC: Writing is something I do not aspire to do. Who wants to speak of these times, likened as they are to women, children, and men going to the fields six days a week, working sun up to sun down, sleeping out of doors, and walking home eight hours having made ten cents. Sometimes my best poetry, in the writing of it, only makes things worse. Randomness is critical. Every line, image, and sound figures in to how a poem is going to come together and how it did come together.
As a younger man, I liked wilderness composition best. The best wilderness poems I’ve done come out of a genre represented by a little book by Ed Dorn called The Poet The People The Spirit. But I’m no ecopoet. I can begin by simply riffing on something Paul Blackburn wrote as easily as something Joe Henderson or Wanda Jackson did. Sometimes my best work has come out of a panic attack and I feel like I’ve walked into Frank O’Hara’s poem “Why I Am Not A Painter.” I don’t have as much technical interest in prosody as emotional. I may be somebody’s sense of a heathen or infidel or sinner or illusionist, but I know how to tap into my own treasure mind.
I can take off from a title, very freeform, unconventional musicality. I have blue eyes and my mood is not so stable, so I go at it when the call comes in, like one night in Crestone, Colorado when my daughter’s mother, Susannah Grace Carleton, sat on the back step of the house with me during her month long retreat with Reggie Ray and told me she’d had a vision of “skeletons making love” and she was just channeling this language that electrified me and that night I began writing a poem by the same name and recorded it as soon as I got back to Boulder.
When I am completely lost in awareness it can suddenly make sense to watch what’s going on or what’s going on makes me weep, something lets go inside of me. Then there’s the trance of writing itself—this beautiful interplay between my head, my heart, my hand or hands, and everything all around me. Every day is an experiment. That keeps things open.
RG: What kind of things do you love to hate? Or hate to love?
JC: This formulation strikes at the essence of poetry. The present, what’s immediately in front of us, what we have to deal with right now, is filled with endless dramas of desire or what Milton in Paradise Lost called “pandaemonium” or what in Shakespearian rhetoric is known as chiasmus (“Who dotes, yet doubts; suspects, yet strongly loves”—Othello, 3.3) or exemplifies the mahamudra (realization of perfect wisdom and compassion, emptiness and skillful means) of the siddhas. Growing up, I loved to hate emotional vampires. I’ve let go of people I’ve loved because of their severe and gross self-interest, their inability to recognize mistakes, their irritation when others do not comply with their whims. There are many disguises to this and it can take quite a while to work with this kind of mind damage in a loving way.
Poets are not the most social people. In fact, they do their best socializing in poems. It’s actually remarkable to live long enough to see these projections with kindness, all of our baggage. I used to find the poem as the location where mind surrendered to the absence of polarity and the moments of writing as the practice of loving hate and hating love until neither opposition seemed particularly real or relevant, which somehow, I knew intuitively, was the point. Anybody who tunes in even periodically to any media outlet, be it the largest newspaper in the world, Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun, or The New York Times or media news programmers like Al Jazeera, CNN, Fox News, China Central Television or the BBC knows that it’s all part of a vain attempt to both command and fill empty space.
I know some good poets that replicate current events subjectively, but I have a different sense about it all. You can only take all this loving to hate and hating to love junk so far and then it drowns you. It ends up as an exercise that really involves no yearning for liberation. Who wrote the Bible? Who wrote the Koran? Well, who wrote my poems? Is it a human being or a god? It might be inspired by God, but these words came from what I wanted to say and who I am.
10 December 2008
[Jim Cohn. “Love to Hate: Interview by Rob Geisen.” In Sutras & Bardos: Essays & Interviews on Allen Ginsberg, The Kerouac School, Anne Waldman, Postbeat Poets & The New Demotics. Museum of American Poetics Publications, 2011.]