N  a  p a  l  m     H  e  a  l  t  h     S  p  a  :     R  e  p  o  r  t     2  0  0  9






Interview with Jim Cohn by Randy Roark, February-March 2009



Randy Roark: Can you tell us a bit about what you consider to be your poetic



Jim Cohn: I've always felt myself to be part of a cosmology of some kind or

another. As part of that it was evident early on that I wouldn't totally understand

what it and that it would offer little or no affirmation for my being a part of it.

Nevertheless, poetic lineage became a manifestation, a living mythos, for me.

Through circumstances beyond my control, I plugged into the poetry that

randomly came my way and the poetry that I purposefully sought out. I was

influenced by individual poets associated with the Beat Generation, not so much

from their books, but from knowing them at the height of their pedagogic powers

at the then newly founded Naropa Institute. By “teachers” I mean of poetry as a

practice in dharma. The transmitters that touched me most were Allen Ginsberg,

William Burroughs, Amiri Baraka, and the first generation Postbeat poets Ted

Berrigan, Alice Notley, Bernadette Mayer and Anne Waldman. I never met the

Persian-by-way-of-Canada American prose poet Jack Kerouac. In the process of

absorbing what was meaningful to me from many schools of poetry, and art in

general, I thought that the idea of "lineage" was interesting only as a kind of

bourgeois parlor game or a kind of intellectual cliche. I had read Norm

Chomsky’s ideas about transactional grammar while still in high school and went

on throughout my undergraduate years at the University of Colorado at Boulder to

receive training in critical analysis that succeeded in almost killing my passion for

literature. So, there's a vaudeville sense of lineage to contend with in my own

personal cosmos––either you have something to say that nobody is talking about

or you have something to say that everybody is talking about and can do that both

in a way that resonates with the past and the future or it doesn’t. And you have

moments of lucidity and moments of utter darkness––a series of dreams and

nightmares––maybe one dream about Crazy Horse riding through a hail of bullets

and two nightmares about the people that broke your heart and the suffering you

cannot escape. In my library I have the works of a few of my contemporaries:

people like Basho, Antler, Thoreau, Eileen Myles, Robert Desnos, Mary Shelley,

Andy Clausen, Wanda Coleman, Federico Garcia Lorca, Else von Freytag-

Loringhoven, Paul Blackburn, Thomas R. Peters, Jr., Mina Loy, John Cage, Maria

Tsvetaeva, Nanao Sakaki, the Baal Shem Tov, Joanne Kyger, Bob Kaufman,

Gertrude Stein, Hunter S. Thompson, Wang Wei, bell hooks, Marc Olmsted,

Abraham Lincoln, Shakespeare, videos by the American Sign Language poet

Peter Cook, Han Shan, David Cope. I don't belong to any lineage and I don't think

any lineage belongs to me. You can’t exactly audition. Still, in Valparaiso, Chile,

seeing the large photograph of Whitman in the Chilean poet Neruda's study I had

an out-of-body experience. I should say my sense of lineage does not go in only

one direction. That is, I sense that I'm as much a part of the invisible lineages of

the future if not more than I am those of the past. I remember the future.


RR: Can you remember when you first became aware of poetry? Can you

remember the first poem you wrote and why?


JC: Poetry came first through mass media, mass entertainment––


        Faster than a speeding bullet...

        More powerful than a locomotive...

        Able to leap tall buildings at a single bound...


Crazy metaphoric autochthonic language like that from TV shows and Sunday

matinees made language something to attend to, something of interest. After all,

early cognition is all a poem. The first book I read where I got the idea of the

excitement of reading was Howard Pyle’s The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood. I

remember finding it on the library shelves in my elementary school and reading it

until I fell asleep for about a month. The first poem that I wrote that made me feel

like I was connecting with the big time poets was "George Washington Bridge,

Lower Level, Clear Day." GWB was something I'd written while living at

Birdsfoot Farm, an organic farming commune in St. Lawrence County. I wrote

that piece in January 1989, when I was thirty-five years old. The poem came in a

flash as I drove across the bridge carrying a truckload of firewood into Manhattan

on a beautiful winter's day. I wrote it in a cabin with no ninety degree walls, a

woodburning stove for heat, no running water, on a Royal manual typewriter with

correcto-tape. Although I had been writing poems since my days as a student at

Naropa, lots of them, this poem convinced me that I was a poet when there was

nobody around to affirm or deny that for me:





        Who would want to take
            the lower level of the
        GW on a crystal clear
            day? If I put a fake
        ice cube with a cock-
            roach in their drink
        Would they say any-
            thing about it to me?
        Would they feel a need
            to discuss their right
        to choose when faced
            with duality? Would their
        license plate have sig-
            nificance? Would the letters

        & numbers undulate like
            a snake down the arm of
        the Statue of Liberty
            at Equinox? Do they like
        Jackie Gleason more than
            Pee Wee Herman? Have they
        written books in Arabic
            denouncing Mickey Mouse?
        Do they own a string of
            zipper factories? Do they
        wash each blade of grass
            in their yard with a damp
        cloth? Do they have dreams
            of their parents killing each

        other? Are they afraid to
            have children? Have they
        ever fallen thru ice?
            Been stuck in an electric
        car between terminals at
            the airport in Houston?
        Were they children who
            had run hotels in Mexico?
        Were they child assassins
            in Pol Pot's army? Are they
        a child with memories of
            helicopters exploding stuffed
        inside the body-bag of an
            adult driving over the Hudson

        River, clear day, on the
            George Washington Bridge.

        Just someone looking for
            a place to rent.
Just some-
        one on the way to a nursery
            to water geraniums &
        Easter lilies.
            someone who uses a Spell
An Image scientist.
            just someone doing a little
        Inside trade. Had they seen
            Yellowstone burn?
Did they
        carry a pair of Chicago
            roller skates in the trunk?

        Are there used condoms
            in their ashtray? Does
        their left rear tire
            need a little air? Have
        they been to the Panama
            Canal? Do they horde toilet
        paper in their basement?
            Do they sleep with their
        students? Had they been
            ordered to kill their teacher?
        Were there baby shoes
            hanging from the rear-view
        mirror? How old is their
            hairdo? How long are they

        planning to wear those
            socks? Do they keep the
        Christmas lights on their
            house up all year? Do they
        pray to St. Anthony when
            they've lost something &
        then find it! Are their
            headlights on? Do they think
        golf would be more inter-
            esting if the fairways were
        different colors? Do they
        believe in Pro Wrestling?
        Would they rather see
            Llamas than dogs in the subway?

        Is it someone related to
            George Washington himself!
        Could it be! Is it someone
            who thinks the Tooth
        Fairy real? A policy
A media wizard?
        Maybe you grow ginseng root.
            You were the Emperor's Physician.
        A Department of Corrections
A security guard. Just
        someone who lives the
            house they were born in. The
        Mayor--—putting homeless
            people in a cheap hotel.

        Was that a Laundry Worker
            on strike driving down onto
        the Lower Level? A painter
            who saw only Anti-Space? Someone
        good with structure?
            who didn't need any.

        Were they eating Melba
? Do they know UPS
        leases ships to the Navy?
            When they shit, do they "Shit
        from the heart?" Do they think
        water-polo is played with rackets?
        Had they learned to react
            calmly to the death of strangers?

        Do their windshield wipers
            work? Do they consider the Cross-
        Bronx Expressway "The Drop
            Ceiling of Hell?" Are all
        their brothers cops? Did
            they know Mingus? Do they
        live in an apartment full
            of writers? When the President
        left Washington, did they snap
            off a parting salute? Just somebody
        behind the wheel, thinking it's
            better to live our lives than
        put a price upon them. Just
            composing Verse—as in Universe.

        As in the Future going on
            foot thru a Crowd.
Had their
        fathers died of nightmares?
            Do their sisters have exaggerated
        & self-conscious attachments
            to the Great Blank Spaces of
        American Culture that seem to
            reduce them to a tiny yet inextinguish-
        able song? Is their greatest vanity
            Hairdressing the Hero? Do they see
        the bridge as a Rainbow? Do they
            think of rainbows as the Ever-Present
        Unity Connecting Two Camps? Are
            they 72-Hour-Awake-Truckdrivers on

        Speed listening to Emmylou Harris
Does the Bridge remind them of
        George Washington, cutting down the
            cherry tree? Mother, I cannot tell
        a lie. I cut down the Sacred Hoop
            today. I cut down the great Tree
        of Peace today Mother. Are they
        en route to a Ta'i Chi Ballroom
        for an evening of Slam Waltzing?
            Is this Noise that I hear pieces of
        Silence breaking off from the
            enormous & dumb & incorrigible
        mass inside them? Do they shriek
            & squeal—those Tires—or is

        that Sound the pressing of human
            Energy & Existence upon us, without
        there ever being a taking account
            of the Destruction? Do the poets
        of the Poolhalls dream blue
            pizzas thinking of Rilke in Munich
        bleeding like the Sun to say "It
            lies in the nature of every finally
        perfect love that sooner or later
            it may no longer reach the loved one
        save in the Infinite." Do they
            take this Lower Level for to glimpse
        Swans below? Are their Hearts as
            tender as the inside of red roses?

Let me tell you why I like that number.  It impressed me. The idea of it came all

at once and with it the assignment to write it. And then I did it. In doing it, I found

it contained energy that was my energy and vision that was my vision. It was my

construction and it was my own counterbalance to various other ephemera. And it

was also a product of my own ephemera. Other poets one admires for the miracle

of how they get the language to do things that can liberate your mind. If you

cannot admire yourself for the miracle of how you get things across in your own

language, you should read about the life of Christine de Pizan or watch something

like Jet Li in Twin Warriors. "George Washington Bridge" is not a difficult object

to comprehend and I liked that very much. Still, nobody much noticed. I might as

well as written it with invisible ink. But I did it because I had to. It was a 40-

degree below freezing. Northern lights all green in the sky and there I was,

writing by kerosene lantern light. Other poets far better known than I ever care to

be probably aren’t the wood shed type. I had different ambitions. I wanted to let

the people of the future know that I had been to my own mountaintop, which in

that case, was the lower level of the George Washington Bridge. So, I see

cultivated in this early poem a sense of fearlessness and fleetingness. I think the

poem stands today as a clear expression of certain laws of culture and the

incessant movement around those laws just by giving voice to my own ragged

thought forms one night while removed in a little wooden hut with nothing to do

but watch the snow blow in under the door.


RR:  How did you become a piano tuner? Whose pianos have you tuned?


JC: I had a serious jones for the piano since I was a kid. We had a blind piano

tuner come work on the family piano, a Steinway console. I have that piano

today. I was enamored with players from Otis Spann to Thelonius Monk, Art

Tatum to Professor Longhair, Nicky Hopkins to Keith Godchaux. When I

graduated from college in 1976, I made the decision to go to a piano tuning and

rebuilding school––The Simms School of Piano Technology. James Simms was

the proprietor. He drove a Cadillac and had thick oily black hair. The Simms

School of Piano Technology was an interesting scene with a lot of southern

intrigue on the banks of the Chattahoochee River. Work gangs in black and white

striped prison clothes cleaned up the park in front of the nearby Piggly Wiggly

chained to each other at the ankles. The Tastee Freeze girl was blackmailing one

of the Simms’ students, accusing him of getting her pregnant. The owner had a

few of his own less than discreet trysts. The technical trainers would bring us

beefsteak tomatoes and we would eat them over by the loading dock. I was there

six months. I must have listened to Neil Young’s Tonight's the Night a thousand

times while living in Columbus, Georgia. I lived next door to a single woman

commandeering a family of five kids. On the road opposite us was a Fort

Bennington bombing range. I used to take long walks there. One night my house

burned down. I’d started a fire and gotten into the shower to warm up when I saw

flames shooting through the walls. I attended Simms's school regularly, learned

how to set a proper equal tempered scale by ear, run beats, clear the octaves,

rebuild and regulate an action, restring and hammer, drill a new pinblock, shim a

Eastern White Spruce soundboard. I opened my first piano rebuilding shop in

Glen Elen, California, near Jack London Park where Jack London’s dream house

burned in 1913. I think I read Martin Eden in Glen Elen. Jack London had some

pretty strange views on life, but that book was good advice for not getting too

disheartened if the world did not stand up on its hind legs and throw you a bag of

loot for your troubles. I had a few accounts going. My friend and musical

collaborator, Mark “Mooka” Rennick, had moved out to Cotati and was about to

start what would become his Prairie Sun Recordings. I moved my shop out of

Glen Elen and into a single room on Madrone Avenue, just of Highway 116 near

one of the best Sonoma County dives around, Red’s Recovery Room. I did a lot

of thinking in that shop and some work when I could get it. I began to apprentice

with the Grateful Dead's keyboard tech down in Marin County. His name was

Robert Yambert. I'd stay overnight at Robert’s little compound in Lagunitas.

Later, after Mooka establish Prairie Sun Recordings and I had packed up my tools

and moved to Montana, Tom Waits recorded his two Grammies by using the

room that'd been my piano repair shop and I think there was a movie made there

in that room as well. I then opened a third shop in Missoula. That was in the fall

on 1979. The winter I lived there my water pipes froze. The sink fell off the wall.

I wrote a letter to Allen Ginsberg at Naropa explaining why, for some reason, I

thought I would make a good teaching assistant. I think you were the person that

encouraged me to do it. I’d been working on the railroad all that fall before

moving to Missoula, trying to make enough money to enroll in Naropa. In 1980 I

became Allen’s teaching assistant at the Kerouac School. That winter Allen

secured a piano in his apartment at 2141 Bluff Street in Boulder. It was a large

yellow upright. It was in pretty bad shape. He asked me to tune it. When I

finished Gregory Corso came into the living room very quiet and respectful.

When I was done he sat down and played Cole Porter's "Begin the Beguine."

After he finished playing he just sits there for a while, a long while really, and

then he gets up and he gives me a kiss on the cheek. Once I borrowed the traps

from the square grand piano in the lobby of a hotel in the center of Boulder in

broad daylight. I needed to duplicate the design for a job. After I did that I had to

replace them in the middle of the hotel lobby right in the open again. Nobody

seemed to notice one way or another.


RR: I've seen you play the guitar many times but I can only remember seeing you

play the piano once. There is some piano on your CDs, but it's mostly guitar

music. Do you have a piano in your house now? Do you mostly compose on the

piano or the guitar? Do you find your write different kinds of music on each?


JC: Instruments are like fortune tellers. You go to them for alchemical purposes. I

had a singer songwriter phase as a younger man and I'm studying that archive

now, but I moved into something else after my first solo record, Unspoken Words,

and began a whole new process, something that feels more appropriate for the feel

and the sound I’m after. Unspoken Words was a transitional phase from the

songwriter I’d been to the spoken word poet I had become. There were songs like

I had written early on such as "Rewrote The Book" and "Palm Reader" but there

were also experimental things in which I was putting my poems to the musical

soundtrack in my head such as "When Robots Cry" and "Meditation At A

Stoplight In The Rain" which were improvisational. Rhyme just doesn't get me far

enough to anything that touches me. I needed to yield to other forces than myself

musically. Say what you will about musicians, the ones worth any salt are able to

listen, especially when there's tape running. I'd stopped feeling that about the

people who came to my poetry readings. I might as well have been talking to

myself. I recently remixed about two hours of selected material I've recorded

between 1995 and 2008 into a two CD compilation called Impermanence. You

can hear an example of my keyboard playing on “Ghost Dance” and my guitar

playing on “Rewrote The Book.” "Ghost Dance" is an intense little something I

wrote a day or two after the fall of the World Trade Center Towers which Bob

Holman published at his aboutpoetry.com website. It begins with the historic

literal Ghost Dance Chant contributed by David Young and I did the organ work

on that. “Rewrote The Book” is a song that came to me all at once. The opening

lines––“You went into a trance to live. / Chose a one room flat when you had a

mansion.”––came to me one day out of nowhere and the song just rolled itself off

the line in nothing flat. Thanks to my friendship with Mooka, I've recorded with

some pretty fascinating characters: guitarist Steve Kimock on "Padre Trail,"

Arabaic surf music king Dick Dale on "Years Of The Light Highway" and

keyboardist John Alaire on "Undivided Attention." Mooka has carried me over

the years like Leonard Chess did Muddy Waters. In my own solo recording

career, I have had some interesting chapters. I played with Allen's musical

collaborator, Steven Taylor, on a punk version of Tom Campion's "Follow Thy

Faire Sun Unhappy Shadow." The only other cover I've ever done is that greatest

personal ad of all time, "My Funny Valentine," which I embedded in the middle

of a thing called "Odessa (The Mime)." With Boulder keyboardist and arranger

Bob Schlesinger we did a 40 minute improve to a long poem of mine "Treasures

For Heaven." That piece sort of fulfilled an ambition begun when as a teenager I

first heard The Doors “The End.” The piece "Dragon Tracks" was composed live

with an all-girls band and that had a feel unlike anything in my repertoire. The

success of that session made me wonder why there are no terrific girl jam bands

with huge cult-like followings. Is it that girls don’t like to jam? Isn’t the world

ready for that yet? Do you have to be Iranian? One of the greatest sessions I ever

had was for a piece called "Where The Road Disappears" because that night was

nearly cancelled when the guitar player showed up without his guitar. Joey the

guitar player had no money for strings. Another time the session players got stuck

in a blizzard and couldn’t make it. I’d invited a friend, Michael Matheny, over

that night and Michael stopped by with his guitar. On the spot we did “Because,”

this little poem I’d written for my daughter. There are very few social situations

where the mood makes any sense to my nervous system. I need to insert myself

where forces can be engaged, to paraphrase Trungpa Rinpoche, in a First Take

Best Take manner. On the other hand, sometimes I would be hearing something in

the session only later and I'd add it myself instrumentally after everybody left.

The way I create my vocals can also involve a totally opposite process than the

speed of the actual session work, but I’m after a very elusive thing––a kind of

Prajna Paramita oral hat trick of form and emptiness. It sometimes takes a while

to feel what had happened so quickly instrumentally and to find a way to phrase

what I had said that was a particular poem in an instrumental space that arose

without thought. Ultimately, for me, music is space. Not the space of a canvas,

but more like the space in Stan Brakhage's Dog Star Man. So, I do write

differently on different instruments, but my primary instrument is my heart as

seen through my mind in a kind of vivid soundtrack of and to the moment I wrote

the poem.


RR: What is your vision for the Museum of American Poetics?


JC: The initial image of the Museum of American Poetics (MAP) early on was

that of a literary center. Its mission was codified by Boulder poet Tom Peters,

Thomas R. Peters, Jr., owner of the Beat Book Shop and long running master of

ceremonies for the "So, You're A Poet!" reading series. Alluding to a line by the

New York School poet John Ashbery, Tom gave MAP it's credo: "The poetry of

the future is opening its doors." So there was an open-ended quality to my initial

vision of the Museum of American Poetics. It was part Corn Palace, part roadside

attraction, but I also had intentions to make it in and of itself not only of and about

great art, but great art itself. My vision of MAP has changed over the years. It

began with a dream the night Allen Ginsberg died that the literary works of the

Beat Generation would be forgotten. I don't now think that will happen any time

soon, but it drove me into a preservationist state of mind. After about the first 5

years things got a little more expansive and I began documenting and curating

more and more poet web pages and creating exhibits reflecting the diversity of

American Poesy. Things started happening as I was fortunate to work with a

series of webmasters as out of their gourds as myself. The experimentation with

design and iconicity and arrangement on the front side, not to mention the behind

the curtain organization out back, began to give the Museum of American Poetics

an aura that we were seriously engaging both the medium and the message.

Around MAP's first decade online, I began to critically explore the relationship

between the Beat and the Postbeat because that was my experience and I wasn't

seeing it reflected anywhere else. There are many roads leading beyond the Beat

Generation, but none of them was the road I was on. There were a couple

anthologies that came close to bringing together the Postbeats, but no coherent

theory about them. In that way, I’m like Stephen Hawkins. I may not be able to

explain the nature of black holes, but I’m after a unifying theory. These people

that put together these collections didn’t seem to have any ability to describe what

was right before their eyes. I saw myself and others that had known and worked

and traveled with Allen and been directly influenced by him faced with the reality

that no one was interested in because no one was being told they should be and

really we were quite fortunate that they weren’t. For me, I just got to a point

where I needed to restructure MAP as a sanctum sanctorum, a holy of holies, an

inspiration to those that write and those that depend on the what poets do. As for

the Postbeats––I was very interested in knowing who they were because really in

the aftermath of the Beat Generation, they were everywhere. So, MAP's first

decade curatorial period is marked with an effort to establish lines of Postbeat

poets. There was a certain art to doing that. Around 2008 I began to feel both

restricted and somewhat shallow for the "American" part of the name of the

enterprise. I began a series of new exhibits to push beyond borders, both in time

and space. I wanted any poet anywhere that may access MAP's pages to know that

it may not be about us, but those to come shall compose even greater works of art.

This probably caught the attention of places like the Library of Congress, the

Academy of American Poets, The Electronic Poetry Center, and the Allen

Ginsberg Trust and who knows what nefarious other dark forces. I don't know

what Enheduanna, Homer, Sappho, Ovid, Lalya al-Akhyaliyyah, Li Bai, Lady Ise,

Milarepa, Rumi, Dogen and Petrarch, Villon and du Bellay, John Donne, 

Geronimo and Black Elk would be into today, but it’s what I got into. Working

long term on a website is it's own form of looking into the mirror. You can want

from it more or less, but you still end up with nothing.


RR: I'm curious about how your work with disability services, and specifically

your experience with American Sign Language has affected you as a poet.


JC: Right Livelihood has to link to one's sense of calling, what you came to this

life to do. It also involves making of yourself a path of service to align who you

are and the human condition. I have been graced with many lives, but the one

associated with American Sign Language (ASL) poetics and the one consumed by

disability services left their own particular imprints on me as a poet. My interest

in ASL poetics began with Allen, but it was equally influenced by the

ethnographic writings of Gary Snyder, particularly the book Earth Household. In

2008, the filmmaker Miriam Nathan Lerner completed an extensive documentary,

two years in the making, on the 20th century history of ASL poetry. The film is

titled The Heart of the Hydrogen Jukebox after  “Howl.” I was quite surprised to

see myself honored for the role I played in introducing Ginsberg to a deaf

audience of poets in 1984 and in coordinating the first national Deaf poetry

conference in 1987 because the last major contact I had with a Deaf literary arts

audience, around 1990 was a debacle. I was literally booed off stage. Deaf people

do not want to have a hearing person anywhere near something as revered to them

as their language. I didn’t blame them. The experience was instrumental in my

moving forward. Accolades aside, what affected me most during the period of my

Deaf cultural immersion was my primary informant, Robert Panara, the single-

most learned Deaf poet-scholar of the 20th century. I did a lot of coordinating of

bicultural and bilingual poetry readings between 1984 and 1987 in Rochester. I

was guided by an invisible hand that whole time and the poets I met were equally

guided by their own fates. I met a young poet during that time named Peter Cook

who went on to revolutionize poetic signing in a way that just blew everyone who

saw him perform, hearing or deaf, away. We became quite good friends. Peter

collaborated with spoken word artist Kenny Lerner and together they formed a

performance poetry show called the Flying Words Project that has toured the

world. A biography of those guys would be pretty shocking. They were as

paradigm shifting as Chuck Berry and Boris Karloff. There’s a lot of superstition,

since Beethoven, about Ninth Symphonies, because people would die trying to

finish them. Flying Words Project began with that and took off from there. I was

married to a woman named Donna Kachites at the time, a gifted sign language

interpreter. Donna interpreted for a deaf poet named Debbie Rennie, who's poetry

took off where Dorothy Miles, perhaps the most empassioned Deaf poetess of the

20th century, left off. With Rochester poet and painter J. Todd Beers, I did a

reading series at a club called Jazzberries that featured poets such as Bernadette

Mayer, Andy Clausen, and Antler. Everyone was interpreted, either with voicing

or signing. Allen had articulated that phanopoeia, the image aspect of poetry, was

the only thing he found that would translate into other languages. Wit or lyricism

would not. It was Allen who told the ASL poets in Rochester that the visual

aspect of ASL could make the Deaf poet quite relevant to any global poetry. I did

come away from it with a more immediate understanding of the nature of the

signing space. I took the Pound-Fenollosa model of the Chinese written character

as a medium for poetry and transposed that theory to ASL. So, a lot of reading

and talking at Naropa found an interesting application with ASL that fueled my

own willingness to ransom myself to the skillfulness poetry requires. The

skillfulness poetry requires is to see your self as completely out-to-lunch and also

to develop a total fondness for that. That's Right Livelihood. I didn't have to take

anything because it was all right there given to me. I'm speaking of the rapture of

all night talking in silence, the feeling that I was being transported. My mouth

transposed to my hands and ears transposed to my eyes. It could get quite surreal

and I wrote about it in my first book of prose essay, Sign Mind: Studies in

American Sign Language Poetics. I found in ASL a complimentary prosody to

English, but with distinct parameters from the oral language tradition and older,

more embodied with vividness than words, more of The Origins. From 1988 to

1992 I opened and ran a disability services office at St. Lawrence University in

Canton, NY. One of my friends on the faculty of SLU was Thomas Coburn who

taught in Religious Studies. Later, Tom would take a stab at being president of

Naropa University. I went on to develop an intense personal interest in combining

the fields of Disability Studies and Disability Services while working at the

University of Colorado at Boulder, which I did full time from 1997 to 2009. That

interest put me at odds with the Disability Studies community who saw service

providers as necessary evils. Who can blame them, I suppose. I was heavily

influenced by my second wife, a student of the Connecticut American Buddhist

teacher and scholar, Reginald Ray. A gifted Chinese herbal healer and

acupuncturist in her own right, Susannah Carleton turned me on to a book called

Masters of  Mahamudra: Songs and Histories of the Eighty-four Buddhist 

Siddhas by Keith Dowman. That book, about the lives of the siddhas, more than

any other source, gave me insight into working with people with disabilities that I

practiced for nearly two decades, including a long run at the University of

Colorado at Boulder’s Disability Services unit. It was the way Buddhist

psychology approaches the human condition that I found so useful in my own life

and in my relationships with people with disabilities that led me in 2003 to write a

book called The Golden Body: Meditations on the Essence of Disability.  Beyond

the desire to mark or stereotype or produce composites of beauty and giftedness

or anomaly and deficit based on the creation of an superior-inferior polarity, I

came to the awareness that the essential nature of all beings lies within a higher

norm. The yearning for this awareness was reinforced daily and took my poetry to

places I don’t think it would have gone if I had taken a different direction. 


RR: I know you became a father for the first time at the age of 50. I’ve known

one of my best friends—Zoe—since she was three and she’s about your

daughter’s age. We play a lot of games and I’ve watched her learn how to reason,

and now she’s old enough to read, so as we walk down the street she reads all the

signs in the windows and bumper stickers on passing cars. Watching her grow in

this way has been a very powerful experience to me. Are you aware of any ways

that raising a child has affected your writing or your writing practice? 


JC: Bringing up my daughter adds another kind of intention to my own writing

practice. She at least quadruples it. When I was a student at Naropa we would be

assigned walking poems, walking meditation poems. Notice everything. Notice

what you notice. My daughter is an Aries and I am an Aries and my mother was

an Aries and her mother was an Aries. Aries have a fucking impossible time with

it all. We are a very energetic people, very loving, very independent,

revolutionary, creative people, very emotional, very alone. I feel bookended by

my mother on one side, behind, and my daughter on the other side, ahead, and the

three of us together. My mother always told me that she gained great inner

strength from her children when she struck out as a single parent. I feel that as

well, raising my daughter on my own. Many times I wish I could call my mother,

who is dead. We may be lying in bed, as we were last night, reading Oh, The

Places You’ll Go, a book-length poem by Dr. Seuss, a very heavy poem, a Beat

homage of sorts, a paean to Allen in a way, very surprising actually, and I’ll hear

my voice saying the words “Wherever you fly, you’ll be best of the

best./Wherever you go you will top all the rest./Except when you don’t./Because,

sometimes, you won’t.” I’ll be thinking between the words, between the sounds

the words are making as I hear what they say, about how that went for me when I

was a child at her age and how that went for me till I got to where I am now, and

how here we are and how she’s hearing it, like it’s some kind of admonition, a

wise admonition, and a strikingly well executed verse and a very adult message to

be laying on a child and we’ll just keep on reading it through the darkness around

us and in the pictures and in there I’ll be wondering about Dr. Seuss’s intention

too, and how the drawings of the abyss he drew don’t quite register for a child as

an abyss at all, as suffering, as despair, as depression. They just register like a

funny looking cake or something. I’ll think about teaching a child about ego, as

Allen once told me, how it’s something to proclaim and renounce. And I’ll begin

to wonder why my daughter chose me as her parent and why she chose to return

to this world when she did and who she was before and what she’s come here to

do. And then I’ll look over at her in my other arm, the one not holding the book,

and I’ll see she has fallen asleep and I’ve been having all these thoughts reading a

children’s story to myself. Having a child might have influenced my writing, but

the current state of civilization had ruptured my poetry pretty thoroughly even

before she came into my life. Nothing my teachers had written seemed close to

the kind of world that virtuality was creating. Maybe Kerouac’s Dr. Sax. Maybe

some of Burroughs. For all I know, my daughter will have a brain implant––

something you can buy at Target or Best Buy, something right out of The Matrix.

Her cognition may be enhanced by uploading as well as her crystallized

knowledge. I mean, she may think nothing of internal operating systems

hybridizing her existence. She was not even a year and a half when I wrote “Notes

To A Young P-borg” in my book Quien Sabe Mountain. That was a poem I wrote

not so much for her, but for poet-cyborgs of the future to take in their flash drives

to read upon the junkyard ruins when their hardware goes bad. I did write a book-

length poem to her––The Ongoing Saga I Told My Daughter. That book describes

everything I felt as a father, all the joy of it, and more. Some people aspire to

leave a zero-carbon footprint. Knowing that I probably won’t be around to see

many if not all of the milestones of my daughter’s adulthood, I wrote Saga as a

kind of zero-regret footprint model for and to her because that’s really the

message I got from everything growing up in the family I came from. My

mother’s father, Isadore Lewis, was one of thirteen children. He loved cash and he

loved food. Nobody in the Lewis family knows where they came from. They were

gypsy peddlers somewhere in Eastern Europe. It was such a miserable existence,

nobody wanted to remember. My own father, Jimmy Heimann, vanished when I

was young. He adhered to a perverse interpretation of patriarchy, the kind where

you expect your woman and children to put up with anything. He didn’t get

kicked out of the armed services like Arlo Guthrie portrayed in Alice’s

Restaurant.” He was dropped for disorderly conduct; a supercilious attitude

compounded by a lack of originality. My paternal grandfather, Emanuel, was a

painter and his wife, Cora, my father’s mother, was a poet. Everything was God’s

will to her. They lived in a building on Lake Shore Drive without a thirteenth

floor. The elevator went from twelve to fourteen as if bad luck could be done

away with just like that. I was adopted by a kohanim or cohanim, a direct male

descendant of the Biblical Aaron, brother of Moses, the Kohan Godal or high

priest––Marvin M. Cohn, a gentle, spiritual Jew who celebrated the Jewish

Shabbat every Friday night. A diabetic from the age of twelve, who died in 1972

when his ambulance ran out of gas in a below zero Cleveland night en route to the

hospital after a heart attack at home, he was related to my birth father’s family.

His two daughters were distant cousins. His death left my step-sisters in the

unenviable position of having lost their own mother to polio, a likeable step-

mother to divorce, and then their father to someone that couldn’t read a gas gauge.

They were like orphans in my mother’s house. Even if their second step-parent

had been Teresa of Avila, they were already so through the mill with the

powerlessness and hopelessness who could blame them for how they felt about

anything. My mother, Lois Lewis, skipped two grades and graduated high school

at sixteen. She died when my daughter was only three. The poet Lew Welch said

you have to know your tribe and you have to know how your mother speaks. I

recognized my own mother’s loneliness from the constant entertaining she did

and by her marrying men for reasons that went clearly outside the romantic.

Scholarship and education are in my blood, but not exactly academic scholarship

or academic learning. My mother would dress up in her nightgown every year for

the Oscars and put on a tiara and sit at the edge of her bed––she was from that

American female generation where the silver screen was the key to learning how

to adapt one’s femininity to male power and subvert it. I respected that in her

from an early age and am the result of her intermingling of male and female

energies in some fashion. Her energy was somewhat grotesque to me as a child

and yet totally reasonable. For me, my mother was very much a prototype, a

living proof, of the feminist writings Anne Waldman would produce decades

later. She had the discipline and the willfulness to succeed in a man’s world. I

probably channel that in Saga as an invocation to my daughter’s guides and

guardian angels, including her grandmothers who both left her early. And as a

kind of cautionary tale against viewing people as consumer products, acquisitions,

regardless of their gender(s), as she will be led to believe. There’s a kind of

softness to that poem, even though it is extremely hard-edged in parts, that I had

not found words for until I wrote it. It’s probably the only time I openly share my

feminine side so completely in my work. You can feel it. I didn’t do that because I

had some vague notion or desire to live vicariously or even numenally through

my daughter––have her be the person I could not be. She is her own person with

her own karma. I understand that much. I mean, being a parent is a nonstop poetry

reading tour. Sometimes your audience is wrapped with attention, sometimes

there’s utter disinterest and other times they’re throwing bottles like you were

working behind chicken wire at Bob’s Country Bunker. Every day affects

everything you’ve written––the dynamics, the flow, the rhythm, the music. The

single father-daughter thing is pretzels turned to flutes in a kind of Pippi

Longstocking surrealism. Until my daughter Isabella Grace was born, I was like

that Steve Martin character in Father of the Bride Part II. I was a poet, but my life

was just one massive emotional cave-in after another that I kept exploring deeper,

sometimes squeezing through insanely narrow cracks, sometimes crawling

headfirst at indecipherable angles only to have to crawl backwards out of the dead

ends, sometimes discovering vast underground rooms. I could knock myself out

trying to show my daughter Little Walter or Istanbul only to discover that what

really turned her on was the night we spent a snowstorm stranded at a hotel and

the power went off and left us in complete utter darkness on the bed. That was far

out to her. I wanted to leave her a place where she could return to as she grew up,

where she could find solace, if she ever needed that, from me. I just wanted to

leave her with something of my consciousness.


RR: What do you believe poetry's place is in the current culture?


JC: William Carlos Williams, in his book The Embodiment of Knowledge, wrote

that poetry is the Skeleton pointing out again and again to Intelligence the

“special plea” of sentience––“the attacks upon it and their unreasonableness,”

including the drawing of “false conclusions… of that general nature” This was

and is still very much poetry’s place in the current culture. For me, poetry is a

manifestation that there is no authority other than one’s self. This is not to say that

there is a “self” or that there is an “authority” or that one’s self or one’s authority

is greater or lesser than anyone else’s self or authority or that either your self or

your authority is not ruled by the same falsities as those selves or authorities that

wish to silence you or that you wish to silence or that anything created as “poetry”

in this current culture is interesting as poetry to any other self or authority in this

or any current culture. You may be able to interface your breakthrough internet

multimedia device to your online social networking web pages and we may be

able to instantaneously view and hear your latest intellectual property production

with gapless playback, but will that be a place for poetry in any formulation of

“current culture?” You may be highly organized, highly efficient in the craft and

tools of your times.  You may be a spiritual or political leader––with many people

willing to follow you to the ends of the earth.  You may be a young idol, fully

engaged in popular art or low art burlesque, with the adoration of millions from

around the globe. You may be a magician of chaos, always one step beyond the

law and the censors, able to create sensational spectacles, challenging

governments, uncovering infinite incompetencies in managing responses,

bringing forth a full accounting. You may have founded a new criticism or healed

yourself from some theoretical disease. You may be self-deprecating in a totally

arrogant way, the last existentialist on some kind of poetic quest for language, but

if you do not mainline the whole, that is not poetry’s place in the current culture.

Somewhere in Talking in Tranquility, around the 1970s, the late poet Ted

Berrigan, with whom I studied at Naropa and interviewed and appreciated for

what he wrote and what he could put into words, said that it’s obvious that the

poet means nothing in contemporary society. The entire apparatus of

manufactured reputation-identity and position is pretty much gone. I understand

that perfectly. You write poems, you want to get them publish, you want people to

read them, you especially want them to like them. In the past, there were poets

whose work was good because they wrote it, their name was under it. It would

take a real discerning eye to be able to tell which poems they’d written with the

intention of making a major poetical statement and which poems they’d made just

because the moment brought everything that person knew about making poems to

bear on some little experience and the writing of some beautiful little poem. Ted

was talking about Frank O’Hara, and how Frank survived that, could bring an

enormous amount of feeling to the most ordinary incident and give it “terrific

significance.” That was in contrast to someone like Milton or Eliot, or even

Whitman or Ginsberg whose work I would read just to hear what they thought

about anything. Those poets were writing out of a place where they were the most

important man in their society. That’s sort of their starting point. Today you have

six billion average beings speaking the truth via their blogs, their digital journals,

their self-produced on-demand limited book runs, selling their own books on

Amazon or eBay. You have eBooks––and you have Google with its megalomanic

attempt to digitize every single book ever store housed in any major library. So,

trying to get somebody to take your work to bed with them or out to a

mountaintop or on the bus or laundromat or wherever people are when they read

is on a lot of people’s minds. And, of course, besides all that, the hundreds of

years of the poet as the archtypic white man shrouded in some kind of book

industry mystique in any particular society is out the window. Poetry’s place in

this global field is a matter of a universal demotic spirit. Some exhibitionist or

well-connected or Olympian-attitude jackoff’s always going to get more or her or

his share of the limelight. People are going to be pissed off or think you’re dead

wrong or that your poetry is unpure or ugly or asymmetric or too symmetric.

redundant, too political, not political enough. For me, it was and remains an

incredible achievement to write a poem. I mean I will never know why I wrote

“When Skeletons Make Love” or “Coyote Steals The 2000 Presidential Election”

or “The Rabbi Poems”––only that these poems came to me and through me at the

particular moments of time that they did. I can pull myself out of wherever I am

and whoever I’m with and still be there in that place with everything else going

on as if nothing happened to me at all because for me, poetry requires equal

treatment. My job is to create that kind of extradimensional space, as Ted

described it, right out of the ordinary realm. Most of the people I meet have no

idea what that means. They may accept ESPN instant replays or CNN footage

replays or shoot off their guns listening to Rush Limbaugh just to relieve

themselves of their own ordinary mad burdens, hallucinations, debts or loss or

power. They may repel their own simple common repressions that makes them

seek the ordinary feelings and views of others to relate to, but they will not have

any idea what it is like for a person, a poet, to actually conduct their lives in such

a manner.


RR: Who and what do you find has sustained you and your work as a poet?


JC: Some people make deals with the devil. Mine was with poetry. It’s what I

came here to do. That was very clear to me. I had little choice in it. When the

writing came I was there, even if didn’t matter. I didn’t come here to make lima

bean omelets or to remove myself from equality. Poetry is not speculation to me.

Although it makes judgments on what other people are thinking––where people

are at, where their collective social acts are headed, their pretensions––it is more

than a description or an compression of social thinking. Poetry is Vimalakirti

telling Manjusri “My sickness…will last as long as do the sicknesses of all living

beings.” A body does crazy things. It causes and transcends bubbles and busts. I

was sustained by a hairdresser from Florida I met years ago in a youth hostel that

knew of no poetry, never even finished high school, except he knew all of

Whitman, by heart. Michigan poet David Cope was the janitor in the college

where later he would teach Shakespeare and that as well as his long

correspondence with me, with knowing me, was sustaining. That the Milwaukee

poet Antler wrote Factory sustained me and that he and his partner, the ecopoet

Jeff Poniewaz, remained devoted to one another was a gesture I found a model of

sustainability. The west coast post-punk Buddhist poet Marc Olmsted with his

three-year meditation retreat and his shrine room in Oakland with its tankas and

giant movie horror film posters sustained me. The integrity of the poet Andy

Clausen sustained me, in his poesy and person. That Lesléa Newman wrote about

Harvey Milk years before Sean Penn thought about playing him sustained me.

That you wrote LIT was sustaining to me––the way you kind of recharged the

entire Norton Anthology of Poetry as though you were driving an automobile that

stop at refueling stations in order to give back energy to the grid. There are

hundreds of examples of sanity, compassion, candor, vivid invention,

groundlessness, inclusivity, service, wakefulness that gave me a kind of entry to

off-limit useless procedures that were accidentally left there and accidentally

mislabeled but not pretend. It wasn’t just that the poets I knew continued writing.

It was that their poetry and their presence increasingly become a magnet, a store-

house, of proof where one always changes and one never does. There may be an

ATM in the lobby, but poetry is a more exact and closer form of economy for me.

It’s bigger than the book industry, more charming than the United States

Treasury. Inside a line, a line I was lost in writing, I was completely at peace with

impermanence––the vastness of impermanence that makes the trillions of dollars

leveraged against Depression but a speck of dust. Poetry is not something that you

leave at the jeweler to be cleaned. It is the Gold Scale––the emptiness of all the

Buddha-fields, wilderness, civilization. As such, I was also sustained by things

that did not sustain me at all––those things you love in passing or that you never

see in passing or care for correctly in passing or recognize correctly in passing or

never get over in passing. And regardless of the tempo these things have over

you––the unsustaining things––they are also sustaining. You don’t even have to

know how you will be sustained or if you will be sustained or if there’s a portion

of the federal bail-out waiting with your name and address on it for you or if you

will have convictions or if you will advocate those convictions or renounce them

or if you will simply be troubled by your convictions or see the signs, marks and

ornaments that underlie all convictions.