Andrea Cohen won first place
for "The Pretty Lady Brand" in
our Winter 06/07 Very Short
The good-looking one is Beckett.
Swanson-Davies: You have a remarkable array of writing experience. You write and have published poetry, fiction, and non-fiction about marine research at MIT. In a year's time do you feel like you have used every part of your mind, and is that invigorating or sometimes overwhelming?
Cohen: I think of some lines of Czeslaw Milosz: ď . . . we used no more than a hundredth part/of the gift we received for our long journey.Ē Iím afraid he was talking about me there. The best feeling I know is when the writing is going well: when a poem drops down into my notebook or characters from a story go to the five-and-dime with me and tell me what theyíre thinking. And what they plan to do with that box of nails thatís on sale.
Regarding the different genres, I write poetry because Iíve pretty much always written poetry. My mind tends to organize ideas/seek meaning according to line, metaphor, and one hopes, music. I started writing fiction years back because I love characters and dialogue, and because I had this idea that you couldnít be funny in poems. Of course, I was wrong about that. And I write nonfiction because I enjoy shelter and galoshes and the odd night out at Dennyís.
You have a collection of poetry, The Cartographer's Vacation. How did you go about getting it out into the world, what challenges did you encounter and how did you deal with them?
The collection won a contest, and thatís how it got published. The publisher didnít use a distributor, so I sort of became the distributor, carting the books around to stores and asking if they would sell them. I thought I should fill a red wagon with books and go door-to-door in my neighborhood. But my neighbors, being pretty good eggs, would have felt obliged to buy them and Iíd have felt guilty. Also, my mother moved lots of books, and a very kind-hearted publicist helped promote the collection, gratis.
You also run the Blacksmith House Reading Series in Cambridge. How did you come to do that? What's involved in doing such a thing?
I started helping Gail Mazur out with the series when I was a senior in college, holding a basket at the door for donations. I began coordinating the fiction part in the mid-1990s; and in 2002, after running the series for 29 years, Gail finally stepped down, I think, because she knew there was someone to make sure the series continued.
Basically I invite people to read, pray that the microphone works, fill Dixie cups with water, give extremely brief introductions, listen to poets and fiction writers read their work, and hope everybody goes home happy.
What have you learned from working with so many accomplished writers? What qualities have you come to admire?
Iíve learned (or been reminded) that graciousness goes a long way. That generally, two Dixie cups of water is plenty for even the longest-winded reader. That some writers, in reading their work, breathe more life into it, and that sometimes a writerís spoken voice doesnít do the writing justice.
But mostly, the series lets me sit in a room at The Blacksmith House on Monday evenings, close my eyes, listen, and be transported.
You got your MFA from the Iowa Writer's Workshop, where you were also a Teaching-Writing Fellow. What does that mean, really, and does that hold basically true, you think, wherever a person is a Teaching-Writing Fellow?
Iowa was a long time ago for me, in the mid-1980s. I was a kid really, 21. A lucky kid. Itís a luxury to be young and somewhere where poetry seems like the most important thing in the world, where people are on fire for it. I lived in a big old Victorian house with three other poets and the clack-clack-clack of manual typewriters on the front porch. That, and cigarettes and Special Export and warm gin. Yes, it seems like a long, wondrous time ago.
The fellowship meant that I got to teach undergraduate poetry workshops and pay in-state tuition ($600 per semester then.) It also meant I got spoiled, not having to teach freshman composition, which was the kind of teaching work generally available for MFA graduates when I got out of school. So I waited tables.
I donít know what fellowships are like at other places.
Would you name a few important things--conceptual or very specific--you've learned as student and teacher that have been particularly meaningful or helpful to your writing life?
One writer friend once said that writing is like being a factory worker: you just have to show up. I can really only say what works for me. Iím a creature of habit. So sitting down every morning with my notebook is the only way I can accomplish something. Itís also how I accomplish nothing lots of days, but thatís unavoidable.
Reading is of course essential. And I guess, more broadly, being open to experience, and to trying to understand a tiny bit of how others might experience life.
Do you have a favorite handful of books?
When I was growing up, my best friendís family had a large lazy Susan on the kitchen table, with salt and pepper, honey, Tabasco, all the necessary condiments. I have a sort of lazy Susan of writers who are always with me: Zbigniew Herbert, Philip Levine, Antonio Machado, Keats, Yannis Ritsos, James Tate, William Trevor. Those are just a few. And then there are the books that Iím reading right now: Jane Hirshfield, Ian McEwan, Gail Caldwell, Bob Hicok, Tennessee Williams.
And there are poets I used to read all the time for years, but whose work no longer speaks to me in the same way. And maybe, most gratifying, are the poets who speak to me anew, like Emily Dickinson. I was a very late bloomer when it comes to Dickinson.
And then thereís Faulkner. I grew up in the South and must have read Light in August when I was 12 or 13, and that book was like a light going on in my headóa window onto the complexity and richness of othersí inner lives.
What kind of kid were you at 7?
Pretty much the kind of kid I am now, according to those who know me best. Back then I hung out with my dog in the woods, kept a spy journal, and built forts in strangersí yards. I havenít changed much; my means of trespass are just a little more subtle now.
What sort of things are most important to you at this time of your life?
Not sounding like an idiot in an interview. Also important: my family, sweetheart, friends, dogs, poetry, the hope that the planet and the species survive us. And swimming pools. Swimming pools are very important to me.
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