Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Poetry Is My Instrument: A Discussion of "Treasures for Heaven: Collected Poems 1976-2021." Interview with Jim Cohn by William Seaton.

Jim Cohn, Laughing Goat Cafe, Boulder, CO, 16 April, 2012. 

William Seaton: Your instrument is poetry, but your end is often beyond, over the horizon. This is typified by your skilled use of concrete images and grand universalizing ones with little between. I have the impression that over the course of your career, you tended more toward cosmic statement, though never abandoning the specific and immediate. Do you see any such evolution?

Jim Cohn: Let me begin by saying, yes, poetry is my instrument. To consider poetry as an instrument is pure beatitude. I’m also reminded every day that each one of us has within ourselves access to this instrument. And that each one of us approaches this instrument that we call poetry alone. This instrument we call poetry has many keys. It is a representational instrument, an apparitional and liminal instrument, an archeological instrument with which to recognize the minute particulars of being tuned in to the entirety, the intergenerational whole, that is The Poetics Tradition.

As my instrument, I unconsciously and consciously choose to play my axe with all that the art brings to bear from within and beyond this body. I bring the reading, the knowledge, the crystalized memory. I bring the emotional intelligence inside me and the emotional intelligence I strive to carry inside of me. I also bring an entire neurology and nervous system apparatus, as is, which privileges me to see what I see, hear what I hear, taste, smell and move about the planet. There are dreams, visions, nightmares, voices, hopes and fears I bring to my instrument, to the delight of composition. This is an instrument that contains dragons and bombs, devils and demons, angels and dakinis, knowns and unknowns. Like any instrument, the more you sit with it, the more attuned you become.

I don’t see the use of poetry as my instrument any differently from how a musician would. It’s what you do with your instrument that matters. But it all starts with some kind of blank slate, over and over again, some kind of random situation, some kind of joining of disparate elements. What aspects of mind, scale and range you’re feeling at the moment of composition. What degree of experimentation, improvisation or indeterminacy you’re after or being shown in the moment. It helps a lot if you know some of the history of your instrument because nobody owns it. It’s never been photographed, even though its history goes back to the ancients. 

For me, my instrument also includes aspects of metapoetics. These are the temporal and spatial realms that may put the composer of poems in touch with the cosmic, the liberated, the transformative, the between states and conditions, past lives and future rebirths. There are only 12 keys to the piano. Only 26 letters in the English alphabet. You’re both restrained and unbounded by the limits and extravagances of language you impose upon your instrument.

When I only had vague phantasmic aspirations of the life ahead of me in poetry, one evening at a youth hostel in a nearby mountain town I met a young gay hairdresser from Florida. This young man knew nothing of poetry, except that he knew all of Leaves of Grass by heart. He chose to recite “By Blue Ontario’s Shores” to me that summer night in 1978. He was traveling with a book called Cosmic Consciousness (1901) by Richard Maurice Buck and he showed me the book. Buck considered Whitman to have had the attribute we call cosmic consciousness. I’d felt so elevated traveling with Leaves at 19, on the road after my adopted father, Marvin M. Cohn, died, and I could do nothing else with myself. I was lost in a grief that felt greater than my own and opening Whitman’s book wherever I found myself, I would gain strength, tranquility, insight. It was Whitman’s own grand universalizing that took me “beyond” myself. 

On my own, I had recognized the cosmic in Whitman, but in this young gay hairdresser traveling with only Buck’s book and all of Leaves of Grass in his head, I felt affirmation in my feelings that Whitman had been an extraordinary poet tuned in to what Buck described as Whitman’s psychospiritual ability to experience and share “the All and the idea of All, with the accompanying idea of eternity, and of itself, the soul, buoyant, indestructible, sailing Space forever, visiting every region, as a ship the sea.” And several years later, in a move I would have never made for any reason, I relocated to Rochester, on Lake Ontario’s shore, because the optimal place in the nation to study American Sign Language is at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf. 

Such recognition by you of the role of the cosmic in Treasures for Heaven may have been enhanced as I’ve continued playing this instrument we call poetry. Buddhist studies led to personal contemplation on the ineffable. And I developed a deep connection with the Tibetan Buddhist poet-saint Milarepa later in my life that’s only led me deeper into a more liberational poetics than I may have written otherwise. That’s because there are also elements of this instrument that take your consciousness beyond phenomena and into the noumenal, the inaccessible. Being aware of the unknown, that there’s so much more unknown than known, has no doubt been an ever-evolving preoccupation. 

WS: Your poems of social justice while topical (like Shelley’s “England 1819”) also represent a collective form of supporting what has traditionally been called charity, the desire to aid in improving people’s lives. What would you say is the artist’s role in relation to society? Or to morality in general?

JC: Charity refers to helping people in need. Helping others by providing them what they may be without. But why do people need help in the first place? This is America’s koan. Social justice focuses on eradicating the inequalities that lie at the heart of society and maintain the conditions of charity. What’s in plain view today, more than in any other time during my life, is that charity without social justice is simply another form of oppression. To paraphrase your question, “Is the artist’s response to institutional forms of oppression just another form of charity?” I would say that we are living through times of acute Orwellian doublethinking if we are unable to see the difference between charity and institutional injustice. As poets, we have no less a right to use our own voice to speak out against oppression than any other member of society. I don’t think of this right as charity. I consider addressing issues of institutional injustice a form of activism that is based upon moral courage.

Hypocrisy and ego’s ability to assuage what is unassuageable is for me the uncomfortable root of charity. Consider the legacies of brutality at the Magdalene Laundries of Ireland or the hard labor at Native American boarding schools in the United States and Canada or the history of state schools for the Deaf where students who grew up with American Sign Language were penalized by having to sit on their hands. Nobody is born wanting handouts from the wealthiest, but everyone knows upon whom the wealthiest depend. There’s no wealthier nation on Earth than the United States for whom our Constitution is based upon the hypocrisy of white male ego, and with it, white male privilege. Without the convenient amnesia and whitewashing by politicians that not only founded our nation, but continue to control and maintain every means at their disposal to maintain the status quo of white nationalism and white supremacy, speaking truth to power matters more than ever.

When the quid pro quo of patriotism and nationalism, as well as the quid pro quo around carbon, only serves to maintain a charade of hatred and lies, as it does today, we are in a very different situation as a people and as poets as we try to turn the tide of climate change. If the quid pro quo of freedom and equality serves no girl or woman, and intercedes against more than half the population to prevent the full control of one’s own body, we are in a situation where every notion possible related to the construct of charitable giving is undercut by systemic injustice. If the investment in maintaining this false narrative is done in the name of Democracy, that can only go on so long before people can see what’s happening for themselves, as anybody can see for themselves today. 

Poets have always engaged in the topical cause. There are topical poems as well as folk or rap protest songs that will outlive disingenuousness. For me, there’s no deal for the poet to take other than calling the charitability arm of institutional injustice exactly what it is and has been throughout U.S. history. As a white male poet of Jewish descent, I will not be complicit in this deceit.

Years ago now, I came to see Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl” as a folk poem and I began wondering if indeed I had some of the folk era in me as well. I have never forgotten a piece of feedback I once received for my first official book of poems, Prairie Falcon. The person who left the remark online was unfamiliar to me. This person didn’t like the title poem, “Prairie Falcon,” an early adventure of mine in the making of a long folk poem. “Prairie Falcon” linked the historical events of the Great Dust Bowl to the AIDs epidemic, to male violence, to those in power and those who are behind the power. “No immunity” was the message of the poem. Not by your status, class, race, religion, ethnicity, sex, gender orientation or ability. This person suggested I stick to poems written in nature.

WS: You tend to use very short phrase-based lines, scattered sometimes, or left-justified in some poems and longer lines approximating the old ten syllable standard but highly variable. And then you are quite willing to use prose at times. Can you explain your practices or your ideas about form? Specifically, about prose poems?

JC: To paraphrase what Frank O’Hara said about form in his essay “Personism”: All you need to know about form is you want your pants tight enough so that everyone wants to go to bed with you. When I began making poems as a novice, I was intrigued by the formal experiments of Beat, New York School and Black Arts poets such as Paul Blackburn and Philip Whalen, Anne Waldman, Bernadette Mayer and Alice Notley, Amiri Baraka, Bob Kaufman and Ted Joans to name but a few influencers. I also liked the early twentieth century European poetry movements that came out of Dada and Surrealism, including all the formal inventiveness that went to the Letterists and Situationalists movements. 

For some poets, form is all that matters. I am not built that way. I use form more as an element of shapeliness. It is not the front and center basis of my body of work. Form and prosody interact with what the poem is saying, but I don’t let myself be constrained by rhyme or exact measures of feet or the length of vowels, unless that’s what I’m trying to do. While I came by that lyricism, that romanticism, naturally and you see it earlier in Treasures for Heaven, I only did that to see if I could do that, and I did have that ability in me and did those works, so I moved on from the exactitudes of prosody and beyond William’s variable foot experiments as soon as possible as I had no intention of reinventing canonical works that other master poets before me had explored for over a couple thousand years. 

That said, I do love the sonnet form for its immense history and for the flexibility it provides to say many things, including things that have never entered the sonnet form before. And clearly the sonnet form resonates throughout western poetics communities to this day, taking in new experiences and observations across the Identity continuum. Today’s reality includes advanced levels of disinformation, mass chaos, depression and anxiety, conspiracy theories that seem lifted from The National Enquirer and World Weekly News and a broad amount of society that wants to achieve a second Reconstruction in which all the legal decisions that moved the country forward in terms of civil rights is now moving backwards towards white nationalist manifest destiny. But I do have a heart connection to those first couple of lines of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116, lines that helped me establish the contemplative and relational orientation I yearned for with a reader at the other end of the line: “Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments.”

My prose poems, which you asked specifically about, also grew out of modernity, with how influenced I was by Ted Berrigan as a teacher while at the Kerouac School and Ted’s breakout book of poems, The Sonnets. Ted, like Frank O’Hara, had a way of saying things about form that were a lot less academic than the academicians I studied with in college. And a lot more informative in the process. What interested Ted about the sonnet form was the speed of a line. The line is the essential building block of the Berrigan poem. If your lines have dead spots in them and you can’t see those dead spots, you’ll likely never develop the ability to do so. To write a fast line, you have to be able to judge the speed of your own lines for yourself. You have to know in your bones the differences between a fast and furious line, an ok line, a line you’ve written 100 times before that’s almost bearable, and a terrible line. Ted described the way to consider the line in its most elemental and perhaps cosmic way. It just had to be terrific. 

That’s how I feel about form in the end. I can’t differentiate it from what I’m saying in the poem. Its purpose may be to accent. Or it may be that form acts as a kind of effects box the way a guitarist or vocalist might use it. A particular form might serve a particular purpose of organizing what’s being said. And then there is the signing space. The signing space of the American Sign Language poem. If there was an evolution in my work, it may best be described as a factor related to my appreciation for the body’s sign space in Deaf poetry. Like all frames, which I see as the bedrock of formal parameters, you have questions about what was left in and what was left out and how important is what’s left in to what’s left out of the poetics’ space from which the poem emerges. Overall, I think the Heart Sutra, of all Buddhist texts, makes one of the most profound statements you’ll ever hear about form, more profound than in any book of prosody: “Form is emptiness. Emptiness is form.” I’ve spent a number of years living with this mantra from the Heart Sutra and so my poetry is also a recipient of contemplating not simply literary form, aesthetic form, but the relationship of all form and emptiness. 

After I became a parent at 50, I began my Ongoing Saga I Told My Daughter book of poems, which I created for my daughter around the time I became so enamored with her and my tradition of bedtime reading. One evening, while we were reading Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking, I flashed back to when I was a child hearing serialized action-adventure stories told by a counselor on the bus every afternoon coming home from day camp. I realized that I wanted to make something like those action stories for my daughter and I wanted to present many different paths a girl might take as she grew up in female form. Those prose poems were written in 13-lined stanzaic prose poem blocks I thought of as a baker’s dozen. They are as much like paintings to me as anything I ever made with words. Here’s an early-appearing poem from the extended version (2016):

Backcountry Shower 

There are certainly more useless ways to misspend youth than living

it in a vampire costume. Getting out of the car, Angelica says a prayer 

to Kurukulla, for Lilly––killed in teenage crash. Only Angelica

survived. She bows to the waterfall before her. It rises like a maze of 

10,000 visions, all mango-gold beneath rum-colored pools. She takes 

off her clothes as though they were sheets in a book meant to be read

one at a time. The water runs through her hair. She forgets about a

shouting match in Portland, those cramps atop the Chrysler Building,

a hawk named Lao Tzu, the legend of Confederate scientists mere

days from developing the atom bomb. She’s the kind of girl that

keeps her mouth shut unless somebody asks her an intelligent

question. She repeats these words to herself––“Woe to read in thirty

languages and tell nothing from the simplest face.” 

WS: The Beat influence is clearly significant, but you mention Whitman and the Chinese poets as well. Are there other writers whose work has been important to yours? How?

JC: Pablo Neruda was someone whose poetry I have long admired for its miraculous sense of imagery and lines filled with color, texture, unexpected and surreal juxtapositions, as well as Neruda’s unique ability to animate any object with feeling. I went to Chile in order to make a pilgrimage to Neruda’s homes in Valparaiso as well as Isla Negra. I went there to pay my respects and to see the land he came from and to which his poetry paid homage. One of the most remarkable moments of my life came to me in Valparaiso, which somehow gave me the feel of San Francisco a hundred years ago. At Neruda’s home above Valparaiso, there’s a gigantic framed photograph of Whitman in a broad pinstripe suit. I was stunned. Ecstatic. You can read about that in Treasures.

I also feel a special relationship and connection with the Tibetan Buddhist poet Milarepa. It was a slow-evolving relationship, but one that I kept returning to. What intrigues me most about Milarepa’s life is how Marpa the Translator, Milarepa’s Tibetan Buddhist teacher, chose the 3-towers project to teach Milarepa a very hard lesson about burning off the negative karma Milarepa took on after his father died and his uncle threw his mother, sister and him out of their family home and then the revenge Milarepa took out on the uncle and the extended family by dropping the ceiling down on them and killing many of them through the use of black magic. For his crimes, and the negative karma Milarepa took on as a consequence of him being a killer, Marpa had his disciple build and then take apart three towers, stone by stone, even to the point of returning each stone used in the building of the 3 towers back to where he’d found it in the surrounding fields and meadows. For years I wondered over such a consequence as Marpa delivered upon Milarepa. There was something traumatic about Milarepa’s early life and something transformative in the psychological realism of the work Marpa set upon Milarepa to fulfill. These old stories immediately showed signs of universality across the centuries in terms of how one might address the consequences of one’s actions, and offered a means to transform wrong action into right and wrong mindedness into right mindedness.

WS: Many of your poems include precise descriptions of natural scenes; most append the location of the work’s composition, a good many are set in other countries. What to you is the significance of landscape or of environment in general?

JC: Exploration of the natural world, the world that surrounds our built environment, engages you in Old Ways practices and ways of being, ways of seeing. For me, being outside of civilization offers the opportunity to partake in vision quest culture and the more unburdened simplicity of solitary on-foot nomadic travel of the wilds. All the things you depend on at home to keep going in the rat race end up tying you down with maintaining a “lifestyle.” Jack Kerouac influenced me most in this regard, especially the first section of Kerouac’s Desolation Angels (1965). I felt that Kerouac really had a beatific command of the language of mountain culture and his Buddhist studies hadn’t soured on him quite yet in his job as a fire lookout. Of course, Kerouac, Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen, among the Beat poets, were all North Cascade fire lookouts, with Snyder leading the way in 1952. Reading the first part of Kerouac’s Desolation Angels or Snyder’s Riprap & Cold Mountain Poems (1965) had quite an influence on my determination to hit the backcountry as soon and as often as possible. In addition to the Beats employing themselves to wilderness outposts, they also brought along Oriental practices such as the reading of Buddhist texts, which for the Beats centered on The Diamond Sutra, practicing calligraphy, as well as engaging in mountain culture daily chores such as collecting and chopping firewood and melting snow for water. For me, it was such wilderness experiences that empowered these Beat poets that was at the core of the entire On the Road culture that so lit up youth of the 1960s. Similarly, my own travel pieces were not made on luxury liners or tour buses led by professional guides. I would generally hitchhike domestically or fly internationally, and simply set off with a map and guide book, taking public transportation to get around.

To be now experiencing the accelerated massive degradation of our natural world, which since my youth only embraced me and nurtured me with wonders, is quite sad. I have wandered among the ruins of ancient peoples who have lived close to the land, built homes into rock cliffs, loved, raised families, made art and left their homes, as the Anasazi did, which leads you to a greater appreciation of Native American tribal cultures and the earliest human inhabitants of North America. I’ve been impressed with rock art for most of my life. Perhaps, no rock art “spoke” to me as powerfully as that which exists near the north bank of the Green River in Dinosaur National Monument. There, I found myself looking at a depiction of ancient rock art which I believed told the story of how the human world split off from the animal world:

Interpreting The Petroglyphs At Deluge Shelter

This is the bridge the people crossed

When they left the animals & their language

& their devotion to the Four Directions

Of the Sacred Earth.

There is the Elder holding the hand of

The children of the people above the crack

In the rock wall; the Elder, bending 

His long ears towards the animals––

& the Antler’d One, the Many Antler’d Elder,

Turning his rack toward Elder Long Ears;

All the children of the animals below the crack

In the rock wall & visible to whomever passes.

Jones Hole Creek, Dinosaur National Monument, Colorado

10 August 1995

As for the significance of landscape or of environment in general, what else does humanity so much depend upon? This is the exact dialog that’s missing in our polarized politics at every level. I keep thinking that all the things the left and right are fighting over won’t matter at all if our runaway climate is shattered forever. This human epoch we are in, known as the Anthropocene, is one defined by increased anthropogenic ecological crises and environmental disasters. Many scientists believe that the idea of sustainability is now unattainable, obsolete. If news as dire as the Holocene extinction does not get all parties, young and old, left and right, to sit down and work out ways for all the countries of Earth to work together, then what’s left for the individual to do? 

I now find that many of my poems may serve as reminders of what once was here that is no more. Each of these locales that I visited and then wrote about exists because these places, in and of themselves, had messages for me. The simple fact that many of these travel poems exist at all is because each place had something profound to say to me. Each place gave pause to deep emotion and the opportunity for liberation in this lifetime.

Jim Cohn’s Treasures for Heaven can be purchased on Amazon.

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Unacceptable Rules Made to Be Broken: Interview with Jim Cohn by Chelsea Debarros

Jim Cohn, Winter woods near New Paltz, NY, 1981. 

Chelsea Debarros: What is poetry to you?

Jim Cohn: The 20th century poet William Carlos Williams had a theory about the nature of poetry and language that helped me appreciate what poetry is early on. WCW argued that there are two functions of language. Its secondary function pertains to the informational: science, technology, culture, society, politics and journalism. The informational is the material realm, the world of suffering. Williams then went on to say that the primary function of language is poetics. That is, the generative, creative and imaginational realms of language––the engines of poetry––are its primary function because language, like people, changes and adapts to the new, the present. For me, that suggested a personal engagement with bardic liberation within myself: with cutting the ground of ego, and with using one’s sensorineural radar to encourage others to walk in the long march of freedom, justice and equality throughout history, time and space. Using the power of language to secure feelings of spaciousness, mindfulness, openness, compassion, sustainability and peace, I can draw a line from WCW’s notion of poetry’s aesthetic primacy over information back to Shelley’s notion of the poet as the world’s “unacknowledged legislator.” 

CD: What influenced you to start writing poetry as a vocation?

JC: The question you’re asking revolves more around taking on the poet’s walk of life. Taking on the poet’s walk of life isn’t something most people want to take on. They would rather hold poetry up on a pedestal for special occasions and engage in it as little as possible. What happened to me happened to me as a teenager. I was taken by lyrics and music, but I didn’t see going to concerts or listening to records as entertainment. I wasn’t entertained by the poets and singers I grew up listening to. I was being instructed through engagement in the art they were making and I studied their work and their work influenced me directly. I was learning from the work I listened to and I was influenced by it to aspire to enter the arts myself. 

The first book that grounded me for the poetry walk of life I took up was one I read in my late teens or early twenties. The book itself was somewhat shrouded in mystery. I’m speaking of Carlos Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge. Castaneda was getting his masters in anthropology at UCLA and the book appeared as a result of his Anthropology master’s thesis as if it were an authentic ethnography. Other significant authors who were also ethnographers include the Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston and Beat Generation poet Gary Snyder. Although Castaneda’s books are understood today to be fictional, he did suggest through the real personage or fictional character of a Yaqui Indian sorcerer named Don Juan Matus that one follow a “path with heart.” Those words were critical to me as I was trying to decide what I would “do” “with” “my” “life.” Here’s what Castaneda’s book said that so lit me up on the question of how do you decide your own path in life: “Does this path have a heart? If it does, the path is good; if it doesn't, it is of no use. Both paths lead nowhere; but one has a heart, the other doesn't. One makes for a joyful journey; as long as you follow it, you are one with it. The other will make you curse your life. One makes you strong; the other weakens you.” 

For me, the writing of poetry was neither a vocation nor an avocation back when I began nor is it today. Back then, I had moved to Missoula, Montana, into a tiny shack maybe 300 square feet I was renting over the fall 1978 through the spring of 1979. I’d just received a letter from Allen Ginsberg accepting me as a teaching assistant at Naropa’s Kerouac School. After reading the letter, I went outside on what was a 30 below zero and hip-deep snowy Missoula night when I felt a great and knowing sense that poetry was going to be my life. I told my mother about the experience over the phone. She replied, “But honey, everybody writes.”

CD: For new readers learning about your book of collected poems for the first time, would you explain its title, Treasures for Heaven, and say something of its origins? 

JC: “Treasures for Heaven,” the title poem from which the book takes its name, came after a talk given by a Kerouac School colleague named Randy Roark. Randy had just completed a lecture on Bob Dylan’s praxis of offering different versions of his own material in concert. In the follow-up Q&A, Allen Ginsberg suggested that Dylan had work that nobody would ever hear. That work, Allen suggested, Dylan was leaving as “treasures for heaven.” This was in the summer of 1992. I wouldn’t get to writing the poem “Treasures for Heaven” until 1999. And the book Treasures for Heaven wouldn’t be published until 2022. So, I’d been carrying around these three words in my head about this idea of poetry nobody sees for three decades. I realized immediately that leaving my own “treasures for heaven” would be an accurate way of describing both my life and work as an artist and as a person because I had no interest in fame and fortune. I had no real interest in the book industry either because I was unwilling to look for approval outside of myself over the merit of my work after reading Jack London’s novel Martin Eden, a book admired by the Beats. I came up considering the idea of submission of manuscripts to be a form of institutionalized slavery. I would have also disagreed with anyone who considered me a hobbyist.

CD: Having begun writing these poems in 1976 and having continued to the present day, did you know that would happen? What inspired you to begin this organizing process?

JC: I had zero idea what would happen to me as a novice poet or how long I might feel enamored with making poems or contributing to poetry culture. Some students in my cohort were shattered by the experience. I was electrified. I didn’t know if I had anything to contribute or if I would have anything to contribute. All I knew was I was both woodshedding and experiencing the culture of poetry firsthand, and that it gave me great pleasure to see my thoughts on the page and how changing my thoughts on the page could be considered medicinal and healing for myself and perhaps for others. 

I came up in a poetics mix of diverse performative and progressive poets from various schools and communities, as well as musicians, social and political activists associated with the Beats and their impact on the Postbeats. All the vital news you get from poetry that you can’t find elsewhere I feel that I found at the Kerouac School. As one of Ginsberg’s TA’s and students, as well as my being a student of Anne Waldman’s, I was introduced into organizational aspects of poetics and building poetry communities, be these aspects related to compiling one’s own books, the books of others, editing and publishing poetry magazines or coordinating poetry reading series. This was during a period when the analog poetics world was shifting into the digital, but these master poets I studied with had a handle on all aspects of walking a poet’s life that was quite useful starting out. 

In the years since working with Ginsberg in 1980, as well as the quarter century he’s been gone, I’d recall from time to time that Allen was working on his collected poems for that book’s first edition at the time of my teaching assistantship with him. Many of the later poems that went into the first edition I had the privilege to hear him read just after he’d written them and a few I published for the first time in print. And then to see his collected poems when it came out, I appreciated the fact that he was quite forensic in his dating poems and posting their locations where they were composed. Context mattered to him. I marveled at the book’s depth, breadth and scope of forms and topics, his X-ray language, the psychological and cultural revolutions that he in large part masterminded, and simply his first edition collected poems sheer size at 838 pages. 

It intrigued me that he included his own endnotes. That was something I aspired to do with Treasures for Heaven. That, and to provide essential context was something I tried to cultivate with my own annotations which in some ways were determined by my revisiting the design of Allen’s original endnotes layout in his Collected Poems: 1947-1980 (HarperCollins, 1988). Allen was also of a mindset that the trajectory of a poet’s work across a lifetime provides a “model of mind,” something that could be of use to society, the arts, and likely to neurology and psychology as well as ongoing studies of consciousness. Ginsberg was 54 years old when he was working on the first edition of his collected poems. I began organizing mine in my 66th year. 

CD: Can you please describe your poetry writing process? How did you establish your unique poetry writing style/form? 

JC: You’d have to go back to Frank O’Hara’s tombstone at Green River Cemetery in Springs, New York, and the words there: “Grace to be born and live as variously as possible.” I once heard Tom Waits say to the effect that fame and fortune is like having a sandwich named after you. I really had no desire to attain that. The energy of life’s changing nature was something I wished to portray across the span of my work. We know that Golden Ages of Poetry have come about in history as a result of the language of the street, vernacular language, overcoming the official language of state. 

I have a deep sense of how language changes and grows in order to keep up with all the new naming of new things, new situations. I also have a strong sense of how racial, ethnic, gender, sex, religion and disability keep evolving new vocabularies as well as new ways to consider history, such as critical race theory or the 1619 Project. Pound’s dictum––make it new––is something timeless that I believe every poet aspires to as a response to experiencing the changing nature of language in one’s time. But do I have a “signature” style? There is no “Jim Cohn” poem that encapsulates what I manifested. Instead, I thought of myself more as a  tertön, a term within Tibetan Buddhism that refers to a person who recovers hidden or lost teachings, called terma.

My writing began in the field. Not necessarily Charles Olson’s “open field.” More akin to Whitman’s lines Now I see the secret of making the best persons, / It is to grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the earth from “Song of the Open Road,” (6) in Leaves of Grass, upon which Treasures for Heaven is modeled. All I needed back then was a cheap back pocket copybook and a pen and that post-Kerouac, Grateful Dead idea to “get out of the door and have a look all around.” I grew up attracted to Chinese and Japanese poetry and art in my teens because I saw nature animated in ways you don’t see in the Western canon. Here, the natural world is largely displaced in poems by matters of identity and the “I.” My Oriental poetic heroes, both poets and painters, had the capacity for downplaying the “I” for a more emotionally signifying imagery that allowed readers to fully enter the poem. Whenever I was field writing in nature, pulling back on the I-experience and allowing the sacred experience of being one with nature to permeate the poem was what I was documenting.

My poetry is clearly image-based. Ezra Pound argued early in the 20th century that there are three kinds of poetry: melopoeia: the charged sound and rhythm of language; logopoeia: the wit and wiles of language play; and phanopoeia or the casting of images on the visual imagination. Both Pound and later Ginsberg affirmed that the image was the only one of the three types of poetry that can be translated clearly and vividly. I would see this power of images in a proof that occurred during a Deaf-Beat workshop I organized for Allen to do with Deaf poet Robert Panara. The workshop was for American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters in 1984, and I’d also invited a few deaf friends in the performing arts to attend. At that point in their lives, my Deaf friends Peter Cook and Debbie Rennie had worked in the theater. They thought of themselves as storytellers in the great Deaf sign-based literary tradition. They considered poetry a hearing thing. I was advocating the opposite: that ASL poetics may be, in their hands and bodies, the ultimate language of poesy. So, they were there, watching. 

Ginsberg asked if any Deaf person attending the workshop could offer up a spontaneous ASL translation of the key juxtaposition in “Howl”: the enjambed words “hydrogen jukebox.” The esteemed Deaf poet and actor Patrick Graybill stood before the group and spontaneously outlined a jukebox’s shape, the way a record is pulled out of a jukebox’s rack and mechanically carried, turned and placed on a turntable, and then with the record spinning round faster and faster, the jukebox begins to shake and finally explodes. It was a perfect translational enactment via the signing space of “hydrogen jukebox” “That’s it,” Allen said, laughing. It was a supercharged moment and it changed my Deaf friends’ minds about poetry being an exclusionist spoken word thing.

How I work making poetry has expanded over time from my own sense of visual language to how painters may paint a scene and how directors may make films. When I was making and then revising my book-length fem-action poem “The Ongoing Saga I Told My Daughter, I sometimes felt like the 13-lined sonnet form I’d chosen to work with was a canvas, a tableau. Writing my achronological historical-fantasy long poem “If 45 was 16 & 16 was 45,” I found myself thinking that the poem itself was highly cinematic and would actually make a powerful movie in its own right. I even included an imaginary film made by Spike Lee about Donald Trump, a 2012 film entitled Trump: Sic Semper Tyrannis (“thus always to tyrants”). When my friend, the Ginsberg heart-son poet Antler, responded to seeing this poem, he wrote me “I didn’t know you could do this in poetry.” I didn’t know it either. Till I did it. There are rules to be broken. 

CD: In the introduction of your book, you mention that you attended the Dharma-oriented program at Naropa University. In what ways would you say that this meditation-and-poetry training influenced your approach to writing as well as creating community? 

JC: As a Buddhist postsecondary institution, dharma was the focus at Naropa, but in the Poetics Department, it was more subtle. Gandhian Truth-force and Thoreau-to-MLK civil disobedience were more a political stance of the Kerouac School and in that regard, studies there in the mid-1980s shifted away from the Beats to a more inclusive poetics featuring poets from communities of color, women’s poetry movements, and international poetic communities. This made the project Anne Waldman was carrying on at that time a matter of dharma to listen to student demands that times had changed and that there was much other equally important poetry to discover than the Beats in the 1980s, some thirty years since their literature took the country’s youth by storm. I have always felt that this shift in curriculum and faculty was itself a form of dharma poetics in action. 

While the entirety of the Beat Generation––inclusive of all Beat scenes around the country (and the world) as well as all the women of the Beat Generation––remains, for me, the most significant literary and cultural phenomena of the mid-20th century, its historical significance remains firmly rooted in the fact that people have only continued to be more outspoken about class, status, race and gender inequalities. There is every reason to believe that the Beats opened the door for Amiri Baraka taking steps to form the Black Arts Movement in the mid-1960s, and that the success of Black Arts inspired every other poetics community based on race. I’d also say that the women of the Beat Generation had a critical impact on the Women’s Poetry Movement that is still being felt today. In addition, who can deny that Ginsberg himself was essential to the varied LGBTQX poetries and communities?

Another element of Buddhism at Naropa as it filtered through the Kerouac School was the reality of karma. When you find your relationships problematic regardless of who you are in relationship with, you have to begin to ask yourself about this pattern of negative outcomes. That our actions have direct consequences for us is something our society deals with more seriously today at the individual level via Me, Too and Black Lives Matter movements, but what about nations as a whole and their actions and inactions as it relates to karmic theory? Several years after Naropa’s founder Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche died in 1987, he appeared in a dream of mine advocating for “American Karmic Studies.” Here’s the poem I wrote about that:

Brief Proposal for American Karmic Studies

after Chögyam Trungpa appeared in a dream

Rinpoche, drinking from an old tin can, said to me––

The homeland is in the midst of its own terrible mistakes.

The government spends billions to broadcast neurosis.

This does not imply an open situation

With things as they are.

Taking another sip, he laughed––

You never read about bodhisattvas receiving medals.

If you’re serious about what a democratic people should pursue,

Set your sights on burning off

American karma in your own lifetime.

That way, you will realize the country’s pure

Sitting Bull nature.

Boulder, Colorado

10 January 2005

CD: Would you elaborate more on your sense of building a poetics community? I am thinking of the website you created, the Museum of American Poetics, with its multiple tribes of writers interconnected and co-existent, living and dead.

JC: Poetics community building was the essence of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, whether or not students understood it as such. Anne Waldman, who founded the school along with Ginsberg, wanted to prepare students to start up mags, interview poet-teachers, participate in and organize readings when they went back to the towns. These are each in themself practices of poetics community-building skillful means. Around the mid-1990s, I was into deep and long correspondence with another Ginsberg heart-son poet, David Cope, over multiculturalism and those discussions oriented us to begin branching out to diversify our own individual circles and to consciously reach out to poets outside of our own communities for the poetry magazines we edited and published. Cope had his long running Big Scream magazine and I had ACTION, which I’d published in Rochester, New York, and then my own twenty-five-year poetry zine Napalm Health Spa. 

The evening that Allen died, 5 April 1997, I had a dream that all of the extended Beat Generation project would be lost to history, and with it, my own sense of being a Postbeat poet––someone writing after the Beats, with a direct influence from Beat writers themselves, dedicated to furthering the impacts of their work on culture. I founded the online Museum of American Poetics (MAP, poetspath.com) as a way for me to at least place the Beats within a context of historical poetry communities as well as to educate myself about who makes up the expansive realm of poetry communities in the U.S.A. today. And since neither the Academy of American Poets nor the Poetry Society had interest in the Postbeats, I also saw MAP as a critical project in the quest for a truly multiracial and multiethnic peaceful society. This introduced me to both curating and online museums. After years of building up MAP’s content, I realized that there was no way I could know the big picture poetry scene without help from members of the various communities with whom I might ally. During the mid-2010s, I did just that, asking poet friends I admired to take over respective exhibit curation of communities of which they were full-fledged members. 

CD: Another influence I could not miss in the poems is the life you have led. You’ve studied with amazing people, traveled widely, lived in communes, helped raise a daughter, worked with deaf poets, and counseled students with disabilities. It all seems to come together in the poems. How have these life experiences influenced your world-view and the poetry you write? 

JC: Our life experiences are the greatest influence on one’s world-view and poetry. Poetry is always moving forward. And yet, Pound said, “Only emotion endures.” With every poem you make, you set up your poetry’s karma. With every book you compile you are involved in a chain of decisions you’ve made. Every public statement you make, including these statements I’m making here, has consequence. You might call it the “Rolling Thunder effect.” Has anyone been harmed in the process of you making your poems? As a father or a mother, a husband or wife, a friend or lover, a sister or brother––can you maintain your writing doing no harm? Whose ally are you? How far are you willing to go for others? To me, the business meetings at a commune are no different than the faculty or staff meetings at a university. Can you recover and change if you’re a victim, if you’re a perpetrator? Consider the world of political poetry. If you make your poems from events and stories in the news today, how relevant are those poems a month later, a year later, 10 years later, going to be to others? You better be writing at the level of the Beat Generation poet Andy Clausen, the great vox populi of the democratic unconscious” heart-son of Allen Ginsberg. How can you write something that anyone anywhere at any time can relate to? This is where every single poet rises and falls on their own consciousness and their own merit. What I heard Allen Ginsberg say, that I never heard from the lips or fingers of any other person, was “Mainline into mass suffering.” This went to the heart of informing me as to the poetry I wanted to write and the life I wanted to live. 

CD: What do you consider to be the chief legacy of the Beat poets in your own work? On poetry in general? On American culture as a whole?

JC: Early in the twenty-first century, I introduced myself to two Chinese translators interested in the cultural impacts of the Beats on American culture. Wen Chu-an was the Chinese translator of Kerouac and Ginsberg. Wen held Beat-East summits as part of his Chinese Beat Studies program. Zhang Ziqing was a colleague of Wen’s and a Chinese translator of the Postbeats as well as the esteemed author of the three-volume History of 20th Century American Poetry. Zhang made clear that the Chinese were interested in how a literary community such as the Beats could have such a powerful impact on culture and society and were also curious to see if and how such an impact may continue to be felt.

The most enduring Beat, Postbeat and Outrider cultural and social effects are these: wilderness protection for a sustainable Earth; retrieval of Old Ways customs, rituals and histories; love of travel and Kerouac’s notion that “there was nowhere to go but everywhere” (which I also see whenever some kind of exclusionist glass ceiling is shattered); consciousness-raising spiritual practices and teachings for achieving peace, sanity and liberation from suffering in one’s lifetime; out-of-the-closet sexual lives and a full continuum of sexual identities and orientations; legal access to marijuana as well as benefits to access of hallucinogenic drugs for medicinal, psychiatric and consciousness purposes; as well as support of communities with histories of institutional oppression and disenfranchisement. 

CD: What is Treasures for Heaven saying to Gen Z-ers, especially those about to graduate college, like me? And, in your opinion, how can we keep poetry relevant to the lives of younger generations who use social media as a primary source of expression? 

JC: One thing Treasures for Heaven may say to Gen Z-ers is that your desire for social, economic, procedural, environmental, electoral and restorative justice is a universal and enduring emotion that will remain true. Justice is an aspect of the long march of freedom that we humans have entered and endured. I do feel that Gen-Z has perhaps the most clear-eyed sense of social justice that America has ever seen. Will this generation make errors? Undoubtedly. Will social media be an asset or a liability? For some younger poets it has already been useful. In which direction will such influencers point their followers and fans? How will poets speak truth in such an partisan and disinformational and hate-spewing echo chamber environment? Will they be able to mobilize others for peace and justice and what will these protests look like? Will “like-minds” find one another to form new schools of poetry? Who will center the communities and who will be the new pillars of these scenes? Who will take on the organizing and what will the anthologies of the future be filled with? What poets and poetries before them will be of use and inspiration? Will this generation even survive, and if they do, how will Gen Z be looked at by their children and their children’s children? What indispensable works will you all make and then leave behind?

For many reasons, making poetry is a dangerous business. It is not a walk of life for the faint at heart in any time period. The history of poetry is one of poets who have faced silence, exile, imprisonment and death for speaking out. Like many, I saw this play out in Amanda Gorman as she read her poem “The Hill We Climb” at Joe Biden’s 2021 inauguration. It took a lot of clarity to write the poem she did, but to deliver it live and before the nation, that was a risk she felt and has described. It takes courage to believe in your own work, regardless of your audience’s reaction to it. Regardless of whether or not a publisher is standing with you in solidarity with the work. Gorman wrote of the danger she felt in the days leading up to her standing at the United States Capitol to read her poem to the nation, the youngest person ever to address a presidential inauguration ceremony with poetry. She had a mantra that helped her through this: “I am the daughter of Black writers. We’re descended from freedom fighters who broke their chains, and they changed the world. They call me.” Although my spirit totem, lineage and tradition are going to be different from any other poet, I believe in words that Gorman said to herself and they are more similar than different words I said to myself when I began writing my poems and continue to say to myself if asked to present work for the benefit of others. I am empowered in this temporary human form by being aware of the traditions, works and lives I carry forward in a tradition of speaking truth to power. For me too, my poetics descendants call.

Jim Cohn’s Treasures for Heaven can be purchased on Amazon.