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):
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.