From the Source, An interview with Andrea Cohen. The 2020 Blurred Gebre Judge sits down with Redivider to talk craft, her next book, and how writing contests don't really matter

by Jacques Denault

On October 1, I sat down at my kitchen table to host an interview with poet Andrea Cohen. In a time when Zoom calls have been many people’s go-to, she and I spoke over the phone, covering topics including her most recent collection, Nightshade, writing in the time of COVID, and the role contests play (or don’t play) in young poets’ careers. The interview was not only refreshing but cathartic too, a moment when I could think not about where art is but rather where it is going.

Jacques Denault: What was your experience writing Nightshade? It’s your sixth full-length collection; has your writing process changed over your career?

Andrea Cohen: It’s funny, career isn’t a word that I would use for myself. And the short answer is, probably no. What I do is pretty simple. I get up every morning, for the most part, and I sit down and see what happens. That’s what my writing life looks like. On a good day, basically, I’m spending my mornings writing and revising what I’ve just written. There might be drafts of a couple different poems, there might be several. That’s what I’ve been doing for a long time, really. It doesn’t change.

JD: So you edit right after you write the poem?

AC: I do.

JD: That’s interesting because you hear so often, especially in MFA programs, to let it sit for a while.

AC: I write a draft, and I will revise it. I might have ten or fifteen revisions right away and then I send it out. I have one friend who’s my main reader. She’s a playwright and she will always send me feedback. And then I have two or three other people I’ll send poems to. They may give me feedback, or they may not. But when I send things out, they are very fresh; I don’t think of them as complete. I might, over the course of 20 minutes or half an hour, send three drafts to somebody, version one, version two, version three.

What’s important to me is not so much a thing being perfect, but the making of it. That’s what I enjoy most, and sharing it with a couple of people right when it’s new.

JD: My favorite poem in Nightshade is “Action Origami.” I thought that one was really unique. I have to ask: did it come out of an actual experience?

AC: Absolutely. I was writing—I think it was that winter when we had all that snow—but I was flying out to San Francisco to see my friend Alice, and we sat on the tarmac for quite some time. I was sitting next to this man who was making these origami things, who had been on all these flights, and had the tickets to prove it. All that is true.

What happens for me in a lot of those longer narrative poems is that they work in this associative way. So the mythic sea monster, no, he wasn’t making that. But years ago there was an origami exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum, probably seventeen years ago, and there was a sea monster made out of one piece of paper. The things collide in one’s mind, right? The things that are happening right now, the things that happened in the past. It’s both the real and the imagined.

The 1983 blizzard, totally true. Totally true about going to that Park Avenue specialist, this family stuff, that’s true. I’m looking at the poem, going through, and, if my recollection is true, my grandparents also sent love letters to each other, though of course there’s a part of me that thinks I’ve made that up, though I don’t think I have. One gets to a point in life when you can’t ask the people involved what’s true and what isn’t, and of course, what matters is the bigger truth that the poem, any poem, hopefully gives to us, I think.

JD: I love the idea that it’s this combination of different concepts and connected ideas coming together and forming one really wonderful piece in the end.

AC: Thank you, and both the two origami things that he gave me are at my friend Alice’s house in San Francisco, so there’s documentation.

JD: That’s a really fun story. Now, I noticed reading through the collection that there’s a couple of themes throughout the book. Of course there’s lots of discussion on loss and getting over loss, but there’s also this sense of reclamation. I’m thinking of a few religious pieces, and one—“On Divinity”—I love the ending to that. So when you write these poems that have these similar concepts or ideas, do you sit down and set out, say, I want to write a poem dealing with this thing I’m grappling with, or does it flow naturally?

AC: I don’t sit down with any kind of agenda. I sit down with maybe a word or a phrase and generally I just see where that goes. Or a word comes into my head.

JD: Now this book is a year old. You have another collection coming out entitled Everything. Is there anything you can say about that ahead of its release?

AC: I’m just going through sending them the final galleys tomorrow, so I’m looking at it. You know, I forget what poems are in what books really, because I write a lot, I write every day. I think I submitted this book to my publisher twenty-six months ago. So basically it comes out three years after it’s been accepted, or two and a half, something like that. And I may have written some of these poems five or six years ago. I’ve probably written hundreds of poems since then, not necessarily that they’re all going to get published. What I can say about these poems is that I don’t know to what extent they’re different from the poems in Nightshade. I’d say they come from me, so they are of a similar voice.

What I consider most important, I suppose, is that feeling of surprise that one has when writing, and the fact that the poems find their meaning through the sound. Those are the things that drive me, the sound and the silence that is part of the poem. And I guess, very often, trying to see how far one can go with as few words.

JD: I remember it being imparted on me that the shorter a piece is, so often the harder it is because each word then becomes so important.

AC: Yeah, the short poems that I write, I can’t say that they’re difficult. Very often they come fully formed, and I might tweak them a little bit. But I enjoy them, enjoy trying to get them as right as I can.

JD: And there are so many in this collection that are wonderful, so I would say you certainly accomplished that.

AC: Thank you.

JD: Now, you said that you wrote those poems years ago, so you must have other works in process.

AC: Sure, I basically am putting together another book. I don’t sit down and say I’m writing this book now; I just write and then at a point I think okay, I clearly have another book or two, so I think what are the ones that are the best ones, how do they work with each other, and how do they connect with each other? I don’t have to make them connect, they’re all from me so they’re things that I’m thinking about, but how do I put them together in a way so that they make some kind of sense.

JD: I like that concept of you just keep going and when it becomes a book it does. You collect it—a harvest of sorts.

AC: A lot of people work differently, but that’s what I do. Each poem is its own discrete thing.

JD: Now, I have to mention of course that these are such difficult times. In addition to everything going on right now in the country and in the world, it’s just a time of immense stress. Has that impacted how you see your work or what topics you find yourself gravitating towards?

AC: You know, that’s a good question. I don’t know that my topics are different. I think I tend to write about the same things. There’s desire, there’s loss, there’s concern about injustices. I’m sure that ideas of isolation probably get into the poems in a different way because of how we’re living now. And uncertainty.

I think one of the things that I have felt an affinity for for some time is the idea of unknowing and what we can’t know, and not having a problem with that. But of course there’s a different kind of not knowing now, which is unsettling for so many of us with the pandemic, with the landscape of America with regard to politics, racial injustice, and climate change. So that’s all, I think, part of the fabric.

JD: Art plays such an important role for so many people to cope with so many of these things that you’ve just mentioned. Do you think that the role of art or poetry or its importance in today’s world has changed in any way?

AC: Well, I don’t know. I think that there has been this wealth of poetry for the last couple years. I think that spoken word and all of these online journals and all of the young people becoming poets, like yourself. There has been this upsurge in poetry. I can’t say what role it’s playing particularly right now for people, but my guess is that it’s a place that many of us can turn to for something that we’re looking for.

JD: That’s really nicely put, because there is so much about poetry and art that is so very vital. Now, you’re the director of the Blacksmith House Poetry series; what are your thoughts on writing communities and reading series right now, the different ways that writers are getting together? You already mentioned online journals.

AC: I think community is kind of everything. I say that, but of course we write in isolation, right? It’s a solitary sport, the writing life. But I think that for so many of us what makes us feel so alive is being part of a community, so whether it’s other writers, or it’s neighbors, or it’s friends, there are so many different ways of finding community. People are doing that now. As a young writer, I think that it’s helpful to find—it doesn’t have to be a lot of readers—maybe one reader who can be a sounding board and give you feedback. I’m no longer a young writer, but I’m very fortunate to have a reader who helps me head in the direction I want to be going.

JD: I love that answer, that’s great. Now, finally, since you will be judging the “Blurred Genre Contest” with Redivider, can you speak to writers submitting to journals or contests, and why it might be important for them?

AC: I’m not sure that it is important, Jacques. Years ago, I judged this contest for high school students, for poetry. There were three of us judging and we each had to choose first, second, and third place. In my mind, there was one young poet who was head and shoulders above the rest. Somehow, the consensus, I think she ended up getting third place, and some other people got placed before her. I remember writing her a letter and telling her that sometimes it’s just a crap shoot, these contests, who wins, who doesn’t win, and it doesn’t necessarily mean anything about how good a poet you are.

Now this is kind of a nutty thing for me to say, I mean, I’m judging a contest, I’m aware of that. Partly, what I mean is that the most important thing, more important than sending poems to journals, more important than submitting them to contests, or winning contests, is just writing the poems. Writing them because you want to write them, because you love the sound of language, because you love the possibility of what can happen when you sit down, when you write, and when you revise. That’s the most important thing, and I guess it’s so important for me to say that because, if I as a young writer had gotten too upset when I got rejections, it would have been really debilitating. So I think you have to take everything with a grain of salt. If someone gives you an award, that’s very nice, but you can’t get too excited about that because then if you get a rejection it’s going to feel paralyzing.

I just think it’s important to write. And if you don’t feel you have anything to say, it’s okay to be quiet too, and to pay attention to what’s going on, and to read, and to think. Things percolate for a while, sometimes.

JD: Thank you so much for answering all these questions and for your time.