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: Career isn’t typically a word that I would use for myself, but the short answer is no, the way I write hasn’t changed. I wake up, sit down, and see what happens. I like to spend mornings writing and revising what I’ve just written. It’s a quick pay-off. I’d never have made it as a novelist.

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, revise it a few times right away, and email it out to a couple people. I don’t think of the poems as finished at that point. One steadfast reader/critic is my playwright friend, Naomi Wallace. We’ve known each other since the mid-eighties, when we were in graduate school together, and she sends me feedback right away. I am very fortunate for that.

I like revising and guiding the poem to its final shape, but I am less concerned with perfection than with the making of it.

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

AC: It did. Inside one very snowy winter, I was flying out to San Francisco to see my friend Alice. We sat on the tarmac for a long time, and I was sitting next to a man consumed with his origami.

My longer narrative poems tend to work in an associative way. The man next to me on that plane was not making a mythic sea monster; that was something I recalled from an origami exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum years back. Things collide in one’s mind––the real, the imagined, the etc.––and together they make the poem.

JD: The poems often discuss loss and overcoming loss, but there’s also this sense of reclamation. I’m thinking of a few religious pieces, like “On Divinity.” Do you sit down and 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 begin with a word or a phrase and see where that takes me.

JD: This book came out a year ago, and you have another collection coming out entitled Everything. Is there anything you can say about that ahead of its release?

AC: I tend to forget what poems are in what books because I write every day, and a book might be published three years after it’s been accepted. So some of the poems in Everything were written five or six years ago. I don’t know to what extent they’re different from the poems in Nightshade, but I’d say they come from me, so they are of a similar voice. I hope they contain some sense of wonder and surprise.

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

AC: The shorter poems are not more difficult for me; very often they arrive fully formed, or nearly so. They are like tiny puzzles, and it’s a pleasure trying to get them just right.

JD: What are you working on now?

AC: I just get up and write. When I have enough poems, I start putting another book together. For me, that means laying all the poems out, deciding which ones to ditch and which to keep––and how those in the latter category might converse with each other.

JD: Your collecting of poems sounds like a harvest of sorts.

AC: It is.

JD: I have to mention of course that these are such difficult times. Has that impacted how you see your work or what topics you find yourself gravitating towards?

AC: That’s a good question. I don’t know that my topics are different. I think I tend to write about the same things: desire, loss, injustice, lunch. However, I’m sure that ideas/feelings of isolation and uncertainty have entered the poems in a different way because of how we’re living now.

I am especially aware of all we can’t know, and that becomes a fabric of the poems.

JD: Art plays such an important role for so many people coping with issues you’ve just mentioned. Do you think that the role of art or poetry or its importance has changed of late?

AC: I think that art and poetry are doing what they always do: they companion us, and move us to see and understand the world (and ourselves) anew.

JD: You are the director of the Blacksmith House Poetry Series. What are your thoughts on writing communities and reading series right now?

AC: We write in isolation, but community is everything. These days our readings are online, and every time I log on to read or listen, I am buoyed by the voices––and faces.

JD: You will be judging the “Blurred Genre Contest” with Redivider. What can you say to writers submitting to journals or contests, and why it might be important for them?

AC: I’m not sure that it is important. Years ago I judged a poetry contest for high school students. There were three judges, and we each had to choose first, second, and third place. It seemed clear to me that one young poet was head and shoulders above the rest. But she ended up in third place. I wrote her a letter, telling her that sometimes it’s just a crapshoot, these contests, and whether you win or lose doesn’t necessarily mean anything about how good a poet you are.

I realize that this is kind of a nutty thing for me to say. I am about to judge a contest. But more important than sending poems to journals, or submitting them to contests, or winning contests, is just writing the poems. Write them because you love the sound of language, because you love the possibility of what can happen between you and a blank page, because you are not afraid of failure. Because really, I don’t think there is failure in writing. The lesser poem leads the way to the greater one.

As for rejections and acceptances, you have to take it all with a grain of salt. If, as a young writer, I’d gotten too upset by rejections, it could have been debilitating. It’s helpful to have hubris and humility. And stamina.

My advice to young writers would simply be this: read and write and live––and if you don’t have anything to say for a spell, let yourself be quiet. And listen.