Tuesday, June 9, 2020

TtD supplement #162 : seven questions for Naomi Cohn

Naomi Cohn is a poet and teaching artist who works with older adults and people living with disabilities. She’s also worked as a community organizer, encyclopedia copy editor, and grant writer. Her current project, Light in the Hand, explores reclaiming relationships with the natural world and visual art after midlife vision loss. Red Dragonfly Press published her chapbook, Between Nectar & Eternity. Her writing has also appeared in About Place, Fourth River, Hippocampus, Nimrod International, Poetry, and Water~Stone among other places. She’s also been recognized by grants from the John S. ad James L. Knight Foundation, Minnesota State Arts Board, as well as numerous residencies. A Chicago native, she now makes her home in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Connect at www.knownbyheartpoetry.com

Her poems “Being Sick in Summer,” “Memory and its Discontents” and “Ice” appear in the twenty-fifth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “Being Sick in Summer,” “Memory and its Discontents” and “Ice.”


“Being Sick in Summer”
I think I got the first draft of this poem from an online class on flash forms I took with Rochelle Hurt a few years ago. Other than the hippo, it’s all pretty grounded in real life. One summer I was plagued by an endless chest cold punctuated by bouts of fever…I don’t know where the hippo came from, but that is, I guess, the beauty of a fever dream..

“Memory and Its Discontents”
I used to know this one by heart. I’m interested in poetry and other words we care about enough to carry around in our memories, in our bodies.  I run a very occasional series of poetry performances where people present work, their own and that of other poets, from memory. I particularly enjoyed presenting this one live, ending as it does with someone trying to forget, live on stage.

I became preoccupied with memory through watching my father lose much of his memory over a decade living through dementia. That experience was one of the things that spurred me into poetry as a way of making sense of experience. At first I wrote about loss—of memory, of the person I knew—but in this particular piece I was thinking about the ways that memories can be a burden.

This is one of a few pieces I’ve written about ice. Maybe I’m becoming more and more obsessed with ice as Greenland and the Antarctic melt away.  This one came from a snippet I heard on the radio about using ice as a pain test.

Q: How do these poems relate to some of the other work you’ve been doing lately?

A: Thanks for that question. I’ve been wondering about that myself.

In terms of themes, these pieces feel like outliers to my current work. My most recently completed project, The Braille Encyclopedia, is about falling in love with braille and re-learning to read and write as an adult as a result of midlife vision loss. The Braille Encyclopedia started as an essay, then morphed into a series of linked prose poems that morphed into something more like a book-length poem-essay.

I think the connection of these three little pieces to my current work has more to do with shape and process. When I wrote these they were more like prose oddballs among the rest of my poetry, which at the time featured not only line breaks, but often meter and traditional forms like villanelle and blank verse (partly just because it was fun to have a puzzle to solve, partly because I was curious about how pattern—rhyme, meter—helped make poetry memorable—and memorizable).

Now a lot of what I write is prose poetry. Or starts there, anyway. I often write chunks of text that feel more or less like poetry. Some of them gel into prose poems, some morph into poetry with line breaks, other things veer into something more like story or essay. But these three pieces might be seeds of my current work in terms of form or practice, prefiguring the ways in which the prose poem block is the home, the starting point for much of what I write.

Q: What is it about the prose poem that appeals? What do you feel might be possible through the prose poem that might not be possible otherwise?

A: What I love about the prose poem is that it feels like a space that welcomes all of my language vices. When I try to write poems, people often note they are like stories or little essays. (Or that they are too wordy or expository.) When I write something I think of as an essay, people say.. “Oh I loved your poem.” (Or they are frustrated by the nonlinear illogic of the thing, want a more nailed down Strunk-ian clarity.) In the prose poem I am better able to accept my linguistic flaws and see what use I can make of them. The prose poem form helps me just settle to the work of helping the words thrive as best they can.

Q: You mention that this trio of poems feel akin to outliers to your current work, especially given your braille-specific project, but linked instead work through “shape and process.” What does that mean for the shape of where these poems might land in a manuscript? Or is that something you even worry about?

A: These poems have wandered in and out of a few draft manuscripts. Each time I end up feeling like they don’t really want to talk to the other pieces. So it’s lovely that they will see the light of day in Touch the Donkey.

I often envision a collection of just prose poems, linked more by shape than subject. But right now, other projects demand my attention more loudly.

I move around a lot on whether I care about collections or book-length projects. I don’t teach in an academic setting, so I don’t need a book as a unit of accomplishment. I love books as physical objects, but with my vision loss, they are not really how I consume poems.

But I do love the possibilities of manuscripts, how individual pieces become a community that does something more than each poem can do alone.

Q: I find it curious that you link “academic setting” with “a book as a unit of accomplishment” (what I’ve taken to term, instead, as “a book as a unit of composition”), the latter of which has been central to my own work for two decades or more, and I haven’t anything to do with academia. Your thoughts on linking poems via subject do open up the question of how it is you do shape manuscripts. How do you shape manuscripts, and how important are considerations, which I would think aren’t mutually exclusive, such as shape and subject?

A: Yes, to the book as a unit of composition! But I tend more toward the individual poem as the unit…In part that’s due to my definition of poetry, as a creation, a made thing, like a painting or a pot. For me poetry is art made with words or sounds, and like a pot, I hope each piece holds water on its own.

Another factor in my focus on individual poems relates to the ongoing degeneration of my eyesight, which made working at book-level, not impossible, but increasingly challenging.

(I was a novelist before I was a poet and one of the reasons I turned to poetry was that smaller scale of composition made it more doable with the sight and tools I had available to me…)

So if there’s not a compelling reason to work at manuscript level I avoid it. As I alluded to above, I don’t have the external motivation or necessity of producing books to get or keep a writing related career (Unlike many of my poetry colleagues who teach creative writing or composition as a way of making a living. For many of them publishing a book or books is helpful or necessary to getting and keeping jobs. For me in the community settings I work in, that’s not such a big deal, so unless there’s a burning reason a large number of my poems need to appear together, there’s a selective pressure in my life toward working at that individual level of a single poem.)

So you are spot on in your question about subject being a way into manuscript for me. Every so often I get grabbed by subject—and sometimes that subject seems to want a larger scope than an individual poem.

And I totally agree about shape and subject not being mutually exclusive. I think, in fact, when those things come together might be when the otherwise overwhelming task of working at manuscript level becomes something I want to take on…

The short answer to how I shape manuscripts is: trial and error. I read over what I’ve got and shuffle the deck of poems and read and re-read. Since I can’t read print on the page, I can’t do this the way I used to—printing things out and arranging and re-arranging physical pages. I get a lot of feedback and opinions from friends…most of which I ignore, but it helps me “see” the shape of the overall thing better than I can do on my own with auditory and braille reading.

Another thing in terms of books as the “unit of composition”: I love scaffolds. For example, back in my novel writing days, I wrote one of the middle drafts as a sort of sestina, arranging chapters according to six themes that followed each other the way end words pattern in a sestina. I didn’t end up using that form in later versions, but it helped me find a shape for the book.

The Braille Encyclopedia
manuscript, similarly, grew out of the scaffold idea of a series of dictionary or encyclopedia entries. The difference was that that scaffold or architecture remains visible in the finished work. In the case of The Braille Encyclopedia, the scaffold helped me arrange the pieces I’d already written and then, as I made lists of “entries” I wanted to write about, gave me a series of assignments to complete. One complication of this shape or scaffold I chose was that re-ordering pieces could be tricky; some of the entries ended up with slightly farfetched titles to keep the fiction of the alphabetical order of the work.

Q: With a poetry chapbook and numerous poems appearing in journals, how do you feel your work has developed? What do you see your work heading?

A: I’m not sure I can answer how my work has developed. I keep learning and learning about what a poem can be or do. Maybe if my newer work has developed in some way, it is somehow more comfortable in its own skin.

In terms of where my writing is heading, I continue to be curious about writing that works both as poetry and prose. That might be my big arc. On a smaller scale I suspect that means a certain kind of see-sawing between poetry and prose as I find my particular kind of hybrid or betweenness. Right now I seem to be leaning more deeply into prose. Since finishing Braille Encyclopedia, I’ve been focussing a lot on an essay collection. Admittedly, a lot of the “essays” might be indistinguishable from many prose poems. I also suspect that after spending more or less time in prose-land, I may cycle back more into poetry, back into line breaks and sound patterns…

Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your work? What writers or writing can’t you help but return to?

A: For better or worse I come back to individual poems I’ve memorized or taught. A few of these:
Lucille Clifton “won’t you celebrate with me”
e. e.  cummings “[as freedom is a breakfast food]”
Lisel Mueller “Things”
Ross Gay “A Small Needful Fact”
Donte Collins “What the Dead Know by Heart”
Rita Dove “Heart to Heart”
Naomi Shihab Nye “Supple Cord” “Business” “Two Countries”
Phillip Schultz—“Pumpernickel”
Russell Edson “Adventures of a Turtle”
Charles Simic “Stone”
Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 (“That time of year thou may’st in me behold”…
[One of my “students” a guy in his 80’s who complained constantly of his memory loss, knew that one by heart…)

Each time I present one of these poems to students, I learn something new about it.. and each one becomes a little library of conversations and writing that the poems generate in the groups I work with….

In terms of re-energizing my work….Sometimes I do that by reading far from poetry…for example, I’ve been doing some writing about birds and spend a lot of time on ornithology websites…I get a kind of energy of opposition reading the often dry  prose of scientific accounts.

Perhaps on a more inspirational note, I keep coming back to a few books published by Rose Metal Press—I just re-read The Field Guide to Prose Poetry… It’s got essays about prose poetry, but it’s also a great mini-anthology of prose poems… very energizing to see how many different things a prose poem can do.

Up next—-I am looking forward to reading Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.

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