Interview conducted by Rob Geisen
Jim Cohn is one of the most creative human beings experimenting with the specific re-arrangement of words working today. He received a BA from the University of Colorado at Bo
ulder in English, and a Certificate of Poetics in 1980 from Naropa University's Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. He’s the author of five collections of poetry: Green Sky, Prairie Falcon, Grasslands , The Dance Of Yellow Lightning Over The Ridge and Quien Sabe Mountain, edits the poetics journal Napalm Health Spa, and is the founder of the on-line Museum of American Poetics (MAP).
Thinking along lines of great writers being pushed to greatness by mighty nemesis (aka Hunter Thompson and Nixon, Bukowski vs. Life), is there anything, be it physical, mental, concept, actual person (living or dead) pine cone, string theory, George Bush etc that gets you worked up, that you enjoy on some level getting pissed off at, to the point where you then use that 'fuck you!' to whatever it is to fuel your writing? aka What's your Nixon? (explain)
Hunter S. Thompson was a flamethrowing Houdini of idiomatic expression. He made a spectacle and mockery of politicians and the journalistic practices covering them. For me though, everybody is his own worst nemesis. Israel is its own worst enemy, not the Palestinians. America is its own worst enemy, not Qaeda. Look at the failure of the Big Three automobile makers and the economic ravaging their greed and shortsightedness has caused the people of Michigan. A comparable situation may be Japan immediately after WWII. So, it isn’t just the president who has faulty intel. To paraphrase Randy Roark, I don't know anyone that doesn't have some kind of emotional malfunctioning.
Nemesis is sitting at the kitchen table reading the front page of the newspaper and making swastikas on the demon-of-the-day’s forehead. I personally never had the intention to generate a poetry ruled by nemesis. I’m no Jacob wrestling with the Angels. I’m not a topical folk singer. Everthing, including nemesis, fades away. I wanted to write a poetry that gave time the slip. So, there was no nemesis-muse to fuel the writing of the poems in my head. There was absolutely no originality or aesthetic quality that interested me in that. The Molachean universe, the universe of stigmatized and neurotic Otherness, had been quite well studied before I arrived on the scene. Since Rimbaud, the deep meaning of poetry is the slaying of nemesis–– any conception of “self.”
What do you love most about poetry?
I love how a poem comes to me all at once or a piece at a time or not at all. Because I write much more than I publish I love how a book takes on a life of its own that isn’t separate from me but is not me either. Like Neil Young, I work for a supervisor I’ve never met on a book I’ve never seen. I love poetry for the people that came before ours. What fascinates me is how poetry doesn’t automatically keep pace with the times. Somebody must come along and get what’s happening and be what’s happening in a whole new lexicon. I love the poetry of Bernadette Mayer, Amiri Baraka, Michael Pingarron, Joanne Kyger and Andy Clausen. It has a transparency no government ever had. I love that Pablo Neruda had an enormous photograph of Walt Whitman in his Valparaiso study and that the homes of Pablo Neruda are sanctuaries where people come from around the world to pray for peace. I can’t believe I got drunk with Carl Rakosi in Rochester or how I lived in Boulder, the same town as Thomas R. Peters Jr. and witnessed his twenty-one years to date of nonstop Monday night poetry readings or that Bob Holman could have powered together the Bowery Poetry Club. I love that a ordinary guy like me had the good fortune of studying under Alice Notley and Ted Berrigan. I can honestly say that Gregory Corso’s explanation of the monkey that ate hallucinogenic morning glory seeds as the missing link was something from Naropa I will never forget. I have comments in pencil by Philip Whalen on novice poems I wrote for his class that are very dear to me. Gary Snyder was so prophetic on the environment and his ethnographic writings offered me a reason to seek an advanced degree in Deaf Education. Long ago I realized that poetry is a magic library––not so much like Jefferson’s as Prospero’s or Thoreau’s, one that serves a poet directly, not simply inspirationally, but as a map. I love that I got as close to certain volumes of poetry as I did to my record collection growing up in Chicago and then Cleveland. I love how poetry can be taken in solitude, anywhere, indoors or out, or shared among true minds. I love how reading or writing great poems makes me feel the liberation that was always there or the yearning for liberation when nothing is going the way I wish it would and recognizing that people anywhere on earth may be feeling this way right now too. I love how as I’m writing this, my daughter wakes up in the fold-out couch next to me and sitting up says, “Go on.”
What do you hate most about poetry?
That’s a proposition that just does not compute. Hating anything about poetry is like saying you hate rocks or the tides. You might as well ask what do you hate most about the Hell Realm or what do you hate most about nirvana. Poetry sections in airport bookstores are something I find a joke. I do not like the fact that City Lights Books allowed something as important as Antler’s Factory to go out of print or that American Sign Language poet Peter Cook may never be voted onto the Academy of American Poets website, let alone find his ASL poems in the Norton Anthology. How much truly monumental poetry never enters the canon of letters is anybody’s guess. It amounts to a staggering body of marginalized work. But none of that is poetry’s fault.
Talk about the Museum. Tell people a little bit about what it is, how it started, what's happening with it now.
The idea for the Museum of American Poetics (MAP) occurred to me driving back from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland when I heard on the radio that Allen Ginsberg had died. The summer of 1998 I founded the website, envisioning a virtual literary center with readings, lectures, a library of poetics transmissions and exhibits highlighting the diversity of American poetry. It was also a way to digitally publish Napalm Health Spa, a poetry journal I’d edited in hard copy since 1990. Over the next decade, MAP evolved and expanded. There’s something of the spirit of Harry Smith that guides me––a circus-like atmosphere. My primary interest was to make MAP a showcase of American poetic diversity. The architecture of the site befits the contribution of poetry to social change in the United States. There are, no doubt, infinite ways to portray these interrelated histories. I was interested in documenting the traditions that were drawn on by the Beat Generation and later I became interested in the poetry influenced by the Beats––particularly Allen Ginsberg––the whole experimental, demotic, networked, progressive, global, nomadic, outrider Postbeat world we live in today. In MAP’s second decade, I began to expand the exhibits into the international theater, providing strands of lineage generally not covered by my institutional counterparts. I am deeply moved by poets around the world speaking out at great risk to their person and families. I collaborate with individual poets, collectors, archivist and professors to do all. For example, in a bowling alley the other day I had lunch with Raza Ali Hasan, a Pakistani-American poet, and Ali was telling me how Middle Eastern American poets, more than any other community, are the least affected of any underclassed minority in the country by the election of Barak Obama. As a person born Jewish, I actively work on behalf of this region’s poets in order to provide an entry point to literary and cultural normalcy in the post September 11, 2001 years. The Allen Ginsberg Trust has also been generous in allowing me access to materials that would otherwise not be readily available to the general online public. And I’ve have been lucky to have worked with a series of astute webmasters along the way. Frankly, I’m mystified to look back over MAP’s development. It’s all there at the Internet Archives.
Talk about new projects you've got going on. Books, cd's (questions 4 and 5 reserved for complete self promotion. Let everyone know how frickin brilliant you are.
I began 2008 with the publication of an essay on Postbeat Poets in Wikipedia. In June, I put out a compilation double compact disc project entitled Impermanence. Track selections covered my spoken word recording career beginning with The Abolitionists in the mid-90s all the way through my last session project, Homage. Archives of my music, including unreleased collaborative work with The Abolitionists is preserved by my musical collaborator Mooka Rennick at his Prairie Sun Recordings, one of the last great studios in the North Bay area. I’d like to bring out the best of that before much more time passes. Last summer I did research at Stanford University on Allen Ginsberg’s years at Brooklyn College and then collaborated with the Allen Ginsberg Trust to curate an exhibit of some of those primary materials. I also spent about five months revising a book-length poem I’d written a few years earlier called The Ongoing Saga I Told My Daughter. Publication of Saga is slated for early 2009. That work is based on a childhood memory of a serialized story that would unfold each day with wild adventures, dangers and escapes. I call it a fem action poem. The main character is a multiple human named She. Work on that book sidetracked my efforts to complete a current manuscript of poetry, titled Mantra Winds, which is now expected to be published in 2010. After that, I have a third book of essays and interviews that compile my own poetics contemplations. I play a small part, as myself, in a new documentary film on Deaf poetry by Miriam Lerner: “The Heart of the Hydrogen Jukebox,” that will be released in 2009. I’ve been working with David Cope and poet/ activist Eliot Katz for several years on an Postbeat poets anthology entitled Demotic Fire.
Where does your best poetry come from? When you’re writing, are you more productive in a bad mood or good? On a scale from Love to Hate, emotionally speaking, where do you tend to feel you do your best work? Stuff like that.
Writing is something I do not aspire to do. Who wants to speak of these times, likened as they are to women and children and men going to the fields six days a week, working sun up to sun down, sleeping out of doors and walking home eight hours having made ten cents. Let’s just say an uninterrupted environment for an extended number of days is optimal for me. I don’t really care if I’m on or off. Sometimes my best poetry, in the writing of it, only makes things worse. Randomness is critical. Every line, image, soundfile figures in to how it’s going to and how it did come together. I’m no sophisticate when it comes to how what I want to say will end up. Do I miss my Royal manual typewriter? Does memorizing John Milton help? Is Jesus a Cub’s fan? I like to write after rereading everything by Philip K. Dick, James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On The Mountain, Basho, anything by Trungpa. I’m like a Buddhist with alzheimer’s, I kid you not. Most of the time I like wilderness composition best. I feel best with Nature communicating to me. The best poems I’ve done come out of a genre represented by a little book by Ed Dorn called The Poet The People The Spirit. I can begin by simply riffing on something Paul Blackburn wrote as easily as something Joe Henderson did. Sometimes my best work has come out of a panic attack and I’m like a painter painting over what was there at first. I don’t have as much technical interest in prosody as in emotion. I may be somebody’s sense of a heathen or infidel or sinner or delusionalist, but I can go under a pretty mean spell which is where I tap into my own secret treasure hunter mind. I can take off from a title, very freeform, aconvential musicality. Three year retreats would be nice, especially if with Marc Olmsted and Peter Martí. That’s not normally the case, however. I have blue eyes and my mood is not so stable, so I go at it either when the call comes in, like one night in Crestone, Colorado when my former wife Susannah Grace Carleton sat on the back step of the house with me during her retreat with Reggie Ray and told me she’d had a vision of “skeletons making love” and she was just channeling this language that electrified me and that night I began writing a poem by the same name and recorded it as soon as I got back to Boulder just before my mother died in September of 2006. When I am completely lost in awareness it can suddenly make sense to watch what’s going on or what’s going on makes me weep, something lets go inside of me. Then there’s the trance of writing itself––this beautiful interplay between my head, my heart, and my hand or hands. Every day is an experiment to me. That keeps things open.
Give the people a list of writers you think everyone should be reading right now. And a line or two maybe on why.
I will read anything by Anne Waldman, much of the dharma there. Ezra Pound’s ABC of Reading William Carlos William’s The Embodiment of Knowledge The unpublished final ms. of the gentle hearted brilliant Michael Pingarron Anything by Randy Roark, the most cultured poet’s poet, everything sounds true Andy Clausen’s memoirs––the hidden gem from the heir of Neal Cassady Antler, Selected Poems, tangential mind at its best The David Cope Collection at UM––a goldmine of the Postbeat poetry scene Anything by Akilah Oliver The prose poetry of Katie Yates, it’s always calmly surreal Alice Notley, inventor of feminist poetic forms without end The Diamond Sutra Chronicles, Volume 1, Bob Dylan Eileen Myles, the great poet conversationalist Wang Ping, The Magic Whip Sharon Messmer, student of Allen’s at Brooklyn College Lesleá Newman, a Naropa student who went on to make a name for herself Jeff Poniewaz, who was writing for planet earth before Al Gore made it popular Eliot Katz’s Love, War, Fire, Wind, to remember how bad the Bush years really were
What kind of things do you love to hate? Or hate to love? This formulation strikes at the essence of poetry. The present, what’s immediately in front of us, what we have to deal with right now, is filled with endless dramas of desire or what Milton in Paradise Lost called “pandaemonium” or what in Shakespearen rhetoric is known as chiasmus (Who dotes, yet doubts; suspects, yet strongly loves. ––Othello 3.3), or exemplifies the Mahamudra (realization of perfect wisdom and compassion, emptiness and skillful means) of the siddhas. Growing up, I loved to hate emotional vampires. I’ve let go of people I’ve loved because of their severe and gross self-interest, their inability to recognize mistakes, their irritation when others do not comply with their whims. There are many disguises to this and it can take quite a while to work with this kind of mind damage in a loving way. Poets are not the most social people. In fact, they do their best socializing in poems. It’s actually remarkable to live long enough to see these projections with kindness, all of our baggage. I used to find the poem as the location where mind surrendered to polarity and the moments of writing as the practice of loving hate and hating love until neither opposition seemed particularly real or relevant, which somehow, I knew intuitively, was the point. Anybody who tunes in even periodically to any media outlet, be it the largest newspaper in the world, Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun or the New York Times, Al Jazeera , Fox News or Democracy Now, China Central Television or the BBC knows that it’s all part of a vain attempt to both command and fill empty space. I know some good poets that replicate that subjectively, but I had a different sense about it all. You can only take all this loving to hate and hating to love junk so far and then it drowns you. Men that cannot understand women and women that have been hurt by men can carry that around like it was a medal or a curse. It ends up as an exercize that really involves no yearning for liberation. Who wrote the Bible? Who wrote the Koran? Well, who wrote my poems? Is it a human being or a god? It might be inspired by God, but these words came from what I wanted to say and what I am.
A Love To Hate Poem by Jim Cohn written on December 10, 2008
Jupiter And Venus ‘Neath Crescent Moon
All is not well in Syria, or anywhere else for that matter.
Then again, the holiday season is upon us, as it always is.
The old man cannot hear that he left his car running.
Eh––it’s just another mother lode of things coming back threefold.
Jeffrey dropped off some firewood, he was heading this way,
Seen a pair of mountain lions earlier crossing Cherryvale.
Now a pair of snake-eyes roam beneath a sliver of moon.
What do I care––if you’re a poet, Mercury’s your patron.
You don’t want to mess with the order of the universe Ricky said.
Whatever gets you through this flurry of life-altering changes
For example, everyone gets romantically hung up sooner or later.
They realize how hollow and ridiculous it all is.
You want to give that special someone the cold shoulder
And end up making a complete ass of yourself.
Jim's Book Impernance can be bought online here