By: Irene Cooper
we go to the shore and there
is some evidence of us. we are
ocean stripped to two open bodies,
our organs engaged in the kinds
of raw melody you expect
of exposed cells free of their people
suits. no secret tissue now too hot
to poke with a found liver,
with a length of carboned iris. unmixed
and strung like clean kidneys in sunlight
it’s almost better than being drunk,
this dissolution. morsels for gulls served fresh
on a frigid current of north atlantic insult,
it feels good to nourish something. you
muck around in the tide pools
fish out a heart-shaped rock, hand it to me.
the difference between an albatross and a grappling hook is genre. the body beats up a hullabaloo to keep the mathematicians out of the liquor cabinet. until i see your bones reform i forget about the candles you light while everybody sleeps. between you and me, the only way to hear ourselves bleed in peace is by cranking up the fiction. a loose tooth means that i know you’re away and can’t take my call. in another life we are tusk to tusk in putrid battle, laughing and lifting our streaming nostrils to frighten the tourists. his brief pageant deprived us our banality. ark or gene pool, irony levels are dangerously high. what else goes into the water to keep us in stitches? Your liquid body rolls off you like snake oil like thunder like the electric charge that siphons up the air.
the lord is on retreat working on his novel as we struggle with such language as is left us. I understand you are busy imploding. must be exhausted from always keeping us safe from happenstance, a diagnosis. i trip with three sedated cats and two more to a small room which becomes your absence. how can you hide now with innards exposed to the dawn. cue the chorus, so we know to weave laurels from the kale. your way of changing the subject to stone is winning. if you were here in this terrible moment you’d offer some medicinal bit of black. a horse walks into a bar. an elephant passes through a pane of glass. a sliding door is a measure of seeing while warm. how much can we river the water as it smells so poorly but swans. i have chipped my tooth on the laminate of this terrible moment and how will we walk this off with soles so cracked and blistered. three sedated cats awaken with hangovers, hungry with desire to paw the dogged jewel of you, casting stars across the ceiling and over the bedspread. night happens after everything. the word of our father turns to elegy, to emptied. who hears the clump leave his
loosed grip but me.
Irene Cooper’s poems and reviews appear online and in print. She writes freelance copy and teaches in Central Oregon, and co-edits The Stay Project. Committal, her debut speculative spyfy novel, is forthcoming from Vegetarian Alcoholic Press in 2020.
Interview with the Poet:
Cathexis Northwest Press: How long have you been writing poetry?
When I was in the second grade, Ms. Taub published a whole page of what I would say were short prose poems in that year’s P.S. 114 journal. But I distinctly remember some fevered scribbling, literal scribbling, before that, which I think was my first interaction with poetic form, sound on the page. CNP: Can you remember the first poem you read that made you fall in love with poetry?
The first poem I memorized was Edna St. Vincent Millay’s, “Love Is Not All (Sonnet XXX).” I tried to translate it into Portuguese when I was an exchange student in Rio de Janeiro. So, I was well into adolescence when poetry really hit me. Most of what I’d read up until then was from the “canon,” you know—dead guys, mostly. Brasilians love their poetry, make heroes of their poets, the living ones. I’ve always been a diehard Shakespeare fan. Fall in love, though? That distinction probably goes to “Voyages” by Hart Crane. CNP: Who are your favorite poets? Any specific poems?
I don’t, or haven’t, facilitated a workshop without including a poem by Natale Diaz. “From the Desire Field,” “It Was the Animals,” “Grief-Work”—the beauty and intelligence of these poems! Book length, Deepstep Come Shining, C.D. Wright. The Hemophiliac’s Motorcycle, Tom Andrews. Tender Buttons, Gertrude Stein. I love Ross Gay, particularly for his way of marrying the long sentence to the short line. Marilyn Chin. Paisley Rekdal. Arthur Sze. Jericho Brown. Danielle Pafunda. Rachel Zucker. Sonia Sanchez. T.C.Tolbert. There’s nowhere to land, here. The poems-a-day that fill my inbox—the verse that comes out of the PEN Prison Writing Program—just make this list longer and longer.
I will say, if it’s not apparent, that my taste runs wide. I like a poem that echoes my tendencies –short, image-heavy forms with limited narrative—and can totally get into a grand ballad and lyric tour de force. Is the language electric? Does the artist implicate them self in some way? Is there humor—even, especially—the dark kind? I’m in. CNP: Can you share for us a little bit about your writing process? Any specific rituals that get you in the zone?
I write a lot, and a lot of different stuff, including blogs and marketing copy (for income) reviews of poetry and creative nonfiction books, personal essays, fiction, and of course, poems. For the worky-work, I just power through—do my research and type as fast as I can. The poems require stillness, first. Then a constraint, maybe multiple. I am indebted to Gwendolyn Brooks and Terrance Hayes for inspiring a prompt I used to write quite a few poems last year. I adapted Hayes’ Golden Shovel, the form wherein the entirety of Brooks’ poem, “We Real Cool” is lined up vertically to form the last words of the lines in a new poem. In my version, I similarly formatted single lines from poems that spoke to me and wrote into them. This part was done by hand, on a legal pad. I then typed them into a document and revised the hell out of them.
Truthfully, I’m not always about the prompt—I prefer more general inspiration like lists and associative word banks, staring into space—but the Golden Shovel adaptation combined constraint with a sense of legacy, a concept I feel is critically important to understanding one’s own poetics. CNP: Any advice for poets who have yet to find their voice?
I often think, and the thought is frequently reinforced by students and clients, that the poet is the last one to hear their own voice. Me included. Advice is a tricky thing. From personal experience, I recommend sheer volume. Release the inner critic from its cage and write, write, write. It’s exhausting. You’ll be so tired of the seven layers of pretty packaging you muffle your singular voice in that eventually you’ll want to be more efficient, find a way to strip down and say what you must as only you can, and before you pass out. This is also known as revision. CNP: What is your editing process like?
Back in grad school, Arielle Greenberg introduced my tiny cohort to the contract. We’d read a poem and make a list of 10 or so things the poem was doing—the choices the poet made and the contract they adhered to regarding form, syntax, punctuation, titling, etc.—and, critically, where the poet broke contract. We applied the contract questions to our own poems, and while I rarely write out 10 questions these days, the exercise was elemental to considering my own intent and having agency in, taking responsibility for, my own work.
Usually, I rewrite a poem in at least two forms other than the one in which it first took shape. Almost always couplets, almost always prose form, although the poem may take neither shape, ultimately. Rearranging the language in different forms on the page is the best way I know to understand the poem better, as well as deepen my intention.
The editing process I’m most interested in currently is how to order poems in a manuscript—you know, the whole “the sum is greater than its parts” deal. An art in itself, I think. CNP:
When do you know that a poem is finished?
Good question. One of the poems in this issue underwent yet another revision after CNP kindly accepted the piece, though in fact I may prefer the version you took. If a poem holds all that it can hold, and is scrubbed clean down to the enamel, it’s either done or it’s time to move on. I’m not a “this poem was ten years in the making” kind of poet, I don’t think. It’s a dynamic process, and some poems, if they languish too long or see too much tinkering, simply fade for me. I’m not writing poems so that they can be engraved in stone. James Longenbach said a poem is “…an event that happens on the page rather than a recounting of an event that happened prior to the page…” For me, that means, among other things, that often a poem will tell me to quit pestering it and let it be. A poem is finished if, a) I like it as something separate from me, and, b) it tells me, or nods to, something I didn’t know. And of course, there’s gotta be music. Harmonically or discordantly, it has to sing.