by Emma Van Dyke
One thing that I admire about your work is how you create tension, intimacy, and risk in relatively few lines. I’ve noticed a trend towards shorter and sparer poems in your recent work, as opposed to the work presented in earlier collections. Is this a conscious decision? To what does this change in form respond?
That's a good question. I do want to say as much as I can in a few words, and many of these very short poems tend to find their way to me pretty much whole. Like a fruit falling from a branch. Though like a fruit that gets some leaves clipped, or gets polished.
I also think of those small poems as tiny interlocking puzzles––all the words have to work together, just so. But then there are longer poems that work in a more rambling and associative manner. I just go where those lead.
A good example of this brevity is your poem in issue 6 of Arkansas International, “Seaside.” In just fourteen lines, the poem emphasizes conscious construction of emotion and intimacy, for example: “we had/ to plant the sand and/ the idea of happiness. We had to haul in/the water”. The dogged pursuit of, and labor toward, intimacy seems to be a major theme in your work. Can you speak more about that?
Well, you put that endeavor nicely, that "dogged pursuit of, and labor toward, intimacy." I think that what I am aiming at in my poems isn't much different from what I am aiming at in life. Of course, in life it's harder, given that it involves other people, not just words.
And what I can also say about that poem is the stuff you can't make up: once I rented a beach house in Provincetown with a few strangers, including one who shared my name. And one day that Andrea Cohen and her girlfriend went to scope out the beach where they would be going the next day. And their reconnaissance––not something I'd have done––stayed with me.
Your newest poetry collection NIGHTSHADE comes out this year. How did you choose the word NIGHTSHADE as a title, and what does it mean for you?
The poem, "Nightshade" talks about one thing being both poison and balm, about living being bittersweet. That truth seemed to capture what many of the poems bump up against.
What themes does your newest collection explore?
I think I'm still stuck in that dogged pursuit of intimacy, and the loss that entails––and the wonder.
Where you given any advice as a young writer that, you have found, stands the test of time?
Yes. When I was 22, I told Gail Mazur that I thought all my poems were ending the same way, and she said that once you were aware of something, you couldn't but change it. So I try to pay attention. Also, Phil Levine once said that he had a car stolen with lots of poems in it when he was young. And that it was okay because a lot of the poems weren't that great. I might be remembering it incorrectly. Maybe it was just a suitcase of poems. But the point is this: it's okay to let go of poems, it's a good thing. It lets you go on to the next ones.
ANDREA COHEN’s sixth poetry collection, Nightshade, will be out in 2019. Recent books include Unfathoming and Furs Not Mine. Cohen directs the Blacksmith House Poetry Series in Cambridge, MA, and the Writers’ House at Merrimack College.