Bruce Cohen has written three volumes of poetry: Placebo Junkies Conspiring With the Half Asleep (2012), Swerve (2011), and Disloyal Yo-Yo (2009). He teaches creative writing at UConn. The following interview was conducted by Long River Review’s Tatiana Gomez.
Long River Review: So tell me about the experience that inspired you to write your essay “On Submitting Poems: By Any Means Necessary” for Rattle magazine.
Bruce Cohen: The thing that generated or inspired me to write that essay was this experience I had with Florida Review, and I wrote it in the essay. What happened was the poetry editor accepted like four poems from my packet and I never got a contract. You usually get them within a few months or something, so I feel like six months have passed. I wrote to the magazine and I said I never got my contract so I’m letting you know, and they wrote me back and they said oh, sorry, but there is a new editor and we’re not going to honor the previous editor’s commitments. So I wrote back and I said, you know, basically I watch Judge Judy and I know that he was an agent of the magazine; it seems like you should honor it, because I have an e-mail and everything indicating that you guys wanted the poems. They wrote back and still said sorry, that’s just how it is. So that is kind of what inspired me to write that funny essay about submitting poems.
The funny thing was that happened literally like three or four years ago and just two weeks ago all of a sudden I got this letter from Florida Review. And the letter indicated that we’re really sorry, we’ve had a horrible backlog, and we’re just getting back to people, thank you for your patience, but we won’t be publishing your poems. And it was these poems from like four years ago. It had been already rectified.
LRR: That’s horrible. How do you accept something and get someone’s hopes up, and then just deny it?
BC: Yeah, I don’t know.
LRR: Poems are often very personal to their writers. How do you feel about editors suggesting changes to your poems?
BC: I’m super receptive to that for a lot of reasons. First, I love it when people are careful enough to read your work so closely that they offer specific suggestions. Also, editors have a very hard job and they read so many submissions that they really have a good sense of what works and what is satisfying. So generally, especially with editors that have published my work before, they obviously get what I am doing, so I’m super receptive to their ideas. And a lot of times their suggestions are fabulous. Every once in a while I might not agree, but mostly they’re right on.
LRR: Do you feel that maybe because editors get a lot of work they might miss something? I feel that sometimes when I read a lot of material at a time I end up missing things. It might be my lack of experience, but there have been pieces I read two or three times and it’s not until the third time that I realize how good it really is.
BC: I think that has to do with the nature of reading. Sometimes I get a new book and I’ll read it and I’ll think oh well that didn’t do anything for me. And then a friend of mine will say oh did you read so and so’s book, it’s fabulous, and then I’ll think, oh I read that, it wasn’t very good. Then I’ll look back at it a second time and then all of a sudden I see things I didn’t see the first time, because maybe I didn’t read it carefully, or just didn’t hear the voice. So I think you’re right, we as people tend to overlook things.
LRR: Yeah, I guess if it’s not good enough to stand out the first time then the editors don’t want it. You often say that fiction writers are more mature than poetry writers, why is that?
BC: Because my wife is a fiction writer.
LRR: She is more mature than you are?
LRR: Okay. Let me ask you about your titles. You have great titles for your poems and books, like Disloyal Yo-Yo and Placebo Junkies Conspiring with the Half Asleep. Do you have a process for coming up with titles? I feel that that is one of the hardest things to do, half the time I just slop something on.
BC: I just make them up.
LRR: You just make them up, they just come to you? I feel that a lot of young writers have horrible titles.
BC: Well, one thing I’ve noticed about some young writers is that they kind of just tack on a title that’s an afterthought because they think that they have to have it. To me I think the titles are just as important, if not more so than the first line, which I think is very important. The title sets the emotional and intellectual tone of the poem, but it gives you some insight into the sensibility of the writer. It’s like a good painting should be framed in a particular way, and a title is important to me in that way.
LRR: So you really don’t have a process.
BC: I don’t.
LRR: You’re just good at titles.
BC: No. I mean, it’s nice for you to say that. I’m attracted to and I remember things that are a bit unusual anyway. So if you have a boring title like, you know, “The Blue Book” or something like that, it just doesn’t do much for me. I like art that stimulates me.
LRR: I completely agree. I’ve seen a lot of great pieces with awful titles, and that alone may prevent them from getting published. Editors sometimes get so much stuff that they are looking for any reason to throw stuff out.
Let’s talk about your poetry. It is very surreal. It’s very different. I’m just curious, are you influenced by any particular author? A mixture of authors?
BC: I’m influenced by almost everyone I read. My teachers were very kind of traditional confessional poets, and I feel like I have that narrative kind of meditative underlining feeling in my poems. But I’ve been attracted to a lot more surreal imaginative writers as well, and that certainly has kind of infused into my work so it does feel surreal.
LRR: You’re really funny in class. You have a sort of dark sense of humor, but that doesn’t really come up a lot in your poems. Do you have a poet persona? What is your poet persona?
BC: That’s an interesting question. I don’t know, sometimes my poems feel funny to me, but I guess they’re not funny to other people. I guess there is a poetic voice that everyone has that when they go to it it’s almost like your conscious voice echoing your true essence versus your public persona where you’re talking, knowing that you have an audience. In your poetic voice you’re assuming you’re not talking to anybody but yourself, so that is very different from your public voice.
LRR: Oh okay. So you don’t have an audience in mind when you write your stuff?
BC: I feel like I have an intimate audience. Generally I think of a particular person that I’m writing to, or in some cases to myself. It’s like a self-therapy kind of thing.
LRR: What was it like publishing your first book? Was it chaotic?
BC: No, because I waited a very long time. To be honest, this sounds bad, but I didn’t really care about publishing a book. I just wanted to write the best poems I could write and then I would send them out periodically to magazines, and I thought if I could just get them published in some good magazines I’d be happy, and I was. I was completely satisfied with that. Then at a certain point I realized I had twenty or thirty poems that were published in really good places that I liked, and they felt like they kind of fit together, so I put the book together and sent it out to a bunch of places one year, and I was lucky that it got taken. I got another book taken with a bunch of other poems. I sent two of them out, and I got another book taken like two days later, so it was a kind of weird thing. The funny thing was I felt like I should’ve been happy and excited, and of course I was happy. But it happened all too quickly that I just said this is kind of weird, this is peculiar.
LRR: So you weren’t all like, “I want to be a writer for a living; this is what I really want to do.”
BC: No, no, because I always wrote poems. To be honest it doesn’t matter if I got published or never published or whatever. I just wanted to write.
LRR: I bet you’re grateful, though, to get your stuff out there.
BC: Oh, yeah, I’m very grateful. I’m happy. I mean the thing is periodically I think all writers feel like they want to be validated by the outside world, feel like this is worthwhile, so when you get a publication that’s sort of what it says to you.
LRR: So if being a writer wasn’t your first career option, what did you do on the side, while you were writing?
BC: Well, I ran academic support programs for athletics for like thirty years.
LRR: Oh, wow.
BC: Yeah, I studied poetry at the University of Arizona and then they had asked me to start this program for athletes. It was one of those being in the right place at the right time sort of things, and I just started it and it became a career.
LRR: So everything just fell right into place.
BC: Yeah, but I never stopped writing. I always wrote. And to be honest I never wanted to be a poetry teacher back then, because I didn’t want to be victimized by having a whole life of teaching poetry and having to publish. I just wanted to write the way I wanted to write. My style emerged slowly to be honest. I didn’t have like a particular vision. I just experimented a lot until I found a voice that seemed to work for me.
LRR: What’s it like teaching?
BC: I really love it. I just have the best time. It’s really exciting, it’s fun talking about poems that I like and aesthetic ideas. I’ve read so many essays about poetry, about people’s aesthetics and ideas. Just to kind of talk it through is always exciting, and it’s exciting for me to read new writers, like young writer stuff, because it’s very refreshing and very different. Our class was very good.
LRR: It really was, we had really great people.
BC: Yeah, there were so many talented people and they were trying different things. I’m just loving it to be honest.
LRR: So it’s fun to teach writing? I feel that you can’t really teach good writing. You do a great job at teaching us about HOW to say what we want to say on paper, but you can’t really teach people WHAT to say on paper. Does that make sense?
BC: Yeah. If you remember, we talked about that Richard Hugo essay–I like that line where he talks about ‘all the time I’m telling you how to write like me, when really I want you to write like you.’ So, you know, when I critique the poems and say the things I think–it’s how I write. If some of the things I say are useful, then great. If not then you just kind of let it go. But I can’t do anything other than tell you how I write and my aesthetic and then I try to be receptive about what other people are doing. But you naturally are influenced by other things. It’s like when you read a poem that you like. You might want to try to imitate it, like a cool image or something that gets triggered in your associative mind.
LRR: Yeah, we all steal from other writers and make it our own.
LRR: You often say that good art makes people who aren’t comfortable in the world comfortable and people who are comfortable uncomfortable. I completely agree but I also feel that sometimes, or often, people are more likely to consider and appreciate something that is close to them, that they can relate to, rather than something that will make them uncomfortable. I guess maybe that’s why a lot of great artists are uncomfortable in the world and make art to comfort people who, like them, are uncomfortable. I guess what my point really is, is that I think some people are language people and others are idea people. Like some people value the quality of the language, the words, the small things, while others value the larger picture that the piece is trying to make. Have you had the problem with your poems, or any of your work, where you felt like your point was completely clear, but it turned out to not be so clear because of the ways in which you were trying to convey your message?
BC: That’s an interesting point because it does seem like a lot of poets lean more towards language and others lean more towards ideas, and the poetry that I’m most attracted to is the poetry that intersects those worlds. That has meaning and really human emotions and ideas, but also is linguistically incredibly interesting and amazingly imaginative and comes alive. Those are the poems I like best. I don’t like flat poems all that much, and I don’t like wildly imaginative poems that don’t affect my life, and I’ve never really had that problem.
LRR: How do you publicize yourself? Do you do readings around the country? Do you have a twitter account?
BC: I’ve done a couple of readings around the country but I’m not crazy about it. I mean, I’m barely on Facebook. I’m really old fashioned. I really like good poetry and literature, so I just spend my time working on that as best as I can, and periodically send my stuff out.
LRR: You write essays too. Is your essay voice different than your poetic voice? How do their processes differ?
BC: Well the funny thing is when I write poems I never sit down with an idea, and with an essay I start with an impulse, an idea or scene, and then I kind of work with those. But I’m not a writer who has structured ideas and brings them to the page. I’m always in a sense of confusion when I’m writing and I’m very receptive to whatever hops into my mind.
LRR: So you write your essays out of ideas and your poems just spring out.
BC: It seems like, more than that, the poems are often triggered by an image or a phrase I hear, or an observation or something that just kind of seems like it’s worth exploring.
LRR: Usually about how long does it take you to write something?
BC: It all differs. I’m a reviser because I’m not a good first draft writer at all, so everything that I’ve ever done has major revision done to it. And I’ve become patient with it in the past 5 to 10 years. I used to rush poems, and I don’t anymore. Like if I have a first draft, I’ll let it sit for a while and tinker with it.
LRR: Do you ever have your wife read your stuff?
BC: Yeah, it’s great. She is a fabulous critic. Like you say, my poems tend to be surreal, and she helps me bring them back down to earth because you know fiction writers–they are more restricted to the logic of the world. But she also just has a good eye and ear for what sounds good.
LRR: Do you read your poems out loud to yourself?
BC: Yeah, all the time, because sound matters. The music matters to me. Also, I don’t like lines that have a lot of unaccented syllables and when you read it out loud you can hear when the music sags. I like a kind of muscular, insistent line that is very sharp, so I like to hear the accents of my lines.
LRR: What type of stories and things inspire you to write essays?
BC: I’ve written essays about my boys, kind of memoirs about raising my boys, and a lot of them are baseball related. But I’ve also written some essays on poetry. The thing is, our lives are made up of stories, and every time you tell a story you kind of change it a little bit. And they become kind of mythical. Those are the type of things that seem to be the literature that I write. Stories of our humanity. I’m more interested in the stuff that I don’t know the story behind, and I want to figure it out in the writing.
LRR: It seems like you have different voices for your essays and your poems. Do you ever look back and criticize stuff you wrote a while ago?
BC: Yeah and I hate it. I think that [with] everyone when you look back at stuff, you hate it. You think I should’ve done this or I should’ve done that…but I feel that people do the best they can at that given time. But I think you’re right, you make a good point that people have a different voice for different genres that they work in.
LRR: Do you have a favorite poem that you wrote, like this is a Bruce Cohen poem, that one poem that you’re just really proud of?
LRR: Really you don’t?
BC: No. I mean, I’m a worker. I’m like a blue collar type of writer. I feel like I just want to pump out everything that I can as much as I can, and I think it’s important for me to not think that I’ve had any successes. I really think that I haven’t written a good poem or a good essay yet. I’m just kind of working towards that, so I’m trying to get better.
LRR: That’s funny. I think maybe you’re being modest. I think you’ve written great stuff and not just me, you get really good reviews.
BC: Well, it’s not being modest. I’m just being sincere. If you want to write you compare yourself to the best stuff, and you know clearly I don’t think my stuff measures up to that. But that’s what I’d like to work towards. I don’t think I’ll ever get there, but I feel that it is good to have lofty goals.
LRR: I think you can get there, and I think that because you really are a good teacher.
BC: I really appreciate that, because I can’t tell you how much I’ve enjoyed doing it.
LRR: You’re a good teacher because you’re honest and you care. I’ve had really great professors throughout my UConn career, but sometimes I felt that they were too nice. Or in other words, too easy, and didn’t really challenge me to become better at whatever they were teaching me.
BC: I’m polite.
LRR: You are polite, but I love your brutal honesty, because a lot of people don’t get smacked in the face. Not literally, but when people come to your class you tell them straight up–well that was horrible, or that line was just garbage, instead of well good work you tried, maybe you’ll be better next time. I think that brutal honestly is what led the people from our previous class to become even better by the end of the semester. Embarrassing us worked well.
BC: Yeah, the work from that class was fabulous. I try to treat everybody’s writing like they’re my peers and I want it to be the best possible product. I’m honest to people. I’ll say what I love about the piece and what needs work. That’s what I do to my friends. It’s hard because there is not a right or wrong answer. If you put it in a cookie cutter, if you say this is what makes good art, it sort of defeats the purpose. Art should be reinvented constantly, and every piece of writing should be different from anything that came before it. Even though that’s kind of impossible, that should be the goal. But to say this is what makes poems good, it’s obsolete the second you say it. So you have to kind of take it on its own merits and then respond to each piece.
LRR: Since you don’t have that one favorite writer, who are your favorite writers?
BC: I read a lot of short stories. I love Ray Carver, George Saunders, Eudora Welty, and Flannery O’Connor. And some other younger writers like Miranda July. But with poets there are just so many poets I love.
LRR: Do you think you have established a permanent voice, or that it will change?
BC: Well, I feel that my voice constantly changes.
LRR: I noticed a pattern in your poems and even your essays. Even though they’re extremely surreal they do follow the show rather than tell rule. Often this rule is broken by a lot of good writers but you strictly stand by it. I can’t think of anything that was emotionally instructing. Do you do that on purpose or did they just end up that way?
BC: My teachers were Steve Orlen and Jon Anderson, and they were fabulous teachers and fabulous friends and very generous. So I’ve tried to model myself after them. One of the things that they both preached, which made a lot of sense and was taught by one of their best teachers, Donald Justice–they all said in a lot of different ways that you should not instruct people’s emotions, because it sets the poem down. So I’ve always tried to avoid telling people how to feel and think. I just wanted to put the situation and the images out there and let people feel and absorb through the images.
LRR: So what inspired you to write? What were you or what are you trying to accomplish?
BC: I’m very curious about the world. I always feel a bit mystified, and I always felt like everyone else understood how to be in life and I was like an outsider that didn’t quite get it. So I always wrote to sort of explore and figure out how people live and how they understand life, because I always found it so complicated and confusing and it helped me sort out my inner self. I don’t really try to accomplish anything, but I try to explore ideas and feelings and psychologies and just, you know, how people are.
LRR: So how did you or do you handle rejection?
BC: Well, I’m blue collar about that as well. I have my batch of poems and when I’m ready to send them out I send them out to a few places, and if they get rejected I just put them back out there and just kind of keep it going. I don’t take it to heart because there are too many issues with rejection; sometimes magazines are just at fault. Sometimes they just don’t like your stuff, sometimes they just didn’t get a good read, sometimes it never got to the editor–it could just be the graduate student screeners or whatever. So I’ve never taken it personally, to be honest.
LRR: So besides the incident with Florida Review there are no rejection horror stories?
BC: I read an article recently, I don’t know if this is true or not, and I’ve never even thought about it, but it said that someone did some kind of questionnaire or study or something; it said that male writers had a tendency to not care as much about rejection and female writers had a tendency to be more affected by it. And it kind of paralyzed some of them into sending their stuff out.
LRR: That’s probably true, especially with new writers.
BC: I think you should just be very businesslike about it.
LRR: Have you noticed any good or bad patterns in student writers?
BC: I haven’t been teaching long enough to really see any patterns, but some of the common problems are that people write with what they perceive to be poetic diction, which ends up sounding kind of archaic and not very interesting to me. And some veer towards abstraction as opposed to the sensual images of the world. But those are problems that are easy to solve.
LRR: You mention food a lot; do you think you’ll ever write about food?
BC: I read all the great food writers like Ruth Reichl and M.F.K Fisher, and I’m the cook of our family. It’s funny, I’ve made a few stabs at it and it hasn’t really worked out, but my wife is always telling me I should do it because I’ve read so many.
LRR: Do you have any advice for people that want to become writers and poets?
BC: If you want to be a writer you have to read a lot. If you don’t, it just doesn’t make sense. I always thought in my mind that I wanted to write the type of poems or essays that I wanted to read, like I just imagine myself as a reader as opposed to a writer. So I write as though I’m a reader.
LRR: Well, that’s all of my questions for today. Thank you so much for doing this for the magazine.