Tuesday, July 22, 2003

BANJO: Poets Talking  #2
© copyright 2002 text by
Molly Russakoff
& Jim Cory

© copyright 2002
cover art by
Candace Kaucher
(printed magazine
format only)

Available from the address
below for $1.08 an issue,
or ask your local independent
bookstore to stock it.  This
is clearly not about making
money, donations of any
kind are much appreciated.

BANJO: Poets Talking
CAConrad, editor

Mooncalf Press
POBox 22521
Philadelphia, PA 19110


* * * * * * * * * * * * *

   “Intermittently I lose my family, within my own self.  Too little time
and too much rest required for reparation of one’s energies.  I would rather
replace them with the peers of my own craft.  Any contact with them seems raging
and unstable.  At other times they are straight and we are on an even keel.
It’s some interior nature of ours, the whole familial relationship, that
determines its beings.  I would much rather be with someone else, yourselves, for
       --John Wieners, from “The Lanterns Along the Wall”

   When I asked Molly Russakoff to lead issue #2 she eventually chose poet
Jim Cory, to my delight!  Both were invaluable to my formative years of poetry
in various ways, as I’m sure they were and continue to be to many others.  The
generosity of these two poets should be a model for poets everywhere.  Below
is something Molly mailed to me about the conversation she and Jim had for
issue #2.  Please enjoy.
   --CAConrad, editor

   I was hungry for this conversation.  In the middle of the chaos of my
daily life, the kids, packing to move, preparing to open my new store (MOLLY'S
CAFE & BOOKSTORE, 1010 S. 9th Street in the heart of Philadelphia’s Italian
Market, 215-923-3367), the thought of sitting and talking about writing was just
delicious to me.  After making and breaking a delicate set of plans over
several weeks, our time had come.
   I'd began running into Jim over the past year or so, in the hardware
store, in my restaurant and then at the poet Kyle Conner’s dinner party.  We spoke
easily to one another, casual but not slight in our conversations. We had a
certain length and depth of experience in common, both having been a prescence
in the writing community in the 70's and 80's.  We had plenty to talk about.
   When he opened his door, I was struck by the staircase which seemed
suspended in the cross-section of a typical Philadelphia row house.  He told me
about the architectural decisions, and we talked about color and light and the
effects of walls and wallessness on space.  The walls were hung with paintings
and he told me about each one, who painted it, how he came to purchase it.  He
showed me through his home, pointing out closets he had built, his shrine to
past lovers, bookcases, all the comfortable details.  It was all fascinating to
me, as I was just about to do my own place.  I was affected the idea of
buying art and can't wait til I'm able to fall in love with a piece and have it
hanging on my now-bare walls.  We talked about art and began, naturally,  to talk
about writing.  By the time we settled in his office, lined with books, a
couple comfortable chairs, we'd had an hour's worth of conversation.  When the
tape ran out, the conversation continued longer into the night.
   --Molly Russakoff

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Recorded live January 10th, 2002
710 South 7th Street
Philadelphia, USA
poet Jim Cory’s home, where he
lives with his three cats:  Tansy,
Pops, and the little terror Pete

Molly Russakoff has been writing poetry since she was four years old. She was a teaching assistant at Naropa Institute's Jack Kerouac School for Disembodied Poetics in Boulder, Co. in the mid 1970's, where she worked with and studied under many of the Beat, New York School and Black Mountain writers. She has been a part of the Philadelphia poetry community for over 20 years. She won a PEW FELLOWSHIP for poetry in 1993. Her work has been published in The Paris Review, American Poetry Review and other literary magazines.  She currently lives with her two children in Philadelphia's Italian Market, where she owns MOLLY'S CAFE & BOOKSTORE.

Of degrees in writing or studies w/various teachers, Jim Cory can report none. He has been writing poems since 12 & published his 1st at 20. He used for models the American modernists (Pound & Williams), then chanced on their descendants in the various schools gathered in Donald Allen's New American Poetry Anthology, a touchstone & aesthetic lifesaver. He is interested in other forms of writing--drama, fiction, the essay, journalism, history--but to him poetry remains the starting point & foundation of all other genres. Jim draws comfort from the fact that if everything else in the world goes completely to hell, there is an adequate supply of excellent poetry, produced by all cultures over time. He has poems in Oyster Boy Review, La Petite Zine, DUCKY and other magazines. He can be reached at coryjim@earthlink.net

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

JC:  Pete!  Get out of there!

MR:  Oh, you have a Pete.  I have a Jack.

JC:  Now what were we talking about?

MR:  You were talking about your piece “Ace of Hearts.”  You wrote a second
piece from that?

JC:  It started out as a poem and became a short story.  Somehow I gained
control of the story form.  It was total magic to me, because I had never written
what I considered to be a successful short story at that point in time.  The
form had eluded me.  I thought that it was my simply not having the kind of
mind that was disciplined in the right way to master that genre, even though I
had wanted to, and even though I had attempted to.  But somehow, taking on the
subject of fatal beauty with terrier-like determination pushed it through to a
successful conclusion.  And out of that I learned how to do it.  And I sat
down with the stories I had written in the 80’s and 90’s and reworked them until
they were successful.

MR:  So what ended up happening with them?

JC:  Two of them were published.  One of the things I came to realize is that
it’s harder to publish fiction than poetry because with poems you just print
them out on your printer and send them off.  But with a short story you’ve got
twenty or thirty pages, and you have to go to the copying place, you’ve got
to get the copies made, and it’s this whole involved process of actually
getting the work out.  And when it comes to doing that anyway I’m very lazy and
unmotivated.  My energy kind of shuts down at the point where I consider the work
to be completed.  I mean, if I read it to someone else and they get excited,
that’s good but--

MR:  Yeah, I hate the mechanics of it.  I completely lose interest too.  The
thrill of getting published just isn’t that great for me.  To keep going
through this process, it’s such a gruelling process.  Not even just getting the
copies made and sending them out, and keeping the records, but when you finally
get something accepted it’s another year before you see it again.  And I just
don’t get that thrill other people seem to get from seeing their work in print.
I love writing.  I like doing readings because it’s immediate and it’s
intimate, but I don’t get the thrill from publishing.  I finally get the magazine
and open it up and say, “Oh yeah, there I am.”

JC:  It’s so anticlimactic, it’s so over.  You don’t even want to care, and
sometimes someone will say, “Hey I saw your poem published.”  And I think “What
poem where?”  There are poems I don’t even remember writing.  They’re lost,
they’re gone.

MR:  At that point you’ve taken them out of your “A Pile” and they’re still
out there being considered for some magazine somewhere.

JC:  (laughs)  And you say to them, “HEY!  I don’t even remember writing

MR:  (laughs)  I know, I know.  I’m finding now that there’s some other goal
with all this.

JC:  What would you say it is?  Can you define it?

MR:  The real joy of writing.  That moment where the piece is complete, and
you read it over and it’s good, and it feels good, that is what cannot be
duplicated in any other endeavor except another kind of artistic endeavor.  You
can’t get that kind of satisfaction anywhere else.  I’m getting into this idea
that you do your work, you have some exchange about it, and see what happens
with it.  And just letting go of it after it’s written.  My best coups have been
people coming to me and asking me to use my work.  And when it happens, great,
I love when someone asks to use my work, otherwise I’m more interested in
writing and having some exchange.  I’m liking the self-publishing thing, I’m
liking that a lot.  It’s not worth it, climbing the ladder, saying, “Oh this is my
best poem, it should be in the New Yorker.  This is my second best poem, this
should be in the Kenyon Review,” you know.

JC:  I used to think it was some kind of weird mimicking of the whole ethos
of consumer culture, but then the more I thought about it the more I realized
that it’s more basic than that, that it’s about vanity, and this whole notion
of having to receive attention and create this image of yourself that’s
something separate from who you really are.  All because you think you’re brilliant,
or prolific, or have insight.

MR:  And also this notion that you are in a certain journal because you are a
better writer than all these other poets, which is kind of a mean-spirited

JC:  I’ve been in both the literary world and the corporate world at the same
time.  The corporate ethos borders on the pathological.  There are people who
will do anything to advance their career, which could be eclipsed in a moment
by the whim of someone else.  But they buy into this weird game, and it’s the
same kind of process that’s happening in the literary world, and basically
for the same reasons.  They get swept up by the challenge of accomplishing
something that will make themselves look better than the people around them.  And
they’re driven to expend more and more energy in the pursuit of that goal.
Which, I suppose if it produces really great literature, is perfectly valid, but
in most cases it doesn’t seem to.

MR:   There just doesn’t seem to be a cause and effect there.  The quality of

JC:   --compared to the amount of energy expended in the direction of

MR:   Yeah.  What’s really the value of writing?  Especially writing poetry.
Seriously, what is the value of it?  I don’t even know.  It’s something
intangible that is there for me.  And I feel kind of blessed, because I know it’s
not there for everybody.  Most people aren’t hungry for it, don’t appreciate
it, don’t need it.  The value of it for me is that it’s there for me, and that I
feel connected.  It’s something I can do, with a product at the end.  It
encapsulates things.  I can use it to different ends personally.  If I have
something that’s bothering me, something I just keep walking around with....  Like,
I think I e-mailed you about the thing that happened with my car.  I just keep
telling people this fucking story, this annoying story and it doesn’t work to
just talk about it.  But then I think I’ll tell someone else and it will get
better.  But the truth is, if I use that energy to write, it may not make a
great poem, but, hey, it works.  Then there are these deeper issues I walk
around with that bother me, and at times I’ve been able to take them and make it
into a poem, make it into a thing that’s in some way pleasing.  Something I can
hold in my hands and put it down, and it’s done.

JC:   I have this book downstairs called the Mentor Book of Major American
Poets which I shoplifted from the Stamford Museum & Nature Center, in Stamford,
Connecticut, when I was twelve.


JC:   (laughs)  This kid next door shot a bee-bee into it from back when I
stole it in 1965 or 1964.  I don’t even know why I stole it.  Probably because
95¢ was a lot of money if you were twelve years old in 1965.  I mean, 35¢ would
buy you a Dr. Pepper and a Ring Ding, you know, so why waste money on a book,
right?  So I took this book home, and I opened it up, and it immediately felt
like I was reading sacred text.  And I remember one of the first things I
read was a section of “The Bridge” by Hart Crane.  It was about what was behind
his father’s cannery works, and the hobos back there with fires at night.  And
I of course had no idea at that time what was going on with Hart Crane, or
modernism.  But I could read the 19th century poets, and I was completely drawn
to this.  Nobody had ever prompted me, and I was certainly not encouraged to do
this.  Nobody I knew was interested in it, and my parents thought it was odd.
So it’s almost as if I was moving by instinct.  I was kind of like how the
birds are when they need to make the nest.  It’s not a thought thing, it’s sort
of feeling, well okay, I’ll do this--

MR:  --it’s there for you.  It’s there for everybody, but it opens up to you.

JC:   I had an instant connection to it.  There were all these poems I
couldn’t read back then, I didn’t know what the hell they were about.  But then I
had a weird experience.  One day I was out on the porch reading the book, and
these two guys were painting the house, and one of them came down, and I
remember he looked like Trotsky, he had Trotsky’s beard.  So, anyway, Trotsky asks,
“What are you reading?”  And I said it’s this Mentor Book of Major American
Poets.  He asked if he could see it.  So I gave it to him, and he flipped through
it, stopped at a page and asked me to read it, which was this poem by Wallace
Stevens called “The Emperor of Ice Cream.”  So I read the poem, and he asks
me what I think it means.  I couldn’t even bluff my way through that, I had
absolutely no fucking idea what it meant.  It made no sense to me, you know, I
could get the rhythm, and I liked the way the words were put together, but I
couldn’t comprehend it in any other way.  I was only reading surfaces.  So he
said it was about someone dying, and showed me the line, “if her horny feet
protrude, they come  /  to show how cold she is, and dumb.  /  let the lamp afix
its beam.  /  the only emperor is the emperor of ice cream.”  He was explaining
this and pointing out the images, and something clicked inside me.  Pretty
soon I could read a modern poem, I could read Pound and Williams, and then I was
off and running.  But most poets get the poetry bug, and then the bug goes
away after awhile, because there’s no feedback.

MR:   Yeah, you really do need initial insight.  You need the key to open up
the language.

JC:   Maybe that’s why all those poets are out there grinding out their
submissions to a million magazines, because they need that feedback.  Maybe that’s
what it’s about for them, I don’t know.  But most of the poets I knew who were
writing in the ‘70s and ‘80s stopped writing.  There’s a few still around who
are really dyed-in-the-wool types, like Gil Ott.  There was another Ott, a
Tom Ott, and so many other names.  I’d have to drag out those publications being
issued back then to remember them all, because almost none of those people
are writing anymore.

MR:  I stopped writing for years.  And I don’t even get nervous about it

JC:   Really?

MR:   Yep!  In fact I just started writing again after not writing for a
couple of years.  And it used to get me really nervous because it was tied in with
that Narcissistic thing where it’s tied in with your self-religion.  You
know, “IT IS I, THE POET!”  But now I’m relaxed about it.  It’s almost okay when I
stop because I wonder what I’ll be writing when I go there again.  And then
when it starts it’s the easiest thing in the world.  I mean I’ve been through
long periods where it just isn’t happening.  I started at a very young age, and
was lucky I was always encouraged.  My parents were always behind me.  They
would read us poems--


MR:   (laughs)  Yeah, my parents always really valued it.  Like I said
though, it used to bother me when I wasn’t writing, but now when I start again I get
to see what’s been going on inside me while I was waiting.  And then I think,
“OOO!  What’s going to be NEXT!?”

JC:   When the field lies fallow, and you plant again, you get a better crop.
It’s part of a process.

MR:   Yeah, there’s no such thing as a wasted experience, or wasted time.
Everything is percolating.

JC:   Filed away.

MR:   Yeah, and it’s there for you.  And you realize after all that time has
passed, there was actually development going on in your head, and in your
life.  As you’re maturing you’re writing is actually maturing.  It’s never like,
here you are at 36, and you haven’t written since you were 32, and you start
again, and you’re not going to be writing 32 year old poems.

JC:   You have experiences, then you mature out of the experiences.  If
somebody you know dies and you’ve never experienced death, well, it’s hard to go
through it, but you do.  And you change, and you may not even be aware that
you’ve changed.  And I think that gets into the writing.  The funny thing is, when
I first started writing poems--which was in the age of the typewriter--I had
this method which was to put a sheet a paper into the typewriter, type a draft
of the poem, then put a fresh sheet in and retype the poem, even if I was
just moving a word or a line.  Or even just a piece of punctuation.  I would keep
rewriting the poem so at the end of a working session there would be a pile
of maybe 75 or 80 pieces of paper stacked up.  Of course I would be smoking
cigarettes and drinking coffee.  But the funny thing is the poem had to happen my
way.  I don’t really see it that way anymore.  Somehow I figured out, or it
was shown to me that the poem can gestate.  All kinds of gestation is going on
all the time.  I can work on the poem, and put it away, and go back, maybe two
months, three months later, and everything that’s weak and stupid is GLARING!
The changes I need to make somehow seem to suggest themselves, and the
process, instead of taking a few days or a week may need three months or a year.  I
was never a fast writer anyway, writing a lot of poems.

MR:   I’m really quite the opposite.  And it’s gotten more so as I’ve gotten
older.  If something doesn’t come out quick enough it’s belabored, and it’s no

JC:   Really?

MR:   Yes.  And I revise, but if I can’t fix it real soon, it’s stopped.  It
just got to be the way I do it.  If I do it slowly it doesn’t happen.  I’m
doing a project with a friend of mine.  Both of us hadn’t been writing for
awhile, just reading.  We accompanied one another through our mid-life crises, we
met each other right there in the middle of it.  We went through all kinds of
shit together.  He was a CEO of a big ventilator fan company.  He hated it, and
wanted to be a poet.  He was having migraines and all kinds of stuff.  So he
changed his life, although he’s still in business because he has things he
needs to support.  It’s always his challenge to not let that life overtake his
creative life.  So anyway, we said okay, we’ll get together once a week, we’ll
each bring a poem, we’ll read a poem.  We’re both very remedial about it all
because we’ve both been through these situations which took us away from writing
and we’re trying to get back into it.  When we get together we decide on a
topic, or an exercise to do, then we get together the next week and talk about
what we’ve done.  I’ve found that when I get the assignment and think about it,
I get very self conscious about it and let it sit.  Then it will get to be
Tuesday, and we’re getting together Wednesday morning.  So it’s Tuesday evening
and I’ll think “SHIT I have to do this!”  But I sit down and it comes out.  So
far they’re valuable pieces, they’re not just okay, they’re not just
fulfilling an obligation.  I’m loving that I work this way.  If something doesn’t come
out right I have no qualms about letting it go.

JC:   Toss it.

MR:   Toss it.  Yeah, toss it into a drawer, don’t toss it into the trash
can.  But this ends up to be the way that I work, and I like it.

JC:   It’s funny because when I first started to do this people would tell
me, “You really need to write it out in long hand and then type it.”  Or,
“You’ve GOT to read these, these are the IMPORTANT poets.”  All these “you’ve got
to’s,” and “you musts,” and you HAVE to do this, and THIS doesn’t matter.  There
was all this instruction coming down from people, and I don’t know why they
were doing that.  I guess maybe to make themselves feel important.  There’s
also the motive of wanting to help, but it was not helpful.  I think people need
to find their own way, what they’re comfortable with in writing.  How they do
it, when they do it, the process of the means.

MR:   It’s personal, isn’t it?

JC:   YES!

MR:   There’s the academic mill, which I hate to get into, but it has value,
and I think people who go that route are respected, and I don’t begrudge them
that.  But it does kind of impersonalize the process.  And when you get out of
the atmosphere of being in the workshop, you look at the brochures, and it’s
the same people going from camp to camp teaching.  And what are they going to
say to you?  They’re going to tell you how they do it.

JC:   Aesthetic bedouins!

MR:   (laughs)  Yeah!  My academic path was pretty funny because I started
off with Stephen Dunn, who was my first workshop teacher.  He’d hover over you
and tell you what makes a good poem and what makes a bad poem.  And he would
take your bad poem and show you how to make it into a good poem, or he’d say
“OH! don’t try that other thing until you’re 45!”  I have in my notes from that
time, when I was 18, an outline of how to write a poem, the beginning, the
middle, the end.  And then I went to Naropa where everyone was just WHAAAA-CRAZY!
A lot of poets there just OPENED things up for me!  Ted Berrigan was there,
and he was just so funny, and he’d say “Just try anything!  Just keep writing!
If you’re a poet you should be reading FIVE BOOKS A DAY!  And you should be
writing THREE POEMS A DAY!”  They wanted you to try anything, and if you
couldn’t, there were all these people with lists of things for you to try.  And of
course it was tied in with this crazy sex and drug thing that was going on, you
know, it was certainly NOT dry!

JC:   The anti-Dunn!

MR:   (laughs)  Yeah, the anti-Dunn!  But at the same time to have this
skeleton of structure underneath all the Naropa stuff, I don’t think it harmed me
at all.  It was kind of a good base to put all this other stuff ontop of.  But
at the same time, something you could completely depart from.  And that’s okay
to completely depart from it.  But I always have a sense from my poetry
education about where to break a line, when it ends, you know, it’s this underlying
sense that I got from those earliest experiences.  But I don’t think most
poets are fortunate enough to have had this other Naropa stuff ontop of that.

JC:   They either go the Dunn route or the Naropa route with nothing in

MR:   Right.

JC:   I’ve never studied poetry with somebody.

MR:   (laughs)  I’ve studied with so many fucking people!  I was a whore!

JC:   (laughs)  I think it runs in my family that we’re stubborn people.  And
I certainly am, and it’s not always an admirable character trait.  It means
you hold onto things you probably shouldn’t be holding onto.  But it can also
be valuable.  In the beginning I would read people like Dylan Thomas, Roethke
and Lowell, you know, all these people who were held up as the contemporary
gods of poetry.  And I wanted to write like them, and I did write like them, and
I thought it was all very accomplished, and thought my immediate rise was
imminent.  THEN when I STOPPED drinking--

MR:   (both of them laughing)  --OH YEAH!

JC:   I threw it all out!  And started all over, at 27, 28.

MR:   Oh, so that was the Great Divide for you?

JC:   ABSOLUTELY!  I tossed it out, and my drinking was so connected to my
writing, because I thought if you could write successfully you were allowed to
be a drunk.  So it was sort of permission to be a drunk.  My drinking got so
out of control, but my big crisis came when I said to myself that if I stop
drinking I won’t be able to write.  And a voice in my head said “So what!”  I
stopped drinking, and after about six months I started writing again.  There was
gestation going on, some process, and there was finally a level of control that
I didn’t have previously.  And the poems were not as noticeably derived.  I
kind of felt like I was on my way, but I still needed to flounder for awhile
before I could find the useful models.

MR:   Floundering is part of the process.


MR:   You really have allow yourself as much of that as you need!

JC:   Right, can’t fear to flounder!  I was like a lot of people though, I
wanted it right away!  I wanted masterpieces, and I wanted it NOW!  You know?
But you can’t squeeze that out of your head, it’s a whole experience.

MR:   Not to keep bringing up this age thing, but not only is it amazing to
me what happens over the years, but how it’s so sanctioned.  Under 40 you’re
considered a younger poet.  And there seems to be this RACE to be a prodigy!
Right?  You get attention when you’re young, you’re with these older poets,
well, you’ve never studied with anyone, but, they’re always looking for the one
who will be their protégé.  They’re always looking to see who the interesting
person is, and how they’ll develop.

JC:   The Byron thing.

MR:   The Byron thing?

JC:   Who is going to be the next Byron.

MR:   Yeah-yeah, that’s right.  So you get that kind of attention, and I was
a very immature young person.  Kind of starry-eyed going into these
situations, and I’d be kind of shy, and get attention from someone who had stature, and
everyone would pay attention to that.  And I saw it going on all around me
with different people.  And then it gets to be this race to be a young poet who
has made it.

JC:   Up and coming.

MR:   Not even up and coming, you’re there!  You know, you’ve TRANSCENDED all
that, and you’re just this gifted thing.  Now I’m just so glad that it has
more longevity than that.  When I look back at how I perceived the people I was
hanging out with back then, I realize there was very little truth to it.  It’s
a lot cooler to be where I am now than I thought it would be.

JC:   I deeply distrusted their motives, the people who were famous and blew
into town, if they were nice to me I just assumed it was really because they
wanted to fuck me.

MR:   (laughs)  Wow, well that’s nice too!

JC:   (laughs)  Maybe that’s my hangup.  But I didn’t trust them, though
that’s not true with everybody.  You sort of follow your instincts, like you can
tell the real deal, somebody like Allen Ginsberg or Gregory Corso or James
Broughton.  After awhile I figured out the poetry that was interesting to me was
everything coming out of those avant-garde movements of the 50’s and 60’s that
came together in The New American Poetry.  At a certain point in time I
decided to track down whoever of these poets was still alive, get their books, study
them, find out about them, and MEET them if I could!  Even send them fan
letters, which I did.

MR:   They’re all so accessible, aren’t they?

JC:   Absolutely.  Not snotty, not condescending.  I don’t think anyone I
ever encountered from that group was too terribly awful, except Harold Norse.
Not like academic poets who have this force field and barbs around them.

MR:   (laughs)  The Sit At My Feet Poets!

JC:   (laughs)  Yeah, that’s what they want, they’re always looking for
disciples and imitators, mirrors really.

MR:  Meanwhile, the others, those guys were kind of raucous, they wanted to
have fun, they--

JC:   --they were doing their thing!  There was no pretense really, in who
they were and what they were doing.  I went to San Francisco in 1989, three days
after an earthquake.  I had this grant from the Pennsylvania Arts Council, to
be lazy for several months--

MR:   --Linh Dinh always called his Pew Fellowship subsidized alcoholism!

JC:   Ooo!  (laughs)

MR:   (laughs)  Yeah, he’s literary now, he doesn’t just drink.  Anyway, go
ahead, I’m sorry.

JC:  (laughs)  At this time I was past the point where I had any alcoholism
to subsidize, but I’m sure it would have been that if I’d still been drinking.
So I went to San Francisco because there were people there I wanted to meet.
And I pulled whatever strings there were to be pulled to meet them.  One of
them was Steve Abbot, who was part of this whole group of people out there
writing new narrative fiction.  Sort of like LANGUAGE poetry before it was a
school and had an ideology complete with tanks and battleships.  So we met and had
lunch at the Cafe Flore.  I really admired his first two books, they were
brilliant, and couldn’t WAIT for the third book.  But then there was a book of
essays, and something else and something else, and I was awaiting this third book
of poetry.  And I asked him when his next book of poems was coming out, naive
fool I was, I mean, if it was coming out it would have come out, right?
Maybe I was just making conversation, and I didn’t know it at the time but he was

MR:  Ooops!

JC:   Yeah, I know.  So he said, “Well you know how it is, after you’re
thirty the poems slow down and then just stop coming altogether.”

MR:   (laughs)  GEEZE!

JC:   And he was being very straightforward, but he was talking about his own
experience.  Of course I assumed, out of my own Narcissism, that that was a
message for me, and my fork STOPPED in mid-air, enroute to my mouth!

MR:   (laughs)  Looking if he was watching!

JC:   (laughs)  YEAH!  And I thought OH FUCK I better RUN HOME and write

MR:   (laughs)  God, that’s AWFUL!

JC:   And later I realized maybe that was true for Steve.  He did some more
good things, and he died a few years later.  But everybody has their own
method.  Maybe the poetry is coming out of how you interact with the world, as well
as your own personal history.  There’s a sort of dynamic between those two
things.  Maybe the poetry is a way of seeing and it rises out of that.  I mean
I’m not even really sure, all I know for sure is that it’s there, and that it
can be really intimidating.  About whether or not it’s working, or whether or
not it will still be there.  I also think it’s a gift, like beauty, like time.
It’s on loan, and I’ve seen people who’ve abused the power of poetry, only to
have it taken away from them.

MR:   I think anything you get anxiety around, the anxiety is just a
constrictor.  You talked about drinking and post drinking as your Great Divide.  For
me it was things in my domestic life, things that were not as sharp a divide
for me, but it made me self conscious, and gave me anxiety about what I was

JC:   You mean after you were out of the marriage?

MR:   When I got into the marriage.

JC:   Okay.

MR:   All of a sudden I wasn’t this free spirit, I was a wife.  And I still
wrote, and I think I was fortunate in that my husband never had any interest in
reading what I wrote.

JC:   You’re KIDDING!?

MR:   No, but it was actually a good thing because it freed me to write
whatever I wanted without fear of retribution.  But now being out of the marriage
is a whole other step I’m taking.  You know, it’s like starting your life over,
and I went through a period of feeling really infantile about it.

JC:   You mean once you were out of it?

MR:   Once I was out of my marriage, which was problematic, obviously, or I
would still be in it.  So here I am at this whole other juncture, and I have
this thing that I’ve done since I was little, writing, and I am doing different
things with it now.  And it’s kind of exciting to figure that out.  We were
talking about the anxiety around writing, it’s something we have to breathe in
and let it take its course.  And come to realize, yeah, it is a gift.  This is
not something everybody has at their disposal.  I’m just learning to relax
about it.  It’s that whole floundering thing again, learning to allow yourself to
flounder, come to accept it as part of the craft, part of the process.

JC:   I think what’s most intimidating about it, especially if you do it for
a very long time, it defines who you are.  And it’s really hard to separate
the doing of it, or the intent to do it, from your identity.  I never introduce
myself to anyone saying I’m a poet.  And I don’t like when people introduce me
and say, “This is Jim Cory, he’s a poet.”

MR:   (laughs)  I know.

JC:   (laughs)  I just wish the whole thing would kind of go away.  Because
then people start to ask naive questions, and you’ll even meet people who are
mean-spirited and will set out to ambush you for it.  But on the other hand,
the act of doing it is inseparable from how I see myself, and who I believe
myself to be.  Not even in the sense of a compilation of facts about myself in my
head, but who I FEEL myself to be!  That ability to do that, I took for
granted at one time.  But now it’s something I never take for granted, because I’m
aware it could go away, I’m aware it could die out.    The only degree I have
is in history, so I’ve always been interested in literary history.  So I’ve
spent time studying how long people wrote.  For instance Whitman really only had
twelve productive years of writing, and the poems that would have become the
equivalent of Leave of Grass end up as Specimen Days, his memoir.  Now on the
other hand you get someone like William Carlos Williams and he’s banging out
these incredible poems literally from 1907 to the day he died in 1963.  How do
you sustain it?  I’m fascinated by that!  Somebody needs to write a book about
this whole aspect.  How is this force generated?  Whether it’s intellectual,
moral or spiritual, I don’t know.  How is it sustained?

MR:   My daughter, my eight-year-old, has just had this realization that
we’re all going to die.

JC:   How did she find this out?

MR:   Oh with kids, it’s just something that dawns on them.  Kids are so
morbid.  They’re SO morbid.  This idea that you have to protect them from this,
and everything has to be pink and blue is just such a transposition of adult
fear put onto kids.  You know?  They’re very morbid kind of early, and then it
comes to a point when they’re eight-years-old and they really realize all these
things can really happen.  My daughter sees that I could die, her father could
die, she’s asking me to get an alarm system.  She says “I’m afraid when I’m
with you that something might happen to daddy, and when I’m with him I’m afraid
something might happen you.  And I don’t want anyone to die.”  And here I am,
and I have to give her the words of wisdom.  I’m trying to help her be with
that, and at the same time try to get her to see that it’s something you need
to let go of.  Because you don’t want to spend all this time with this
uncomfortable feeling.  It’s a really unpleasant way to spend time, and I’m just
trying to repeat that to her.  And I’m trying to live that as well.  And to relate
that to writing, you know, it’s that question, “Okay, when’s it gonna end, oh
no, when’s it gonna end.”  That constricts it.  Who knows when it’s going to
end?  It might go away, it might come back.  I’m really getting to know how to
relax with it.

JC:   I have friends I’ve known since I was in my late teens, early twenties.
I have a good friend in Boston named Peggy Malloy.  And she is today pretty
much who she was when we were at Penn State.  She dresses the same, her
interests are the same, she’s interested in acting, she’s in plays in Boston, and
there’s this continuum of the twenty-year-old Peggy and the fifty-year-old
Peggy.  The fifty-year-old is just an older version of the twenty-year-old.  It’s a
pleasure to know her, and when we get together it’s just like it was when we
were in school together.  But on the other hand I know people who became very
different people, because of quote unquote, responsibility.  They have this
thing where they say, “I’ve got to be an adult now.”  And they sort of get
carried away with it and they become different, and when you meet them again
they’re so different you despair at ever really having the connection again.

MR:   You were saying this in an e-mail.  About what happens to people when
they get afraid to play anymore.

JC:   Unfortunately I think it happens to a lot of people.

MR:   I guess it does, yeah, I guess it does.  It’s sad.

JC:   One of the things I’ve realized is I will probably always be writing.

MR:   AH!  Knock on wood!  You never know!

JC:   But the reason I say that is I’ve learned there’s a lot of different
ways to write.  In the beginning I thought there was this way to write a poem,
it’s got stanzas, it’s got a title, it’s got a beginning, a middle and an end,
it has a certain tone, it has rhythmic form.  But now my whole definition of
that has been completely upended as a result of my reading, my interaction, so
that a poem for me can now be a list of aphorisms.  One of them might occur to
me while I’m working out at the gym.  Or somebody might say something very
clever, and if they don’t write it down then it becomes my property, I take it
home and work it into my list of aphorisms.  Or I might undertake to write a
very long poem, which is what I’ve been doing lately, doing a poem about the
extinction of the Ivory Billed Woodpecker.  And nowhere am I in the poem, it’s
all about the woodpecker, it’s all about their process, their story.  The
decimation of the forests when the Europeans arrived, and the continued decimation
by their descendants is all part of it.  It’s kind of a meditation on that
through one particular, very small, but somehow significant aspect of it.  Or I
might choose to write about the architect Louis Sullivan, who designed 190
things, mostly buildings, and my mission in that is to write 190 sections of a
poem.  And I have to figure out 190 things to say about him.  So in the beginning
the poems were all about telling the world ALL ABOUT ME!  As if ME was
anything really.  It’s kind of pathetic when I look back on it now, but the energy
was there.  Somehow or other the corner was turned, and now that doesn’t seem at
all important, it almost seems a little bit embarrassing.

MR:   (laughs)  I still write about ME!  I can’t get enough of ME!  I’m SO
fascinating!  Well, I don’t know if that’s true, I guess in a way it is.  The
act of writing something down is very transformational, and there’s something
very mysterious about it.  If you write a court portrait of somebody and put
them in a very noble light, it may not make for interesting literature.  In the
best literature people are not flawless.  If you can present their flaws in a
sensitive and intelligent way, then you don’t just have a bunch of gossip about
a bunch of people you know, but you also have a good story.  But then you’re
stuck with this dilemma of having a really good story, but a lot of people you
know in the poem don’t look very good.

JC:   Oh I would never worry about what they thought of the way they were

MR:   No?

JC:   No.

MR:   (laughs)  That’s my newfound repression I’m trying to get passed.

JC:  The hardest thing for me is to find the verbal equivalent of what I
feel.  I can, just from long practice, come up with the verbal equivalent of what
I see, touch, taste or smell, you know what I mean?  The verbal equivalent of
what I feel is a whole other challenge.  And it’s only going to happen if I’m
open to it happening, or lucky, which is so-called inspiration.

MR:  But you also get to that through the senses.

JC:   Yeah, through the senses.

MR:   I think that’s maybe how you’re opening to it.

JC:   That’s my road I travel, right there.

MR:   Because otherwise it’s just abstract.

JC:   I find poems interesting that mix the two.  You’re in a poem that’s
going along at a certain pace, clearly has an objective, and then it suddenly
segues into something else.

MR:   What’s that James Wright poem?  What’s it called?  Oh god, it’s
beautiful.  He’s sitting in the hammock, he’s looking at the horse, then he’s looking
at something else, and then the last line is, “I’ve wasted my life.”  It’s
this beautiful little poem, and there’s this eruption of feeling.  It’s this
quiet little bomb.

JC:   There’s this Zukofsky poem, you probably know it.  There’s a praying
mantis on the subway, and so much is pulled out of the poem that you have to
reimagine the context.  So that you can make sense of it, and that’s the
challenge of it.  And it can always be done, but sometimes it’s the hardest thing to
do.  I remember finally getting to the end of it and being amazed by the
complexity of it, and yet it takes me back to the futility of it, of this totally
beautiful and seemingly insignificant insect inside this human contraption, the
subway.  This ultimately unnecessary and gratuitous thing that moves human
beings around.  The poem had real power, and it was about a bug.  But he managed
to pull it off, and it was long, and it took all these detours.  For me that’s
really the kind of poem I aim to write.

MR:   What’s the name of that poem?

JC:   I forget, we could dig it up, I’ve got it here somewhere.  [note:  it
is the last piece in Zukofsky’s 29 Songs.]

MR:   I haven’t read Zukofsky in years.  I’m really looking forward to being
in my new store and just having books in front of me, having them in my hands,
as part of my work.  Because there’s so much I put off, there’s so much I
haven’t read in many years.  That rift, that domestic rift where I’m involved
with my kids, involved with things going on in the home, yeah, that’s where I got
off the train.

JC:   I imagine it’s very difficult to try to concentrate when you’ve got
children around.

MR:   Yeah.  It’s hard to concentrate on things that people who don’t have
children concentrate on.  Although I am getting a whole different view of
language because they’re developing, they’re learning.  And I’m very fortunate
because my children are very verbal, my daughter is extremely fascinated by
language.  She has a very large and natural vocabulary for her age.  And she has been
developing this since she was very young.  Like when she was three, I’d
finish reading her a book and she would ask, “Can you read it to me backwards now?”
She’s always had a fascination with words, in context, but also as objects.
She just gets a big kick out of it.  So that’s kept it fresh for me as well.
So, I haven’t had the time to really read on my own.  That’s what makes poems
great, because they’re short, and I can get a poem in.  I may not be able to
finish the book, but I can get a poem in.  So I don’t get to concentrate like
I did before I had kids around, but now I get to concentrate on different
things.  Having kids adds a whole other dimension, but if you don’t have kids you
don’t really understand.

JC:   Yeah, I’m sure.

MR:   I get to watch them, and travel around the city with them, and they’re
so interesting and bizarre, and I watch how quickly they pick up on things.
And the way they take turns in their thinking, in ways I’m not privy to,
because I’m there at the front of it, and I’m the guide.  But they’re so much their
own people.  They’re thinking what they think, and they’re interpreting things
all the time.  It’s been very enriching.  But now that they’re loosening up
some, and are more independent, I can go back to writing and reading.  It’s
going to be interesting to see how all this will affect my work.  Not just how
it’s affected my writing, but how it’s affected my outlook that comes through in
my writing, which is totally unexpected.  You know, it’s not hanging out,
like I used to hang out, it’s something else.  It’s not that it’s not as intense,
but then anything is intense if you’re going to let it be.

JC:   When I’m around children, it’s like they’re little aliens to me.

MR:   (laughs)  WELL THEY ARE!

JC:   (laughs)  It’s because they’re nowhere to be seen in my life.  Like
before this last Thanksgiving, this guy came over to give me an estimate on
glazing the bathtub.  And somehow or other in the course of the conversation he
mentions he’s 46-years-old, and he says, “My daughter’s coming over for
Thanksgiving, and she’s bringing her children.”  And I thought, “Wait a minute, he’s
two years younger than me, and HIS DAUGHTER HAS CHILDREN!”

MR:   It’s weird isn’t it?

JC:   And I thought, “Oh my god if I’d been heterosexual I could be a
grandfather!”  But I don’t FEEL LIKE A GRANDFATHER!

MR:   I’m 44-years-old and I have a 4-year-old, which is kind of a weird

JC:   Later in life, yeah, my mother did it.

MR:   I like it.

JC:   Yeah but you knew when to stop, she didn’t.

MR:   Really?

JC:   Yeah, she had eight!

MR:   AHHHH!  Wow, and where are you in that?

JC:   Right in the middle.  The advantage of having eight is that you can
order the older ones to take care of the younger ones and then you’re out of the
picture.  At least that was my house.  I remember this one time walking into a
Kresge’s.  Store, in Michigan, in the afternoon, where I was going to go hang
out with my friends and smoke cigarettes and drink cokes.  I think I was
fifteen or something.  And there was my mother, sitting at a table, by herself.  I
never forgot that image, because in the middle of all that, in the middle of
eight children, her house and the rest, in some ways she was very much alone.

MR:   Yeah, it can get to where it’s hard to think you exist outside of that.
I am fortunate because I had my kids later in my life.  I had this whole
other life before them, and now I get to really share that with them, and at the
same time find space for my writing.

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