Interviews

Henri Cole, The Art of Poetry No. 98

Interviewed by Sasha Weiss

INTERVIEWER

You are not afraid to use words that are clichés, like love and pretty.

COLE

Is love a cliché? I didn’t know that. I like pretty because it’s a word teachers cross out. I think of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “Crusoe in England,” in which Crusoe, back in England, remembers his beloved Friday and says, “—Pretty to watch; he had a pretty body.”

INTERVIEWER

It reminds me of a line from your poem “Myself Departing”—“The pretty body I wanted no longer galloped over me, / shouting, ‘Open, open!’ ” Funny, even as it startles me, I resist it a little.

COLE

Well, maybe it’s time to put it in the freezer, along with the other words I’ve frozen, like little and God. In general, I like the idea of going right up to the edge of cliché and then stopping. Especially as a man writing, I don’t want to feel any compulsory need to be “masculine.”

INTERVIEWER

In “Apollo,” you write, “subject is/only pretext for assembling the words/ whose real story is process is flow.” And yet your poems have a lot of content and subject matter you return to. It’s a paradox.

COLE

You’re right, it is a paradox. To me, the facts of my life commemorated in a poem are the most boring part. It really is about process, about assembling language into poetry—this is where the satisfaction is.

INTERVIEWER

But your material is the self.

COLE

Yes, but my medium is language. It’s the medium of language that gives a poet style and originality. Though I think an original sensibility can make a poet distinct, too. In this connection, WisÅ‚awa Szymborska and James Schuyler come to mind.

INTERVIEWER

In your essay “How I Grew,” you write that “the state of being necessary to become a writer” is a state of “exile and aparthood.” I find this a very stark statement. In the next sentence you recall having a tree house and defending your solitude there against a gang of violent neighborhood boys. Is your solitude still something you have to defend?

COLE

A teacher once said that being a writer is like sitting in a room alone at a desk, while next door there is a loud party going on to which you have not been invited. This seems fairly accurate. There are so many divagations nowadays—with Twitter and Facebook and iPhones and texting and all the rest. Fortunately, my television has only five stations—that’s enough for me, though I really miss watching the French Open.

INTERVIEWER

What do you think of immortality?

COLE

I don’t understand this question. Do you mean “immortality,” like Keats’s “Here lies one whose name was writ in water”? If so, I think one is forgotten almost immediately after the earth is tossed back into the grave and the mourners turn away. Life resumes.

INTERVIEWER

So then why write?

COLE

For the completely selfish pleasure of composition, which for me surpasses the trumped-up pleasures of eating, drinking, and sex. Since I do not write to teach anybody anything, it’s a completely selfish act, but it gives me a sense of equilibrium and a reason for existence. Nothing gives me as much pleasure, when I’m doing it well, as writing.

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