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Jacket 21 — February 2003   |   # 21  Contents   |   Homepage   |  Catalog   |

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Ira Cohen feature

Ira Cohen in conversation with Nina Zivancevic
New York, 2001

This piece is 4,300 words or about ten printed pages long.

Cover of 7 Marvels by Ira Cohen
Ira Cohen’s life is like a well-kept, illuminated manuscript that consists of many internally and externally sparkling events, mythical voyages and legendary encounters which afford him the real and poetic privilege of calling each and every important artistic and literary figure of the second half of the 20th century by his or her first name. We tried to focus this particular interview not so much on these figures and the particular encounters that Cohen might have had with them but rather on his own poetic and artistic development that has consistently informed his own unique style.

Image, above left: cover of Seven Marvels by Ira Cohen

Ira Cohen: It’s nice to be with you here on the 23rd street coming out of Chelsea Hotel, then reading this particular book and eating Japanese sushi —

Nina Zivancevic: Now that we are talking about all these ‘Japanese things’ — what did it mean to you, your trip to Japan?

Oh, it was wonderful: because first of all, to live in America, as an artist, especially if you are not some kind of a maniac, or some bogus academic creature propped by the media, you don’t get too many perks. Ok, you get some perks — perhaps some people’s eyes shine when they hear you read, or through knowing someone like you I meet somebody that I feel belongs to the same world I live in. Yet, being invited to Japan through a friend was just a lovely confirmation of a common bond and an opportunity to shine in another universe.

Nina Zivancevic, Paris, 2001

Nina Zivancevic

Paris, 2001

How was it different? Was the poetry world different?

Oh, I don’t think that I met so many people in their poetry milieu but many old Japanese poets were brought out. I did not meet Kazuo Ohno there but I met him later in New York and he’s a terrific friend, I photographed him, I hugged him, kissed him, went to his performance here. These were outstanding moments. I met a number of good people in Japan who came to my show and when they came they responded in such a terribly Japanese way by taking me somewhere to a special tea ceremony and then they would point out to me ‘You see, a peony that you have at the bottom of your cup is the same peony that the hostess has wearing on her kimono, which is a special thing, like saying a special hello to you’! That was terrific, you know.
      Another person who lives in Okinawa and was a publisher invited me to his house many times. He was very gracious in a way that many people have simply forgot in the world we live in! Then, sometimes they would give you a cigarette without asking and you can ask anyone for a cigarette, people smoke there and true friendship, of course, is worth the price anyway. I was saying: Hey, it’s a beautiful camera and he said: do you want this camera? I said: No, I can’t take your camera! And then he was trying to push it on me — but just the idea and that feeling of generosity were special!
      Then someone came to see my reading and left a note and a gift — some expensive japanese music that I was interested in. The cost of an LP could vary at that time from $10 to $60 and so it was an expensive gift. In the note that came with it, written in a slightly halting English, one could read ‘Now that I’ve seen your photos I can kill myself’! So, I’m just thinking of certain moments there.
      Then, when I went to Okinawa I met with some university professors who invited me for a dinner in a special, very old inn in a traditional style — there was a Japanese woman taking me around, and we were drinking and any time we had another round, any time the glass was empty the duty of the person sitting next to that person was to fill the glass for him. So after a while the atmosphere became a little loose and I’ve heard one of the professors say ‘I have heard that you are the real thing and I can see that you are’!
      This would be something unheard of in our society, if someone tried to say something like ‘Ira Cohen is the real thing’ people would immediately try to put you down after that. They always say in America: ‘Have you ever published anything?’ And I say, you see my beard, you think I’m sitting around like a kid saying things?’ Then I would say ‘I’m just a poet’, but I’d never say ‘I’m a poet’, I say ‘I’m a just poet’.

When did you start playing with words? Did your reading of poetry come first, or writing it?

You know that my parents were deaf — my mother was a saint and my father was a frustrated clever man, he was frustrated because he lost his hearing at the age of two and was a serious diabetic. But he had never satisfied some other longing that was in him, I mean, he had a capacity, he was a very smart guy. He told me when I was a kid that he was the only deaf guy in his deaf club with a ‘second emotion’. Anyway, growing up with the deaf parents and the idea that the relationship to communication is very unique sign language — which was a very important first language for me, although I never became a true master of that language except in the sense that Charlie Chaplin could be called a master of sign language, but I learnt the gestures, I learnt the visceral, the words that you’re trying to express, that you become the thing that you’re talking about...

Did this experience give a special dimension to your language?

My father was a wierd deaf person — he was a prankster in language, he liked punning, so a typical thing that I remember is that I liked baseball — then he would spell it out for me and say in his deaf voice, something like ‘baseballology’. He could make up words like that and make a joke like that. The punning came up easily in a sign language. The deaf person could be a man with a thousand faces and I feel relatioship to that. In all the mylar photographs (which I was doing before I started make only photographs), I was directing and playing different roles.

I think that you told me once that you first started writing and then taking photographs.

Yes, maybe. First I did not have a camera, but I was reading a lot — children’s books about dogs and horses, novels about Franky Flyer etc., when I went to college at the age of sixteen I began looking for other books, I went to the library and I saw Franz Kafka’s The Castle. I read the book and I started reading all the books that I could find of Kafka, then I found all the books of Thomas Mann and I read them..

So, that was a lucky incident that you ran into all these great ones!

Oh, my life is full of that — it’s not even lucky incidents, it’s just following the wind where it blows you — one thing leads into another, I mean when you read a lot of books you find that other people get mentioned in the introduction or in the poems, and these are the ones you read next. Although poetry is always more difficult than reading novels or certain other things.

Who was the poet who influenced you the way you said Kafka did, the one you said ‘wow’ when you read him?

When I was fifteen or sixteen I discovered Dylan Thomas, he was on the record so I could hear him read — I say that I used to read his poems out loud to friends and girlfriends — ‘Do not go gentle into that good night, but rage, rage against the dying of the light’, so I started reading my own poems like that but with a different rhythm, but that turned me on to the idea of reading... But there were so many other poets that I loved and was inspired by — I have the ability to read in French and in Spanish, a bit in German...

Yes, you have a penchant for Surrealism...

Yes, I love Apollinaire, but also Spanish poets, old poets such as Gongora or Quevedo, or newer ones —  Lorca, Neruda — they can give you an idea of how great a poet can be in that language. Speaking of my favorite poets such as Lorca and Neruda, you feel that someone like Neruda touches on the sentimental in a way that no one else does, you don’t find that in Dante... And Lorca is so decadent and so romantic and lyrical...

I find a lot of Rilke in your poetry...

Well, perhaps one should not speak of Rilke yet. Nevertheless, I want to say that in the works of the poets I mentioned there’s no ornamentation and that’s what matters in my mind when I sit down to write a poem. Also the essence of what they’re writing about, is deep and touching and meaningful to me. The subject matter is important to poetry — these are just ‘arpeggios’ and other things and that’s one thing that most of all I find lacking in many poets who have the reputation of being good poets.
      There are millions of ways to make a poem, to make even good poems, and I know quite a few ways how to make them; these are called ‘tricks of the trade’ — ‘trick’ sounds like a word that one should be ashamed of using, but everybody uses something that you either call a trick or knowledge, and ‘collage’ more than ‘appropriation’ is the word that appeals most to me. ‘Appropriation’ seems ridiculous to me, and I could never understand the poet who uses 40 or 50 words from Ezra Pound’s and ends his poems with those exact words, but I commented to him on what he was saying in those lines — I took it so personally because his poem was dedicated to me and I said ‘those last lines — were those really the lines that you wrote directly to me?’ and then he told me that it was Ezra Pound, and that’s one thing.
      But the ‘collage method’ is like there is million sounds and million voices, so the option is that you have a contemporary person who takes things from other sources, Shakespeare did it too, but you have the option to create something as if you were creating an opera, of all different voices which come from over the radio, the TV, from books from snatches, from lines in newspapers, from overheard conversations — I don’t express that as the main thing, but I am open to it, because everything that I use must be something that I’m feeling myself strongly and then I ‘tack it on’ as my sale, as my feelings that I’m having. And I love it all, wherever it comes from: Japan, the Serbian poets that I read in that anthology The Horse Has Six Legs. [Compiled , edited and translated by Charles Simic, Graywolf Press, 1992.] I was amazed how uniformly good I found all those poets and how close they were to my own soul, as compared to a book that I found coming out of the St.Mark’s scene, published in the late sixties where I saw that there was a uniform style, and I was trying to get on it to see what’s really there, and I realized that I just couldn’t care less for the world that all these people were expressing! Even when they got to see it!

So it means that the language of poetry is really universal — it doesn’t have to be limited to someone’s particular experience such as ‘I eat Sushi... and I understand only people who eat Sushi’...

Yes, it’s good to draw what your world is, but just to write poems about what happened while you were making trivial phone calls... I mean, I use stuff like that in my poems but I wouldn’t make that the whole body of the thing. When you finaly boil down certain poems of that style, sometimes there’s very little left in the end once you discarded all the personal references and all the ocassional stuff! I was reading several poems which were just lists of all what I do every day, and the things in them are so mundane. Things that we do every day: a Surrealist would make a rather different list and then it would be true, if it was good, and a challenge to his imagination — one could say like ‘I milk my giraffe in the morning before I have breakfast, then I take a shot of marinated clouds in my syringe, which I inject into my pineal gland’! Oh, I don’t know — I shoot insulin every day, so there is a way to mythologize and fantasize around, if you are a Surrealist, or have a Surrealist tendency, you’d be doing that.
      I am neither of those things — I am neither Beat, nor a Surrealist, I am not a Dadaist — I am just Ira Cohen, and I’ve been open to every influence that comes on my horizon and some of these things — depending on how you absorb them — may take over and provide a certain style. Rilke, whom you mentioned earlier, talked about this beautifully in ‘Malte Laurids Brigge’ — he talks about something like taking in these words ‘but you have to let them become yours’.

What comes to you first — words or photographic images, or, in other words, what is the first thing that you grab in order to record something — a pen or a camera?

No, no, feelings are a little bit different; I have to search inside myself for something, I have to be a real pearl-diver to start working with a pen, I mean, it’s like pearl-diving. Photography is like throwing a net in the sea full of fish in a way. I mean there’s a million images everywhere. And it’s just a question of click, click! I mean somewhere along my eye there is, my choice too, but to choose in photography whatever it is, I’m making it work. And I like to photograph the things that are personal to me and sometimes it appeals to my eye but more often, it really appeals to something else in me that is looking for images.
      Yeah, I mean if I see something interesting in an image I’ll do it, but sometimes I’ll photograph something in the apartment or just parts of the apartment realizing I put ten things in that space and that I can move one thing over and it’s some kind of collage , rephotographing one photograph of mine together with some other object, say a sea shell or the inside , the core of the sea shell which is like a sector of some piece of science fiction architecture which I got in Mexico when we were together, on the Isla de Mujeres, do you remember that?

Oh, who could forget that trip! But, Ira, you’ve travelled to so many places and also you lived in so many places — what really amazes me is your steady practice of reading and writing that you’ve kept on wherever you went! Could you tell me though, as you lived for longer periods of time in places such as India, Nepal or Morroco — once you landed in that particular place and culture, did you have a habit of reading the respective literary heritage of the country you lived in?

Yes, to a certain degree, but I read a lot of Pausanius while I was living in Nepal. I also read the biography of Lucky Luciano, because certain books turned up there. Reading Pausanius and certain Greek things were very special to me because in a way I though I was living in a world and the century that was not so far from what ancient Greece was. And that all of the temples described there in Greece that had skulls on them – that’s like the Nepali temples! And sacrifice and things like that. It was hard to get certain books there... but somebody came there and gave me the book Poet in New York of Federico Garcia Lorca, of course I loved Lorca and I started looking at the book and I realized that Lorca died when he was 37 or 38, that’s when they killed him, and that I was around 37 or something like that when I got the book, and that if he died a couple of years after I was born, two or three years. Technically, if he hadn’t been killed, he could still be alive and be 76 or 77 years old — I was about 38 years old, which would be almost the same, you know what I mean? So, give or take a year or two I had this model in my mind and as I started reading the poems I thought he could still be alive , I could be the extension,  so I decided in a certain way , I really opened myself up to the spirit of Lorca as if he could come into me so I wrote this poem in unison with Garcia Lorca.
      If you write poems, I’m sure you’ve had these experiences in which someone’s spirit suddenly comes into you, or maybe it’s someone you’re addressing the poem to, so I felt that it was what happened there. There was my poem .I wrote that it takes its rhythm and spirit from Edgar Allan Poe, but I’m describing something in my own life – and that was Poe that came into me when I was writing this poem!
      And there was a poem that I felt that Dylan Thomas was in me while I was writing it – something like ‘writing a requiem in the absence of eagles’, I can’t remember it but just the whole tone of it and the whole rhetoric and then I though: I could sort of feel that Thomas lived in me when I wrote that poem. There is even a Hebrew word, Cabbalistic Hebrew word for something that I just described: something like being invaded by a dead spirit.

Do you understand Hebrew yourself?

A little bit, when I was young — not as a scholar but as a kid who attended Bar Mitzvahs and things like that... (Ira starts singing a prayer in Hebrew)

Ira, if someone had to tell you: from now on you cannot perform poetry, you just have to write it down, what would you say? How would you react?

I’d say ‘it’s boring’.Because for me the biggest pleasure is reading poems out loud — I started doing that with the poems of Dylan Thomas before I had my own poems to read. And I know that this whole idea of giving poetry readings is something that is associated with something in our time, connected to the Beat movement — that poets get out and read their poems. There were poets like Vachel Lindsay and earlier poets who did that in the 1920s but this is not a typical thing for poets worldwide...Although I think they were doing it in ancient Rome, you know, and I can imagine that in the U.K. – Wordsworth and Coleridge did not necessarily sit around reading to each other, but I wouldn’t be shocked if they did.
      I learn something about the poem every time I read it, I get more connected to the poem, I can play different notes on my saxophone when I read it on occasion, especially if the music is accompanying me and it’s good; and takes me into different direction. But if I don’t read a poem out loud, at least to myself — I’ll always do that — or read a poem to someone I’m talking to on the telephone, that’s the way that I see that a poem works.
      Because if there’s something wrong with it, I notice it immediately when it goes through my mouth: that the word is an extra word, it’s not quite right — something should be pulled out, or that I am rushed through that part, or whatever. And also, I also build confidence in a new poem that way; I’ve written poems which in the end I think of ‘great’, or ‘very good’ and there’s a couple of poems in a new book which Romy and Foxy are bringing out, and I think when I look at them – they are worth reading!

Let’s take a look at your new book. Are the images, that is, your photos, in Akashic Poems  related to the poems the way they precede or follow the poems?

Yes, there is a relationship — first, they are part of my world — Mikki’s (Maher) name is mentioned in the ‘Dolphin text’, the book is dedicated to Gregory (Corso), there’s a poem written for Gregory by me and Allen Grubard together and there’s a poem for Gregory in the beginning, the text opposite, the Jack Smith is opposite a text written for Jack when he died, and there is some reference point that connects them up — I just chose the pictures and the connection points. Look at Brion Gysin — what’s opposite? — There’s a eulogy for him, and you see the footnote there? I said ‘This was written in Paris for Brion Gysin when I met him in 1961.’ I realized after he died that I’d written his eulogy the day I met him. That’s the kind of magician Brion Gysin was. There’s my mother, Lakshmi, Carolyn...Are they magicians?
      I don’t know, if they are shamanic and magical that’s all the best — but I am interested in that power. In the power of transformation, I mean not just in power, I am not Henry Ford! Brion was a charming debonaire — he was an elegant Carry Grant of the underground, I’d like to say, and Jack Smith was the most audacious genius I’ve ever met, transmitting ‘by male fire inspiration to others’, which he did. Each of these people were kings, and magicians if you will.
      And there’s my daughter — I could compare her to Kumari if I want to, but she’s my daughter. My mother, who was a saint, a deaf saint, and I have a lot of friends as you know and I could have put other people in here but this is the cast I chose for this book.
      I think we talked about a lot of good things, about poetry that is germane. Once Gerard Malanga asked me what I thought was a rather uninteresting set of questions. But to one question I gave a really good answer. I was lucky because I could have fallen into a glib stupidity of my own. When someone says why do you write — what would you say? It is easy to say ‘oh, because of... blah, blah’, but I’d like to give a really good answer, not just a glib answer. So he was asking ‘where does poetry come from?’ So I said I thought of the book by Lawrence Van der Post which is called The Kalahari Bushmen and was about the Kalahari bushmen, or the lost world of the Kalahari, whatever, and it describes the Kalahari bushmen travelling all over the desert. And the way they conduct their whole life is by following lightning and thunder. That’s their whole life. Why? Because wherever lightning goes, water is sure to be found, and they are in the desert. So, if they see lightning down there and they see it in the desert on a probably clear horizon they follow that lightning and then they find water which is life! And I said to him that I would say that the poetry can be found in the same way. That’s how I feel about it. Whenever you follow the lightning, you’ll find a poem there.

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