Matthew Cooperman is a poet and scholar active in ecocriticism. He is the author of the poetry collections Still: of the Earth as the Ark which Does Not Move (Counterpath Press, 2011), DaZE (Salt Publishing, 2006) and A Sacrificial Zinc (Pleiades/LSU, 2001), winner of the Lean-Miles Wever Todd Prize, as well as three chapbooks, Still: (to be) Perpetual (Dove | Tail Poetry, 2007), Words About James (Phylum Press, 2005) and Surge (Kent State, 1998). Recent poetry and criticism has appeared or is forthcoming in Jacket, New American Writing, Angelaki, Pleiades, ISLE, Electronic Poetry Review, Parthenon West, Cannibal, Free Verse, Denver Quarterly and Witness, among others. A founding editor of the exploratory prose journal Quarter After Eight, he is a current poetry editor at Colorado Review. He teaches Creative Writing and English literature at Colorado State University, in Fort Collins, where he lives with the poet Aby Kaupang, and their two children. More information at: www.matthewcooperman.com
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Life changes—well, the first full-length book, A Sacrificial Zinc (there was a chapbook before), helped launch everything really—new SALT talks, the rising tides, monarch butterfly migrations, etc. Seriously, it was a great feeling—a relief and a validation. I’d been laboring on a PhD for some years, working and reworking a manuscript that would become the book, and I was frankly tired. Publishing Sac Zinc gave me enormous energy—the energy of a project completed, the energy of an interior sense of necessity fulfilled, the energy to be able to deal with the academic job market. It was also the release of energy away from such autobiographical concerns. That’s something your second question touches on really. As my books have evolved, the writing has gotten increasingly global, against biography. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say the writing has moved from memory to the present, to the present person (and the political world, as against childhood’s orbit). I think it was the bildungsroman thing—had to write the birth to become the artist.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
It’s always been poetry, really, and then scholarship. I write some creative nonfiction now and again, but those words have grown silent of late. I came to poetry through great teachers—some fine elementary and high school teachers, but really it was the poet and scholar Peter Balakian, my freshmen year at Colgate University. He taught me how to read closely, and to read poetry (Whitman, Hart Crane, Williams, Roethke). From a reading came a writing, first workshops, with the poet and playwright Sidney Goldfarb at the University of Colorado. I’d have to add in my mother, too. She loved cummings and Yeats, and read to me as a child. I remember her voice, a singingness, my first lyric wonder.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
In general, projects emerge over a long time. Increasingly my work is modal, which is to say a mode emerges, and then a series of poems come out of the kind of thinking that the mode implies. Usually it is a question of syntactic opening; then, of refinement—of understanding the formal possibilities of the mode, and how it is open to certain subjects, resonances. From there, the poems go through small adjustments, but their basic character is complete.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
It’s a pretty organic process, and really, it’s changed over the years, which I guess is organic. With my first book, A Sacrificial Zinc, there was a personal narrative that moved the writing forward. But it did it in discrete poems. I got interested in mixed-form composition (through Robert Hass) as the project evolved, so there are two long poems in the book, but it didn’t gather as a project as much as a life. With my second book, DaZE, the prospect of serial composition—the book is a series of series, stretched across three sections—made it more of a project. In that case, it was the discovery of the different types of series I was writing that made the project go. For instance, there’s a series based on the video installations of Bill Viola; there’s a calendrical series; there’s a series of speech-acts based on a persona—Day—and his various wanderings (e.g. “Day’s News,” “Day’s Kinsey,” “Day’s Flavas,” etc).
In the new book Still: of the Earth as the Ark which Does Not Move, it was decidedly a project from the start, and really an anti-poetry project. I got interested in all of the “subjects” of the world (fighting, climate change, eating, money) that didn’t seem “poetic,” but that I felt morally compelled to write about. And the material was visual, or my culture is visual. So the mode was discovered as a kind of accommodation for the excess of a subject, an excess of the eye. Once that got started it was really a question of endurance. How long would the project go? So many subjects in modern life. It ended up taking over a decade to write that book.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Readings are definitely part of it, hearing the spoken voice inside the page. I like to read. But that’s a negotiation, the verbal act, and the lifestyle possibility. Early in my career I traveled around more than now. I’ve a young family, and my wife, the poet Aby Kaupang, is just finishing grad school as an Occupational Therapist. So the better part of the decade has been more readerly sedentary. But I think performance is important in giving the poem away; to hear it (and you speaking it) provides a distance and objectification that moves the poem into the world.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
Well, whatever theoretical concerns I have, they’re explored book to book, which is to say the concerns change. I tend to be a durational writer, someone who writes a fair amount, but takes a long time to finish projects, so the questions and concerns emerge as a function of time—the time it takes to actually write the poems, and the duration of the mode as a discovering form.
I would say what has emerged over the last few years is a clear sense of poetry as occasional. This comes largely from my study of Charles Olson—the material fact discoverable in The Maximus Poems--and my study with his star student Ed Dorn during my Masters. More likely it is an understanding—really years later—of Dorn’s insistence on the poem as external, something predicated on the “outside.” Even as poetry (some of it mine) erupts as lyric utterance, it comes from some condition outside the poet. Dorn says as much in his essay “Notes About the External.” My most recent project, Still: of the Earth takes that very literally; operates, that is very much upon the occasions of the world, now tuned to specific subjects, or objects encountered by subjects, and the resulting strategies of containment. That results in indices, lists, so a theory of the list. I’m persuaded by Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project. I love what he calls it, “the theater of all my struggles and all my ideas.” The attempt at distillation, the enormous compression of things-into-texts, the many voices we find and find again there. The project is quite simply staggering, and nothing like it has ever been written before or since. Benjamin struggles to represent a city, and so a culture, or a century. And he does it by citation, cross-reference and commentary. Capitalism is catalogue. Still attempts that as some kind of documentation from the bottom up. Or from the web across. Mining’s more virtual now, more viral. Certainly, as poetry, the very anti-lyric foundations of our late/early century present similar conditions. It’s all stuff and speakers and noise and advertisement. I wanted a parallel madness, a parallel boredom and excess
7 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I’d say it’s overwhelmingly positive and, if not essential, clarifying. My work with presses—with editors, specific people—has resulted in a greater clarity of articulation. I’ve been very lucky—Pleiades, with Kevin Prufer; Salt, with Chris Hamilton-Emory and John Kinsella; Counterpath, with Julie Carr and Tim Roberts; Kent State University, with Maggie Anderson; Richard Deming and Nancy Kuhl, with Phylum Press; Victoria Brockmeier, with dove|tail poetry—each of these editors has helped me understand my work more fully, and put it forward in the best way possible.
8 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Kill your darlings, or be careful with what you love. Again, back to teachers, it was Linda Hogan who pointed out a certain tendency to repeat figurative tropes, to depend upon them as the emotional catharsis; and another of my other great teachers, Peter Michelson, who commented that I liked metaphors like I like ponies. That stopped that excess.
9 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
This is a great question, but also a difficult question, or the difficult question of how one continues to write. I mean, it’s not that hard to write a pretty good poem. It’s hard to write a collection of them, and it’s harder still to keep writing over the years. I think the movement between genres—in my case really a movement between poetry and scholarship—has kept me writing and thinking about writing. Especially as one moves on from the sense of writing as epiphany, the poem becomes a “work site” in the sense Gary Snyder very usefully articulated. It’s a place to work things out, to get to work with language. But that pretty quickly moves to reading, and to learning how to read as a question of learning how to write. Inevitably that close-reading has lead to scholarship. Learning to read in college lead to Olson, lead to a desire to study with Ed Dorn, which lead to a desire to understand the legacy of Black Mountain, which lead to a desire to read the Objectivists closely, and so on. I’ve found that there’s a real necessity to apprentice oneself to poetry, and to that history as a constantly living tradition. The poetry I’m most interested in—reading and writing—comes out of a sense of that historical negotiation—lyric after L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E. What to do with the welter of postness. If you came of age after that theoretical rubicon, and you’re a serious writer of poetry, you have to translate those concerns. Sustained scholarship has been a way for me to write and think on writers I love—from Charles Wright to D.A. Powell, Ed Dorn to Theodore Enslin—and that’s changed my writing very deeply.
10 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Eucalyptus and bay laurel and live oak: Bay Area, California.
11 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
I’m definitely a “whole arts” guy. Music and visual art and dance, not to mention “nature,” in all its manifestations, are a part of my writing, my thinking. I like, on the one hand, the relief from language that visual art enacts for me, and, on the other, the little tape of attention that begins to spool out words in my being in nature. It’s a strange paradox, what silence we want and need, and what silence produces language.
12 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Climb in the Himalayas. I love to hike and climb, have done my share in Colorado, where I’ve been fortunate to live for nearly twenty years. But that tallest mountain on earth thing, I want to see the bulge of the planet.
13 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
A chef. Actually I was that for some years, and I loved it and still miss it. But it made me fat and lazy, or potentially so. That’s a full immersion lifestyle, and it’s not necessarily conducive to thinking. But the pressure of the cooking line, orders piling up, cooking to order. Adrenaline. The gestalt of a dish well-made and presented. It has an immediacy of creation that writing rarely has.
14 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Last great book I read was, well, a couple of things: the Stevens and Swan biography of De Kooning (what a sustained and recursive career!), and John Taggart’s is music (what a sustained and ecstatic career!). Last great film I saw—Take Shelter. Spooky/scary movie with an environmental premonition.
15 - What are you currently working on?
I’ve a number of projects rolling right now, generally the duration of the processes I’ve spoken about, various poetry manuscripts churning their modes. I’m trying to finish a book of interviews called Questioning (the) Witness, nearly twenty interviews with major exploratory poets of the late 20th c. (Ed Dorn, Marjorie Welish, Anne Waldman, Rosmarie Waldrop, D.A. Powell, etc). This has been going on for over twenty years. And I’ve just finished a book called NOS (disorder, not otherwise specified), with my wife Aby Kaupang. That’s been a major project too, a difficult experience of the medical industry with our daughter Maya, who has autism. Aby’s really been the force of that project, and yet it’s been this place of great convergence for us—a deep sadness and anger, and an exploration of the language implicit in the “diagnosis” of autism. Aby’s burgeoning career as an OT is part of that, and this charged (I wrote charred) syntax. The project has brought us together as writers and parents, a kind of self-agency which all great writing opens. I’m in awe of the shared language we’ve created, and rather frightened by it too.
12 or 20 (second series) questions;