Featured Author: Emma Cohen
Why do you write? What purpose does writing serve for you currently?
Well I want to tell you I wrote this by hand after writing a letter to Andrew Kaplan -- because I'd been struggling to tell him on video or phone some nuanced and vulnerable pieces of thought, feeling and information. I'd been struggling, too, to answer your questions by typing. It kept coming out wrong. All of it. Stuck and gummed up. Writing because someone else asked me to is hard for me.
I'm still wounded by my time as a student and in academia and working for others. I write because I want to. Writing for me is one of the most core and essential tools in my practice of being well.
But only writing in a certain way, for my own wellness. I can't bend my writing to serve others.
How do you usually start a poem, story, etc?
You know I recently read "Big Magic" by Elizabeth Gilbert and I'm aware of how her writing on this topic is still, I'm still metabolizing it. She writes about how, you know, sometimes the genius or inspiration arrives and the poem or whatever pours out but how most of the time you just have to show up and do the work.
That's pretty basic stuff you hear when people give advice about creativity, yeah. Don't wait to feel like doing your work type of advice.
For me, if there is a poem there, at this point it usually is inspired. It's a physical sensation and a very clear thought -- a line or two -- often when I'm walking or outside staring at the sky, trees, water, bugs, whatever. So I'll put the line to paper and noodle it out.
When I abandon the line or in trying to get away from it or pull out whatever is hiding in or underneath the line -- that's where the starting is. There may be pages of drainage writing, too. Poetry isn't, you know, my creative practice -- the whole contemplative visual journaling is -- so when inspiration or whatever comes for poetry, I do know it's time to give myself over to it. And I do like to wait for that inspiration to arrive. If that makes me less prolific I don't mind. I don't think it makes me less clever.
Generally inspiration for poetry comes because there's a rut, a groove in my mind that's producing thoughts that are out of line with however I'm growing or aligning and that impacts how I feel and how I act. And I know better. So, my poems at this point are really me cooing to myself, doing loving-kindness. Saying, through process, "It's okay, it's okay."
How do you know when a piece is finished?
I'm a very, hm I don't want to say picky editor or always in thrall to perfectionism -- I just really like when I read a poem out loud to be able to hear the melody, that the notes are all resonating in tune, that any extra dangle or embellishment serves a purpose. I adore repetition but I have very little patience for showiness or redundancy or language and vocabulary that I can't understand. So I try to eliminate that as much as possible.
And I want to see that the meaning, the soothing, the feeling is a clear path, that none of my words or structure is getting in the way of the melody's flow -- and by melody I mean also the feeling's flow, the flow of feeling that changes how the thoughts are going. If I can read a poem out loud several times and make no marks, condensations, or structural changes, then it's done.
I want to make a note here that I'm very interested in how written English -- and I'm currently pretty much monolingual -- how written English isn't spoken English. There's regionalism, yeah. But beyond that. Me, I drop a lot of consonants when I speak, articulate a word a certain way depending on where it sits in a sentence, I've picked up this funny back of throat click when I say "like", etc., and to some extent I want to be able to hear that in my writing and poetry.
I may, in the editing/finishing process dump a lot of notation for silence and articulations into a poem, and it's in the process of decreasing the notation so that it isn't overly stylized or detracting, it's in that process the finishing occurs. I suppose that goes back to the idea of grace notes, trills, etc. I often skip them in reading music, but sometimes they make the piece sing.
What writers/artists are influencing you right now?
So -- what do I mean to say here -- when I think of influence, I could mention the same old writers on my shelf or musicians whose tracks I play -- but I suppose it's like, well, yeah. And it can get braggy, right?
I don't want to let this be all about consumption or lopsided flow. The Bieber videos were fun but they didn't hold my attention for very long.
When writing is resistance I want to be influenced by that, I want to be shaped by that. I don't like to write about it, but I do like it to influence how I show up in the world, to influence my movements, my contemplative practices. It's like, duh, Billy-Ray Belcourt's voice isn't about influencing me, and at the same time -- taking Cherrie Moraga's poetry/prose "Loving in the War Years" to the bathtub got at my heart in a way that poking Judith Butler's writing with a pen never could.
The writers and artists I choose to keep close -- well if you start taking a look at Moraga or Belcourt then you start to see how they're in conversation with people and that's where their writing comes from to some extent. The relationships are catalysts and containers for the ideas. So the writers and artists I keep close, we make it a project of ours to deepen our relationships, to speak about relationship, and to really puzzle on that and on what it is to grow into who we are. Renee Garcia, Ben Page, Lizz Ehrenpreis, and Garrett Hoffman especially. Then I have Lynda Tuttle and Lisa Sonora holding up the lanterns showing me how to be a teacher and a guide, how to behave.
What do you want people to know about your work?
So I've been doing contemplative creative practice for about three and a half years now, which means at its most basic that I paint pages in a journal and glue in images and tape flaps -- and then I write.
I used to be so hung up on Being a Writer. But I don't want a Penguin Book, I don't want the life it would take to get one, and I don't mind not wanting either of those. Teaching creative practice, is, as Lizz would say, the companion to my work, and in a sense I'm aware that without a contemplative practice I'd have no words to share at this point.
I've become so much less product-oriented, or maybe I've just become aware that I've in general been a process-oriented person. It's like how I don't practice the saxophone to master tunes. I just want to hear the notes breathe through me, to feel the catharsis. So what if there's no recording. I find that process sometimes creates product and that's okay. The more I practice alongside others, the more I teach, the deeper my conversation and correspondence with the artists and contemplative folks in my life go, the more I observe and sink into play, the more I look at a calendar and at pilgrimage -- that's where my "work" is at, where I'm at. I'm not in the think piece or the lit mag. I'm not in the gallery. I've been there and it doesn't do it for me.
What question do you wish I asked you?
Okay obviously I want to be asked about the AOL poetry board* days. These wee young kids all brave and voiced and fonts, how we are now. Joyce, it gave me so much life to see, after Eli reconnected us, that she could still recognize in my words in this zine my voice. My same voice! After all these years! There's a treasure in that. And there's a treasure in your, in our continuity in our relationships to poetry over our lives.
But really then I also became interested in the question between how do you start a piece and how do you know it's done. What happens in the middle? What is it like down in the well or on the raft or in the roller coaster seat or in the sour waiting or on the floor napping it out?
*Editor’s Note: Joyce met Emma on an AOL message board for poetry & writing about 15 years ago.