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Julia Cohen
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This is my last day with you! And it’s already late afternoon. I’ve been in meetings and then working on a syllabus for Experiments in Literature for the CCC system here. Sorry. There is so much to get to. I’m going to warble. I’m going to make a bird’s nest out of bobby pins. Here is one thing about objects I feel vulnerable to admit: I have joint-custody of my dog (this is not the embarrassing part, this is the part of genuine love). He lives in Denver right now, where he gets to go to the mountains and hang out at friends’ houses. Here is a little proof: In Chicago, he’d be inside all day by himself and wouldn’t have that many houses to visit. His paws would be so cold. So I will go collect him in July when the city will be a sunny adventure for him. I think that without him, I started to grow attached to weird objects. For example, this badger stuffed animal: That snout is just asking to be petted. Am I right? Eh, I’m pretty sure I’m wrong. Before this, it was a TempurPedic pillow. I spent 4 months living alone in Chicago while my furniture and all of my books were still in storage in Denver. I slept on a hard futon on the floor in an empty apartment. My bureau was a cardboard box. I bummed wifi from my downstairs neighbors for $20 a month. I ate weird meals, like bags of Indian food you buy at the grocery store and then boil?? I focused on teaching. I’d come home, eat, watch something trashy like an episode of Gossip Girl, and then get back to work. Which meant it was me, a hard futon, and a TempurPedic pillow. This pillow was the only giving thing in my apartment. I didn’t name it or anything entirely screwy, but I started to feel a weird affection for it. Like, a step below a pet fish or how people care for a certain houseplant. I didn’t do anything with it, obviously, other than rest my head when I slept or lean on it when I worked. But there was this strange part of my brain that started to feel like this pillow was looking out for me. It was comforting me. This pillow had my back, physically and figuratively. In an empty apartment, I had the space to think about objects. I had so many in storage. Occasionally I missed them, but despite my slightly abysmal descriptions above, I actually liked the emptiness. There were no distractions. I could focus more intensely. I could see the entire wall. The entire floor. I paid attention to the light. To the few pencils scattered around my bed. To the bobby pins. In retrospect, I wonder if it allowed me to focus too intensively. I was more anxious, more obsessive in my thinking patterns. So now that I have all my possessions out of storage, I’ve... Continue reading
Posted Feb 21, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
“What I have been thinking about, lately, is bewilderment as a way of entering the day as much as the work. Bewilderment as a poetics and an ethics…. It cracks open the dialectic and sees myriads all at once.” —Fanny Howe My grandmother, Sydelle, died yesterday at 4am. So I am going to write about her for a little bit, if that’s okay with you? I’ve never met anyone else named Sydelle. She was not given a middle name. Since she fell in love with her husband at 19, she has been called Spook. He told her, I love you so much it spooks me. It stuck. As a young child, Spook contracted polio, leaving her left leg dwindled and her foot much smaller than her right. One day she went swimming and when she came out of the water she collapsed. Polio. When I was a kid, I misunderstood the story and I thought you could catch polio in lakes. When I swam back to the shore, I would place my feet on the pebbles and push off against them to make sure I could still walk. She had a profound love for Jonas Salk because he was able to spare others what she went through and lived with every day. A body that was constantly rebelling against her, a body that, as she grew into middle and then old age, kept her bound to a chair while her mind travelled. It was almost impossible to get her to talk about bodily pain because until last week, it never stopped her from finding ways to feel like she was fully participating. She was the first woman in her neighborhood to wear pants. Her favorite color was always brown. Brown. She read the NYT cover to cover every day with a towel spread over her lap so as not to cover her in ink. She would call me and surreptitiously quiz me about current events, what my favorite New Yorker article was this week. She told me how grateful she was to live long enough to vote for a black president. When I was a child, she took me to The Met at every opportunity and walked me through the Impressionists. Those were her rooms. And if you went with her, they became your rooms, too. My childhood bedroom had Matisse and Magritte posters because she made me feel like I couldn’t leave the museum (or live—I was histrionic) without versions of my own. She loved the crust of bagels but not the doughy middle, and would scoop the bread out of the bagel and pile it on the side of her plate for the birds or, if we were visiting, the grandchildren. Outside of every window at which she sat were numerous birdfeeders. She would write letters about the different finches and blue jays, the turkeys that slept in the tree. The snowdrops that popped up in spring to signal the thaw. The single, mangled peach tree that was... Continue reading
Posted Feb 20, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
In a house of so many first-floor windows, I was afraid someone was outside looking in. When I went upstairs at night, I would run past the foyer windows as fast as I could. My bedroom had one bifold closet. At night, I was afraid that the two visible wheels on tracks I saw peeking out of the top were the ossicones of a terrible and possessed giraffe. When I read Dahl’s The Witches, I was afraid I would end up living my entire life trapped in a painting in my own living room while my parents wondered how/where I disappeared. When I read King’s It (at age 11: that was a mistake), I spent my entire time in the shower making sure blood wasn’t gurgling up out of the drain. I did not like being the last one awake in my household, but that was hard to avoid with these fears keeping me up. My parents tried everything. They bought a special seat for me to read in, so that I would associate an active brain with a different part of my room instead of my bed. They had an extra mattress under their own bed that I could pull out and sleep on if my fears overwhelmed me. I saw a shrink who played Jenga with me and watched me doodle. My irrational fears no longer keep me up, but they haven’t disappeared all together. They seem to only appear in the dark when I’m alone. Enveloped in blackness, it’s incredibly hard for me not to imagine the strange and impossible creatures that are lurking in it with me. When someone else is with me, it keeps them in check. I loved sleepovers when I was a kid because I knew I wouldn’t have the same problem falling asleep. Mostly, now I have rational fears: global warming; dying bees; how many non-decomposable products I use; how my students who don’t own computers will ever pass my classes, etc. But I’ve been thinking about irrational fear and creativity. I feel at peace with my darker, embarrassing fears because I think that the wild leaps my brain takes to create these scenarios manifest in a more associative and grounded way in my poetry. To imagine environments and movements and questions that break the world open into new images and moods. The roaming imagination has brought many sleepless nights to my childhood, but a variation of this imagination allows me to feel that mercy is like the orange fringe of a newspaper or to ask myself, what if I fold myself into a leaf? I am wondering, did you, BAP readers, also have serious irrational fears when you were kids? Do you feel like they connect somehow to the creativity you bring to your poetry now? In a second, I want to introduce you to Better Magazine and the poet Lisa Ciccarello. It’s her work that’s made me think about terror, because in her poems, the terror seems to materialize from... Continue reading
Posted Feb 19, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
Hi. It’s Tuesday as you read this but I’m writing on Monday. I’ve eaten 1.5 English muffins and drank countless cups of ginger tea. Rusty water sputtered out of my kitchen tap on Thursday and then I spent most of the weekend dehydrated, avoiding the scary orange water, Sochi Olympics style. Boiling it for tea somehow seemed like a compromise today. Since it’s President’s Day I’ve been curled on my couch, prepping for my English 101 classes this week while glancing out the window, watching the snow blot out the buildings. I’ve been writing a sample introductory paragraph and body paragraph for my students to identify the structural elements and model them in their own essays. I spend a lot of time conveying to them that I’m never looking for correct answers, that interpretation is various, and that I hope to learn from them in each class. But then I also have to make sure they can organize their paragraphs to coherently convey their arguments. Which means I don’t make it mandatory that they use templates, but I strongly encourage it for their first few papers. And my hope in making these sample paragraphs—which relate to a recent article they read but not the one they’re currently writing about—is that we can walk through them together and discuss what each sentence contributes and how the order affects the reader. And they can start to build more fluidity and connective tissue in their paragraphs. To substantiate the ideas I hope they genuinely care about. So much of teaching poetry seems to be about enabling students to break down and reconfigure language in new ways. To dissolve templates and restrictive formulas that expectations of language can trap us in. How to embrace ambiguity. In teaching English 101, I’ve struggled philosophically with how to encourage specific structures and not feel like I’m facilitating the architecture of those very traps. Through this struggle, I think I’ve actually become less angry at language’s potential to silence. I work with these students to understand for the first time the difference between a thesis statement and a personal opinion; why a specific example is more persuasive than a list of hypothetical generalizations. My students tend to come to English 101 not yet feeling like intellectual citizens. And when they pass English 101, I think it’s important that they not only feel more connected to the critical process of reading and the potential to clearly express themselves, but that they can continue to question these articulations. In a sense, that revision is a mode of being in the world. And perpetually questioning and revising one’s thoughts is not a sign of weakness (of being “incorrect”), but of openness. This might be a good example for my students of digression. Let’s get to it: ** Day 2 Journal: inter|rupture inter|rupture: publishes poetry 3 times a year. The current issue features 1-2 poems per contributor. On the one hand, it leaves you wanting more. On the other, it’s a... Continue reading
Posted Feb 18, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
Day 1 Intro: Hi. Thanks for having me here. It’s snowing in Chicago right now and my record player is filling my living room with Nina Simone. I want to share with you the journals and poets who have rejuvenated my spirits this year but maybe a little context for this decision would be helpful?: The last few months have been flooded with Best Books of 2013 lists. Many of the books on the Best Of lists are stacked on my bedside-table unread. And many amazing books that are not on the Best Of lists are also stacked on my bedside-table unread. For me, 2013 was a difficult year to sit down and read a complete book. I spent the first 12 months 1) on the job market 2) adjuncting in Denver 3) working in a university Writing Center 4) acting as the Associate Editor of the Denver Quarterly while 5) finishing and then defending my PhD dissertation. Also, 6) playing with my dog and 7) trying to be a decent friend and daughter and sister. I spent the next few months moving to Chicago and then adjusting to teaching new classes after very gratefully being offered a job here. Mainly I have been trolling composition textbooks and grading papers. In a day divided between teaching, office hours, grading, and class planning on my laptop, one thing I’m grateful for is easy access to the myriad online journals. Peeking at poems during lunch gives me more energy than the dry, crumbly granola bars I keep somehow buying and storing in my desk. I’ve noticed that journals tend to announce new issues on Facebook (and Twitter) without sending an email or notifying a readership through other mediums. And then contributors in a particular issue circulate their own links. It’s easy to “like” a link on Facebook without actually clicking on it. Or rather, it was easy for me to do that. I told myself, “I’ll ‘like’ it now and then I can come back and read it later when I’m done scarfing down this dry, crumbly granola bar.” Or, “Well, I do ‘like’ the idea that my friend has a poem published in [substitute any hundred journal names], but I don’t have time to read it this second.” So in 2013, my quiet and modest new years resolution was simply to read the poems to which my friends were linking before I clicked “like.” Because ultimately, when I let the Facebook world know that a poem of mine has been published, I hope my friends actually take the time to read it. I don’t necessarily want them to “like” it, right? They can be disturbed, unnerved, prompted to daydream, etc. I want to believe that poems cause some sort of reaction. I want to believe in a community of reciprocal writers who are not just interested in rounding up people to read their work, but are intellectually and creatively engaging the work of others. I have 5 days to have a... Continue reading
Posted Feb 17, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
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Feb 17, 2014