Thursday Dec 02

Cooley-Poetry Peter Cooley is Director of Creative Writing at Tulane University and has published eight books, seven of them with Carnegie Mellon, the most recent being DIVINE MARGINS, 2009. That press will ring out his new book NIGHT BUS TO THE AFTERLIFE in the near future. For 2011-2012, he was on leave from Tulane, having received an ATLAS grant from the state of Louisana to write poems about the state after Katrina and the oil spill.
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Peter Cooley Interview, with Kaite Hillenbrand
 
 

I’m excited to see that you’re a sculpture-lover like me. You know much more than I do, but I’ve always been drawn to sculptures in museums and in public. I made it to Paris with a friend in 2000, and we were really looking forward to visiting the museums. Both the Louvre and the Musée D’Orsay turned out to be closed. I could handle the disappointment because first on my list was the Musée  de L’Orangerie. I was dying to sit in the middle of big, oval rooms, surrounded by Monet’s Water Lilies. When we got there, we found out it was closed for the next six years. We couldn’t believe our bad luck. We slumped on a bench across the street, watched some kids play, and got out a travel guide to look for other things to do. That’s how we stumbled on the Musée Rodin, which, as I recall, was nearby. What a find! Rooms and rooms of sculptures – and then more sculptures in the gardens! One in particular caught my attention: a sensual, beautiful marble sculpture of entwined lovers leaning towards each other with every part of themselves (I wonder if it is “Eternal Spring,” which you write about in one of your poems published here). It has caught my breath each time I’ve thought of it since I saw it in 2000. I’m still bummed that I never saw L’Orangerie, but I can hardly believe I stumbled onto some of the greatest sculpture I’ve ever seen, sculptures that still affect me. What’s the story of how you came to Rodin’s sculptures?

The story behind my fascination with Rodin would have to start with a copy which stood – stands – in front of the Detroit Public Library downtown. I was taken to the library as a child and was awed by the Greco-Roman architecture (naturally, I didn't know those terms) and felt that this statue most be something very important if it guarded such a rich repository.

Oh, how interesting – you’ve connected Rodin to writing from the beginning!


I read an epigraph to a friend’s poem years ago that said something like: the best response to art is not criticism but art. I think one of the best feelings is seeing art and feeling inspired to create more art, and I’m guessing you’ve had that feeling and turned it into poems, including the ones published here. There are lots of ways to react to and respond to art, and ekphrastic work can take may forms and approaches. What is your approach to writing ekphrastic poetry? Why do you choose this approach, and why have you decided to write ekphrastic poems? Do you seek out art to write about?
 
The poems you have chosen are what I am beginning now to write, which I would call "associational ekphrasis."
 
I started writing ekphrastic poems when I was studying art and literature at the University of Chicago in the ’60s, and what I was doing then was trying – foolishly – to reproduce the visual art. One can’t. In my poems here, I try to give a semblance of the art work and then spin off on that. I have some new poems I haven't the courage yet to show to anyone which I would call “subjective ekphrasis” in which the work of art is just a launching pad for writing.
 
I write ekphrastic poems in homage to the visual arts and because I have no ability in any of them. The artists choose me; I don't choose them.
 

I love the layers of intertwined stories in these poems. How important is story-telling to poetry?
 
I'm pleased that you commented on the stories in the poems. I have no real sense of narrative, I've discovered, but I do love “story,” especially story as fracture – gossip, digression, parenthesis, commentary, anecdote – and I like to interweave them.
 

Editor-in-Chief Ken Robidoux knows that you’ve published with and are about to publish again with Carnegie Mellon Press, and he wants to know: What it’s like to work with Gerald Costanzo?
 
I have published seven of my eight books with Carnegie Mellon whose editor is Jerry Costanzo. I could not ask for a better publishing house! He has stayed with me since he took my second book in 1979 and each book is beautifully produced by his staff and him with great personal attention. All the books are kept in print and advertised. What more could one ask? He is due to bring out the new book NIGHT BUS TO THE AFTERLIFE soon.
 

From our correspondence, it looks like you travel a lot. What spurs you to travel? Where do you most love to visit?
 
It's only been in recent years that I have been able to travel again. I spent several decades happily close to home, paying private school tuitions since Louisiana has had the worst public schools in the nation.
 
I do love to travel, but I hate “travel writing.” What spurs me to travel? Light, movement, sound: looking out an unfamiliar window gives me a new world. It's easiest to travel to London, which is my favorite place to visit, I guess, since I know the language, but I have been driven inward to find new paths for my writing in places where I could not speak the language, Prague, Capetown, Rome. That, too, is invigorating.
 

You wrote to me that you’re starting to see how great online publication can be. Are there any drawbacks? And what do you see as the advantages – what appeals to you about publishing online?
 
I am seeing how great online publication can be for poets; I can't imagine reading extended works of fiction this way. If I like a poem in an online magazine, I can print it and carry it around with me as I have done many times. The only problem I see is this: so much of the "business" of my life is now enacted online that I see the computer screen as a "work place" and not a leisure reading place. When I am through working at the computer, I like to lie down and pick up printed material for fun. I do not own a laptop, but if I did the problem would remain, I think.
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Rodin, “Eternal Spring”
 
 
The scattered pieces of some risen god
assume the shape of lights that come and go
over this couple, locked in their embrace.
Some day, I’ll see them in one of their casts
but now their pose in this book has to do.
 
Her body thrusts upward against his chest,
his right arm wraps about her, and his sex
(I’ll use the metonymic word) squashes there
against her, not erect, front and center.
It draws the eye, which then proceeds to trace
this overture to coupling, line by line.
 
Anticipation, which is half our lives
knows this monument to an event
about to happen. Not yet. Soon. Not yet.
 
 
 
Rodin, “The Hands”
 
 
What can I tell you that will make you know
not Rodin’s piece, overly familiar,
but my version, dwelling place for fire:
my memory sees two bolts of flickering,
two lightnings coiled together in a dance,
meeting-and-not: solitude, company.
 
The corporality of living things?
No, souls of seabirds, two wings stopped in flight.
Or: Paolo, Francesca, separate.
 
I don’t want to write personal poems
but I will tell you when I see white flames
like these, I am drawn back to childhood:
 
mornings like this I can start life over
and then second time over, a third—
 
 
 
RODIN
 
 
Let’s forget the stories about his women
to concentrate on what he did with form.
He casts us back to Michelangelo
he’d traveled to Italy to take on
so we could see the nude again—naked,
the female stripped, unembarrassed, bare.
 
He casts us back to Greece and then sets free
their bodies so they’re more than sexual
but more like Eve in Eden, free, untouched.
 
What difference between  body and the soul
when work is play and there’s no time at all—
 
 
 
Rodin, “Monument to Balzac”
 
 
I have these mornings in eternity
when I can ride out, on Rodin’s wings, poised
for—that’s why I ride, so that I’ll never know
until the flight is underway, my clouds
assembling a direction. Here, mid-air
to nowhere, Balzac appears, robed figure,
sculpture rejected after commissioned,
described as “sack of coals, penguin, fetus,”
then, finally accepted to stand here,
junction of Montparnasse and Raspail today.
 
I write this in my room in New Orleans.
But when I speak, I take us to Paris,
Paris that never was, Paris inside,
Paris that says “yes” as we imagine,
Paris that says all things are possible.
 
 
 
Rodin, “Victor Hugo”
 
 
In order to remind us that we live
we have the dead, come back as a statue.
Therefore, it often is not beautiful.
His poem to his dead daughter: beautiful.
Once, I could have quoted it entire.
 
Genius cannot be shown in a frock coat
Rodin is known to have said. Thus, naked Hugo
who comes in swinging, poised to take us on.
I much prefer him to the final one
in the garden of the Palais Royal.
There, muses crawl on him, old grandfather.