A Man with a Beautiful Mind
By Sonya Sabanac for Poets' Quarterly
When I first met Jack Cooper in 2007 at a Los Angeles poetry reading, I instantly fell in love with his words. That night I took home his collection, Across My Silence. Opening Cooper’s book is truly like opening the door into an exciting world where every person and every moment counts. Cooper has this unique ability to make us see that there are no ordinary things and, as he puts it in “Transitory Endings,” that “we are all finishing each other’s stories.”
Q: The great Serbian scientist, the father of electricity, Nikola Tesla says in one of his interviews that the world needs good energy to run on and among other things, he names the energy of poetry. What are your thoughts in that respect? How crucial is poetry?
A: Tesla understood that everything is energy, that the second law of thermodynamics applies equally to art as to electricity. Nothing is lost, not memories, not ideas, not love, only transformed -- art assures us of that. When Tesla says the world needs good energy like poetry, I think he's simply saying there's life-giving, transformative power in beautiful thoughts. How crucial is poetry? Poetry changes everything sooner or later because it dissolves our rational limitations, it throws us up in the air. When Garcia Lorca writes, “If I die/leave the balcony open,” who can any longer think that death is the end? When Carl Sandburg writes, “Listen to the wind in the trees/counting its money/and throwing it away,” who can read that and keep their money all to themselves?
Q: Your book Across My Silence is a real treat for poetry-readers. For those who are not so much “into poetry,” it is the perfect opportunity to fall in love. Your poems, though smart and philosophical, instantaneously catch the reader's mind and heart. As an example of that, I would cite one of the shortest poems in your book called “Home.”
“By the home for boys
full of people.
How do you explain that easiness that flows between your lines and readers?
A: I can't explain it; it just emerges in the words, and the words gather momentum, like a river or a train. I like the word “co-creating,” like it's between me and an elemental force, maybe the Higgs boson or a universal consciousness. I once worked in an institution for troubled boys that was right next to a train stop. They would sit by the window watching each train go by, hoping it would stop and their parents would get off and walk into the building and hold them and take them to their real home and love them forever. That's what we want a poem to do – to take us home.
Q: Most people I talked to regarding your book are amazed with the variety of the topics in your poetry and they would like to know where your inspiration comes from. Where do you go for it? Inner journey, your own experience, observation of other people’s lives or combination of the above?
A: A poem can come from everywhere – nature, friendships, death, even a broken bone. I recently wrote a poem about losing my first molar. The poet Mary Oliver is said to have found so many poems in the woods near her house that she finally stuck pencils all around in the trees so she'd never miss the chance to write something down. I feel the same way, but nature is where you find it. I saw a dying pigeon on the sidewalk the other day. I tried to give it some water but it didn't want any. Then I realized the sidewalk was its home. It didn't know where else to die. That's a poem. In the beginning, a lot of poets write about their memories. That's okay, you have to try to make sense of your life, but a writer needs to be in the moment even when writing about the past. Eventually, we move on from personal history to immediate experience – the fire erupting down the street; a wild bird flying in the window; waking up with crazy thoughts, like what if the opposite of everything were also true, or what if no children on earth would starve today. And you need to read everything. There is all this wonderful material out there, like the man in Canada who was arrested for serial kissing. Seek an ascendant meaning, find the metaphor, the pain, the power, and, finally, the gift that you can make of it that maybe only you – as your higher co-creational self – can make of it.
Q: How early in your life did you discover that you are a poet and can you tell us if this gift of poetic sensibility was ever a burden in some ways?
A: I started writing poems really in college, but I wanted to study biology not English and just kept them in a notebook. When I dropped out of grad school to protest the Vietnam War, poems began to pour out of me, and I self-published two books with woodblock prints by the artist P. A. Milton. Still, it really wasn't until about 10 years ago that I committed myself to the poet's life with the help of an incredible coach named Steve Chandler who knew everything I didn't about poetry and loved my work. Yes, the poetic sensitivity can be a burden, but only if you deny it, only if you don't or can't give it expression. I can only imagine what it must feel like to live in a country without the freedom to write, read and publish.
Q: Many of your poems are about animals, (Like “Shrew”, a poem that was nominated for Pushcart Award.) What is the secret of that admiration?
A: Animals are pure in spirit. There is no such thing as a devious or evil animal, with the possible exception of those that have been trained, or tricked, to be that way by humans. Animals are like anything else uncorrupted – wildflowers, the phases of the moon, little children. I was raised around animals and feel a close bond with them. One of my most persistent themes is exploring how humans and animals are not at heart so different. I write about birds a lot – they fly, they swim, they build nests, they lay colorful eggs, they wear beautiful feathers, they perform wild dances, they travel long distances by the earth's magnetic field, and they can even talk and sing. ee cummings has a line about birds: “if men should not hear them men are old.”
Q: Who are the poets that were most influential to you? Does age affect which poets you love?
A: To the first question, let me just list a few poets, passed on and still with us: Sappho, Basho, Shakespeare, William Blake, Walt Whitman, ee cummings, Wallace Stevens, Carl Sandburg, Garcia Lorca, Sylvia Plath, W.H. Auden, Theodore Roethke, Czeslaw Milosz , Claudia Emerson, Tess Gallagher, Elton Glazer, Tony Hoagland, Mary Oliver. To the second question I would answer No, except for nursery rhymes. I still love Lorca as much today as when I discovered him 40 years ago: “When the moon rises/the sea covers the earth/and the heart feels/like an island in infinity.” So image-rich and metaphoric, so mellifluous both in Spanish and in English. “Cuando sale la luna/el mar cubre la tierra/y el corazon se sienta/isla en el infinito.”
A: I saw a bumper sticker on a Ferrari the other day that read, “Failure gave me this car.” Understanding that there are no mistakes, that failure is opportunity, yes, I've had more than a few setbacks in poetry. More than half of my poems are rejected by journals, and as many as 90% are turned down at least once before they're finally picked up. On average, it probably takes six to eight months for a poem to find a home. Getting a whole book of poems published or winning a major award is a rare feat of having the right material for the right reader at the right time.
A: For me, it starts with loving and being loved. My wonderful wife and two amazing boys, several life-long friends. My baby sister. A favorite uncle. A handful of other great people. We keep each other healthy and important and growing. Still, I think it all comes down to the fact that you create your reality. Life doesn't happen to you. In poetry, as in life in general, you have choices. I choose joy over despair, action over depression, forgiveness over grudge. But I have to keep on top of it, stay honest with myself, confront my demons. It's so easy to blame others for your circumstance when in truth we all are responsible for our words, our lives and even for the fate of the earth.
A: Absolutely. Steve Chandler liked to refer to the great athlete Fran Tarkington who said, “If you're not having fun, you're not doing it right.” Having fun writing a poem doesn't mean it's one big joke. It means you're excited to find the surest path to the heart. There's another maxim, which I think Frost said: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.”Q: All the admirers of your poetry are impatient to see your second book. Can you tell us if it's coming soon.
A: My second manuscript is now sitting on the desk of an editor at an excellent press that was the first to publish some of my favorite poets. Is he the right guy? Is it the right material? Is it perfect timing? I think it is, but I'm not the decider. I hope [the editor] reads this interview.Q: At the end of this interview, please tell us what are you working on and what are your publishing goals?
A: I'm working on a few different poems in various stages of realization and on my second play with Charles Bartlett. I want to get more poems in the national journals. A poem of mine was recently chosen as a finalist in North American Review's 2011-12 James Hearst Poetry Prize. I need to create more opportunities like that. These contests have entry fees and sometimes I get worried about the money. I also need to work generally on how to think bigger – an NEA or Guggenheim grant, a major fellowship or residency. There's a part of me that thinks too small. I need to take responsibility for that. My big goal is to create something that lasts, something that holds up over time. Mary Oliver says she wants to be read in 300 years. I could live with that.
at the ungraspable
our wizards of wonderland
are staring into holes for a new religion
hoping to answer new ultimate questions –
What holds the universe together?
What binds us all? I’m thinking
if not this nervous bargain with time
if not this gravity of ignorance
perhaps the matter of the shrew
that mere idea of a mammal
that thumbsized pennyweight
born naked and blind in a nest of grass
so innocent, so unguarded it can die from
loud noises, even from thunder
A shrew can go unnoticed
unnamed its whole life
Like a star
it can be
© Jack Cooper. First published in The Kerf, 2011 Edition, College of the Redwoods
Jack Cooper's first collection of poetry, Across My Silence, was published by World Audience Publishers, Inc., New York, NY. He has been nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize. His poem “All of the Above” was chosen as a finalist in North American Review's James Hearst Poetry Prize. His work has also appeared in Santa Fe Literary Review, South Dakota Review, Bryant Literary Review, Muse & Stone, Argestes, The Evansville Review, Tundra, Runes, The MacGuffin and many other publications. Cooper studied psychology and English literature in Norway, attended graduate school in alpine botany at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and has written for television, film and the stage.