Exploring It Together
Elizabeth Cohen was born and raised in the Southwest, married language at an early age, and now lives in upstate New York and teaches at SUNY Plattburgh. She writes across a wide range of genres, but is driven by narrative, by storytelling.
The Patron Saint of Cauliflower (poems), Saint Julian Press, 2018
Bird Light (poems), Saint Julian Press, 2016
The Hypothetical Girl (short fiction), Other Press, 2013
The Economist’s Daughter (poems), Excited Utterance Imprints, 2011
Mother Love (poems), Keshet, 2007
The Family on Beartown Road, Random House, 2005
The House on Beartown Road: A Memoir of Learning and Forgetting (memoir), Random House, 2003
The Scalpel and the Silver Bear (biography), Bantam 1998
Impossible Furniture (poems), Nightshade Press, 1994
Impossible Furniture (poems) Potato Eyes Press, 1992
Essays and journalism in the New York Times, New York Times Magazine, Newsweek, The New York Post, Glamour, Redbook, Family Circle and frequent contributor to SELF, among other publications
Poetry in Yale Review, Northwest Review, Connecticut River Review, Poet Lore, River Styx, Exquisite Corpse, and other literary publications as well as in Walk On the Wild Side: Poets write About Cities (Scribners, 1995) and other anthologies.
Rick: I'd like to begin by talking about place in relation to your creative work, in particular, upstate New York and the Adirondacks.
Elizabeth: Well, where shall I start? I didn't really want to come here, you know? When you move somewhere, you kind of marry that place whether you want to or not. You take a kind of vow. I recently got back from Mexico. I went to this little village and I thought, I could marry this place and take vows. I could participate in this culture. There're so many ancient myths and traditions, and the food and everything was so good. I would love to incorporate this into this rich soupçon of imagery and narrative. I never felt that way here. I felt like this town, in particular, gave to me tired and angry. It's a military town. It's known for military ventures. It lost its identity when the base was decommissioned. But that sadness, that “chip on it’s shoulder” thing can integrate into stories, too, and poems. You begin to write a place’s sadness, it’s rejectedness, it’s poor self esteem. And that can be interesting.
As you know, the Adirondacks were home to those big industrialists. So, that came to be how I saw the region. If you drive around the Adirondacks, the poverty, and the people who are so poor and yet they're supportive of Trump, it's like, what is going on in this region? I would like to tell you, "Oh, the Adirondacks. Oh, my heart pounds." You know? I love the way it looks. But, the way it feels to me is not a good feeling. But it is interesting.
Rick: Let's talk about New Mexico.
Elizabeth: I lived there my whole life. As I said, I went to college there.
Rick: How does that inform your ...
Elizabeth: My poetry?
Rick: Your poetry, your language. Does it change when you come east, to New York, Binghamton, and then north?
Elizabeth: You know, if only it was so simple. I wrote a book early in my life which was a biographical memoir about the first Navajo woman surgeon and Navajo culture that I learned living two years on the reservation and growing up in Albuquerque. My mother founded a museum there for Native Americans and we used to know a lot of people. I spent my childhood on pueblo peace days and my father did legal work for different tribes. So, I lived a life that was very much incorporated with Native people. I also studied anthropology, so I feel like those creation myths and mythologies creep into you and you start to see narratives in a very basic way. Someone once told me there are only seven stories in the world and everybody is telling versions of them. Well I have my New Mexico versions and my North Country versions, my New York City versions, my Puerto Rico and Panama and Israel versions.
I guess my book of short stories [The Hypothetical Girl] is kind of about here. They're all just versions of those same basic mythologies. There's a story about mistaken identity, like in Shakespeare. There's a story about lost love and found love. They're not really fresh and new. You just put your spin on them. I guess that's how New Mexico sort of infected me with giving me those original narratives to work with. I'm a very character-driven, narrative writer. Even my poetry is narrative, storytelling. Characters come from imagination for me; but settings are from what I see around me.
Again, one thing I do see popping up wherever I go are local landmarks, and not the sort that most people think of. I am talking about a certain KFC, or a used car lot. I am very attentive to street names and local businesses. That always creeps in. If I place something in the Della Kia dealership or at the pond outside Hawkins Hall at SUNY Plattsburgh, does that make me a North Country writer? Or just a writer in the North Country?
These are all poems [The Patron Said of Cauliflower] that came from my mom. My parents died in around Binghamton. My mom died in Norwich. She was ahead of her time. She was born in '29. She grew up in the '30s and '40s. She would always buy grass-fed beef, and she believed that you had to get food from people you knew. This was a long time ago. In the '60s, when I was growing up, this was not the way people saw food. We just thought she was weird, but she was super-interested in that. She also was a gourmet cook and a nutritionist.
I had written a book of poems about my dad [The Economist’s Daughter ], so I decided to write about her and the way to go at it was to write about food. I tried to channel her through various kinds of food. It was a lot of fun writing this book. I really love these poems so much. So, I guess I feel like I'm a poet of ideas rather than a poet of an area.
I want to be a regional poet. I really do. Recently, my friend Leslie Contreras Schwartz was named “poet Laureate of Houston”. And she is perfect at it. I do not think I could ever be a poet laureate of anywhere. I just don't know how.
Rick: You've identified seven stories in the world. Does the New Mexico version of the lost love or the mistaken love story manifest itself in a slightly different way than the upstate New York version?
Elizabeth: When I lived on the Navajo reservation, I remember one time the woman I was writing the book about said, "You think the thought, and then you speak the thought, and then you can do the thing." So, she saw this direct trajectory between ideas and actions. It always stuck with me. Navajo people are very careful about what they say. A lot of them don't speak very much, because they don't want to speak things into the world.
I'm Jewish and we talk all the time. In fact, in my family, all we do is talk and argue and fight and we're loud and noisy and kind of obnoxious. Those two cultures didn't go together very well. But working with her and being around her made me very aware of the importance of what you say and how you translate ideas into words. And how you THINK about speaking and creating narrative.
I go back there a lot. And when I go there, those seven narratives, they're very clear. I carry them with me back here and then I see them in my community here in a different way.
Rick: Why do you write?
Elizabeth: I love language, which is why I feel like every poem I write is very writerly. This novel I just wrote is almost poetry. If I would say anything defines me, it'd be language which is what I'm really married to. It sounds kind of high-falutin, but it's true for me.
I love sentences. I love certain words. I love punctuation marks. It's ridiculous. I love to mix an idea of a thing with a human quality. To have sunflowers bob at me. The planet's weary of us. All things have agency. The planet itself has agency. So, if anything defines me, it's that. It's like finding that kernel of survivalism in all things. In people. Humans. Places. The planet. The natural world. And that's in a time where there's great pessimism everywhere about all of those things. It's like dwelling on this tiny ember. There's beauty here. If I blow hard enough the world will see it. I guess, that's how I feel. Will that help? I don't know.
But, in my life, I love teaching. I love my students so much.
Rick: How do they get into your work?
Elizabeth: They love my work.
Elizabeth: Because it's accessible.
Rick: Do you write with them in your mind?
Elizabeth: No, no, I don't. But, I do write with them in my courses. In my classes, I don't know if you do this, but the minute you walk into my class, you will be asked to write. All the time. You will not be lectured at, you will be part of it. And we write together. And, I create experiences. We go out of the classroom and we write the world. I feel that my students give me all kinds of reasons to be a writer. I give them all kinds of reasons to be a writer.
One of my colleagues once said, "Don't you think you're misleading all of these kids to make them think that they're all going to be writers?"
I was just so taken aback by that question. I said, "They are writers already." Guess what? They actually are, so no, I don't think I'm misleading them. I think you're misleading them by telling them they're not.
I created a course that's going to go in the spring to Eastern Europe. I learned about Holocaust deniers about ten years ago and I've been struggling with that. With Flat Earthers. With people who say we never went to the moon.
But, this particularly has meaning and resonance because I feel attached to the Holocaust in terms of my own family and my culture. Some of my students genuinely asked, "Did the Holocaust really happen?" I said, "You can't be serious. You're not asking that seriously." They said, "We heard that it's just a myth." That's when I decided to make this course.
We're going to go to all of these places, not just to the concentration camps. But here's the beautiful thing. We're going to go places and we're going to read what was written in that spot. And we're going to read it right there. And then we're going to write in response to it. And then I'm going to make a book of it, what they're writing. That they will carry with them. And it will destroy this myth. Every person that reads that book and gets a copy of it or meets these kids and their families will ... it's like planting little seeds.
Rick: Place matters.
Elizabeth: I think, ultimately, that's how I fit here, in this region. I fit here because I'm part of my students who move through here and I'm part of their lives. They're part of my life. I'm not just one of those academics who's just like, I'm your teacher this semester. Do this, do that, take the test, good-bye. I'm not that professor. I'm the one who's like, who are you? Who do you want to be? And let's figure it out through your writing this semester.
So, that's how I sort of meld into this area. It's through them.. But for many of them, I define this place. I think a lot of them come here from New York City and they're like, "Where the hell am I?" Then they're in my class and that changes to "Well, she doesn't know either, so we'll just explore it together."