Interview with Alicia Cohen

Poetry makes the world

A walking interview with Alicia Cohen, March 30, 2014 in Mount Tabor Park 

Alicia Cohen and I walked on Mount Tabor on an early spring day, the sky roiling with indecision, whimsically swapping brilliant sun for torrential rain with brooding clouds. Our conversation, similarly, dipped and swerved, touching on political, emotional, spiritual, and broadly intellectual territory. The relationship of poetry to place provided a unifying terrain for the capricious weather of Alicia’s ideas. We brooded under the clouded skies of Mt. Tabor’s ecological and cultural history, were soaked and chilled as we contemplated widespread ecological and cultural collapse, but basked in the tentative sunshine of the freedom brought by poetry and public space.


Daniela Molnar: So why this place? What does Mount Tabor Park mean to you? 

Alicia Cohen: Where to begin?  Well, we were talking earlier of John Clare, and the Enclosure Acts, and the Romantic period, which is the moment in poetry and culture where you begin to imagine nature as something special, beautiful, valuable in-and-of-itself, and to invent our contemporary idea of nature.  It’s in the romantic period that we begin seeing nature as good and different from human space.  Doing this meant transforming the old European idea of nature as a wild void and a terrible thing, a kind of hell. For example, I recently read that before Lord Byron European castles were always built facing away from the sea because the sea was despised as a hideous void but his poetry–and his celebrated love of ocean swimming—was pivotal and transformed (or participated in the transformation of) the European imagination so much that to this day homes with an ocean view are prized. 

DM: The process of industrialization coincided somewhat ironically with the romanticization of nature. 

AC: Right. And I think the romantics were doing important intellectual labor, beginning to construct the idea of a world in which everything is interrelated.  Where we have an obligation to non-human space and beings. They’re sometimes represented as sentimental dreamers — poets of  different era, not as savvy as poets who come later, poets who are writing today.  But I think in fact they are making really important claims about precisely what’s wrong with the logic of industrial capitalism. The industrial revolution was only beginning then but they get it entirely.  For example, Blake’s poems about child labor. Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner shows us the mysterious workings and severe costs of violence against the non-human.  You can read it as an allegory of global warming—or we may someday end up reading it as that.  And Coleridge campaigned vigorously to end child labor and had success.  The same with the other famous Romantics: they saw the violence of capitalism’s logic and formulate a critique of it in their poems. They also campaigned actively: variously to end slavery, to boycott unethically produced consumer products, and on behalf of vegetarianism. 

I had never read John Clare’s poem Remembrances until the other day and I happened to go for a walk on Mount Tabor right after reading it for the first time. The poem was so resonant in this park, so profoundly sad, because it’s about the enclosure of Clare’s childhood landscape. He grew up in this beautiful English environment with brooks and trees and forest and animals. Most of that land was privatized by the Enclosure Acts (1809-1820) and his poem mourns how they cut down all the trees, cleared the brush and turned it into naked grazing land, private property. People were no longer allowed to ramble, to play, to fish, to hunt, to share the land. It’s a great poem of ecological loss. That’s one touchstone for me, this loss that he articulates is also an articulation of the gift of a space like this, although they really can’t be compared directly since it’s a much richer space that he’s describing. 

Another touchstone for me, in a park like this one—really in relation to any American public space—is the Native Americans. My family and I spent this past fall in Greece, where my husband was teaching, we’ve only been back for three months now.  We visited Olympia and Delphi and we lived not far from the  Acropolis and we wandered through the Plaka and the public archeological sites and parks all the time.  We visited Mycenae, where the ancient Greeks would go as tourists—like us!—to marvel at an ancient culture and wonder “what was it like?” It was a popular ruin site for the Greeks of the Classical period. The type of stonework there is called “cyclopean masonry” because they thought a Cyclops race, a giant race, must have built it since the stones are so huge.  In Greece there’s an ancient, ongoing project of imagining the past and ancient cultures and honoring them and the their history in the landscape.   This isn’t unproblematic—but it is interesting to me as an American.

One of my husband’s students in Greece,  Nadaja, is Native American. We celebrated Thanksgiving in Athens with her and other Greek friends.  Some of the dinner guests were cheering Nadaja, saying “This is all about you, Nadaja, happy Thanksgiving!” They wanted her to say something about the holiday and she replied by saying that Native Americans have a really ambivalent relationship to Thanksgiving, and that Columbus Day for Native people is something like celebrating a “Hitler Day” would be for Jews. 

In Greece I was home schooling my own young children and we were so focused on learning about ancient history that it just made very evident the absence of America’s ancient history in our own education in the United States and of my own dearth of knowledge as well as the really outrageous absence of native presence in the social space of the Pacific Northwest. The invisibility of Native Americans in our social space in the United States is something I’ve always been attuned to but living in Greece made it feel profound. When I’m here, on Mount Tabor, I’m reminded that this is clearly a place where people would have lived or hunted or gathered. So what was going on here on Mount Tabor two thousand years ago? Or two hundred years ago? I have no idea. There’s no mention at all of Native Americans on Mount Tabor in the Oregon Historical Society Encyclopedia online, nor on Wikipedia or other common sources. They always begin in 1850 or so.  That absence is for me a huge presence here. 

Mt Tabor is an open space in the city but it is also an enclosure, and there is a subtle but unavoidable violence to this. 

In my poem, I talk about the mass spraying of Mt. Tabor that is done twice a year with herbicides. You can see the huge swaths of brown patches where they do it. They’re trying to protect the forest for seventy years out — that’s what the logic is — they’re killing invasive species like English Ivy. But there’s a lot of collateral damage (plant life, birds, ground dwelling animals, insects) and also these forests, in seventy years with global warming, well, we just don’t know how to really prepare the ground right now for what will happen in seventy years. Spraying and pest management is another kind of enclosure. 

I do love it here — it’s this invaluable open space.  The Olmsted firm designed this park. Olmsted’s writings on parks are amazing.  He argues for the importance of parks to psychic civic health, as a place to ramble for poor and working people, for all citizens to have an open space to come and be outside the logic of the working world. 

D: It was really kind of a logic of industrialization that undergirded the logic of parks, the idea that if we give these working people open spaces to ramble then they can work better. 

A: Exactly. It’s another kind of enclosure. Open this particular space, the park, so you safely close down other lived spaces in cities.  For example, interesting work has been written on the way personal cars and motorized vehicles functioned to “enclose” the public space of the street around the turn of the twentieth century.  Cars kept people out of the road and tightly contained on sidewalks and in other designated areas.  When seen in this way, again, the violence of these open-enclosures becomes obvious. 

D: That’s a really fascinating and multilayered response to ‘why this place?’ It seems like you’ve spent a lot of time in this park.

A: As long as I lived in Portland I’ve always lived near here and come here regularly. Our first house, when we moved back to Portland from Buffalo, was on the park. We rented a place abutting the park. That was great. I’ve spent a lot of time here thinking about poetry and the nature of reality.  

You also asked about Paolo Freire and I love Freire’s take on reality: that reality is something we invent.  He wanted poor people to know that reality is something we make. It’s not something that just “exists” but something we make for ourselves – and we primarily make it out of language.  This argument has a long history in Western thought — and in world thought.  One of my favorite writers on the poetics of reality is Giambattista Vico (1668-1744), an Italian philosopher who started out as a poet. He resisted—detested , really—the rationalism of Descartes.  Vico thought, rather, that poetry makes the world become what it is, that poetry is an invention of world. Poetry is true in that made way. Many people say Einstein’s discovery of the theory of relativity and all the science that followed from that is a confirmation of this interaction between observation and the real. Just measuring something changes it. Freire is talking about that in political, activist terms: that education should be the process of educating everyone about their role as a maker. 

D: That’s a really beautiful and succinct way to put it. Freire’s ideas are very interconnected with the Frankfurt School which is basically saying the same thing but in much more complex ways. The idea that language, particularly poetic language, creates space, is at the heart of this project.

A: Yes, I think it relates to the current situation in this park where, right now, the City of Portland is draining the reservoirs and deciding what to do with them. As I understand, they drained and covered one of the reservoirs a couple decades back.  Then they sold off the land to developers who built houses there. So selling off public land at Mt. Tabor has a precedent. 

In fact, public land is always under contention. It’s something you have continually to fight for. The neighbors on the west side of the park are wealthy, they do a really good job of fighting for this place, and they do it primarily in language—using emotional language that makes claims for the good of the reservoirs in terms of their beauty; and in institutional, legal, and political language as well.  Good for them, but this illustrates precisely what Freire is saying, not only that public spaces are always in process, whether it’s spraying herbicides or these big ongoing projects that create physical transformations of the space, such as covering the reservoirs and opening the park to cars (which was done in the 1950s, when a road was built through it) but, too, that the wealthy and the better educated have much more access to defining these realities.  What about neighbors who are poor?  It is a full time job being poor.  It doesn’t give you a lot of extra time to fight for your larger reality.  But, Freire argues that an education that shows everyone techniques of reality-making may be more important than money per se. 

According to a Willamette Week article [“City Will Cover Its Reservoirs, and Drain the Ones on Mount Tabor” May 31, 2013], City Commissioner Amanda Fritz refused to sign off on a mayoral budget because of the Mount Tabor issue. She’s been a real stickler about it and seems to be insisting that citizens have a say in what becomes of the reservoir areas. So they could become an amphitheater, a sports park, or they could continue to have water in them…

D: Returning to the idea of poetry as a form of world-building and as a way of transforming space, one my questions referred to the idea of a “true word” as praxis, as a thing that marries theory and practice. Do you agree that poetry can be a form of activism, or does that seem overly hopeful or naive?

A: Well I don’t think it’s overly hopeful or naïve, however, poetry—it would seem—is utterly irrelevant to the contemporary public discourse and yet it is, historically, the grandest of the arts.  What’s changed? Poetry was considered, in European thought, the “first” art. Lyric poetry was hugely popular in the Romantic period when literacy was limited and people read and memorized poems for entertainment. Epic poetry’s equivalent today might be the grand Hollywood film in the sense that an important narrative construction of national—or maybe we should now say corporate —identity occurs there.   Whenever I see a great film I think, why am I participating in this weird artistic backwater conversation that is contemporary poetry?  And not just any old poetry but the really fibrous poetry—the stuff that isn’t so easy to digest. I work in the mode of and focus my critical writing on those poets who work at an edge; often at the limits of intelligibility in order, as Leslie Scalapino says, “To wreck the mind” or as George Oppen said, “To think something that hasn’t been thought already.”  Many people find the work I love frustrating and it is frustrating especially when you bring to it expectations that come out of well established narratives. I like my poetry to upend and uproot my habitual intellectual and emotional expectations. To challenge or enable me to see differently.  To literally “see” differently.  I think poetry can do that.  The work is hard but its invaluable. Even though poetry is fragile and ephemeral, and it can seem like it is doing nothing,  that you are talking to no one when you publish, I trust that there is something in its outside-ness.  

D: So it has a strong transformative power in terms of personal psychology. 

A: Yeah, and therefore it is like — have you ever read the short story, “Bartleby, the Scrivener” by Herman Melville? I’ve been thinking of it so much lately.  Perhaps his is the best mantra imaginable in the face of capitalism’s happy, insatiable predatoriness. “I prefer not to.” You know, it’s about this character who works as a scrivener on Wall Street, and he’s always saying, “I prefer not to.” To any petty demand Bartelby will respond, “I prefer not to.” Even an invitation, when he’s invited to stay at the his boss’ home since he seems to be homeless he responds, “I prefer not to.” Just a gentle but immovable passive resistance. Or rather an active resistance but one that appears so mild and slow that you almost can’t see it. 

There’s this great poem by Charles Reznikoff that’s a sort of Bartelby-ian statement of poetry’s form of power:  “I will write songs against you, / enemies of my people; I will pelt you / with the winged seeds of the dandelion / I will marshal against you the fireflies of the dusk.” [“Heart and Clock,” Reznikoff, 1936] Our poems are the “I prefer not to” or our weapons– as deadly and powerful as dandelion seeds; and I see poems that way, they’re this massively gentle tool of resistance.  But there’s a rigor here that isn’t visible on the surface.

For me it is about finding a nonviolent tool with which to respond to the violence that’s all around us and within us, too.  William Butler Yeats says of the poem, “weigh this song with the great and their pride/ I made it out of a mouthful of air,/ Their children’s children shall say they have lied.” [“He Thinks of Those Who Have Spoken Evil of His Beloved,” William Butler Yeats, 1899] I love that idea of the poem as nothing but a mouthful of air or dandelion seeds. Air and seeds—there’s nothing more fecund or powerful  than this combination, but they also appear diminutive and weak. But I bring Yeats up not because I like that poem but because he is a figure of the poet as non-author.  As he was traveling through the American West, his wife started to channel these voices for his poetry. She would go into trances and channel this outside voice for his poems. And he would write it down. I think the first thing they (the voices) said is, “We have come to bring you metaphors for your poems.” There’s many interpretations of this famous incident, but it’s a form of channeling the muse.  It is how the Iliad opens, with the invocation to the muse, “Sing O muse, the anger of Achilles.” It’s some unknown outside coming through the poet and speaking. 

I wrote my dissertation on the poet Jack Spicer, who was an American poet born in Los Angeles in the area where — I think this is right — where Yeats was traveling by train when those voices came to his wife. Spicer was part of the San Francisco renaissance with Robert Duncan and Robin Blaser. He insisted that poetry involved the channeling of voices from the outside.  For me, that’s an important metaphor, too, in thinking about what poetry does in a social context, poetry’s function in the polis.  I think he may be right that an essential work of poetry is to open us to an otherness that is excluded from the social conversation.  The ghosts, the aliens, the voices that cannot be heard.

That’s kind of complicated argument to make but I’ve written on it and I think it’s really important to consider poetry as a non-human speaking as much as a human speaking. Not just an art form about people, with their will and their know-how, making something be what it is in the world, but opening to an other, an outside that you’re not trying to manipulate. In fact, you’re trying hardest of all just to be open to it and let it come through and to not do violence to it. To not put your own ego and philosophy and all of your stuff into it and kind of force it all into the poem. Just like this open public space, where some outside is speaking. It’s totally not permitted otherwise. 

D: That’s fascinating. It’s a notion of creativity that de-emphasizes the individual, and the individual is so vital to the functioning and the conceptual underpinnings of capitalism. It places the emphasis on the commons of voices and ideas, rather than on the individual creating something out of nothing. 

A: The intense and claustrophobic insistence on the self and the narrative of the self is everywhere in art, in all forms of art. And it’s almost invisible, unless you challenge it, in which case it becomes powerfully visible and often vicious.

D: Most popular myths are invisible. The more ideological ideas become, the less visible they become. 

A: When I walk around Mount Tabor, inevitably when I begin the walk my brain is just humming along talking to itself: “And then he said that and I just, like, blah blah blah, and I said blah blah blah…” I’m talking to myself in a very claustrophobic and, often, petty mode.  Nothing awful but the typical mind-chatter.  And so I’ll say to myself, “Ok, take a deep breath of this good air and just stop thinking for a minute, just be here in the moment.” But inevitably it is hard to do!  I quickly find myself thinking: “And then she said that! I wonder why she did that?  Blah blah…” I really have a hard time putting it down. But just being in this place,  Just walking through here.  Olmsted was right: usually by the time I’m done walking, other types of thoughts have entered.  These non-human thoughts…or at least my mind chatter has calmed down. That is, in practical terms, one of the most important things that happens to me here. Walking through the park interrupts, temporarily, that “self”—the one that keeps talking and talking!  Walking here, in time, I get a chance to listen to—to, in fact, hear and recognize how annoying the self is, and be open to something else.  This is, itself, a mode of clarity. 

D: The calm that comes from time in a park is not often thought of as some kind of otherness or presence that inhabits you. It recasts Olmsted’s idea about the regenerative power of open space.

A: Yes, to open to a non-human space. You can also walk through the city and that’s wonderful and Reznikoff was just great on that. He was a city poet, he would walk for hours every day and his poems document incredible non-human engagements all over the most urbanized landscapes. But he would walk through Central Park, too, and I think that’s important that that was available to him, to us. 

D: It sounds like you’ve had the opportunity to travel a lot and I’m curious if your understanding of public space has been influenced by your travels.

A: Yes. It’s difficult to see the place you live in. By going away and coming back, you see it so differently. There is this perennial historical question: “What if the Nazis had won?” There are books and science fiction books about what the world would have looked like. Well, America is, for the Native Americans, exactly like that. Settlers won, and have written the history, and we don’t mourn, and we don’t often talk about what happened as a genocide; we don’t talk about it as a holocaust. 

Hitler based his ideas of genocide and techniques of extermination on the American’s treatment of the Native Americans. For example, the Trail of Tears, in which huge populations of Native Americans were made to walk long distances to reservations without food and water. Many people died, and those who didn’t were sick and weak by the time they arrived. And that’s precisely what the Nazis did — they made huge populations walk enormous distances with little in the way of water, breaks, and food, and many of them died on the way. The Nazis also saved peoples hair, and shoes, and clothes for museums in order to memorialize the Jews and Jewish culture, and you might argue that this is exactly what has been done here with the Native Americans.  There’s a story about this in a book I’m reading called Ishi, by Theodora Kroeber (the mother of the Portland science fiction writer Ursula K. LeGuin).  Ishi was the last of the Yahi tribe of American Indians.  He died in 1916. About four years before his death some settlers discovered the home of his last surviving relatives.  They didn’t hurt anyone but they took a lot of their things including baskets and blankets.  His mother and sister and other relatives were either lost or died as a result. His mother was already sick but she died as a direct result of this upset.  The items they took from his family ended up in the Anthropology museum at Berkeley.

D: I didn’t know about that connection between Hitler and the Native American genocide. 

A: I just learned about it. It’s remarkable to me that the genocide of the Native Americans “just” happened. That just happened here. In the blink of a historical eye there was a complete collapse of civilizations that were thousands of years old. This brings to mind a recently published, NASA-funded study that tried to evaluate the potential for societal collapse due to global warming. The study found that civilization  is on very unsteady footing indeed. Our current civilization is under immanent threat of collapse due to pressures resulting from global warming and overpopulation and poisoning the earth.  

D: We think of our current system as being set in place and semi-permanent, at least in its broad strokes, but of course every civilization rises and falls. 

A: Yes, the civilizations that existed in the past are of course not the civilizations here now. There’s an American academic who has written on collapse and on the Americas, Jared Diamond. The authors of this article are clearly borrowing from his work, looking at the systems that tend to fall apart in advance of a collapse. The Guardian published a response to it that’s created an ongoing online dialogue. It’s interesting to follow. 

D: I’m curious what reaction that provokes in you, particularly as a mother of young children. 

A: It’s scary to me. I love them and I love experiencing my parents and my husband’s parents become grandparents and I would like to be a grandparent some day but all that is future planning… and nobody can plan for the future. Of course, it doesn’t matter how stable your society is. Life is fragile. It’s not unique to our historical moment.   But global warming is serious.  In fact, I don’t understand the lack of panic, really.

I read bone-chilling scientific studies all the time. I think a lot of scientists are hysterical. The press will say things like “The scientists were disturbed to find” or “Methane gas releases alarmed scientists.”  And I’m like, yeah, they’re alarmed and disturbed! So at least I know I’m not alone but I’m a little surprised that more people aren’t a little more alarmed. 

I’m from a very privileged background, by which I mean I have a place to live that is secure, I don’t worry about invading forces coming next summer and taking it away from me, I never go hungry, my children don’t go hungry, they have free education and don’t have to work. That is such wealth. I don’t have to be a CEO to feel rich. Our current ecological crisis puts me in the same position as so many other human beings, past and present, which only makes me more sympathetic, opens me more to the fragility of the world and human existence. It brings the precariousness of life to the forefront.