Susan Cohen on Making Your Own Rhythm

Susan Cohen on Making Your Own Rhythm

An interview with Susan Cohen, from The Write Stuff series:

Susan Cohen is the author of five books. She was a newspaper reporter, journalism professor, and contributing writer to the Washington Post Magazine before studying bioethics and poetry while on a 1998-9 Knight Fellowship at Stanford University. Afterwards, with Christine Cosgrove, she wrote Normal at Any Cost; Tall Girls, Short Boys, and the Medical Industry’s Quest to Manipulate Height, which won awards from the Fund for Investigative Journalism and the National Association of Science Writers. In 2013, she earned an MFA from Pacific University. Her poems have appeared in Greensboro Review, Poetry East, Poet Lore, Salamander, Southern Poetry Review, Verse Daily, and in The Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry, among other places, and have won the Rita Dove Award and Milton Kessler Memorial Poetry Prize, among other honors. Her most recent book, A Different Wakeful Animal, received the 2015 David Martinson-Meadowhawk Prize from Red Dragonfly Press. More information at

When people ask what do you do, you tell them…?

I tell them I’m a writer. If they ask what I write, I usually say I’ve written a variety of things, mostly journalism… at which point my husband likes to chime in: “and poetry.” He did that once at a restaurant in Lisbon when we were talking to a Canadian couple at the next table. They got the terrified look people get when poetry is mentioned and the man blurted out: “I never met a poet who wasn’t dead before.” That’s why I don’t usually come right out and tell people that I’m a poet.

What’s your biggest struggle—work or otherwise?

Getting off of Facebook where I spend half my day following links to poems and news stories.

If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them?

Do what I did: marry an engineer. Also: read, read, read, read, etc.

Do you consider yourself successful? Why?

I consider that I’ve had successes. I worked in print journalism when it was fun and important and held itself to standards, I taught smart students who went on to produce some great journalism, I published and won awards in both poetry and non-fiction, I raised two kids who are good citizens, and I’ve been married decades to a man who can still laugh when I crack that joke about the best career decision I ever made as a writer being to marry an engineer. Still, it’s never enough, is it? Hour by hour, I feel that I can write a great poem and I haven’t yet and that’s because I can’t.

Do you have a favorite ancestor? What is his/her story?

I don’t know enough about my ancestors, other than that one side of the family was wiped out in a single night when they were chased into a graveyard and slaughtered in a pogrom. That’s why I like to look into my husband’s ancestors, some of them in this country since the 17th century. I’m particularly fond of a pair of brothers who were arrested during the American Revolution by the republic for counterfeiting, after the printing press was traced to their lodger. While they were in jail, the lodger who printed the currency, and who was probably most culpable for the scheme, overheard a plot by some other prisoner to kill George Washington, so he informed the authorities and was rewarded with release. The brothers weren’t. Then there was a great grandfather, named after an abolitionist Quaker, who moved from New York to the South just before the Civil War, claimed he fought for the Confederacy and called himself “Colonel” for the rest of his life, though so far I’ve found no record of his unit. Such ancestors may account for the fact that, though my husband’s family has been here so long, they don’t have their names on any buildings.

Who did you admire when you were 10 years old? What did you want to be?

I wanted to be a poet. Always. I loved A. A. Milne and Robert Louis Stevenson’s “A Child’s Garden of Verses” and Robert Frost’s “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening.” I loved playing with words. Then, at 18, I wasn’t admitted to a college poetry workshop. I decided I had no talent, and didn’t write another poem for some 25 years.

Would you ever perform a striptease? Describe some of your moves. Feel free to set the mood.

I turn the music off. I like to make my own rhythm. I sit and slowly, softly, because it can be painful, I bump and grind with words until a poem reveals itself, layer by trembling, salty, fleshy layer, inviting you into my depths. Would I perform a striptease that is not a metaphor—naw.

What’s wrong with society today?

So much. So much income inequality. So much racism. So much violence.

Are you using any medications? If so, which ones?

Red wine in large quantities, but only every other night, which makes me a connoisseur rather than an alcoholic.

What would you like to see happen in your lifetime?

Is world peace already taken?

What is art? Is it necessary? Why?

Art is the creative act in whatever you do. Lucky people discover it in some aspect of their lives; unlucky people either don’t recognize it or ignore it. People can think of themselves as artists at all sorts of things, and if they do, they may be likelier to value what we call The Arts. I remember a high school music appreciation class with fill-in-the-blank exams. The first question on the first test was: “Music is ___.”  The only correct answer was “everywhere.” Not an artistically put question, but the answer is true. Art is like oxygen, all around us and necessary. Why necessary? Because it helps people see inside each other and leads to empathy—the commodity most sorely needed in this world.

What are you working on right now?

When I looked at my second full-length book of poems, I realized that even though there is humor in it, it basically revolves around death. I’ve decided to be done with death. I’ve decided to work on more poems about love and more praise poems. We’ll see how long that lasts.

What kind of work would you like to do? Or: what kind of writing do you most admire?

I’m exploring how to write poetry that combines narrative and lyric, that can both stretch the language and not completely lose the reader. There are too many poets I admire to mention, but some of the Eastern Europeans and South Americans seem to have accomplished this.

If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?

I’d like my kids to be able to buy a house in Berkeley. But, then, I would just like my kids to move back to Berkeley. Hey, kids, your rooms are still here!

A night on the town: what does that mean to you?

Usually really good food and wine. Probably too much of both. Sometimes music or theater. Often, poetry. I like hearing other poets read and being part of the community that is an audience.

What can you do with 50 words? 50 dollars?

With 50 words, I can make a poem. With 50 dollars, I can immediately enter it in three or four contests before I fall out of love with it.

What are some of your favorite smells?

Strong coffee. Onions sizzling in butter. Ocean. The smells unlocked by a good rain whether it soaks evergreens or pavement.

If you got an all expenses paid life experience of your choice, what would it be?

I actually had it a few years ago. My mother died and, unexpectedly, she left enough money for me to enroll in a low-residency program and earn an MFA in poetry. I had a blast. It is true that college is wasted on the young. I think of my MFA as a gift from my mother, who loved that I was a writer, but who repeatedly tried to make me promise to wait until after she died to write about her. She lived until almost ninety-nine on sheer will power.

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