An Interview with Henri Cole

Elisa Gonzalez, Issue 36

The first line of the first poem in Henri Cole’s newest collection of verse, Nothing to Declare (FSG, 2015) is “At the end of the road from concept to corpse,” a line that shows Cole’s characteristic mastery of sound and surprise. The hard and soft Cs duplicated in words as different as concept and corpse, and of course, for the reader, the curiosity about what follows such an introductory clause. Line by line, poem by poem, what will come next remains mysterious and then unexpected yet appropriate.

These poems are taut, skinnied down to the essentials, which also feels appropriate, as they deal with subjects like birth, death, the body, and the shimmering manifestations of different selves. Cole always renders these without a screen to shield us from discomfort and grotesquerie. In the life depicted, doubt and danger are heightened—or perhaps revealed. The questions posed by Nothing to Declare are beautifully expressed and frighteningly essential: “What am I but this flensed / syntax, sight and sound, / in which my heart, not / insulated yet, makes / ripple effects down the line?”

WASHINGTON SQUARE: You've written a number of “self-portraits.” What is the draw of the self-portrait to you (in visual art and/or in poetry)?

COLE: When I was a young man, I wanted to be a visual artist. Perhaps my self-portraits are an homage to this part of myself that never came to be. Of course, there are the self-portraits of Van Gogh, Frida Kahlo, Warhol, and Rembrandt, which I grew up contemplating. I love paintings and judge the cities I visit by the paintings they contain. Berlin is at the top, with Rome and Paris. Also, when I was twenty-two, my favorite book of poetry was John Ashbery's Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, which is a response to Parmigianino. I admire Ashbery immensely. Then, of course, there is Whitman's notion of the self containing a kosmos, so I try to keep the mirror close to my face at my writing desk.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: In writing these self-portraits, how do you attain a level of estrangement, judgment, distance from yourself (or the speaker-self)? 

COLE: Well, I don't think I do in fact attain estrangement from myself. I am silly and self-deprecating. Turbulent and sentimental. But the point is to not stand above other men. Now, in middle-age, I wish I could sing myself more, instead of the opposite.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: On a related note, in your Paris Review interview you speak about “a search for a version of masculinity that suited” you—in making self-portraits, or in making poems in general, were you able to investigate or form that version? And if so, can you describe that process or if not, why not?

COLE: The world we live in today is different from the one I grew up in five decades ago in Virginia. I hope young people are freer from the gender stereotypes that I felt handcuffed to. Certainly, writing poetry helped me to investigate myself, but it was reading, more than anything, that helped me to become myself. Often, I wonder what my life would have been like as a soldier, or banker, or lawyer, or realtor, or civil servant—one of the professions my classmates pursued after graduation from our little college in the South.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: People often ask, “Does poetry matter?” Every so often a new iteration of this question sets off a conversation. Is that a discussion that you think needs to happen? Is evangelizing poetry a worthwhile endeavor? 

COLE: I don't know what evangelizing poetry is, but it sounds scary. For me, poetry is like food or air—it is essential. “Why does food matter?” “Why does air matter?” These questions sound as silly to me as “Why does poetry matter?” Civilizations are judged by their languages, and poetry is language's highest art. I think this is true even in a digital age.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: What were you reading that helped you become yourself? That’s a common thread in writers talking about how they came to writing.

COLE: Oh, I was reading classic novels—Sons and Lovers, Mrs. Dalloway, Heart of Darkness, The Dead, Wide Sargasso Sea, Howards End, The Good Soldier, The Stranger, The Great Gatsby, Giovanni's Room, The Vagabond, The Wanderer, etc. Later, I read W.G. Sebald, Jamaica Kincaid, Alice Munro, Edmund White, Yasunari Kawabata, and Reinaldo Arenas, to name only a handful. But also the poems of Marianne Moore and Hart Crane. Later, James Merrill, Elizabeth Bishop, Seamus Heaney, and Adrienne Rich.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: I'm curious about how you imagine those other lives. In terms of alternatives, you pursued a doctorate at the University of Wisconsin for a couple of years before going to Columbia University to study writing. Why the change in your path? Does the path you've taken feel inevitable?

COLE: At the University of Wisconsin, I discovered that I didn't want a doctorate. I was not a scholar. Back then, an MFA was the terminal degree for a young poet, so I moved to New York City and attended Columbia's School of the Arts. Still, I made life-long friends in Wisconsin, like my classmate, the novelist Kyoko Mori, from Kobe, Japan (I have dedicated my new book of poems to her). Also, I met the philosopher and poet John Koethe, who was my teacher. I don't think the path I took was inevitable. When we are young, we make decisions that change the direction of our lives, and there is a certain randomness or desperation to these decisions. Desperation—I think I probably write in part out of desperation. 

WASHINGTON SQUARE: You have said that “Occasionally, I have felt a need to speak as a gay man." In what ways has this need manifested? Does it happen outside or inside your poetry?

COLE: I am not aware of thinking about gender or sexuality when I am writing. This is something others call to my attention long afterward. Though we live in the 21st century, I find that my students in central Ohio struggle with the same questions I struggled with in the last century. And their poems speak the truths of their lives. I am like my students in this regard. I want my poems to be an event of language but also to be a representation of my life and the world.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: Could you elaborate on your relationship with French and Japanese culture? You have spoken before about the influence of Japanese forms on your poems. In what other ways have you been influenced, either through your family heritage or through direct contact with the way of life in those countries or their literature? 

COLE: Some years ago, I took introductory Japanese, when I was living in Kyoto, but dropped out. My mind only has one language function at a time, I discovered, and I was then writing the poems that would become Middle Earth. When I was a boy, our house contained many beautiful Japanese objects. Today, I own a few of them and treasure these connections to the past, to my young parents, and to the country of my birth.

Lately, I go to France three or four times a year for short visits. I love the French language, though I am not bilingual. I think these visits are a way for me to keep my French mother alive. The French I speak I learned in high school. But I am always hoping to improve. My second book in French will be published this spring, translated by Claire Malroux, who is a friend. She is helping me with translations of Jean de La Fontaine, and I am learning from her—about the French language, about the meticulous art of translation, and about myself. I have enormous respect for Claire, who introduced the French to the poetry of Dickinson, Stevens, Bishop, Walcott, and others.

The Japanese like French art. And the French like Japanese art. Both can be rigidly formal, but also organically informal. I think I am both of these things, too. 

WASHINGTON SQUARE: Speaking of form, you have written lyric poems in various forms. What are you writing now, both in terms of form and subject?

COLE: I'm writing poems in different sizes and shapes now. But I love the sonnet. Its octave and sestet are like the foliage of a tree balanced over a trunk. Or like a deep inhale followed by a relieving exhale.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: You have said that lyric poems should be “uncomfortable.” Why?

COLE: I find the world to be an uncomfortable place—so my poems reflect this. One function of art is to make us a little uneasy with our placid lives. Perhaps this is merely a personal definition. Occasionally, I think it’s nice to wholly embrace beauty, too.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: What are you most afraid of?

COLE: I am a fearful person. I'm afraid of many things: knives, poverty, and sickness, to name only three. 

WASHINGTON SQUARE: What is your relationship to the making of visual art (your collages, in particular) and how does it relate to the making of your own poems? 

COLE: I don't make art. I am an amateur who makes small collages. Looking at art in galleries and museums probably has a deeper effect on my poems, but I'm not sure how. Perhaps, my poems are collages, too, conflating disparate things and trying to extract some knowledge from experience.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: When you were my workshop teacher, you seemed to want to shake us out of our highbrow orientation and prudishness. It was good to be shaken. When teaching, what do you try to impart? How do you approach the poetry classroom and your role in it? 

COLE: What you say is true. I think we have comfort zones in which we repeat ourselves and write ourselves into irrelevance. Much poetry published today is like this. I don't ask students to do anything I don't ask of myself. As a teacher, I can't plant the seed of talent in a young person, but if it's there already, I can nurture it and coax it to grow toward the sun.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: Since this will be read by an audience of writers and students, do you have wisdom, cautions, advice to share?

COLE: In terms of language and feeling, go as far as you can. Keep your heart open. Don't think about your audience. Be subversive. Again, keep your heart open.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: And since we're at the end of our conversation—how do you think about ending a poem, achieving closure?

COLE: There is a private sense of rightness—a smell—that a good ending has. It's not easy, but a good finish needs rhythmic closure and original language. If the top of my head goes off, too, that's extra nice.