Contributor Spotlight: Andrea Cohen

Andrea Cohen’s latest collection, Nightshade, published by Four Way Books, surprises us again and again with a truth we only think we already know, that the most contrary experiences—hope and disappointment, departure and arrival, pain and comfort—are always present in our lives, and so often, occur at the same time. As the title poem teaches us—about the nightshade plant, about life— “…We / call it bitter- // sweet—what / living isn’t?”

Whether the poem is, ostensibly, about sewing or fishing or hailing a taxi, Cohen expertly guides us along switchback paths of surprising wordplay and sharp enjambments that all open to a surprising vista in the world of each poem, even if the poem is only a few lines long. Here is “All Night” in its entirety: “The driving / rain—where / will it take us?” As you begin to read Nightshade, you get the sense from each poem’s revelation that Cohen might somehow be a friend of yours, who knows your whole life story. By the end of the book, you’re convinced of it.

Andrea Cohen is the author of six books of poetry, and her poems and stories have appeared in such places as The New Yorker, Poetry, The Threepenny ReviewThe Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic, Glimmer Train, and The Hudson Review, as well as several issues of Memorious. A winner of the PEN Discovery Award and Glimmer Train’s Short Fiction Award, as well as several fellowships at the MacDowell Colony, Cohen directs Merrimack College’s Writers House and the Blacksmith House Poetry Series in Cambridge, MA. 

The titles in this book do so much to shape the reader’s understanding of the poems. They feel like they’re much more involved in the experience of the poem than just a heading for the poem. What do you look for in a title? And because some of the poems in the book feel like they’re propelled by their titles, I wondered if you usually have a title before you’ve written a poem. 

This really varies. Sometimes the poem comes first; sometimes it arrives after the poem. I want the title to be a sort of portal, but not to give too much away. One doesn’t want to steal one’s own thunder. Of course, one also wonders if one has thunder to steal . . . 

The poems in Nightshade capture the experience of bittersweetness so poignantly—of beauty and tenderness found in the losses and disappointments of life, and vice-versa. And, as your title poem tells us, bittersweet is a name for a type of nightshade plant: “…We / call it bitter- / sweet—what / living isn’t?” Do you think poetry is uniquely equipped to handle bittersweetness?

I don’t think poetry is really poised to handle bittersweetness better than any other literary form. The difference, perhaps, is that in poetry, especially lyric poetry, the bitter and the sweet can come as this swift one-two punch, which can almost feel simultaneous.

Nightshade includes anonymous, yet very resonant, “he’s” and “she’s” that act as main characters in many of the poems. As readers, we don’t need to know the backstory of the characters to connect with them and see ourselves in them. How do you see these anonymous subjects connected across poems? Are they the same people throughout the book? Do they morph or transform?

In my head, these people are archetypes or sort of mythical. Sometimes the details are from actual people, but mostly it’s imagined stuff. There may well be connectionsbetween them, across the poems, but I’m not thinking about that when writing.

The lines in the poems of Nightshade are able to reveal so much meaning, music and feeling in these short, clipped jolts of language. I’d love to hear how you think about your own lines and how you discover these small, meaningful moments within phrases and sentences as you’re composing a poem. 

Well, the line is everything for me. I think in terms of the line, and where it breaks. As for the very short poems, they often arrive pretty fully formed. If I’m thinking about a phrase or a word, I might turn it over in my head, the way you might pick up a stone and hold onto it and turn it over and over. And then something comes from it.

I’d never heard of Antonio Porchia, the author of your epigraph, until I started reading Nightshade. When I looked Porchia up, I learned that he was an Argentine writer who wrote a book titled Voices, which was a collection of pieces of writing that seem to be considered somewhere between poems and aphorisms. Do you feel any kinship with Antonio Porchia’s writing? I read a quote of his that said, “Voices is almost a biography, which almost belongs to everyone.” That really seemed to describe many of the poems in Nightshade. 

I love Antonio Porchia. We can call his writing aphorisms or poems––I don’t think the terminology matters. What matters is the words, is that these brief pieces are like rooms one enters to find that the room keeps getting bigger, keeps leading to other rooms or to fields or seas or skies.  

And that quote makes so much sense. The poems we write are a kind of biography, and when they are as universal as Porchia’s, they do belong to everyone. 

In many of the poems in Nightshade, the moment of surprise is also where the emotional stakes are revealed in a poem. Do you think there’s a relationship between surprise and emotion/feeling in poetry? in life? 

When we’re surprised, we’re disarmed and more readily open to emotion, I think––in poems, in life. It’s the opposite of artifice and planning. There’s a kind of nakedness and rawness in that. And the fact is that we can never know what’s to come. All we know is the past. And even that gets muddied with such ease.

Since a poem can sometimes be experienced and thought about differently between the poet and its readers, I wanted to ask if there are any tensions, preoccupations, obsessions that you were working with as you wrote and put together Nightshade that might not be as obvious to the reader (or reviewer or interviewer).

Well, I’m not sure what might be obvious to the reader. What I know is that the clichés are true: there’s not much under the sun that’s new. Not in the Bureau of Feelings. The only thing we can do with words is to try to say something in a way that feels new, that makes the writer and the reader feel. At least, that’s what interests me. And of course, maybe I am completely contradicting myself as well.

Interviewer Evan Blake is a graduate student in the MFA Creative Writing Program at Bowling Green State University. He was born in Lesotho, grew up in mid-Michigan, and is now very happy to be reading and writing poems in Bowling Green, Ohio.

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