Interviewed by Linda Ashok
In the words of Jericho Brown, Elizabeth Cohen’s Patron Saint of Cauliflower is a matter of fact and practical: “I am preparing for the end of the world.” Cohen takes the most ordinary of images and glories in them as signs for trouble and triumph throughout human existence. And she does this with the care and attention of a gourmet chef, but this chef is more like a mother. She feeds us because we need to eat.
1. Elizabeth, tell us how do you feel when your poetic self is identified as a mother trying to feed the world what it needs to eat?
Like a Jewish mama! I was raised by one, and then I became one, for our family food is the way to express love.
My mother, also, was a gourmet cook. This book is very much an homage to her; she killed herself 14 years ago, ironically through starvation.
2. “(he is eighty-seven and fought in the Korean War).” Is there a story beneath this that makes a cabbage a book of life?
The cabbage is a book of life because of all the ways it can be prepared and eaten and nourish everyone – it is such a versatile food – babies, the elderly (this man, whom I fed my cabbage dish to), my daughter. I was surprised to learn it is so good as I ignored it for most of my life as this hard thick basketball like object. Lo and behold, it is delish!
3. “someone said the corona of the sun had untethered/ a storm of electromagnetic waves” To what extent does space science or astrophysics has an influence on your poetry?
I have always referenced astronomy and astrophysical materials in my work; I am super interested in all things scientific (as a layperson) but also, astrological and meteorological realms.
4. When you are a bird, what do you think about the order of the world with particular reference to US politics?
When I am a bird, I do NOT think about the human realm, and that is the beauty of it. When I am a human, I feel very despairing indeed that we can save this nation from the path it is on toward a very authoritarian state with fewer freedoms and protections.
5. How do you determine the title of the book? Is it the catchiest title of a poem in the manuscript or is the first poem you begin with weaving an entire conversation of poems around it?
I title my books after particular poems I love and sometimes phrases from poems. All my books are like conversations with specific ideas. Bird Light is a conversation with the ornithological world; The Patron Saint of Cauliflower is a conversation about our food and also about our human flirtation with the apocalypse.
6. You believe in the occult. There are many spell-poems in Patron Saint of Cauliflower. Do you think that poetry is somewhere an occult practice? Explain.
I do not use the “occult,” as such, but yes, I am pagan and Jewish and practice spells and prayers; at the same time I am a strong believer in science and scientific principles and the scientific method and no, I do not think these conflict, at all.
7. From war in Aleppo to the packaging of Margarine. Patron Saint of Cauliflower covers a huge spectrum of poetic introspection of subjects that guard, intimidate, and invite us. What was your process of meditation?
These poems accumulated over a decade after my mother’s suicide. As I read news stories (in Aleppo, the children are eating grass; the actual ingredients in margarine), it felt like the world was offering me fodder for these poems. They indeed came to me.
8. As a professor of English at Plattsburgh State University / SUNY and an MFA from Columbia University, do you have any advice for Asian and African MFA in poetry aspirants about their approach to the program? It may include information on the writing a sample to how a Statement of Purpose is to be authored.
Our program is inclusive and diverse, and we seek OTHERNESS and distinct voices from every quarter in our students, in the poetry we publish at Saranac Review and on our faculty. Regarding Saranac Review, please send us your narrative poetry that has edges, attitude, and details from whatever and wherever it is you are from.
9. Apart from American poetry, tell us about the poetry and practices of the world that you enjoy.
Ahh so much to say here: I love the poetry of Eastern Europeans Czeslaw Milosz, Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet and Orhan Veli and right now, I am gaga for the new book by Latin and Spanish poets like Neruda and Lorca, etc. and right now I am simply gaga for the Indian poet Tishani Doshi, but honestly my tastes, both domestic and foreign, are ever shape-shifting.
10. Afterthoughts on Ntozake Shange and Tony Hoagland? How far will their salt travel in your memory?
Ahh. Yes. Well. In very different ways, and I send light and love their directions. Ntozake was one of the first authors I ever “discovered” on my own and For Colored Girls… made a huge impact on me as a young writer. I thought, “you can do this? Be this fun and real?” I had all poetry had to be written like Emily Dickinson’s. SHOCKER! You can use slang; you can write “lil” for little and “enuf” for enough and still be taken seriously. IT was very liberating.
Tony Hoagland, on the other hand, feels like a brother from another mother to me. His poems – which I have enjoyed my whole adult life – instructed me that poetry can be arch and satirical, deal with topics that are quotidian and also…be funny. I found out the number of corn chips in a bag is poetic material! I love him for that.
International buyers and buyers from India can grab a copy of Patron Saint of Cauliflower by Elizabeth Cohen, here.
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