S U S A N C O H E N
i n t e r v i e w
COMP: These poems will appear in your third full-length collection, Democracy of Fire, forthcoming this year from Broadstone Books. Congratulations! We can’t wait to read it. Would you mind telling our readers a little bit about the book and what these poems contribute to it?
Susan Cohen: Thanks for asking! I think of Democracy of Fire as a book written in the face of potential extinctions: personal, political, and planetary. The country and the world are so imperiled, more so than at any point in my lifetime. There is pandemic. There is an attack on democracy. A terrifying rise in both gun violence and hate crimes. Even before the invasion of Ukraine, there were more refugees than at any point since World War II. And looming over all, climate change. I write about actual wildfires, but the fire in the title represents all these threats. I don’t write as someone hopeless, but as someone who believes hope comes from recognizing we are all in this together, whatever age, gender, nationality, or species on earth.
That is where a poem like Photograph of Claudia Patricia Gómez González, Killed by U.S. Border Patrol Agent fits in. It appears in the second section, which moves from the more personal to the broader world. It’s followed by a poem addressed to my immigrant grandparents. Throughout the book, I try to braid my own story and a larger one.
I also place myself within a wider context in Just When, written during the pandemic. This comes in the third and final section, which includes many poems about the natural world. Being able to get out into nature sustained me during the past two pandemic years. Just When is one of the poems in the book that address not only what makes me frightened or furious, but what gets me through. That is: love in a long marriage, language, hawks, and sometimes humor.
As Ellen Bass was kind enough to state in her blurb: “A thread of elegy runs through Democracy of Fire, Susan Cohen’s wise and wonderful new poetry collection. Tenderly, precisely, these poems record a litany of the world’s ongoing losses: “Greenland’s ice sheet pooling like tears into the ocean," elephants, beetles, democracies, “languages left behind like cloaks,” and “our own bones interred without ceremony.” Cohen shows us our interconnectedness, a reminder of both the beauty and value of what’s at stake. Yet, paradoxically, this vision makes Democracy of Fire a deeply comforting book…”.
COMP: One of the reasons we wanted to publish these poems side-by-side is because both, in very different ways, reckon with privilege. How has this mode developed in your poetry? Why is it important?
Susan Cohen: What an interesting question! I do use the word in Just When. I always feel lucky to live in Northern California beside an ocean and close to mountains, but never more so than during the pandemic when that poem was written. Being alive is the privilege I had in mind, a gift that nature reinforces in an instant by revealing the beautiful and unexpected. The other poem, about a 19-year-old woman trying to emigrate to make her life better, particularly resonates for me as the granddaughter of Jewish immigrants from Lithuania and the Ukraine who were allowed to enter America to improve their livelihoods as well as their chances of survival. Because of them, I have the privilege of a life here with all the benefits it brings. Because of them, I literally have the privilege of having been born, unlike an entire generation of Jews whose ancestors didn’t cross the Atlantic Ocean. Which is why I feel especially American when I am most furious at something our country does in my name.
I saw a photograph of Claudia Patricia Gómez González in the New York Times. She wore an elaborately-embroidered dress from her Mayan village in Guatemala, a startlingly young and obviously well-loved woman. In the
accompanying article, a Texas resident who saw her body in a dirt lot described it and expressed shock at the shooting. All of this stayed with me. In my first and bad attempt, I responded to a prompt to write a persona poem by trying to imagine I was speaking through the photograph of this young woman. Another poet chided me that crafting a poem from someone else’s story constituted appropriation, or theft. I agree with the critic to the extent that I shouldn’t have tried to take this on as another voice, since I could not be inside another head. I also recognize appropriation as an issue when it substitutes for the voices of poets who increasingly come from so many backgrounds and experiences. There are many wonderful poets now telling their own stories and finally getting heard. Because of these new voices, poetry in the United States has never been broader or better. Still, I also believe in a role for poetry of witness. I rewrote this poem in a more reportorial style than I typically use and, after many revisions, confronted the issue of appropriation as well as my answer to it—by acknowledging my complicity in a collective as well as specific tragedy. We are a nation of immigrants who depend on immigrants for all sorts of work, but who cannot find a rational way to allow people in without making many of them put their lives at desperate risk. To me, that is tragic.
Of course, I’m explaining after the fact, as if I made intellectual decisions that mostly get made during the writing process by the poems themselves. They have a way of revealing themselves, like that hawk, but never in an instant. Now that you have me thinking about what privilege means, I’d like to consider it from a different angle—as gratitude. Democracy of Fire sounds an alarm. I want it to be provocative in that sense. But it celebrates life’s pleasures and escapes, too. It begins with love poems and ends in a bar &grill. So, I hope it also will be read as a deeply grateful book.