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Poet Q&A: Irene Cooper on research, rejection, and releasing the bounds of genre

The Bend poet and author of Oregon Book Award-nominated “spare change” says the most essential quality for a writer is perseverance.

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"Rejection, it turns out, was and remains my greatest and most generous teacher," says Bend poet Irene Cooper.
“Rejection, it turns out, was and remains my greatest and most generous teacher,” says Bend poet Irene Cooper.
to a certain nobody:
a pair of wingtips is not
a means to fly even if
you are not in love
with the lies of the father
the rain can be taken
for medicine a boy has
seventy-two castanets
such doors seep
light in small doses
flush his golden hands.

— steep by Irene Cooper via Prometheus Dreaming

Poet and author Irene Cooper moved to Bend in 1996, when it was still “small and a bit of a boys’ town.” After attending culinary school in San Francisco where she met her partner, Michael Cooper, the pair revised a five-year plan to move to Omaha, Neb., and came instead to the Pacific Northwest. Five months pregnant, Cooper landed in Bend, eventually falling in love with the Cascade mountains that surround it.

Cooper is the author of multiple books, including Oregon Book Award-nominated poetry collection spare change and the novel Committal. She tells me she didn’t begin truly writing what felt like art until she finished the OSU-Cascades Low-Residency MFA program. “I began writing at age 50, give or take,” she said, penning deeper and more personal poems during the program, but taking her time to metabolize the teachings and understand what it was that she wanted to — and felt that she could — write.

“Many of the poems in spare change began as a conversation with a brother who died of liver disease at 53, preceded in death by our eldest brother, who died of bone cancer at 15,” Cooper said. “Another brother, rarely discussed, died of what used to be referred to as crib death. Other poems consider the chasms in intimacy created by childhood illness — coma and epilepsy.”

In this work, the author ruminates on the impact of absence on feelings of love, physical death, and ego death. Parenthood, she poses as an example, is a potential series of ego deaths as children grow out of and move — or are thrust — from under a parent’s influence. With interest in intimacy, emotion, and possession, Cooper balances an overarching exploration of grief with gems of personal truths.

I had the pleasure of corresponding with Cooper via email. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

When did you know you wanted writing to become a major aspect of your profession?

Cooper: To be frank, when I couldn’t land a legit job. I got my undergraduate degree at 48 after three years at Central Oregon Community College and two years at Oregon State. I’d hoped a BA would put me in an office, you know, with a boss. I bought dress pants at Ross and went on dozens of interviews, which went well and never resulted in work. Rejection, it turns out, was and remains my greatest and most generous teacher. Eventually, I returned to the kitchen, sans the professional ambition of my culinary school days. I picked up freelance content work — wrote web pages for auto dealerships and blogs about unusual burial and wedding rituals, typically at two in the morning. I learned a lot about concision. I was fortunate enough to extend my MFA residency experience by working as a chef for the OSU-Cascades Low-Residency MFA when it was located at Caldera Arts. Somewhere in there, I identified as a writer, and primarily so, albeit one who could cook. I teach these days, as well, which I love nearly as much as anything.

What does your typical creation process look like?

The best and worst thing about working for oneself is the 24-hour clock. I take advantage of insomnia. If specific subject matter is important to a project or idea, I’ll read a lot, allowing the research to branch out and become more associative. With research, though, it’s important to remember to surface. When I was teaching less and writing more content, the work was somewhat feast or famine, so I’d make sure to use the fallow periods for my own stuff. I guess, more than anything, I’m a creative opportunist.

What is your preferred method of writing/creation?

First iterations of poems happen via pen and paper. I need the expanse of the page and the freedom to mark it without a prescribed direction. As soon as I have anything I deem worth developing, however, I type it into a document so I can see its shape in the white space. Fiction is entirely computer-bound for me. Nonfiction, too, usually. I’m a terrible typist with no hope for improvement, so there’s no accounting for the fact that the prose must be typed. My father wrote 40 years of ad copy on a manual typewriter. Romantic, but also quite cumbersome. Computers are great. I broke my hand at some point and loathe to miss any deadlines, used voice-to-text for a while, with interesting results — less method than collaboration — with voice and body in (what was for me) a whole new way.

You write both fiction and poetry. Do you find that these genres intersect within your work, and how so?

They do, I think. It could be said that some of my prose is more lyric than the poems. My first novel, Committal, intentionally incorporates poetry in its shenanigans. My second novel does as well, but to a much lesser and less overt extent. The more prose I write, the less impulse I feel to call out poetry visibly and audibly in the work. At the same time, the prose is absolutely bound by poetic constraints of utility and sound.

In the poems, I don’t feel overly pulled toward narrative, but I am extremely concerned with voice. I enjoy the syntactical freedom that poems offer, and their ability to absorb and transform what might otherwise be considered non-poetic language. In the end, I’m less moved by delineating genres than I am by how they vibrate in proximity to one another, especially in my body.

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Tell me more about your newest fiction release, Committal. What was important to the creation of the character Lucy Sykes? How did you choose the celebrities that would make appearances in the work?

Lucy was inspired by the story of Rosemary Kennedy, who, at the order of her father, underwent a prefrontal lobotomy at age 23. Severely disabled, Rosemary lived out her life first as a resident of a psychiatric hospital in Poughkeepsie, and then, when it was suspected she was being sexually abused, at a Catholic facility in Wisconsin. Lucy not only survives her fictional lobotomy, but is rendered intellectually gifted. They are gifts she neither asks for nor wants. Eventually, she weaponizes them, but not before she creates, somewhat unwittingly, something organic and beautiful: Her ultimate and penultimate AI programs develop a deep emotional bond, the kind of intimacy denied Lucy when she was separated from her mother and her twin. Sometimes I wish I could have found a way for Lucy to heal, but that wasn’t the story she told me.

Celebrity is fascinating. I wonder (often) if and/or to what extent public persona just seeps into the well. I leave the more dynamic pop culture to my daughters — the celebs in Committal are famous-ish. They’re all “serious” actors. I have a little crush on them. There’s a smidge of fact to each of their personas in the book, some detail I took from an interview or article. I really do love them — Buscemi’s blue-collar ties, Swinton’s and Day-Lewis’ drama, Viggo Mortensen’s Viggo-ness. I’ve spent most of my adult life in the Western U.S., and sometimes miss the nonchalance the New Yorkers of my youth exhibited toward celebrities. Like, a celebrity might get recognized on the street, but they were still expected to pick up their dog’s poop and otherwise behave, or suffer the censure.

When I read, years ago, that Daniel Day-Lewis took a hiatus from acting to learn how to make shoes, I thought, yeah — sometimes you just want to make something. Catch a fish and cook it, feed it to someone.

What do you think is the state of poetry in Oregon today, and how can we encourage a brighter, more interconnected, and flourishing scene/community?

Anis Mojgani has shown up in his tenure as poet laureate of Oregon. There’s nothing good to be said of a pandemic, but the writing world and poets, in particular, have used the Zoom-osphere to connect, and, critically, to make creative communities more accessible. I’ve met and interacted with poets from Boston, the Carolinas, Texas, Milwaukee, Arizona, Puerto Rico, Cleveland, Hawaii, and California, and mostly for free. In Oregon specifically, I think events such as Literary Arts’ Verselandia! invite young people to embrace poetry while blurring and stepping over traditional boundaries around genre and form.

More and more, I feel a poem is not a precious object, but a tool — less ethereal than grounding. Language is a means of vibration, capable of invoking tremor: I feel before I think I understand anything. It reminds me of the seismic potentiality of our landscapes, emotional and physical. I don’t know what the state of poetry is in Oregon today, but I like to imagine it’s working toward a more quotidian utility, something we reach for every day, to ground us as well as to lift and shift us, and is not limited to the commemorative moment.

Many of the poems in "spare change" are inspired by death and the the "chasms in intimacy" created by childhood illness, Irene Cooper says.
Many of the poems in “spare change” are inspired by death and the “chasms in intimacy” created by childhood illness, Cooper says.

What advice do you have for younger poets and those seeking to publish their work or obtain literary representation?

Currently, for me, publication happens without literary representation, so I’ve nothing to offer there. Except, of course, for the assurance that publication happens via many paths. Online opportunities abound, and arguably offer greater visibility and access than traditional print. That said, poets and writers should do their research and understand the editorial perspectives of those to whom they submit. That said, submission guidelines can be vague. Submit where your faves submit; submit where the work moves you.

Embrace the small press, whose primary currencies are love and dedication. Many offer open reading periods for manuscripts — no agent required. Small presses are more likely to relish the experiment and the weird stuff. Practice literary citizenship — be a reader for a journal, and promote other writers when and where you can. Build yourself into the community you want.

Most essential is to persevere. Understand that “no” — no matter how often you hear it — is subjective and not a definitive judgment of your work. Submit regularly. Be open to feedback from sources you trust, AND embrace revision as the deeply personal practice it is. Be dogged. Don’t stop writing.

Do you have any information about upcoming work, classes, or projects that you’d like to share?

My two teaching partners and I are almost midway through the inaugural year of a 10-month writing program we started in January, The Forge. Our website says, “We got our MFAs so you don’t have to.” The endeavor to share our experience in this way has been intense — challenging and rewarding. Writers are tender animals. The work is emerging and amazing.

I’m metabolizing my editor’s notes for a novel that will hopefully hit the shelves within the year. It’s a nod to the domestic-thriller genre, and a consideration of body sovereignty, friendship, family, and the concept of safety. I wrote a series of 10 linked short stories that I’ve started submitting both individually and as a manuscript, speculative fiction I’m calling The Olfactorist.There’s a poetry chapbook circulating, mostly concrete forms, that I hope someone will say yes to soon. In June, I’ll join local arts organization Scalehouse for an art-plus-words festival. Interested parties can check out the catalog for Central Oregon Community College’s Continuing Ed to sign up for a poetry class with me, or Blank Pages Workshops to register for a craft-oriented writing workshop with Michael and me. More about all that and links to other stuff can be found at irenecooperwrites.com.

Amy Leona Havin is a writer, choreographer, and filmmaker based in Portland, Oregon. She holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, Washington, and is the Artistic Director of Portland-based multi-media dance company The Holding Project. Her works can be read in Humana Obscura, San Diego Poetry Annual, The Dust Magazine, The Chronicle, Mountain Bluebird Magazine, and others, and she has been shortlisted for the Bridport International Writing Competition Prize in Poetry. Havin’s artistic process is rooted in classical and somatic movement practices, non-fiction writing, and honoring the landscape of the natural world.

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