“The Book Made Me As I Made It”: A Micro(inter)view with Allison Cobb & a Folio of New Poems – curated by Lisa Olstein

Allison Cobb is the author of After We All Died (Ahsahta Press); Plastic: an autobiography (Essay Press EP series); Born2 (Chax Press); and Green-Wood, originally published by Factory School with a new edition in 2018 from Nightboat Books.

Cobb’s work has appeared in Best American Poetry, Denver Quarterly, Colorado Review, and many other journals. She was a finalist for the Oregon Book Award and National Poetry Series; has been a resident artist at Djerassi and Playa; and received fellowships from the Oregon Arts Commission, the Regional Arts and Culture Council, and the New York Foundation for the Arts.

Cobb works for the Environmental Defense Fund and lives in Portland, Oregon, where she co-hosts The Switch reading, art, and performance series and performs in the collaboration Suspended Moment.

Lisa Olstein:  What questions or obsessions urged this particular work into being or revealed themselves in it?

Allison Cobb: On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was on the subway underneath the World Trade Center when the first airplane hit the tower. In the weeks and months afterward, living in New York, with the smell of that funeral pyre that had been the World Trade Center... I happened to move across the street from a giant cemetery. Green-Wood is the largest green space in Brooklyn, nearly half the size of Central Park, and a precursor and model for Central Park. I started walking around in the cemetery because it was there. It was an escape. And then, after a while, I got interested in the cemetery—it’s a museum, full of statuary, and a library, full of texts. It’s an arboretum, with 7,000 trees, and a wildlife refuge. I started researching the cemetery, and then I got obsessed with what cemeteries reveal about the history of the United States, the culture’s attitudes about wilderness, and nature, and death, and private property. The cemetery became a lens through which I could look at all these intertwined factors that helped lead up to that moment, September 11, and what happened in the city after, with the fights over what to do with the ground at the World Trade Center.

LO:  “Form sets the thought free,” says Anne Carson. How did form and thought co-evolve in the unfolding of this work?

AC: I initially wrote a manuscript of poems about Green-Wood, but I was unsatisfied with that. It was fragmented, emotional—reflective of the shattered feeling I had post 9/11. I wanted to keep that, and I also wanted to do more, to document my trail through this history of landscape and culture. So I began writing in prose, and citing my sources—and the manuscript took a hybrid prose-poetry form, what some call documentary or investigative poetry. The hybrid part was important to me. I wanted to use the strategies of historical research, nature writing, and journalism, and I also wanted to undercut them, to show how each has its genre conventions, and none should be thought of as transparent mirrors of some “truth.” The hybrid nature of the work—and my technique of juxtaposing poetry with poetic prose with journalistic recording and historical context—let me show the seams, the constructed nature of all those endeavors, and my own co-construction with them.

LO:  What’s the relationship between the speaker’s “I” and you, yourself? How is the book’s “I” informed by your I and/or eye?

AC: The book made me as I made it. That sounds pat, but it’s true. The physical act of walking Green-Wood nearly every day for several years helped me heal from trauma. The act of paying close attention to whatever was happening in the cemetery—watching a hawk, or the egret, or the beech trees, or whatever—required me to come into my body instead of dissociating, so I could witness and record. As I researched the threads that became Green-Wood, my understanding of the U.S. and myself as a citizen changed. Just the act of writing the book kept me, in some ways, alive and functioning. In the best of those times, I was living in this connected, intuitive kind of mode—wandering libraries and the Internet and the cemetery, finding connections. It seemed at times like the book was writing itself, or at least presenting its path to me.

LO:  Did you have in mind any identifiable recipients for the utterance of this work? Did your sense of how or to whom the book was speaking evolve?

AC:  It did! I write for myself, to make sense of my world, and that process of making sense then becomes recorded as the writing. And I write for my community of fellow writers, and we are often writing and making meaning together—not collaborating in a traditional sense, necessarily—but feeding, forming, informing one another. My understanding of my readership has always been that intimate community—the one I know firsthand. That shifted in the midst of writing Green-Wood when I wrote about the grave of Sergeant Joseph O. Behnke, who died in the second Iraq war in 2004. That section from Green-Wood appeared online, and one day I got an email from someone named Mike Behnke that had no subject line and no content except for a link to a YouTube tribute to Sergeant Behnke. I wasn’t sure how to reply. I just thanked the sender for sharing the video. Mike turned out to be Sergeant Behnke’s brother. We struck up an occasional correspondence that we have maintained ever since—more than 10 years now. When the first edition of Green-Wood came out in 2010, I gave a reading in the chapel at the cemetery. Many members of Sergeant Behnke’s family attended, including his widow. It was a humbling experience to understand that readers will use texts to serve purposes I can’t presume to imagine. That entails an enormous ethical responsibility to approach all aspects of a text with care—with rigor, compassion, and care.

LO:  How do the book’s aesthetics inform its ethics, or, how do its ethics inform its aesthetics?

AC: One thing that spurred me in writing Green-Wood was the desire to trace connections. I wanted to make some kind of sense of this post 9/11 reality. How did I/we get here? I wanted to show the deep threads underlying that moment, for better and worse. That drove me outside my discipline of poetry into history, anthropology, journalism, and far outside Green-Wood—to Papua, New Guinea, Paris, and Vietnam. That felt risky to me—to delve into these areas as a non-expert. Once a colleague commented, “I would never write anything about Ralph Waldo Emerson as a non-Emerson scholar.” But Emerson is a major animating force in the book. I had to take those risks, to write against the professionalization of disciplines and the narrowing of knowledge borders. That ethics of breaching borders informs the aesthetics of the book, which operates largely by juxtaposition. It leaps across themes and times and places on every page in an attempt to animate connections. Another aspect of ethics that informed the book was the care I mentioned. I didn’t want to play loose with other disciplines, their histories. I wanted to respect the knowledge that communities before me had gathered. For that reason, Green-Wood has an extensive notes section—somewhat unusual for a poetry book—documenting my path through the research.

I also wanted to convey the beauty of all those threads of connection. There is lots of violence in the history to bear witness to, and there is also just the sheer liveliness and fecundity of life and knowledge in all its forms—in the midst of a cemetery. I wanted the book to be a pleasure to read aesthetically, to be beautiful, in the way that my writing it, my process of discovery, was lively and pleasurable and beautiful. I needed a way of making this big mass of material readable. I hit on designing each page as a visual unit—juxtaposing fragments and moments in ways that pleased me both sonically and visually.

LO:  How has it been to shift out of the creative space of the book? What are you working on now?

AC:  Green-Wood originally came out in 2010 from Factory School and Nightboat has just reissued it in a beautiful new edition. So I haven’t been in the creative space of Green-Wood for a long time. But the approach I found in writing Green-Wood continues to shape my work. Right now I’m finishing a book—due out from Nightboat in 2020—called Plastic: an autobiography. It also looks to uncover the threads and connections leading to now—a planet and its living systems, including humans, contaminated with plastic. How did that happen? And what does that situation say about the human species, our relationship to one another, and to everything else we live with? The book is also a hybrid of prose and poetry; it also relies on research far outside my own discipline, like physics and chemistry; it uses juxtapositions to animate the connections; and it takes me far afield—to thermonuclear war and airplane technology and into my own history. It’s a harder book to write than Green-Wood. Plastic is more inert, more dead, than a cemetery—a quality that is part of its terrible toxicity. And the times seem only to have gotten more violent. I hope, in the writing, to uncover some arrows pointing a way out from here. In any case, that’s what keeps me moving forward.


A Folio of Poems by Allison Cobb

GW for TQ

Reprinted with permission of Nightboat Books.