Interview - Jack Cooper

What inspires you most?

The Zen master said, “My miracle is when I am hungry I eat. When I am thirsty I drink.” Poetry can be found in everything, common or bizarre – the homeless man I saw last week pulling all his worldly goods in a 16-wheeled contraption like some bizarre train ride at the junk fair; the scientist who reported that the average color of the universe is beige like a wall in an art gallery. The way my wife grabs a book and folds up in a couch one leg at a time like a crane. I wrote a poem about, of all things, rocks, called “Quiet Spectacle,” that just came out in Rogers State University's Cooweescoowee Journal. I guess you could say I'm inspired by existence. Another way to phrase that would be existence is inspiration.

What do you like and or dislike about contemporary poetry vs the classics? To you have a preference to either one & if so why?

I read great poets like Sappho, Rumi, Blake, Basho, and Whitman as if they were contemporary, though some would call them classic. For me, the distinction is moot when the poetry is pure and timeless. I never enjoyed formal poetry – Pope, Wordsworth, Millay. The formality in form, rhyme and meter kills the urgency for me, takes the air out of the work, somehow makes it impersonal. After Whitman, who could write anything in iambic pentameter except nursery rhymes? At the other extreme, I'm not drawn to spoken word, def poetry, poetry slam, rap and so forth. Although they can have amazing moments, they seem to me to be more performance than writing, in the same way songwriting is more music than poetry.

I'm not a traditionalist, though. A poem can experiment with all manner of grammar, syntax and form, but it better fit in the mouth, pour from the heart, and explode with ideas. Most of the poets I read wrote in free verse in the last 100 years – Wallace Stevens, ee cummings, Garcia Lorca, Cezlaw Milosz, Theodore Roethke, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, including those alive today like Claudia Emerson, Jane Hirschfield, Tony Hoagland, Elton Glazer and Rolf Jacobsen.

What is the most profound question you have asked or have heard asked lately?

Why is there something instead of only exploding radiation? This is in fact a real question in science, but the usual formulation is “Why is there something instead of nothing,” which is a slightly different question. We don't know the answer to either, of course, but the fact that the wild and furious energy of the big bang, or however this cycle of this universe was started, coalesced into earths and suns and moons and poems in physical reality raises a truly profound question for me that begs for a non-physical, other-dimensional explanation. I am grappling with this issue in a poem right now about things we can't know and things we don't want to know.

Which poet living or dearly departed has inspired you the most?

That one poet would have to be e e cummings. His work is visceral and cerebral at once. He was an uncompromising artist. He took language apart and put it back together inside out and upside down. He could be whimsical, romantic and provocative all in one poem. He could also be maddeningly obscure to the point of appearing nonsensical, demanding a huge commitment from the reader. Even now, I have patience for only about a tenth of his collected poems, but that one tenth comprises some of the most spellbinding and original work in the English language. One sad thing is that, except for a few of his most accessible poems, most of his work is untranslatable to other languages and cultures. That point is not true of Garcia Lorca, for example, who would be my second choice.

What books or exciting projects have you published lately?

Here are three:

1) My poem, “All Of The Above,” was recently chosen as a finalist in North American Review's 2011-12 James Hearst Poetry Prize. It's in the current issue. I used a personality test format in which the reader sees there are no right answers only choices. Here's an example:

It makes you happy to know that
□ Whales are sometimes born with legs
□ Men can lactate
□ There are two million flowers in a jar of honey

2) My first one-minute play, called “The Law of Distraction,” was published in the Spring 2012 volume of In Posse Review. It's a conversation with two old friends over lunch that begins with an argument about whether or not the universe can compute a negative memory. Now and then, I'll lie down to rest and an entire conversation will unfold in my mind. I've learned to jump up and write it down or it'll be gone. Sometimes, these efforts don't lead anywhere. Other times they turn out to be something special. It's very exciting to have a venue to published them.

3) Of course, having three poems selected for E&L's In the Company of Women, was a treat. One of the poems, “Solitary Man,” was about my daring and wonderful sister who recently died of a strange neurological disorder. I am grateful that my poem will live on in her honor.

What imminent surprises do you have for us readers?

I would like to say that my second book of poems will be out shortly, but that would be testing the Fates. I have submitted it, I feel very strongly about how it came together and I am hoping to hear soon.

My playwriting partner, actor Charles Bartlett, and I have begun work on a new treatment for a project once optioned from us by Hallmark Productions for a TV movie. Life intervened and we shelved it. Called “Buckshot: A Boy's Christmas in Texas,” it's a true and bittersweet story of a boy and his father in Texas during the 1950s. Both Charles and I were born in Texas.