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Guest Post: Gale Renee Walden and Nicole Cooley in Conversation

Two poets on their new books.

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June 7, 2017
 
 

I’m on deadline for a new book, so I asked former colleague Gale Renee Walden if she and poet Nicole Cooley would like to have a conversation about their new books, released or forthcoming this year.  --Churm

Gale Walden has taught creative writing at the University of Illinois and at the University of New Orleans low-residency MFA program.

Nicole Cooley is the director of the MFA Program in Creative Writing and Literary Translation at Queens College-CUNY, where she is a Professor of English.

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Gale Walden:
I met Nicole Cooley over 20 years ago at a Ragdale Residency. Nicole, it turned out, was writing a novel, and we discovered we both were genre switchers—that was unusual back then.  I was accused by one of my professors as “being neither fish nor fowl,” neither of which I had ever claimed to be.  But both Nicole and I had our original groundings in poetry and that’s the ground I return to and the only ground I’ve found I can metaphorically fly from. 

What about you, Nicole?  Over the years we’ve talked old loves, children, job searches, religion, odd museums, politics. Want to talk poetry?  Not that it’s divisible from the other things.

Nicole Cooley:
After reading your new book, there is so much I want us to talk about--mothers and daughters, time and memory, landscape--but I just have to begin with the "tiny pincushion chair on the piano" in the book's title poem, "Where The Time Goes." Not only because you did, as you said in the poem, mail me that chair (and now it sits right here on my desk), but because I'm interested in the way, in these poems, objects work as triggers.

 

Where The Time Goes

In middle age you have to start tracking money and time
to see what world they are disappearing into.  
There’s coffee of course and that speeds things up.  
The coffee pot has made it all the way from the fifties to my kitchen,
and has golden spheres that portend a glamorous hat and a good time in space.
Speaking of objects, there is a tiny pincushion chair on the piano
that would look better in Nicole’s dollhouse and that requires a post office,
which is almost an antiquated idea come to life, decorated
with bars and cubicles and tiny iron combination locks.
I wish there were a letter for me. 
I know what decade I want it to be from, but there’s a mailbox
in the 1990s I’m afraid is always going to be empty.
After errands, I call my father, and we speak of the daily obituaries, 
which we always do, and today we talk about how
either Click or Clack can make us laugh, even in death.  
I think of my 1974 Dodge Dart, and how the slant-six engine, 
was spoken of with the reverence certain objects deserve,
and I don’t think that’s idolatry. 
I ask about my mother who is stubbornly fading away, 
and whether she can still vote and my father says by mail.  
But he and I, we are waiting out the rain;
we love the polling places with the little curtains
where we can blacken circles and emerge like the Wizard of Oz,
who did, after all, have some power once he got over himself. 
After voting, I talk to friends in the message part of Facebook
about how my famous dead ex-boyfriend appeared to me
on the computer screen and seemed to open his eyes, 
and no one questions it because
he appears on their screens too and as one person said, 
“Photoshop can do a lot with eyes.”
I don’t report that, when his eyes opened up,  
I told him, “You would not believe where you are right now,”
because, well, he would.  Outside it is nearing Holidays, 
and my mother’s attic is filled with porcelain bakeries
and steepled churches and train stations.  
I wonder if I brought them down and arranged
the pretend town around her she would feel part
of a world again. That’s what love has become, 
—creating buildings with tiny lights inside--
but here, it is happening again: my mind is taking me away
from fiscal duty back into the village of consideration,
and when I am this far gone, all I can do is pray myself back.
Please God, don’t let me enter any attics or basements;
protect me from the refrigerator, from all the animals needing petting,
from the part of myself that can fly away toward imaginary towns.
Protect me from telephones, hair salons, and fallen leaves;
lead me down the path of the organized, the can-do people,
the fruitful.  Let me dwell in the moment, at the desk
of works, of forms, of things potentially said and done.

 

Later in the poem you mention "the reverence certain objects deserve," and I love the way objects reverberate throughout these poems, as talismans, as ways to travel back in time, as warnings. Can you talk about this?

GW: 
Of course I needed to go to a junk shop to ponder your questions. It's interesting because I teach a memoir course called "Writing the Memoir through Objects," and I'm very aware of placing things in settings in both fiction and nonfiction to ground stories, but in my poems, I think objects are more portals--the means to take you elsewhere.

Your poem, “Of Nostalgia”, in which you are looking at your mother's 1950 blonde jewelry box, hoping it will lead you to the teen-age version of your mother, is, I think, an example of this time-traveling device.

 

Of Nostalgia

Originally a medical condition—

In the eighteenth century: severe homesickness, a disease.

From German, heimweh; Greek, nostos, homecoming, + algos, grief.

Mine never feels like lovely wishing,

and when I find my mother’s jewelry box—blonde leather, impossibly 
fifties teenage—desire is stuffed in my chest like dirty

shredded Kleenex – desire for my mother’s sixteen year old self.

Beside a place for pearls: a drawer labeled Mad Money.
inside a blue-wrapped soap crumbled to dust

and three dimes I set in my mouth, wanting silver bitterness.

Money my mother saved so she could run away? 
From my father?—

The first nostalgics were men at war:  mercenaries 
in the French army longing for their villages.

When I open her jewelry box, I want to lie 
in my mother’s twin bed, on clean white sheets, let go

of my body, become the girl she was, mother-not-mother—

while soldiers march through yellow fields, dizzy with nausea.

Under my tongue, her coins are cool and slick,
and I’m homesick for a life I never lived—

I slip on my mother’s pink coat from high school,
color of a Dairy Queen dipped cone, 

color of a flushed cheek after a slap—

 


Locating the self in a time before we existed is very compelling.  I have a poem in which the child is trespassing into that life via some photographs. You know that scene in Field of Dreams that men cry during, where the father and son play baseball together at the same time, as the same age? That scene comes very close to a metaphysical striving I have with poetry, and objects are often the vehicle I'm using to try and get there. The knowing that occasionally arises while writing does have a little deja-vuishness that certain physical objects have to me (for some reason things from the forties). There’s a similar metaphysical vibration.

NC: 
I love the idea of an object as a portal. And I think in your work that portal often takes us to a new location--from a cornfield to a prairie to an urban landscape. In your poems we are also often in a car, as in "Aging in America," for instance: "It happens more geographically / than you can imagine / a Dodge rambling over / a two lane blacktop."  Can you talk about objects and geography and their relation?

GW:  
Well, let's talk about cars. I love cars, especially the road trip driving of them and how they transport you geographically to someplace else, but there's something about the inside of cars that also leads to confessions. I've never taken a road trip with anyone in which the relationship wasn't slightly altered by the trip.

I also love the names of cars. In this book, a Dodge Dart, a Nash Rambler, a VW Rabbit, and a Datsun make an appearance--all are cars from different parts of my life. I drove a lot between Tucson, where I went to college, and Illinois, and there is a rest stop right after New Mexico that takes me out of lineal time, every time I stop there. 

Certain landscapes reverberate younger selves back again, also a possibility in poetry. I'm returning to meeting people for the first time, old loves are in cars with me, my mother is book-ending the book, from a young woman to a very old one. I had to look through and toss out a lot of poems to find the theme of this book, which is the permeability of time. That’s one of the most difficult things of putting together a book, finding the common thread in the poems. Do you find that also?  Or do you have theme in advance?

NC: 
My own books have frequently started with a theme. Several are the often-derided "project books"--my book on Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath and my family in New Orleans Breach, my book on the Salem witch trials, The Afflicted Girls. I don't mean that I found the idea first, but that I wrote towards and around the idea. So that made the assembly and construction different.

With my book that is coming out in the spring, Girl after Girl after Girl, I had a loose idea--poems about weird museums--and so for years I went to those museums around the US and some in Europe (a lock museum, a museum of crime and punishment, a cocktail museum). What I loved most is how these museums--where I avidly took notes and interviewed docents --allowed me to refresh my language and gave me a new lexicon. Not that many of these poems ended up making it into the book--not all were successful (some were just "wow, that's interesting," but not poems). But the process of re-invigorating my poetic language was a lesson I will never forget, one I take with me into my writing and my teaching now. 

This returns us to the junk shop! And writing about stuff.

GW: 
And there’s other stuff I would love to discuss here—putting people you know in poems, women in the poetry world, VIDA, but I also like short & sweet and the full-circle ending.  So maybe this will continue in some AWP hotel’s bathroom. Thanks, Nicole.

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Gale Renee Walden’s Where The Time Goes (Gus/Gus Press) was released in April, and Nicole Cooley’s Girl after Girl after Girlwill be released in November (LSU Press).

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