| Interviews

playing with boxes: an interview with Irene Cooper about spare change

Millie Tullis

Irene Cooper’s spare change (Finishing Line Press)  is a collection composed of small poems that constantly surprise through line, image, and charged, simple language. The poems in this book explore the domestic, the family, and the body with a quiet experimentalism that makes the collection endlessly dynamic. I found it simply difficult to put down the book, even after a poem or section ended. Irene Cooper’s “creation myth”, one of the poems in the collection, was a poetry finalist in issue 49.2. Shortly after the book’s release, I was able to ask Irene about the poems and her process.

Could you talk about your aesthetics? Your forms? I’m thinking, of course, of the center of the book being a sonnet crown, but I’m also thinking about how many of your poems take these really interesting visual forms and shapes, often including white space in the body of the poem.

Thank you for asking. After the fact, I watched a Washington University of St Louis craft talk by Hurst Professor Eduardo C. Corral in which he talked about “Pouring Language into New Containers” as an approach to poem revision. Lots of poets rewrite their work in different forms, of course, but you have to start with a first form. For me, that was 14 lines, and in particular, the crown. Fifteen boxes, unending, a loop of memory, shouting or whispering across the circle to one another—that’s how these poems found their way to be.

I started writing these thinking I wanted to talk with those people I cannot be or am not in conversation with—but they couldn’t take the form of a letter, which has too much agency, is too heavy with intent. Other poems outside that sequence didn’t survive or refused to put up with the sonnet form, even broken. But they carry traces of having been in that box.

The forms, with their spaces and interruptions sometimes resemble for me QR codes, or UPC symbols. We code, we are coded. I love some of the interactive poems you can find now on the internet that use the tech to create multiple ways to read and experience the poem, something Douglas Kearney and others have been doing for years in voice and on the page.

I am moved by the late Polish poet Adam Zagnewski’s idea of history as “an immense, sometimes subtle force” on the present, as a living thing; and by a quote by Carolyn Forché: “Memory a wind passing through the blood trees within us.”

Relating to the small forms and concision these poems utilize, I’m thinking too about the title, spare change. Reading the poems, spareness was all over, as was the idea of cost/investment—of belief, of disbelief, of relationships. You write, “my investment in everything / it’s you who’s taught me to believe & in nothing” and “you’re not cheap  just dying / & pressed for time”. Did these poems begin in this vein, with this language?

From my current distance, I think about how the hypervigilance of a certain kind of childhood can be translated to something like observation for the purposes of poem-making. Within the stance of observation there is —hypothetically—room for the self, for opinion, judgment, self-awareness, feeling, that was otherwise crowded out by the emergency state. spare change can stand for a minimal (if cataclysmic) shift, for that which is extra and/or dispensable, for that which can replace or be swapped out for another—a tire, an organ, a life.

Economics are very important to how I think about things—economy of language, the nature of interpersonal transaction. And not just as metaphor. The movement, stagnation and control of money and resources is a swift and inescapable current.

More broadly, what was your process like writing this collection? I’m especially in awe of the interconnection between the middle section, the sonnet crown, how amazingly the echoes between poems build in this collection.

The crown was more or less always going to be the center of the collection, though I might not have been aware of that as I wrote those poems, and other poems were written before, during and after. I do feel energy radiates out from the center, and bounces around, too—a kind of echolocation tool for the book. Echolalia—a stage of language acquisition in toddlers wherein they repeat what they hear—is an interesting concept, using repetition as a way to identify meaning, and to metabolize language. In poems I think repetition serves to offer multiple pathways to meaning, maybe through a little indigestion or discomfort, instead of familiarity or consensus. Repetition of a word or sound, or of form, or in subject matter.

The other thing to say here is that, for the crown poems, I used a retrofitted version of Terrance Hayes’ Golden Shovel, his homage form for Gwendolyn Brooks, wherein I took 14-word lines or phrases from poems that resonated with me, regardless of provenance or subject, and lined them up vertically so that each new line would end in a successive word of the borrowed line. The poems saw much revision after that, but that process created a lot of language and heat.

What other work was influential to these poems?

T.C. Tolbert instilled in me and embodies a deep commitment to the idea and practice of legacy in poem-making. What can I have written without the deep permission of Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, without the searing naturalism of Marie Howe’s What the Living Do, or without the example of legacy in Terrance Hayes’ American Sonnet series? I am influenced by the concision and sparsity of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, as well as by contemporary poets including francine j. harris, Vievee Francis, Natalie Diaz…the list goes on. I hope to one day write a poem with the ebullience of Ross Gay. I read amazing things every day in journals (like phoebe!) and via poems-a-day like the wonderfully curated Poets.org. Influential poets and poems abound.

What are you writing now? Is there another book? a great deal of rest? something in-between?

Ha! It’s an enduring cultural Achilles heel that the concept of rest is so difficult for so many, even in this home-bound era, but there it is. Having the time and capacity to write anything is a kind of deep rest from other concerns. Committal (Vegetarian Alcoholic Press), my first novel, is six months old this month. I have another fiction manuscript that I’ve been slipping under various doors, and a non-fiction chapbook of essays woven with a sonnet “tiara” of seven poems called “american dream,” about my father, mostly. I started what I think will be a speculative series of linked stories that imagine a near future wherein memory and the sense of smell have been commodified as well as weaponized. And poems, always poems—that’s the most intimate work. I’ve been messing with concrete forms, and writing about watching too much TV.

Irene Cooper

is the author of Committal, a poet-friendly speculative spy-fy novel about family from Vegetarian Alcoholic Press. poems, stories, essays & reviews appear in The Feminist Wire, phoebe, Cathexis Northwest Press, The Rumpus, Denver Quarterly, VoiceCatcher & elsewhere. irene co-edits The Stay Project and facilitates creative writing workshops in community, in educational settings, and at a regional prison, as well as for Blank Pages Workshops in Oregon, where she lives with her people & a corgi.

Millie Tullis

is an MFA poetry candidate at George Mason University. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Sugar House Review, Rock & Sling, Cimarron Review, Ninth Letter, Juked, and elsewhere. She serves as the Assistant Editor for Best of the Net and Poetry Editor and Social Media Manager for Phoebe. You can find her on twitter @millie_tullis.

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