Welcome to TRB Lounge. Today, I’d like to welcome author Cathleen Cohen for an author interview with The Reading Bud.
About The Author
Cathleen Cohen was the 2019 Poet Laureate of Montgomery County, PA. A painter and teacher, she founded the We the Poets program at ArtWell, an arts education non-profit in Philadelphia (theartwell.org). Her poems appear in journals such as Apiary, Baltimore Review, Cagibi, East Coast Ink, 6ix, North of Oxford, One Art, Passager, Philadelphia Stories, Rockvale Review and Rogue Agent. Camera Obscura (chapbook, Moonstone Press) appeared in 2017 and Etching the Ghost (Atmosphere Press), 2021. She received the Interfaith Relations Award from the Montgomery County PA Human Rights Commission and the Public Service Award from National Association of Poetry Therapy. Her paintings are on view at Cerulean Arts Gallery (ceruleanarts.com).
You can find author Cohen here:
Website | Goodreads | Twitter | Instagram | Facebook
Welcome to TRB! Please give our readers a brief introduction about yourself before we begin.
I’m a painter, writer and teacher in the Philadelphia area. My family, students, and community have been a big source of inspiration, as has being a painter.
After 9/11, I was galvanized, along with other poets and artists, to create programs for children in our area to express themselves through the creative arts – since few arts programs existed for them. (www.theArtwell.org). There are so many diverse and rich cultures in our area. Teaching has inspired me to write, paint and think deeply about life.
Please tell us something about your book other than what we have read in the blurb?
As the Covid-19 pandemic caused social isolation, I (like many others) couldn’t teach in classrooms. But this gave me more free time to read others’ poetry, ponder and write more of my own poems, to hear my own inner voice. For years I focused on teaching poetry to others, but this project resulted from an enforced personal artist’s retreat.
What is that one message that you’re trying to get across to the readers in this book?
All sorts of experiences will happen to us, joys and challenges. Things are broken and need repair. When such brokenness come to us (big and small, including big social upheavals, personal challenges, etc.) we can notice, listen and process things through creative acts, alone or in community. We can reach out to others. This can help.
What inspired you to write this book? An idea, some anecdote, a dream or something else?
Sparks and Disperses was inspired by an art project that my daughter-in-law, Tiffany, and our friend, Gila, had begun. They were working on a beautiful ceramic mural outdoors. It was a joy to help them, to stand together for hours, even in the cold with our masks on, clipping ceramics and placing tiles. Neighbors dropped off contributions in the form of old plates and such. It became a communal project. There were neighbors next door who raised chickens in a coop (in the city, which was illegal!) These chickens would keep us company and peck at our feet as we worked. I included them in the poems.
How long did it take you to write this particular book?
It took a few months. A few of the poems are edited versions of writing I had begun years back. It was exciting to revise them and piece them together with new poems for the manuscript. Sparks and Disperses is actually the second book that I wrote during this period of Covid. The first is Etching the Ghost (Atmosphere Press).
What are your writing ambitions? Where do you see yourself 5 years from today?
I plan to continue teaching as well as writing poems. Hopefully my own poems will grow richer and deeper over time. So many topics are inspiring: stories of the self and others, issues of community and social justice, the importance of creativity.
Why have you chosen this genre? Or do you write in multiple genres?
I like the lyrical, imagistic properties of poems and how they can resonate on so many levels. They can be a narrative, personal, emotional, a glimpse of a powerful moment. They can reach out to the reader, who bring their own meaning to the poem. How a poet uses the space of the page or between lines and stanzas can be powerful. So much is open and filled with potential. I don’t write much in other genres, but am a painter. My paintings definitely relate to my poems. (www.cathleencohenart.com)
When did you decide to become a writer? Was it easy for you to follow your passion or did you have to make some sacrifices along the way?
My family moved to a new community when I was about 10 years old. A shy child, I was barely able to raise my hand and speak in my new classroom. But our teacher, Mr. DeFalco, was so creative and loved poetry and art. He took us on many field trips to museums in New York City. I remember making mobiles like Calder’s and painting “snow paintings” as we stood outside at our easels, pelted by snow. We read and wrote poetry every day. I seemed to have a flair for it, which my teacher recognized, and I became the “class poet”. This forced me to speak and join the community. What a gift he gave me.
What is your writing ritual? How do you do it? And how do you prefer to write – computer/laptop, typewriter, dictation or longhand with a pen?
Often I write in the morning if my schedule allows, and I try to “make an appointment” with myself to write. I like to write on the computer using a voice activated program,
because that keeps up with the speed of my inner language. Sometimes I take a walk and dictate into my cell phone. It probably looks pretty strange, but maybe the neighbors just think I’m on a call!
I edit poems later, anytime of the day.
How do you prefer to write – computer/laptop, typewriter, dictation or longhand with a pen?
When I was young, I wrote longhand in a notebook. Lately if I am outdoors painting landscape and ideas come to me, I will use a notebook. But if I have a real flow of ideas coming and am home, I use the computer and my voice activated program.
Who are your 5 favorite books or authors?
This is a hard and delightful question. My favorites change by the week, depending what I am reading. Some favorite current poets: Ilya Kaminsky, Briget Pegeen Kelly, Eleanor Wilner, Aracelis Girmay, and the late A.V. Christie (who was one of my teachers).
How do you deal with writer’s block?
Sometimes our brains and souls need a rest! When those times come, I try to get more downtime, connect with others, go outside and walk, read, paint, listen to music, hear what others have to tell me. I try to be a better listener.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
I would say to read widely, not just others’ poetry, but from a variety of genres. Keep a journal. Listen deeply to others—including those who feel challenging for you. It helps to have a scheduled time to write, (it’s the same for painting.) This helps your subconscious relax, I think. It can be beneficial to participate in workshops (there are so many available lately, especially online.) It’s nice to have a partner or group where you can share your work– but make sure it’s a safe space, not riddled with competition. I once had a great workshop leader who said, “You have to read and critique another person’s poem with love and care, as if it’s your own.” This is great advice.
Thank you, Cathleen, for your insightful answers!
About the Book
Sparks And Disperses
The poems in Cathleen Cohen’s Sparks and Disperses reckon with contemporary life through the perspective of visual artists. Drawing on an ancient Kabbalistic myth of the “shattering of vessels,” Cohen explores issues of fracture, healing, and creation; the challenges of poverty, isolation, and the pandemic; and how we can find meaning and joy through artmaking. By building a poetic mural made of cracked ceramics, household items, and glass shards, Cohen promotes healing through continuity and hope.
You can find Sparks And Disperses here:
Amazon | Goodreads
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