Colorado Poets Center E-Words Issue #6
Inside issue #6:
The Stories of Robert Cooperman
King: Before we talk about your latest book, A Tiny Ship Upon the Sea, let me ask you something in general. You wrote Petitions for Immortality: Scenes from the life of John Keats in 2004 and The Long Black Veil, a telling of an Appalachian story, in 2006. And, of course, In the Colorado Gold Fever Mountains, which won the Colorado Book Award in Poetry in 2000, a trilogy about the fictional town of Gold Creek and its inhabitants.So “narrative” is a big part of your poetic approach. What attracts you to ‘stories’?
Cooperman: Ever since I was a kid I’ve always wanted to know, “What comes next?” I sometimes joke that my collections are really lazy man’s novels. But I really do believe that in narrative, in stories, lies morality. Of course, the first duty of the creative writer is to entertain, but we make connections through and with narrative, we see that we’re all interconnected, and we have to at least make the attempt to connect emotionally, which is one way people have devised to keep from killing each other.
Also, as I’ve said, there’s the great entertainment value of stories, of narrative. We get lost in other worlds. I think Oprah has it all wrong: we don’t read so much to identify with and have confirmed for us in print the problems we face, but to be lost in other, different, more exciting, more dangerous worlds.
And I think that a lot of contemporary poetry has gotten so far from narrative and so into mere verbal cleverness that we’ve lost our audience to a great extent. Narrative is one way to reconnect.
Don’t forget, poetry was the earliest form of written, or composed, communication. Every subject was fair game: the nature of the universe, farming, and of course the subject matter of the epic—war and the adventures of a great man and the fictional justification for the founding of empires. Wouldn’t it be great to be able to write—and sell—narratives on that scale again, rather than navel gazing?
King: Where’d you get the idea for A Tiny Ship?
Cooperman: It was inspired by a great old Irish folksong, “Arthur McBride.” In it, two Irish cousins are strolling on the strand when they’re accosted by a pair of recruiting agents for the British army. One cousin tells them no thanks, we don’t want to die in France. The agents pull out their weapons, the two Irish lads do the same, and kill both the agents, plus the little drummer boy accompanying them. Thus the song ends, and that’s where my collection begins.
The song was written in 1840 to protest the British practice of pressing, more or less kidnapping, Irishmen—and Scotsmen—into the Queen’s army and navy. It was a vile practice and one of the precipitating causes of the War of 1812, in which British ships would waylay American merchant ships and force all the able bodied men to join the British army or navy.
I’d listened to it by an Irish group called Planxty and by Bob Dylan. When my wife and I were in London several years ago, we came across a street musician, and I asked if he knew “Arthur McBride.” He did and played it wonderfully. And that’s when I decided to write the story.
King: Tell us a little about ‘the story’?
Cooperman: The two main characters are cousins, Liam and Sean (the more dynamic and flamboyant half of this duo), not the brightest bulbs in the batch, and basically two guys who would rather do almost anything than stoop-labor farming. I don’t want to give too much of the plot away, so let’s just say that after they dispatch two hideous recruiting agents, they become highwaymen, very, very incompetent highwaymen. The night before Liam is to be hanged for murder, he tells the story in what amounts to an apologia for his misspent life. There’s also a love interest, and lots of deering-do.
King: I was struck by realizing how the Irish Tir-na-Nog, the fairy land shadow-kingdom of eternal joy and youth, as you’ve said, is an actual belief in the character’s lives.
Cooperman: Yes, I’ve always loved Yeats’ poetry, and have been intrigued by his references to Tir-na-Nog. It sure beats the Christian conception of hell, or even the Jewish notion of Sheol, the universal pit. I wanted Tir-na-Nog to be as real for the reader as it was for Liam. Sean has his doubts, but Liam’s love interest, Mary, is also an old believer.
If you’re going to write about a culture that has a different belief system from ours, you’d better make that belief system believable. You’ve got to make those characters believe in Tir-na-Nog down to their bones. And I hope I did that.
King: You did for me! I was also interested in the use of Irish words and mythological figures. You explain them in a brief glossary at the end but you don’t over-do it.
Cooperman: Well, at first, I had hardly any references to the characters of Irish myth and folktale, but after an Irish friend read the manuscript, he sent me a whole bunch of websites (and I had a bunch of books) that described these figures, and I knew that for the sake of verisimilitude, I’d better make more references to Fergus, Deidre of the Sorrow, etc. In most cases I wanted to be able to incorporate enough information within the poem that a reader with no knowledge of the stories of characters could make a stab at understanding what a grogoch or a pooka was, or what poteen was. And frankly, I had almost as much fun compiling the glossary as I did writing the poems. There was also the matter of pronunciation, which in Irish can be torturous to an English ear. For instance, the Sidhe (the fairies, the immortals) is pronounced “Shee.”
King: You write the book in individual poems. Why not just write a continuous narrative, a long narrative poem?
Cooperman: On one level I view my narrative collections as one long narrative poem, just broken up into various, shall we say, chapters, or high points of action. Sometimes I like to advance the action and change the point of view from poem to poem, as I did in A Killing Fever, where the pivotal shoot-out is told from the point of view of the tracker, the human vermin he’s tracking, the reporter who’s supposed to write about it, and the coward who set the plot in motion.
But in a Tiny Ship Upon the Sea, I wanted to get away from the multiple points of view, to tell the story clean from one character’s perspective, but I felt the titles also gave the reader a bit of needed information, and help to break up the eye and give the mind a rest from one long, continuous narrative. I realize I could have accomplished that with section breaks, but this way, the reader really is given a clue and a cue about what is to follow. Also, on a more venal level, if I have titles and if the poems are verifiably separate poems, that’s easier to get them published in literary journals than jus 70 pages of poetry.
King: What do you consider you “poetic line”?
Cooperman: Oy, my poetic line? A freaking mess. I have written lots of formal poems that adhere to the dictates of meter and rhyme but in these narrative poems I follow the free verse practice of, for the most part, having one syntactical unit per line. I’ll break that practice up at times with some enjambment and always try to end the line with a word of some significance. And I’m fond of both alliteration and assonance, especially the latter, the influence of Keats, if I’m going to be swell-headed about it.
King: What’s your process of writing these?
Cooperman: Several books just poured out of me like spring run-off, most egregiously, the second section of In the Colorado Gold Fever Mountains called “A Coffin and a Carved Stone.” I was riding my exercise bike one morning and the initial image, “A Bible of Blood” just popped into my head. I knew I had to use that in a poem, which became a book of poems that took me maybe three weeks to finish, maybe less.
What I’ll often do is the writerly equivalent of what Monet did when he’d have a whole bunch of canvases in front of him to catch a cathedral or seascape in a certain light, and when the light shifted he’d pull out another canvas and work on that, until the light shifted again. One poem can lead me to an idea for another and that one to another, and so on. So I’d jot down titles for each and a line or two to get the poem going, then go back to the original one. I’ve done this a lot with several collections.
King: I imagine you’re working on something right now?
Cooperman: Right now, I’m about three or four poems away from having a first, workable, draft of a collection inspired by the American folksong, “The Lily of the West.” Also I’m a little ways into, without giving too much away, a sequel to Tiny Ship upon the Sea. And I’ve got several poems towards one last saga involving my hyper-violent Old West alter ego, John Sprockett, this one a modern-ish retelling of the last episodes in the life of Roderigo Lopez, the crypto Jew who was Queen Elizabeth I’s personal physician and who was convicted of trying to poison her for the King of Spain, and executed in an unbelievably horrific manner. I’d also like to crank out a third half-auto-biographical, half-bullshit collection of poems about growing up Jewish in Brooklyn, like my latest, The Words We Used.