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by James E. Cherry

Robert Cooperman has published fifteen poetry collections, most recently Just Drive (Brick Road Poetry Press), and has appeared frequently with poems in Jewish Currents. His In the Colorado Gold Fever Mountains (Western Reflections Books) won the Colorado Book Award for Poetry. Cooperman received his Ph.D. in Creative Writing from the University of Denver. His interests in poetry range from his old Brooklyn neighborhood and the Yiddish language spoken there, to Ireland in the 18th Century, to the Trojan War, the Old West, and to verse biographies of the poets Shelley and Keats.  Forthcoming in 2017 are City Hat Frame Factory (Aldrich Press) and Draft Board Blues (FutureCycle Press). Cooperman lives in Denver with his wife Beth.

James E Cherry: What did it mean to come of age in New York, in Brooklyn in particular?

Robert Cooperman: It was a mix of heaven and hell. I was in the first wave (practically the first day) of the baby-boom generation, and we had kids my age in our apartment house coming out of the woodwork, so we were never at a loss for enough kids for a touch football game in the gutter of our comparatively quiet street, a stickball game in what we called the alley, or any other game, outdoors or in — and that was even before we were old enough to hang out at the schoolyard at P.S. 217 and play basketball all afternoon. There was also a terrific public library a nice walk away; plus when I got a little older we could take the subway into Manhattan to see a movie or play. I was maybe 12 or 14 when I went with some friends to see Psycho on Times Square. I still shudder.

The hell part was Tommy Lockhart, our neighborhood Cossack. He and his band of not so merry men’s great joy in life was to raid our block and beat up all the Jewish kids. I should say he was also crazy and huge and older than we were, and succumbed to heroin years later. Still, even with his scourge, I used to pity kids who hadn’t grown up in New York, like when we drove up to Massachusetts to visit relatives, or when I was on the camp bus to Surprise Lake Camp (a Jewish charity summer camp), and I’d see kids by the side of the road, and they always looked so deprived to me, little snob that I was.

JC: At what age did literature begin to appeal to you, and what writers spoke the loudest?

RC: Some of my earliest and fondest memories are of my mother reading to me from Now We Are Six and A Child’s Garden of Verse, which, I guess, is where my love of poetry began. I think the gateway to real literature for me were the Black Stallion novels by Walter Farley, one of which was made into a movie years and years later. The other bridge was the Big Red novels, about a genius Irish setter in Tennessee or Kentucky who’s always saving the day better than Rin Tin Tin or Lassie ever could. Both series were for teens.

The seminal experience came in junior high, when I read prose translations of The Iliad and The Odyssey. It was as if I was flying at 40,000 feet at 700 miles per hour, with total visibility of the entire globe. Those two epics knocked me for a loop, just took my breath away. And since I was a precocious little guy, by the time I was 12 I was taking out novels from the adult section of the library. I went from ripping yarns like Treasure Island and Jules Verne and H.G. Wells to Dickens and Shakespeare, whom I hardly understood, but I was nothing if not pretentious. As a teenager I devoured Aldous Huxley and George Bernard Shaw and then Hemingway. I didn’t get to “real” poetry until college, then fell in love with Keats, Milton, Wordsworth, and Yeats. Later, I became enamored of Richard Wilbur, Philip Levine, Sylvia Plath, and Seamus Heaney.

JC: In what ways, if any, has your Jewish culture influenced your writing?

RC: The great piece of advice given to all budding writers is to write what you know about, about where you came from. I sort of went against that dictum in my early career, writing poetry collections about the Old West (especially my homicidal alter ego, John Sprockett, who’s based on a real Colorado Territory bad man), about the poets Shelley and Keats, about the Trojan War, about Ireland in the 18th century, about the fourth, doomed voyage of the explorer Henry Hudson, about a modern-day Juliet, about the medieval legend of the Grateful Dead. It wasn’t until fairly recently that I started writing about my culture, first in a collection called The Words We Used, which took the Yiddish words and expressions I remembered my parents flinging about, especially when they wanted to hide bad news from my brother and me, and turned those terms into poems, giving the word, and examples of each or a narrative that explained the word, like that quintessential Yiddish expression, “Khutspe,” meaning unmitigated gall. That collection also detailed the foods we ate, like my mother’s infamous Friday evening boiled chicken dinners (still the stuff of nightmares), and the people who lived in our apartment house, some with fascinating stories. I followed that one up with My Shtetl, which further described the old neighborhood and other things Jewish. Then a couple of years ago, I got the idea to write about my New York City cabdriving days back in the early 1970s, and that became Just Drive.

From My Shtetl

Lukshen Soup

Lukshen soup: noodle soup
for Friday night dinners,
my mother a big believer
in “substantial” suppers,
meaning enough food
to sate Napoleon’s army.

We’d begin with the noodles
swimming like eels in the broth.
I slurped them down, first
swirling them in circles,
earning my mother’s frown:
food wasn’t to be played with.

“Lukshen,” she’d let the word
roll off her tongue, her synonym
for “Love,” coaxing us to ladle
more and more.

“Lukshen”: it sounded
like the baby-bath-warm waters
of the Gulf when, years later,
Beth and I waded in,
seaweed swirling around
our ankles with the tide: noodles
in my mother’s lukshen soup.

 

From The Words We Used

Landsman

In motels in strange cities,
I’ll check the phone books
for other “Coopermans,”
knowing they can’t be relatives:
that name for a barrel
maker’s assistant foisted
upon my grandparents
when they stood quivering
at Ellis Island, fearful
they’d be forced to return
to Poland and its pogroms.

Still, it always surprises,
disappoints me: how few
other Coopermans I find.
“Cooper,” as sturdily
abundant as barrel staves,
even some “Coopersmiths,”
one the owner of a brewpub.

But hardly any Coopermans,
that made-up tribe.

When we sojourn in small towns
in Kansas or Wyoming,
I feel the need to connect
with any mythic family
that might be wandering
the dry steppes of America,
and to recite, if in a badly
remembered mumble,
the minor key Hebrew hyumns,
angels shedding a tear of two
for a long-lost landsman.

JC: As a free verse poet, speak to the importance that craft and technique play in your work.

RC: I can’t just fling words onto a page in one sloppy draft and expect the poem to be finished or successful. I also can’t just spew generalities without giving concrete examples; we live in the specifics, not the abstractions. I can’t tell you how many revisions any given poem will go through. Suffice to say, I apologize to all the trees that gave their lives to become my poems. I’ve also got to be attentive to the sounds of my poem. I’m particularly taken with alliteration and assonance, the repetition of consonant sounds and of vowels. Also, subject matter will dictate the level of diction, or the choice of words, I use; for instance, if I’m writing about a street encounter with Tommy Lockhart or a cab fare, I’ll use a much more direct, slangy, contemporary idiom than if I’m writing about an Old West outlaw who’s utterly besotted by poetry, or about a pair of Irish highwaymen, or Henry Hudson facing death in the middle of what’s now Hudson Bay. Though most of the poetry I write is free verse, I’ve written a fair number of formal poems, including my collection, Troy, the first half of which, depicting the lives and deaths of the minor warriors in The Iliad, is all in blank verse, the verse form of Shakespeare’s soliloquies; and the second half, about the Night of the Trojan Horse, is in villanelles, a verse form that originated in the Middle Ages in Provence, as a love poem, but which I turned into a vehicle to depict the horror when the Greek warriors burst from the Wooden Horse and destroyed Troy.

JC: Why is poetry relevant in your life and should it be to the nation as a whole?

RC: Poetry is relevant for the same reason that beauty and prayer are: Poetry consoles us, gives us a reason to keep going, to help us see that we’re not alone in this very large and often cold and indifferent world, that other people have thought and felt the same things we think and feel and have been troubled by, only poets express the pain so much better than we can. After the September 11th attacks, NPR radio had then-Poet Laureate Billy Collins on; he read a poem he’d apparently just written, about the need to not give in to despair, to still search for beauty in the world. In a way you could call President Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” a prose poem that on the one hand consoled the Union for the fallen at that battlefield and on the other extolled the sacrifice those soldiers had made to help preserve the Union.

Poetry also enlarges us, makes us see there’s a world beyond ourselves, that we and our cellphones are not the end-all and be-all of existence. Poetry can shake us up and out of our complacency, can make us see beyond our navels, as when Frost wrote, “Nature’s first green is gold/Her hardest hue to hold/Her early leaf’s a flower,/But only so an hour….” Poetry is relevant for one more reason: at its best, it’s beautiful, like my favorite line, from the Shakespearean sonnet: “Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,” just gorgeous! Or this one from Yeats’ “Byzantium”, in which the poet writes about poetry itself and calls it, “Dying in a dance/An agony of trance,/An agony of fire/That cannot singe a sleeve.”

 

James E. Cherry is the author of three volumes of poetry, a collection of short fiction and two novels. His latest novel, Edge of the Wind, was published in 2016 from Stephen F Austin University Press. Cherry’s work has been nominated for an NAACP Image Award, a Lillian Smith Book Award and Next Generation Indie Book Award for Fiction. He has an MFA in creative writing from the University of Texas at El Paso and resides in Tennessee with his wife, Tammy. Visit him on the web at: http://jamesEcherry.com.