Interview with Henri Cole

by Ann van Buren

Henri Cole was born in Fukuoka, Japan and raised in Virginia. He has published many collections of poetry and received numerous awards for his work, including the Jackson Poetry Prize, the Kingsley Tufts Award, the Rome Prize, the Berlin Prize, the Ambassador Book Award, the Lenore Marshall Award, and the Medal in Poetry from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His most recent books are Orphic Paris, a memoir (New York Review Books), and Gravity and Center: Selected Sonnets, 1994-2022 (Farrar, Straus, Giroux). From 2010 to 2014, he was poetry editor of The New Republic. He teaches at Claremont McKenna College and lives in Boston.

In anticipation of his reading for the Katonah Poetry Series on October 22, 2023, Cole corresponded with poet and KPS writer, Ann van Buren, via email.

KPS: So many of your poems are sonnets, more than 125 of which are collected in your most recent volume, Gravity and Center Selected Sonnets, 1994-2022 ( FSG, 2023). I will ask more about the sonnet later, but if there is something that makes a sonnet, is there also something that a sonnet is not?

Henri Cole:  A sonnet is a little song. An epic poem is not a little song. A villanelle is not a sonnet. A sestina is not a sonnet. A sonnet is not many things, but I am not the sonnet police.

KPS: In other collections I noticed that three poems, “To a Bat” ( Blizzard, FSG 2020 p.8-9) “Tarantula” (Pierce the Skin, p. 47 FSG 2010) and “Self Portrait in a Gold Kimono” ( Pierce p. 77-78) break out of the sonnet form. They are also poems about liberation. Is that a coincidence?

Henri Cole: I have written many poems that are not sonnets. In fact, I think liberation would be an excellent subject for a sonnet (since it is a form of containment). The bottle makes the genie stronger.

KPS: I’ve been an admirer of your poetry for a long time but will refer now to your memoir, Orphic Paris (NYRB, 2018) which explains some of your theories on poetry and the origins of stories repeated in verse. In one beautiful homage, you compare Maison Careé, a well-preserved Roman temple in the South of France, to     

a sonnet, a form I love with its mixture of passion and thoughts its infrastructure of highs and lows, its volta and the idea of transformation, its asymmetry of lines, like the foliage of a tree over a trunk, and, most of all, its intensity.

If you could describe a notable building today, which is it and what poetic form would it take?

Henri Cole: Oh my goodness. You are having fun now. I adore the Pantheon (in Rome). If I could be a building, I would love to be the Pantheon. I don’t know what form the Pantheon would take though, with its oculus and secular past. Perhaps a ballad, though I don’t know why I say this, except that there are many wonderful stories connected with it.   

KPS: Your tender portraits of your mother also describe her as Armenian displaced to France. Many Armenians followed a parallel trajectory via Istanbul, Paris, and then America.

You grew up speaking three languages, English, French, and Armenian. When was the last time that you wrote, dreamed, or thought in a language other than English? How does that affect your work?

Henri Cole: My mother was born in Marseille, so she was a French citizen by birth. Probably the displacement came later.  I am only fluent in English. I speak French like an intelligent, sensitive five-year-old child.

KPS: While reading several of your books, I also re-read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. You reference Rilke and, like Woolf, you express the loneliness of being gender-stereotyped. Like Rilke and Woolf, your work maintains a solitary quality, a cadence that is all its own. It also is very engaged with the sorrows of war, in her case WWI and in yours, WW2 and your family’s experience at that time. Do you feel kinship with writings by Woolf?

Henri Cole: I must read Woolf again. In college, I read “To the Lighthouse” and “Mrs. Dalloway.” They were novels I loved, but I don’t know about a kinship. Certainly, my poems are a transcript of thought, as her novels can be. I am rereading Eliot’s “Four Quartets” now, and I do feel a kinship with the speaker of these magnificent long poems written in lonely middle-age.

KPS: Your work is filled with encounters with art. I’m thinking of Montague’s painting of St. Sebastian in the Louvre. ( Orphic Paris, p. 71) Through your interpretation, readers learn that the saint’s tribulation—being pierced by arrows—and subsequent survival— may have provided solace for some, at the height of the AIDS crisis. Sebastian was a protector against bubonic plague in the first century.

We have been in another time of pestilence, COVID. What is the face of this illness? Is it the planet itself? How can we nurse the diseased? What would the prayer card for this illness look like?

Henri Cole: Forty years later, there is still no cure for H.I.V. And no vaccine. Many men and women are still infected and die w/o medication or care. After living through the ‘80s in New York City, I was prepared for lock-down. Since there is now miraculously both a vaccine and treatment for COVID, I think the prayer card should show triumph over pestilence.  

KPS: Other ekphrastic moments include a conversation with Jenny Holzer about a collaboration involving word projections that you shared in the early aughts. Do you have any new collaborations or three dimensional word projects in the works?

Henri Cole: Jenny is a dear friend. I think she is a genius. We have no collaborations in progress.

KPS: “To a Snail” (p. 7, Blizzard) compares the footprint of that shelled animal to Agnes Martin and Caravaggio. Is that because Agnes Martin is so spare and Caravaggio is, well, smeared all over the place? You’ve catalyzed an interesting analogy. Can you say more about what you mean when you say that the snail represents “consciousness?”

Henri Cole: The snail seemed to me like a hybrid thing, with the purity of a Martin grid painting, yet simultaneously over-the-top, like a Caravaggio religious image. The snail’s body—both its shell and muscle—expanding and contracting as it crossed the road tarmac, looked to me like thought might look, if thought were a creature. Others might disagree.

KPS: Blizzard opens with “The Face of the Bee,” (3) in which you repeat lines from Orphic Paris that describe you, the poet, creator of verse who “metabolizes/ life into language, like nectar/up and regurgitated into gold.”

On page 100 of Orphic Paris, you write:

As a poet I am a worker bee beside other workers who are metabolizing language, like nectar into poetry. I try to do my work, even when this means invisibility.

And on page 101 you write:

Here at my desk, I resemble a packer bee, striving to put enough pressure on language to transform it into poetry, regurgitating my nectar again and again until honey is formed. I had a beloved teacher who said verse (a late Old English Word) must reverse itself and go around and around. In contrast, prose (a Latin word) proceeds and moves forward without repetition. (p. 101 Orphic Paris, p. 3 Blizzard)

If verse is replication, is the repeating of phrases one way that you abide by the terms of that form, and would you consider the revisiting of memory as another component of verse?

Henri Cole: Yes, replication (like anaphora) is an aspect of verse. It is everywhere in Eliot. But I’m not sure memory is essential. It seems to me a poem can be a completely made-up thing, an invention of language alone, as long as there is also authentic feeling.

KPS: Can you talk more about “assemblage,” (Orphic Paris p. 125) which you refer to as the work of poetry or the “striving to assemble language into art.”

Henri Cole: A poem is an assemblage of words on the page. Like art, it is a thing made with a hand. Certainly, it is not artificial intelligence.

KPS: Is there anything else you would like to add? Thank you so much for answering what you could of these questions and for coming to Katonah Village Library on October 22, 2023 at 4pm.

Henri Cole: Thank you for the chance to organize my thoughts, which are so often chaotic. I look forward to visiting Katonah. A library is a holy thing, like a temple or a mother.