In Conversation With
Elizabeth Cohen’s newest collection, The Patron Saint of Cauliflower (Saint Julian Press) investigates the evocative connections between table, feast, kitchen, familial relationships and the whole world order. There is much whimsy and love on this writer’s page and palette, but the underbelly evokes a cautionary tale that warns and shines a light on the darker side of our world. Elizabeth Cohen is an associate professor of English at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh where she serves as editor of Saranac Review. She is the author of the NYT notable book and B&N Discover Great New Writers selection, The Family on Beartown Road; the O Magazine "summer best read" book of short stories The Hypothetical Girl, and five books of poetry, including, most recently, Bird Light and the newly published The Patron Saint of Cauliflower, both from Saint Julian Press. She lives in upstate New York with a bevy of elderly cats, a puppy and occasional visits from her college-attending daughter.
Cynthia Atkins: In your new book, The Patron Saint of Cauliflower amidst the magical realism, the gastronomical feats and incantatory nature, one can’t help but notice the themes of heritage, family and motherhood threading the narratives. From “Spell for The Right Avocado” you write “My mother taught me / how to crush a clove of garlic.” So I was wondering if you could give a sense of why and how the preparation and nature of the feast connected for you in your own household growing up, and how did foods and recipes and spells impact on your sense of self as you became both a mother and a writer.
Elizabeth Cohen: Food equals love for me, Cynthia, as my mother, who could be emotionally withholding, demonstrated much of her affection through feeding us (her family and friends). And feed us she did! I remember other moms made peanut butter sandwiches and mac-n-cheese, while she would serve us up a bowl of coquilles St.-Jacques, a classic French preparation of scallops, for lunch. Needless to say, and sadly, this passion and talent was lost on us as little kids. She was a gourmand, a nutritionist, and an avid follower of the cooking shows of Julia Childs. We just wanted Ramen noodles. I still remember the tattered pages of The River Road Cookbook, annotated in her tiny handwriting, with spices she had experimented with on certain cakes and her takes on the nutrition of various dishes. This book is dedicated to her, now, 15 years post mortem. I cannot believe it has been that long. This June 10, is her birthday, and she would have turned 95. In her honor, I think I will include recipes I have located for various dishes she prepared in some of these responses. Is that fun?
CA: Your poems expose the many roles you play in life—writer, mother, teacher, journalist and activist—with a line like, “I’m preparing for the end / of the world”—I wonder if you could ruminate on how the different hats you have worn have prepared you to write this book and to deal with the oncoming traffic of life, with all its impending beginnings and endings.
EC: Too many hats! In my life, as you say, I have been a mom, professor, reporter, editor, activist, daughter, lover, friend, poet, wannabe/failed gardener, jewelry designer, and extremely bad quilter. But it is the role of caregiver to my parents that left the most indelible impression on me. I took care of my two aging parents at the end of their lives, and indeed, for much of that time, they lived with me in my little farmhouse in the Southern Tier of New York. It is that role, and the role of mama to Ava, that has inspired me/challenged me most and given me ballast and material. My book of poems, Mother Love, published in 2006, is about being a mom and daughter; The Economist’s Daughter, published in 2009, is a book of poems about my father and his life. The Family on Beartown Road (in hardback as The House on Beartown Road) is a memoir about two years I spent in the care and feeding of my dad when my daughter was an infant on our old farm. This current book is about food and apocalypse, yes, (which seem tied together to me) but also tied together in a skein of mother-memories. Probably family and family issues effect all people, but for me these family roles, or hats, as you say, have been seminal.
Pumpkin and Chickpea Casserole, any senior’s delight
CA: In the poem “The Cabbage” you write, “It took me years to learn the rough braille of the cabbage / pure muscle that comes up from the earth.” Food does play such an important part of daily life—both spiritually and ritually—and for you it seems to have a symbolic and cursory niche in the way you see and interpret the world. Could you flesh out with examples from the book how you see the impact of food (preparation, nutrition, political, ritual) on the plight of human nature.
EC: Well, as I say above, my mother was a nutritionist and gourmet cook. She was seeking out organic fare before the word became code with hipster dining. She would buy sides of grass-fed beef (raised by people she was friends with) and freeze them. We had laying hens and ate only their eggs. She liked to give me the old coffee grounds and say “take these out for the ladies,” which meant put them in the henhouse enclosure. Then she would joke, “that ought to pep up the omelets”. She saw all things as connected and our human path as dire, due to chemicals, pollution, plastics, and also geopolitics She would weep at the sight of homeless people and once gave a homeless man my father’s coat (“Hey, I liked that coat,” he said). I feel like for many years I missed the point of her; I was exhausted by her ire and emotional stressing. And now, in my adulthood, all this has risen up in me, I finally “get it,” and I infuse/embalm my poems with something resembling her energy and activism, her personal ethos, which is laden with beauty, grief and political outrage. “The Cabbage” is a poem about all of that. The power of this tough orb of a vegetable that withstands the first freeze of winter and can last so long in the refrigerator without going bad, and is chock full of vitamin C.
CA: Because you are a gifted writer that cross-dresses into multi-genres of fiction, poetry, CNF, and journalism, I’m wondering if you could speak about craft and how you treat the work differently (or not) in each medium. In the book, The Patron Saint of Cauliflower, one can’t help but notice the playfulness of the language, syntax, and subject matter—and also, the darkness. In terms of tone and subjects, how specifically do the other genres inform your work and craft?
EC: It is not unusual for me to start out writing a poem, and end up with an essay, or vice versa. Even a non-fiction book can grow from the seed impulse of a single poem. So I guess the short answer here is that I do not really subscribe to genres, per se, I write toward ideas and then what comes out, comes out. When people ask me, “do you call yourself a poet, an essayist, an author or what?” my answer is invariably, “yes.”
When it comes to categories and genres and such, I sometimes wonder—how do other people know? Why do they feel so compelled in this manner to label and define from the outset?
“Love is beauty and beauty is truth,” Buddha is quoted saying in the Buddhist text Majjhima Nikaya, “and this is why in the beauty of a flower we can see the truth of the universe.” In short, it is all connected in the end. Why divide things up and categorize so compulsively? This is a question I am always asking in my mind.
CA: As mentioned above, the work is often playful, but dead serious too, and especially when managing complex subjects and dark material, as in, “the children of Aleppo / are eating grass.” How do you feel poetry and Art can transcend and speak to political subjects differently than journalism? How do they impact the audience differently?
EC: First off, I love that you capitalized Art. Thank you for that. And while we are at it, let’s capitalize Poetry, too.
Interestingly, that poem you have singled out came from reading a newspaper article about a video, so basically it came from journalism. I like to think the poem took the same narrative and boiled it down to its essence. It’s feeling center.
Poetry meets this world in a different place than journalism, as it can bump up against it without having the responsibility of filling us in on all the relevant details and statistics. Poems do not need sidebars or graphs to accompany them. They are reaping the feelings about various topics rather than setting out to inform the reader. But in the end the two can have the same effect, of amping awareness. Which is a good thing, right?
CA: In “Papercut,” the poem beautifully and purposefully renders how one thing can lead to the other, ‘emotional logic’ kind of way as in, ”Blame the factor / that sent chemical plumes / billowing in the winter air” and “this is the world / beauty can trick you / you have to be read / you have to have a plan.” I wonder if you could speak to your defining moment(s) as a writer, how one thing lead to another, and what portents influenced you to become the writer you are.
EC: I am the child of intellectuals which made me think. I grew up in New Mexico, which made me see. I was brought early and often to libraries, which made me a reader. I spent a large part of my early years in books which made me feel comfortable in them. But it goes deeper, and I bet you will relate to this next thought. I feel highly uncomfortable when I am not creating something and this goes all the way back to childhood when I was always coloring and sketching, writing and dreaming things into being. Today, this could be a meal I am cooking or bread I am baking, a piece of jewelry I am crafting or a painting I am painting, a poem or a book of essays or stories I am writing. Creating is my comfort zone. When I am not in the middle of projects I feel adrift and unsteady. Writing anchors me to the world. I blame that feeling of unease, in the end, as much as all the other factors. I just need to do it. That is my plan.
CA: In closing, I thought it would be interesting to have you pick a poem from the collection and talk about all of the above in terms of craft, subject matter, image, line breaks—and why you feel this poem speaks to the crux of what you were after in the pathos of the book. Maybe you could include the poem here for reference and illumination.
EC: What a great idea. I will choose the poem “Asparagus, in a Fig Sauce,” as I think it best represents the twin themes of the book and the way food and love and motherhood can conflate in these poems.
In this poem, I go straight to the heart of my mother and her cooking which was a way to express love and the way I now carry on this practice. I have, this poem says, become her. The line breaks are clipped and short, the way you would read ingredients in a recipe and there is intense attention to sound, as I am working here with a certain musicality, a feeling of music that come to mind when I think of my mother cooking. She cooked to classical music and to the background sound of cooking shows. I found her in the music here, the alliteration of “china” and “chip” and rhymes like “poach” and “broach”. That sound landscape reaches its peak intensity in the lines “Bathe the asparagus in beetroot / Bask in the blistered fig, which I think captures both the haute, intense quality of her cooking fervor as well as my own desire to capture it with heightened language. I also invoke the very literal way we remember people by using the things we inherit from them. But it is in the next stanza that I am trying to bring home the theme of this book (maybe trying to hard?). I discussed this stanza with my editor, Ron Starbuck, who really liked it, at length: “All the world over / People are wondering / Whether to eat dirt / Or suck on a stone.”
To wit, the severe contrast: My mother is soaking asparagus in beet root juice to prepare a dish that is so special while all over the planet people are starving. I made this a formal poem to underscore this contrast. The poem is so prissy, the world so unfair.
Asparagus, in a Fig Sauce
This is why you simmer things
This is why you poach
The good silver ready
The air in its steam broach
Your mama’s china
Not a chip
Bathe the asparagus in beetroot
Bask in the blistered fig
Settle them in over a fluffed bed of pilaf
An afterthought of sesame seeds
This is why there are cookbooks
Really nice copper pans
(All the world over
people are wondering
Whether to suck on a stone
or eat sand)
Your fig sauce simmers
The way it wears its cardamom essence,
Divine. This is how it sets on the counter,
Full of so much rare. So much sublime