Noelle Kocot by Claire Wilcox

Kocot Pic Body

Early this year, poet Noelle Kocot published her fifth volume of poetry, The Bigger World, which is a book of thirty-seven of what Kocot calls her “character poems.” As the moniker suggests, each poem takes as its central figure a fictional character (or two), so that individuals, relationships, and emotional states are the subjects of these poems in which life is a constant living through. Like many of her speakers (and her work in the past has been transparently autobiographical), Kocot’s characters are wounded and must reconcile their woundedness with the necessity of living. However this may be the case, the process for this reconciliation remains unprogrammatic and individual.

The subtle chorus of this collection seems to be a phrase that crops up in at least four of these poems which is noticeable in book with few instances of repetition. The phrase is simply: “I don’t know”—as in “Noneness,” when a bird speaks to the poem’s protagonist: “You have yet to be saved, from what/I don’t know.” This construction (“from what/I don’t know”) recurs, signaling that at the heart of these human events, this action and intensity, is a sort of epistemological void, which for Kocot is not so much cause for existential despair as a source of mystery and wonder.

Emotional gravity is a hallmark of Kocot’s work. Here, as elsewhere, she couples it with a linguistic mode that veers away from the familiar into humor and bathos, into the absurd and the mysterious, and, in some places, into mysticism and religion.

Claire Wilcox Was it you who decided to call the poems in The Bigger World character poems?

Noelle Kocot It was me, yes.

CW I’m curious about that designation.

NK I just wrote a bunch of poems in a very short span of time, and I kept calling them the character poems because they were about different characters and what they did.

CW In the poem “Unanswered Questions,” this part where you write, “…and Mary went back/ To groping fruit in the market,/ Pretending it was the body of a lover,/ And eating

disgusting things out/ Of cans while the birds chirped… .” It reminded me of Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star.

NK Yes. I’ve read a lot of her. It might have really gotten into me. Not consciously in any way, but now that you mention it, yes.

CW Some people talk about your work as being visionary—I wanted to ask you what you thought about that too—and people often talk about the mysticism of her work. What is your point of interest with her?

NK I really love Clarice Lispector, and I love what she does and I feel an affinity with her work. But as far as mysticism as a thing… I’m very religious, I’m just very religious. That’s how I am made up, I’ve always been that way every since I was really really really young. That’s about it. But I like all that mystical stuff that people write. laughs

CW Are there other points of affinity with Clarice Lispector?

NK I like The Passion According to G.H. a lot. I love that book.

CW The appearance of the cockroach.

NK Yeah, I love that with her, with the cockroach. And I like it that you couldn’t touch the cockroach, you could only watch the cockroach. The idea of, you can’t touch this thing, you have to draw back and just watch it, leave it. I like that a lot.

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CW And then she puts it in her mouth, the ultimate touch. In an interview from 2004 you talk about poetry being a reflection of the soul. Is there a difference between a soul and a self?

NK Yeah, I think there’s a big difference. I mean, I think the soul is the immortal part of somebody and it’s the part that lives on after death. That’s what I believe. And I think the self is more tied to ego, like that’s the part of you that doesn’t survive.

CW In terms of poetry, how do you see those two entities (soul and self) relating?

NK I don’t know. I mean, I think without the soul the self can’t exist, but the soul is independent of the self.

CW It is a truism at this point to talk about how certain movements in poetry in the late ’70s, ’80s etc. (as represented, say, by L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E) sought to subvert or eliminate the authority of the lyrical speaker, the “I”, and maybe just as easily, the dominant authority of the ego-self in poetry.

When I read the 2004 interview, in which you say that poetry is the reflection of the “soul,” it intrigued me because although in one way your conception of poetry is traditional, you said, “soul” and not “self.” You also make the distinction that self is the “ego-self,” the part that doesn’t last, and the “soul” is the immortal part of human beings. I am interested in putting this perhaps religious-based conception of poetry as a reflection of the soul (and not the self), alongside the post modern, political, secular refusal during the ‘80s/’90s/etc. of poetry as expression of an authoritative speaker.

Christian theology, via the idea of grace (as I understand it, very simply), seems also to posit a situation in which one can be released from the limitations (?), control (?), of the ego-centered self.

I wonder if you could comment on these two philosophical/poetic complications of self. Are they fundamentally distinct? Do they overlap at all? Can they speak to each other in any way?

NK I don’t know the answers to the question. I can honestly say that with Christianity and also Buddhism, which has influenced me a lot, the self is something to be negated. The soul, on the other hand, in my view, lives on after death—it is the immortal component of one’s whole being. I’m more concerned with that than I am with thinking about the self too much. I will say this: I think the self gets in the way of a whole lot of worthwhile things in life.

I am interested in the subjectivity-self-soul question, but I just have no idea how to go about beginning to put my answer into words—that’s for people way way smarter than I am at this point in my life. Ten years ago, I would have had a lot to say, so it makes me sad that I’ve lost that facility, but I think I’ve gained a lot, too.

CW That’s very interesting. What do you think was the source of this shift? I wonder because it’s amazing in a way. You’re describing a maturity that moves away from a certain kind of thought and into—I don’t know what. A different way of engaging with thought or maybe a less academic or intellectualized thought. What do you think? And what do you think you’ve gained?

NK I guess when I was younger, I was a little more arrogant in general, and although I am not saying that it’s arrogance that is behind all intellectualization, but it was in part for me. Now, Michel Foucault was not arrogant—I’ve seen footage of him, and he’s my favorite modern philosopher—I believe he set out maps for people to follow and to navigate this dying world. My husband, who was very much an intellectual, was very humble. But I was arrogant in ways, and it all seems somehow bound up in wanting to take a distance from things, to objectify or subjectify myself. Everything exploded for me when my husband died. I lost my memory for 6 months upon finding out that he died (he was away at the time), I lost a lot of brain function for a lot of years there—it’s a miracle I was able to work at all and to support myself, it really is—now I have my brain function, it would seem, 100% back, but I’m more interested in simple things, searing truths. That’s one of the reasons I’ve grown to love the Bible so much. I’m reading the Gospels again for the umpteenth time, and I love them—I believe that is where all the answers lie. I also believe in mystery—I am a great believer in mystery, and I believe that we can’t really know a whole lot on the earth. I’ve basically always been this way, but it was overlain with arrogance‘thinking I could know things that I can’t. I believe arrogance is not a good thing.

CW You said that when you wrote the poems of The Bigger World, you just wrote all of them in a short amount of time. Do you always get on that kind of single-minded jag when you’re writing?

NK Most of the time I just write whatever comes into my mind, but with this I had a mission. I just kept writing the character poems.

CW What drew you to this idea?

NK I tried to write a novel. I sat down and tried to write a novel one day and it was the beginning of July in 2007 and so I sat there for a few minutes and then I wrote “Suburban Tale.” And the next day I said, Gee, that’s really strange, and the next day I wrote one called “Book of Life,” and I just kept going with them. After a while I saw that’s what I wanted to be doing, so over a period of forty days I wrote sixty-five poems and that was my character book.

CW I wanted to ask you about the “Book of Life.” I was reading the interview you did with the Rumpus book club. Sometimes in interviews you characterize your work as “stupid” and then there’s this moment in that interview where one of the participants says something like, “I was surprised by the amount of stupidity in the book before getting to the poetry,” and you say, “right on.”

NK laughs

CW On the one hand it’s clear that those comments are partly just a value judgment, part of your feelings toward you work, but on the other hand there are a lot of real moments of bathos in these poems, especially in “Book of Life,” like when the monk starts to hum “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”

NK Yes.

CW When I read your earlier work, the book 4 for example, I got the sense that no stupidity was allowed there.

NK That’s the stupidest book ever!

CW What I mean is, the book seems to want to stay in an erudite mode. And in here there’s a lot of allowance for these sort of “dumb” moments. What do you think that is?

NK I don’t know. I write very, very fast, and I write whatever comes into my head, and I don’t edit it at all, so that’s what happens.

CW The poems I’ve found most compelling over a longer period of time, that seem more mysterious, are “Gnomon” and “Era.” Those two stand out as being slightly apart from the rest.

NK Yes. You know, “Gnomon” was originally the working title for the manuscript. That was the last poem I wrote out of all this stuff, and “Era” was one of the next to last poems. They were written really late in the process. I wrote some seriously slapstick ones in the beginning and then they got more serious as time went on.

CW What else changed over the course of writing those poems in forty days? What was that process like?

NK I was basically just teaching a couple of classes and sitting out in the sun a lot with a couple of my friends when I wasn’t writing, and I don’t know, I mean, the whole thing was pretty grueling. It was hard to write those poems. Now I write really serious stuff, and it’s really easy, but those poems were hard for me to write.

CW The initial slapstick poems?

NK All of them, yes. But especially the initial slapstick ones, because they’re so dark and so much dark energy was going out of me as I was writing them.

CW What do you mean by dark energy?

NK Negativity.

CW Writing them puts you into a negative place? It was emotionally tough?

NK Yeah, it was emotionally very hard and physically. I mean I felt it in my body, it wasn’t only emotional.

CW Is there an arc within the poems as you wrote them in the order that you wrote them (not as they are organized in the book)? Does it change from negative to a more positive… .

NK Yes.

CW So for you your more serious poems are more positive and the funnier poems are coming more from a place of negativity?

NK Yes.

CW I think that really does jibe with my feeling in reading it. The more slapstick poems are more jarring. There are more frequent shifts in tone and moments where the writing swings out into… . They are funny, but you definitely get that, not bitterness, but maybe a sort of… .

NK Yeah, maybe bitterness. I don’t know.

CW You teach poetry as well. Say a student brings you a work that is highly conceptual, completely non-lyrical, what’s your response?

NK My approach to everyone is pretty much the same. I mean if it’s really good poetry, it’s really good poetry. There’s no changing it by what style it is. It doesn’t matter really.

CW What constitutes really good poetry?

NK Good question. I think if it has presence, you know, if it really has a sense of presence—like you can’t ignore it—then I think it’s really good. But you know, I can teach someone how to edit their work, but I can’t edit my own work. And I was a very bad student in poetry school because of that. You know, when I went to poetry school—forget about it! Very bad. Very bad student… . And I also went to a crazy MFA program. But it wasn’t the teachers that made it crazy—I should clarify this—it was my fellow students, who were really off the wall.

CW What are you working on now?

NK Oh, just, I don’t know… . Making a word salad, like, different salads out of words [laughs].

CW What brought you to the word salad?

NK I don’t know. I just got tired of the other things that I was doing. I change my writing style like every three months. I never write the same way.

CW There are at least four instances in The Bigger World, for example, in “Persepolis”: “The smoking crater symbolized something,/ But what, she didn’t know” and then, again in “Noneness”: “You have yet to be saved, from what/ I don’t know,” where the speaker shows us the character in a state of not knowing or there’s some indication that a greater sense of meaning is lost on the people in the poems.

NK I think it has to do with my own hang ups and trips about things. I think it has to do with feeling a sense of mission a lot of the time about a lot of different things and then realizing that I just don’t know what “it” is exactly. It’s like checking myself. I think the “don’t know” part is healthy; it’s healthy not to know. It’s the part of me that’s checking myself so that I’m not going overboard and doing something that’s really crazy, like riding headlong into something. That’s my temperament, I’m sort of like one of those missionary zeal people.

CW You’re a zealot!

NK I could be a zealot! So I’m glad I have the part of me that checks—the “oh, I don’t know.” And I think that came out with the characters too.

CW I’ve seen videos of you reading where you give really dramatic performances of these poems. I wanted to ask you about your approach to reading, because it seems like you have one.

NK Do I?

CW Well, I mean, you’re not just standing there reading the poems “straight.”

NK Oh! I know what you’re talking about now. You’re talking about those YouTube videos I put up. Yeah, those I read in the voices. I read this book in different voices. Like I have the Williams S. Burroughs voice for a lot of them, but I don’t think a lot of people realize that coming out of me it’s the Williams S. Burroughs voice. And then I have other voices that I read the poems in, depending on the character.

CW Are they usually other authors’ voices?

NK No. Just something that’s in my head.

CW Do they all have voices?

NK No. Not the really serious ones. They don’t have any voices.

CW What is the “Fourth of July” voice?

NK Let me see it because I’ve never read this one out loud. I think this would be the William S. Burroughs voice.

CW How does Williams S. Burroughs get assigned to poems?

NK What happened was I was on a boat once in the Pacific Ocean, not actually in the far ocean but in Santa Monica Bay. I was with Joshua Beckman and Anthony McCann, who are both good friends of mine, and we were all on this boat reading poetry overnight to people who were calling up through a telephone and asking us to read poems. We were there for a long time reading poems, and it got to be really late at night. I’d gone through a lot of my piles of poems and then I found the character poems. I started reading them in the William S. Burroughs voice over the phone, and it was funny and so it stuck that way.

The Bigger World is available now from Wave Books.

Claire Wilcox lives and writes in New York City.

2 + 2 can = Cake by Anthony Tognazzini