Colorado Poets Center E-Words Issue #14

An Interview with Robert Cooperman

Bob King: Robert, you’ve had quite a year. My Shtetl was a Holland Prize Winner and The Words We Used was a Main Street Rag’s Editor’s Select Poetry Series. Both books deal mostly with growing up Jewish, so this must have been a massive project, going into your biography. How did that come about?

Robert Cooperman: Yeah, it’s been my annus mirabilis.  In addition to those two, two other books came out: Letters to Juliet  (March Street Press), based on a newspaper article I read years ago, about the Verona, Italy, post office and all the mail it was getting addressed only “To Juliet”; and The Ranch Wife (Turning Point Books), a contemporary Western tale set on the Eastern Plains. 

But the Jewish experience-Yiddish word and phrase project (there’s a third book—The Voyage to America—circulating) grew, rather serendipitously, from a poem (“Putz” in My Shtetl) that I’d meant to put into The Words We Used but for some reason couldn’t find it among all my papers and Word files (maybe because I’m a slob), and then, voila, it materialized when I was getting poems together for the second collection.  I’d written the poem purely out of frustration at this moron who was yelling into his cell phone, and hadn’t any thought that the poem might kick off a whole manuscript or three.  Then I wrote another poem, about an encounter with a security agent at Charles DeGaulle Airport, the guy turning out to be a landsman (a fellow Jew). 

Then it started to sink in that I had this reservoir of words and phrases from my childhood and youth that would make terrific jumping off points for poems.  That the books turn on autobiography seemed inevitable to me, and luckily I’ve got a pretty good memory for the events and people who peppered my youth.  Incidentally, I changed most of the names, with the exception of my brother, and a few others, most notably Tommy Lockhart, who really was the Attila the Hun of our childhood.   

To jog my memory about Yiddish words and phrases, I had two invaluable sources: one was a Yiddish-English dictionary and the other was a book called Born to Kvetch, about all things Jewish.  Once I got the spelling (Yiddish spelling is a lot more fluid than English) and definitions down, it was easy to tie the word into an event, remembered or partially made up. 

BK: Much of your other work has been in the dramatic vein, that is historical or invented personae or events—from the Colorado gold-camps to Henry Hudson to an Appalachian folk-song to an Irish tale—and both books here are very autobiographical.  Is there a difference in your writing process between the two types of subject matter? And I guess I’m also indirectly asking about the difference between lyric and narrative in your opinion. And if one is easier to write than the other?

RC: Oy.  I’ve used this analogy before, but it’s the best I can come up with.  There was a Monty Python skit, involving a soccer player who’d kicked the wining goal in a huge match; and his interviewer, who was trying to turn all his questions into a sociological-philosophical-political debate about the relevance of sports in society.  And the footballer, being a bit of a dim bulb, got more and more terrified with each question, and blurted out to each one, “I saw the ball, Brian, and I bashed it.”  So for the poems I write, I saw the ball, Bob, and I bashed it.  I’m just very practical in that respect. 

So for the poems I write,
‘I saw the ball and I bashed it.’ 

Keats once said something like, the poet is the most un-poetical of creatures, meaning, I think, you can’t put your own personality ahead of the poem.  So I just get down to it, and toss everything and the kitchen sink and bathroom commode into a first draft then whittle and whittle and whittle.  One of my favorite Colorado Territory books, the “A Coffin and a Carved Stone” section of In the Colorado Gold Fever Mountains grew out of an image that popped into my head while I was exercising one morning: “A bible of blood,/that’s what I made of him,” and I was off and running. 

Another way to look at how I write poetry is to paraphrase the late Jerry Garcia, who said, “I served the music.”  If it’s not too hubristic, I serve the story.  I really don’t see that there’s much difference between my narrative poems and my lyrical, autobiographical, poems, which do tell a story of sorts, like the one about running from Tommy Lockhart after he’d tried to waylay me for the pastrami sandwiches I was bringing home for Sunday dinner.  I’ve also written formal poetry, of varying degrees of competence.  And the only difference in them is that I’ve got a rhyming dictionary next to me and pore over the rhymes, then give up and go for a slant rhyme if it fits the meaning.  I’m not Shakespeare or Keats.

BK: These poems are full of sensory images. You speak of one apartment building as being a whole shtetl, “a vertical village of shouts, threats / smacks, foot-stomping rage, / sports’ joy, and aromas.” You seem to carry a lot of sensory memories from those days. Why do you think that is?

RC: Oh, that’s easy; I close my eyes and I’m back at 868 E. 7th Street, and all of us kids are running wild.  I can still hear the sounds of torment from various musical instruments kids were forced by their parents to practice and practice and practice.  It really was like the old Jewish joke, which I used in The Words We Used: “After all we’ve done for you, you couldn’t give us one measly Nobel Prize!!!!”  Older neighbors must’ve hated us; if we weren’t screaming out front or in the courtyard, we were playing basketball (with a regulation basketball!) in the evenings in the corridors, using the floor-number plaques on the wall for a basket of sorts.  I was in the first wave of the Baby Boomer generation, and there were so many kids in the building.  And kids make A LOT of noise.  It was like that great, great Grace Paley short story, “The Loudest Voice,” which was also about the immigrant/assimilation experience.  There’s a line in that story: “In the grave, it’ll be quiet.”  That’s a typically Jewish thing to say, that verbal shrug. 

“’In the grave it’ll be quiet.’ That’s a typically Jewish thing to say, that verbal shrug.”

What I’m trying to get at is that when you’re a kid, you experience life at a more visceral level.  It’s the time we felt most alive, though we were most powerless.  The world was new every day, which is not to say it wasn’t pretty horrible too.  Like Tommy Lockhart, like other things.  I was picked on a lot, and had to develop certain strange defense mechanisms, like more or less going Crazy Horse on bullies, and pretending not to care that I’d get the crap kicked out of me as a result.  One bigger guy slapped my brother, so I went for the guy’s throat; I would’ve ripped his neck off and drank his blood, if, inconveniently for my sense of justice,  he hadn’t started banging my head against the pavement and pounding on my face.  When he derisively released me, I ran upstairs and grabbed my baseball bat, but his mother saw me laying for him and started screaming she’d call the cops.  Man, I was a sick little bastard. 

BK: Food is a main character in both books and “The Food We Ate” is an entire section of The Words We Used. We hear about the rolls at Ratner’s your mother stuffed into her purse, challah, gefilte fish, pastrami, a whole range of foods including your mother’s chicken which you didn’t seem to care for (“the pot exploding with swampy globules / of roiling fat”).  Is this your emphasis on food or do you think the Jewish culture emphasizes food?

RC: You wouldn’t know it to look at me, but I was a pathologically finicky eater as a very young kid, and my mother, who was the dearest woman in the world, was not a great cook.  Her boiled chickens (pretty much required) on Friday nights were the stuff of nightmares: utterly tasteless, and really did have the consistency of whale blubber.  My brother would whine, “It’s gushy and mushy!” 

But we always had nutritious food on the table, though my dad would sometimes be laid off.  It amazes me now, to think how little, relatively, our dad brought home, and how substantially (another favorite word) we ate.  When I realized food wasn’t punishment, I’d love to watch the butcher cut up steaks, trim the fat, and grind up hamburger meat, which my mom would take home, salt, form into individual patties, stick between sheets of waxed paper, and shove into the freezer, then take them out as needed, never thinking she had to thaw them.  To be fair, she worked afternoons and probably dreaded poisoning us if she let the hamburger patties thaw out too long at room temperature.  Even more than the butchers, I loved to watch the fish monger cut steaks off a swordfish or trim a salmon.  The man was a Rodin.

But I lived for Sunday evenings, when I’d bring home pastrami sandwiches for us all, along with fries and a big bottle of Coke.  And I wonder why I have to take anti-cholesterol medication.  My brother and I would tear into those pastrami sandwiches like, as my dad used to joke, we were going to the chair at midnight.  And in later years, when our parents would eat out at someplace “fancy,” we’d divide three sandwiches exactly in half, divide the two orders of French fries exactly in half, by both the number of fries and by volume, and do the same for the big bottle of coke.   

It occurs to me now that one reason food was so important to us is that there are so many dietary laws Jews follow.

It occurs to me now that one reason food was so important to us is that there are so many dietary laws Jews follow, at least practicing Jews, and we were a family that “kept kosher,” at least in the house.  I didn’t eat bacon or pizza until I was twenty.  Oh, what I missed!  In addition to kosher delis, there were dairy restaurants, which served everything from milk based dishes to fish, just no poultry or red meat.  The other joke was that the best Chinese restaurants in New York were in Jewish neighborhoods, because that’s where we’d go to “sin,” because all we really knew about Chinese food back then was spare ribs: trayf (filth) pork.

Probably even more important, food has a religious purpose: like the Passover seder, which was a highly ritualized meal: first there was the story of Passover itself, to be recited, with the youngest child asking “The Four Questions,” which all boiled down to why is this night different from any other night.  Then our dad would read or recite the Passover story of deliverance from Pharaoh, and at four set points in the eservice we all drank a glass of sweet red wine, or grape juice.  Then the meal, then songs; in our household some religious, some secular (our parents loved old show tunes).  And in the middle of the table were some food objects symbolic of Passover: a roasted lamb shank; bitter herbs for the bitterness of slavery; chopped up apples and honey to mimic the mortar of the bricks the Hebrews had to make for Ramses; and something else, maybe a boiled egg, I can’t recall. 

Then at Chanukah, we’d eat potato pancakes, the oil they were fried in symbolizing the oil in the Temple after the Maccabis’ victory over their despotic Greek rulers.  After the Temple was re-sanctified there was oil enough to burn for only one night, but it miraculously burned for eight nights.  Or so the story goes.  Then there were the fruit pastries (hamantaschen), which I never cared for, at Purim, which commemorates the failure of the first attempt at genocide against Jews, in ancient Babylon.  So like a lot of jokes, there was truth in this one that our parents always told: “They tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat.”
Man, have I rambled!

BK: Besides food, language itself plays a major role in both books, several poems explaining the meaning of a word as the poem proceeds. We find Jewish words that have become mainstream, like nebbish and klutz and chutzpah, as well as other words I enjoyed meeting for the first time, like shtarker and schnorrer and verblungit and chezerai. Do you use these words in your adult life?  Why do you think they have such a strong presence in Jewish culture and, for that matter, non-Jewish culture?

A lot of show business slang consists of Yiddish words. Chtuzpah has become part of the American lexicon.

RC: One reason is that the movies are a huge part of American culture, and a lot of the first movie makers were Jewish.   Also, a lot of show business slang consists of Yiddish words.  Chutzpah (unmitigated gall) has become part of the American lexicon.  So has the term “kosher,” meaning not just food that’s been prepared a certain way, but anything that’s legitimate.  Almost everyone knows, or can guess, a gonif is a thief.  And there’s nothing like certain Yiddish words to comment on the general stupidity of someone else.  Putz and schmuck both refer to male genitalia, but more importantly, they’re terms of supreme contempt.  We heard those terms all the time growing up, and in movies, but I all but fell out of my chair the first time I heard “putz” on  network TV.  I thought, can they say that on television?

Let’s face it, words--dirty words, strange words--have power.

Yiddish is also a wonderfully expressive and onomatopoeic language, in which the sound of the word gives a glorious clue as to its meaning: You almost don’t have to know what chazerai means to figure out it has something to do with food you shouldn’t be eating right then.  Or shtarker, which refers to a gangster: again, you can figure out what sort of person is being referred to when it’s used. And let’s face it, words—dirty words, strange words—have power.  

Strangely, I didn’t use many Yiddish words (with the exception of schmuck, putz, chutzpah, and gonif) until I started researching these two collections.  Now I find myself using them a lot more often, the flood gates of cultural identity being opened.  I don’t speak Yiddish, just know a lot of random words.  Also, Yiddish was the language of catastrophe when my brother and I were growing up: my father spoke it fluently, my mother understood it, but neither Jeff nor I could speak or understand it.  So when our dad was speaking it to our mom, and she was nodding, we knew something terrible had happened: someone had died, our father was laid off again, or in later years, his small business had gone bankrupt.  Yiddish was the language they hid in from us, to make it seem our lives were rosy. So to me it’s a language of great, and sometimes, forbidden and forbidding power. 

BK: Your free-verse lines seem fairly effortless and clear, often less than 10 syllables. Do you have a notion of what you look for, or find, in the rhythm of lines?

RC: As much as I loathe and abominate that fascist vantz (cockroach) of a traitor, Ezra Pound, he made a very cogent point about poetry: it should be at least as well-written as good prose.  So I try to make my lines sing.  Also, when I’m writing persona poems, I want to get into the head and voice of the character on the page.  So someone like my Colorado Territory violent alter ego, John Sprockett, speaks in a lower diction than say the local minister’s wife, Mrs. Lavinia Burden, who has come from Back East and is horrified by what she finds in the gold camps.  But complicating matters, Sprockett is also a savant of sorts when it comes to poetry.  He’s based on a real Colorado badman, Jim Nugent, who could apparently quote poetry by the hour and even composed some of his own.  So I’ll have Sprockett mix lines from Shakespeare or Milton into the generally rage-filled language that spews from him. 

And then there’s what I call my Keats’ syndrome.

And then there’s what I call my Keats syndrome; Keats was a master of alliteration and assonance, maybe the supreme master, and he developed this technique of interlocking sounds, and I’ll sometimes try to do the same, if I’m writing formal poetry, or poems on classical themes, like in one manuscript about Ovid’s exile, or another about Hector’s corpse.  But my subject matter is so often much more of the street than Keats’s was that an abundance of assonance and alliteration is not going to serve the purpose of the poem.  I guess what I’ve always striven for is to let the diction and rhythms fit the subject.

I also believe that poetry is communication, and that it should be understandable to the intelligent reader willing to meet it halfway.  Complexity for the sake of complexity is not what I’m after, or for the most part, what I enjoy reading.   In that respect I’m a lowly serf of Wordsworth, who believed that the language of poetry should be the language of the average person.  Also, a first draft is just that: everything all muddled together, and then you get to work.  So what might look like prose in the first go around gets shaped in subsequent drafts.  I’ll try out different words, try for some subtle alliteration or assonance, try to vary rhythms.  And then there are my formal poems, but that’s another story, though I’ve got a collection of villanelles based on the night of the Trojan Horse circulating, probably with no joy in sight.  But I don’t write for anyone but myself, and consider myself lucky to have found publishers willing to bring out my very strange collections. 

BK: You always have a project or two going—I imagine you have to in order to do 10 or 11 books as you have. Are you working on something now?

RC: I’ve got a collection, Cave Dweller, coming out this summer, another Western tale.  And I’m working on yet another tale of Colorado Territory mayhem, this one involving a brothel cleaning girl and a doctor (also a patron of that house of horizontal recreation) seeing something they shouldn’t have seen.  It’s tentatively titled Hell Is Empty, from a line in The Tempest:  “Hell is empty, and all the devils are here.”  My alter ego, John Sprockett, makes a big appearance, as a violent knight-errant of sorts.  I just love the guy, tried to kill him off in two previous collections, but he refuses to stay dead.  I’m also working on an embellishment of the wonderful old folksong, “The Lily of the West,” (“When first I came to Louisville / Some pleasure there to find…”) which Joan Baez made famous.  That one, if I only put my mind to it, is probably closer to being finished, but once again, Sprockett has taken me hostage.  I’m toying with a sequel to the Irish tale, have written some first drafts, and sort of know where the plot is going.  After that, I don’t know.  Got any ideas?

BK: None that you won’t get in the next couple of hours or so. Thanks for doing this interview.

RC: It was a pleasure talking to you, Bob.

(Note: Robert Cooperman’s website is: