This is an edited transcript of the Poetry Book Club discussion with Noelle Kocot. Every month The Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts a discussion online with the club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. You can read the unedited discussion here. To learn how you can become a member of The Rumpus Poetry Book Club click here.
Brian S: I guess it’s time to stop talking about drinking plans and talk about a book, yes? Who has a question for Noelle?
Thelma: Hi Noelle. What were some of your models for these poems?
Noelle Kocot: Oh, good question. I didn’t have models for most of them at all—they were imaginary—but some of them, like “True Story” and the first “Homage,” I did. “True Story” is a poem about my aunt Millie, and “Homage” is a poem about a polyamorous shaman I know who moonlights as a detective!
Sean Singer: It seems to me that many of the poems in the book have a small “entry wound,” e.g., “Rick was a polyamorous shaman . . .” and a larger “exit wound,” e.g., “The song of the blue blue warmth” that seems to leave more of a door than a window. This makes them more of a link between a sort of visible world and an invisible one, and I think makes them distinct from fairy tales. Is this part of the form, the content, or what?
Mark Folse: The poems seem almost divided into two unmarked parts, the first set having an ending that seems to somehow carry them out of their situation, while in the second half, starting midway with “Unanswered Question,” the poems seem to end more darkly.
Michael I. Hollander: Wow, both of those just as I was ready to inhale and start typing my own really long question.
Noelle Kocot: Sean, it’s just the way my mind works. I don’t have any kind of a deliberate writing process. I don’t really have a good answer, but it is a good point you make, one that I did not even notice.
Thelma: No slouches at the OK Poetry Corral.
Noelle Kocot: Yes, Mark, they do, and that is the way my editor, Joshua Beckman, arranged the book—he did it, not me. I like what he did!
Mark Folse: But it ends well with “Circle of Life.”
Noelle Kocot: Thanks Mark, I agree. Joshua knows me too well than to end on something negative!
Ashley: Well, I was actually intrigued by the title. When I first opened the book I underlined “bigger” and wondered what is a bigger world . . . bigger expectations, bigger dreams, bigger emotions, bigger in size, etc., and then I wondered whose world is this. So I wonder what inspired you to call it The Bigger World? Though perhaps this will come up later in the discussion and we should answer all these other questions first!
Noelle Kocot: Ashley, that is an excellent question. The working title was Gnomon, after a concept in James Joyce’s Dubliners, where people were incomplete, like a missing piece of a shape in geometry. I titled it The Bigger World because it was an exit from Sunny Wednesday, my previous book, which concerned my husband Damon’s death. Frankly, I needed to get out into the bigger world myself, so it is a hope, an expectation—the title, that is.
Ashley: When you explain the title like that it definitely helps me understand the poems a different way. I like that.
Michael I. Hollander: Though curiously (I’ve spent the last two minutes trying to spell that word) I have been wondering about the interplay between what you think and what you write. Do you write poems in order, do you start with an idea, a story, an image, a plan, or something that you’re excited about or that bothers you? Because I tried today to write poems in your style (what the heck, I thought) and saw plenty of ways in, but few ways OUT.
Noelle Kocot: Michael, I have written over 1,300 poems since having written The Bigger World—I don’t do anything consciously or deliberately. In fact, I have a hell of a time trying to talk about my work because it is all so unconscious.
Sean Singer: I noticed the title is alluded to in “No One Would Be Home,” about midway through: “But now, the world looked / So big.” Many of these poems are so mysterious that their beauty makes it unknowable whether they are about good or evil, so it’s tough to decide what to think about them (cf. Jerzy Kosinki’s Steps). Much of this must have to do with tone, but I think there is a secret, hidden authority from the writer in all the poems. She has knowledge about these folks’ lives that is a kind of wisdom. At the same time, there is nothing here that could be thought of as “personal,” so in this way they are almost anti-lyrical.
Noelle Kocot: Yeah, Sean, exactly right, exactly. I really could not have put it better myself.
Gaby: I am really interested (as someone who wrote a ton of persona poems at one point) how you think about the issue of character in this book. One of the things I’m fascinated in is how this book makes me consider our generation’s dependence on persona and how different and perhaps less challenging that is than what you are doing.
Mark Folse: The poems strike me as almost childlike in a sense, not omniscient but more like a tree’s-height view of the world, leavened with great scoops of imagination.
Gaby: Could you talk a bit about the actual act of making these people and what they might stand for as poetic devices as much as anything else?
This may be unclear—I’m winded!
Would you talk a bit about the actual making of this world?
Noelle Kocot: Gaby, I’m not sure. I think of them as people, though, and I have an affection for them like I don’t with my other work.
Sean Singer: In the poem “On Becoming a Person,” the speaker says: “happy to be / Of service, sad for the miles he had / To go before he slept and slept again.” Is this an allusion to Robert Frost? Gaby can probably comment on this further, but there is a like energy in these poems to Frost’s feeling of a horrible abiding darkness or wilderness that is barely held away. This book reminded me of The Spoon River Anthology in some ways, but this is more demanding of a reader, who must play the stunt double for the writer in concocting any meanings.
Noelle Kocot: I think of the characters in this book as living, moving, and having their being even after the poem ends. I don’t know how to set it in the backdrop of the times.
Gaby: It also reminded me of Our Town in the most complex sense
Brian S: Stunt double for the writer—that’s a terrific concept.
Gaby: I think the characters do this incredible job of acclimating to a real world . . . and I love that although they are so different, they are consistently having to make the same choice, to stay or not.
Mark Folse: Gaby, do you mean something like the denser, historical (and more narrative) personal poems we encountered in Alexander’s Crave Radiance? Or do you have another example of comparison?
Gaby: Yes. That works perfectly.
Noelle Kocot: I wrote these poems in fifty days and more that got cut out. It was a grueling process, because I had stopped writing at that point about my husband’s death. It was a purifying experience, in which I was psychologically processing a whole lot of stuff, and letting a whole lot go.
That was an allusion to Frost for exactly the reasons you say.
Gaby: Frost. What a rock star.
Noelle Kocot: Frost is such a rock star!
Mark Folse: The sense of release (in the first half’s poems) is palpable, even if the ending seems bleak (I thought about the ending dream in Gilliam’s Brazil today as an analogy).
Noelle Kocot: Yeah, that’s true, Mark. It’s the way the book was edited.
Thelma: Were the poems themselves edited much?
Noelle Kocot: I don’t edit my work. It just is what it is.
Mark Folse: But regardless of the editorial decision, some escape and some do not (“Aunt Lee Watches The First Snow” comes to mind).
Noelle Kocot: Yeah, that’s true. Aunt Lee is trapped. But at least when she dies, she’s going to a good place, in my estimation.
Anonymous: Noelle, I am trying to go through that process right now, actually—writing to recover from a traumatic experience. I think grueling is the exact word for how it feels. Thank you for sharing that.
Noelle Kocot: It is grueling, and was grueling for seven straight years. That is not to mention the trauma I dealt with before, which was nothing in comparison to when my husband died.
Gaby: Thank YOU, Noelle. In terms of thinking of them like people . . . do you still think of them? This can get answered whenever. I ask that question because the book may be bleak but it is also deeply compassionate, not that the two are mutually exclusive.
Mark Folse: As a conscious-transition book, which poems came first, and how do they relate (if at all) to your previous book?
Noelle Kocot: “A Suburban Tale” came first (it was my attempt to write a novel—that’s how this book started). Then “Book of Life,” then “Fourth of July.”
Ashley: I feel like when you edit a poem, it becomes a whole new poem . . . does anyone else feel like that? Noelle?
Sean Singer: A lot of the writing here reminded me—in spirit—of Natalia Ginzburg’s (an Italian writer 1916-1991), in the way it describes family relationships as a kind of political terror; they celebrate some things, but more often confront things. In this way, the mood is like a razor’s edge. I’m sure writing them in fifty days and then writing 1,300 poems thereafter was indeed grueling. Is there any recompense from horror in art, or are we fooling ourselves?
Noelle Kocot: Sean, I am of the religious variety, so for me there is some solace, but The Bigger World was my most grueling thing ever.
Gaby: But that is one of the greatest gifts of this for me. The rigor and the hard edge and the compassion working together.
Noelle Kocot: Thanks, Gaby!
Ashley: Sean, can you point to a specific poem that describes how they more often confront things?
Thelma: That surprises me, Noelle. Sunny Wednesday seems as though it would have been more grueling somehow.
Noelle Kocot: Thelma, Sunny Wednesday was necessary, but not grueling, just pure hard grief, just necessary.
Sean Singer: Well, for example, in “Love Story,” Carla begins in the workaday world, but after Ronnie’s death she dismissed her earlier life almost as a kind of armor plate that would protect her. “And never again sold jewelry on the beach.” She would rather be diminished, in a sense, than relive anything. That, to me, is a confrontation—not of death, but of self. The poem is not about how hard it is to be a person, but how hard it is to be Carla.
Noelle Kocot: Yeah, I imagine it is hard to be Carla. She’s really sad.
Ashley: Noelle, do you have a favorite poem in this collection? One that resonates with you more than the others? Or a character or scene maybe?
Noelle Kocot: Ashley, I don’t have a favorite poem, but I have a pet poem, and that is “The Cetacean Society.”
Brian S: What do you mean by pet poem?
Ashley: I like your interpretation of that. I suppose I saw that poem differently, but I’d have to read it again to figure out how to articulate it!
Noelle Kocot: I just mean a poem I really like to read out loud at readings.
Brian S: Ah. I’ve discovered I have a couple of those, too. As well as anti-pets.
Mark Folse: Religious or spiritual? First, there seems to be no god in this world (thinking of Fugue) but a strong sense in the more positive poems of some spiritual release. But nothing at all godlike touches this (these) world(s).
Noelle Kocot: Right, Mark. I know. That for me is almost a problem.
I don’t really like the poems that are more realistic.
I think they are stupid.
Sean Singer: There is a saying that “in the history of the world no one has ever washed a rented car.” It seems that many characters here rage against grief not as something that is thrust upon them, but as something within themselves the whole time. Maybe that makes it more tragic. So, in that sense, the bigger world would be within a person, not out in the universe.
Noelle Kocot: Yes, Sean, you are right on. The bigger world is a state of mind.
Ashley: Yes, I agree too.
Michael I. Hollander: Stupid as a value judgment, or a description?
Noelle Kocot: I guess as a value judgment. But I tend to think most of my work is stupid.
Mark Folse: I sensed that the bigger world is just outside these poems. Some reach it and some do not.
Noelle Kocot: Yes, Mark. Some do reach it. Others stay trapped. Look at Stanley, the IRS poem—he is trapped in purgatory!!
Brian S: Thing about purgatory is that there’s hope, right?
Sean Singer: I wonder if New Jersey has anything to do with these poems. The small townships, each with their own provincial attitude and fear of outsiders (even Newark, a city, has this attitude), could propel these people to be both weighed down by impractical sadness as well as attached to small pleasures. What do you say?
Noelle Kocot: Yeah, there’s hope. I don’t really believe in purgatory, though.
Ashley: I wonder if there is more to these characters than you put on the page, given how familiar they feel to you. They actually felt rather distant to me.
Brian S: Well, there has to be, right Ashley? Because they’re not fully formed in this book.
Noelle Kocot: Well, I wrote them in Brooklyn, where I lived till about a year and a half ago. Maybe New Jersey enters into everything I write in some unconscious way. I’m serious.
Sean Singer: Is it possible to take a photo of New Jersey anywhere in the world?
Brian S: Who was it said in the discussion group—they’re like people you come into brief contact with. I imagine conversations in elevators with these characters.
Ashley: Oh, that’s right.
Noelle Kocot: Yes, I guess they are kind of distant, Ashley. Right in line with the amount of trauma and disociation I was going through.
Michael I. Hollander: I was thrown by the stupidity of many of the poems—it took me a while to read through it and get to the poetry here. Not that that’s a criticism of anything but my reading.
Noelle Kocot: Right on, Michael.
Michael I. Hollander: The ladder I climbed to get to it was thinking of affinity to early poems of Robert Bly, but I’m not sure the affinity is all that strong. I’d have to go read them again. I mean the ladder I climbed to get to the poetry of the poems.
Noelle Kocot: Interesting. I like Bly’s early poems.
Brian S: Did you consciously try to create distance in these poems, Noelle? Distance between you and the characters, I mean?
Noelle Kocot: No, I don’t consciously try to do anything in poems. I don’t try. I guess I’m just that way, so it comes out in the poems. I’ve changed, I’ve gotten better, but I am not the most up-close person, so it shows in my work.
Brian S: You mentioned earlier that you didn’t order the poems in this book. Did you select them, or did you get your editor to do that? Sorry for the inside-baseball side of things, but it interests me.
Noelle Kocot: Oh, that’s fine. Yeah, Joshua Beckman did all the work
Sean Singer: I think one way into these poems as fairy tales is to think of the people here as beasts from the fairy tales (elves, goblins, trolls, giants, etc.) in the way that they might be metaphors for deep feelings of dread, wistfulness, entropy, etc.
Brian S: Sean, I think I’m going to take that tack when I reread the book. That’s an interesting way to look at it, I think.
Noelle Kocot: Yes, Sean, once again, you are right on with your analysis. The characters are metaphors for those feelings. I was experiencing them at the time. Dread, wistfulness, entropy, and all the rest.
Sean Singer: If they’re fairy tales than it removes the burden of realism, which is a blind alley. There is no lesson or moral to the story; the beasts’ own resources make them or break them.
Ashley: Noelle, can I ask about the writing process? Do you write prose and then break it up into lines, or do you write line by line? I especially love the line break in “Daniel:” “He/Kept away from edges/soothed himself to sleep./ He loved the fall, loved to/ rake leaves in the fall.”
Camille D.: Piping in quickly to make the Bigger World a bit bigger!
Mark Folse: If you don’t edit much, do you tend to write a poem in one long sitting, or in fits and starts as the next line or set of lines comes?
Noelle Kocot: Mark, a poem with me comes out in five to fifteen minutes, one sitting. I spend the rest of my day brewing them.
Sean Singer: I write the same way.
Noelle Kocot: Ashley, I write in line breaks only. Not prose first.
Camille D.: What exactly do you mean when you say “brewing them?” Does the brewing lead to change/revision, or does it tell you what to put out in the world versus what to bury?
Noelle Kocot: What I mean is, I’m always writing poetry, consciously or not, 24/7.
Michael I. Hollander: Even now?
Camille D.: Fantastic!
Noelle Kocot: Yes, even now!!!
Michael I. Hollander: And now?
Noelle Kocot: Now.
Ashley: Every moment is a poem, it seems.
Noelle Kocot: It really is, Ashley!
Ashley: I’m with you on that. I find it everywhere.
Camille D.: Do the people in your life say, “Better not do that around Noelle or you’ll end up in a poem”? (Or maybe they do things hoping to end up in a poem?)
Noelle Kocot: No, Camille, because I usually don’t put out the work if I’m pissed off or whatever. I just write the poem and bury it! They know that.
Brian S: It’s a dangerous thing to do stuff near a poet. We should come with warning labels.
Noelle Kocot: *WARNING*
Mark Folse: Is the brewing largely conscious or unconscious?
Ashley: So I hear you have some things to say about music?
Noelle Kocot: Music is way more important to me than poetry.
Ashley: “The problem with writers is they see meaning in everything.” Heard that once and it’s entirely true! But I don’t think it’s a problem, necessarily.
Michael I. Hollander: Toxic brew.
Sean Singer: Family writings have invisible rules you won’t notice until you break one. You may not have noticed that family members do not want to hear your confessions—not your real ones. But your mind knows, and circumspectly it does not suggest improper emotions for you to record. I find the real beauty of the poems here is that they transmogrify those problems into metaphors and tropes of tales in a way that makes them less transparent than a memoir, but still retaining a quality of “social artifact.”
Ashley: Well, sorry everyone, to shift here to music . . . but I’m intrigued.
Brian S: Are you a performer or composer or listener, or some combination?
Michael I. Hollander: No, I’m listening with lots of ears now.
Thelma: Me three.
Noelle Kocot: Well, I started out playing musical instruments, listening to all kinds of music, and then I married a great composer/pianist, and had access to so much great music. I love music. It flows DIRECTLY into the affective sense. Poetry does not.
Brian S: Yeah, I’ve noticed I’ll get way more of a response from playing a cheesy cover of an 80s pop song on guitar than I’ll get from reading almost any poem.
Gaby: Can you tell folks about the playlist pamphlet that Wave put out?
Michael I. Hollander: That’s very interesting about music and I agree. “Flows directly into the affective sense” is a good way of putting it (and I married a musician, too).
Gaby: I love that.
Noelle Kocot: I love the composers Xenakis, Beethoven, Debussy, and many many others. I love Sonic Youth. I love great jazz, especially Coltrane and Keith Jarrett. I love any great music, though, and will listen to almost anything. I LOVE IT.
Thelma: That’s why everyone’s Facebook pages contain YouTube links instead of poem links. Mostly, anyway.
Mark Folse: There are a number of performance poets (people with real stage presence, as much actors as poets) who work regularly with musicians here in NOLA. It seems to shoehorn the work in more easily somehow.
Thelma: Yeah, Mark, but that’s NOLA. Your whole city is a poem people want to sing about.
Brian S: I think any time you mix genres, you’re going to attract a larger crowd. The problem is getting bands to let you read with them.
Noelle Kocot: The pamphlet, which I deeply regret writing because I was still depressed about my husband’s death, is a discography of seminal music, music that I especially like, with personal anecdotes attached. It is called Damon’s Room.
Gaby: I loved seeing your mind move around the music. I listened to everything in order as I reread the books. It was pretty incredible.
Sean Singer: I saw Jarrett do a solo concert in January at Carnegie Hall.
Noelle Kocot: How was it, Sean?
Sean Singer: As you know, his music can be amazing because it’s all “in the moment.” He has no idea what he’s going to do until he’s doing it, but in between each song he walks off stage and then comes back and berates the audience, who are all assholes, about how they’re coughing, taking pictures, and interrupting the performance. This took more than three hours!
Jarrett is a little like the Soup Nazi in Seinfeld . . . he demands unrealistic things from his audience in the name of artistic process. But it’s not based in reality. Like a teenager having a tantrum, he’s distractible and completely ego-centric.
Noelle Kocot: Yeah, Sean, he does this typically, every concert I’ve seen.
Camille D.: I’ve got a grad-level poetry class to teach after this. Any advice to young poets?
Though I am also interested in your suggestion that there is something you regret writing. Because of the circumstances that triggered the writing, or because of what got written? I’m always interested in writer’s hesitations about work that others find rewarding.
Ashley: Listen to John Ashbery read “Et pictura poesis is/was? her name.”
Noelle Kocot: Advice to young writers: Keep writing no matter what. Never let ANYONE push you down. I went to a VIOLENT graduate program, but instead of getting discouraged, I wrote more, and I threw it in their faces. Write out of spite. Write out of love. Just keep going, and don’t let this world system take you down. Get your reading in young, because you are going to be busier as you get older and not have enough time to read. Live without worrying about money—skim the bottom. It’s the best way to be a writer.
Camille D.: THANKS!
Thelma: Skim the bottom: I love that.
Sean Singer: Good advice.
Michael I. Hollander: That’s why there are never any realistic middle- and upper-income folks in poems.
Noelle Kocot: Believe me, I live it.
What do you mean, Michael? Not sure.
Brian S: I’ve been out of grad school since 2003, and it’s only recently occurred to me that my program was one where the people who absolutely had to write are still writing. Everyone else, even if they finished, gave up.
What about in Merrill’s work, Michael?
Ashley: Noelle, do you know Jónsi or Sigur Rós?
Noelle Kocot: No Ashley, tell me!
Ashley: Ah, they are Icelandic. I’ll send you a link!
Noelle Kocot: Ah—Merrill had TIME!!!
Ashley: That’s really interesting you say that, Brian.
Brian S: And a boatload of money—that helps as well.
Believe it or not we’re about to hit the hour mark.
Michael I. Hollander: I last read Merrill a very long time ago—when I was a full-time slacker—and I didn’t get it. I could try again.
Mark Folse: Jump off the boat. The treasure is on the bottom.
Noelle Kocot: Yes, a boatload of money can certainly be a help, but don’t work thirteen hours a day for it!
Did I do okay?
Mark Folse: It went too fast. Again.
Brian S: Put it this way: the end of the hour seriously crept up on me. Any last questions before we call it a night?
Michael I. Hollander: You did great, Noelle. Something in this time opened up my appreciation of your poetry.
Sean Singer: Thank you for chatting, Noelle.
Thelma: Thanks so much, Noelle.
Noelle Kocot: Thanks, Michael, that is very nice.
Brian S: Thanks to Gaby for choosing the book and to Noelle for chatting with us.
Noelle Kocot: Thank you all, I am honored to have been with you and this was a great experience!
Ashley: I agree with Michael. Thanks Noelle!
Michael I. Hollander: No, it was our pleasure. but you have a unique presence even in chat.
Noelle Kocot: Thank you all, thank you Gaby, thank you Brian and everyone else.
I’m just a fucking weirdo is all! The lone survivor in an alien race of two!
Brian S: It would be great to hear you read some of these in person. Any plans to do so?
Noelle Kocot: Well, I have some YouTubes up…
Michael I. Hollander: Yes, are you reading in the NY area any time, and do you have a mailing list?
Brian S: I’ll link a couple to the end of the transcript when I edit it for the Rumpus!
Noelle Kocot: Reading at St. Marks Poetry Project on April 6.
No list, though. 🙁
I read the poems in these weird voices.
Brian S: I should put together a Rumpus Poetry Facebook page and let people post updates there.
Thelma: Yes, great idea, Brian.
Brian S: I’ll get on that in the next few days and post an announcement to the google group.
Noelle Kocot: Nice!
Brian S: Thanks again to everyone for coming out, and we’ll see you next month with Joseph Harrington.
Noelle Kocot: Love to all!