Strength and Feeling in Motion: A conversation with Henri Cole about Gravity and Center


Henri Cole brings memory and emotion to life on the page in Gravity and Center: Selected Sonnets, 1994-2022. Landscapes of earth, sky, and water are the backdrop for emotions and desire, punctuated with unique fragrances and tastes that bring life to their sonnet form.

“The lean, muscular body of the sonnet frees me to be simultaneously dignified and bold,” Cole says in the book’s afterword. He’s certainly exercised his literary muscles in this area. Cole has been writing sonnets since his days in college, and his expansive collection has recognizable characteristics. Each one of the sonnets in this collection, taken from the last thirty years of his work, has his signature: raw, powerful, gritty emotion encased in elegant prose, each one unique, apart from their structure.

Henri Cole is the author of eleven collections of poetry, including Blizzard (2020); Touch: Poems (2011); LA Times Book Prize finalist Pierce the Skin: Selected Poems 1982-2007 (2010); Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize winner Blackbird and Wolf (2007); and Pulitzer Prize finalist and Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award winner Middle Earth (2003). He has served as the executive director of the Academy of American Poets (1982-1988) and poetry editor of The New Republic (2010-2014). A professor of poetry, Cole has taught at Ohio State University, Harvard University, and Smith College. He now lives in Boston and currently teaches at Claremont McKenna College. Our interview took place via email, where I asked Cole about this impressive collection, how he chose each sonnet, and why the form has such a magnetic hold on all of us.


The Rumpus: The poems in this book represent thirty years of your work. What was it like to select poems from your larger collection of sonnets for this book? I would imagine this could be a challenge, like choosing only some of your children to be in a family portrait?

Henri Cole: I loved choosing the poems for this book. Of course, I have favorites. My siblings say I was our mother’s favorite, and maybe this is true. I think it’s natural to have favorites. I was really happy to rediscover old poems I’d forgotten or undervalued, and I’m grateful to Jonathan Galassi, my editor of three decades, for accepting the formal concept of this book, which was actually suggested to me by a graduate student at USC after a class visit.

Rumpus: What is it about the sonnet, as a form, that invites the poet to take a seemingly difficult experience and spin it into gold?

Cole: Perhaps there is just enough time in fourteen lines to say something true and make a little concerto of words. Physiologically, the fourteen lines represent, for me, a deep inhale, a long-held breath, and a soothing exhale. I think it’s for this reason that the sonnet form crosses so many centuries, borders, and languages.

Rumpus: You dedicate the book to the French poet, Claire Malroux. What is your connection with her?

Cole: Claire, who is ninety-seven years old, has translated several of my books into French. She is a master at the art of translation, which I consider God’s work. She has translated all of Emily Dickinson and Wallace Stevens into French. Also, Elizabeth Bishop, Derek Walcott, and others. We see one another three or four times a year. We are working together on a free-verse translation of La Fontaine’s fables, a most difficult endeavor with the sparkling seventeenth-century French. Claire’s life was changed by the Nazis, who sent her father, a member of parliament, to a concentration camp, where he perished.

In my view, French poetry was wounded by the rise of the fashionable French theorists late in the 20th century, but Claire is a darkly classical poet. I recommend her recent book, Daybreak (selected poems superbly translated by Marilyn Hacker and published by New York Review of Books). Claire is a figure in my memoir, Orphic Paris, which she helped me revise as sections appeared in The New Yorker’s Page-Turner. Like certain precious gems, she is hard-soft, or tough-tender.

Though my mother was a French woman, I am not bilingual. Still, I feel close to Mother when I hear the French language spoken around me. This is a great comfort, a “safe space,” as the young say nowadays, which I seek out. In recent years, most of my writing was completed in Paris during escapes from my teaching duties.

Rumpus: I love the way landscapes influence your work. You’ve described your life in the foothills near Kyoto, Japan as the inspiration for the free verse sonnets in this book. You combine the natural elements and plain speech, usually found in Japanese poetry, with the fierce intensity of language inside you. How does this fusion speak about your desire to create art? Your inheritance of beauty? Your quest to be true to your heart through language?

Cole: This question embarrasses me a little. Words like beauty are important to me, but I am reluctant to claim them as an inheritance. All I can say is that it took living faraway, alone in my two tatami-mat rooms, with almost no possessions, to figure out a new formula for writing poems. This emerged very gradually, and it continues to evolve today, twenty years later.

Probably the creative writing fashions of the day would scoff at things like beauty and pure hearts. All the more reason to respect and protect them.

Rumpus: The cover of the book is a cantering horse, and the image is blurred. You have a lot of poems about horses, but the sonnet “Blur” features a horse in motion—a beautiful, super-charged companion to a young man who is discovering his desires and challenges with intimacy: “Probably you are right that I protect / the ambiguities of my own desires. / I feel I only know you at the edges.”

Was this poem a turning point in your creative journey? Why so many horses in your work?

Cole: The horse on the cover was in a stable where I took riding lessons long ago. My friend, Susan Unterberg, took this wonderful picture in the ring there. I used to spend time in upstate New York with a friend, the artist Jenny Holzer, on her farm. She had a gorgeous horse named Henry.

Horses are a nice metaphor for the sonnet’s strength and feeling in motion. Beauty and violent power come together in an animal form. When I write, I have the feeling of being a rider. As the poem gallops forward, I am knocked about. I modeled the poem “Blur” on the sonnet sequences of James Merrill and Seamus Heaney, who are masters of the form. “Blur” is a poem that goes as far as I could go in speaking the lover’s discourse.

Rumpus: I was initially drawn to your poetry because of the way you write about family with honesty and tenderness. “Face of the Bee” is a sonnet that seems haunted by your mother and father: “After they died, there were replacements / whose force upon my life I cannot measure….” You end the poem with a gorgeous image: “With your fuzzy black face, do you see me—a cisgendered male—metabolizing / life into language, like nectar sipped / up and regurgitated into gold?” This description of the poet turning experiences into something of value on the page is very meaningful. Why is it our desire to write beauty?

Cole: I miss my parents immensely. I wish they’d been happier. Money was always a problem for them, so I try not to think too much about it. I hate when money blocks happiness, or what we think might be happiness. For me, bees are an excellent metaphor for poets who take something raw (life experience) and turn it into gold (poetry). There are lots of bees in my work. As a poet, I feel like a worker bee beside others in the hive and flying about the world gathering nectar.

Rumpus: Did your parents get to see you read or publish your poetry? What was this like for you and them?

Cole: Yes, I published before my parents died. My mother wasn’t a reader (except for the newspaper and the French Reader’s Digest), but my father was quite learned. There was an encyclopedia open in his bed when he died. When I published my first book, my father bought twenty copies for his friends and family. My mother kept my books on the coffee table in the living room beside her New Testament. My parents were proud that I became a teacher. Since neither went to college, they revered education, but thought of poetry as something for a privileged class, something that had little value in the capitalistic society where they wanted me to succeed.

Rumpus: You create a sensorial experience of fragrance and memory for the reader in “Casablanca Lily” when the speaker can smell his mother’s perfume as she is leaving: “So it is the smell of not saying what I feel, / of irrationality intruding / upon the orderly, of experience / seeking me out, though I do not want it to.” When did poetry, or writing in general, become an avenue for expression? How did it help you survive and gain identity in your family?

Cole: Smell is so important to our experience of the world. The idea of losing a sense of smell because of COVID-19 is terrifying to me. Usually in poetry, the eyes dominate, so it is dramatic when a smell is acknowledged, and the extravagant odor of Casablanca lilies is unforgettable. Poetry entered my life in college, and it has been at the center of my life ever since. It’s possible it has kept me from being a loving brother, father, spouse, and friend; it is such a totally all-consuming, insane endeavor.

Rumpus: When did you start taking your writing seriously? Devoting time and resources to the art of honing your craft?

Cole: I took writing seriously from the start; I was twenty and a junior at the College of William and Mary when I began writing poems; my first teachers were Susan Thompson and Peter Klappert. I was a serious young person with no real skill or talent, but I had intensity and worked hard, so I grew a lot in my twenties and thirties. My ardor followed me to graduate school, first in Wisconsin and then in New York City. It’s amazing to me how a decision I made in my early twenties—when I was so ill-prepared for making decisions—set the direction for the rest of my life. But I have no regrets, since poetry has given my life a focus and meaning, especially as a bachelor without children.

Rumpus: Your boldness in expressing emotion through images is amazing. “Pillowcase with Praying Mantis” contains the bittersweet whispers of a young boy, innocent and powerless to change things in his own household. He asks the insect on his pillow: “Can you pray / for my father’s soul, grasping after Mother?” His fascination with the insect quickly turns when he thinks the mantis is mimicking him. The more I read this poem, the more layers open. How do you transform images into carriers of intense emotion, even metaphor?

Cole: The speaker of this poem is forty-five, but he has a childlike spirit perhaps. I am not sure how to answer this question about images and how they operate. But I do place imagery and simile very high on my altar to poetry. To me, they are a measure of the originality and genius of a poet, but I have no idea from where or how they come. Perhaps this part of the brain is like a muscle that needs continual flexing to remain strong. I am always flexing this muscle in everyday speech and correspondence. I love similes. Perhaps I am a show-off.

Rumpus: You include a section called New Poems at the end of the book. One, entitled “Vetiver,” has the theme of isolation and death, but this time relates to the pandemic and social distancing. There are encouraging flavors and aromas that stave off thoughts of death: “Once again, we’ll eat endives and ham, eggs of every style, peaches in red wine.” Yum! Something very bleak turns suddenly delicious. Have you noticed changes in your writing as you’ve matured into the poet you are today?

Cole: Oh, I hope there are changes! Probably I am too close to judge this accurately. Perhaps there is more room for satisfaction and bliss now. The shadows are not so long and deep. Eros is not eviscerating. There are more frequent touches of humor maybe. To me, the poems are always quite careful (or “elegant” is the word others use so frequently); this makes me want to be messy, with flat language and untidy endings, but then I laugh at myself and embrace my hard-earned strengths in middle-age and just keep going and going, like an old rubber tree reaching toward the sunlight.

Rumpus: How do you normally write? What would be a great writing day (or week) for you?

Cole: I sit on a sofa with papers all around me. I like a firm sofa because my back aches. It’s morning, and everyone I know is asleep. This means I’m probably in France. No emails await replies. I brew a cup of coffee. I look at the sky. I wash a few dishes from the day before. I am deep inside my thoughts. I might have already written down a few lines. They are like a stone on which to balance other stones, with a little mud in-between. I might go to the toilet. I look in the mirror but see nothing. In front of the sofa, I lie on the floor and do stretches. I replace the cartridge in my fountain pen, which is leaky and needs cleaning. The sky is gray. A pigeon lands on the windowsill and makes a prolonged cooing sound that attracts another pigeon. Why don’t my poems do this? There is a short grunting sound from the windowsill. I eat a bowl of plain yogurt—sheep, not cow’s milk—with walnuts and blueberries. My disparate thoughts are unchartable. A few more lines emerge but vanish. Then a few more emerge and stay a while. Eventually the page of my notebook fills up. I am so happy. The next day I put a big X through it with dismay, and begin again.


Author photo by Susan Unterberg

Janet Rodriguez is an author, teacher, and editor living in Northern California. She is the author of Making an American Family: A Recipe in Five Generations (Prickly Pear Press, 2022), a family memoir. In the United States, her work has appeared in Hobart, Pangyrus, Eclectica, The Rumpus, Cloud Women’s Quarterly, American River Review, and Calaveras Station. She is the winner of the Bazanella Literary Award for Short Fiction and the Literary Insight for Work in Translation Award, both from CSUS Sacramento in 2017. Her short stories, essays, and poetry usually deal with themes involving morality in faith communities and the mixed-race experience in a culturally binary world. She holds an MFA from Antioch University, Los Angeles. She is currently Assistant Editor of Interviews at The Rumpus . Follow her on Twitter at @brazenprincess. More from this author →