Mike Cohen has authored two collections of poetry, Poet’s Pilgrimage and For Reading Out Loud, both awaiting discovery and broad dissemination (perhaps posthumously). Mike’s work has appeared in the Schuylkill Valley Journal, Philadelphia Daily News, Mad Poets Review, The Fox Chase Review and Poetry Forum Anthology. He has presented public readings in various bookstores, coffee shops, and libraries. Mike’s current project is Poetry Aloud And Alive program at the Big Blue Marble Book Store in West Mt. Airy, Philadelphia.
Interview by: g emil reutter
GER: It has been several decades since the inception of “The Summer Breeze” reading series in Northeast Philadelphia also known as The Philadelphia Poetry Forum. How did participating in this series help you in your development as a poet?
MC: If I’d known this was going to be a history test, I’d have studied harder. “Summer Breeze” was the offshoot of The Philadelphia Poetry Forum series of the Free Library. The Forum was the first poetry series I attended. In the early 1990’s it was led by a poet named Bob Forster, who was very engaging and encouraging. He also loved to do performance pieces. I started out thinking that all there was to do was to read your poems before people who were poets and find out if they thought your work was worthy. But then I saw people like Bob Forster and Steve Delia who presented their poetry with a flair and fire. I also saw others who just read their poetry (downcast and without emphasis), and the difference was evident. A poem takes a lot of time and effort in writing and revising. When presenting a poem you ought to do it justice. I knew that much by the time Martha (Marti) Collins started “Summer Breeze” in ’91 or ‘92. Marti is not what most would call a performance poet. She has a reserved style and a proper demeanor that makes it very effectively surprising when she does one of her daring poems, and she has many. I learned a lot from her too. At “Summer Breeze” I also had the opportunity to meet the young poet Diane Sahms-Guarnieri. She had just begun writing. It’s been pretty amazing to witness the development of a poet like her.
GER: You and Connie have hosted Poetry Aloud and Alive at The Big Blue Marble for several years. The series attracts quality poets and has an outstanding open reading segment. Please tell us about the series.
MC: The Big Blue Marble book store opened up in the neighborhood in 2005. Connie was quick to suggest I ask about starting a poetry group there. Maleka Freuean, the book store activities director, was very receptive to the idea. The book store has been very accommodating. They never rush us out even after closing time. The people of the community have proven supportive and creative. There is a lot of talent in our midst… plenty of people with interesting things to say and interesting ways to say them. I never expected the program would be this successful. I’ve played a lesser role of late than I did at first. Dave Worrell does the scheduling now. Connie and I are just host and hostess. People seem to like what we’re doing. It was Connie’s idea to arrange the chairs in a circle to promote freer participation. As a teacher she knew the dynamics. It rang a bell with me, because Marti Collins had used that circular arrangement in the “Summer Breeze” series. What goes round comes round, especially with circles.
GER: You have read your poetry at a great number of venues and although you share your poems you also share monologues to the delight of your audience. How did you develop your performance style and presentation?
MC: It takes a lot of trial and error, and observation. By observation, you can learn from other people’s errors… much less uncomfortable than learning from your own. But you get to see what works and what doesn’t. You let the audience show what they like – what makes them smile or weep or laugh, or fall asleep. It’s fun. But it produces a bias in favor of humor. The most emphatic positive reactions usually consist of laughter. I try to keep attuned so I can hear a gasp if one comes. Laughter is great, but as reactions go, it’s hard to beat a good gasp.
GER: What poets have influenced you as a writer and performer?
MC: What poets haven’t influenced me? We’re constantly writing under the influence of each other even when we’re not conscious of it. But as I said Steve Delia was one of my early influences at the Northeast regional library. Steve has become a good friend as well. Steve and Connie and I would go to Christine Grow’s critique group regularly. That was really instructive and inspiring. Steve also started a group that does critiquing through the mail – snail mail, believe it or not. The pace gives a poet a chance to ponder.
Early on, I also had the opportunity to do a reading with the late Daniel Kiner. He was profound and dynamic. He read first, and I read second. But it wasn’t like he opened for me. The audience loved him, hated me. I could have concluded that the audience had no taste. But I had to realize at that point that compared to Dan Kiner I stunk. It was good for me to recognize this. It made me raise my performance level. Also it made me realize that if you follow somebody the audience really likes, don’t try to emulate him or top him. Try to offer something a little different so you don’t suffer as much by comparison.
It’s not just poets who teach you poetry. The performances of stand up comics are pretty closely related to poetry. Some more than others, of course… George Carlin had material that was poetic as well as funny.
It’s also good to pay attention to the extraordinary people in our lives. Connie is not a writer herself, but she has a good eye and ear for what is not working. She can very often point out a problem in a new poem. Then I rework it, concentrating on that part, and it usually comes out better.
GER: You have recently embraced the internet with your blog, Mike Cohen Says . What led to the development of the blog and could describe the experience?
MC: What led me to blogging would be the sage advice of one G. Emil Reutter. You directed me to Diane’s blog and I started playing around with the on-line blogging facility. I’m not a technological person by nature, but I guess I was driven by the desire to get my poetry “out there.” So mikecohensays.com was born. It contains written poems, comments, audio and even links to video. I was surprised how much I could put “out there.” The problem is that it gets lost among all the rest out there. It is still a lot of fun to put it up and imagine that a fraction of the billions of people who are currently ignoring it may some day take a look.
GER:You are a regular contributor of non fiction articles at The Schuylkill Valley Journal. Your articles range from the arts to Dickens. Tell us how this came about and how you research your subjects.
MC: Editor and poet Peter Krok got me started. He puts a different Philadelphia area sculpture on the cover of each edition of The Schuylkill Valley Journal. A few years ago he asked me to write a short piece on the Randolph Rogers sculpture of Lincoln near Kelly Drive. He liked what I wrote and has had me do an article on every cover since. He tells me what he intends for the next cover and Connie and I take a little excursion and go look at the sculpture. I do background research as well. The articles are about the subject of the sculpture and the artist. At Connie’s recommendation I have made a practice of including anecdotal notes on our sculpture adventures. It gives the articles a personal touch and takes the edge off the academic aspect.
GER: As a fixture on the Philadelphia poetry scene for a number of years tell us of the changes you have witnessed and how the scene continues to develop.
MC: Poetry is more open than ever. Poetry is so diverse it’s hard to define. The surge of spoken word poetry has drawn in the young and the reckless, even though spoken word has very deep old roots. The poetry-prose line has blurred. It’s pretty much a matter of degree. Poetry is very inclusive. Just give it a pinch of style and a dollop of panache and you’re welcome to present it in an open poetry reading… so long as you keep it brief. Also, Connie often remarks at how plentiful the venues have become. When she first met me she thought it remarkable that I was a poet. If it had seemed as common then as it does now, she would not have been so impressed.
GER: You released two collections of poems titled “Poet’s Pilgrimage” and “For Reading Out Loud – A Collection of Poems That Stand up To an Audience”. How did the books come about and how do they differ?
MC: The idea for “Poet’s Pilgrimage stemmed from finding that my body of work was heterogeneous. Different poems had come out in very different voices. I decided to write a book using the idea of Canterbury Tales with individual characters to tell different sorts of poems. I ended up with a story of seven poets who got together in a subway to read their poems. It was a pretty ambitious undertaking for someone accustomed to writing brief works. The story just grew in length and density into something that was difficult to write, and I’m afraid it’s a difficult read as well. I don’t mean difficult in the sense of great literature, but in the sense that not many people would want to read it. I wised up and was less ambitious in “For Reading Out Loud,” which is simply a collection of poems I have enjoyed reading in public.
GER: I have heard you are a Docent. Tell us what work a Docent performs and where is Mike Cohen a Docent.
MC: Connie and I are both docents at Woodmere Art Museum. We guide tours of art exhibits there. The term docent sounds more impressive than it is. We both like art, but can’t do it (although Connie has some formal training having taken a painting course called, “I Can’t Draw A Straight Line”). Lacking ability in that area, we particularly admire those who do. It is good that there are non-artists like us who just appreciate art. It would be great if there were more non-poets who appreciated poetry.
GER: What’s next for Mike Cohen?
MC: Now that I’ve done these ten questions, what can be next? Disneyworld, I guess. But, no, I’m seriously considering putting together another book. Some of the people who go to my readings prefer reading a book over a website. I’ve got some new ideas and even some newer poems, and may be able to use them in a book. I understand it’s easier to do these books as” Print on Demand” than it used to be, even for low-tech types like me.
Whatever comes next, I’ll keep writing. What is great about writing is that you can keep doing it for a long time. Being a writer is like being a Supreme Court justice or the pope. There’s no mandatory retirement. It doesn’t have the physical demands of other endeavors. Besides, poetry is so hard to evaluate that even if your work deteriorates, who’ll know? They’ll just figure you’re going experimental.
I want to thank the questioner G. Emil Reutter, a fine poet in his own right, who takes the time to listen carefully to other poets and writers and the trouble to give them a platform from which to speak. I’m touched that you took the time to come up with questions pertinent to my poetic career.