“What writers really do when they write”

Reading this piece by George Saunders in the Guardian about how writers feel their way toward what they didn’t consciously know they meant to write is like reading a poem or a novel and coming across one of those luminous, heartbreaking lines that tells you something you always knew and only now recognize.  I want to paste the entire thing into my commonplace book, but if I could only put in one line, it might be Einstein’s: “No worthy problem is ever solved in the plane of its original conception.”



Posted in writing

I keep staring at this cover the way you stare at a newborn baby

Cover of Unfinished City, poems by Nan Cohen.



And I’m so thrilled to be working with Gunpowder Press, whose books are so thoughtfully selected and edited, as well as so beautifully produced.  I love the story of how they got started; I knew the late David Allen Case (we overlapped in the graduate English program at UCLA) and am moved that the press came into being in part to bring The Tarnation of Faust into print.

The book is now available for pre-order and will be released on March 1.

Posted in Unfinished City

Renga for Obama

rengaThe Harvard Review is hosting a celebratory “Renga for Obama” on the conclusion of our 44th president’s second term.  A renga is a Japanese collaborative form consisting of linked stanzas composed in pairs.  A new pair of stanzas appears each day—a traditional haiku(which many of us know in English as a three-line syllabic form of 5-7-5 syllables) followed by a waki (a two-line stanza of 7 syllables each) that responds, elaborates on, or turns the haiku.  Today’s addition is a collaboration between Vermont poet laureate Sydney Lea and me.  He wrote today’s haiku, and I wrote the waki.  This project involves over 200 poets and will continue over more than 100 days.  Please follow along if you are so inclined!

Posted in poems, poetry

I hope that infected cat bite is clearing up okay, Randall.

And I’m glad the kitten is safe!


Posted in comics

Poem for January: “Egg”

three brown eggs

Photo by Tookapic (free stock photo from Pexels, CC0 license)

As I’ve mentioned, most of the poems in Unfinished City began as responses to the parashot, the weekly portions into which Jews divide the first five books of the Bible.  It’s easy to see where some of them came from—the two poems titled “Abraham and Isaac” respond to the binding of Isaac from Vayeira (Genesis 18-22), for example.  The origins of others, however, have become obscure even to me.  Going back over old drafts, I was surprised to find that I wrote this poem, “Egg,” in in response to the verse in this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Vayechi, in which the dying Israel (Jacob) blesses the sons of Joseph.

There’s nothing particularly Biblical-sounding about this poem, with its kitchen table, bowl and egg to be cracked.  The speaker sounds a little weary to me, tired of “endless/weekly cartons of eggs like brittle heads.”  Yet I am sure that I was thinking of Israel’s amazed words to his son, Joseph, whom he had once thought dead: “I never expected to see your face again, and now God has let me see your children too” (Genesis 48:11).  Like Israel, the speaker of the poem is a parent, to whom a child is always a kind of miracle.  And her subject is a child whose attention makes an ordinary task new again.



A child stands at the table to watch

the raw egg fall from its just-cracked shell.

She will beg to crack the egg herself,

then strike the bowl too lightly or too hard.

She has not yet seen hundreds of golden yolks

robed in glossy albumen, or endless

weekly cartons of eggs like brittle heads;

is not yet someone who doesn’t thrill

to the shell rending, or who expertly

strikes the bowl with it, parts the crack

with delicate fingers.  Only this child, this moment,

reaches for this breaking egg, this morning.

Nan Cohen

This poem, which will appear in my forthcoming collection, Unfinished City, received a 2005 Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Award and was first published in an anthology, Lounge Lit, which collected Los Angeles poets who had read at the late, great reading series Rhapsodomancy, at the Good Luck Bar in Los Feliz.  Thanks to the organizers and anthology editors, Tess. Lotta, Wendy C. Ortiz, and Andrea Quaid.

Questions? Comments?

Posted in poems, Unfinished City | Tagged , , , , , ,

“Walt you contain enough, why don’t you let it out then?”


Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-2884)

On the morning of New Year’s Day, I drove out to Newbury Park to pick up my daughter from a friend’s house.  (I passed the Newbury Park library branch, which was closed, of course, but noticed that it looks like a nice one, and that it’s the anchor of a small shopping center, which must be convenient!  It’s part of the Thousand Oaks system rather than LAPL, so I don’t have a card there, but the next time I’m loitering in the area during business hours, I’ll take a peek.)

It’s a longish drive, so eventually I turned on the radio.  The first song I heard, and therefore the first song of the new year, was the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Dark Necessities,” which seems–both accurate and auspicious?  (That long tease of an intro, the song’s easy acceptance of the transience of everything–“You and I both know/Everything must go/Away”–and the strength of artistic intent: “Dark necessities are part of my design.”)

After we got home, I went to the shared workspace to write for a while.  It often happens that there’s something I need to read while I’m writing, and the first poem I read, and therefore the first poem of the new year, was Song of Myselfwhich–also accurate and auspicious–seems like exactly the right complement to the song, and to the day itself.

Here’s a piece of it.  (And by the way: almost every day of my reading and teaching life, I appreciate what the Poetry Foundation has done in putting thousands of good texts of poetry online.)

I have heard what the talkers were talking, the talk of the beginning and the end,

But I do not talk of the beginning or the end.

There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now,
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,

Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.

Urge and urge and urge,

Always the procreant urge of the world.

Out of the dimness opposite equals advance, always substance and increase, always sex,

Always a knit of identity, always distinction, always a breed of life.

To elaborate is no avail, learn’d and unlearn’d feel that it is so.

Sure as the most certain sure, plumb in the uprights, well entretied, braced in the beams,
Stout as a horse, affectionate, haughty, electrical,

I and this mystery here we stand.

Clear and sweet is my soul, and clear and sweet is all that is not my soul.

Lack one lacks both, and the unseen is proved by the seen,

Till that becomes unseen and receives proof in its turn.

Showing the best and dividing it from the worst age vexes age,

Knowing the perfect fitness and equanimity of things, while they discuss I am silent, and go bathe and admire myself.

Welcome is every organ and attribute of me, and of any man hearty and clean,

Not an inch nor a particle of an inch is vile, and none shall be less familiar than the rest.

I am satisfied—I see, dance, laugh, sing;
As the hugging and loving bed-fellow sleeps at my side through the night, and withdraws at the peep of the day with stealthy tread,
Leaving me baskets cover’d with white towels swelling the house with their plenty,
Shall I postpone my acceptation and realization and scream at my eyes,
That they turn from gazing after and down the road,
And forthwith cipher and show me to a cent,
Exactly the value of one and exactly the value of two, and which is ahead?

Walt Whitman, from Song of Myself (1892 version)

Posted in music, poetry

While we’re waiting, a poem from Unfinished City

Construction cranes atop a partially finished building with birds flocking in the air

Unsplash via Pexels (CC0 license)

I will do a coordinated announcement about my new book in the near future with the editors of the press–with whom I’m so happy to be working!–but for now, I would like to share with you the title, Unfinished City, and the title poem, which was first published (as “In the Unfinished City”) in a print journal, Jews., that is now gone, but its address and one of its editors, Lawrence Bush, have migrated to the present-day Jewish Currents magazine.  This was a while back–the Jews. Spring 2001 issue; I think it is the earliest published poem from the collection.

The “Unfinished City” is the city–and the better-remembered tower–of Babel.


Unfinished City


Passing the house where you once lived, I found

no change I could discern, and so I mourned.

Had something changed, I’d have mourned that too.

But why should bricks and mortar, plumbing, plaster,

laths, electrical wiring have such permanence

when you’ve left no memento of your presence,

which in its time was solid and complete?

Complete and solid in me lies your absence

since that wretched day when language broke apart

and what I spoke was sensible to me

and what you spoke was sensible to you

but neither understood the other’s speech.

Lovingly I took your words into my mouth,

but they were foreign.  I had to spit them out.


Nan Cohen

Because the book grew from encounters with the weekly parashot (more about how that happened, and how it evolved, anon), I’m planning to post occasional poems from the book here over the course of the year when I think I have something to offer, however small, about an upcoming parsha.  This poem, though, responds to parshat Noach, the second regular portion of the year, which was read this year back in early November.  For some reason, in 2000, it wasn’t the Noah story that tugged at me, but the Babel one:

The LORD came down to look at the city and tower which man had built, and the LORD said, “If, as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing they may propose to do will be out of their reach.

“Let us, then, go down and confound their speech there, so that they shall not understand one another’s speech.”

Thus the LORD scattered them from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city.

That is why it was called Babel, because there the LORD confounded the speech of the whole earth; and from there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

Genesis 11:5-9  (JPS version)

Comments? Questions?  I’d love to hear from you.

Posted in Unfinished City | Tagged , , ,