Peter Cooley is a poet and Professor of English in the Department of English at Tulane University. He also directs Tulane’s Creative Writing Program. Born in Detroit, Michigan, he holds degrees from Shimer College, the University of Chicago and the University of Iowa. Cooley has published eight books of poetry, all with the Carnegie Mellon University Press, most recently A Place Made of Starlight (2003) and Divine Margins (2009).
PHONING MY SISTER AT THE NURSING HOME
“Welcome to Diane’s Consolidated Miseries.
Diane is unavailable to take your call
but if you would like to leave a message just recall
the pitch and timbre and volume of her hostility.
Your call is important to us. If you want a tirade
against her father and mother, ninety-one and ninety-three,
press one; against her brother and his family,
press two; against the ‘entire goddamn world,’
press three; against the men who left her,
press four; against her body she’s shrunk to eighty-six
pounds, press five. The other five numbers
are screams, execrations, a witch’s Sabbath hex
against you. Remember, phoning her, you asked for it.
The machine took down your number. She’ll call you back.”
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
Like many of my other poems about my sister, this one was composed shortly after her death.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
Probably I did about twenty drafts of this poem, and I worked on it obsessively in a two week period of time to get it done.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
I believe that inspiration and blood, sweat and tears cannot be separated.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
Needless to say, I employed the form of the answering machine, a piece of “material culture.”
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
It took several years for it to be accepted.
How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?
I did not let this poem sit for long (a month or so), though I have let poems “sit” for as much as a year.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
The poem uses a received form from technology in our culture to show my sister’s madness and bitterness. Obviously, the entire discourse is “fabular”: my sister had no actual answering machine like this.
Is this a narrative poem?
At the heart of this poem is the specter of morality, the idea of right and wrong. Is all good poetry in some way ethical or just?
Probably it is, but in the case of lyric poetry, this is hard to talk about since feeling is more important. One can easily see in this poem that the sister’s hatred toward others is the result of her self-hatred.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
Dickinson. She always gives me the courage to “tell the truth but tell it slant.”
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
A reader who appreciates form and dark humor.
Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?
My wife is my first reader. I then share my poems with my poetry group, composed of poets and teachers of poetry.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
A Place Made of Starlight, where this poem appears, is made up largely of formal poems but in more traditional (i.e. sonnet, villanelle, sestina), received form. I invented this poem’s form.
What is American about this poem?
The open expression of both speaker and his sister as well as the dependence on technology to show emotion.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
It was finished since the form was so self-conscious.