Episode 26: Esther Cohen Talks About Writing Poetry, published in Woman Around Town
Grateful, published in Woman Around Town
Channel Esther, published in Jewish Currents
A Craigslist Ad: Will Pay For a Poem, published in New York Times
Deirdre’s Last Meal, published in Alimentum
[Maybe this year], published in Alimentum
Menupoems, 2010, published in Alimentum
Menupoems, 2013, published in Alimentum
Menupoems, 2014, published in Alimentum
Poems, published and presented in On Being with Khrista Tippet
A pragmatic poet’s ‘Breakfast with Ginsberg,’ dinners, emails
By Trudi Cohen
Advocate arts correspondent
Esther Cohen NEW YORK – To meet Esther Cohen in her Manhattan apartment is like seeing a Roz Chast character come to life.
Undoubtedly, the association may come to mind in light of the fact that the famed New Yorker cartoonist illustrated one of Cohen’s books, “Don’t Mind Me and Other Jewish Lies,” but there are other factors as well that might lead one to this impression.
Cohen’s curly hair is abundant and flowing, as is the long dress she wears sometimes and accessorizes with striped socks. A resident of the same Upper West Side apartment for more than 48 years – in a bright, well-kept and charmingly old-fashioned building that houses forest-green corridors and an elevator festooned with wood and mirrors – she moved in for one big reason: the address. (As she says, “The numbers made sense!”) Each wall of her apartment is a different bold color: yellow in the living room, red in the kitchen. Down to earth, accessible, full of mirth and good spirits, that is Cohen. Which is why she so resembles one of Chast’s wonderful creations.
“Breakfast with Allen Ginsberg,” by Esther Cohen, Pleasure Boat Studios, 2016 The artistic connection does not end there, though. Cohen’s most recent book of poems, “Breakfast with Allen Ginsberg,” is a cozy, down comforter. One can put it down, pick it up, read it and feel known. It is small enough to carry in a pocket and peruse before the next train stop.
The title poem about her meeting with the writer of “Howl” and other masterpieces bursts with the experience of a newcomer to New York City in the 1970s. She buys him breakfast, and he tells her she is a poet. She paints the scene with sparing words and rhythms of a long-disappeared coffee shop. When asked if Ginsberg was a messy eater, she remarks, “He was Allen Ginsberg – I didn’t notice.”
Despite her reminiscences, make no mistake, Cohen lives in the present – she has been writing a poem nearly every day on her website since Jan. 30, 2012.
“My agent at Writers House and her social media expert suggested I write a poem a day,” she says. “Writing poetry is like making music. Jazz especially. And writing a poem a day is a liberating experience. Trying it out. Letting it go. Understanding there is no such thing ever, ever as a perfect poem. And it doesn’t matter. Every once in a while there’s a good poem, and that’s exciting.”
While exploring “Breakfast with Allen Ginsberg,” readers may smile with recognition at a life well lived with dinners and uncertainty. There are stories of a small town in the Catskills, as well as tales of emails, blogs and Turkish food. Reading the book is akin to sitting down and talking to Cohen: warm, funny, curious and meandering. Yet her mien is resolute, and her opinions are strong – particularly with regard to the prospect of offering her poems gratis.
“Art should be free,” she says. “Why are ‘Hamilton’ tickets $1,000? There should be a lottery available for the public.”
Such clear-cut, matter-of-fact determination is evident in many of her poems, including, “Pennysaver,” which features the lines:
“not a sentimental person
Your grandmother’s papers
Can go if I’m in charge.”
This kind of pragmatism may come from her real-life experiences, which, like many poets, have involved a variety of jobs, ranging from creative director, poster maker and curator to book doctor, book coach, fundraiser and activist. Yet when she speaks of her role as a teacher, she is most effusive.
“I love teaching,” she says. “Particularly non-traditional students: fast-food workers, nail-parlor practitioners, nannies, home-care aides. I have taught a class a semester for many, many years in a range of places, from Manhattanville College to homeless shelters. I teach at a wonderful feminist writing conference in Hobart, New York, every summer, and teach a class called, ‘Good Stories’ in many places around the country.”
Still, she does not relegate her activities solely to altruism. A proud grandparent whose husband, Peter Odabashian, is a documentary filmmaker, Cohen is an avid fan of TV shows such as “High Maintenance” and “Insecure,” as well as the TBS series, “Search Party,” which she feels has a lot in common with the serial novel she wrote for the West Side Spirit. “Although it’s not about millennials!” she says.
Certainly, this is a sensible way of looking at things, though perhaps she exhibits her prudence most in her advice for both new and old poets:
“Write,” she says. “Find your true voice.” Then she adds a sentence that most Chast characters would agree with: “It takes time.”
Copyright 2008-2017 The Jewish Advocate
Esther Cohen interview with Sheryl McCarthy on One to One:
Clip from launch of Cohen’s book Unseen America:
PUBLIC LIVES; Pictures of Working Life, Taken by Working Hands in New York Times
The Joys of Staying Put in New York Times
A tiny, fabulous book of poems, a distinctive quiet, humorous voice, about getting older. And who isn’t getting older? Sensible and yet original, nothing sentimental or smarmy, this is great great poetry couched in a ‘who, me?’ way. Esther Cohen has a brand new fan in me. I am going to buy a zillion copies of this, the perfect gift. Takes 2 0 minutes to read, if that, yet I know it will keep me company for years and years. I’d put it between Allen Ginsberg and a book of Rumi maybe.
They’re tiny prayers, numbered. Here’s Twenty Nine:
“The truth is I’ve had
a hard time with forgiveness.
Revenge is easier.
Last year I read four forgiveness books,
talked to a few serious Christians and Jews
even a Buddhist a Hindu a Sikh and an
agnostic. I don’t intuitively
turn the other cheek, and don’t know how.
And I’m talking about pettiness,
not wars or larger wrongs.
I’d like to learn, and thought one way might be
to say the word three times each day:
For Book Doctor —
A nutty Queens tax lawyer-cum-fledging author puts himself in the hands of an emotionally conflicted book doctor in this talky, wistful novel by Cohen (No Charge for Looking). For Harbinger Singh, still in love with his ex-wife, Carla, writing a novel about his recent divorce is delicious revenge. For Arlette Rosen, ensconced in a chilly three-year relationship, doctoring other people’s stories is a welcome distraction. Arlette’s boyfriend, Jake, is “in film,” wears only black and prefers to observe life rather than get too involved with it. Harbinger, in contrast, is playful, childlike and passionate. As Arlette tries to shape his unwieldy, sexy, autobiographical material into readable form, she finds herself being sucked into his novel as a fictional persona. At the same time, she recognizes that she wants to be in love with Jake, not merely find him adequate. Harbinger, too, is transformed by his work with Arlette, and Carla is shocked to discover that he is no longer the “dull, brown-suited fool [she] married and divorced.” Cohen’s novel is a gentle treatment of fragile relationships, humorously punctuated by the weird queries Arlette receives from struggling writers (“Dear Arlette, I’m writing to ask you for inspiration. Is it possible to send?”). Fluent, funny and true, it will particularly appeal to writers and those who must suffer them.
New Yorker Arlette Rosen, the charmingly wistful, funny, and arty yet cautious narrator of Cohen’s tender satire, never intended to become a book doctor. But after she helps a friend and salvages a manuscript titled Life and Death: One Prognosis, she never lacks for clients. In fact, much of this sweetly clever comedy consists of the letters Arlette receives from eccentric, arrogant, clueless, unctuous, and desperate wannabe writers hoping that she will be able to help them write everything from Holocaust novels to an Alzheimer’s joke book to an Armenian mystery series featuring Dikran the Dick. Arlette’s most intriguing client is Harbinger Singh, an unhappily divorced tax attorney who wants to write a steamy revenge novel about his ex-wife. But Harbinger is an irrepressibly ebullient fellow, the exact opposite of Arlette’s tense boyfriend, Jake. Will Arlette write her own novel? Will she find true love? Will Harbinger win his wife back and forget about writing Wild Taxes? Cohen’s send-up, cousin to Eric Kraft’s Passionate Spectator [BKL Jl 04], will delight all book lovers and fans of screwball comedies.