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Q&A: Henri Cole

Henri Cole on the interaction between written and visual art, literary truth, and the value of self-expression

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What is your favourite poem from your latest book?

My poems are like my children, so I cannot choose one over the others, but here are four: Extraordinary Geraniums, Sardines, War Rug, and Free Dirt.

How do you find that your poetry takes on a different meaning when merged with the techniques of visual art?

I think of words as my medium, instead of, say, paint, steel, or fabric. Like visual artists, poets are makers. What we do gives voice to what is in the human soul. This is true for visual art, too.

How do you find that art interacts with poetry?

Sometimes, I get ideas from visual art. Visual artists are more physical than poets, and this makes them freer. I find this freedom exciting to be around.

You have spoken before about your work being extremely autobiographical in style. Does it ever make you nervous to make reference to deeply personal elements in your poetry?

This kind of fear is behind me. We are all confessional poets sometimes. Life is a river feeding the ocean that is literature.

In an interview with the Paris Review, you once said that there is "no therapy in personal revelation." If this is not the function that your poetry serves to you, how would you best describe the effect that writing poetry has on you?

There is a very pure satisfaction in getting the right words down in the right order, and in making this little concerto of sound, and in saying something that burns with a truth-seeking flame.

What do you think is the value of writing about homosexuality in today's political landscape?

Truth is the basis of all good art. It is always important to say something true.

Given that you were born in Japan but raised in the United States of America, do you ever feel that your birthplace has had a significant influence on your poetry?

Yes, living in Japan changed my work, as did reading Japanese literature. It is a great country. And the Japanese are the kindest people I have met in my lifetime.

What is your favourite poem that you've read recently?

I read a new translation of a Chinese poet known as Cold Mountain, or Hanshan, a reclusive Buddhist poet of the 7th or 8th century, who wrote about his life alone in the hills.

Much of your poetry presents an alternative vision of masculinity. To what extent do you think that our society is still laden with traditional expectations of masculinity? Do you think that now is an easier time for young men to be growing up than when you were young?

Masculinity is still connected with power and control. I am not interested in people who want to control. I am drawn instead to those who wish to create something. I think it is never easy to grow up. The pressure of conformity and convention is as deadening now as in the past.

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