KADDISH FOR IRA COHEN – EUROPEAN BEAT STUDIES NETWORK, Vienna, 2018.

The integral text on Ira Cohen was prepared for the EBSN  conference and includes the comments on his Mylar photography.

EUROPEAN BEAT STUDIES NETWORK
7 th Annual Conference
Vienna Poetry School – Künstlerhaus 1050
October 3 to October 6, 2018

4. October

Room B: Beat Arts
Nina Zivancevic : Ira Cohen’s Art (‘Mylar chamber’ photographs and poetry)
Chair: Frank Rynne

KADDISH FOR IRA COHEN

By NINA ZIVANCEVIC

 

I picked up the phone that day and learnt that Ira was gone; no more of his voice that made so many people laugh, so many people happy. I hated the fact that I wouldn’t be able to hear his voice again,

I put on “The Majoon Traveler”, “dedicated to Brion Gysin” , produced by SubRosa, poems and music recorded by Ira Cohen, Paul Bowles, Bryon Gysin, Don Cherry, Ornette Coleman, Angus Maclise, DJ Cheb i SABBAH, music recorded in Marrakesh in 1987.

These names, you could only imagine at your cousin’s Birthday party, in someone’s library and so on…for Ira, they were just a part of his reality. Some of them I met personally either with Allen or with Ira or with Huncke, but one thing was for sure- they were part of his daily experience, his own lifestyle, like Ira was a part of my life, and one thing I know: while some friends of his were taking time to write blogs, blurbs and obituaries- I was simply crying.

In his poem to Cocteau (and this I’ve heard accentuated on the tape), he said:

” Imagine whatever you will

But know that it’s not imagination but experience

Which makes poetry and that behind

Every image   behind every word  there

Is something I’m trying to tell you

Something that REALLY HAPPENED”.  (“Imagine Jean Cocteau”)

So, imagine Ira, imagine that day on which I called him from my small Suffolk street apartment in the city of Nouvelle York, and was ready to go quickly to my legal proofreading job, and Ira had kept me on the phone for hours, and I was laughing and laughing, laughing my job out loud…

He said he has just arrived from Amsterdam, and if I knew there Eddie Woods (they started the legendary Ins & Outs Press) and Louise LL and Simon Vinkenoog- that was a damn good start for our friendship.

“Hey, hey”, he said, if you had known all these people, although I am not on speaking terms with some of them any longer—nonetheless, that must mean that you are a VERY nice person!” He was able to keep me on the phone for hours; in fact, he was the only person who was able to keep me on the phone longer than 5 minutes; I say “I”, but this means, “we”, New York downtown community of a couple of friends, or Upper west Side community of actors including Judith Malina, or the Brooklyn community of musicians, and so on.

But Ira was not only a long distance telephone-chit- chat. He was real true blue, gave me a piece of gold when I was down and out in the street, and told me “Sell it! So that you can get your real apartment!” he had a photographic memory, not only a skill to make the incredible photos, great photographer as he was. Ira was a great traveller as well. Now, the journeys do not make any sense, Ira is gone- good-bye happiness, hello Dr. Nadar and other creepy creatures. Ira had said once “butterfly (meaning me) is small and meaningless, but still it knows how to get to Mexico”- three of us went to the airport and Ira who did not have a ticket literally slid through the door onto the plane, and then we had so much fun on this lovely trip to Cancun and Chichen Itza. At that time it was still possible- no terrorists, no big check-ups, just the journey in itself and pure joy of being alive…

Ira was a great traveller and I had a taste of all his travels that time in Mexico- he was staging his photographs carefully- “now stand over here, and stand there,” we all obeyed his whimsical arrangements- then later we saw ourselves on these beautiful, at times scary photos whose “meaning” was turned upside down to serve his artistic purpose. I saw once a marble pillar sticking like a dick, coming out of my head in the MOMA’s sculpture garden- all this on Ira’s photo of course. At that time I was angry with him for having created such a composition but now I say- there was Man Ray before Ira, and that was IT.

And he was truly international. He often complained of his loneliness. In one of his poems he said

“The way of the artist is lonely…, and people are afraid of them, even God created

People because he was lonely, so lonely must be the worst..”

Like all of us, Aquarians, he feared the loneliness the worst, and he would even go for the company of the silliest people on this Earth- just as not to feel lonely! He held the Aquarians in high esteem- he loved Mozart, he adored Henri—Charles Ford, he loved me (at times his muse and a favourite camera object) and many other Aquarians one would never think of befriending!! He trusted them so much that he never questioned their skills or loyalty, as on that trip to Cancun when he allowed me  to take him on that imaginary plane ticket to Mexico, the trip which was purely conceived with my Aquarian skill- and- manipulation- of- a –tourist- agent method, a lovely trip …but, all this belongs to a diary of a madman such as Paul Bowles, Ира Кохен , or..Angus Maclise. Ira had never liked Allen Ginsberg whom I adored, because he acquired “more fame than him in many ways”. Allen had fame, but he had no children.

The last time I saw the latter he said how much he envied Ira, for having sons; I was on the verge of tears- I was expecting a baby.

Ira came to Paris to be there with me for my delivery; I’ll never forget the day when he arrived in Paris- my term was overdue and Ira was taking me around Paris, making me laugh “so that we push the baby out, so that he can come of quickly”- he was placing different plates and objects on my belly and shooting photos, also reciting his poems from the Akashik  records “I am not a beat/ though I have performed with them all etc./ I am an electronic/multimedia shaman,/ a Naga hipster,/ an Akashik Agent, an Outlaw of the Spirit…

The flower of chivalry/with a sword for a leaf/& a lily for a heart…”

That time in Paris we went to Alejandro Jodorowsky’s cryptic gathering, but later they had a big falling out. I wrote a poem about it much much later:

World Championship in Good Manners

I’m all dressed in black and silver

And I’m carrying Ira’s book of black and silver

There are not too many people in this world like Ira

And there are many people like Alejandro Jodorowski

I hear that once they were friends, now they are enemies,

And all these people around Jodorowski

Are just like him – but I won’t name them

I am at a Judo championship with my son and his father

His father and I used to be enemies but now we are friends..

We never got married but we always have to stay

Together through a lifetime – raising a kid

Is such a long job!

My life is full of incongruence; it’s just the other way

Of saying it’s in contradictions-

Like the fact that I am broke and that I bought

A ticket to London; the fact is

That I don’t like London and I don’t even know

Why I’m going to go there: I am going to visit

My ex-husband who does not love me any longer

But at least he was graceful enough to marry me – so

We don’t have to stay together…

It’s 25 degrees in Paris now, very sunny and

we’re eating pizza before the championship;

my son is a Judoka, a living Buddha who bows

before the adversary just as he gives him

the final blow…

he won a number of gold medals but the best

gift for him is my smile, I drink beer, leave the podium,

let go of him – he will have his own life

and his own loves to handle…

I would see Ira on and off, on our various travels, in London, Paris, New York and Amsterdam. His trip to London in 2007 stayed in my memory, he was very ill, came down with a bad flu, and the art dealers in his October gallery did not treat him correctly, thus I wrote the following:

 

BHUTO Dancers

(for Ira Cohen)

thread of light  this morning

old friends coming from nowhere

going to no place

we are old souls holding

by sheer wit and courage

our encounters repeat light

of multitudes

our repeated lifetimes

(November 2007)

 

In fact, the things turned so sour between him and the gallery owners that I started reflecting deeply on nature of art and the relationship between the artist and an art dealer. It seemed to me that the artist was always an underdog, neither loved or appreciated by the dealers but rather exploited all the way through. Here we had a major artist, such as Ira, seriously ill with high fever, and the dealers were ignoring his condition by setting more and more appointments with art collectors, not allowing his family to hand him a medication that we bought in a local pharmacy for him, so I wrote this angry poem:

 

SIGNS OUT of AN ANCIENT ART HISTORY BOOK

the artist was there and he was happy

he was bright, temporary in his brio,

committed, uncompromising, the uncompromised one,

the gallery owner was nervous and eager to appear

generous, he started barking, showing his teeth and then

his goodwill, he said he was there to help the anonymous

he said he was there to improve the state of arts and

the state, he was not to deal with mental patients

he admitted that they were fragile

the artist saw this as a game of power

he said he disliked the master/slave dialectics

he said he wanted to leave and that he couldn’t care less

as usual, he said he did not care and basically he did not

the gallery owner said that he himself could not care less

he really could not be bothered, he said he was

surrounded by all sorts of artists,

it almost felt like in a mental asylum, he said

he could not give a damn, and why should he?

I said I could not write

this poem I said I could not write a poem unless

it was crystal-clear to me unless something

was so clear that it crystallised a word into an image

a shabby image into a word

I said I wouldn’t have written this poem had I not been

certain of my image   of this sentiment   of this

discomfort turned into words

I said I would not write unless I knew what they

were talking about they pretended they knew

the guttural was beyond the hearsay

the rhymes did not sit well

the sounds could not hold

the images could not stand any pressure

there was no meaning in all this but

in the very essence of things

the meaning of the “less”  prevailed.

 

Perhaps it was our Eastern European background, perhaps it was our “Aquarian Mickey Mauss club” where we both belonged, but I don’t think that anyone understood me better than Ira did, thus he wrote this truly enlightened words for me on a dedication page of  his Whatever You Say May be Held Against You:

“To do it without thinking, that is the best. & for you it is essential.”

I wrote this text without thinking.

                                        II

“Not even photography will get you out of prison”

(Mylar Chamber works)

 

When I quote Cohen, avant-garde poet-cum-photographer-cum-film-maker, connoisseur of the dark sides of life as much as of Rabelaisian humor – I do it out of my “head”, or my subconscious, raking my dearest and nearest memories: I’ve been trying to liberate the space in my surrealist sub-consciousness invaded by Cohen’s images, light and dark, liquid colors stretched all over the brain’s plane for almost a decade – the artist “was here”, very much present, not so long ago.

Photography and the process of taking it used to be for Cohen an act of extreme liberty and an act of liberation, it was able to get us out “of the prison” of our own dwelling, subliminal or real. A Serbian surrealist poet, Djordje Kostic, once said: “Surrealism is not something way beyond the real; it is realism on square!” In one of his poems, Cohen says that he had always tried to say something real, “something that really happened”. His photography really happened, his Mylar chamber theater, his oneiric images happened, as did the act of holding his camera – be it a photo camera or a film camera (for Ira Cohen, the process of making a film was the act of extending his dreamy images into a prolonged movement, the way the best directors, such as Pasolini or Tarkovski, have always done).

We witness this process of ‘extending’ photographs better than anywhere else in Cohen’s long documentary of the Kumbh Mela festival entitled “Kings of the Straw Mats”. This massive gathering is a huge Hindu religious pilgrimage in which Hindus gather to bathe in a sacred river. It is considered to be the largest peaceful gathering in the world with around 100 million people expected to visit holy sites, so dear to Cohen’s heart. The quintessence of Cohen’s art – both in film and photography – may be observed in this film. However, unlike Pasolini or Jean Renoir who observe Indian society as the supreme documentarists (Pasolini in “Notes for a film on India” and Renoir in “Le Fleuve”), Cohen documents the location and transforms his vision into a high artistic experience. He becomes one with the vision of India as he is not a casual observer or just a tourist, a traveler, but absorbs this vast country as a dweller, as a sentient being who has really lived in the sub-continent. However, much like Pasolini, he is also a great visionary-humanist whose Indian themes – religion and hunger –remain forever printed on his celluloid. He sees the “misery of the world” as Pierre Bourdieu qualified the world of the underdeveloped underdogs – Cohen sees the lepers, the blind, the hungry, the religious, but unlike Pasolini, his humanism is complemented and nuanced with his surrealist humor. In his film, a hookah smoker, a leper, a toothless dancer with Death and his orphan – all these are people whose social world of “the untouchables” Cohen treats with his sense of humanity, and with his undeniable feeling for color and a zany, idiosyncratic detail that escapes both Renoir and Pasolini. And whereas Renoir talks about a bride with a husband chosen by her father, in Cohen we see it all – the bride, the ruined childhood, the father and the groom – as witnessed also in his moving photos from his trip to Ethiopia. And again, where the others document and describe the lives of the Indians, Cohen just shoots and records the essence of the Indian spirit expressed in the event of the legendary Kumbh Mela. By comparing Ira Cohen here with his European peers, I want to add that there’s something in favor of Cohen: Ira is a poet and master of contemporary letters, and these facts add to the miracle which was produced in his work. He trusted a 100 percent in the power of the visual. His Mylar photographs are his visual portrayals of people he used to know or did not know, they are speechless, silent, like the deaf parents he grew up with. His documentary, Kumbh Mela, is also silent – bereft of textual explanation it is as non-judgmental as its author –rather a non-judgmental, but critical observation of the world we inhabit, be it in the heart of Africa, Asia or in the midst of his 16-panel Mylar chamber where he was an alchemist, a sort of American Victor Brauner, concocting images out of the mirror-like reflections which emerge from his panels.

II b. October Gallery issue

Five years ago, for his exhibition at the October gallery in London, Ira Cohen chose so-called Mylar and surrealist photographs that were combinations of mimesis and mimicry, assimilation and adaptation of subjects to the semi-abstract forms and floating colors. Cohen studied literature and his observation of the literary world served as the ongoing project. His fascination with this world runs through Ira’s œuvre, though not strictly in a visual sense of the term. Let’s take his portrait of William Burroughs – it is adorned with an image of a cobra in it; it is a diluted Mylar collage which gives us a hint of Burroughs’s strange and idiosyncratic personality. However, In Cohen’s photos, the focus is not on winners and losers, but on forms of togetherness amounting to co-evolution. Central to these comparative observations of forms and colors, is also Cohen’s choice of working not exclusively with black and white photography, but rather with Mylar panels and/or sepia background stills. In doing so, that is, by using Mylar liquid color effects, the artist places another filter between the object and its photographic representation, allowing even for the quotidian to be seen in a new, splashing light. There are portraits of the Living Theater actors which float in front of us, Mary-Mary, then Pamela, followed by his own favorite partners, Petra Vogt and Caroline Gosselin…
In his black-and-white photos, thanks to their stylistic unity, he manages to make supposedly impossible pairings (like the one of a ravished Hans Bellmer doll and his beard) appear reasonable and self-evident. In some cases, as in his black-and-white dual portrait of Carlo Stephanos and myself (circa 1990), individual motifs enter into permanent alliances with other pictures (of a NYC E3rd Street’s mural with the words “freedom now” painted in the background). In some others, like in most of his Mylar photos, these motifs are placed within a succession of contexts.
2.
In one combination, Cohen juxtaposes the face of a rock icon, Jimmy Hendrix, to a floating Mylar sensation of his curly, cloudy hair. What we see in a dialogue here is Jimmy’s fragile face juxtaposed with the structure of his hair as much as the structure of his red gown – these elements come to the fore as well as the slow build-up of Mylar-produced structures of colors. Not only did Cohen’s image combinations change over the years, but also the motifs of his photographs. Whereas initially he focused mainly on liquid, Mylar effect photos thus-producing strange, zoomorphic images of people and things, in the years closer to his death (2011) he increasingly shifted toward surrealist black-and-white settings and portraits. The settings had a message, with a surrealist twist. In the ninth month of my pregnancy, Cohen had staged me and Marc, the father of my baby – in front of a silly Parisian street poster which was entitled “Destiny”. His images increasingly resembled stills from a movie set and this special feeling for a collage, and a theatrical reality was largely picked up from Brion Gysin, that is, from Gysin’s sense for staging sound and light installations. He confided this to me this fact in the summer of 1994.

  1. However, not being a photographer myself, I never felt confident enough to discuss the very technique with which Ira produced his Mylar photos: how he was shaping those already taken images I would not know. The only certainty was my understanding that he fathomed the photographic event as something that could be reproduced (via the negative) or that he himself could even replace that event in the process of developing the image by the unique Mylar treatment of a non-repeatable event on the photo paper. This special treatment of a photograph though, produced a sensation in the viewer that a photograph created through the Mylar chamber was of the sort that was either super-imaginary or infra-real – real on square or phantasmagorical, certainly oneiric. And Ira Cohen himself was exactly like that: infra-real and at the same time oneiric as a person – and phantasmagorical. The intersection of literature and fine art on one side, and life on the other, was Cohen’s ongoing concern. Sometimes he addressed the links between life and its photographic visualization directly, whilst underlining the fact that direct insights into life could not be understood in isolation from the medium of their communication. His photography grants access to our immediate surroundings –it reaches them both as the aesthetic realms and the sites for experimental insight. And it shows that the world around us and the one inside of us are mutually dependent, somewhat shaped by the factors that make out of us simply the parts of a larger whole. This procedure, as such, is an example of the surrealist exercise in the best sense of that word – his art has been an intense, politically determined surrealist lesson in life. I often called his world of images  his own “theater of transcendence”, the theater of the essential human qualities which should neither be qualified as “Eastern” nor as “Western”. It may be seen as global and worldly, but for sure, it is the “theater of transcendence” as it is highly spiritual and cosmic. If we could possibly place such theatre somewhere, we would put it into that “nether” world of Ira Cohen’s Jewish tradition where his portraits appear as DIBUKs or ghosts embodying the souls of his disappeared friends and cousins. These emerged on his Mylar photos under different names and in different forms, but were essentially ancient, Jewish, Hebrew, the way Tadeusz Kantor was with his Cricket theater, or Victor Brauner with his own paintings.. For me, Ira Cohen’s Mylars are the sort of collages or cut-ups  with an esoteric sensitivity coming from Kabbalah, where the floating images drawn from the collective memory of his people spring up and grab us by the heart.

II c.

IRA COHEN: From the Mylar Chamber- (and for the New York Arts magazine)

Retrospective show at October Gallery, London (November 2007-January 2008)

 

The press release for Ira Cohen’s retrospective of photographs contains a saying by Jimi Hendrix, Ira Cohen’s friend from bygone times « Looking at these pictures is like looking through butterfly wings. »

The major show devoted to this unusual American artist is an exhibition of photographs of « reflected human forms in fluid metamorphosis » created by Cohen in the late 60’s at his Lower East Side loft.

This show of photographs which also mirrors his poetry included in it, very much echoing the author’s very life, that is, the miracle that has never stopped happening, can be compared to a sort of white magic produced by an alchemist who turned his back on establishment and then turned towards God, art and poetry.

Ira Cohen’s life is like a well-kept, illuminated manuscript that consists of many internally and externally sparkling events, mythical voyages and legendary encounters which endows him with the real and also poetic privilege to call each and every important artistic and literary figure of the second half of the 20th century by their first names. The last poem in his book « Poems from the Akashik Record »evokes in an ancient Roman style the poet’s intimate relation to life and poetry, or, rather, an attitude underpinned by the radical freedom of his verse that feeds on the peculiar spontaneity with which he can exclaim : « Farewell Burroughs, Ginsberg, Huncke & Leary too/ we who are about to die salute you…/ Return to that light which once you knew/ before you wrote yourself out of this human zoo. »

Broadly speaking, one can say this recent photo retrospective could be seen as a meaningful dialogue with those ordinary, and less than ordinary people who shook the soul of the 20’s century’s intelligence. As a prolonged dialogue with oneself and with the others, it consists of visual recordings of  highly energized conversations, observations and monologues. Eventually, the photographs could be viewed as one long image which does not allow for further divisions. That’s why some of his books were largely divided into two large sections « Poems » and « Photographs » as if a great deal of subtlety were needed to convince the reader that the photographs were not Ira Cohen’s poems and vice versa.

These photographs were not taken by someone who had a revelation or a prophecy while thinking about the Two World towers to be destroyed soon after. They were taken by an authentic New Yorker who was born with the doom theory up his sleeve and has been seeing too much art, too much life, too much death and too much poverty in a single lifetime and who was at his best while describing the following situation in his book:

« On the 23rd Street waiting for the N train/ a black child sings to his robots/ I am going to see the IRIS prints & then to Soho Guggenheim…/ And now I see that Death will ride the N Train/ to the end of the line/ & for a moment I feel safe as feet pass/ over the blue gratings above Broadway.. » (« Akashi Revelation »)

A true artist always feels safe in the company of numerous other fellow human beings. As a matter of fact, it is his lonely quest for the Holy Grail that places him on a cloud made of dreams, poverty, but also of exceeded humanity. That frozen moment of revelation or epiphany is the only one left to him who has always had a lot to say but did not die young, that is to say, Ira Cohen. Nevertheless, he has left the whole fleet of admirable admirals, great visual artists, talented poetic captains and it seems that these huge Mylar photographs, long one-breath sentences were taken in a sigh and a prayer, quiet meditation of someone who knows, in this selfish age of ours, the true value of friendship. He counted among his friends John McLaughlin, William S. Burroughs, Paul Bowles, Brion Gysin, Jimi Hendrix, Vali Myers and Angus MacLise as well as some other members of « the interzone mob ».

Ira Cohen, a legendary poet, voyager and  ‘raconteur’ has known them all, and has known IT all with them and sometimes that « It » comes across as so overwhelming that we’d rather not even ask what it was ! What I find really fascinating about the photographs in this show is their steady Surrealist pace, autonomous and wild at the same time, but following on the other hand the best Surrealist tradition in this or any other country. We should not forget that Ira Cohen is someone who has showed his photography with Man Ray in Paris.

Cohen is the artistic director of Universal Mutant, Inc., a foundation established with the help of Judith Malina, Gerard Malanga, and Will Swofford in order to promote and protect the work of insulate/occult/alternative writers, filmmakers and interdisciplinary artists. In 2006 Cohen’s Mylar photographs were included in the exhibition « Summer of Love » organized by Tate Liverpool, touring throughout Europe and to the Whitney Museum in New York.

 

   III

« Poems from the Akashic Record », and for the ABR

( Ira Cohen, « Panther Books », New York, October 2001)

« Poems From the Akashic Record » is a book of poems which also mirrors the photographs  included in it, very much echoing the author’s very life, that is, the miracle that has never stopped happening and can be compared to a sort of white magic produced by an alchemist who turned his back on God and then turned towards art and poetry.

Ira Cohen’s life is like a well-kept, illuminated manuscript that consists of many internally and externally sparkling events, mythical voyages and legendary encounters which endows him with the real and also poetic privilege to call each and every important artistic and literary figure of the second half of the 20th century by their first names. The last printed poem in the book entitled « Hail and Farewell » evokes in an ancient Roman style the poet’s intimate relation to life and poetry, or, rather, an attitude underpinned by the radical freedom of his verse that feeds on the peculiar spontaneity with which he can exclaim : « Farewell Burroughs, Ginsberg, Huncke & Leary too/ we who are about to die salute you…/ Return to that light which once you knew/ before you wrote yourself out of this human zoo. »

Broadly speaking, one can say this recent book of his poetry- alas, he has not had many of them printed along with his peers on the North American continent, could be read as a meaningful dialogue with those ordinary, and less than ordinary people who shook the soul of the 20’s century’s intelligence. As a prolonged dialogue with oneself and with the others, it consists of snippets of  highly energized conversations, observations and monologues. Eventually, the poems could be read as one long piece which does not allow for further divisions. That’s why the book is largely divided into two large sections « Poems » and « Photographs » as if a great deal of subtlety were needed to convince the reader that the photographs were not Ira Cohen’s poems and vice versa. Sometimes, there is a feeling with regards to both of the two artistic forms presented here that we might be mistaking one for another as, for example, in « Quevedo in New York : The Skeleton Key » (« into the dusk of another New York day/ in the doorway waits the ghost/ of Charlie Parker and down West Broadway/ hangs a neon moon ») and « Optical Time Delay »

( « How fast can you download/your free flight mirrors ? / Fasten the seatbelt & enter/the world of darkness forever. »). These lines were not written by someone who had a revelation or a prophecy while thinking about the Two World towers to be destroyed soon after. They were written by an authentic New Yorker who was born with the doom theory up his sleeve and has been seeing too much art, too much life, too much death and too much poverty in a single lifetime and who was at his best (somewhat like  Frank O’Hara) while describing the following situation :

« On the 23rd Street waiting for the N train/ a black child sings to his robots/ I am going to see the IRIS prints & then to SOHO Guggenheim…/ And now I see that Death will ride the N Train/ to the end of the line/ & for a moment I feel safe as feet pass/ over the blue gratings above Broadway.. » (« Akashic Revelation »)

A true poet always feels safe in the company of numerous other fellow human beings. As a matter of fact, it is his lonely quest for the Holy Grail that places him on a cloud made of dreams, poverty, but also of exceeded humanity. That frozen moment of revelation or epiphany is the only one left to him who has always had a lot to say but did not die young, that is to say, Ira Cohen. Nevertheless, he has left the whole fleet of admirable admirals, great visual artists, talented poetic captains and it seems that these long poems in prose, long one-breath sentences were uttered in a sigh and a prayer, quiet meditation of someone who knows, in this selfish age of ours, the true value of friendship. Among these texts, I found particularly captivating poems such as « For Jack Smith » , a great poet/performer and a filmmaker, « a Garuda on the Bardo wing », an « Elegy » for Brion Gysin, a mythical Surrealist American who lived in Paris and made cut-ups as legendary as Duchamp had his ready-mades, and « He Wears the map of Calabria on his face », a poem for Gregory Corso, the emperor of the Beats who has also expired recently.

Ira Cohen, a legendary poet, voyager and  ‘raconteur’ has known them all, and has known IT all with them and sometimes that « It » comes across as so overwhelming that we’d rather not even ask what it was ! After so many a voyage recounted through this book when one comes across  lines such as the following, one knows that Cohen has lived his life full to the brim and that just a small portion of all that experience has ended in a poem :« Must I read the Science Times to know/that the Monarch’s migration/is a fragile journey ?/…Goodbye Elephant Goodbye Whale/Hello Aids Virus/smaller is perhaps stronger after all/ My dreams were bigger than any whale& sometimes I dove even deeper » (End of a Line)

But what I find really fascinating about the « Poems from the Akashic Record » is their steady Surrealist pace, autonomous and wild at the same time, but following on the other hand the best Surrealist tradition in this or any other country. We should not forget that Ira Cohen is someone who has showed his photography with Man Ray in Paris. What I find really sad and even revolting is the fact that his complex and generous poetic voice has always been hushed or inadequately valued because of circumstances in his own native country that seems to suffer from a mild but constant publishers’ flu for decades. Clearly, this latest book of Cohen’s imaginative poems comes in as the best medicine  and antidote to the inanity of the suffering begotten in these insecure times of human folly, grief and oblivion.

Ira Cohen feature

Ira Cohen in conversation with Nina Zivancevic
New York, 2001

Ira Cohen’s life is like a well-kept, illuminated manuscript that consists of many internally and externally sparkling events, mythical voyages and legendary encounters which afford him the real and poetic privilege of calling each and every important artistic and literary figure of the second half of the 20th century by his or her first name. We tried to focus this particular interview not so much on these figures and the particular encounters that Cohen might have had with them but rather on his own poetic and artistic development that has consistently informed his own unique style.

Ira Cohen: It’s nice to be with you here on the 23rd street coming out of Chelsea Hotel, then reading this particular book and eating Japanese sushi —

Nina Zivancevic: Now that we are talking about all these ‘Japanese things’ — what did it mean to you, your trip to Japan?

Oh, it was wonderful: because first of all, to live in America, as an artist, especially if you are not some kind of a maniac, or some bogus academic creature propped by the media, you don’t get too many perks. Ok, you get some perks — perhaps some people’s eyes shine when they hear you read, or through knowing someone like you I meet somebody that I feel belongs to the same world I live in. Yet, being invited to Japan through a friend was just a lovely confirmation of a common bond and an opportunity to shine in another universe.

How was it different? Was the poetry world different?

Oh, I don’t think that I met so many people in their poetry milieu but many old Japanese poets were brought out. I did not meet Kazuo Ohno there but I met him later in New York and he’s a terrific friend, I photographed him, I hugged him, kissed him, went to his performance here. These were outstanding moments. I met a number of good people in Japan who came to my show and when they came they responded in such a terribly Japanese way by taking me somewhere to a special tea ceremony and then they would point out to me ‘You see, a peony that you have at the bottom of your cup is the same peony that the hostess has wearing on her kimono, which is a special thing, like saying a special hello to you’! That was terrific, you know.
Another person who lives in Okinawa and was a publisher invited me to his house many times. He was very gracious in a way that many people have simply forgot in the world we live in! Then, sometimes they would give you a cigarette without asking and you can ask anyone for a cigarette, people smoke there and true friendship, of course, is worth the price anyway. I was saying: Hey, it’s a beautiful camera and he said: do you want this camera? I said: No, I can’t take your camera! And then he was trying to push it on me — but just the idea and that feeling of generosity were special!
Then someone came to see my reading and left a note and a gift — some expensive japanese music that I was interested in. The cost of an LP could vary at that time from $10 to $60 and so it was an expensive gift. In the note that came with it, written in a slightly halting English, one could read ‘Now that I’ve seen your photos I can kill myself’! So, I’m just thinking of certain moments there.
Then, when I went to Okinawa I met with some university professors who invited me for a dinner in a special, very old inn in a traditional style — there was a Japanese woman taking me around, and we were drinking and any time we had another round, any time the glass was empty the duty of the person sitting next to that person was to fill the glass for him. So after a while the atmosphere became a little loose and I’ve heard one of the professors say ‘I have heard that you are the real thing and I can see that you are’!
This would be something unheard of in our society, if someone tried to say something like ‘Ira Cohen is the real thing’ people would immediately try to put you down after that. They always say in America: ‘Have you ever published anything?’ And I say, you see my beard, you think I’m sitting around like a kid saying things?’ Then I would say ‘I’m just a poet’, but I’d never say ‘I’m a poet’, I say ‘I’m a just poet’.

 

When did you start playing with words? Did your reading of poetry come first, or writing it?

You know that my parents were deaf — my mother was a saint and my father was a frustrated clever man, he was frustrated because he lost his hearing at the age of two and was a serious diabetic. But he had never satisfied some other longing that was in him, I mean, he had a capacity, he was a very smart guy. He told me when I was a kid that he was the only deaf guy in his deaf club with a ‘second emotion’. Anyway, growing up with the deaf parents and the idea that the relationship to communication is very unique sign language — which was a very important first language for me, although I never became a true master of that language except in the sense that Charlie Chaplin could be called a master of sign language, but I learnt the gestures, I learnt the visceral, the words that you’re trying to express, that you become the thing that you’re talking about…

Did this experience give a special dimension to your language?

My father was a wierd deaf person — he was a prankster in language, he liked punning, so a typical thing that I remember is that I liked baseball — then he would spell it out for me and say in his deaf voice, something like ‘baseballology’. He could make up words like that and make a joke like that. The punning came up easily in a sign language. The deaf person could be a man with a thousand faces and I feel relatioship to that. In all the mylar photographs (which I was doing before I started make only photographs), I was directing and playing different roles.

I think that you told me once that you first started writing and then taking photographs.

Yes, maybe. First I did not have a camera, but I was reading a lot — children’s books about dogs and horses, novels about Franky Flyer etc., when I went to college at the age of sixteen I began looking for other books, I went to the library and I saw Franz Kafka’s The Castle. I read the book and I started reading all the books that I could find of Kafka, then I found all the books of Thomas Mann and I read them..

So, that was a lucky incident that you ran into all these great ones!

Oh, my life is full of that — it’s not even lucky incidents, it’s just following the wind where it blows you — one thing leads into another, I mean when you read a lot of books you find that other people get mentioned in the introduction or in the poems, and these are the ones you read next. Although poetry is always more difficult than reading novels or certain other things.

Who was the poet who influenced you the way you said Kafka did, the one you said ‘wow’ when you read him?

When I was fifteen or sixteen I discovered Dylan Thomas, he was on the record so I could hear him read — I say that I used to read his poems out loud to friends and girlfriends — ‘Do not go gentle into that good night, but rage, rage against the dying of the light’, so I started reading my own poems like that but with a different rhythm, but that turned me on to the idea of reading… But there were so many other poets that I loved and was inspired by — I have the ability to read in French and in Spanish, a bit in German…

Yes, you have a penchant for Surrealism…

Yes, I love Apollinaire, but also Spanish poets, old poets such as Gongora or Quevedo, or newer ones —  Lorca, Neruda — they can give you an idea of how great a poet can be in that language. Speaking of my favorite poets such as Lorca and Neruda, you feel that someone like Neruda touches on the sentimental in a way that no one else does, you don’t find that in Dante… And Lorca is so decadent and so romantic and lyrical…

I find a lot of Rilke in your poetry…

Well, perhaps one should not speak of Rilke yet. Nevertheless, I want to say that in the works of the poets I mentioned there’s no ornamentation and that’s what matters in my mind when I sit down to write a poem. Also the essence of what they’re writing about, is deep and touching and meaningful to me. The subject matter is important to poetry — these are just ‘arpeggios’ and other things and that’s one thing that most of all I find lacking in many poets who have the reputation of being good poets.
There are millions of ways to make a poem, to make even good poems, and I know quite a few ways how to make them; these are called ‘tricks of the trade’ — ‘trick’ sounds like a word that one should be ashamed of using, but everybody uses something that you either call a trick or knowledge, and ‘collage’ more than ‘appropriation’ is the word that appeals most to me. ‘Appropriation’ seems ridiculous to me, and I could never understand the poet who uses 40 or 50 words from Ezra Pound’s and ends his poems with those exact words, but I commented to him on what he was saying in those lines — I took it so personally because his poem was dedicated to me and I said ‘those last lines — were those really the lines that you wrote directly to me?’ and then he told me that it was Ezra Pound, and that’s one thing.
But the ‘collage method’ is like there is million sounds and million voices, so the option is that you have a contemporary person who takes things from other sources, Shakespeare did it too, but you have the option to create something as if you were creating an opera, of all different voices which come from over the radio, the TV, from books from snatches, from lines in newspapers, from overheard conversations — I don’t express that as the main thing, but I am open to it, because everything that I use must be something that I’m feeling myself strongly and then I ‘tack it on’ as my sale, as my feelings that I’m having. And I love it all, wherever it comes from: Japan, the Serbian poets that I read in that anthology The Horse Has Six Legs. [Compiled , edited and translated by Charles Simic, Graywolf Press, 1992.] I was amazed how uniformly good I found all those poets and how close they were to my own soul, as compared to a book that I found coming out of the St.Mark’s scene, published in the late sixties where I saw that there was a uniform style, and I was trying to get on it to see what’s really there, and I realized that I just couldn’t care less for the world that all these people were expressing! Even when they got to see it!

So it means that the language of poetry is really universal — it doesn’t have to be limited to someone’s particular experience such as ‘I eat Sushi… and I understand only people who eat Sushi’…

Yes, it’s good to draw what your world is, but just to write poems about what happened while you were making trivial phone calls… I mean, I use stuff like that in my poems but I wouldn’t make that the whole body of the thing. When you finaly boil down certain poems of that style, sometimes there’s very little left in the end once you discarded all the personal references and all the ocassional stuff! I was reading several poems which were just lists of all what I do every day, and the things in them are so mundane. Things that we do every day: a Surrealist would make a rather different list and then it would be true, if it was good, and a challenge to his imagination — one could say like ‘I milk my giraffe in the morning before I have breakfast, then I take a shot of marinated clouds in my syringe, which I inject into my pineal gland’! Oh, I don’t know — I shoot insulin every day, so there is a way to mythologize and fantasize around, if you are a Surrealist, or have a Surrealist tendency, you’d be doing that.
I am neither of those things — I am neither Beat, nor a Surrealist, I am not a Dadaist — I am just Ira Cohen, and I’ve been open to every influence that comes on my horizon and some of these things — depending on how you absorb them — may take over and provide a certain style. Rilke, whom you mentioned earlier, talked about this beautifully in ‘Malte Laurids Brigge’ — he talks about something like taking in these words ‘but you have to let them become yours’.

What comes to you first — words or photographic images, or, in other words, what is the first thing that you grab in order to record something — a pen or a camera?

No, no, feelings are a little bit different; I have to search inside myself for something, I have to be a real pearl-diver to start working with a pen, I mean, it’s like pearl-diving. Photography is like throwing a net in the sea full of fish in a way. I mean there’s a million images everywhere. And it’s just a question of click, click! I mean somewhere along my eye there is, my choice too, but to choose in photography whatever it is, I’m making it work. And I like to photograph the things that are personal to me and sometimes it appeals to my eye but more often, it really appeals to something else in me that is looking for images.
Yeah, I mean if I see something interesting in an image I’ll do it, but sometimes I’ll photograph something in the apartment or just parts of the apartment realizing I put ten things in that space and that I can move one thing over and it’s some kind of collage , rephotographing one photograph of mine together with some other object, say a sea shell or the inside , the core of the sea shell which is like a sector of some piece of science fiction architecture which I got in Mexico when we were together, on the Isla de Mujeres, do you remember that?

Oh, who could forget that trip! But, Ira, you’ve travelled to so many places and also you lived in so many places — what really amazes me is your steady practice of reading and writing that you’ve kept on wherever you went! Could you tell me though, as you lived for longer periods of time in places such as India, Nepal or Morroco — once you landed in that particular place and culture, did you have a habit of reading the respective literary heritage of the country you lived in?

Yes, to a certain degree, but I read a lot of Pausanius while I was living in Nepal. I also read the biography of Lucky Luciano, because certain books turned up there. Reading Pausanius and certain Greek things were very special to me because in a way I though I was living in a world and the century that was not so far from what ancient Greece was. And that all of the temples described there in Greece that had skulls on them – that’s like the Nepali temples! And sacrifice and things like that. It was hard to get certain books there… but somebody came there and gave me the book Poet in New York of Federico Garcia Lorca, of course I loved Lorca and I started looking at the book and I realized that Lorca died when he was 37 or 38, that’s when they killed him, and that I was around 37 or something like that when I got the book, and that if he died a couple of years after I was born, two or three years. Technically, if he hadn’t been killed, he could still be alive and be 76 or 77 years old — I was about 38 years old, which would be almost the same, you know what I mean? So, give or take a year or two I had this model in my mind and as I started reading the poems I thought he could still be alive , I could be the extension,  so I decided in a certain way , I really opened myself up to the spirit of Lorca as if he could come into me so I wrote this poem in unison with Garcia Lorca.
If you write poems, I’m sure you’ve had these experiences in which someone’s spirit suddenly comes into you, or maybe it’s someone you’re addressing the poem to, so I felt that it was what happened there. There was my poem .I wrote that it takes its rhythm and spirit from Edgar Allan Poe, but I’m describing something in my own life – and that was Poe that came into me when I was writing this poem!
And there was a poem that I felt that Dylan Thomas was in me while I was writing it – something like ‘writing a requiem in the absence of eagles’, I can’t remember it but just the whole tone of it and the whole rhetoric and then I though: I could sort of feel that Thomas lived in me when I wrote that poem. There is even a Hebrew word, Cabbalistic Hebrew word for something that I just described: something like being invaded by a dead spirit.

Do you understand Hebrew yourself?

A little bit, when I was young — not as a scholar but as a kid who attended Bar Mitzvahs and things like that… (Ira starts singing a prayer in Hebrew)

Ira, if someone had to tell you: from now on you cannot perform poetry, you just have to write it down, what would you say? How would you react?

I’d say ‘it’s boring’.Because for me the biggest pleasure is reading poems out loud — I started doing that with the poems of Dylan Thomas before I had my own poems to read. And I know that this whole idea of giving poetry readings is something that is associated with something in our time, connected to the Beat movement — that poets get out and read their poems. There were poets like Vachel Lindsay and earlier poets who did that in the 1920s but this is not a typical thing for poets worldwide…Although I think they were doing it in ancient Rome, you know, and I can imagine that in the U.K. – Wordsworth and Coleridge did not necessarily sit around reading to each other, but I wouldn’t be shocked if they did.
I learn something about the poem every time I read it, I get more connected to the poem, I can play different notes on my saxophone when I read it on occasion, especially if the music is accompanying me and it’s good; and takes me into different direction. But if I don’t read a poem out loud, at least to myself — I’ll always do that — or read a poem to someone I’m talking to on the telephone, that’s the way that I see that a poem works.
Because if there’s something wrong with it, I notice it immediately when it goes through my mouth: that the word is an extra word, it’s not quite right — something should be pulled out, or that I am rushed through that part, or whatever. And also, I also build confidence in a new poem that way; I’ve written poems which in the end I think of ‘great’, or ‘very good’ and there’s a couple of poems in a new book which Romy and Foxy are bringing out, and I think when I look at them – they are worth reading!

Let’s take a look at your new book. Are the images, that is, your photos, in Akashic Poems  related to the poems the way they precede or follow the poems?

Yes, there is a relationship — first, they are part of my world — Mikki’s (Maher) name is mentioned in the ‘Dolphin text’, the book is dedicated to Gregory (Corso), there’s a poem written for Gregory by me and Allen Grubard together and there’s a poem for Gregory in the beginning, the text opposite, the Jack Smith is opposite a text written for Jack when he died, and there is some reference point that connects them up — I just chose the pictures and the connection points. Look at Brion Gysin — what’s opposite? — There’s a eulogy for him, and you see the footnote there? I said ‘This was written in Paris for Brion Gysin when I met him in 1961.’ I realized after he died that I’d written his eulogy the day I met him. That’s the kind of magician Brion Gysin was. There’s my mother, Lakshmi, Carolyn…Are they magicians?
I don’t know, if they are shamanic and magical that’s all the best — but I am interested in that power. In the power of transformation, I mean not just in power, I am not Henry Ford! Brion was a charming debonaire — he was an elegant Carry Grant of the underground, I’d like to say, and Jack Smith was the most audacious genius I’ve ever met, transmitting ‘by male fire inspiration to others’, which he did. Each of these people were kings, and magicians if you will.
And there’s my daughter — I could compare her to Kumari if I want to, but she’s my daughter. My mother, who was a saint, a deaf saint, and I have a lot of friends as you know and I could have put other people in here but this is the cast I chose for this book.
I think we talked about a lot of good things, about poetry that is germane. Once Gerard Malanga asked me what I thought was a rather uninteresting set of questions. But to one question I gave a really good answer. I was lucky because I could have fallen into a glib stupidity of my own. When someone says why do you write — what would you say? It is easy to say ‘oh, because of… blah, blah’, but I’d like to give a really good answer, not just a glib answer. So he was asking ‘where does poetry come from?’ So I said I thought of the book by Lawrence Van der Post which is called The Kalahari Bushmen and was about the Kalahari bushmen, or the lost world of the Kalahari, whatever, and it describes the Kalahari bushmen travelling all over the desert. And the way they conduct their whole life is by following lightning and thunder. That’s their whole life. Why? Because wherever lightning goes, water is sure to be found, and they are in the desert. So, if they see lightning down there and they see it in the desert on a probably clear horizon they follow that lightning and then they find water which is life! And I said to him that I would say that the poetry can be found in the same way. That’s how I feel about it. Whenever you follow the lightning, you’ll find a poem there.

 

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