Exploring the Fictional Worlds of Poet Tasha Cotter

Headshot for Tasha Cotter, Writer

Tasha Cotter

Your prose poem, “A Lack of Power at the South Central Women’s Clinic” opens with a clean, crisp image of “men in hard hats dart[ing] like bats in a gray air.” Can you talk to us about your process of writing this poem? How you decide when to use the prose poetry form? (Or to blend traditional stanzas with prose poetry, as you do in “Description of a Figment and a Letter to Imagination?”)

Even now A Lack of Power at the South Central Women’s Clinic seems strikingly different from much of my other work, the language and scene feels more raw and exposed. The poem came about when I was in a lobby, waiting to get a physical (it was a requirement before I could work with kids in the schools). Like so many of my poems, I used one element of reality to begin sketching a fictional world. For me, it feels like taking the essence of something and building a world to anchor it.
The poem began like this: I got a journal out and began braiding threads together–segmented thoughts and abstract concepts all started fitting together. The man at reception, the discomfort that arises from the most trivial things. I asked myself what if you were very scared? I tend to be a very discreet person, very secretive too, and so I used a voice much like my own in this prose poem–a form I associate with Baudelaire and the french, that’s being reimagined and redefined by contemporary poets like Sarah Manguso, Laura Kasischke, and Ann Carson.
I sat there scribbling for a while, hoping that I didn’t seem too strange, lost in my frantic little world in the Professional Park Plaza. It was rainy and cold out–a combination that always puts me in a gloomy mood. I remember feeling better once I got most of the poem on the page. It felt like I’d had a parallel anxiety that only found relief once there was something on the page. Odd, I know. The whole business of writing continues to alert me to aspects of myself I didn’t know existed….
You preface “Description of a Figment and a Letter to Imagination” with a few lines by poet Sarah Manguso. Can you talk to us about what draws you to Manguso’s work?
Sarah Manguso has been a very important influence on my own work. My two favorite books of hers are “Siste Viator” and “Captain Lands in Paradise.” I still remember how I felt after first reading her poem “Address to Winnie in Paris.” Dickinson said that she knew poetry by the sensation of “her head being taken off” and whenever I read Sarah Manguso’s work, that’s how I feel. My other two favorite poems of hers include “What we Miss” and “Love Letter (clouds).” The world gets re-ordered when I enter her poems and that’s what I look for in poetry. I was always drawn to the surrealists and the dada movement in Paris always captivated me for that same reason. I love Man Ray’s work and Duchamp’s—when I view their work it’s like something in me is being fed. Poets like Rusty Morrison and Ilya Kaminsky are other poets who just continue to inspire and astound me. They infuse my life with beauty and so I return to them again and again.
The poem Description of a Figment and a Letter to Imagination is something I’ve been working on for about three years now. It’s one of those poems you put away for a while and re-visit every six months or so, tweaking a line-break, checking the language, and basically improving it incrementally. The poem arrived too fast–I’m always suspicious of anything that comes about too easily, even if it feels nearly right. I don’t know where the idea for the poem came from, but when I re-read it a few months ago, I had a new take on it–it felt spacious and airy.
The white space seemed to operate like stage lighting for the beginning half of the poem. For some reason I kept imagining a white landscape when reading the poem–a blank modern shell of an apartment that comes off as distant and cold. The poem seemed to defy intimacy and inhabit it all at once. Now, more than ever, I see the poem being about the possibility of fertility–there’s something about life giving rise to life that seems so mysterious, so unexpected to me. Sometimes I just sit and meditate on what feels magical in an effort to understand it better: the notion of birth, some technologies, computer languages… I am endlessly fascinated by these things.
One of my favorite lines in “She Shouts at the Absence,” is the one that suggests, “Talk like a cowgirl who has chased an animal / For days, in a lonesome expanse of burnt orange country.” How did you arrive at this image? Any desire to discuss the writing of this poem?
I wanted to begin with a directive of sorts. I’d seen it done before and I liked the effect of pulling the reader into this world. I begin with “Go to a party…” and I wanted to continue building this world and guiding the reader. At the time I was living out west, surrounded by a burnt orange landscape. Mountain sage grew wild. I’d never seen anything like that vastness—it’s an image that still stays with me because of how compelling it all was—it just made a big impression. I was living in Colorado and I couldn’t help but think about how land—spectacular places like that—have this ability to minimize all other preoccupations and really transport you out of yourself and out of all that is human. You can’t help but feel small and a little awestruck. You start to question the great mysteries when you’re living in the shadow of a mountain range.
It’s that feeling I was trying to capitalize on when I was writing the lines you mention in your question. When you’re facing something that vast—when you’ve lost something that could by now be anywhere—you can’t help but feel lost and a little hopeless, but it doesn’t keep you from searching, even if what you need remains unreachable. I’ve always looked to the land for contrasts in my work. Naomi Shihab Nye has this line in her poetry about inheriting the ability to stand on a piece of land and stare. She’s not changing it, not transforming it, but looking as if to find something—to receive something just by that gesture of being present. I grew up in the rural south—I’ll always crave a certain amount of distance between myself and the rest of the world.
Some say it’s necessary to find “one’s voice” in their work. They work and work until something stabilizes–the voice, themes, language. To an extent, I understand what they mean. But when I look over my own work there are several personalities present: contradictory theories on life and lots of literary forms at play because I’m constantly experimenting. Maybe there’s a common denominator that I’m missing, I don’t know. The truth is I pay little attention to genre, focusing almost entirely on whatever it is I’m trying to communicate. I’ve written a three page poem before and I’ve written a hundred word story. As a writer, it feels like society wants to find a label for each piece of writing, though I think journals are getting more comfortable with accepting pieces whose form is irregular and resists classification.
Any mentors you’d like to share with us?
I was an undergrad at the University of Kentucky when I met Nikky Finney, who was a hugely important figure in my life. I took two of her courses—Poetry 407 and 507. She was a constant inspiration. She made me think of myself as a writer, constantly treating me like I was a peer. I’d never met anyone like her. Her comments and feedback on my work were exactly what I needed. I remember she had us all keep a word journal in which we were to turn in ten new words each week—a short definition and a sentence on why we chose each word.
I kept my words in a black moleskin journal—I still have it. I remember I logged a lot of hours at the William T. Young library that semester, trying to find the most interesting, most poetic words to include in my journal. I still have that journal—it’s like a treasure chest. She motivated me to think differently and to observe everything. At the time my poetry was rather cryptic, not anchored to the ground at all. She opened my eyes to narrative and accessibility in poetry. I was thrilled when I heard she received the National Book Award in Poetry—it couldn’t have gone to a more deserving poet.
For a long time I called poetry home, though I never, ever called myself a poet. I didn’t even like the term writer. I surrounded myself with books by Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Plath, and Joyce growing up, so I don’t think I’ll ever feel right referring to myself as a writer or poet. I remember in June of 2006 getting a package of books in the mail from Nikky–(all by Guy Davenport) she’d written ‘Poet’ after my name on the front of the package she’d mailed to me. I’ll be honest: seeing that title after my name thrilled me, but, despite being immensely flattered, I rejected the whole thing, opting instead to identify myself as teacher, educator, advisor. Anything but writer. Anything but Poet.
What are you currently working on?
For the last two years I’ve been in the midst of writing fiction. When I heard that The Fertile Source wanted to feature three poems, I felt a bit like a prodigal daughter, finally home after a very long trip away. I re-read the work and began to recall the choices I made. I remember who I am when I return to my old surroundings. There was poetry, waiting for me though I’d been away for some time. There was something comforting about being back–after all, poetry was what started it all for me. It has personally defined me for so long now. It’s been a lens I’ve used to give shape and meaning to my life.
Right now I have two full-length poetry manuscripts in need of a publisher. I’m not very good about entering contests–the whole thing can get pretty costly in no time, so I’ve been doing research on small, independent presses. Although I’m mostly working in fiction, I almost always have a poem I’m polishing–at this point it’s an act that I’m convinced is bound up in my identity. I like the element of understanding and the process of discovery comes with trying to capture the nuance in what I see and what I feel. In terms of publishing, I try to always have some of my flash fiction or poetry circulating among the literary journals. I’ve found that having a background in poetry can be a very useful skill-set for a fiction writer. I’m convinced that working in more than one genre can only improve upon the other.
And Tasha, for fun, we noticed the guitar in the photo on your website. Is music part of your poetry?
The picture on the website was taken at Normandi Ellis’s PenHouse Writer’s Retreat in 2011. It was an open mic event. I will say, though, that the idea of flight and music play a big part in one of my poetry collections. I’ve always been fascinated by bird imagery—Booth published a poem of mine titled “Goldfinches” last year. Some of my work seems to orbit both of those elements. It’s also true that I listen to music a lot when I’m writing. Right now I’m listening to Bon Iver, Lana del Rey, Vetiver, and The Shout Out Louds.
I want my work to be sonically pleasing. Without fail I always read my poems aloud as I’m editing them. I want the sounds to sort of inform each other. If a line feels clunky, or I leave out a word when I’m reading the poem aloud, I know something needs correcting and I’ll work to smooth out the language.
Tasha Cotter’s work has recently appeared in or is forthcoming in Booth, The Rumpus, Contrary Magazine, and elsewhere. Her fiction was recently nominated for a story South Million Writers award, and her poetry has been nominated for Best of the Net Anthology 2011. You can find her online at www.tashacotter.com.

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