THE SAME UNIVERSAL URGENCIES: AN INTERVIEW WITH NOAH CICERO ABOUT HIS POETRY COLLECTION "BIPOLAR COWBOY"
JC: Noah, you’ve written a vast amount of prose. The biographical has played an important role in your work. Your new book Bipolar Cowboy, published by Lazy Fascist Press, is a collection of poetry. What prompted this shift to poetry? Could you speak about the technical issues you encounter when writing poetry as opposed to prose? Could there be emotional variations between these forms? I suppose what I’m asking is this: is the impulse to write poems different from the impulse to tell a story?
NC: I was having an emotion, I had something to express, but I didn’t have ‘a story.’ A story is long thing where things happen that connect to each other, and it makes sense somehow. But that wasn’t there, maybe if I was a different kind of writer, the story could have been told, like a writer who writes long compound sentences and lays things out, but my longer fiction usually involves only a few days or weeks of human life. The Human War is only a day and GO TO WORK is only about a month. This story would have required two years of storytelling, which I don’t have the talent for.
In April of 2014 I had so much feeling, so much to express, I just wanted it out of me. And previous to that I had read so much poetry, when I was a school teacher in Korea I had three hours to sit alone in my office and work on class assignments, it only took about an hour to make the class assignments, I was left with two hours of free time but I was not allowed to be on facebook so I found Asian poetry websites and just read a few 1000 poems from Tang China and poems from Korean history, just hours upon hours of reading those poems everyday. I was also reading a lot of Japanese novelists, Kawabata, Murakami, Yoshimoto, Kobe Abe, and zen Koans. I think if a person is a poetry nerd they can see from Bipolar Cowboy that the poet is Western, as in raised in the Western tradition of poetry but the author hadn’t read a Western poem in over four years when writing the book. I didn’t do that on purpose though, like I didn’t have a plan to not read Western poetry for years and then read a 1000 Asian poems and then write my own poems, that was not the plan, it just came out like that.
JC: How, then, did Bipolar Cowboy surface? Did you know the moment you began, yes, here’s a collection of poetry that I’ll call Bipolar Cowboy, or did it accumulate unconsciously, intuitively, not because of but in spite of any application of will to the manuscript?
NC: I had a nervous breakdown right before I wrote the collection, I was having a terrible time, my mind wouldn’t settle down and get normal. A lot of abrupt changes happened in my life in 2013, too many for my sensitive fragile nature to deal with. I couldn’t pull it together. I couldn’t find a job, nothing would work for me, I went and lived in an A-Frame house on an old logging road in Oregon, there I was trapped for two months, no TV, I turned off Facebook, the Internet barely worked, no friends, no solutions, no answers, nothing to cheer me up, at one point it snowed and I was trapped on the mountain for four days, I decided to read Bodhidharma and Zen Koans because what else could be done. I read the line from Bodhidharma, the Red Pine translation on page 13, “The truth is, there is nothing to find.” And then on page 17, “To say he attains anything at all is to slander the Buddha. What could he possibly attain?”
Those lines began to haunt me, more like, a demon was in the room laughing at me, just laughing and laughing and laughing at me, I couldn’t stop crying, I couldn’t stop having panic attacks. It was like all the stupid agony of my whole life came at once, like all the times I had ever worried for no reason, had put myself through so much stress, just to end up what, me, that’s all, I’m me again, everyday I wake up me, the Bodhidharma lines wouldn’t leave, ““The truth is, there is nothing to find.” “To say he attains anything at all is to slander the Buddha. What could he possibly attain?” Just endlessly repeating, like a laughing demon, mocking me and all my ridiculous cares and worries, how I couldn’t let go and just let myself be a me and walk around as a me encountering other mes, everybody doing their me thing.
I eventually lost it, I couldn’t talk anymore, I didn’t know what to say, because everything I knew how to say derived from trying to attain stupid things, it was like, I had to learn to talk again. I drove back to Vegas through the desert, I saw basically only Natives in the desert, it was like a dream, in the deepest sense. I couldn’t talk when I got back, I would just start crying if I started to talk, I think in the 50s they would have brought me to the mental ward and given me shock treatments, but I got on pills and as the months passed I regained a new sense influenced by the Bodhidharma lines.
JC: Over the years I’ve explored Buddhism, particularly Zen Buddhism, though not exclusively. The poems in Bipolar Cowboy strike me as infused with ideas and sentiments drawn from this tradition. You’ve got many poems that seem relevant here: “Moon Head” is koan-like in its question that answers a question; “Note” is a long poem which has an essayistic-like exploration at its center, an exploration that considers ideas drawn from Buddhist teachings; and many other poems, such as “Two Happy Places”, “Cowboy Koans”, “The Old Woman’s Mind”, “Han Shan Gets a Job on Cold Mountain” to name a few, similarly allude to the Buddhist tradition. My apologies for going on here. Can you tell us about your own sense of what this tradition has given you, as a writer, as a poet?
NC: The Western tradition post the Renaissance is largely about alienation, an individual feels trapped in a large society, everyone in the society seems to have a conspiracy against their beautiful notions about the world. This is to me white male privilege, only white males have been allowed to engage in Romanticism as a philosophy, but strangely Jimi Hendrix probably took Romanticism further than any white man could have dreamed of. Basically Romanticism is this thing white males have done, because white males have held the power for the last several hundred years, and these white males got alienated from other white males and created art based off being alienated from other white males. Other subjugated ethnic groups don’t have time for this romantic bullshit, they have to get up everyday and work and find a way to live inside of the confines of white male philosophy, weapons and jobs. I am not an alienated man adrift in a stormy ocean alone, I am a person among other persons, a person that lives alongside animals and plants, I am not a single screaming creature in a crowd, but Buddhism got me a little farther and it says to me, “You are the crowd and not the crowd at the same time.”
In Buddhism one is supposed to find the middle-way, when I was in Korea there was very much a “We are the crowd” kind of outlook, in America, “You are alone” is the outlook. I was and I still do try to find a middle-way between those two outlooks, I am part of the crowd because I require everyone and also the animals and plants to make my life happen, I can’t type this interview without 1000s of other people participating in this grand society, but also if I give up and retreat into my house and do nothing, and so does everyone else, all this falls apart. We are very much part of the world psychologically and physically, but at the same time, it is our own choice on how we want to participate in this world. You have no self but have a self.
Concerning the cowboy theme, cowboys to me, were people who went to the western states of America to escape some misery back home, either in Ireland or New York or whatever, going out west is where dreams are made of, where a person can create something new and beautiful and give it to the world. I’ve heard people say many times, “America has no ethnic culture, there is no history here/there.” I respond, “Yes, and that is what is great about it, it is open for dreamers.”
JC: There are many long poems in this collection, and these long poems seem to be either narrative poems or poems of ‘serial fragmentation.’ Is that a fair assessment? What appeal does fragmentation hold for you? I sometimes find myself marveling at how powerful the fragment is, what poignant beauty it suggests. Does that make sense?
NC: My favorite poem growing up was “Season in Hell” by Rimbaud, I love the fragment, the incoherent, the sound of a fragmented broken shattered mind. I like the idea of incoherence being coherence, because life isn’t coherent. There was this push for centuries by white men from Europe to make coherence out of history and human reality, Hegel and Marx both had these grand ideas how reality makes sense, Wittgenstein said he solved all philosophical problems, like what the fuck? There aren’t any philosophical problems to even solve, there is just a bunch of people talking and talking, because we have nothing else to do.
I don’t believe in a coherence, a world that can be perfectly reasoned out, life is not simple, you can measure it but that’s it. There are no “whys” no definite solutions, no linear A to B to Cs. Life is a cacophony.
But at the same time my poetry is a lot more coherent than most poetry coming out, most poetry these days is mostly a lot of random words jumbled together, basically John Ashbery gave birth to a million little John Ashberys.
My poetry might be fragmented but at the same time I believe it to be coherent, which is like life, life is fragmented but still coherent, if it wasn’t coherent we wouldn’t be able to exist lol obviously.
JC: I have always wondered about the Zen advice that if you ever meet the Buddha you should kill him. Obviously, this isn’t a statement that should be understood literally. (How horrible if it were!) Does this idea have any relevance to your own poetic practice?
NC: That quote comes from Lin Chi, it says, “If you meet A Buddha, kill the Buddha.” Lin Chi isn’t referencing the real Gautama Buddha lol. And what you said was very Christian, there is no need not to talk shit about Gautama Buddha, he is dead, he is a dried turd, he is a dog, who cares. He is not Jesus or Mohammed, we do not have to respect and kill those who do not respect Him on His behalf. Maybe my poetry is about killing everything, maybe I’m about killing everything, should everything die? What that quote means is, should and don’t in theory should not direct your behavior, stress comes from demanding your will on situations, demanding that you control, you feel comfort, you get what you want as fast as you can get it, loving the feeling of power over other people, animals and plants. Demanding that things go your way, that your philosophy is correct and no one else could ever have a philosophy as good as yours, even in situations where philosophy is not required at all. Think about it like this, Las Vegas is pretty campy and shallow, and a person who could say, “What a bunch of campy dumb shallow shit and people.” But a person could easy say also, “Wow, for the first human history the whole fucking world is partying together in peace, which has never happened before.” Just stand in Downtown Vegas and see the different ethnic groups share the same place, talking to each other about their funny lives in Florida, Saudi Arabia, France or Ghana, all of them together, no fighting, no war, together, it is beautiful, it requires no philosophy, just for you, to settle down and look and join it yourself.
JC: You’ve made me want to go to Vegas, stand on a street corner and turn into a pillar of stone, but with eyes to see the spectacle that flows like a river there. Thank you for this wonderful exchange!
Bipolar Cowboy and other titles can be purchased from Lazy Fascist Press here: