On the central tensions of being

An interview between Christy Davids and Allison Cobb

Photo of Allison Cobb (left) by Kerry Davis.

Note: Allison Cobb is the author of four books, most recently After We All Died, which was published by Ahsahta in late 2016. Her poetry is invested in locating the self in the landscape of the world, and does so with an eye toward ecology and an ear toward music. Her work incorporates research, considers historical and scientific contexts, and regularly plays with the boundaries of poetry and essay. 

One can describe After We All Died as ecopoetics with a pop-culture heart. In the following interview, Christy Davids and Allison Cobb talk about the roles that levity and language play when attempting to understand the self in relation to the Anthropocene. After all, what’s an “I” without the social, cultural, ecological, and political circumstances that shape it?

This interview came about after Allison Cobb and Sue Landers read in Philadelphia on September 24, 2016 for Charmed Instruments, a series that is curated by Christy Davids and Andrew Dieck. In this conversation, Cobb discusses her writing process, the significance of the material body, and using poetry to explore new ways of living in an increasingly uninhabitable world. 

The conversation between Davids and Cobb that became this interview took place on March 1, 2017. — Christy Davids

Christy Davids: After We All Died begins with forgiveness. In “I Forgive You,” the first poem of the book, you chronicle our parts — annals of what’s there — the specifics of what makes all of us up, and directly address the body: “I forgive you every part performing all the intricate and simple tasks that make this mass alive. I forgive you all for already having died.” Why does this book begin with forgiveness, and what does that forgiveness enact?

Allison Cobb: What I wanted to explore in this work is the sense that we’re at this crisis point for the planet and our own social institutions. We are the inheritors of a violent, exploitative culture. We live in a nation built on genocide, slavery, and the ethos of maximum exploitation of resources. None of these are things we chose for ourselves, but we live them. So I wanted to start with a sense of forgiveness because I think there can be a lot of immersion in guilt about those situations, and I feel like that is a waste of energy. I wanted to move past guilt, into acceptance and forgiveness in order to get beyond the sense of disaster and toward something new. That’s why the book is called After We All Died, because I wanted it to be a kind of coming to terms with the fact that this is not a viable economic or social construction that we’re living in, and that’s become evident — so let’s just accept that and find a new way of living.

Davids: So there’s this constant grappling with the inherent and inevitable part of our existence that the end is imminent — and not just in a classic death drive kind of way, but death in this greater ecological/philosophical moment that seems really important throughout the work. I found this book so incredible and rewarding and validating, but it’s difficult to have the experiences that you abjectly participate in, the things you’re writing into, laid so bare. Is that part of the desire to forgive — to get through the struggle that is fueled by anticipating the end, the death?

Cobb: That’s exactly right. We’re all complicit. We’re all caught, in a sense — we are all caught in the net and we form the net, so how can we think outside of it? And part of it is getting past that mourning. You know, I have been talking to a lot of colleagues in the environmental field where I work, and also poetry colleagues, and I have attended events like the Ecopoetics Conference in Berkeley a couple of years ago, and there was this tendency that some people at the conference pointed out — this anticipatory mourning. There is an almost melancholic, romantic tone that can happen, and there can be a kind of pleasurable charge in that, which I find a bit disturbing — as if we can get caught up in enjoying our own self-hatred and guilt, and get pulled into that morass. I am in that too — certainly, I feel those instincts — but I wanted to try to move beyond them.

Davids: For sure. And this is a very related question to that notion of transcendence you’re talking about: a body is sick, a body tries to control the world it lives in (encroaching ants, sugar intake, a house and its asbestos), a body acknowledges all of its complicities in the destruction of itself and its greater habitat while struggling with the notion that humans have and destroy those very habitats. These poems point so starkly at the relational cycles of human existence, the ironies and violences there. Do you view After We All Died as a kind of guidebook for coming to terms with the Anthropocene and its consequences? 

Cobb: I feel like it’s nothing as conscious as a guidebook. It was more just an expulsion of grief, sorrow, and rage about the current situation from within my own body. I had been working for several years on a different book called Plastic: an autobiography (a portion of which was published by Essay Press in 2015). A lot of that book is prose, or what looks like prose, and research-based grappling with some of those issues around the Anthropocene. And the more that I kept writing that book, the more exhausted I got; I wrote myself into an exhausted depression, and I put it aside. Then this book, After We All Died, came out as a kind of dirge, a release of the grief and rage that I had been storing up while writing Plastic. So I don’t know that it’s a guidebook, but it was a release for me. 

Davids: The word “coping” kept coming up for me as I was reading — the process of dealing — and poetry as a space in which healing can take place. One of the ways the text copes is through the use of contrasting sets of registers: the high and the low. In the writing, opposites work together by transcending the rigidity of opposition and endeavor to create a space for actual coping. For example, the seeming frivolity of popular culture — Taylor Swift, Jaws, Justin Bieber, Build-a-Bear, Sister Sledge, Poison — achieves a weightiness, a kind of legitimacy, because of our sheer need to escape the death we are all already born into. Talking about pop-stars, you write, “I drop these names / so my young friends will / not forget me,” suggesting a desire for relevance, the idea of keeping the work “alive” in a book that’s all about confronting so many kinds of death. I wonder, how does this poetics of contra work, what do you hope for it to do?

Cobb: I take popular culture really seriously because I see in it a mirror that reflects our cultural lusts and longings and desires. Pop music in particular is really good at distilling desire, and I’m interested in the ways that those deep things in us as individuals — our fears and our desires — feed the global machine of racist, heteropatriarchal capitalism, and how it in turn feeds us. It’s a kind of loop. And the terms really are death: global death, species death, even our own deaths — like being hooked on the sugar juice of capital, whether it’s food, or credit. So, I find pop culture to be really, really serious, and that’s why it is so present in After We All Died, because it is a very important mirror.

The idea of relevance is a funny joke because I’m a white middle-aged woman, and I am experiencing — in my body and in the world — becoming middle-aged, and the reality of becoming invisible in a way that a younger person isn’t, a younger woman isn’t. That’s been a very interesting moment for me over the past four or five years — I’m 46 — to experience this shift in my social position that is really tactile and real. So “relevance” is a kind of nod to that experience.

I also think it’s really smart, the contradiction that you point out about the work being “alive” amidst all of this death. That’s a core contradiction in the book. It feels like some of the most alive poetry I’ve written. I do think that there is a kind of wonderful freedom that could come from saying, “Well, everything is already dead! This is not working!” I experience this sentiment along with the kind of compassion that comes with forgiveness, and it is perhaps especially something that white people need, who have been the putative beneficiaries of a system that’s really killing all of us. I feel like saying, “It’s ok. We can let go. Let’s mourn our illusions about what was good in this way of living on the planet, and release it.” That gives a total freedom to find out what else could work, and also maybe some courage. There’s a great quote in Alice Notley’s new book, Certain Magical Acts. I feel like Notley has already thought of everything I might ever discover. She writes: “Once, no one was afraid / because they knew that they were already dead.” There’s a sense of being able to do something you might not dare to otherwise, and that’s a real aliveness, which fed me as I was writing.

Davids: One of the things that gives the text motion is — twee isn’t the right word at all — but it’s this really sharp irony that’s so self-aware, and the mixing of different registers in terms of “high” and “low” culture, which gives the speaker’s voice (or your voice, however you prefer to talk about it) an energy that pushes the language into motion, propelling the reader through these topics that are super difficult and super personal. This approach allows national and global problems to register in highly personal ways for both the speaker and the reader. And the level of irony throughout the book does really interesting work to give the poetry motion, this “alive” quality you’ve identified. Is that something that you were consciously doing? Is it just how the work came out? Obviously you crafted the work into what it became, but were these qualities there from the start?

Cobb: Yeah. I think that was part of the register that was coming out of my own rage and grief. There has been a mode of irony in poetry for some time that has an intellectual, nihilistic stance, and I have not felt drawn to that ironic stance because it feels distanced and removed.

Davids: Yes! It makes me tired.

Cobb: Yeah, it feels like it’s covering up more than it’s releasing. And there is a power relation there. I don’t find much vulnerability in that work. I think, if anything, the tone of After We All Died leans more toward bitterness, but I hope that’s also leavened by other elements in the work.

Davids: It definitely is. Rather than being devastated by the work, and feeling the need to lie down immediately after reading, the levity is a feature of the work that pushed me through the text. 

After We All Died offers a constant toggling between asserting and understanding the self in relation to a greater investigation of the human drive to preserve selfhood, establish singularity, build legacy. At one point, the speaker chastises herself for slipping into a confessional mode: “Oops, confessional territory. Sorry. It’s a first / -world problem,” which made me laugh out loud. But autobiography is a feature of this work — in fact, it’s a feature of all of your work. How do you engage the lyric in your poetry, and what role does the “I” have in a culture that you identify as one which already has what you call a “‘what-I want’ lens on the world”?

Cobb: For me, and maybe for everyone, that is a central tension of being: the fact that we really are the stars of our own movies, but we are also always in relation, we fit into something bigger. We want to be in relation, and we need to be — we wouldn’t survive without others. It seems like being human is figuring out how to exist at that interface of self and other. On the other hand, being born and raised in Los Alamos where the first atomic bombs were made — not that I particularly took an interest in that as a kid or as a teenager — did infuse me with the sense that my autobiography is embedded in a much bigger, weightier history. Of course that’s true for everyone, but, in my case it was so present. 

Davids: That’s interesting. If I can push this a little bit further, would you consider the confessional mode that shows up in this text a social act?

Cobb: I think the social act is always placing the confessional mode in its bigger context. I want to try to develop this awareness of how embedded everything is. I don’t even know why, it’s just an instinct — my book Greenwood did that, Plastic: an autobiography did that. I like to pick something and trace it out as far as it can go, and I feel like that is true of the self too. I have an “I” and it’s the star of my own movie, but it’s embedded in all these other networks, which means the “I” has a double-awareness. And it is fun to be confessional, it’s hugely indulgent to be the star of your own movie! But then you have to ask, “Well, what is that movie?” and “Why do I get to be the star?” and “Who else gets to be in that movie, and in what roles?” — all those other questions emerge. 

Davids: Right, and those are important questions because they do the work of mirroring both the micro problems and the macro problems of being an individual in this culture and attempting to navigate that experience ethically.

This discussion of the desire you have to explore or push the limits of meaning transitions into my final question really well; and it’s a question that’s ultimately about language. In the text’s most intense moments, when the weighty threads you have so skillfully braided together reach maximum tension / when histories and ideologies collide and break open — their own deaths enacted on the page — you turn, always, to language. Because all words carry the burden and malleability of their own multiplicity, you show readers how words break into parts, their histories become linguistic particles, a gesture that echoes back beautifully to the opening section of the book. In a way, the OED is used as tool for crisis management, not like throwing water on a fire, but like learning how the fire burns in the first place. What is it that you believe language can do? I’m wondering why this turn to etymology is the default. And of course you could say, “It’s because I’m a poet!” But I wonder what you have to say about that. Is engaging language a way to temper the stress of our own destruction? And, based on what we have been talking about, is that breaking-down of the language a way of celebrating our demise? 

Cobb: I love that. When you say the OED is used as a tool for crisis management, it totally is, but the crisis is more like the crisis of my own creativity. I started getting obsessed with word etymologies when I was writing Greenwood. It became a kind of aid to composition when I wasn’t sure where to go with a word, so I would look to the root of the word to see what is packed into it and what could be unfolded from it. It’s the same instinct we were talking about earlier: attempting to see the networks that everything is embedded in, including language. American English is so awesome for that because it’s made up of so many other languages — our own colonial history, the record of past conquests and survivals — it’s all in there, so you get a big sweep of human history through language alone.

I am particularly interested in poetic language as opposed to any other form of writing because it’s bodily — there is rhythm and sound. I often compose by sound simultaneously with meaning, or even a bit before meaning. So when a poem, for me, is working, it’s fundamentally rhythmic; it has found a rhythm, and then the meaning can flow from there.

Davids: I love that instead of a Cartesian division — where language is aligned with the mind and therefore at odds with the body — that for you language is so grounded in the body. Of course, After We All Died is a book that’s all about the body, so I like that there’s this confluence of the material body and the text as a material body, too. 

Cobb: I think that’s why this book was so satisfying to write, and it’s why I went away from the Plastic book and this book came out. I reached a point in my life where I really needed to pay attention to what was happening in my body, before which I had existed primarily in my head. And we don’t live in a culture that welcomes the messy, amorphous, leaky body. We like to have order. We worship technology. We like perfect bodies, but we don’t like real bodies. We don’t like dead bodies, and we don’t like live bodies. And I’m quoting Audre Lorde when I say that paying attention to the body and its own kind of knowledge is a pretty revolutionary act in our culture — in fact, I think it’s going to be core to our survival. 

Davids: Most definitely, I wholly agree.