By Evan Mantyk

A veritable Renaissance woman, Sally Cook is both an accomplished poet who’s regularly published in National Review and an accomplished artist whose paintings are on display at the Burchfield Penney Art Center, of the State University of New York. Her recent poem on the demerits of Walt Whitman caused quite a stir of comments and I was eager to learn more about this unique and stirring voice.

Question: Why is poetry in rhyme and meter—which are very much ignored and in some cases looked down upon by the poetry establishment—still important?

Cook: Life is a matter of waves and phases. Art is a summary of life. In poetry, among other things, that means using tools such as form and meter , color and design. People are comfortable with these symbols, and why shouldn’t they be?

There is, as always, a current way of thought which conformists follow. Though they say they believe in “freedom” I doubt if many really know what that means.

They are simply taking the easy way out. Some, however, do see the larger picture. And just the fact that The Society Of Classical Poets can exist means that the opportunity for a groundswell is there, and that there are others who see it too.

Question: How did you first get started as a poet?

Cook: I started my creative career as a visual artist. As a young art school graduate, I was attracted to a comparatively new movement, Abstract Expressionism.  It was a new and ‘exciting time, and like all students fresh from the classroom, I was naturally rebellious. But as I got into it I quickly discovered this was a shallow, manneristic style requiring little skill  and easy to fake. I was reminded of my art school studies and experiments, and soon returned to my work in Magic Realism.

As I delved into poetry, I began to see parallels to what was happening to the visual arts. Gradually, any intellectual challenges were said to be unnecessary; and structure, subject matter and meaning were becoming irrelevant.

I intensely dislike the current vogue for absence of subject matter or recognizable human themes of beauty, dignity and  purpose. Yet at the time, no one seemed to think that was a serious concern.

Question: Who are your three favorite pre-modern poets? (You can add a list of runners-up too if you like).

Cook:

1.Almost all the lyricists from The Book Of Ayres, such as Campion, John Bartlett, and others, who, after 600 years remain evocative, clear, and contemporary in feel.

2. William Blake (for his mysticism, humor, and stubborn individuality).

3. Emily Dickinson, for her powerful, compressed descriptive ability (though I do wish she hadn’t used so many dashes).

RUNNERS UP

Shakespeare, of course, (or whoever he was,) for his wide range of understanding, and impeccable ability to write on it.

I like Keats for clarity and imagination. Wordsworth, all of the humorous Victorians—Lewis Carroll, W.S. Gilbert, and others (whose arrows always deflate the pompous).

Question: What classical artists have inspired you?

Cook: The painter I love best is Piero della Francesco, with Giotto as a close second. They understand  man’s place in the order of things, which enables them to delineate the boundaries of their world with an amazing freshness.

But I take my inspiration from myriad sources. One can learn from both the knowledgeable and also from strong affinities.

For instance, I revere the figurative painters of the Early Renaissance, though while I see them as one of the high points of human achievement, I don’t copy them. To me, that would be an insult to all that they stood for.

It doesn’t stop there. Because I had developed the bedrock of my personal style long before I heard of the twentieth century Magic Realists, I cannot say they influenced my early ideas.  However, once I discovered them, I found they had many things to teach me about mood and figure placement.  My creative life began as a painter, and this duality has continued to influence my poetic work.  As a portrait painter, I’ve always been annoyed by stiff, conventional portraits which sacrifice design and personal detail for an official version of the subject. After all, a good portrait is a painting first.  So often I’ve been bored by those bland, expressionless ghostly figures possessing only head and shoulders, and wondered why the artist has arbitrarily chopped off parts of the sitter’s anatomy, especially hands and feet, which are notoriously difficult to draw. Perhaps that’s why.

What I try for, verbally and visually,  is a portrait that speaks of the total individual.  Often, in paintings,  I surround a figure by emanations of dots which express the inner person. In my poems, I use landscape as a metaphor for the human condition. Though I rarely paint something that is wholly landscape, bits of it– stylized flowers in a vase, a landscape through a window, tend to spring up to enhance a painting.

Question: What inspires you most to write your own poetry?

Cook: I’ve always written, so there was no plan to it. In my mind visual arts and language both have the same sources and are nourished by the creator’s experience. I respond to nature, nature morte, the perspective and subsequent focus of the speaker.

For a few years I had little  time for anything but survival, and my writing was sporadic. Later, we lived upstairs in a red house to the side of a lovely park. Our Victorian landlady always had a pile of interesting publications on her cellar landing. Occasionally, I would leaf through them. I came across one that was looking for poetry submissions,  sent in some poems, and was accepted. They were early poems, but this opportunity pushed me off center and got me started again. I went on from there.

Question: Please describe you creative process. Do poems ever come out perfect or near perfect the first time?

Cook: Occasionally works do arrive finished, but for a slight burnishing. It is the same with some paintings. Who can say why? Clouds seem to open, and a spirit of creativity flows in, carrying a few stanzas, or a canvas.

I almost never write at the computer. During the day things are too fractious to sit down with a clear mind. Rather, I keep a pad and pencil next to the bed. That way, if I wake up with a line or rhyme or a subject for a poem running through my head, I know there is nothing for me to do but turn on the light, prop up a pillow and start writing. In short, I write in long hand and re-type in the morning.

Question: Your poem “Blue Star” discusses the healing power of music, which is interesting based on new research on music as “medicine for the brain.” In Chinese, the word for “medicine” has two parts, one of which means music, reflecting the ancient belief in this power. 

Cook: The Chinese language is a very old and subtle one.  The double meaning of healing and music means that over centuries others have seen this and thought it important enough to use as a double character. I am sure that illness begins with conflict in the mind; good music comes from good thoughts and can only encourage more.

I am also interested in the crossover of senses. Can one smell an emotion such as danger? Hear joy? See anger? Taste a color? These things can have universal applications. In English, the closest thing would be the sharp concisive colloquialism. Just because we haven’t experienced or have ignored these does not negate their existence.

Question: Some of your poetry seems to deal with memories. Hat role do memories play in your poetry or inspiration?

Cook: Memories always include an action or interaction in a particular place, which makes both memory and landscape a necessary part of a  poet’s repertoire. In my poems I analyze and comment on instances which have affected myself and others. When poets can only deal with recent remembrances, it is because they do not understand earlier instances, and their poems suffer in consequence. It is not true poetry when it stays on the surface.  So I try to learn from what I have experienced. Poetry must at least try for wisdom, and perspective is evidenced by humor, whenever possible. I cannot avoid the truth.

Question: What future publications do you have forthcoming?

Cook: I am a fairly prolific poet, so I probably have more than enough poems to make another book, and may publish soon. At present I have two books on Amazon; Making Music, The View From Here, and one on the Internet titled Measured By Song.  Some images of my paintings are also on the net, most recently the cover of the current issue of The Orchards.  I am always submitting individual poems and more often than not am accepted. I have discovered many of my poems have the capacity to enrage, which to me simply says that I must be a lot better poet than I think I am.

 

 

Sally Cook Poetry Published by the Society

‘Blue Star’ and Other Poetry by Sally Cook

Whitworth Over Whitman: A Poem by Sally Cook

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4 Responses

  1. Carol Smallwood

    Thank you for the wonderful interview! It always is encouraging to learn about other poets and learn from their awesome accomplishments.

    Reply
  2. Carol Smallwood

    The interview was wonderful! It always is encouraging to learn about other poets and learn from their awesome accomplishments.

    Reply
  3. John C. Ahlers

    A delightful interview! What you have said makes unfortunate sense, especially the comparison between disciplines. It seems that everything these days has gone “sloppy,” taking the quick, and therefore easier, path. With diminished effort comes diminished art.

    Reply
  4. Joseph Charles MacKenzie

    This is a fine interview and I congratulate the SCP for publishing it. The integration of the arts is vital, and I am pleased to see it has a champion in Sally Cook.

    And this is why I absolutely condemn something I found in an interview with Leo Yankevich, something which is neither funny nor just. In the interview, Yankevich is asked about the value of women authors and he mentions Sally Cook in the most vulgar way. This is his response:

    “Sure there are some good female scribblers like Alicia Elsbeth Stallings and Sally Cook, but good is not great. Generally I admire woman for other things. They’re for bearing children, smacking on the ass, and serving beer…”
    http://pennreview.com/2016/05/interview-with-leo-yankevich-part-i/

    This is unacceptable and isn’t even trying to pass itself off as humor. No woman poet should ever be presented in this way. Especially one with the credentials of Sally Cook. We do no service to ourselves, our fellow poets, or our art by rolling over and accepting this kind of brutishness.

    Reply

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