An Interview with Professor Nicole Cooley
Utopia Parkway editorial board member Alexander Radison sat down with Professor and Poet Nicole Cooley to discuss her thoughts on the creative process and academia. Professor Cooley is currently working on a prose project about dollhouses.
Alex: What is your writing process like?
Professor Cooley: My process with writing, I think, is to get messy. I feel like if I have to sit down with a blank piece of paper or a blank screen and write a poem with a capital “P” I’ll freeze, I won’t be able to do it. I like to trick myself into writing with a lot of low stakes writing assignments without telling myself I’m writing a poem. That’s the first thing. The second thing is that I never wait for the ideal conditions for writing because they’re never going to come. I’m always willing to write when I don’t feel like writing. I also never wait to be inspired because that hardly ever happens. So, to me this keeps writing fun, and I think that you, as a writer, have to do what you can to keep the engine running, and that’s what I do; I try to surprise myself and trick myself and keep myself running that way.
Alex: Do you have any favorite writers who have influenced your writing?
Professor Cooley: Yes, so many. For example, last week in my MFA class I taught Gertrude Stein. I write nothing like her but I think she’s endlessly inspiring. She didn’t care what was in fashion; she just did her own thing, made up her own language. She wrote children’s books, plays, poems, and prose. Another writer along those lines is Muriel Rukeyser. She also wrote so many texts, so many poems, so many biographies, novels. I think what I’m drawn to is writers who write in multiple genres and write a lot, and who aren’t afraid to take risks, and both Gertrude Stein and Rukeyser fit the bill.
Alex: You’ve written both, collections of poetry and novels. What were the differences between your approaches to each project?
Professor Cooley: It’s very different. I think the nice thing about poetry is that you can dip in, not that it’s easier, it isn’t, but u can dip in and dip out. The issue with prose writing is you really have to block out more time, block out big chunks of time to inhabit that role that you’re creating. That can be tough. But I think they’re both really fun. I mean one nice thing about prose writing is that you get to live with characters for a really long time and get to know them and really inhabit their world. You become part of their world and they become part of yours and that’s very appealing.
Alex: You have both an MFA and a PHD. What were the differences between those two courses of study and why did you decide to pursue both?
Professor Cooley: So, I got my undergraduate degree at Brown University and I only took one English class the entire time. Then I got to my MFA program and the University of Iowa is very much a studio program, you don’t have to take any literature classes. By the time I was done with those two degrees I knew nothing about literature, I really didn’t even know the Canon. So, I decided to get a PhD to fill in those gaps and I decided to get a literature PhD because I wanted to write a literature dissertation. It turned out to be a really good thing to do and I’m very glad I did it.
Alex: Do you have any creative writing pet peeves? Or common mistakes that amateur creative writers make that can be avoided?
Professor Cooley: Yes, I think that one thing a lot of beginning and emerging writers struggle with is the balance between statement and image, between abstract and concrete language. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of really writing completely abstractly. If you look at a writer like Marie Howe who visited our campus last year, she has wonderful poems in which there are only one or two images in the whole poem, but they are such remarkable images that they do all the work. It’s really hard, I think, for students to understand the work that images can do and how images are necessary. That’s the first thing. My other pet peeve is the word universal. It’s one of my most hated words. I feel that too often people try to make their work universal and in the process of doing that they erase everything that’s interesting about it. When I first started teaching at Queens College I conducted my workshops as anonymous workshops, where nobody’s name was on them. I noticed that everybody was writing this work that was completely flat – it had no setting, no character, and my students would come to my office and say that they loved the anonymous workshop because no one wants to hear about my border crossing in Mexico and now I don’t have to write about it because I’m just writing something that’s universal and everyone can understand it. As soon as three or four people said that, I said that’s it we’re done, anonymous workshop is over. In the desire to make your work universal you erase all your subjectivity and you flatten it, so I think if you take that word off the table in creative writing workshops, we’d all be better off.
Alex: Lastly, do you have any advice for aspiring MFA applicants?
Professor Cooley: It’s a great time for MFA programs – a new one probably started during this interview, I’m not kidding. Interest in creative writing has never been higher. So I think with creative writing programs, the best thing is to really do your research, figure out where you want to go, figure out who you want to work with. You want to go to a place where your aesthetic will be welcomed, first of all. If you are an experimental writer you might want to go to Brown University where someone turned in his thesis written on his car, literally. You’re not going to be happy if you’re writing sonnets at Brown. In our program (QC), we encourage and require cross-genre writing. You must take a workshop outside your genre of focus, which I think is a huge plus, that’s not the case in most programs at all – if you’re in poetry, you’re in poetry and never get to interact with the fiction people. It’s easy to do your research because you can go to the AWP website (www.awpwriter.org) and you can look at the free listing for every program in the nation by state, which really helps. Also, you shouldn’t go into debt for your MFA. I strongly encourage people not to do that. That being said, there are a lot of great programs in the nation, a lot of wonderful programs.
Interview by Alex Radison