An Interview with Tobi Cogswell

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This Wednesday, January 22nd, Gatsby Books is treating Long Beach to Tobi Cogswell’s launch of her new collection of poems, Lapses & Absences. (See the Facebook event.) Tobi Cogswell is at once a sensuous and sensual poet.  Often you feel as if she has let you into her deepest secrets, and longings.  In “Carpeting the Stones” she opens with “I no longer remember the origin/of hurt.  Please tell me, which way to forgiveness,” and closes with “but inside the white noise/of my solitude I miss you/Tell me the way.”   Within in those lines is the world that capsulizes her new collection of poems.  Tobi was kind enough to sit down with me and answer a few questions about technique, being an editor, and life in general.

Denise R. Weuve:  I’m going to start with the most annoying question people ask writers, “How long have you been writing?” And I’m just going to add, when did you start to call yourself a poet?

Tobi Cogswell:  It’s not an annoying question. I have been writing for about 40 years.  I still have poems that I typed on my blue Brother portable typewriter that I got for my birthday years ago.  Two of those poems ended up in a long piece I wrote entitled “Slices of Alice”.  One of the poems was “Letters to the Dream Man, 1988”. The other was “Letters to the Dream Man, 1998”.  They really were written in 1988 and 1998.

I only started going to readings and publishing in 2005. Before that I was so shy, I wouldn’t even go into a room with a microphone, even if it was turned off.

Only recently have I called myself a poet.  My son had a writing assignment in school that required him to include a bio.  It started “Owen Cogswell, son of poet Tobi Cogswell and friend of poet Jeffrey Alfier…” I had never heard my name connected with poetry that way, even after being published.  That bio did it for me.

It’s funny, even at writer’s conferences, I would say “I’m in _____’s poetry workshop” but I never said “I’m a poet”.

DRW:  Out of all the ways you could have expressed yourself, why poetry?

Tobi Cogswell:  I am not a very good musician.  Despite being in modern dance and gymnastics to avoid wearing gym clothes, I was not a good dancer or a good gymnast.  I cannot sew, and the last time I threw a perfect cylinder on a potter’s wheel was the day before the February 9, 1971 Sylmar earthquake. We lived in Northridge and my school was damaged.  By the time I got back to school the cylinder had dried so much I couldn’t foot it, so I threw it out.

I don’t think I chose poetry.  I remember reading newspaper articles and wanting to write about them. My writings were always slightly sideways in perspective.  I just had things to say and they came out as poems.  I have tried other types of writing, but other than blogs, the occasional blurb and reviews, my love is poetry.

tobi_cogswellDRW:  You divide the sections of Lapses & Absences  into the sections of an orchestra, winds, brass, strings and closing with percussion.  There is a strong cadence to your construction in a poem, which leads me to wondering what propels you more through a poem, while writing, it the sound or the narrative?

Tobi Cogswell:  I have no conscious idea what propels me because I think narrative and sound go hand-in-hand.  I do read my poems out loud as I write.  If something sounds awkward, or ugly, I will look for a synonym or another way to write what I want to say. So I do consider both narrative and sound all the time.  Its like the chicken and egg thing, I don’t know what I do first.

The reason I divided Lapses & Absences into sections of an orchestra was to give the Table of Contents some breathing room.  There are no dividers in the actual  book, they’re just in the TOC.  I could have used breakfast, lunch and dinner.  I could have used anything that went together, truly, but a lot of the combinations seemed trite.  I decided on the sections of an orchestra because many of my poems have music in them, and also because music is very important to my son.  It was my way of including him in the book.

DRW:  You often write in third person yet maintain a very intimate relationship with the poem and the reader.  I find this very intriquing, particularly when you go into the male third person, like you did with “Forfeited”.  What is the effect on the poem and the reader are you hoping to get when taking out the “I”?

Tobi Cogswell:  Often I write a poem in first person, then change it to third person because I think it sounds better.  I also think it is more “global” – rather than a reader thinking something is just my experience, they can think they’ve felt it too.  I’ve told this story before, but one time at a reading I read a poem called “Life’s Mysteries”.  After the reading a woman came up to me and said “I’m sick”.  I said “I am too” (I was diagnosed with MS in 1996).  She said “I never talk about it”.  I said “I don’t either”.  If writing a poem in third person allowed it to wrap its arms around one person and touch them, I have accomplished everything I could ever wish for with my poems.

As for writing in the male third person, sometimes I just like to change the point of view.  Sometimes, as with form, the poem tells you who it wants its voice to be.  I don’t argue.

DRW:  In Lapses & Absences you have pulled from previous chapbooks and created a collection of longing.  You took many poems and reworked them, to where they seem to take a different tone on.  You seem relentless with how much you will change, cutting lines, changing stanzas.  I found this most notably in “The Man Checks His Calendar and Schedules Contentment”.  Can you explain the process and rationale?

Tobi Cogswell:  This is a great question!  I put this collection together because I have only one or two copies of my previous chapbooks and full-length collection.  I was taking poems from 2005 through 2013 and even though my voice has stayed the same, I have worked and studied very hard, and hope my style and technique have evolved.

In order to create a cohesive collection, I worked with an editor for the first time ever.  I asked Bryan Roth to work with me because I wanted his brutally honest eyes and knowledge.  Besides the obvious things – two spaces after periods, line breaks on articles with the important word in the beginning of the next line, lazy em dashes and not enough commas, I wanted the poems to be the best they could be.  I put my ego in my shoe and my trust in Bryan.  He was relentless and so was I. I murdered many of my darlings.  I didn’t take all his suggestions but many of them, and you do see the result of that very much so in “The Man Checks His Calendar and Schedules Contentment”.  I don’t know how to explain it, but I loved the challenge of trusting someone else with my work.  At the end of the day though, they are still my poems.

DRW:  One of the things that I find fascinating abut your personal life is that you are a 2 poet family.  How do you and Jeff (Alfier)  manage to not be competitive in this field?  A recent study called being a poet the #2 most competitive career to attempt in America.

Tobi Cogswell:  This makes me smile.  I love that we are a 2 poet family.  We just aren’t competitive. We are so happy for each other when good things happen. We are pleased beyond pleased when we both get accepted somewhere and our work will be together.

We don’t write the same.  Jeff started out as a Southwest Regionalist poet who can make 10 lines of poetry make you want to drop to your knees with their beauty.  He still has that initial love and focus, but he is also starting to write narrative poetry that’s a little longer, maybe 30 lines or so.

I started out writing mostly narrative poetry.  Usually a page long, rarely longer.  I have been told that my focus is “food, loss and failing bodies”.  That has widened to include sex, music and doors, I don’t know why.  Occasionally I will try my hand at a Southwest poem.  I wrote a sports poem so I could be in Sport Literary Magazine with Jeff, but I’m pretty much a story-teller.

When we travel it is so interesting, because we see the same things, hear and smell the same things, and write completely different poems!   I used to say that we could be in Portland looking at a crumbling brick building – Jeff will write about the old musician in the third floor window playing his sax in the breeze and I will write about the girl sitting at the base of the old streetlamp, writing in a notebook, waiting for her ride home.

When Jeff travels and I stay home, he sends me pictures and texts.  So I wrote two Germany poems when he was in Germany for example.  The two times he was in Detroit I think I wrote five Detroit poems.  I don’t want to jinx anything.  It is a blessing.  Even if being a poet is the #2 most competitive career to attempt in America, that doesn’t apply to us because it isn’t a career for either of us.  It is a love.

DRW:  Outside of being a multi Puschcart nominee, award winning poet, mother, (lovely poem dedicated to Owen closes the book, “The Boy at Cannon Beach”) you also are part of the team that puts together the great literary journal, San Pedro River Review. (  As an editor for this journal, what about a poem grabs your attention and tells you it is right for you magazine?

Tobi Cogswell:  The beauty of the words, that’s what I look for.  Our Spring issue is always a themed issue and our Fall issue is not themed.  So in Spring I first look to see if it’s on theme.  It’s surprising and sad when we get submissions from writers who obviously did not check the website.

The best analogy I have is the jewelry mart.  Room after room of stalls filled with gorgeous jewelry.  You walk up and down and start to realize that you’re seeing the same things in every stall.  And then…POW!!! You see that one thing you haven’t seen before and you know THAT’S IT!!!  That’s how it is with San Pedro River Review. I read many lovely poems, am lulled into contentment from reading good work, and then one poem sneaks up and bashes me right between the eyes!  And that’s the poem I want.

DRW:  Before letting you break away I would like to end with my final five, rapid fire questions.

1.  If you could live anywhere in the world where would it be and why?

Tobi Cogswell:  I love Paris and I love Florence (and I love Mississippi), but I’d have to say Santorini, Greece.   There’s something about the light, the color of the sea, the people, the music and of course the food.  I can read enough Greek to read a map and order Ouzo. I don’t speak the language.  But I don’t think I would care. You could write a poem every single day just from watching the people.

DRW:  2.  What writer do you constantly go back to?

Tobi Cogswell:  Beckian Fritz Goldberg is the poet I constantly go back to.  I always say she reminds me to write brave.  She is an amazing poet with a big, accessible personality.  She is not arrogant.  She is funnier than anything.  I love her writing. I was thrilled to read that she won a Pushcart Prize this year.

There are a lot of poets I read because I have workshopped with them. And I read a lot of fiction writers because I have been at workshops with them.  But you only want one so I’ll stick with Beckian.

DRW:  3.  What is the hardest part of being a writer?

Tobi Cogswell:  Sometimes finding the time to write.  I still work full time and when I come home I’m tired.  I want to spend time with Jeff and Owen and reconnect after the day.

DRW:  4.  Where is your favorite place to write?

Tobi Cogswell:  I prefer to write on my computer so my home office is my favorite place to write. But I always bring a notepad with me when we travel and then that’s my favorite place.

DRW:  5.  Finally, what advice do you have for all the other poets looking for their voice in this world?

Tobi Cogswell:  Don’t make yourself crazy.  Read a lot of poetry and fiction, pay attention to the things that interest you, and eavesdrop.  The words will come when they’re ready.  Pay close attention to spelling and punctuation.  When you send your work out into the world you want it to look as professional as possible.

Stay humble, be grateful.  Not everyone can write.  We forget that because we are usually around writers.  Being able to write is a blessing, but be a good person first.

1 comment

  1. Great interview Tobi, something I will want to read again and again. By the way, I ordered Lapses & Absences this afternoon and am looking forward to receiving it and spending afternoons with you..

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