Elise Cowen: Poems and Fragments
Tony Trigilio, editor
Designed for both general readers and scholars, this book brings together for the first time all of the poems and fragments in Elise Cowen’s surviving notebook, recovering the work of a postwar female poet whose reputation had been submerged for more than a half-century. Remembered dismissively as the woman who dated Allen Ginsberg for a brief time in the early 1950s, she wrote hundreds of poems, many in a lyric mode that recalls Sappho and many in a visionary mode that resembles Emily Dickinson. After her suicide in 1962, nearly all of her work was destroyed. One notebook survived, rescued by a close friend, and this notebook is the basis for Elise Cowen: Poems and Fragments.
“Elise Cowen, an artist long obscured by legend, myth, archival uncertainty and copyright dispute, relegated to rumor and sensation, has been recuperated by Tony Trigilio’s groundbreaking collection of her poetry. Trigilio collects the primary material from the poet’s recovered notebook and provides, in his indispensable Notes to the Poems, an impressive critical literary historical analysis. A modern Eumenide and proto–second-wave feminist of uncompromising voice, Cowen’s searing verse poignantly claims female subjectivity. Thanks to Trigilio’s inspired, erudite and meticulous recovery work, this collection will make a profound difference in the way Beat movement writing is reckoned and experienced.” —Ronna C. Johnson, co-editor and co-author with Nancy M. Grace of Girls Who Wore Black: Women Writing the Beat Generation
“Trigilio has done an enormous service to Beat scholarship in gathering the works and ephemera of Elise Cowen in one volume. He did an excellent job of, as he puts it, ‘staying out of her way’ and allowing Cowen’s words to speak for her. The stark beauty and truth of her poetry sings off the page—as fresh and modern as anything being written today. Students of 20th-century American poetry owe a debt of gratitude to Trigilio, truly a literary archeologist, for bringing this important writer out of the shadows.” —Brenda Knight, editor of Women of the Beat Generation
“It’s the rarest of treats to find oneself privy to a poet’s composition processes, to see the play and struggle with language and space and the legacy of those who’ve gone before, to witness the birth of a unique vision in which resides our own histories, desires, and haunts. Trigilio, himself a poet as well as a literary scholar, has given us just such a rare opportunity in his finely edited collection of Elise Cowen’s poetry. From fragments to polished and extended verse, Cowen’s poetry gives witness to the many women of that period who dared to imagine themselves as artists—those with the power and responsibility to mirror the world for what it is, all with the knowledge that equality comes about only in the alchemical wonder of self-reflection.” —Nancy M.Grace, co-author with Ronna C. Johnson of Breaking the Rule of Cool: Interviewing and Reading Beat Women Writers
[The first eye]
The first eye opens by the sun’s warmth
to stare at it
The second eye is ripped open by an
apothecary & propped with toothpicks,
systems & words
and likes to blink in mirrors
I only know there may be more because
one hurts when I think too much
The first eye is blind
there is no other
I was born in 1966 in Erie, Pennsylvania, and have lived most of my life in Chicago and Boston. I was raised in a family that clung to its immigrant roots—its confluence of Italian and English, and its legacy of backbreaking factories, mines, and farms. Economic scarcity tends to instill a stark utilitarianism. Growing up between languages and cultures, and with no money, cultivated a pragmatism in me that was helpful as I found myself drawn more and more to the cultural work of art-making and criticism. To be sure, I’ve developed a healthy respect for the utilitarian. But I was always more attracted to aesthetic practices that are “useful” in a more fluid way, as emanations of memory, history, and desire: my father playing Johnny Cash tunes on the guitar, punning wildly every day, adding up strings of numbers in his head just because he could, or riding his bicycle to work in the dark; my mother parsing with an archivist’s zeal the deep structures of the soap opera narratives we watched together, or sharing with me her obsessions with the Salem witch trials—no doubt inspired by the voodoo Catholicism of rural southern Italy her mother brought to the Great Lakes industrial rust belt.
I earned a Ph.D. in English and Poetics from Northeastern University, Boston, in 1997, and moved to Chicago in 1998. Since 1999, I’ve taught in the Creative Writing/Poetry Program at Columbia College Chicago, where I’m also a co-founder and co-editor of Court Green. It’s a common stereotype that writers live in constant quarrel with academia, but this is not true for me at Columbia. I find the relationship between writing and teaching to be exciting—and constantly surprising—and I’m inspired by my students’ work. It helps that they come to the classroom with high standards for teaching: they have impeccable b.s.-detectors, and they demand a creative curriculum—and I couldn’t be more grateful.
I’m the author or editor of eight books. I also collaborate with my cousin Michael Trigilio on The Starve Site (www.starve.org), an online home for experimental video, writing, music, and performance. My book-length poem White Noise (forthcoming in 2013 from Apostrophe Books) grew out of a five-year web-based writing project at The Starve Site, using Don DeLillo’s White Noise and Google’s Usenet Archive as its source texts. In addition to White Noise, my recent work includes the poetry collection Historic Diary (BlazeVOX Books, 2011), a book inspired by Lee Harvey Oswald’s Soviet diary, and the critical monograph Allen Ginsberg’s Buddhist Poetics, the first book to take Ginsberg’s Buddhism seriously as a significant generative element of his poetics (released in a new edition by Southern Illinois University Press in 2012). With Tim Prchal, I co-edited the anthology, Visions and Divisions: American Immigration Literature, 1870-1930 (Rutgers University Press, 2008)—an experience that was close to my heart, recovering significant poetry, fiction, and essays from the period in which my family first came to, and tried to deal with, the United States.
Music was really the only art form consistently practiced in my family. My father was born while his father was on tour with a jazz band, and most members of my family play an instrument. I’ve been a musician (percussion and electronic composition) most of my life, and I get claustrophobic if I go long periods without playing or composing. While living in Boston, I recorded and toured with the avant-noise band Drumming On Glass. I play drums in a Chicago indie-rock band, Pet Theories, and I compose experimental music on my laptop.
In Boston I also edited Lotus Arrow, the newsletter of the Kurukulla Center for Tibetan Buddhist Studies, and I was one of the founding members of the Fenway Skills Exchange, a grass-roots alternative economic system for the Fenway neighborhood. I converted to Buddhism in 1994, and I practice at the Chicago Zen Buddhist Temple, part of the network of temples in the Buddhist Society for Compassionate Wisdom, founded by Ven. Samu Sunim. Though my Catholic childhood did not respond in the way I needed to my desire for the sacred, it planted in me a need for a religion that respected mystery without being mystical—and Zen Buddhism is that religion for me. Inspired by the North American tradition of Engaged Buddhism, I try to take the First Noble Truth of Buddhism, “suffering exists,” as a call to action rather than a passive description of the world. Those rare moments of Zen awakening—when I’m truly right here, right now, focused on just this—sustain me with their glimpse, however transient, of the sacred.
As a writer, I’ve never been satisfied with the idea that I have to be either a poet or a scholar—working in both sustains me, even if, in this era of increased specialization, it sometimes feels like a nomadic exercise in dual citizenship. At any given moment, I’m writing new poems, researching a critical project, writing a book review, or editing the newest issue of Court Green. Eclecticism grounds me more deeply in the tactile world than specialization does—and only with this grounding in the sense-based world can I even hope to roam beyond the five senses in my work. Elise Cowen: Poems and Fragments emerges from this mix of art, criticism, and politics.
Elise Cowen’s position in literary history has been a conflicted one. Very little is known about the poems she wrote. Unfortunately, she is remembered primarily as the woman who dated Allen Ginsberg for a brief time in the early 1950s. Their romantic relationship ended by the time Ginsberg moved from New York to San Francisco, right before the composition of “Howl.” Later, she typed the final draft of “Kaddish” for him, adding, as a significant aside when she gave him the completed manuscript: “You still haven’t finished with your mother.” Until 1962, when Cowen committed suicide, the two maintained a friendship that, by many accounts, meant considerably more to Cowen than to Ginsberg. Cowen appears briefly in major critical studies of Ginsberg, but only by virtue of her role in Ginsberg’s brief period of bisexuality and her typing of his “Kaddish” draft.
My books and essays on Ginsberg emphasize the experimental impulse of his work and, I hope, disengage his poetry from the clutches of fanboy hagiography. It was through my writing on Ginsberg that I kept encountering Cowen’s work—limited to a few poems here and there in anthologies, and limited by Beat biographers’ insistence that she was only Ginsberg’s mad girlfriend-typist rather than a poet in her own right. When I read Cowen’s actual poems, I saw how much these biographers had missed—and how much we, as readers, were missing—without full access to her work.
Most of what we have come to know about Cowen is through the oversimplified narrative of unrequited love that has prevailed in the critical community’s discussion of her complicated relationship with Ginsberg. She wrote hundreds of poems. However, nearly all of her work was destroyed by her parents’ neighbors when she died—a favor to the parents, who were unsettled by the many poems in which their daughter’s bisexuality and drug use were prominent themes. One notebook survived, kept by one of Cowen’s close friends, Leo Skir, who later typed the poems from the notebook and submitted them to several literary journals. Since then, Cowen has appeared only as a cameo figure in most histories and biographies of the Beat period in U.S. literature. Though she died in 1962—and her surviving poems only cover the period from 1959-1960—Cowen’s disjunctive, at times elliptical, voice sounds contemporary, rather than coming to readers as a relic from another era. She would have contributed much to contemporary U.S. poetry had she survived and continued to hone her craft.
Elise Cowen: Poems and Fragments reveals a literary life that to this point has been largely unknown. This collection also marks the first publication of the complete body of her work—it is the definitive edition of Elise Cowen’s poetry. As part of my research for this volume, I tracked down the Nash family, Cowen’s most immediate lineal descendants, and determined that the Nashes own the rights to Cowen’s surviving work. The Nash family has granted me exclusive permission to organize these poems for publication.
I’m always juggling several projects at once as a poet and a scholar, and Elise Cowen: Poems and Fragments would have been a radically incomplete book if I didn’t come to it as both a poet and a scholar. The book is comprised of all the poems and fragments in Cowen’s one surviving notebook, which she kept from fall 1959 through spring 1960. I could have just transcribed the poems from the notebook and let them be, with no other editorial apparatus—and this was tempting, to allow the poems to speak without any intervention on the page. But considering that Cowen herself has been submerged by literary history, I felt that the poems needed a contextualizing introduction and annotations that would make the poems come alive in their own cultural moment. This focus on both the texts and contexts of the poems can help readers understand more deeply how Cowen sought a place for herself as a woman within a community of mostly male fellow artists, the Beats, who spoke loudly and visibly against postwar conformity, yet who themselves could not escape the pressures and privilege of their historical moment. The key, for me, in editing this book, is my desire for the most complete reading possible of the poems: not for mastery, but for what Elizabeth Bishop would call “total immersion.” Neither an exclusively critical approach to Cowen’s work, nor one of only notebook transcription, would have produced the kind of absorption Bishop refers to. Both were required and both, I hope, invite readers to immerse themselves in her work.
My editorial decisions are guided by a simple strategy—to stay out of Elise Cowen’s way. I would hope that my editorial footprint is apparent primarily in the order in which I arrange the poems. One of my functions as editor, as I perceived the role, was to order the poems so that a narrative shape would imply itself in the act of reading the collection, as a reader might expect from any full-length collection of contemporary poetry. My guiding principle was to publish versions of the poems that resembled as closely as possible the handwritten and typed variants in the notebook. I say “closely as possible” only to account for cross-outs in her original versions. These strikethroughs often are reproduced in the annotations, as I discuss the significant edits Cowen made, but they do not appear in the final text of the poems. Elise Cowen: Poems and Fragments includes Cowen’s poems and fragments in their entirety, for both their aesthetic and historical value—and based on the actual poems as they were drafted and revised in the notebook—rather than in a partial version comprised of what I might consider, subjectively, only the “best” or most “complete” poems.