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Interview with Mark Cox, February 5, 2008 | UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database

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Interview with Mark Cox, February 5, 2008
February 5, 2008
Mark Cox is a professor of Creative Writing at UNCW, and has served as Chair of the department. He is the author of three full-length poetry collections: Smoulder, Thirty-Seven Years from the Stone, and Natural Causes.
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Interviewee:  Cox, Mark Interviewer:  Diesenhaus, Doug Date of Interview:  2/5/2008 Series:  SENC Writers Length  58 minutes


Diesenhaus: I'll just start with a brief introduction. I'm Doug Diesenhaus of today, February 5th, 2008. I'll be interviewing Mark Cox for the Randall Library Oral History Project on Creative Writers.

Mark Cox: Very pleased to be here.

Diesenhaus: Thanks. One of the places we always start, maybe just ask how you got started writing, how you've come to this life.

Mark Cox: Well, you know, in some ways it happened early and in other ways it happened quite kind of accidentally and incidentally over time. I think the writing part, I think I knew relatively early that it was something that I wanted to do. It wasn't that I was kind of born to it, some prodigy turning out poems at 5 or 6 or anything like that. And then I had one teacher who was very, very important to me and kind of turned me towards poetry quite, well, accidentally for me, not for her. She knew what she was doing, I think, but I was probably 12 years old, something like that, you know. It would've been either 5th or 6th grade, I believe, and it was an English class. Her name was Erma Shiely. She had us doing kind of an exercise on trying to teach us what a metaphor was and so she had us kind of riffing and doing some clustering exercises and that kind of thing and afterwards she stopped me after class and I figured I was in trouble, but she just said, "I want you to write me a poem and bring it to me tomorrow morning." That was all she said, so I was a good boy and I did. I brought it to her and she put a little red "A" on it and said, "Bring me another one." My pen name was Lord Byron. You know, a very unique nom de plume. But she just continued to be supportive in that way and I kept doing it and gradually then, instead of just kind of being an exercise I found that it was, you know how it is at that age. You need some kind of expressive outlet as you head into puberty and young adolescence and everything and poetry became more and more important to me, and then ultimately music and lyrics and songwriting and that kind of thing later in high school. So that really led me into the writing itself. Not so much the profession of writing or the study of writing and the teaching of writing, but it did lead me into my first experiences with writing.

Diesenhaus: Around that time, when you talked about music and lyrics and songwriting led to other types of writing that weren't poetry and fiction or essays, did you appreciate other forms?

Mark Cox: Yes, I mean, and actually I think in my younger life I really, really longed, I really wanted to be a novelist. The first thing that I wanted to do when I got out of my undergraduate years in college really was to try and write big. I did work with short stories and I started a failed larger work, but I just, you know, discovered over time this is not where my sensibility really was and ultimately, although I had written some reviews and some essays and critical prose and poetry here and there, it's just not where my heart is. So I tend to stay short. I like that kind of-- I'm a sprinter, I guess. I'm not a long distance runner although I have great admiration for prose writers.

Diesenhaus: Either in some of those other attempts or was the poetry just particular works that you were reading, writers or poets that you were admiring or maybe perhaps imitating at the early part of your life?

Mark Cox: Well at different. Yeah. At different times different things have been very important. I mean, early on in terms of poetic influences, you know, the Romantics were real important to me, and then the Early Moderns certainly were a huge influence. I think in terms of fiction probably the Black Humor school, the Vonneguts, the Bruce Jay Friedmans, that certainly was important to me in terms of the reading. I was very into it and then at a certain point I was very into to Pinchon and that kind of thing. John Barth, at one point, kind of read everything that he did. But then ultimately my taste turned much more towards a tamer brand of realism I think. You know, I mean, I think the great mainstay prose writer for me over all the decades has been Chekhov. Chekhov is someone who is just someone that I admire immensely and love and turn to when I'm sick to death of words and need literature to remind me what greatness is. He's someone. He's the one.

Diesenhaus: Is there something about the realism there, the grounding elements of it that keeps you coming back to it? Is there a particular characteristic to it?

Mark Cox: Well I think what I love about Chekhov, you know, there are really a very few stories in which he lets his-- you know, kind of flights of fancy take over at all and you would think that poets might be drawn towards fiction writers who use more figurative language and are, stylistically, perhaps a little bit more intense and complex. But I love the simplicity. I just like. Actually, when I think of Chekhov and the way that he writes I think of Rodin and the way that he works with small gestures. Not the big massive Gates of Hell figures but the hands and the feet and the way that people touch in those works, and I think Chekhov is just so sensitive to the nuances of human relationship and to the psychology of things and he manages to characterize those relationships so beautifully and poignantly without adornment and without pushing things too far. I think that's something that matters a lot to me.

Diesenhaus: I'm not the biggest poetry expert but I did see the word "domestic" applied to some of your work. I don't know exactly what that means.

Mark Cox: Was it applied positively or negatively, because in some ways, at least today with the climate the way that it is now and the younger generation of writers kind of pushing off against what's been happening in the mainstream for a lot of years, the idea of domestic poetry is pretty passé and not exactly something that I'm going to be lauded for. But I am kind of unabashedly and unashamedly domestic at this point in my life. That's just kind of where my heart and my interests lay. I came to have a family relatively late. I'm coming up on 52 here and I've got a 10-year-old and a soon to be 12-year-old; a 19-year-old step-son who's on his way. I have a young family and, as I say, come to this late so I'm still very deeply involved in understanding issues having to do with marriage, parenting, and raising the kids and appreciating what it is that they have to teach me. I probably have become a little bit, you know, actually in the early work for being a little bit wilder and a little bit unpredictable and much more figurative in my approach. I'm certainly quite consciously moved or, that is, I should say I've consciously moved in this direction. I kind of follow where the work goes but I have consciously kind of allowed myself to not be pushed away from it, to allow it to happen, because that's just my time of life. That's where my interests are. I'm more interested probably right now in people and psychology and the emotional kind of basis of my reality, the kind of wellsprings of what I do than I am in even the language or the figures. That is different for me.

Diesenhaus: You talked about being a bit wilder when you were younger and perhaps a bit tamer now. Talk about perhaps the shift in the work, in the aesthetic, how that might have kind of come out in the work or in your mindset, how you were feeling. When you were-

Mark Cox: I think for me early on there was a, I mean, I think, I think that being strongly based emotionally as a writer has always been important to me. I think I work in a very image-oriented way. I have a very visual sensibility so I would tend to work from kind of random triggers and I have a very associative mind. I mean, at any given time while I'm doing one thing the mind is kind of spinning associatively from one thing to the next. In the early years I let that happen with abandon and enjoyed being led from place to place and into surprise. It should come as no surprise that, I mean, ultimately the French and Latin American surrealists I loved and I love that sense of freedom, and I think I felt locked down or tied down in some way by what would have seemed domestic, you know, back then. I have, there are limits I suppose that we come to. Some people push past them and keep doing it. For me I've always enjoyed, I like to think, if there's anything that I take an inordinate amount of pride in, I like to think that I have range. I like to think that I don't, as a poet or as a writer, I'm not a one-note poet. So I've taken some amount of pride in trying to do those different things and incorporate and synthesize a lot of different things into one place, both stylistically and intellectually and emotionally, I think, to kind of see my writing as a place where I grow as a person in terms of evolution and not just something that is a kind of product, that I put out for consumption and hope it gets me something for it. And I, I've just come to places over time where it wasn't satisfying anymore to be ingenious or clever or to surprise myself on a linguistic level. It got to be old. I joked, you know, there was one period where I actually did have a couple of editors kind of say well, you know, if you write like that again, you know (laughs), I mean, we'd publish that, you know, in so many words, and I can't. I can't do that. I mean, there are poems that somebody in my generation might kind of consider a Cox poem or something like that. I can do it with both hands tied behind my back and a pen in my mouth. I don't want to do that anymore. It's been the desire I think to kind of stretch and to follow things more organically and things that arise internally from issues of relationship and my own humanity as opposed to just linguistics and the image.

Diesenhaus: Mmm-hmm. Talking about range, it's my sense that you work both in narrative and lyrical forms?

Mark Cox: Mmm-hmm.

Diesenhaus: And I wonder you talk about kind of organically letting things-- do certain poems gravitate one way or the other as that element comes about?

Mark Cox: Yeah. I never quite know. When I sit down to write I don't sit down to write a particular kind of poem. I actually tried to remind myself not to even try to write a poem, to just I'm going to sit down and speak. You know, sit down and write, and then see what it turns into. I certainly go through different stages in terms of what the writing looks like at the beginning. Sometimes I work in big prose blocks, no margin or lineation at all and the lineation only, kind of is chiseled out over a long period of time. Other time I do. I work with a really kind of finite sense of lineation. It kind of depends on what I'm feeling in the moment and then I follow it and sometimes poems will turn out to be four or five lines and other times it will turn out to be two or three pages. I do think that I recognize in my, in my work really strong tendencies towards both the lyric and the narrative impulse, and I know that it's been a very conscious thing for me to kind of test the boundaries of each. Sometimes, sometimes that's caused by the parameters within which one's daily life, you know, works. I know Jack Myers, he's one of my friends and colleagues and mentors. Hw told me about a book that he did back in the mid 70s and I was looking it over with him at the time because he was thinking about putting together selected poems and I was going over things and I said, "You realize all these poems are about the same size," and I said, "What were you doing?" You know, formally to make that happen. Thinking about that he said, "Well, I was parenting and I had classes and I had this and then that." You know, he essentially was kind of in graduate school and he said, "I only had so much time. That's why they turned out that size." So that would mean a very practical concern and sometimes that happens. I know that the moment in time in my writing career when I began to work more narratively and kind of moved away from some of the shorter, especially more experimental or metaphorical pieces, really also had to do with time. I was living in Connecticut. I was in graduate school. My then wife, Rita, was also in graduate school but in Pennsylvania and so we had two homes to support and both of us in graduate school and luckily I was in a low-residency program in doing it so I was able to work at the same time. I was a steel painter at the time. I made my living as a bridge painter and steel painter for about ten years. I had a job at a nuclear power plant about an hour-and-a-half away from home and it was 7 days a week, 12 hours a day. So I had three hours of commute and I had usually anywhere from 10-12 hours on the job and I had really very little time off, and I was working on my thesis. So, it was a wild 5 or 6 months. I desperately needed to do it for the finances of our household. There was no getting around it. But when I find I started writing in the truck. Literally on the whole trip down and the whole trip back I was writing while I drove and just little snippets of things.

Diesenhaus: Using a tape recorder or actually taking notes?

Mark Cox: No, I was actually writing; a terrible thing to admit. So it was really kind of like I would drive and then I'd had the pad there and I would think of it, I would write it down, it was messy and it was short. And I, what I would find that there would be, I was usually driving the same route so many of the things about the environment were the same. Some of the cars and the commuters you get to know. You see the same shops, you see the same, you know, say, Oh, hey, there's Hal coming out of the liquor store today. What's going on in his life? So I mean, there's a way in which you get to know a community as you move through it and come through it. Certainly not well but you pretend that you do. When I would get a day off or when I would get home and have a block of time then I would end up weaving and that was a different experience for me. Instead of having that kind of intensity of the rush, then I was weaving smaller bits of material and finding that I was moving towards more what later became kind of termed the fractured narrative, highly lyrical moments often enough that moved back and forth in a nonlinear way through time but which ultimately created a more narrative experience than just a lyrical one. And I became at first it was extremely uncomfortable and it felt kind of like playing the scales or forcing something to happen but ultimately it taught me, I think, a new way of thinking about the associate nature of my own mind and finding threads that were more story-based than just image or impulse-based.

Diesenhaus: Talking about kind of reacting to the community and getting a sense of it, I wanted to just ask you where you were born and raised and then also coming to the South and how that may have affected you and your writing.

Mark Cox: I was born in East St. Louis, Illinois, just across the river from St. Louis. I was raised mainly in Belleville, Illinois, which is just up the hill from East St. Louis, and that's the area that I essentially grew up. I left there to do my undergraduate education in Indiana, which is still very much the Midwest, and came back and lived the first couple of years after my undergraduate years back in the St. Louis area and worked out of the East St. Louis Painters Local during those years in the late '70's and right up to 1980 and then moved out to Connecticut. So I was in Connecticut for a while at the Hartford Painters Local for a while there and then was in Vermont and then Oklahoma and then ultimately here. I don't know that I can say that I've been deeply influenced by Southern culture yet. I've only been here between 8-9 years now. I think you're fooling yourself if you move into a region with this kind of heritage and this kind of richness and the kind of the deep, deep roots in terms of culture, custom, and literature to think that you kind of transplant yourself in as a Southern writer. I'm not. I have a great appreciation for it and I think to a large degree that's because I have moved the way I have in my own writing or perhaps towards the narrative in character-oriented writing and that kind of thing. Certainly I've been influenced by being near the coast. I think that in terms of just kind of the imagery that enters my work, that there had been a lot of kind of water and beach coastal imagery earlier because I had had some kind of relationship with Florida and the kind of Tampa-Clearwater area a little bit when I was doing some writing, but once I got here I think it became very, very clear to me that coastal imagery suited my sensibility and the kinds of things that I was writing about.

Diesenhaus: I actually want to go back up into the question of range and I wondered is there another element of your work, kind of like the lyric versus narrative or add narrative, is there another thing where there's kind of two sides, where the range is two sides of the spectrum?

Mark Cox: Well, I think it shows up, I think it shows up in a lot of ways. Part of the means of achieving it via language is the vehicle. The thing that we have to work with means that you have to be willing to work with a really varied and rangy palette of diction. So you know, I mean, I was a construction worker. I was a college-educated construction worker. It was a mix in and of itself and then gradually became a foreman on small jobs and that kind of thing. I'm very comfortable walking into a bar and having a beer and a shot and playing some pool. On the other hand, I end up these Chancellors' receptions and I've done fundraising kinds of things and I'm really, I'm very comfortable in that as well. So the language is going to range from something that's much more coarse and colloquial and down to earth with an interest in and an appreciation for the quotidian, and then I have a more elevated side. I'm relatively well read and I get along with groups of people that are articulate in different ways. So my feeling has always been in order to kind of be who I am in terms of voice in my poems as it develops, a little bit of that is going to synthesize at all times, and then that certainly was the work that particularly interested me of my own and of my cohorts, in the '80's maybe particularly, which I thought of as kind of a new metaphysical kind of aesthetic. You know, people who worked very easily with the streetwise kind of diction and stance at one moment and then at the next moment really thinking about existential and spiritual issues in that framework and could move very easily from cursing one moment in a poem to highly Latinate and extremely philosophical or a meditative language in the next. That always appealed to me.

Diesenhaus: Mmm-hmm, I read that you see your work as potentially one long poem. Is that correct? Are these kind of contours of your life part of that somewhat, that you sort of moved through different positions and different ways of living have shifted over time?

Mark Cox: That's, I think, it's just a--In reality, is that the way it's going to turn out, that at the end of my certainly very, very long life, I plan to live until late in my hundreds, will there be this one big collective poem that people will sit down and find to be a coherent whole? Absolutely not. But it helps just to, intellectually for me to frame it that way, to understand that really the work is just a mirror of my life at that time and where I am in it and that ultimately there's this long process, a long journey that I am on and the poems are a reflection of that and in that sense they are just pieces of scenes as it goes along. It's not going to be over until I put down my pen for the last time. I think that helps me just in terms of my frame of mind and not pushing all the time to finish, complete, polish as if this poem, this is the one. It's never the one. Never, never. Before you've even put the last dot down on the one that you can even feel good about, you're on to the next. Nothing is going to be satisfactory and that's a good thing. That's a good thing. It keeps us growing and pushing through. This. Like I say, this frame of reference allows me, you know, then when I go through those periods, which can be years, in which I'm not writing well or so many other things interfere or professionally I'm having to do more administration and program building and I'm not writing at all for a long period of time hardly, then I can remind myself this is just that phase. There's more, there's more to come, and in fact whatever it is that's happening to me at any given time is going to feed that next phase. It may be painful right now while I'm in it but later, ultimately, it's going to feed the work and I hope make it better, richer.

Diesenhaus: That brings me to your collections. Am I correct you have three?

Mark Cox: Mmm-hmm.

Diesenhaus: In addition to some of the things you've been talking about, have there been shifts from one to the next or is the experience of writing, one been different than the previous one?

Mark Cox: Well I think that there are real--maybe not so much between the second and the third full-length collection. There's a little chapbook right before the first book came out but it's really very much like it. It's essentially a large part of that first book, so it's not different. The first book was a lot wilder. It was a first book and it was very freewheeling. I think it was still kind of an emotionally-based poetry. I've never been ashamed of sentiment. In fact, you can sit in a workshop and somebody can say, "Oh, this is sentimental or this is too much or this is whatever," and I'm sitting there thinking wait until you see the next one. I'll push it as far as I can. I feel like I got so tired in the early years of both myself and others around me being kind of emotionally and psychologically evasive and ultimately kind of irresponsible, kind of hiding behind the twists and turns of language to avoid dealing with the realities. I've always wanted to be a poet of sentiment. Obviously I don't want to be excessive and I want to engage the reader and I want it to be an artful experience but I'm not shy about that. That book existed, it certainly was often enough a book that could be called sentimental, but it also had surfaces that were a little bit more clever and strange and unpredictable and interested people. People found it kind of original in some way and they supported it as a book. I would have been not a real young writer but a relatively young writer when that came out in what, '89, so I would've been about 33, something like that, when that first book came out. By the time when the next one came out, which was nine years later and there are reasons for that, I did have other book manuscripts ready and taken and there should have been one out in '92 and then another one in '95, but my publisher at that time essentially was on the verge of going under and kind of kept going on and on telling me next season, next season, next season, don't send it to anybody else, next season, next season, and then they cancelled it after years. So that put a kind of damper on the old career for a while. The next book shows that. There was a much larger period of time in growth and change and I went through a divorce of my earlier common law marriage and married again and had a step-child and then ultimately children of my own, and I think that the next book really shows a lot of that kind of change, the domestic tableau as somebody put it, certainly begins to be more apparent in that book. By the time we get to the third I'm in middle age mode, much more tame and much more consciously kind of returning to my roots poetically. Not something that I think many people who like my work are not as big of fans as the last book and I know that and that's okay. I think it's my best work but it's not like the Cox poems that they knew before.

Diesenhaus: The first book, was that after your MFA?

Mark Cox: It was, yes. I finished my MFA degree in '85 and the first book came out in '89. Only about 5-6 poems, I think, from my MFA thesis are actually in that first book. So basically the whole thing kind of blossomed and came to the fore in that four-year period a after graduation.

Diesenhaus: Was the workshop experience positive for you?

Mark Cox: Mmm-hmm.

Diesenhaus: You mentioned it was also low-residency. Did that model work for your patterns of creation or how your work was coming out?

Mark Cox: The low-residency model worked very, very well for me. I had come to know it very well because I did the degree there from '83-'85 and then I started teaching there as a teaching assistant from '85-'87 and from '87 until now. I had essentially kind of taught in that program and have seen all phases of it. For a while I was faculty director of it there, provided a 3-4 year period. I really believe strongly in it as a model and as a mode of education. But it was very good for me because not only did it allow me to keep working and stay immersed in my regular life as I participated in it which was very, very necessary financially, I think it also gave me a tremendous kind of a range of resources all in one place. I mean, you have a fairly large faculty, when you go to those residencies a lot of different voices that are there and available to you. I worked with four, really five, very good poet teachers who became mentors to me and friends and ultimately colleagues over that period of time that certainly shaped the way that I felt about poetry. I'd never would have thought I would be teaching and I really, really never would have dreamed that I would end up doing what I'm doing. So ultimately the workshop experience and then the one-on-one mentorship and the work that I began to do just kind of slowly with my friends, you know, coming to me to work on manuscripts and vice versa, back and forth, kind of got me into a place where I realize that it was something I had a knack for and that I genuinely liked and felt was valuable in the world and was a way for me to make a living and keep me close to the art that really sustained me. So I feel extremely fortunate to have the position that I have.

Diesenhaus: What do you see as the differences between the low-residency programs and maybe the overly specific term and the full-time are the benefits or disadvantages to either?

Mark Cox: I think, um. I don't normally encourage my younger -- I should say less experienced but really it's younger students, particularly those kind of fresh out of traditional undergraduate programs -- to think about the low-residency option. It puts, it requires a lot more self-motivation, a lot more self-discipline, and a tremendous desire to make the experience what you want it to be and more, you know. Like any program, you can either kind of coast through and do only enough or you can turn it into a real experience. I think that with the right mentorship and guided reading and everything, you can, you can explore a tremendous number of options very, very quickly in the low-residency program, and in the traditional programs your classes are leading you through things in a much more measured way usually. And you're limited, I tried to work in my workshops with individualized reading for each person but some workshops and some literature courses are just set up to kind of, you know, we're all going to read the same books, we're all going to be in this place, we're all going to learn this about the period or whatever, and all of that's very, very important and great background but it's not necessarily feeding at that particular moment what could be sparking your creative work. So I think, but for older students who are able to work without a sense of community all the time, without that peer support and everything all the time, the low-residency can be a really great model and the mentorship is intense. I mean, you're working with one person to that whole period of time and that person is responding just to you and to your concerns and your writing and your essays and your reading list and has an agenda that he or she sees with them trying to kind of push you towards in terms of opening up your own work. It can accelerate things very, very rapidly.

Diesenhaus: From the full-time side, I've heard that you stress the fundamentals of poetry, understanding, such as understanding a canon, being able to use the terms of poetry. Is that correct, and if so could you talk about it more?

Mark Cox: Yeah. I guess. I mean, I hope that that's not old school. It would seem to me that that's just kind of necessary in education today. But yeah, I guess I'm kind of when I remember that. Bill Matthews, whom I loved, and Carol Frost and he called us a troika. It was like the three of us. I was a Fellow there and would teach at a workshop and I remember he called me the Rhetorician. He said, "We're going to let the Rhetorician handle this one." Bill was this amazing talker. He could talk forever on process issues and just go on and on eloquently and beautifully about process, but then when it came down to line breaks and grammatical parallelism or something, then he would turn it over to the Rhetorician. So I guess I have a reputation in a way for that and it comes out of my mentorship too. Jack Myers was that way and he was a very, very important teacher and mentor to me. I think a lot of Jack and so I think I do come out of that. It's crucial. My thinking is that the only way that we see pattern in our writing is through style and language. Unless we can see that pattern, we don't alter it. We're not able to. It's an involuntary thing and unless we can alter that style in our work we are unable to alter what that style represents in our lives. So for me style, issues of syntax, issues of one kind of line ending or another or how words react together, those are issues of life and death. Those are issues at the very core of kind of who you are, how you see the world, how your mind moves through time, what your relationship to the world is and if there is any one thing that I hope that students can come away with years later that they don't remember that's kind of ingrained in the way that they look at language and everything else, it's that. That it's not just words. It's not just words.

Diesenhaus: What's the relationship of that sensibility to experimentation? Is it that you must know these things first before you can kind of go against them?

Mark Cox: No, I don't think so. I mean, I'm not--Like I wouldn't be the piano teacher that tortures you for three years before you get to play Chopsticks or something. I don't think that you have to play the scales all the time and then finally we're going to let you play. I think you begin with what you love and I think you read and you imitate and you work within that and you work freely and creatively and follow your inner impulses. So you're not imposing that kind of practice all the time. But I think there are times you just have to recognize that, I mean, a lot of students come to conferences and basically they recognize they've been doing the same things over and over again. The workshop is telling them that they're doing the same things over and over again and they're saying how can they do something different? And then yes, there are conscious ways that you just have to kind of, in the same way that in the old days one would use particular kinds of received forms as an imposed model because it led you to a certain kind of argumentation or it led to a certain mode of thinking, you can adapt and change and practice modes of writing that cause you to look at your subject matter and your life and everything else differently, and I think that's very valuable. I don't see that as kind of just working with the fundamentals before you get to play. I do think that you have to think about what you're doing at the right times. There are times you think, there are times you don't. The old saw in poetry, you know, all these relationships to jazz, there's a reason for that. But the jazz musician may be in his hotel room and thinking about listening to all the music that he loves before playing riffs and practicing particular things and kind of moving with it like that, but that night when he goes to the club he closes his eyes and he plays, and that's really ultimately where the work happens in poetry too. You pick up your pen and you play. But before that, yeah, there's going to be some perseverance and some sweat and some real thought and some worry about how this, what relates to what in terms of language looking for pattern.

Diesenhaus: Before you also mentioned writing music and lyrics. Is that something that you still do?

Mark Cox: No. And I really wish I keep looking, you know, there's a guitar sitting in my bedroom I've been looking at for like six years thinking I should pick that up. It was kind of a period at the end of high school and through college where I played guitar a lot and traveled through Europe with it on my back at that particular moment and I did like songwriting and I did more kind of lyrics and songwriting during that period of time than I did poetry. But gradually it was not the thing that I had talent for and it has fallen away. But it may be one of those things ultimately that I do kind of move back towards. I really enjoyed watching my step-son get into music. He's a very good musician, he's taught himself as a bass player and guitar player and looks like maybe kind of aiming his way towards that as a way of being in the world. That has been good for me to see and to kind of reflect back to me. So many things that he has done actually over the years since he was 3 have reflected something back to me. He's taught me more than I've taught him in terms of parenting and that kind of thing, learning about myself watching him. But I know that music is important and I know it did something for me at that time that I probably need again. In a way one has to kind of carve out time to do what feeds the soul. I might pick it up again.

Diesenhaus: Somewhat related to that, you talked about some of the longer gaps between writing and things sometimes interfering. When you come back to the moment when you are ready, is there some kind of ritual? Is there some way you kind of need to or is it sort of naturally you find ?I'm ready right now" or do you kind of push yourself to do it?

Mark Cox: It's actually, for me it's a fight. It's very uncomfortable. There will be long periods where I work but I just work badly. I work mechanically or I know I'm on the surface of things and no matter how I try to open up and relax I can't get past it, I can't get under it. I can look at it later and just see that it's dull, pedestrian, interesting to me only in my subjective state at that time, or just usually just merely competent in the same thing I've been doing, which is not okay with me. So I spend a lot of time kind of frustrated and reminding myself to relax, that it will be back again. Over time I suppose that's the only thing that I've learned to give me any sense of solace about these periods is that it does come back. I don't know when, I don't know how long it will be. We live in a life of uncertainty but I do have the faith that it will be back and that was an important corner to turn for me because in the early years there's that terrible fear you have. You write one and you don't know if you'll ever write one again. You don't know if you'll get one that's as good or better or that makes you feel as much as if you kind of brought all that experience into one place for that moment in the best way that you could. And it becomes a worry. It's kind of like you dry up. You know, only one book or only this or only that. But I think once you kind of get past seeing the work as a product and see it as a part of my life, I just understand that I have to flow with it and it will flow with me if I kind of take care and try to keep myself in a place where I'm receptive and have the energy, have the time and the motivation and the will, that it will come back, that I will find that groove again, even if it's only for a short time. That's what keeps us all doing it is that sense that there is just it could be the moment I walk out of here and go back to my office and something that you say in the next ten seconds that actually clicks something in me and I think hey, how does that relate to this and that, and then I'm off. Who knows. There's the one that I've been looking for, that thing that gives me that sense of coming together in a whole way, so it kind of acts in that way, that's part of, as the pleasure principle for just about everything that we do as human beings but there is that sense that if I keep working through my maze and I press the right buttons, eventually something will drop down the chute for me.

Diesenhaus: And from a kind of very technical side or mechanic side, is it that these things do just come to you as you're walking around or as you described early on in your career as you were driving, or when you sit down, are you bringing that material in, or you really sometimes just creating new material from that moment?

Mark Cox: I usually, these days, work very, very randomly. There's usually not a trigger anymore. Certainly there might be something that I saw somewhere. Where I written, you know, I don't even write down notes anymore. It used to be I was at the bar or the store or wherever else. I had Popsicle sticks with notes on them. I had candy wrappers. I was always so worried. I felt so worried, that oh my God, I had an idea! I can't! I must write it down immediately or I will lose it. When you have that kind of tension or pressure on you all the time what you're really kind of training yourself to do, or at least speaking for myself, what it felt like to me, was that I was training myself to not believe in myself, to think oh, you're only going to have one good idea and you've got to get it when you get it. Well the truth of the matter is that if it's a good idea it's still in there and it'll be back. The phrasing may be a little different, you may not have caught the exact music in rhythm, and that can be a loss sometimes because the music and the rhythm can lead you, can be the thing that's leading you more so than just the meaning of the words. That's true. But it's in there. The music, the rhythm, all of it is in there and it will be back. So I kind of relax now and then when I sit down, I just try to open myself and I say well, what's it going to be today? And maybe it's that thing that comes up. Maybe not. I work much more from that place now and then hope to almost watch the writing as I'm doing it lead into something bigger and of value and a place that's surprising to me.

Diesenhaus: When you are sitting down, are you sitting down to the computer or to a handwritten--

Mark Cox: I have been working longhand the last few years actually more than anything else, and that is a change because for probably the first decade, I did everything on the keyboard. I had switched from longhand when I was going into graduate school and during graduate school and after, keyboard. I think it's probably actually a good idea if I switch back and it would probably be good if I don't wait ten years to do it. The way that we write, whether it's longhand or a keyboard of a computer, typewriter is different even than that because the speed is different in terms of what you can do. But how fast you can get what you're thinking down on the page affects how fast you think and once that momentum gets going you either just surprise yourself more or you end up slowing down more depending on the mode. I always encourage students to kind of do things differently to mix it up because you can get where you're comfortable doing just one thing or another.

Diesenhaus: I just really have two more questions. One, both I've been trying to ask everyone, and the first one is in the community or in your life, when someone asks what you do, what do you say? Do you say that you're a writer or a poet or do you say, for instance, professor or another term of art craft?

Mark Cox: I say a teacher.

Diesenhaus: Is there any reason.

Mark Cox: I say I'm a teacher. I certainly think of myself as a writer and as a poet. You know I have no problem with that as an identity. I think, you know, probably I think I've just been uncomfortable over time with, you know, you say you're a writer to someone that you're just meeting. I think a lot of people kind of see that as there's some kind of ego involved. Well, aren't you the special one or something? I don't know. Or else people take it and they immediately begin to focus on you. It's something that's interesting, they want to know something about it, and it turns the conversation away from a relationship with something else or meeting them or asking them about them or doing things back and forth and it becomes like oh, you know, because the first question after that is always, "Are you published? Do you have books?" and this and I've read you and then what kind of thing you write and then suddenly, if somebody on a plane asks me again, you know, what kind of poetry do you write, I'll die. Obviously I take the time and I try to explain it but that's not what they want to know, the reality. So I don't. I mean, I don't need the attention in that way and at the core of who I am and what matters to me and the way I really make my living is I'm a teacher. That's what I do.

Diesenhaus: Just as a final question, any advice, any ideas or thoughts for aspiring writers, aspiring poets of any genre?

Mark Cox: I think one of the most difficult things for younger writers, and sometimes just less experienced writers, because this can be true. I've worked with students in, they're in high school age, weren't really grade school age when I caught that but I mean mainly I work with students from 18, and my oldest student is 74 or 76, something like that. Even students who come to me in their 40s and 50s and later who wrote in their early years, let it go, and now their families are gone, they're retired or whatever, they have time, they want to work on their writing again, have to deal with some of the same issues over and over again. We are very, very tempted to try and transcend the self, to get past the self, by going around it, by avoiding it. We all want to write the universal poem, the poem that kind of comes from us but which touches everyone in some way, which is not selfish and self-indulgent but instead is based on personal experience and it manages to become the universal experience for everyone. Of if not everyone, our ideal reader, that person that's taking us seriously, and too often we try to skip steps. We think that we can go around this and too often inexperienced teachers think that they can help students skip steps, that they can jump them to where they are in the way that they think about aesthetics, that if they just read what I think is interesting, this will help them. But what ends up happening is you always got to come back. You don't go around self. You have to go through it and if you're not willing to put your head down, open your eyes and go through that and see that relationship to your work, if you're not willing to trust yourself enough to really question yourself, to trust your own evolution as a writer enough to give yourself over to that process, then it's going to be a long night.

Diesenhaus: Thank you very much.

Mark Cox: Sure.

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