Book Reviews,  Others

#Interview: Mark Cox for Knowing

Today, I have the privilege of sitting down with a literary luminary whose career spans four decades of profound contribution to the world of letters. With a distinguished record of publications in renowned magazines and a mantelpiece adorned with accolades such as the Whiting Writers Award, a Pushcart Prize, and the Oklahoma Book Award, among others, Mark Cox stands as a beacon of literary excellence. Currently, he not only chairs the Department of Creative Writing at UNC Wilmington but also enriches minds as a revered instructor in the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA Program. Join me as I delve into the insights and experiences of this esteemed writer, educator, and champion of the literary arts.

Your poems address themes like love, drinking, and relationship struggles. What motivated you to explore these personal aspects of your life in your poetry?

Well, accessibility has always been important to me. I always wanted the poems to be approachable, something that people could respond to without having to be highly educated in terms of what poetry is and how it functions. The struggle is always between this wrestling that we do between artfulness and naturalness. As Lorca said, between discipline and passion. When I came up, it was common to strive for art that seemed as if it just happened organically. As if it was not a made thing. You esteemed the re-enactment of experience over intellectual contrivance. So even those things that are the most colloquial or the most casual, the most conversational, might be things that you spent hours considering, in terms of their thematic shape, in terms of the nuances of the voice, or the kind of music that you were trying to create. But you wanted it to read as if it was very, very natural. This way of thinking about style very much influences content. It privileges personal, human, often quotidian, subject matter.

The blurb mentions a memorable incident involving a cigarette and a church's holy water font. Can you share more about the story behind this moment and its significance in your work?

Life is chock full of mistakes, missteps, embarrassments and regrets, yes? If you are not being honest about them, you are not embracing and encountering your whole self with your art. Art is very much a revelation of self, even when art seems impersonal or denies it. I have done a lot of things that I am ashamed of; being honest with myself about them is a prerequisite for change and growth. We have to come to terms with our failings if we want to approach forgiveness and some semblance of inner peace.

Your poetry balances humour and honesty, even when dealing with serious topics. How do you manage to maintain this balance in your writing?

That’s just something that happens naturally and intuitively in me. Seen with perspective, human experience is both tragic and comic, yes? I have a pretty well-developed sense of irony, I think. This is yet another example of bringing the whole self to bear.

What do you hope readers will feel or understand after reading the poems in "Knowing"?

I don’t feel it is my job to teach an audience something. I have no expectations of them. It is my job to share my experience, my psychic truth, as best I can with the hope that others might find some value in it. Poetry accomplishes varied things. It connects, it consoles, it challenges, it provokes, and so on. I guess I hope that my poems connect with readers on the basic human level, making my perspectives known.

Who are your major influences, both literary and otherwise, and how have they shaped your work?

There are too many to list. I feel I have been influenced by everything I’ve ever read, in one way or another. The English Romantics were important to me in the early years. Certainly, the Confessional poets, Lowell and Sexton in particular. Some poets you might not expect, like Wallace Stevens, Robinson Jeffers and Conrad Aiken. Stephen Berg’s poems struck a chord in me. They all trained my ear in lyrical and conversational music. They taught me to be ambitious in my approach to the art of poetry.

Are there any specific poems in "Knowing" that hold particular significance for you? Can you tell us why?

When I was compiling my selected and new poems, Sorrow Bread, I very much had my three children in mind. I felt that I was leaving them a record of exactly who their father was. I feel the same way about many of the poems in Knowing. “Gasoline” is a complex poem that offers a perspective on the divorce that helped shape them. The poems that reference them like “The Song that Never Ends” and “Wonderbread” are particularly dear to my heart.

How has your poetry evolved throughout your career? Are there any major shifts in style, theme, or perspective that you can identify?

Well, I think it’s changed a great deal from early in my career. Early on I was attracted to a much faster pace, a lot of tonal shifting, a lot of diction shifting. My poems were both image-oriented and voice-driven. Irony was always mixing it up with tenderness. I was always drawn back and forth between my lyric and narrative sensibilities. I never knew if I was going to be writing smaller, tight combustion chambers of music and imagery, or whether I was going to be connecting a series of moments. It just depended on following the material. Those tendencies have been with me my whole career, I guess. Anyway, I think I was much more interested in the complexities of language and the mind then. Not that I’m not interested in that now, I think I’m just much more drawn to simplicity and clarity and directness in a way now that I wasn’t when younger.

The title "Knowing" suggests a journey toward understanding or insight. What does this title represent for you, and how does it tie into the themes of your collection?

Knowing, at its core, is about living comfortably with three facts we know for sure. That is, living involves loss, insists on change and ends in death. These constants give value to all human relationships, be they with other people or matters of the spirit. In this sense, the book is as much about not knowing as it is about knowing.

It has been an honour to gain such valuable insights from Mark, a true titan in the world of literature and education. His journey, marked by decades of dedication and numerous accolades, serves as both inspiration and guidance for aspiring writers and educators alike. I look forward to seeing the continued impact of his work on the literary landscape and beyond.


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