Nicole Cooley is the author of several books of poetry, most recently Milk Dress and Breach. Her awards include The Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets for her first book, Resurrection, a Discovery/The Nation Award, an NEA, a Creative Artists fellowship from The American Antiquarian Society, and the Emily Dickinson Award from the Poetry Society of American. She is a professor of English and Creative Writing at Queens College-City University of New York where she directs the MFA program.
Tell us about your relationship to your art.
Improvisation, surrealist games, writing badly and not caring, writing anywhere in any ugly space at any time. I spent a lot of my writing life playing tricks on myself to keep going.
What's a project that has been exciting you lately?
Two things: a prose book I am working on titled My Dollhouse, Myself: Miniature Histories, which explores the relationships between girls, women and dollhouses—especially between mothers and daughters. I’ve had so much time working on this project, interviewing dollhouse bloggers, women who run dollhouse stores, people at miniature shows, and my own mother and my daughters.
Also a new collection of poems tentatively titled Borrowed Stolen Owned which explores dolls, dishes from estate sales, mother/daughter, women’s bodies. For several years, my husband and I drove with our daughters all over the South going to strange small museums—cocktail museums, telephone museums, lock museums. I wanted to visit them, to write about them, but most of all what I wanted to do was refresh my language. So I spend several summers standing in small empty museums in small empty towns talking to the people and writing everything down. Not every museum—far from it—is in my manuscript but this way of thinking bout language deeply informed the work.
Most of all right now, I think I am interested in collections and collecting and the subcultures that arise from collections.
Tell us a little of your motherhood journey.
My oldest daughter Meridian was born when I was 34, and sometimes I joke that I don’t remember my life before being a mother but this is actually true. The early years with both my daughters were difficult for me—so intense, a huge seismic life change and I found it very hard to navigate my teaching job which had no maternity leave where few if any of my colleagues had children at all. I did not have tenure but I was tired of waiting to have a baby. So I went ahead and had two.
And at the time my courage and radical action –having these children-- was often praised by other women I knew which now strikes me as somewhat bizarre: a college professor in her mid thirties having a baby should not be a trail-blazer.
What are some crucial elements of your process? How has that changed since having children?
Time is completely different now, both my use of it and the way I think of it in the long run. If I have ten minutes, I can do my work. There is no warm up, there are no good writing rituals, no dawdling at my desk. I don’t need to be at my desk. I can be on a subway, in the backyard, at the town pool on a bench. I have worked to be the kind of writer who can dip right back into the work at any time. It’s hard but I find it a much better way to work.
What are some of the ways your family and your art interact?
Driving all over to go to small museums and take notes with my family; driving all over the Gulf Coast to talk to people after Hurricane Katrina with my girls in the car; watching and listening to my girls play dollhouse as I work on my book about dollhouses.
Do you find your attitude towards your art might be different because of your parenting / has it changed since you became a parent?
Yes, in every way. Because I used to be one of those people who wrote best in the beautiful room in the colony or when I had a whole day to myself or when I could have a day of silence and tell my husband I couldn’t talk all day because I was working on a poem.
That’s completely over now, which is for the best, though sometimes I miss my younger self and her absurd, idealistic ideas about writing.
Are your children ever subjects in your art?
When they were babies, yes, I wrote about them all the time. Now that they are older-10 and 13—I find myself more wary. I don’t want to speak for them. I don’t’ want to write things that will haunt them later. I think about the ethics of writing about my teenage daughter, telling her story vs. letting her speak for herself.
But the experience of mothering two daughters is a huge part of my work and is everywhere in everything I write.
Aside from the obvious need of more time, what has been one of the most difficult obstacles you’ve had in regards to parenting and your art?
Besides early struggles in my workplace with pregnancy and parenting and teaching, I think both parenting and writing take enormous amounts of energy. And neither is a sprint—both are marathons. I take on too much and then want to collapse. I realize that if by the time I get on the train to go to my office I’ve made breakfast, lunch, gone to the food store, cleaned the house, and broken up sister fights, taken kids to school, I don’t feel triumphant just completely exhausted and it is 8:30am. That’s no good for anyone. It’s been difficult to let go of being a perfectionist which doesn’t work as a parent.
In turn, what are some of the saving graces?
Watching my girls learn to speak as babies changed the whole way I think about language. And now that they are older, being able to live my life with two fiercely imaginative young people who let me into their world is amazing to me.
How do you escape?
I go away from home. I leave. I get a Priceline hotel room in NYC or Philadelphia and I hide out for a day or two, just writing. Something about the anonymous space, the ease of it, the solitude is exactly what I need right now in my life—it is exactly what is missing. I can’t imagine wanting to do this my whole life but now it’s my biggest fantasy. A bed with clean sheets I don’t have to launder, an empty desk, quiet.
Also sometimes when I go away I meet one of my closest friends poet Julia Kasdorf, also a mother of a daughter, and we get a shared Priceline hotel room for a night and just talk poetry. We workshop each other’s work for hours, we work through the issues in our poems, and have a nice dinner. It’s heavenly.
What advice do you have for expectant mothers in your field?
Sit down with your husband or partner or co-parent and work out how you want your family life to be so parenting is truly equal. It’s hard work to make this happen, but you have to hammer out the details early on so you are both involved in the work of the home and the lives of the children. My husband is also a writer and professor, so we are lucky in that our jobs in and out of the house are very much the same. But navigating life as a couple and as parents can be tricky and yet it is essential if you want to have a writing life and a parenting life to have these discussions.