Committal: An Interview with Irene Cooper by Jessica Caroline

Irene Cooper is the author of Committal, a spy-fy novel from Vegetarian Alcoholic Press, and spare change, a poetry collection from Finishing Line Press. Various writings appear online. Irene co-edits The Stay Project, co-facilitates Blank Pages Workshops, and teaches in Oregon, where she lives with her people and a corgi. 

Jessica Caroline: Could you tell us how the title came about? 

Irene Cooper: Committal was always more than a working title. It functioned, as the book took shape, as a touchstone, really, an organizing principle and thematic lodestar (to work that metaphor from the dirt right up to the cosmos). All the things I wanted to think about are in that title—institution, ritual, and a consideration of how an entity forms its own identity, constructs its compass… How commitment can be out of one’s hands, how a course of action(s) can negate individual impetus entirely… When that specifically, that negation of self, becomes the choice. Plus, I either like titles short and simple, or Ann Carson epic. I was going to say none of the poems are titled in a collection I have forthcoming in March 2021, but that’s not true. Out of 61 poems, three, technically, are titled. Turns out, some readers have very strong feelings about titles, about the existence and absence of them, who knew? For me, a poem title carries its own weight or it’s useless. Novels typically need names, though, so for me, Committal as a title needed to be strong enough to resonate throughout.

JC: It did feel right off the bat as though your book would lend itself well to a film adaptation, somewhere between Fargo, Frankenstein, Succession, Her, Ex Machina, and Hanna. Do you conceive of each chapter as a scene? 

IC: Agreed—for me, too, the experience of reading a novel is its own thing, very different from my experience of watching film. That said, though, Committal grew from a hybrid lineage of media. I used to joke that, as a poet who writes 12-line poems, I couldn’t be expected to write a character across the room. So, yes, in hindsight, I think I was imagining chapters or segments in a scene, if that means I made an attempt to embody the characters in their actions and geographies in a way I could see. And, you know, at the mention of all those fine, fun works you note, snippets of them run through my head, so those influences are in there.

JC: And starring caricatures of a few iconic actors including Daniel Day (“Dani / Dante the Cobbler) Lewis, Tilda Swindon, Steve Buscemi, and Viggo Mortensen. Did you know from the start you wanted to have actors / actor-poets in the novel? What drew you to them specifically?

IC: Well, I like them, primarily. They are iconic and alluring in a kind of old-fashioned way—each of them seems to me to have chosen acting as a default, or makes it appear so. Except maybe for Buscemi, they all write or have written poetry (and I wouldn’t put it past Buscemi). The prose poem in the book about switching places with Mortensen, “Dream Sequence,” existed already, a reaction to a Vanity Fair feature in which he comes off impossibly cool. And Tilda is like Cher for nerds. I really enjoyed writing them into situations wherein I could both deny and exalt their strange fame.

JC: Cher for nerds!! I listened to Tilda reading the Rumi poem Like This—it does have a soothing ASMR quality to it. Could you also talk about the Adrienne Rich verse at the start and why it is important for you to thread poetry throughout your fiction?

IC: “Planetarium” is Adrienne Rich considering Caroline Herschel, the 18-19th century astronomer, and the first woman to make a salary at it. A woman, head up, facing the cosmos, peering into it…a powerful, striking image. Also, there’s a tremendous movement toward solitude in the poem, which starts in third person, moves to first person plural, and ends in a dense stanza of “I,” “for the relief of the body /  and the reconstruction of the mind.” 

Partly because of its economy and concision, poetry helps me think more expansively, hold contradiction more lightly, and allow the intellect to find translation, or at least relationship, in the body. It helps me to connect to an idea or impression through non-verbal cues like sound, smell and texture. 

Lastly, here—I believe that many poems, and definitely “Planetarium,” carry more data than can be simply read. It was Herschel’s brother who pulled her out of the domestic sphere to work alongside him. He made the big money and was more famous, but I like that bond between them. Rich sings her song of Herschel, and I don’t know until well into the research, until after I choose the excerpt to introduce the novel, about Herschel and her brother, a relationship that seems in direct conversation with the family ties in the book. Maybe I’m reaching, but then, I still wonder at the ease with which that poem rose to the surface. 

JC: The Wanda Coleman verse, “Violence against a persistent adversary is therapeutic” also seems to relate to the family ties, in the way they do violence to each other emotionally and physically. Of course this also has broader implications. How much do you let politics enter your work? 

IC: Politics enters me, whether I welcome it in or not, and so can enter the work. If politics is the exercise (and circus) of choice, I’m interested in the distribution of power beneath the banner, at the struggle, often unacknowledged, that many have to navigate in order to be able to choose. I’m not optimistic, but I recently took solace in a comment by Pádraig Ó Tuama, where he said it was a tenet of conflict resolution that it takes as long to get out of something as it took to be in it. So, I believe in better times, but maybe not in my time. That could be the moment talking.

Poet Vievee Francis delivers a very clear line on how so many people—particular women of color and queer women of color—have been making sense and not being heard for decades. Her grief, when I heard her talk about this at the Dodge Poetry Festival, was palpable right through the Zoom. If she’s skeptical about our collective ability to sustain activism, she’s still showing up. 

JC: BEACON and SEARCHLIGHT struck me as more sophisticated versions of Siri, linked to global megastructures roughly analogous to Google’s TensorFlow and Facebook chatbots. You also explore transhuman metamorphosis and cryogenic freezing. How much were you thinking of our present day tech world overlords: Elon Musk, Aubrey de Grey, and Ray Kurzweil, etc., as you were writing this? 

IC: Musk was making the news with Neuralink when I was well into an advanced draft of Committal. De Grey came up in the research, quite organically (ha!), though I haven’t read his work— only of it. Luci’s lobotomy is based on nonfiction events of the mid-twentieth century. The idea that an essentially barbaric procedure hotwires her brain came early, and the question became, how would this kind of power take form in someone who had had no power whatsoever, and was wholly uninterested in her own aggrandizement? Hubris is so often illustrated as a male desire for legacy, and I wanted to shift and play with that narrative…and, too, with the idea of legacy, which more tenderly means an operative connection to the past, rather than the end of death, rather than immortality.

I used to write a blog that explored the subject of  burial alternatives for a get-your-spiritual-certification-online website. What an education! There were people who leaned toward earthly decay, and others who hoped to have a diamond made from their ashes, or to be shot into the atmosphere in a rocket. Or be frozen. Something memorable, maybe reversible.

JC: Did you intend these programs to have a matriarchal undercurrent?

IC: Certainly, “Bea” has a homey flavor…I’m still thinking about the relationship between BEACON and SEARCHLIGHT. At first I was compelled by the idea of twins, the invention of language and the possibility of telepathy.  More biologically, I was curious about inherited and transgenerational trauma, something I was introduced to when my daughter was seven, and we visited a Sikh kinesiologist to ascertain whether her seizure medication was still relevant. We got that information, and as a bonus, the practitioner told me I carried a demonic shadow, a matrilineal inheritance, and if I didn’t want to pass it to my daughters I needed to address it. So, the secret language of twins became a sort of secret language of women.

JC: Luci Sykes comes to represent an anti-natalist thread as the narrative progresses. She has demons and daemons—driven not so much by binary forces as a spectrum, a desire to protect earth as much as a desire to destroy. Her character, like other characters, begins in a codependent relationship that triangulates and tessellates among other characters. To what extent were you thinking about archetypal fields and psychoanalytic frameworks in the formation of each character?

IC: Tessellated is a great word, useful for thinking about this and trying to answer it. Connected, and separate. Patterned. While I did a good bit of research on mental health practices and therapeutic trends of the last century, it filtered through and contributed a kind of shorthand for the reader to see the characters in their initial, or introductory, positions. Luci and Maggie’s relationship, in which Maggie sees Luci as a separate entity, whole and perfect unto herself, despite what are perceived as  imperfections by others, still feels like a rare and empowering separation of mother and daughter. Luci, on the other hand, doesn’t get to experience her own natural separation process, and never escapes the entanglement. Other characters develop their sense of personal identity only in relation to one another, when they are pushed together. Except for BEACON and SEARCHLIGHT, nobody, no human (after birth), dwells inside of another, but they can vibrate at a little higher frequency next to one another.  

I loosely and very un-academically connect with Jung’s idea that the dreamer is everyone in the dream, in the sense that all the characters emanated from me, and are therefore me. Also, I feel like I’ve managed to stay Tarot-adjacent amid massive interest in my circles over the last several years. My grad school cohort was nicknamed the Fools, with subsequent cohorts dubbed Magicians, Hermits, Wheels, etc. I, myself, have zero facility for card-reading, but I am drawn to archetypes, as well as daemons and demons. I like to think whatever archetypes the characters resemble initially, they are much more of an amalgam as the story expands. Esther could be said to lean into High Priestess, with some of the sacrificial aspect of the Hanged Man. (She’s named for the retributive Queen Esther, whose story is told in one of only two books of the Hebrew Bible that do not mention God.) Jed’s a bit of a High Priestess, too, with a little Hermit. The twinning of Luci and Tokker, as well as of BEACON and SEARCHLIGHT, nod to the Lovers, maybe. Off-deck, Luci has a bit in common with the Hindu god, Shiva. Was I working with these associations while writing the book? My reading and the internet made quite a few associations visible to me, but ultimately I’d say yes in the sense that I carry my share of the collective unconscious. 

JC: Botanical references are an ongoing motif. I love the detail of the beet that is used as ink to unveil the message of a stamp. Is gardening a passion in your life and how did it come to fruition?

IC: I got a culinary degree in the now-defunct California Culinary Academy back in the day, and cooked in some wonderful California restaurants—while keeping a sense of humor when Alice Waters or someone had an orgasm over a bowl of fresh peas. My husband—also an CCA alum and also a writer—and I kept a vegetable garden for years in Central Oregon, no easy feat with over 300 nights of below-freezing temps and a 60-day growing season. I eat largely vegetarian, mostly because that’s the food I like best. What I really like are bugs, as well as spiders and all burrowing creatures. I like the economy and processes of the earth, how smart it is about itself. In the backyard, if not on corporate farms, you don’t so much grow a garden as support it and get out of the way. Which is a lot of work, and delicious in the end. 

JC: I do wonder if subsequent generations will look back on meat eating as barbaric, although I’m perhaps more at this point concerned about the barbarism to come. But maybe we should instead finish on a lighter note. What’s your favorite insect? And do you ever eat them?

IC: Bugs! And spiders. A great fox-spider was recently spotted in Great Britain, after being thought extinct! All the more fascinating for its being huge. The scarab, a dung beetle, Egyptian symbol of transformation, resurrection, immortality—Gothic in its appeal, for sure. Beetles use the Milky Way to navigate! Bees are sexy in a save-the-planet way. Ants are related to bees, and share that collective impulse; they’re unreasonably strong, and hard to love, but I do love them. Just not in my kitchen.

Jessica Caroline is a freelance writer/poet/performer currently based in NY. 

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