Oct/Nov 2020  •   Reviews & Interviews

A Poet's Journey: a Conversation with Douglas Cole

Interview by Kiran Bhat

Kiran Bhat         Douglas Cole

Douglas Cole is a poet, short story writer, and novelist. He is one of the most interesting artists of the Pacific Northwest, drawing on words with a talent befitting his wise and groovy soul. I had an impromptu phone chat with Doug. We had a fun time talking about travel, the writing process, and what it means to live a conscientious existence on this earth.


KB     So, let me start off by asking you the obvious. You live in Seattle. At the same time, Seattle isn't a city we normally talk about when we discuss literature. What's Seattle like for a writer?

DC     I think Seattle is a very literary town, with a lot of bookstores and arts culture. There's actually a beautiful writing scene. We have a place called the Hugo House. I don't know if you've ever heard about that.

KB     I mean, I've heard of Victor Hugo. I don't know about the Hugo House.

DC     It's actually related to the American poet, Richard Hugo. They conduct classes and host readings. They have writers in residence, too. And a lot of the bookstores and galleries around here host readings. I was able to do quite a few readings for my first couple of poetry books through the bookstores and galleries around town. You know, I'm a little more on my own, but I think there's a pretty vibrant kind of a writer's community around Seattle, of different styles and makeups.

KB     Yeah, that was what was coming up on my mind. I was going about that; how much immigration patterns of Seattle affect the writing culture.

DC     Oh, I don't know if I'm the right person to ask about that, but I know that there are many folks who are writing out of various communities here. We have pretty vibrant Latino, Asian, Indian communities, among others. The Indian community is strong, especially in Seattle and not too far north in Vancouver, Canada. I had a good friend and colleague a number of years back (I edited a novel he was writing called Time is a Fire). His family was from India. And he was part of a rich and supportive group of Indian immigrant writers and intellectuals.

Seattle has a long history of being a place people immigrate to, but I don't know a lot of details about the various ways it manifests and shows up in the literature other than some of the writers I've read or know of like John Okada, Donna Miscolta, Raul Sanchez. They're the ones to ask...

KB     Let me ask then, are you from Seattle originally or are you from somewhere else in the USA?

DC     Oh, yeah, born here, but I grew up mostly in California.

KB     Oh, that's what that is. You definitely act like a Californian. I totally see that inside of you. So, how much does that influence you, too? Are you influenced as much by California as you are by Seattle?

DC     That's a good question. I know that there's a reputation of the West Coast Californian as somebody who's pretty laid back, as they say, chill and groovy, and that the Seattle persona is a little chillier. I've always felt more Californian in that respect. I'm a little warmer. People in Seattle have a tendency to isolate a bit more.

KB     Yeah, now that I think about it, I'm missing the West Coast. I had a book tour a little earlier this year, and I was in Los Angeles and it felt so different from what I normally know of the US. Each neighborhood in Los Angeles is like its own world, and while it has a lot of the fallings of American capitalism, it also has almost a Latin American vibe to it, in the trees that grow there, in the sway of the breeze. And I was thinking it's a shame I've not yet explored this type of USA. It's really different from what I know, growing up in Georgia, and studying in New York.

DC     Well, I spent most of my formative years in Berkeley, Northern California. I later lived in L.A. and San Diego as well. And northern California and Southern California have their differences culturally, too. But they all influence me in their own way. Absolutely.

KB     Did you ever spend time outside of the US, too?

DC     I went to school abroad for a year. I did one of the exchange programs out of my college in the Bay Area. I lived in Bradford, England. It was a beautiful experience, and from there I was able to travel thanks to those passes for young people. I did a lot of traveling that year throughout mostly Western Europe: France, Germany, Italy, Greece and Spain. I didn't get to India, unfortunately.

KB     I don't think those passes can even take you that far. You could have mentioned Kazakhstan or Malaysia, and they would have been more likely to get you to those spots.

DC     I have a good friend, Neil Vasishth, and he and I have done some traveling together. He's far more ambitious than I am. And a number of years back, right after the events in New York, the 9/11 bombings in New York, he wanted to go to Afghanistan. There was a group of people who were congregating under the umbrella of an organization (I can't remember what the name of it is) but that organization would coordinate sending people to politically disrupted places in order for them to observe and witness and report: journalists, teachers, writers, that sort of thing. Then they would come back and give their impressions. So, he wanted to do that, and he asked me if I wanted to go. It was maybe a year after 9/11, and the US was gearing up to go to war. When he came back, later, he asked me if I would rather go to Bali next time. And to that one I said yes.

KB     You're the type of who likes those relaxing trips.

DC     Well, I am from California, yeah. But, really, when he asked about going to Afghanistan, I had a wife and a new baby.

KB     And now that baby is closer to my age.

DC     Yeah, he's a fully-fledged twenty year old. So that was part of the obligation I had back then. There was not a lot of support to go to Afghanistan.

KB     Don't worry. I'm just pulling your leg. Even I don't know if I would want to go to Afghanistan now.

DC     But, I love to travel. I've been to Mexico several times.

KB     I love Mexico as well. I was thinking if I can't get back to India because of how horribly COVID is affecting it, I might try Mexico and see how that goes. Although they also have a really bad amount of COVID , too. Actually, I'm really privileged to live in Australia. It's one of the few countries that's not being ravaged at the moment, though we have some of the strictest curfews and restrictions as a result of it. So I don't know if it's a good thing or a bad thing. But I do think that the moment my visa expires in March, I'm going to have to go back to the outside world. And it's like, where can I go?

DC     You just stay where you are.

KB     Oh, no, I'm not planning on going anywhere for about six months at least.

DC     Oh no.

KB     Yeah, my visa expires next March. So that's a little over six months.

DC     I think that's a reasonable time. By then, things might be better.

KB     If anything, I'm really lucky. It's like it's been ordained by the heavens for me to stay in a place that is safe. But, anyways, we're getting off topic. Tell me more about your poetry. Has travel influenced you writing in some form? If not, what has?

DC     Probably the biggest influences are the poets and writers I read. I was just reading the autobiography of Miles Davis, (transcribed by Quincy troupe), the trumpet player, musician. And, as you know, of course, there's a completely different kind of experience in his life. But there's something I really found myself connecting to and identifying with, and that's the way that he would study the music of other players, and read scores, study scores. And that's what I mean, trying to consciously sort of grope my way through and absorb things around me. I like to steal.

KB     That's intriguing.

DC     And then, of course, you know, life will get its way in there. You can't help it. Other arts seem to influence me, too, like films. Sometimes a phrase might catch my ear, or some image, and I'll just pocket it. It's inevitable. You find your voice, or search for your voice and then, you know, you want to experiment all the time. I was reading William Stafford recently, too, and came across something. He writes about this idea of a golden thread. Whatever comes to you, whether it's from your imagination or something you see, then you follow it. It doesn't matter if you think it's right or wrong or appropriate or whatever, you just follow it. And that's not particularly new, but I'd say it echoes again the way in which I'm always on the lookout.

KB     So why fiction now?

DC     Fiction isn't a new thing. I've always done both poetry and fiction. I've always written stories and poetry at the same time. I love storytelling, and I think my poetry is narrative in a lot of ways. And this novel is, I think, the third novel I've written, but only the first one I've published. But I'm always working on fiction, too, have been for years.

KB     So, then, it wasn't like The White Field came out of the blue?

DC     That's a beautiful image. The White Field, coming out of the blue.

KB     That was completely accidental.

DC     You know, I realized the other day I have colors in a lot of my titles. I don't know why. I have a book called The Gold Tooth in the Crooked Smile of God and another called The Blue Island. And now The White Field.

KB     You should find a way to make them into a series.

DC     I think I could order them so they all work like one sentence.

KB     Right. The gold teeth in the white field on the blue island.

DC     That would be the masterwork, if you could make it such that when all the titles are put together, it becomes its own work. That's a beautiful concept. I could actually do that.

KB     Yeah, keep it in the back of your mind.

DC     You can have that one.

KB     Oh, no, it wouldn't work at all. I have titles in different languages, so I don't know how it would come up.

DC     The White Field, though, came from a singular moment in which I was driving back when I was in grad school. I was going to Western Washington University north of Seattle. My ex-wife and I had just bought a house in Seattle. She was teaching at a small university. We couldn't really move up to Bellingham, so I was actually commuting an hour and a half, each way, up and down. I'd stay at people's houses and stuff like that and then drive back. But I drove up there so many times that just that drive became a story. And it felt like each time I was driving, I had the idea of escape and somehow I was running. So, I kept thinking about this character who's running, driving, escaping, and that was it. I built the book around that nugget, that core. The landscape was actually what triggered it, the landscape, and my travel through it.

KB     Yes, yes, interesting. So you're very much inspired by land?

DC     Yes, very much. I do feel attuned to the landscape. I don't mind philosophical conceptual stuff. You know, I can read T.S. Eliot. I think, for me, the process is more like what Kerouac describes. It should be like a movie, a little movie in your mind that you're trying to capture.

KB     That's a wonderful image. Like it's a vision in your mind that you are just trying to get down. Though it's different for me. I think for me whenever I write, it's just a stream of words, and the syntax and structure comes out of itself. But it's not visual. I don't think in pictures at all.

DC     I think that's a beautiful process. And Richard Hugo, that poet here in America, he sort of says what you're saying, that when it comes down to the creation, the process of writing, that some of us want to get to the truth, and others to the music. And the truth might be in the physical details or the visual authenticity, but the music, he said, is kind of where you begin, and you just don't know where you are going to go. The language itself and the play of sound and, like you said, the words that come up that just might be random or associative. And I love that, too. I think that's actually even maybe more enjoyable. Isn't it a wonderful moment when you can sit down and the whole picture is in your head? All you're doing is transcribing it. And it's just a chain reaction of sounds and music. I think that's almost when it's the most beautiful. What you end up creating has a magic because the language has taken over and it's the sound of the engine inside of the art. And what's that sound? That sound has kind of a trance-inducing quality. The words become a joy, don't they? They're like little sparks of mystery that are fun to dive into.

KB     Yeah, I've been thinking about these things. I'm not really as much of a word person as you are. I interviewed another poet, whose name is Sarah M. Sala. She also has had a book out recently. And she was also talking about how, for her, it's very important to get the words right in each and every line, and I just don't think that way. I wonder if there's just a fundamental difference in how storytellers or fiction writers view their craft. Because I'm more interested in where my characters are going, or what I'm trying to say with their transgressions. And I want everything to be moving in the direction of the story I aspire to tell, and, certainly, words are important in that regard. But even if I write a poem, I tend to think, what is the point of the poem? What am I trying to communicate? But I don't have an attention to detail, for better or for worse.

DC     Have you read John Gardner? I love his book, The Art of Fiction. He has a good piece of advice in there. He likens writing to creating a dream, and you don't want to wake your reader up with, you know, some clumsy phrasing or inaccurate punctuation or lack of visual detail. I think you're right. The story's got to be moving. But also, I've always had that curiosity about language alone. I remember when I was first starting out, there were times when I would experiment with just a sound, try to create words on just sound alone.

KB     I can relate to that, not as a poet, but a polyglot who uses poetry. I like to take random words in one language and try to link them to another, not by meaning, but by alliteration and sound. I'm thinking of writing something where I play with that. Not to translate something from one language to another by meaning, but by words of a similar sound and emotionality.

DC     That sounds beautiful. It's like going on a treasure hunt. It's just fun, isn't it? It's a pleasant way to spend your time as opposed to worrying, say, like about death.

KB     That's a morose space to take the conversation to. Do you worry about death?

DC     No, I don't worry about it.

KB     That's good to know. You shouldn't because we cannot. It comes to all of us at some point. And at the moment it happens, you won't even be aware enough to worry about it. Once you've crossed that point, you'll just be a non-existence and you will not have the ability to think anymore. So why worry about it in the present when at the moment it happens to you, you yourself will no longer be able to?

DC     You're right. I like being alive, and I like doing things and I like being in this world for now. So I would like to continue.

KB     Now that's a good spot to end on! Thanks for talking to me Doug. I look forward to reading The White Field.

DC     Thank you for having me!


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