Meet poet Bob Cording
Bob Cording is the first year mentor in the SPU MFA program. His latest collection of poetry, Without My Asking, was published this fall, and a new collection of essays, Finding the World’s Fullness: On Poetry, Metaphor, and Mystery will be released very soon. We talked with him about the speakers in his new poems, the difficulties of paying attention, his ongoing indebtedness to Ruskin, and more.
SPU: The speakers in your latest poetry collection feel familiar in the ways they are looking at the natural world and reflecting on what they see, but it also feels like there might be some kind of a small shift—do these poems feel different to you?
I feel like they’re more natural. In some ways the poems in this book are the closest thing I’ve come to speaking in my own voice—or what I hear as my own voice. What I mean is they can be very joyous at times, even playful; I feel I am, too, but that playfulness rarely comes across in my earlier poems.
SPU: As always, the speakers seem very present, but in certain poems, such as “Across the Water,” they are reaching farther back in life in the midst of their meditations.
Yes. There’s something about this book that accepts life as it is from the vantage point of someone who’s lived 70 years. When you’re younger you want life to be the way you want it to be. Earlier, my voice was more self-deprecating, especially about my need to live in my imagined world. The stuff I’m writing now has much more of a sense of a person who has come to terms with the world as it really is.
SPU: But not in a cynical way—that’s what most people mean and feel when they say, “that’s just how the world is.”
That’s right. These speakers know there’s the possibility of radical joy as much as radical sadness. When I say accept the world as it is, that’s what I mean. And that comes out more naturally in this book.
One of the advantages of being older is you don’t necessarily feel that you have to prove to everyone in your writing that you’re aware of all the suffering and horror in the world. Younger writers often feel they have to do that constantly. It makes it hard to write about a moment of contentment. As you get older, maybe you even know about that suffering first-hand, but you feel you can write about those moments of joy when life comes together without having to apologize for it—because they’re as real as anything else.
SPU: What can you tell us about the prose book that’s forthcoming?
It’s really very connected to the poems in the sense that it’s an argument I’ve been working out forever. It deals with the problem of how to write about the fact that you live in a created world. I don’t mean seven days of creation, but rather that sense that there’s no reason for things to be, but they are. Miłosz says something like, if we look at anything long enough it will astonish us by the very fact that it is. That’s the ground for those poems and that’s the ground of this prose book as well.
“One of the advantages of being older is you don’t necessarily feel that you have to prove to everyone in your writing that you’re aware of all the suffering and horror in the world.”
SPU: Bob, why is it so hard to look at the world, at anything, that way? To pay attention in the way Miłosz describes?
The best way to think about it is the story of Christ in the garden. He says to the disciples: ‘Stay awake. And pray.’ And he comes back and finds them asleep. He wakes them up, tells them again. And they just can’t do it. You know they want to stay awake, just as we do, but paying attention makes certain demands of us. Honestly, it means facing our own mortality as well as the pains of life—the sorrow of everything that we wish we’d done—and haven’t done. It’s not simply that we aren’t paying attention to a tree, but also the fact that we’re not really looking at the tree because we’re caught up in all the things we have to do. We’re washing clothes and cleaning toilets and one thing after another and then the day is over. It’s a feeling we all have. But my thing has always been, if we can come awake in the way Christ demanded of his disciples in the garden, then we won’t be afraid of death. It’s the most demanding thing you could ask of yourself.
I remember, too, how Wendell Berry says how the phrase, ‘pay attention’ means there is something owed—we owe attention to the world. And that’s a way of giving thanks and praise. To me, attention is very connected to gratitude. I feel that about the least little bird. To know it’s called a Junco, and how it behaves, and what makes it unique—I need to know those things as much as I need to know your name. That’s how I try to live each day. Pay attention to everything that’s before you.
I had lunch in a cafeteria today and there weren’t many open places to sit. An older Puerto Rican couple asked me to sit down with them. It was the most wonderful lunch ever. Before long we were talking about baseball and my childhood hero, Roberto Clemente, who was a hero to them, too. And we talked about the hurricane, and then about how they’ve felt persecuted from what Trump has unleashed. We started sharing stories of our grandchildren. I mean, it was wonderful, but it was really just a matter of paying attention to one another. As writers, we think about paying attention to rocks and trees and things, but people are just as important.
But to pay attention to anything, you have to go outside of yourself. It requires love. It’s not just a matter of eyesight, though you do need that kind of critical observation. It also requires, as Ruskin says, love: you have to love what you look at. Whether it’s a person or a leaf. Ruskin taught me a lot when I read him as a graduate student. He taught me how to see nature. How to look at art. How to think about our human need to do fulfilling work—and what that kind of work really means. And he taught me this incredible lesson, too: there’s no difference between the most beautiful, ornate cathedral, and a kingfisher’s feather, when you really look at them. The most simple and the most complex things deserve equal attention from us.