Peter Cooley was born in Detroit and lived for thirty-four years in the Midwest until coming to New Orleans and Tulane where he has taught for thirty-nine years. Peter Cooley has published nine books of poetry; eight of them with Carnegie Mellon and his most recent is NIGHT BUS TO THE AFTERLIFE, which came out in March 2014. He is married and has three “grown” children. Cooley is a Senior Mellon Professor of English at Tulane and Director of Creative Writing and Poetry editor of CHRISTIANITY AND LITERATURE.
Geosi Gyasi: You’ve stated somewhere that “My faith is a part of what I see and touch and feel, a part of me, a part of everything”. Do you think there is any relationship between faith and poetry?
Peter Cooley: Of course there is a relationship between faith and poetry. By its very nature, the reflexive construction of its words which seek always to be simultaneously referential, poetry expresses a faith in something beyond itself. What is peculiar right now is that so few poets nowadays would admit to any belief—except in poetry and their professed “humanism.”
Geosi Gyasi: You were born in Detroit, Michigan in 1940. What sort of society did you live in growing up?
Peter Cooley: I grew up in a very traditional Midwestern, protestant society, with strictly defined roles for everyone, for children, men and women, even the family dog. Very little was questioned. I found that world dissatisfying and have been writing against it ever since. In defense of my family of origin, I was never discouraged from writing.
Geosi Gyasi: Are you surprised that your daughter, Nicole Cooley, took after you – I mean on becoming a poet?
Peter Cooley: I am delighted that my daughter took after me! Surprised? Even as a little girl, before she could read, she was making up poems that my wife and I wrote down, so I guess I’m not surprised
Geosi Gyasi: Which kind of books did you read at home?
Peter Cooley: We didn’t have any poetry books. We had some classics, some current books which were literary fiction, some best sellers.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you think writers have done enough to shape the society into a better place today?
Peter Cooley: Of course, it is the writer’s task “to shape the society into a better place today.” But he or she must do this by trying to tell the truth— so as to awaken the attention—about human existence in as imaginative a way as possible.
Geosi Gyasi: What’s the current state of poetry in America? Are poets getting better?
Peter Cooley: I think the current state of poetry in America is indescribably rich in the number of poets writing and the current number of writing programs, small presses, reading venues and magazines available. And then there is the online world of publishing and performing, which is a whole new universe. Things have never been better.