Peter Cooley

recorded in New Orleans, LA

 

Peter Cooley

I’m Peter Cooley, I live in New Orleans. I live in Jefferson Parish, across the parish line. I’ve lived there for 30 years. I’ve been in New Orleans now for half my life. I’m originally from the Midwest. I was born in Detroit and lived in Michigan, Illinois, Iowa, and Wisconsin. And then, since I kept getting colder and colder as I moved from one state to the other, I finally moved down here.


The Knox Writers’ House

Do you consider yourself a part of a literary community here in New Orleans?


Cooley

I do. Being a part of a poetry group is very important to me. I’ve been in a number of these poetry groups since I went to Iowa and there was one in Iowa City, and I’m in one now. That would be my primary connection with the literary community here.


KWH

What is it exactly? How does it work?


Cooley

We just meet every other week and criticize each other’s work. And we have respect for each other’s work, so it’s important. Last week we met, for instance and my poem was completely and totally demolished. I mean, I don’t know if there’s anything left at all, it’s like dust, okay? The whole tower of Babel was torn down; I took home some dust in an envelope. [Laughs.]


KWH

[Laughs.] Sometimes that’s what you need.


Cooley

Sometimes that’s what you need.


KWH

Do you think the writing community in New Orleans is strong?


Cooley

Well, I can only speak of what I’m involved in. There are a lot of different readings. There are other writing communities besides the one I’m speaking of. There would be a writing community which would be much more involved with performance and music, and I’m not involved in that. There would be a writing community even of street poets, certainly, in the Quarter; I’m not at all involved in that. There used to be that person who sold his poems on Bourbon Street, for instance; I’m not involved in that. That’s not my kind of thing.


KWH

Do you like to go and see those things?


Cooley

Well, Bourbon Street gets pretty tiresome. There are other writing communities. There are writing communities which would involve the poetry form. I used to go to those meetings. And there’re readings at the University.


KWH

What’s it like to be a writer in this city?


Cooley

I don’t know. It’s just the same as being a writer anywhere else, isn’t it?


KWH

Did you see your writing change when you moved from the Midwest?


Cooley

Yes. It got warmer. [Laughs.] No, in all seriousness, the main change that took place from Wisconsin to New Orleans is I went from black and white photography to color photography. My poems in Wisconsin were black and white, and now, they’re pastel.


KWH

Because of the environment?


Cooley

Yes. The light. The light here has been very important to me. I’ve written a lot about the light of New Orleans. Because of the high humidity here in New Orleans, color is more color.


KWH

How does your work converse with the political or moral complications of today?


Cooley

My poems really did not deal with that for a long, long time. And then, I think Katrina made me more political and more aware of the indifference of the federal government to certain parts of the country, this one particularly. I wrote some poems about the oil spill too. I think it’s important to engage these things if we can. It’s very difficult to write decent poems about such things. I saw that first during the Vietnam War. I was at the end of graduate school at that time, and I saw so many bad poems written about the Vietnam War. But I still think it’s important to try.


KWH

Do you think writers have an obligation to deal with the real world or politics?


Cooley

They have an obligation to deal with the real world, definitely. My world is very real. [Laughs.] Those poems about my sister are very real, okay? The poems about my childhood and everyone dying off and the bus going on, those are very real. You have an obligation to do what you can do, and that’s what you do. Do what you can do to the best of your ability, that’s what you have an obligation to do. I wouldn’t set out to right political poems. I was politicized by Katrina. That happened. That was a real experience. Living there in the church house with looting going on next door and then living at home with no food or water. We also didn’t have any lights. That was interesting.


KWH

How long were you here?


Cooley

Seventeen days.


KWH

Do you think the political joining the domestic allowed you a way to write about it?


Cooley

Exactly. By living it directly.

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