California Poet/Editor: Tobi Cogswell

Tell us about yourself-where you are from, education or lack of, family roots, some background.

I was born in California.  We lived in New York and Texas when I was young but I’ve been back in California for the past 50 years.  I did a year at UC Davis, decided I liked money better than school and I’ve been working ever since.  The most interesting thing about my family is my maternal grandmother was one of four children and they all had different names than we had been calling them forever.  I’m not sure we ever found out why but I think Ellis Island had something to do with it.

2. When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
I don’t know that I ever realized I wanted to be a writer.  I know I still have poems I wrote 30 years ago on my (blue) Brother Portable Selectric typewriter.  I take them out sometimes and smell the paper, look at the pages.  I do submit some of them occasionally and I have to put them on the computer to do so.  But did I ever make a conscious decision to write?  I’m not sure I did.

3. How long have you been writing?  Elaborate, not just yes, no.
As mentioned above, I’ve been writing creatively at least 30 years, probably more.  I can’t remember keeping a journal or a diary.  I remember checking the typing book out of the library and teaching myself to type.  I think that was the beginning of it all.

4.  Have you always wanted to be a published writer?  Elaborate, not just yes, no.
I only started to read at open microphones and publish in 2005; prior to that I wouldn’t even cross in front of a microphone, even if it wasn’t on.  I have always been extremely shy, so the thought of standing in front of a group of people, or of my name being on something, was horrifying to me.  And then somehow I decided I didn’t want to publish under a pseudonym (which would have been Barbara).  I wanted my name to be out there.

My brother passed away unexpectedly 8 years ago.  I always say that God, or whoever you believe in, started having me read and publish so that I could speak at my brother’s memorial service.  My mother said to me “I spoke like a mother.  You spoke like a poet”.  Would I give everything back to have my brother back?  In a second!

5. When do you write? When do you not?
I used to write every morning from 4:15 AM to 6:00 AM, not because of a particular schedule, but I would wake up with words and that’s when I’d write them.  Now I write when I have something to write.  I don’t make myself crazy about it.  I can feel when there are words rumbling around in my head; they’ll come out when they’re ready.  That’s when I write.

6. What resources online (include links and websites) help you most as a writer?
Duotrope, New Pages, Poets & Writers online,, (although I have a ginormous 1400 page synonym finder).

7. Is being a writer/poet anything like you imagined it would be?  Elaborate, not just yes, no.
I have a regular day job.  I always say “I crunch numbers during the day and I write at night so it’s a balance”.  That’s not 100% true but the balance part is true.  Writing reminds me to be a good person.  I’m not sure if I ever imagined how it would be, it’s just part of who I am.

8. Have you figured out a way of making money as a writer or poet?  Elaborate, not just yes, no.
Wait, let me stop laughing.  I truly think that unless you are an academic and you teach, you’re probably not going to make more than gas money here and there when the hat gets passed for you.  I’ve probably made a grand total of less than $200; most of the time I give my books away or trade them.  It makes me happier than selling them.

9. What inspires you to write and do you remember the exact moment you knew you wanted to be a writer?
Everything inspires me to write.  I am a shameless eavesdropper.  You can get tons of inspiration from that.  Right now I’m interested in Truck Stops.  My boyfriend is a phenomenal poet with lots of curiosity.  I find that I’m also a shameless follower.  He goes to Italy.  I write Italy poems.  He goes to Detroit.  I write Detroit poems.  He sends me a text.  I use it in a poem.  And so on.  Even what people are wearing at Starbucks can inspire a poem.  I’ve always got my eyes and ears open.

10. Who are notable authors who have influence your writing?
Beckian Fritz Goldberg–she inspires me to write brave.  Nick Flynn–everything he writes is poetry.  The Triggering Town by Richard Hugo.  Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.  Reading “Bluets” by Maggie Nelson taught me its okay to write in “snippets”, or “pixels” as I called them in my piece.  I don’t know if Ellen Gilchrist has influenced my writing but I love her linked Southern stories and really anything by her.  No one can write place like Ron Carlson.
11. Do you follow a strict writing schedule or just write when the spirit hits you?
I write when the spirit hits me.  Unfortunately that’s sometimes at 2:00 AM and I get up cursing, but I know I have to write it now!  A lot of times we have homework at workshops and then I follow a schedule because it’s probably due the next day.  I do like to make sure I write a lot because I love doing submissions and I need a lot of pieces to submit.  Particularly around September 1st which is a huge day for submission windows opening.
12. What stimulates or motivates you to write:  nature, human events, a little wind or vodka, or did I miss something?-this is a being honest with yourself question.  Where/how do you find the most inspiration?
I have been told that I write a lot about food, loss and failing bodies.  Somehow sex has been added into that equation, and apparently my last chapbook had a lot of doors in it, although I had no idea.  I read that in a review.  I am interested in the disenfranchised, the unlucky, the ordinary person who, but for one small turn of events, would have been someone completely different.  I am interested in the back stories of people.

Mostly I write narrative poetry.  If only I could write short stories…
13. What type of stories, poetry, and/or fiction do you like to read, imitate, or write?
I like to read stories about the South, and about Eastern Canada.  The Bird Artist by Howard Norman and The Shipping News by Annie Proulx–if I could write poems like they wrote fiction I would be satisfied for life-of course Ellen Gilchrist as I mentioned before.

Looking back at my older poetry I can say “that was my Erica Jong phase” or “that was my Diane Wakoski phase” but I don’t think I imitate too much anymore.  I’m willing to be wrong but I’m pretty sure I’ve found my voice and I’m comfortable with it.  Even if my styles or subjects change from one poem to the next I think I’m pretty recognizable as plain old me.
14. Can you tell me what tools, resources, or how or your working to grow as an artist?  What tools, resources, or how or you working to grow as an artist?  Feel free to give names, websites and links.
I love workshops.  I have gone to the Tin House writer's workshop about the last 9 out of 11 years or so.  I love the Tomales Bay workshop sponsored by UC Davis.  The workshop at ASU is also wonderful.  I find a poet I want to work with and then I find a workshop where they’re teaching.  I have learned amazing, amazing things not only from my workshop leader and participants but from the other people there.  It’s the best thing in the world, in my opinion, and it’s a place to bring poems that you know need help but you are too close to them to see what isn’t working.
15. If you had to choose, what would you say are the two best poems, flash fiction, or short stories you have ever written to this date? Would you like to share a link to those works-or send them the works themselves to my email?
Well I have two Pushcart nominations but I’m not sure they are my two best poems.  I love “The Insistence of Extraordinary” which was shortlisted for the Fermoy International Poetry Festival and which I think is in their anthology that I haven’t gotten yet.  I love “Applewood Bridge in August” which was published by Rufous Salon in Sweden, in their “Lush” anthology.  Both of these are in my latest chapbook “Lit Up” which I am happy to send to anyone who’d like a copy.

I always have different “two best” poems though.  I love one of my new Detroit poems and one of my Southern-ish poems entitled “Sara Jane Reminisces”.  This isn’t a fair question.  J

Winter Water
By Tobi Cogswell
The tide burbles up,
rushes into the toe-holes
our feet make as we take
our last walk.  We converse
about the small things,
kick stones with
misplaced grief.
Salt spray refracts our hearts
cracking, we see the shells
as if mounted under glass.
We head toward our sandals -
my dress absorbing the
colors of the crashing foam
your legs purpled with the cold.

Small crabs clamor in
the warm wet of our
impressions - the front
of mine deeper as I
lean toward you, your
heels deeper as you lean
away.  I feel spent as beach grass.
The symphony of winter is an
appropriate final audience for us -
witnessing our undoing.
(Seven CirclePress, Fall 2009)
In the Doorway of Ace’s Shoe Repair
Tobi Cogswell

A man in a utility apron with wild hair,
3-day face, eyes a cliché of blue,
hands in pockets, always leaning. 
He whispers gently to women.
They say no and walk away.
He is the bad-circumstance prince
in an old foreign film.  He wants 
his attention stolen and set free
in a love story.  He craves rescue.
Sun on his face, half-smile
as he thinks about blood and bourbon –
The birds call from across the street
welcome to dreams, have a nice life
one washed in light, golden in his wake.
16. What is your opinion on self-publishing as opposed to traditional publishing?  Please list for our readers the publisher(s), POD (print on demand) or self publishing you use or have used.  If use have used traditional publishers who are they?  Give us a sense of your personal experience and attitudes toward them.
I love chapbooks.  I publish them through Kindred Spirit Press.  I love this combination because Michael Hathaway is wonderfully patient, he does a beautiful job on my books and I get them quickly enough so that I still love the poems when they come.  I choose the cover.  I choose the font.  I have a lot of control.  And for the people reading them, there are 24 or 25 poems – they can be read in one or two sittings if desired.  They are not daunting.

My full-length collection was published by Bellowing Ark Press.  It was also a good experience but I had less control over things.  And quite honestly, sometimes I have to read it backwards because I only have patience to read about half of it before I’m tired of it.
17. Do you have any parting words for our readers; any words of wisdom to share?

Don’t make yourself crazy and enjoy yourself.  Always strive to become better if that is what you want to do.  First and foremost, write for yourself.  The audience will follow.

18. Are you trying anything new: video's on line, MP3 audio files, any
particular writing forums that attract you?  Feel free to give names, websites and links.

 Sometimes I write “slices” of people.  They are one-page, margin to margin and they are more like character studies rather than poems.  The exception to this is Slices of Alice, which ended up at 21 pages.  The first page and the last page have to stay in order.  The rest can be read in almost any order.

 I’m writing more prose poems at the moment; form is an interesting thing.  I don’t dictate the form; the poem decides whether it’s going to be prose, Decasyllabic, a pantoum , “prisoner’s constraint”, whatever.  It will tell me what it wants to be and I’ll write it that way.

As far as audio files – I sound like a 12-year-old on audio.  It sounds very weird to read sensual poems in a little girl voice so I don’t do any audio and very little YouTube.
19. By what methods or sources are you trying to market your works with?  Do you find marketing your works for exposure easy or difficult?

I talk about them on Facebook.  I put them in my bio.  I’ll take chapbooks to AWP.  I don’t care that much about marketing.  It takes about a year to give away 100 chapbooks, and then I write another one.
20. Where can we find your works?  Feel free to show links or websites.
I will be the featured poet in the November, 2012 issue of Illya’s Honey.  I have work on-line, or archived, at Crack the Spine, The Linnet’s Wings, Red River Review, Circle Show, Steel Toe Review, Agenda, Humber Pie.  I am extremely organized regarding submissions and acceptances but I’d say if you want to read my work, just Google me.

21. Care to make any comments how this site can be improved or expanded?
Nothing is jumping out at me at this moment.


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