The book tour for Noelle Kocot's new collection of poems, Sunny Wednesday (Wave Books), recently took Kocot and two other poets to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where they were doing a reading for the creative writing club there. An unlikely place for poetry, perhaps, but the trio of poets was invited to read, so they came.
The audience—mostly student poets at West Point—was enthusiastic, but Kocot was struck by the kinds of questions they asked after the reading. They were interested in a hierarchical idea of a poetic career: “they didn't have too many questions about the actual poetry. They asked about how to move up in the ranks,” said Kocot. The audience was also impressed with how forthright Kocot was able to be in her poems, how she could get her most private experiences on paper, then read the poems in front of strangers. In contrast, said Kocot, “these two cadets kept referring to this incident that they couldn't talk about and couldn't write about because of the censorship that goes on at West Point; they kept referring to it as 'the incident' and weren't able to elaborate at all.” They told Kocot they basically had to code this “incident” into the poems they were writing; that was as close as they could get to talking about it.
While Kocot certainly is a poet who writes about deeply personal experiences, there is a coded incident at the heart of the poems in Sunny Wednesday. Coded not because she's forbidden to write about it, nor because she's afraid to say it, but because this particular incident has become so deeply woven into the fiber of her being that it's a part of everything she writes, though it's never the whole point. Kocot's incident is the death of her husband, Damon Tomblin, who she'd been with since college, of a drug overdose in 2004. In fact, he died on a sunny Wednesday in New York, in Brooklyn, and these are the poems through which Kocot worked through his death.,
Much of the book, of course, is deeply sad—various poems writhe around refrains as simply pained as “You're never coming back, my love,/ You're never coming back,” while others more complexly arrive at visionary apprehensions of the line between the living and the dead: “I forget and walk off into the dying world without you/ And the memory of your laughter that keeps cawing at the void.” But Kocot imbues the book with something greater than sadness. Many of the poems about Tomblin do more than mourn his death; they also describe and carry out an ongoing relationship with his spirit and influence, a slow, subtle transformation of the beloved into an energy that inhabits every aspect of life: “I want to be intimate with everyone// And most of all with you, my only./ I want to taste the flavor of a leaf/…/ Wear the collar of a pregnant deli cat.” There is also a pervasive, and surprising, silliness throughout the poems, and Kocot's penchant for wordplay is on full display. Kocot's is a world friendly to “Mortal cornflakes in an agey oven.” And amid all the hard truths, readers will find, if not consolation, then companionship, a voice willing to say it's normal to be sad, and it's even okay to have some fun at the same time.
Kocot, 39, still lives in Brooklyn, where she was born and has lived much of her life. She teaches poetry and expository writing at a number of colleges around the city. And she writes a lot: at least a poem a day, so that she's written about 500 since she finished Sunny Wednesday, which, she says, she will leave to her editor at Wave Books to sort through and figure out how to publish. She doesn't revise, she writes by moving on from one poem and getting to the next.
Whether or not poetry changes anything is an often debated topic in poetry circles. For those cadets at West Point, one thing Kocot's poems almost certainly did is give them, and anyone else who reads Sunny Wednesday, permission to say what they feel. “I just want the book to help people,” Kocot says.