I turn to the poems of Noelle Kocot for the same reason I entered corn mazes as a kid: both are pleasurably unpredictable, and both transform everyday places into thrilling twilight zones. Though Kocot’s writing has covered a great deal of formal and conceptual terrain over the course of her seven books, her work has remained whip-smart and darkly playful, consistently carrying off great feats of imagination while orbiting an urgent emotional truth. These hallmarks are present in the restless quatrains of her Levis Poetry Prize-winning first collection, in the unflinching elegies for her late husband in Sunny Wednesday, and, now, in the tersely elliptical poems of Phantom Pains of Madness, released last month from Wave Books. Like its predecessors, Kocot’s latest book fills me with a combination of triumph and incongruous grief, like a kid at the end of a corn maze.
Phantom Pains of Madness is memorable for a few reasons. First, every one of its lines comprises only a single word, so the resulting columns of text appear lean and sinewy, as if pared down from a much larger whole:
Kocot also has a way of writing about cognitive distortions that is more on the mark and profound than that of any other living poet I can think of. The poems in Phantom Pains of Madness mimic the language of the mind in its least rational, most disjunctive states, recounting hallucinatory pangs and visions in all their stinging color. We spoke with Kocot via email about her new book, the role of poetry in destigmatizing mental illness, and cool and hot jazz.
ZYZZYVA: According to the blurb, this collection explores “a break with reality that occurred a decade and a half ago.” You’ve been busy during that decade and a half, publishing six full-length books of poetry and a collection of translations, among other projects. I’m curious about whether Phantom Pains of Madness was incubating during all that time.
Noelle Kocot: Well, I didn’t plan a book; instead, I wrote about 200 of these poems. (Joshua Beckman, poet and editor at Wave Books, made the selections and the order.) It was when I quit smoking cigarettes (ultimately unsuccessfully), hence the title. I felt so crazed and out of my mind when I wrote these poems from the lack of nicotine, which lasted around four months. So yes, definitely it had been incubating for all that time, but quitting smoking was definitely the impetus, because it really was the experience of “phantom pains of madness.” Continue reading