“Know that it is not imagination, but experience, which makes poetry. And that behind every image, behind every word, there is something I am trying to tell you, something that really happened.”
Ira Cohen said that, on a CD he made with DJ Cheb i Sabbah (The Majoon Traveler, Sub Rosa) back in 1996. And if any living American poet has experience to draw from, it’s the Earth-trotting Cohen.
Born in 1935 to deaf parents, raised on 92nd Street in New York, and higher-educated at Cornell and Columbia, Cohen went on to spend substantial creatively productive periods of his life in happening locations with adventurous people: the years in Morocco with Brion Gysin, William Burroughs and Paul Bowles; the mid- to late ‘60s in New York with the Living Theater, filmmakers Jack Smith and Alexandro Jodorowsky, and musicians like Tony Conrad and original Velvet Underground drummer Angus MacLise; and the ’70s, when he spent two and a half years in India, a year in Nepal, and the rest of the decade — in what Cohen calls his “Shangri-la period” — in Katmandu, living with artists like MacLise and other members of Asia‘s “hippie–drug dealer–saddhu fraternity.” Today, Cohen reclines amid book landslides in a Manhattan apartment like some kind of psychedelic-in-residence, regaling visitors and phone callers with a steady stream of bohemian biography, financial complaints, and improvised observational poem-riffs that drip with the gathered wisdom of a uniquely blessed life and learned, generous, unrepentant “been there, smoked that” perspective.
“In the West, everywhere you look you see some kind of desecration of the human spirit,” he snorts. “Graffiti and ads. Used condoms in the Hudson River. Commercialized crapola. In the East, what you find on a comparable level is acts of consecration. That’s a very, very great difference. Now, yeah, there‘s a lot of poverty and suffering there. But there’s a lot of dignity in poverty — I saw people in Ethiopia starving during the famine who had more dignity than anyone on the planet. I can‘t say I’ve seen people putting flowers in little boats with candles and sailing them up the Hudson River with hopes for divine indulgence — not asking for something, but offering something, rather than trying to take something.”
Cohen‘s wide-ranging career — encompassing poetry, experimental and documentary filmmaking, audio recordings, astonishing “Mylar chamber” photographic portraiture, publication of the infamous Hashish Cookbook, and the editing of the landmark underground magazine Gnaoua (included on the cover of Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home) — is about offering something back to the world. Cohen calls that something — his collected works — the Akashic Record.
“Akashic basically means timeless thoughts,” he explains. “It‘s Sanskrit for ’toward the shining manifestation. A spot in the ether, a point where a potential thing is about to occur.‘ Or, as Judith Malina said, ’the hidden meaning of the hidden meaning.‘ Or, as Paul Bowles said, ’God‘s home movies.’ I never wanted to be a photographer like the commercial photographers. For me, it was more about the involvement of the mirror, and scrying, reflection, crystal-ball-gazing, trying to get to some other place. It was all about reflection, in the deepest sense of the word. Like a shamanic trip: A shaman is some kind of magician who can take on all kinds of special journeys like astral travel and come back with answers by putting himself into a certain space. He takes on the pain, he goes out there, he comes back with the answer or with the medicine. He‘s a healer. I like all those words — tantra, akasha, healing, shamanism. Add a touch of surrealism and humor, and you’ve got me dead in your sights.”
What‘s been Cohen’s response to the 911 attacks and their global aftereffects?
“It hasn‘t impinged on what I do on a given day, but . . . my dreams are stranger. My fears are greater. I feel somewhat depressed, because I feel that there are millions of people out there who are hell-bent on one thing only, which is destruction. Think of it! That’s never been true before. Sometimes I consider human almost a bad word.
”As an artist, you just keep writing what you feel, and what you think, and be the conscience of Planet Earth. I feel that my arms are extended as a human being across another chasm, I‘m trying to think intergalactically, I’m living my life as best I can. I‘ve been pushing a peanut with my nose ever since I can remember, and I don’t know what else to do! I don‘t have a big podium — I just have a small pen.“
Ira Cohen appears at UCLA’s Royce Hall, Thursday, March 14.