Irene Cooper and I share a love of two things: brown bears and creative writing. If you know her, you know her genius: She's a poet and novelist with three books under her belt and a sash-full of acceptance badges to literary publications. She is the most decorated writer I know, and when I approached her, hat in hand, asking if she would put a link to my blog on The Forge Website (so the internets would know TheShelbyLittle.com exists), she agreed—only if we interview each other. And so it was.
We spent a lovely summer morning under her crabapple tree catching up with each other and asking questions we'd always wanted to ask. You can find her interview of Little ole me at The Forge Blog. Here is the result of my inquiry into the dynamo that is Irene Cooper.
Irene Cooper on Publishing
Shelby Little: Alright, Irene, you are one of the most decorated writers I know. I almost made you a Campfire Girl sash.
Irene Cooper: I would have enjoyed that.
Shelby Little: I was gonna sew little patches on it for every publication that you've received or award. So let's imagine that you have it on.
Irene Cooper: My posture just improved.
Shelby Little:. And I was going to make some patches for every publication that you have received, or every honor that you have received, but then I looked at your list of mentions and periodicals and I thought, I don't have the time for that, that would be a month long endeavor. And then it was Thursday. And it didn't happen.
[Note to reader: I superimposed a sash in these photos so we all get the effect of Irene's literary greatness.]
Irene Cooper: As Bella [her daughter] says, “It's too late for good ideas.”
Shelby Little: Just imagine it there. And I do have some questions around publication, if you're up for it? For all the emerging writers out there who aspire to get something published, but hear a lot of rejections, what guidance do you offer?
Irene Cooper: You know, this is writer boot camp.
There are stories out there where, where people just catch fire immediately. You know, they just put it out there, Scrivener picks it up, off to the races, movie rights, what have you. HBO comes a calling. But, most of us, that's not how it is. And it is a whole, writing is writing, and publication is publication, and never the two ends shall meet, really.
And, the idea with publication, I think, people will say, find your audience, but even when you read journals, and you see what they've done, that's not necessarily so, you're not going to seg up all the time. It's not necessarily a direct route to publication. It is absolutely a condition of try, try, try again—and that “no” has to start to feel a little bit different.
And that “no” has to start to feel not like, an external rejection, but it's either the wrong place, or maybe I have something to look at in the piece. But again, the more confidence you feel as a writer, and if you feel like this is the piece that I want, this is, it's saying what I want. I have road tested it with other readers. I have spent some time with it, and I've spent some time away with it. If the piece is done, it will find its place. And that is a question of going back to the well again and again and again. It doesn't feel good.
Shelby Little: Yeah. Doesn't feel good.
Irene Cooper: Doesn't feel good—but it also feels less bad in massive quantity. So, for every acceptance you see on my little page of “yeses” there are dozens of “no’s.”
Shelby Little: I think that's good to keep in mind. And I do agree, because last year, when I hadn't tried to publish any essays before, I tried for one place, and it was very prestigious, and I was like, ‘I wanna get in there!’ And then when they said “no,” I was like, ‘I'm done. That's it. I tried.’
When the New Year was rolling around, I was like, ‘Alright, got one new piece I like, I'm going to send it to like 23 places in 2023.’ And you know what, it's actually been good to send out en masse, it kind of depersonalized it. I'm like, ‘Well somebody's got to say “no,” they can't all have it,’ you know? The things you tell yourself.
Irene Cooper: Well this is one of the things: if you send it out to the New Yorker one time, then that piece entirely belongs to the New Yorker whether they accept it or not. But the entire piece, you've just given it to them. If you are sending it out to 23 places, it's yours, and you're letting them read it.
Shelby Little: Oh, I like this.
Irene Cooper: But it has, you know, it has to be yours. It can't be, here's my thing, please don't hurt me. You have to feel like the well, be detached from the piece. And at the same time, this is the conundrum, be attached to it enough to still care about it and to want it to say the thing that you want to have it say.
But yeah, writing, art. This is the art that I make. Publication, job.
Shelby Little: Yeah, it does feel like a job.
Irene Cooper: Certainly does. And a lot to manage. And not a job you have to say yes to all the time. You can write pieces that you do not put out for publication. Maybe that lets you explore an idea. They can be imperfect to the extreme.
Just because you're trying things. Because that's another little tripper-upper, too, is the idea that everything you make is sellable. Yeah. And it isn’t. I mean, some of it's just for yourself, you know?
Irene Cooper on the Ritual of Writing Submissions
Shelby Little: Irene, you've been trying to get published since getting your MFA in 2015 —and it's paying off. I am curious if you've created any sort of ritual around the submission process.
Irene Cooper: I don't think I have any rituals. Because that stuff of like, ‘don't wash your hair until you hear back,’ I do that anyway. That's just, that's just today. So that's not quite, I don't think that comes under the tenet of ritual. But I have come to sort of treat submissions like a treat. It's a little bit of a reward.
When I have a day that is not filled up, when the calendar is not filled up with other obligations, I get a little, like, submission day. I have really come to enjoy the process of instilling hope but sometimes it's a collaborative effort. We'll have a submission day with a couple of writing buddies.
Shelby Little: I like that.
Irene Cooper: And we're all looking through Submittable or our various newsletters and talking to each other about what's available or making suggestions. That's a lot of fun. I haven't done one of those in a while, but I really enjoy that. And again, I feel like it's a little gift to myself to say, “Today I'm gonna, … I'm gonna take an hour to submit, or I have two pieces ready to go out.”
Shelby Little: Yeah. So one thing I didn't expect, but I'm learning as I try and submit more, is really there's momentum if you start to it. So a lot of the legwork of cover letters and getting the thing prepared is just in that first entry. And then it's sort of like customizing, you know, for each publication is what I found. Don't quote me, I haven't gotten published yet, but I mean…
What have you found to be the best way to celebrate when your work is accepted?
Irene Cooper: Ooh, you know, this is, um, this is a hard one, weirdly enough.
Shelby Little: Is it? No champagne popping?
Irene Cooper: No. Well, I think writers are superstitious sometimes and also terribly neurotic.
Shelby Little: Not us, but…
Irene Cooper: No. Others. I have never known you to display any signs of neurosis. Nor myself. I don't even know what therapy is.
I'm not big on advice—but, this might be a piece of advice—really look in yourself and avoid that idea of, but what's next?
Okay? This is a terrible, terrible impulse. Oh, so you get one thing accepted and you're like, I'll never write again. How do I follow that? I better do something right now. I mean, that's the extreme. But it does. So if I do anything, here's what I do. A lot of my stuff winds up online, rather, you know, in periodicals. Some stuff gets into print and I have to wait for that to arrive. Great.
But I will sit with it. The piece in its, in its publication mode and I will really enjoy that experience of what it looks like. And I will take a minute to just enjoy the end result of that process.
Shelby Little: Yeah. I like that.
Irene Cooper: I will share the news, but only with people who are genuinely supportive.
Sometimes that's hard to know who that is.
Shelby Little: I can see that being a challenge.
Irene Cooper: Uh, it's surprising. Yeah, the other thing is that, you know, that ego is constantly, moving around and we should celebrate our successes.
Shelby Little: Absolutely.
Irene Cooper: And also, there is this evil sort of element of competition that sneaks in. And the truth is in that aphorism, you're only competing with yourself. I mean, that is the rock bottom truth. But it's not what it feels like when you're entering contests, when you're getting rejections.
It feels like the writing world is ripe for competition. But it really is only you and yourself. And so, celebrate with people who, who are capable of celebrating with you and enjoy the product.
Shelby Little: I like it. I was really expecting you to say I run around the neighborhood in my bathrobe.
Irene Cooper: That's just yesterday, okay? For no reason.
Irene Cooper on Building a Writing Community and Community Access
Shelby Little: Irene, you’ve been a mentor at The Forge, a friend, and a coworker at one point. And one of the biggest impacts I think that you and your husband, Mike Cooper, have made on my writing life is this community of writers that you've built in Bend. I haven't experienced that in any other town that I've lived in (but it's probably out there). I just have seen a writing community more as an exclusive kind of category of, We Write. What are you bringing to the table? You know? And so it was the opposite when I moved to Bend and met you and Mike. So I'm just curious, where does that come from? Where does that desire to create community and to create an inclusive writer community come from?
Irene Cooper: Part of it is, create the village you want to live in. So I think Michael and I, we really are traveling in life like this.
We went to culinary school together. We discovered that we each wrote in our youth and you know, Michael got a BFA in creative writing, and then, like me, just worked in the restaurant business for decades. And and was still doing that in Bend. So when we both decided to go back and get our MFA, we were the inaugural cohort of the OSU Cascades program, and it was tiny.
There were initially seven of us, then eight in the first cohort. And it felt like building something together with faculty, in this sort of magical, physical location. We were out at Caldera Arts at Suttle Lake and it felt momentous. And it also felt like we were onto something as far as, you know, support. The fact of the matter is we are, we are better together. It is a solitary art.
And we are better together. And there is no, you know, there is no entrance fee or pass in. You don't need a degree. None of that is important except the impetus to write. So if somebody has that, generally speaking, they're going to be better off in community. I am better off. And Michael and I have each other at home, but this idea of, you know, it is hard to professionalize this job.
It is a labor of love. And it's better to be engaged with people who are reaching and who are loving what they're doing and who have the same sort of frustrations with whom you can celebrate and who understand. It's cool to be around people who have the same sort of life vocabulary.
Shelby Little: It's true. It's very true. I remember, you and Mike led workshops in Bend, under the Blank Pages banner and you also do coaching and things like that for writers and editorial help and all sorts of other writer related endeavors —but one of the most memorable things Mike said to me, in one of the workshops was a Dan Poynter quote, “If you wait for inspiration to write; you’re not a writer, you’re a waiter." And I was like, ‘wait a minute!’
Irene Cooper: Of course, I made more money as a waiter.
Shelby Little: I sucked at waiting.
Irene Cooper: It's true though. This is something I would say also to people out there who are not looking at academia necessarily, just trying to do their thing and be seen for it. I mean, that's a lot of what it is, to do it and be seen for it and to share that conversation and to a certain extent have that be validated, whether it's self-validation or external, not all bad.
When my kids were little, I had the impetus to write. I didn't have the energy or the time to write, but I certainly had the impetus. And I wasn't one of those people who was able to really do it. So I used to say that I wrote in the margins.
And that is that two o'clock in the morning, five o'clock in the morning. You know, these things. And I was trying to get a foothold. So I did, at some point, do a correspondence course, before online things were a thing, to write children's books. I had a wonderful ongoing conversation with a woman who was, you know, my mentor in that.
I don't think I finished it. And part of that is lack of community. I was doing it all by myself. You know, with this one voice responding. I really don't know why I thought I could write children's books either, but I bet you could. But, um, but the idea was the impetus had been there.
And it had to live on its own, barely oxygenated. With no, and this is, it's another reason for community, and it's another reason to know that there are various pathways to you know, to indulge this impulse and to develop it. Because the thing about it, it's a little bit (I'm going to assume it's been years) like running. If you're not good at it, you can be better at it. And that's not an easy path necessarily.
Shelby Little: But it feels good when you're better at it. Sure does. I do think it's very encouraging, the community that you all have created. And I remember showing up after having my child and I was just sort of documenting because you just feel this need to like, ‘is this shit really happening?’
And you've got to tell somebody or something, but you just want to like kind of like analyze yourself and be like ‘what's going on?’ So I would just like fill sheets with life story and I remember turning up at some of these workshops and reading it out, and I'm like, ‘my life is awful. I can't be a mom,’ and then the group responding like, ‘This shit's funny.Yeah, this is entertaining.’ I was like, ‘what are you talking about?’ But the more you hear people's reaction to what you're doing, you're like, ‘Oh, maybe this isn't just trash I'm gonna burn later?’ This is stuff that other people have a reaction to as well, and I would have never known that had I not shared it, you know?
Irene Cooper: Well, yeah, and it could be a surprise that, you know, the truth is funny, and that relatability, it goes deep into humor and I take humor very seriously. I do. I take humor very seriously. But you know, Michael would say this, he would get up and read a piece at a reading or in performance or something, and people would laugh at exactly the places that he thought he was being the most vulnerable and they'd crack up and you know, he didn't know how to take that—except of course, as a writer in a certain way, you're a performer, and it's like any reaction is a good reaction, but also like, what is that? Yeah, that's the joy of it: The discovery of how people are going to receive you.
Irene Cooper on Writing and Mothering
Shelby Little: It's true. So one of the things that as I was writing these first person narratives of early motherhood, you told me about this book called “Little Labors” by Rivka Galchen.
It's a fantastic, small book that's written in short chapters. It was great for that, um, time of my life when I could consume just a little bit of information in between naps and diaper changes and bottles and all the things., But one of the things that, Galchen points out in that book is how few mothers have actually published longer pieces of work, novels and such.
So, Irene, you're a mother of two (and the Corgi)— you've published one poetry book, one novel, one literary thriller, and more on the way—how on earth did you accomplish that in the face of motherhood, or in spite, how does that work for you?
Irene Cooper: You know, I've read, like a lot of people, you've read stories: Toni Morrison at the kitchen table at four in the morning, you know, these sort of iconic, I got it done before they were up. I believe Alice Monroe, another one used to write before the kids were up kind of thing. Motherhood consumed me. I will say that flat out, and not in a way thatyou know, not necessarily in great ways. It just, it took all of my energy. So the idea of writing a novel was not on the table.
But there was always an eye toward what's coming next. So really, when I went back to school, I didn't have an undergraduate degree. So when I went back to school at 40, it was like, I just have to professionalize. I know, I'll write grants, I'll do whatever. I, I actually had no ambition towards this.
And it wasn't until I went, back to school at 40, taking one class at a time at the community college, that, um, you know, I rediscovered that idea of, of working for oneself. So that was the first lesson, is that, you know, you can take an hour and a half of class time and an hour and a half of homework time and sort of reconfigure this, this self into the whole platform.
Then my kids were getting older. I didn't go into the MFA until they were 12 and 16. Um, which were hella years. I was gonna say, that's... That's intimidating. Yeah, I don't know that I even have words for those years. But, um, you know, I mean, the pressure was on, too, to, to, to ask the question of myself, who do I want to be in front of my daughters?
Yeah. You know, and that's a hard question. Because sometimes it's absent. Which, you know, never, never fully absent, but from this standpoint, I think. Taking institutional time away from mothering, where I had obligations elsewhere, that were only for my own advancement, were super critical.
Yeah, well, I mean, I think what going back to school gave me was, um, I wanted something again that wasn't just for my kids. Yeah. And, um, I mean, I still want things for my kids, but, um. And mostly they're in charge of that now. Yeah. So, uh, but it's desire is, is important. Desire is important and I'm finding a place that something else is asking something of me.
So it was, it, it was extremely difficult. Yeah. And I, and I, I don't know that it's as difficult for other people. I can't speak to it. Um, I will say that my kids were, They were incredibly supportive of the process.
Irene Cooper on the Performance of Poetry
Shelby Little: Okay, so Irene, I've seen pictures of you, uh, standing on tables with a microphone, presumably reading poetry. And I've also heard recently there was a Swan related symphony event. A Swan Song related symphony event where you performed before the symphony started. So tell me about that—tell me about that performative experience of poetry.
Irene Cooper: Well, I come from circus people, really. I do come from sort of show people.
Poetry, in which there is zero money, just to be frank about that, except if you're a poet whose name cannot be named, is pure art to me. It is multi-dimensional. I like the process of the poem. I like it visually on the page. I like it in gear. And then another aspect of that is in performance. Of how it's, how it's received, how it can be reiterated. I think a novel or an essay is quite a different animal in that way, in that the text is stronger than anything else. Even though it can be enjoyed in performance. But the poems can be different things in different moments. And, uh, and I really enjoy all the iterations. And also the idea of sharing poetry in that space. And then the one on the table, which was down at the our own workhouse here in Bend.
Shelby Little: Love the workhouse.
Irene Cooper: And their café, Cafe Des Chutes. I could go a, a pistachio croissant right now. Um, something I was trying there too was, because my true ambition is to be Laurie Anderson, I was trying to mix sound and sonic elements with the poem, so I had an audio effect coming in, under the poems and before and after, just trying to create a thing, a dramatic thing.
The chamber music concert was, I just threw my hat in the ring. Generally speaking, this is the idea of getting good at submissions because you can bang on an email in 30 seconds flat when somebody says, we need a poet, ‘yeah, I'm your poet. I'm the first email in your inbox.’
And it's all fun. It's it's a way to enjoy the life. Yeah. If you were so given to it. Not everybody loves to perform. Not everybody, but if you like that kind of thing. Yeah. It's another way to have fun. I love that.
Shelby Little: Tell us a little bit about the event that you do at Spork in Bend.
Irene Cooper: Oh, Spork. Spork. Thank you. Thank you for asking about that. So, another very important tenet of my whole schtick is access. And that means everything and anything that one wants that to mean. I'd like to move toward just people being able to get to the stuff. And that goes back to building community and the community you want.
So Spork is an endeavor with my friend Vim Shah, who has the performance name, V. Mello, and Erica Riley owns Spork, who is a very generous literary and arts citizen in our community. Spork is closed on Sunday and we were looking for a place to do a free event, maybe repeated, maybe not, back last summer, where we would have a little writing inspiration, didn't have to be poetry, didn't have to be anything, just a space for people to write for an hour, and then an open mic, where they could share either what they wrote or something else, and it turned into this event that happens every second Sunday.
It has been well attended. Yeah, it is free, which is the point of access, right? That we're talking about. And we're always looking at ways, I mean, I'd like eventually, in full performances, I would love to include an ASL interpreter. I'm always thinking, are there are other ways in which we can make this available?