8TH ANNUAL NAPOMO 30/30/30 :: DAY 18 :: JESSICA FISCHOFF on LEONARD COHEN
Welcome to the OS’s 8th Annual NAPOMO 30/30/30 Series! This year, contributors far and wide were gathered by five incredible curators, who are also our 2019 Chapbook Poets — to learn more about this year’s amazing curators and their forthcoming chapbooks, please click here! You can also navigate to the series archive, of over 200 entries, here! This week’s curators are Kristina Darling & Chris Campanioni, authors of the forthcoming chapbook, RE: Verses.
I start this piece honestly. I discovered Leonard Cohen in a way that still carries embarrassment.
As an English and Journalism double major at The University of Iowa, I wrote for the Arts and Culture section of The Daily Iowan. I was assigned to write a brief piece about Rufus Wainwright’s upcoming concert, and in the piece, I referenced his very famous cover of “Hallelujah” from the movie Shrek. His very famous cover of the Jeff Buckley song.
The hate mail was strong, because, as beautiful as Buckley’s rendition is, he didn’t write “Hallelujah.” As the emails poured in criticizing my naivety and attribution of the song to the wrong composer, Leonard Cohen was rightfully noted as the genius behind the masterpiece, and I began to question my budding career in journalism. My research failed to turn up the crucial bit of information.
The paper printed a retraction, and I scoured the internet for Cohen songs. For anything that might redeem my horrible mistake. I couldn’t right my error of false attribution, but I could learn. And in the process, I wholeheartedly changed my life.
Cohen. Leonard Cohen. I was a child raised by a father who continues to cite Bob Dylan as the greatest poet to ever live. He introduced me to Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle” before the standard school-day singalongs and taught me the entire catalogue of Beatle’s albums the first day he knew I could hear. I should have known Leonard Cohen. Why didn’t I know Leonard Cohen?
I was a cellist in a touring indie band with an album, with a boyfriend in two bands, and a best friend in another. My world revolved around music. I obsessed over rhythms and lyrics.
I never intended to be a poet. As a child, after an introduction to T.S. Eliot and the musical Cats, I dreamt of Broadway stardom. But I couldn’t sing. And as I listened to myself belting out standards in the shower, I was changing the words, writing my own renditions, and drafting my own versions of the stories. At career day, when I was asked about the life I wanted to live, the group was silent when I answered, because a Broadway lyricist wasn’t ‘real.’
I grew older, and shifted my writing goals to something obtainable, and when I began working for The Daily Iowan, I thought journalism was the most plausible route. Until the day I opened my email to the slew of disbelievers that knew I had so clearly faltered. Even the simplest of mistakes can kill a journalist’s career, and mine was barely breeched.
In that moment, it felt as if I buried myself in the depths of an inescapable hole and yet, I sprawled across my dorm room bed with “If It Be Your Will” pouring through my computer speakers, and I didn’t want to leave the music.
If it be your will
That I speak no more
And my voice be still
As it was before
I will speak no more
I shall abide until
I am spoken for
If it be your will
If it be your will
That a voice be true
From this broken hill
I will sing to you
I believe creative influence isn’t simply impact on style or form. It’s in the voices that cause us to pause and open. The hands that draw back the tree branches and eliminate the shadows. I didn’t need to overthink Cohen’s words to embrace their honesty and trust. The lyrics were straight-forward truths. Songs of love and loss, surrender and acceptance. I was twenty and so certain of the world, but in the morality questioning theme of Cohen’s words, I was humbled.
Cohen released his famed album Various Voices in 1984, the year I was born. We were both Ashkenazi Jews whose families immigrated to North America from Lithuania and Poland. And though I’m jumping years ahead, I realize he began his musical career at 33, the same age I gained the courage to send my poetry out for publication.
I write a lot about the influence of historical and mythological women and recreate their experience through my own interpretation. Every time I find myself nearing the edge of the question Is it safe to do this? I play “Joan of Arc.”
Now the flames they followed Joan of Arc
as she came riding through the dark;
no moon to keep her armour bright,
no man to get her through this very smoky night.
She said, “I’m tired of the war,
I want the kind of work I had before,
a wedding dress or something white
to wear upon my swollen appetite.”
Cohen wasn’t afraid to express the turmoil of life or the haunting nature of death. Even as I continue to mourn his, I can go on with a gratefulness that what I’ve learned about writing is not logistics or semantics, it is that it should be fearless.
I set out one night
When the tide was low
There were signs in the sky
But I did not know
I’d be caught in the grip
Of the undertow
Ditched on a beach
Where the sea hates to go
With a child in my arms
And a chill in my soul
And my heart the shape
Of a begging bowl
Jessica Fischoff is the Editor of [PANK] and author of the upcoming little book of poems, The Desperate Measure of Undoing (Across the Margin, 2019). She has a degree in English and Journalism from University of Iowa, where she studied the lyric essay under the mentorship of John D’Agata and went onto the Creative Nonfiction MFA program at The University of Pittsburgh where she served as an Editorial Assistant at Creative Nonfiction and began to write poetry under Dawn Lundy Martin, and Ben Lerner. Her writing appears in Diode Poetry Journal, Fjords Review and The Southampton Review.