Joe Cottonwood


Oyster River Pages: What role does the artist/writer play in society?

Joe Cottonwood: Entertainer. Yes, poets. Back to caves and campfires, up through the ancient Greeks and still today we’re in the entertainment business. Of course we also aim to create beauty, to enlighten, to educate, to appreciate, perhaps to provoke a response from society but it is all useless unless we first fulfill our primary function — to entertain. Otherwise, we lose the eyeballs before we can lead them.

ORP: How has your writing or art changed over time?

JC: As my children reached reading age I realized I didn’t want them to read my early novels. The outlook of those books (rebellion, confusion) didn’t reflect who I’d become. Fatherhood puts the world in a brighter light, and my writing took on that new illumination.

ORP: How does writing or making art change you?

JC: Writing a poem is like taking a dog for a walk. Fido notices what you had never examined — the smell of a tree stump, the enticement of a dirty tennis ball, the sound of a millipede’s footsteps crossing the pavement. The poem has the nose and ears, the wonder of a puppy. As poet, briefly one can share them.

ORP: What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

JC: Utah Phillips, quoting Roque Dalton: “Art to be truly revolutionary must first of all be good.” Or in Utah’s own words, “Give me poets who have the same sensible attitude toward the work of poetry as good carpenters do toward the work of carpentry. You see? Regardless of the carpenter’s political commitments, I have every reason to be afraid of bad carpentry. Or bad poems. Work first. Politics second.”

ORP: Name three artists or writers you’d like to be compared to. Why these people in particular?

JC: William Carlos Williams. For his day job — repairing bodies — keeping him grounded, inspiring such great poetry. As I’ve made my living working with my hands — repairing homes — finding inspiration in the people I work with, I think of WCW treating runny noses and fractured tibia.

ORP: Do you consider your writing/artistic time to be work or play?

JC: Playful work.

ORP: How does this work connect to your personal experiences/identity?

JC: I live 10 miles from the Pacific Ocean. I’m fortunate to walk some gorgeous, unpopulated beaches. One day I encountered a seal in labor. Gibby and the mom are fiction, but they serve as vehicles to deliver what is true — to witness the wonder of a seal giving birth.

ORP: What’s next for you artistically?

JC: More carpentry. More poems.

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Joe Cottonwood has built or repaired hundreds of houses as carpenter/contractor in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California. His latest book is Foggy Dog: Poems of the Pacific Coast. Find him at Hear Joe read his poetry here.

Abby Michelini