Photo and interview with Leonard Cohen by Robert Sward

photo by Robert Sward
Photo of Leonard Cohen by Robert Sward

Photo and interview with Leonard Cohen by Robert Sward

This interview took place in Montreal, Quebec – 1984.

INT: Your latest album is called ” Various Positions. ” Why that title?

LC: When you’re gathering songs together, the ones that you have and the ones that you can finish, they generally fall around a certain position: and this position seemed to me like walking, like walking around the circumference of the circle. It’s the same area looked at from different positions. I like to have very neutral titles. My last album was called ” Recent Songs ” and that was the most perfect title I’ve ever come up with. But ” Various Positions ” is okay. My next one is going to be called ” Songs in English. ”

INT: What connections are there between ” Various Positions ” and ” Book of Mercy, ” your new book of poems?

LC: ” Book of Mercy ” is a secret book for me. It’s something I never considered, although it has an organic place, I guess, among the things I’ve done. It is a book of prayer and it is a sacred kind of conversation; the songs are related, of course. Everybody’s work is all of one piece, but ” Book of Mercy ” is somehow to one side. For me personally it’s just a document, an important document. But a popular song has to move more easily, lip to lip. Songs are addressed and constructed that way. “Book of Mercy ” is a little book of prayer that is only valuable to someone who needs it at the time. It isn’t aimed in the same way that a song is aimed.

INT: Yet I find it reads very much as if it were a love poem. It is a book of love … without the kinds of tensions that are in your other love poems and songs. It’s very much an I-Thou relationship.

LC: Well, I hope it has those qualities, because if a thing doesn’t have those qualities it doesn’t go anywhere. It doesn’t even touch yourself. But it is a particular kind of love poem. We always have someone looking over our shoulder when we write and we always have an idea of a public. But I think that in ” Book of Mercy ” that process was as rarefied as possible. The public almost evaporated in the construction of that book. It really was meant for people like myself who could use it at a particular time.

INT: Have you been surprised by the audience that it has found?

LC: I’m always happy that a thing finds any audience at all and I’ve gotten some very kind letters from people who are not readers of poetry. I’ve gotten letters from soldiers and people I ordinarily never hear from.

INT: In an early poem of yours, ” Lines from My Grandfather’s Journal, ” you write, ” Even now prayer is my natural language.” It strikes me that you may, to some extent, have found your natural language in Book of Mercy. And of course a psalm is also a song.

LC: I think that I was touched as a child by the music and the kind of charged speech that I heard in the synagogue, where everything was important. The absence of the casual has always attracted me. I’ve always considered the act of speaking in public to be very, very important and that’s why I’ve never been terribly touched by the kind of work that is so deliberately casual, so deliberately colloquial. There are many great masters of that form, like Robert Creeley, but it isn’t the sweetness for me. It isn’t delicious. I always feel that the world was created through words, through speech in our tradition, and I’ve always seen the enormous light in charged speech, and that’s what I’ve tried to get to. That’s a hazardous position because you can get a kind of highfalutin’ sound that doesn’t really strike the ear very well, so it has its risks, that kind of attachment. But that is where I squarely stand.

INT: One sees the importance of naming in Book of Mercy, and you have just suggested that this is how the world came into being, through incantation, through saying and through naming.

LC: Yes, that’s always touched me, the capacity to create the world through speech, and my world is created that way. It’s only by naming the thing that it becomes a reality. A lot of people quarrel with that idea because that limits the direct perception of things. Everything is going through speech; everything is going through the idea, and a lot of people feel that things should be able to manifest before your awareness without the encumbrance of speech. I know it’s a very old-fashioned idea and not popular today, but the kind of speech designed to last forever has always attracted me.

INT: You once said that ” the angels of mercy are other people. ” What does that mean? And what is the relationship between angels and language?

LC: I don’t know. One of the things I always liked about the early Beatnik poetry — Ginsberg and Kerouac and Corso– was the use of the word ” angel.” I never knew what they meant, except that it was a designation for a human being and that it affirmed the light in an individual. I don’t know how I used the word ” angel.” I’ve forgotten exactly, but I don’t think I ever got better than the way that Ginsberg and Kerouac used the word in the early fifties. I always loved reading their poems where they talked about angels. I’ve read a lot of things about angels. I just wrote a song with Lewis Furey called ” Angel Eyes. ” I like it as a term of endearment: ” Darling, you’re an angel. ” I mean the fact that somebody can bring you the light, and you feel it, you feel healed or situated. And it’s a migratory gift. We’re all that for other people. Sometimes we are and sometimes we aren’t. I know that sometimes it’s.just the girl who sells you cigarettes saying ” have a good day ” that changes the day. In that function she is an angel. An angel has no will of its own. An angel is only a messenger, only a channel. We have another kind of mythology that suggests angels act independently. But as I understand it from people who have gone into the matter, the angel actually has no will. The angel is merely a channel for the will.

INT: You speak about will in Book of Mercy. There’s one psalm about the will and it seems to be a wall that prevents something happening or some opening of a channel

LC: Well, we sense that there is a will that is behind all things, and we’re also aware of our own will, and it’s the distance between those two wills that creates the mystery that we call religion. It is the attempt to reconcile our will with another will that we can’t quite put our finger on, but we feel is powerful and existent. It’s the space between those two wills that creates our predicament.

INT: I am struck, in Book of Mercy, by the relative absence of will. One of course needs a thread of will to pray. One even needs a thread of will to write a psalm.

LC: Those are really ticklish questions. I think you put your finger on it. Somehow, in some way, we have to be a reflection of the will that is behind the whole mess. When you describe the outer husk of that will which is yours, which is your own tiny will — in all things mostly to succeed, to dominate, to influence, to be king — when that will under certain conditions destroys itself, we come into contact with another will which seems to be much more authentic. But to reach that authentic will, our little will has to undergo a lot of battering. And it’s not appropriate that our little will should be destroyed too often because we need it to interact with all the other little wills. From time to time things arrange themselves in such a way that that tiny will is annihilated, and then you’re thrown back into a kind of silence until you can make contact with another authentic thrust of your being. And we call that prayer when we can affirm it. It happens rarely, but it happens in Book of Mercy, and that’s why I feel it’s kind of to one side, because I don’t have any ambitions towards leading a religious life or a saintly life or a life of prayer. It’s not my nature. I’m out on the street hustling with all the other wills. But from time to time you’re thrown back to the point where you can’t locate your tiny will, where it isn’t functioning, and then you’re invited to find another source of energy.

INT: You have to rediscover the little wills in order to take up various positions again.

LC: Yeah, that’s right. The various positions are the positions of the little will.

INT: Has there been another time in your work where you have discovered the will, where you have abandoned the little wills?

LC: Well, I think that in writing, when you’re cooking as a writer, it is a destruction of the little will … you are operating on some other fuel. But there are all kinds of writing. There are people like Charles Bukowski who make that tiny will glorious, and that’s a kind of writing that I like very much: a writing in which there is no reference to anything beyond the individual’s own predicament, his own mess, his own struggle. We don’t really live in Sunday school, and Book of Mercy is Sunday school. It’s a good little book and it’s a good little Sunday school, but it isn’t something that I could honestly stand behind all the time. I certainly wouldn’t want to stand behind it publicly. It is that curious thing: a private book that has a public possibility. But it’s not my intention to become known as a writer of prayers.

INT: What is it like going from Book of Mercy to a tour of forty European cities giving concerts, as you’re about to do, singing songs from the new album?

LC: Well, it’s not very different. You definitely go into a concert with a prayer on your lips. There’s no question about that. I think that anything risky that you do, anything that sets you up for the possibility of humiliation like a concert does … you have to lean on something that is a little better than yourself I feel I’m always struggling with the material, whether it’s a concert or a poem or a prayer or a conversation. It’s very rarely that I find I’m in a condition of grace where there’s a kind of flow that is natural. I don’t inhabit that landscape too often.

INT: Do you really feel as though you’re experiencing humiliation when you’re out there?

LC: Well, I mean this in a kind of lighthearted way. When you walk on the stage and 5,000 people have paid good money to hear you, there’s definitely a sense that you can blow it. The possibilities for disgrace are enormous.

INT: Are your audiences in Europe, where you’ve done many, perhaps most of your concerts in the recent past, very different ftom your audiences in North America?

LC: Speaking technically, like a salesman about territories, there are real differences in audiences. For instance, a Berlin audience is very different from a Viennese audience. A Berlin audience is very tough, very critical and sharp, like the edge of a crystal. You have to demonstrate the capacity to master your material, yourself, the audience. There’s a certain value placed on mastery. In Vienna, there’s a certain value placed on vulnerability. They like to feel you struggling. They’re warm, compassionate. Of course it changes with seasons, whether you’re playing in winter or summer, there’s a thousand variables, but at the bottom, if you can find the door into the song…. You’re singing the same songs every night and it’s necessary to find the entrance into the song, and that always changes, and sometimes you betray yourself in a song. You try to sing it the way you did the night before and people can feel it. People can feel that you haven’t found your way into it. If you find your way into it, people repond to that. If you don’t, you feel a certain frisson of alienation that you yourself have created. It’s in the air.

INT: A resentment?

LC: It can go from a certain absence of warmth in the applause to things being thrown on the stage.

INT: Did that ever happen?

LC: I think I was shot at once at a big festival in Aix-en-Provence. That was when the Maoists were very powerful in France and they resented the fact that they actually had to buy a ticket. A lot of them broke down the fence and came into the concert and I did notice one of the lights on the stage go out after a kind of crack that sounded like a gunshot. I don’t know. But they’re tough critics, the Maoists.

INT: What about the French generally? You have said you are French. How do they respond to you?

LC: My work has been well received in France. One of the reasons is that they have a tradition that my work fits into. They like to hear that battle in the voice. They want to hear the real story. The well-known ones are Brassaens and Brel, but they have hundreds of such singers. They don’t have a preconception of what the voice should be. So my songs have struck home there.

INT: There was a lot of ferment in Montreal in the late 1940’s and early 50’s, a lot of excitement around poetry and figures like Irving Layton and Louis Dudek. Did that touch you at all?

LC: Oh, very much so. Both those men were very kind to me. I studied with Louis Dudek at McGill University and he, as many people have mentioned, is a really magnificent teacher. He gave a sort of dignity, an importance, to the whole enterprise of writing that enflamed young people. You wanted to write. You wanted to be a poet. And he looked at your poems and spoke about them and criticized them in a very accurate and compassionate way, which is his style. I never studied with Irving Layton. I never felt influenced by Irving or Louis as models, and there was never any attempt by Irving or Louis to influence their students toward a certain kind of writing. But they enlightened the whole process.

INT: I’m sure you’re familiar with Irving’s assessment of you as the high priest of poetry, himself [Irving Layton] as the prophet, and A. M. Klein as the archivist. How do you feel about that?

LC: I don’t know what ” archivist ” means.

INT: Collector of the archives. Keeper of the scrolls. Keeper of the tradition.

LC: Well, I would never quarrel with that. That’s a useful description. Irving, as the prophet, and probably the best writer we’ve ever produced in this country, does stand on a mountain. I inhabit a different kind of landscape.

INT: Is there any tension between your role as solitary poet, if one can call it that, and the role of public performer?

LC: I never think of myself as a solitary poet. I don’t feel any conflicts in what I do. There are economic pressures, and there’s a desire too, as a musician would say, to ” keep your chops up, ” to keep singing and keep playing, just because that’s the thing you know how to do. So between that and the need to make a living, you find yourself putting a tour together. What the real high calling behind any life is is very difficult for me to determine. It goes all the way from thinking that nothing any of us do is terribly important to feeling that every person has a divine spark and is here to fulfil a special mission. So between those two positions, there’s lots of space. But I’ve put out a record and I know I have to go on a tour or nobody will know about the record and if nobody knows about the record, it defeats the idea of the song moving from lip to lip, and it also makes it impossible for me to support my family. So all these things conspire to place me on a stage and hopefully be able to entertain people for an evening.

INT: So there are really very practical considerations as well.

LC: Well, I don’t think there is any other consideration but practical. I’ve never been able to disassociate the spiritual from the practical. I think that what we call the spirit or spirituality is the most intense form of the practical. I think you have to find those sources within yourself or there is no movement, there is no life to be led. Many people have different ways of locating that source. Some people avail themselves of the traditional ways which we call religion or religious practice. There are many people who have absolutely no need of those particular references, but it doesn’t mean that their lives are any less spiritual. On the contrary, it might meant that their lives are more spiritual. They are living spirits. And there’s no distance.

INT: It strikes me that there’s sometimes more irony in your songs than in your poems. I’m thinking of lines like ” He was just some Joseph looking for a manger. ” The inflections in your si voice convey a variety of different attitudes, and in some instances an attitude like irony comes through more clearly in the songs.

LC: Yeah, I see what you mean. I think of Bob Dylan, who gets the inflections of street talk, the inflections of conversation, and does that with such mastery … where you can hear a little tough guy talking. You can hear somebody praying. You can hear somebody asking. You can hear somebody coming onto you. When you’re composing that material and you know that it’s going to occupy aural space, you can compose it with those inflections in mind. And of course it does invite irony because that irony can be conveyed with the voice alone whereas on the page you generally have to have a larger construction around the irony for it to come through. You can’t just write, ” What’s it to ya? ” If you sing, ” What’s it to ya? ” to some nice chords it really does sound like, ” Well, what’s it to yah, baby? ” But.just to see it written, it would need a location.

INT: How much connection do you feel with Dylan’s music, or with others, like Joni Mitchell, for example? Whose music is closest to you now…?

LC: Well, like the Talmud says, there’s good wine in every generation. We have a particular feeling for the music of our own generation and usually the songs we courted to are the songs that stay with us all our life as being the heavy ones. The singers of my own period, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Ray Charles, all those singers have crossed over the generations. But we have a special kind of feeling for the singers that we use to make love to.

Copyright (c) 1984, 1998, 2000 by Robert Sward. No portion of this material may be reproduced in any manner without written permission from the author or his estate.