An Interview with Marion Deutsche Cohen

By Mike Cohen

Marion Deutsche Cohen, a Ph. D. mathematician and adjunct professor at Arcadia University, is a writer whose poetry and creative non-fiction incorporates her breadth of experience and remarkable musical, artistic, mathematical and thrifting sensibilities.  She writes with great facility and candor about a life full of joy and tragedy. Her literary offerings convey a breadth of experience such as motherhood and losing a child, of being the well-spouse having to care for a very ill spouse, of the academic life and life in general.   

Marion has published 27 books.  She also writes reviews of math books for math journals. She spends a good deal of time at the nexus between art and mathematics and has developed a course called Truth and Beauty: Mathematics in Literature.

SVJ’s Mike Cohen had the opportunity to interview Marion, and found her to be as forthcoming and articulate as would be expected of a prolific writer.  Beyond that, expectations need not apply to this independent thinker whose insights are delightful, thorough and often surprising.  

MC: As a poet with a powerful mathematics background, you are a living testing ground for the left-brain-right-brain dichotomy.  Do you feel you have to switch off the analytical processing to get your poetic bearings, or does one flow into the other as your course title Truth and Beauty: Mathematics in Literature would suggest? 

MDC: Nope! I don't have to "switch off the analytical processing to get my poetic bearings," I wouldn't even say that "one flows into the other," at least not always. They go together. They're the same. I do both simultaneously. Probably, in fact, the more math I do, the more poetry. They both come from the same place within me (in the words of another "math-poet" who interviewed me a long time ago, and who was just the opposite; he couldn't do both simultaneously; he conjectured that men are more compartmentalized -- I'm not sure I'd go that far...)

MCYou seem as uncompartmentalized as anyone I know.  Maybe you are more comfortable standing on a boundary than most people (regardless of gender).  You seem to have a particularly high tolerance for the gradations – the between-ness of things.  Where does that tolerance come from?

MDC: Yes, between-ness. I think of between-ness in math. First, all those numbers between any two distinct numbers (infinite, and not the smallest kind of infinite -- for those who don't know, there are many orders of infinite). So, perhaps, any two things at all, math or otherwise, have an infinitude of things between them (and around them...). Second, in geometry, when Euclid did his geometry axioms -- points, lines, perpendiculars, parallels -- he literally forgot about between-ness. (Like, if point A is between points B and C, then C can't be between A and B -- that is, if they're points on a line; if they're on a circle, then any of those three points is between any of the other two.)

MC: As a memoirist, do you feel as though life is more like a line or like a circle?  Do we stand between the past and the future or just between the old past and the new past?  (Is time relevant?)

MDC: I guess, in my gut, I feel that life is more like a line. Maybe not a STRAIGHT line but a line, and not a circle or any other closed curve. Physics-wise, the scenario might be different but again, I'm talking about in my gut. Someone once said, "everything that has been will be again."  I think probably not; in some ways that would be nice and in other ways it wouldn't.

I feel that we stand between the past and the future. I know there might be some physics-type reasons to feel otherwise but to me, the future is new, undetermined, and so on. (It certainly FEELS that way.)

And yeah, time is relevant, and very interesting. One of the things about time that feels puzzling and paradoxical is, it seems as though time goes back indefinitely, and yet how could it? (I wrote something about that in my first book of "math poems" called The Weirdest Is the Sphere (Seven Woods Press, back in 1979).

I'd hate it if time didn't exist. I'm assuming it does.  An editor once wrote to me -- "[Maybe] the entire universe, along with our memories [and anticipations, I'd add], was created a millisecond ago" -- and, I'd add, will disappear a millisecond from now.  I wouldn't want that to be true, and I'm sure ENOUGH that it isn't. But if I were a science fiction writer, I could write a story about it. Come to think of it, I'm a parable writer; it could make a good parable. Maybe...

MC: You always seem to be on the verge of another written piece or several of them. Your work is informed by so many different influences in your life from mathematics [let’s leave out physics…] to feminism to motherhood to the long-term illness of your husband to your love of classical piano and thrift-shopping.  Where do you find yourself now in your writing, and how did you arrive here?

MDC: Twelve years ago, when I got out of my very impossible situation with my first husband's multiple sclerosis, which at first involved very heavy-duty at-home caregiving and then, soon after nursing home placement, involved enough dementia to lead to verbal and what I call financial abuse -- and when I met Jon, my second husband, and then, AFTER that, when my first husband died -- I knew that, writing-wise, I'd be writing as a survivor. I would no longer be writing as a well spouse, meaning as a person in crisis. And I wondered, what does a survivor, what does a former well-spouse, write about? I mean, once she's finished surviving? Can a writer survive surviving?

Well, of course I knew the answer, at least in my case: Yes she can. She writes about the residuals (leftovers) of surviving, and she writes about all the "regular" things that are not, or not obviously, residuals, like math and thrift-shopping and music and other stuff you mentioned (and some you didn't).  She also writes about the connections between residuals and regular. (Would the regular be different if the residuals weren't there? Sometimes, sometimes not.)  Actually, my book of “math poetry,” Crossing the Equal Sign, which came out pretty soon after my well spouse odyssey was over, felt very validating to me-as-writer. It signified that I could indeed write “regular” stuff, that my writing could survive surviving. And when other non-well-spouse books followed, I felt even more validated in that way.

MC:  Your draw the distinction between “residual” things and “regular” things.  The “regulars” are in the present and the “residuals” in the past, but still affecting the present.  Is this part of the refined perspective you have acquired standing on the boundary between present and past or between diary and memoir?

MDC: I actually once gave a conference presentation called "From Diarist to Memoirist"! A lot of it was actually ABOUT how I journeyed "from diarist to memoirist" (and you know that I'm still a diarist, although now that I write more NON-diary things -- like poetry and, yes, memoirs! -- I write LESS diary.) The first part of that presentation was called "From Baby to Memoirist."  Starting before age 2, I "carried around" various memories; in other words, I carried around a sort of "thinking memoir." Throughout my early childhood, I did indeed write cute little rhyming greeting cards (in particular, for dolls and pets), and also what I call "Mary and Sally stories," meaning typical stories that some kids write, sometimes beginning "Once upon a time there was a little girl named Mary."  At age 11, partially via a school assignment the previous year to write our autobiographies and partially via reading Anne Frank's diary, I realized that "sensitive" memories/thoughts, and writing could go together. That's the year I wrote my "inner-life autobiography" and also started keeping a diary (I named her Lavendar). My “thinking memoir” became an actual “writing memoir.”

In my presentation I talked about the differences between diaries and memoirs. Like, not everything that appears in a diary has to appear in the memoir, and vice versa. As I converted my diary to memoir (both times, and also my pregnancy loss trilogy, which is published as a diary, was of course not the diary verbatim), I asked myself things like, what is the memoir ABOUT? Is this particular passage related ENOUGH to what the memoir is about? Is this particular passage the best EXAMPLE of what I'm trying to convert? Has my viewpoint changed since writing this diary-passage? Have I acquired hindsight/perspective? Did I need to? (Or did I ALREADY have, at the time, enough perspective?)

As I read through the diary (usually simultaneously writing the first draft of the memoir), the diary usually brought back memories that were NOT written in the diary. I asked myself whether those non-diary things are better for the memoir than what's in the diary. And of course there are things not in the diary that I needed to include in the memoir in order to provide background and clarity for the reader, and to make the memoir self-contained.  Also, in converting diary to memoir, I'm open to turning to other sources besides the diary, such as my poems. And I need to eventually decide what passage in the diary (or perhaps not in the diary) is best for the BEGINNING of the memoir -- as well as for the end. 

MC:  Seems a lot of work to make a cohesive, self-contained memoir from a diary, like an artist going from sketch to full-blown composition.

MDC:  Converting diary to memoir isn't all that difficult for me (except that, with Still the End, I had to edit it down from 900 to 300 pages…): I've already done a lot of the converting while actually writing in the diary! People writing in their diaries often joke about how they're "writing their memoirs," but they possibly actually ARE, in their fantasies, writing their memoirs while they're in the act of writing in their diaries.

With my latest memoir (Still the End: Memoir of a Nursing Home Wife) -- and I think this is more to the point of your question -- the emotions experienced at the time of DIARY-writing are very similar to those experienced at the time of MEMOIR-writing. But of course the diary depicts the present, whereas the memoir depicts the past (although the VERY RECENT past) -- in both my memoirs I was writing from the point of view of someone who has JUST come out of a crisis. Very different, of course, from the point of view of someone who's still IN the crisis -- but, of course, similar, and related (especially considering post-traumatic stuff). So, while the writER was feeling differently when writing the memoir from when writing the diary, the writING is pretty much the same (even enhanced by the fact that, in the memoir, MORE has happened, and MORE has been thought, than in the diary).

MC: So what is the big picture?  What do you feel the memoir as a genre accomplishes for the writer and for the reader?

MDC: Well, the big picture’s pretty big! Of course, for the writer, at least for me, writing about hardships helps me get through them. For several reasons: One, they help pass the time (and part of getting through hardships -- I call them impossible-ships -- is doing time). Two... well, "the usual suspects"; they clarify, they validate, they get stuff off your chest.

And, yes, if/when the writings get published they create a reason for the crisis to have happened (namely, they help others -- the first "publication" of my pregnancy loss poems consisted of a reading that I was asked to do for my baby-loss support group).  And of course it's gratifying to get "fan" letters and emails. (Yup, writing's good for the ego.) Publication/readings/presentations is also additional clarification and validation, since in sharing the conversations reveal "residual" insights and new ideas. And for the reader,… well, memoirs have to be realistic, because they’re they’re real, they definitely happened.

I’ve tried to dispel what critics of [the memoir] genre say, such as that it’s self-indulgent. So? What's wrong with self-indulgent? As long as they're also ultimately "OTHERS-indulgent."

MC:  You have written a good deal about the ordeal of being the well-spouse with an ill spouse.  This is a situation being experienced by many in our society with its ageing population.  You have two memoirs about this: Dirty Details: The Days and Nights of a Well Spouse and Still the End: Memoir of a Nursing Home Wife.  In these, how do you balance the particulars of personal memoir with a general message that applies to the situations of others?

MDC:  The memoirs "spare the reader nothing" (from a review of Dirty Details). First, they’re got attitude, mostly ultra-feminist, and ultra-humanist. Men well spouses are also oppressed, often in the same ways, often in different ways. As for me, I was not at all a willing well spouse; I felt kind of raped. And I believed in protecting my self (two words), which made me "self-ish" (with that hyphen), meaning invested in valuing and protecting the self -- my own self and also the selves of our children, my friends, my students, my readers, and not only my ill spouse. Second: I have opinions about society's treatment (namely, denial) of SUBTLE dementia. Because my first husband passed the "psych eval" with flying colors (he could say how many fingers they were holding up but didn't know that I was not trying to steal money from him), our family did not get legal protection (from financial abuse) nor special counseling nor acknowledgement nor recognition of any kind. I was not happy about this and in Still the End I wrote everything I could to prove that society's attitude and policies with respect to subtle abuse are wrong. Third, I believe that it's not at all great that well spouses are pretty much encouraged to CONTINUE being well spouses. I, for one, eventually wanted out. I believe that society (including social workers, but also the medical and health care systems) should present this "out" as an option to well spouses -- all throughout their "odysseys." This should be done non-judgmentally and without punitive consequences (financial or otherwise).  And I believe that, although the present laws and mindsets far from support this idea, individual health-care workers can implement it as much as possible, and have a consciousness about it. I say all this and more in both my memoirs, explaining that this does NOT take away from its memoir-ness; in Still the End I say, "this is a memoir and these beliefs are part of my memories."

MC: Memory is of course crucial to memoir.  But memory is not always reliable.  There are subconsciously revised memories and false memories.  Do you worry about the verity of memory itself?

MCD: The two memoirs that I wrote come, almost completely, straight from my diary (revised, of course). So they did actually happen, every single quote, every single thought, every single detail. I did not "fictionalize" at all. So no, I don't worry about false memories, certainly not those in my memoirs.

Also, I'm always extremely careful, in my diary and in everything else, to tell the exact truth. If I'm not sure of anything, I say so, I admit it. That might come from childhood stuff, psychological stuff, the ways of my parents; I always felt the need to PROVE things, not only in math. So again, I wouldn't tweak memories.

Of course, the early childhood memories (before age eleven, not the ones in my memoirs) are different; I wasn't keeping a diary then. So those memories might have been tweaked. But I don't WORRY about that. (That was a good question, do I worry about false memories?) Actually, not EVERYTHING in my memoirs is from my diary. Everything is, however, TRIGGERED by things in my diary.

I do remember things, from early childhood that very probably did not happen, or didn't happen the way I remember them.  I often think that perhaps some of these memories were really dreams. But that doesn't take away from their precious-ness. (And it doesn't take away from any poem or story we get out of these memories...) Also, when I was in therapy (about age 42), my therapist said that it doesn't matter all that much whether those memories actually happened; what matters in therapy is the impressions.  Even false memories are significant.

The well-spouse books are an excuse to keep on being a former well-spouse! And not to forget.  To keep to my present life but to not forget the past. I love the past! Not only, I guess, my childhood -- yeah, I have ADULT memories, not only childhood memories! I can feel nostalgic about my adulthood, too.

MC:  Keeping to your present life, what are you up to now?

MDC: Well, I’ve been pretty prolific lately, in publishing as well as in writing. So I’m promoting four books which came out within the last couple of years, in particular my latest poetry collection, Lights I Have Loved, and I’m getting ready to promote four forthcoming. This of course feels great but I still have several unplaced book manuscripts, which I’m working on placing. One of my forthcoming books is Closer to Dying (WordTech). It's not really about being closer to dying, but several of the poems in there are about being aware (in particular, in my night-dreaming) that I'm nearing the end of my life. And I'm not happy about that last thought. I'm afraid of death, no matter how much I believe that "nothing happens after you die". Here, in case you want to and can put a poem in an interview, is a relevant poem NOT from Closer to Dying but from one of my as yet unplaced manuscript called DON'T:


MDC: I am not not afraid of death. I don’t believe its inevitability means don’t worry about it. I don’t believe we need death in order to appreciate life. I might not even trust that after you die nothing happens. And I don’t believe I was dead before I was born. I might have been dead but I didn’t die. And maybe it did hurt to be that kind of dead.

Everybody dies, no matter how great, no matter how unique, no matter how sweet. Children die, mothers die, the whole world dies, maybe some at the same time and place as me. Everybody’s doing it but I’m not a willing conformist. Everybody dies but that doesn’t mean, when I’m dead, I won’t be alone.

MC:  You’re not alone now.  And you’re certainly very much alive.  So what is currently on your lively creative mind?

MDC:  I had two dreams last night which could be translated into poems, one about finding a dove in the shower, the other about a cellar which houses either a day care center or a torture chamber; what I see is the day care center with the kids dancing around, but I wonder whether what I see is what's really there. And are the screams from children the same as the screams from people being tortured? And then (yes, I wrote three poems this morning, but I don't do that every morning) I wrote a poem, my favorite of the morning, called "Two Mirrors." It begins "the first time I looked in the mirror, I mean looked, not only glanced" (I was eleven), and it ends with comparing that with the LAST time I looked in the mirror, which was this morning (age 72). To me both times felt/feel the same and it even ends with a math metaphor, which is probably what makes it a favorite.