Marvin Cohen: Hello, hi, is this George?
George Salis: This sounds like Marvin Cohen! How are you doing? This is George.
MC: Great! Yeah, it really is truly myself.
GS: I love your accent.
MC: Yeah, it’s Brooklyn.
GS: Very cool.
MC: Are you from the New England area?
GS: No, I’m actually down here in Florida. I was born in Pennsylvania.
MC: Oh, Florida? So it was through Rick Schober that you know me now.
GS: Exactly, that’s right. Rick is a great guy. We’ve been collaborating a little bit and I helped him to start bringing out Alexander Theroux’s stories.
MC: He’s a brother of Paul Theroux.
GS: Exactly, yes!
MC: Also, you know an Englishman called Colin Meyers?
MC: He’s helping Rick Schober, too, in being an editor.
GS: Oh, cool. He edited your upcoming story collection, right?
MC: That’s right, yes. And also a recent book.
GS: Very cool. Well, I’m just curious, how have you been handling the pandemic?
MC: I managed to get two vaccinations so I’m okay and my wife got two vaccinations so she’s okay.
GS: Oh good. They’re doing some great things in New York. Not so much in Florida over here.
MC: Yeah, I heard that Florida was remiss in doing the right things and in New York they hustled more and cared more about it.
GS: I’m assuming that having your wife [Candace Watt] there during the pandemic helps things, to handle the situation.
MC: I didn’t really have to do much. All I had to do was wear a mask and keep social distancing.
GS: Oh, okay. I’m curious, how did you meet Candice?
MC: There was a party I crashed and I met her that way. Parties are often where things happened.
GS: How long ago was that? Do you remember?
MC: Well, maybe some time in the late 70s and now it’s 2021, so that’s a long time ago.
GS: Wow. I read somewhere that she was “a retired paperback editor.”
MC: Yeah, of W.W. Norton publishers.
GS: Because I was thinking of a joke, what does she have against hardcovers?
MC: Oh, I see, is that a joke?
GS: An attempt!
MC: The attempt of a joke, yeah. That’s right. I understand that it could be used as a joke in a publishing community, but not in too many other communities.
GS: True, true. Did she ever edit your work?
GS: Did you ever ask her for advice or anything like that?
MC: No, because I’m about 6 years older and I had already, by the time I met her, experience in getting published and so I already found my own voice. Already editing my stuff.
GS: Oh, okay. I was curious, you did not grow up in a religious household. Is that correct?
MC: Yeah, that’s correct. I’m glad I avoided a stupid religion.
GS: But you have Jewish ancestry, right?
MC: Oh yeah, yeah! I sure do. So it’s not their fault. They couldn’t help it.
GS: Your parents did not practice it at all or anything like that?
MC: I think maybe they were slightly observant but they were too poor, so I never had that 13-year-old ceremony that a lot of boys have, no bar mitzvah or any such bullshit ceremony. Also they were maybe potentially embarrassed because I was hard of hearing so I wouldn’t make a good impression. But I think the main factor for them not forcing me into that 13-year-old ceremony was that they didn’t have enough money. We were lower-middle class in Brooklyn.
GS: Did you ever feel discriminated against for not being so religious?
MC: No, but later on I got scolded by some religious Jews, but I just ignored it.
GS: Was this as a kid?
MC: This was as an adult later on when they found out that I was never bar-mitzvah’d and they said that “you’re not anybody, you’re not anything.”
GS: Wow, that’s horrible.
MC: Yeah. Well I didn’t care because I figured that a lot of religious people are pretty stupid.
GS: Well do you have your foreskin at least?
MC: Yeah, I guess I was sliced off at the end.
GS: Oh, okay. I’m sorry to hear that!
MC: No, no, I swear, it may have been hygienic or something. So I could’ve had a disease if I had not had the foreskin sliced off.
GS: Okay, and what about baseball? Do you consider baseball your religion?
MC: Well the Yankees are sort of a substitute because I love the Yankees. I was a Brooklyn boy and there were a lot of Italian guys in my neighborhood of Bensonhurst, Brooklyn and nobody knocked me for not being a Dodgers fan.
GS: And did you have any lucky rituals while watching a game or something like that?
MC: I didn’t watch many games because of poverty but no, no special rituals to want to get luck on my side enough for the team to win. If I was watching radio or television and it was a very crucial playoff game or championship game then my only ally was anxiety.
GS: I’m assuming you prefer to play instead of watch, right?
MC: I played a lot of stickball and softball with broomsticks and the pitcher would bounce the ball and the batter would hit it and sometimes it was in the street and a lot of times it was in schoolyards. And then later I played a lot of years of softball.
GS: Do you find a lot of difference between those two sports or no?
MC: Oh, between softball and baseball? Well I never played baseball. Softball was my only real substitute for baseball.
GS: Okay, sounds good. So I’m curious, how did you get into writing?
MC: Well in the beginning, when I was a school kid, I was more of an artist so that was supposed to be my future creative endeavor and I went to an art college. But then I found that it’s too expensive to buy all the paints and watercolors and canvas and so forth. I also liked writing so then I went into writing, which was cheaper.
GS: Did you have a typewriter and all that? It was still cheaper?
MC: I borrowed typewriters in the beginning. Mainly I wrote down things and then I borrowed typewriters. There was an NYU campus near me in Washington Square Park where people could go in and use the typewriter free in those days.
GS: I remember Ray Bradbury had to pay to use the typewriter in the library.
MC: Oh, he used the typewriter in the library because he was too poor to have a typewriter at home?
MC: I see. I didn’t know that about him. I never read anything he wrote.
GS: Oh, okay. Well that brings me to my next question, which is what did you first start reading to fall in love with literature.
MC: My favorite poets were Yeats, Auden, and T.S. Eliot. My favorite prose writer was James Joyce.
GS: Mine too! Are there any other writers who are like Joyce that you found?
MC: Later on in translation I read Proust and I guess the novelists that have the best reputation like Flaubert and Dostoevsky. I read some by them. I read a little here and a little there, different novels that were well-reputed. So I didn’t want to just guess what kind of writing would be good. I went by prior reputation, like if you go to a museum. If a painter was already renowned then you would go there and the same way with whatever you would read if a writer was already renowned.
GS: What did you love about James Joyce in particular?
MC: Ulysses and the way he put his words together was very economical and very strong. He knitted words together in a way where they really help each other.
GS: Did that influence your writing?
MC: Yeah, it did! But my writing was not an imitation. I had already read him but I sort of found my own way of writing.
GS: Some people compare The Self-Devoted Friend to Samuel Beckett.
MC: Yeah? Well I wonder who those readers are.
GS: Just readers online.
MC: Oh, I see. Well that’s impressive. I love Samuel Beckett too. He’s great. James Joyce was my favorite love.
GS: Did you have a favorite Beckett?
MC: I read his novels and his plays but I didn’t have a special favorite but he was very terse and economical in the way he wrote. He said a lot in a few words.
GS: Did you try in your work to be economical as well?
MC: Well I tried to make it that way, but then it was up to readers to find it that way. I tried to gear my work in an economical way.
GS: Another name that online readers mentioned was Flann O’Brien.
MC: Yeah, Flann O’Brien was great. I read him. Two of his novels were hilarious.
GS: I still need to read him. I haven’t yet.
MC: Oh I see. You know him by reputation so he’s next in line for you to read. You’re a writer too?
GS: Yes, I recently published my first novel. I started it at 20 and finished it at 23.
MC: I see, three years to write.
MC: Who published it?
GS: River Boat Books, a very small publisher.
MC: How has it been received?
GS: Many people online love it. I was surprised to see that. I was expecting no readers at all, maybe two or something.
MC: But that’s good! Yeah, I’m not handy with machines so I don’t do things online. The way that I write is handwriting with a pen and then I transfer it to the computer and make emails out of it and send the emails to friends and publishers.
GS: Back in the day did you also write by hand first and then use the typewriter?
MC: Yeah, that’s what I did! So it went by post office mail because in those days for me it was before the computer.
GS: So what about you? You published your first novel and how was its reception? What did people think of your first works?
MC: For the most part it was ignored and those who did pay attention said that they liked it and that it had some kind of originality. [For The Self-Devoted Friend, a review in The New York Times Book Review reads, “It is rare these days—perhaps, any days—to come across a work that not only reveals a striking, fresh talent, but stands outside current literary preoccupations. What Mr. Cohen has is his own: a joy in language, and an eye, at once innocent and shrewd, for the paradoxes inherent in the human condition. He puts both language and people through their paces, stands them on their heads, and hugs them to his heart in what amounts as a tour de force of serio-comedy, a sort of superb clowning in which pathos and absurdity intertwine as they do in a Charlie Chaplin film.”]
GS: What was the scene like in New York back in the 60s and 70s?
MC: First there were the beatniks and there were the bohemians. In general, bohemians were not conformists and they had a fast and loose life so I was in that environment but I didn’t belong to any sect so I myself was not a beatnik even though I knew some of them.
GS: Maybe you were influenced by all of the sects?
MC: No, I didn’t like the beatniks lacking discipline. They seemed to be overly spontaneous without a particular drive of talent. I was never a member of anything, except loving the New York Yankees, which I’ll always do.
GS: What was your schedule like as far as writing? What kind of discipline did you have?
MC: I just wrote when I got inspired.
GS: And that was a lot?
MC: Sometimes a lot and sometimes not but I tried to emphasize the writing because I didn’t have a way of making money because I couldn’t get a college education that was complete because the requirements were to have a foreign language and I couldn’t understand foreign language. So I was hoping to become famous which I never did become and to make money through writing. But as it turned out I got teaching jobs because I got published, like The Self-Devoted Friend, and that lead to teaching in college creative writing.
GS: They offered it to you or did you apply?
MC: Through connections. A friend was already a teacher and so he recommended me to his boss who was the head of the English department so he could have a break and I got into teaching at a steady college. And then later I got published more so then I applied for jobs in Long Island and also I got hired by The New School where I taught for many years.
GS: What was that experience like? Did you enjoy it?
MC: Sometimes I did. I felt it was prestigious to teach and I had a certain talent but the hearing difficulties made it more difficult because I couldn’t take it in stride the way normal-hearing people could.
GS: I read somewhere that your students did not try to mimic your style. What can you say about that?
MC: I don’t know if they did or didn’t because I don’t know which students ever got published.
GS: They didn’t send you their books?
MC: If they did, they didn’t send me any. Maybe they did in the beginning but then I forgot about it.
GS: Did teaching help your writing in any way?
MC: No, I don’t think so. Teaching was just paying attention to other people’s writing so that didn’t help me with my own writing.
GS: Can you tell me about the hearing issue? Were you born with it?
MC: At the age of three, I had an ear infection and I don’t know whether my parents were equipped to get an ear doctor. And in those days the American Medical Association didn’t use penicillin except for members of the armed forces so I missed out by a few years on the penicillin being available which now I think is routine for the mastoid operation, that part of the ear.
GS: Did they try to treat it at all? What did they try?
MC: They gave me some kind of sulfur drug which was a common usage but anyway I suffered hearing loss and in those days it was hard to use hearing aids, but now I have it easier because the hearing aids are more efficient.
GS: That’s good!
GS: Did the hearing get worse over time?
MC: Gradually it did over time, but the hearing aids have caught up with it getting worse. They’re good.
GS: I’m curious about the connection between the lack of hearing and your writing style.
MC: Oh, maybe there was a connection. I like the sound of words. I did a lot of puns that had to do with the sound of words, of course. I liked the way one word sounded in connection with others. Musical influence could’ve been the factor in my writing style.
GS: Did you read your work aloud while you’re writing?
MC: No, I only read in readings sometimes, not to myself.
GS: So the music was in your head as you wrote?
MC: Oh yeah, the sounds were in my head. As I wrote the sounds sort of appeared in my imaginary ear.
GS: When did you go to England?
MC: In the 70s and 80s and 90s. I got to know people and when they went on holidays and vacations I would housesit so I’d get free rent in August. August was the time when teaching was off, so that was a good coincidence that they took a lot of holidays and that coincided with my college teaching being off.
GS: You went to do the job or why did you go to England?
MC: I went every August because I got to know friends so the friends I knew there were more numerous than the ones in New York so I made it my business to go every August so I would go from one house to the other while the residents were on vacation so that way I had a virtually rent-free summer.
GS: How does England compare to New York?
MC: Pretty much they’re the same in a certain era, styles and customs were similar to styles and customs in New York. So there wasn’t too much difference and I mainly went for the literary and art creative people as friends. The literary and art people are more or less the same as those people in New York.
GS: And you knew Paul Theroux in New York right?
MC: Oh yeah I knew him in New York in the Lower East Side. We lived in the same apartment building so he was younger than me and he was writing a lot. My apartment at first was $30 a month, which was cheap. We both lived cheap. He wrote his novels and I wrote my stuff. [Paul Theroux wrote the following blurb for the 50th-anniversary edition of Marvin Cohen’s debut novel: “When I was an unpublished writer 55 years ago, I lived in the same crummy tenement as Marvin Cohen in New York, and got to know him and his extraordinary writing. To me he was the Beckett of Avenue B—funnier, more accessible, but just as determined to show us the world in a new way. Cohen is the chronicler of frustration, and The Self-Devoted Friend is just one of his masterpieces.”]
GS: How long ago was that?
MC: This was in the 60s.
GS: And what was he like as a person or a writer?
MC: Well as a person he was very nice to me. We were friends but we didn’t intrude on each other’s writing. As a writer, he was very good. He got famous.
GS: Did he want to be famous? Did he say that back in the day?
MC: No, he never said that, but I would assume any poor writer would want to be famous because in writing the intention is to get published and then praised and having fame.
GS: And money!
MC: Yeah, and women! *laughs*
GS: And you met Ted Hughes in England?
MC: Yeah I met him, but mainly I was a friend of his sister Olwyn Hughes, who was the agent of Sylvia Plath and him. So through the sister I met him.
GS: What was your impression of him?
MC: My impression was a tall man who seemed very formidable and confident and impressive. And he became a famous writer so his life was very rewarding. I didn’t know him well, but I used famous acquaintances for namedropping to better impress people.
GS: Did you meet Sylvia Plath at all?
MC: No, this was after she was dead. My friend Olwyn Hughes always had to be in the middle of the Sylvia Plath scandals where her brother was blamed for not being nice to his wife. A lot of women in those days in women liberation disliked Ted because he wasn’t good to Sylvia.
GS: And still today people don’t really like him.
MC: Most people liked Ted then, but it was just some kind of women’s liberation people.
GS: Where did you meet Francis Bacon?
MC: I gave a reading in London and he was taken there by friends who knew me so I was introduced to him.
GS: Was he a dark person, grim?
MC: No, he wasn’t dark.
GS: Because plenty of his paintings are dark.
MC: Oh, I see. He was very nice socially. He was homosexual and he had great fame, so he had a lot of money. He gambled and he was very intelligent and very nice.
GS: When did you run out of prose?
MC: That was a title made up by one of the editors who I know and it was just a funny title for the book because the book was all about poetry and so it was just a humorous title. I never really ran out of prose. I’ve been very prolific the last few years writing poems and dialogues, but no sizable fiction. I’ll be 90 coming July.
GS: Are you still writing today?
MC: Yeah I write a lot today. So I’m sending a lot to Rick Schober because he’s now my only publisher. I keep on sending works to him and by email to other friends.
GS: I’m excited for the new stories although they’re old stories.
MC: Yeah, that’s right.
GS: These stories were never published?
MC: Yeah, I think they were never published. Some stories were published and then Rick republished them some years ago.
GS: The Five Fictions?
MC: The Five Fictions I think were never published.
GS: Did you try publishing them?
MC: Yeah, I always submitted where I could and tried to get recommendations to publishers. I was always hustling trying to get published.
GS: And it was difficult do you think, or no?
MC: Yes, it was difficult because my writing is not standard fiction.
MC: Yeah, it was idiosyncratic.
GS: What kind of places published them? Do you remember them?
MC: There was a publisher called Sagging Meniscus which published a few books during the time that I was published by Rick Schober. Before that, there were English publishers and there was New Directions.
GS: I mean, did you publish with magazines, any shorter pieces?
MC: Yeah, I published with a lot of magazines. I sent to them a lot of short works. The short works have a magazine format.
GS: You told me that you have not read any novels in decades. Is that right?
MC: Yeah, that’s true.
GS: Is there any particular reason for not reading?
GS: And why the disinterest? Is fiction just too bad these days?
MC: No, I was more interested in doing my own work than being a reader.
GS: Do you think a writer needs to read a lot early on or no?
MC: Yeah, I recommend early on they read a lot until they develop their style and then they can go on reading. But some writers whittle down their reading.
GS: Have you read any of your own novels recently?
MC: No, I never reread.
GS: Never ever?
MC: That’s right, never, because it’s done with and I’m always looking to do new things.
GS: Because I imagine it could be like looking at an old photograph or something.
MC: Well no, I never made that connection of my work being like a past photograph. I was glad to be published but I was just indifferent about rereading it.
GS: And you’re still indifferent to this day?
GS: Do you think you would be hard on your old writing?
MC: No, I just wasn’t that interested. I’d already accomplished my goal which was to get published so once that was done then I had already achieved what I wanted so I didn’t want to read anything that was already in print.
GS: Was the process of writing shorter fiction any different than the novels?
MC: Well let’s see. I haven’t written novels in a long time so it’s hard to remember the novel process. The Self-Devoted Friend was not really a novel, it was just a lot of scattered episodes.
GS: I noticed that in The Self-Devoted Friend you included one of your first published pieces “Prose Poem”, which ends with these lines: “We loved each other to extinction. Even our graves are invisible.” Can you reflect on this notion? What would you want to be visible on your gravestone?
MC: Gravestones seem like bullshit, so I don’t care what will be on mine, but I love my wife, so she’ll take care of that. But that’s right, the piece was originally in a beat generation anthology. [Titled The Beat Scene, it was published by Corinth Books in 1960, and included works by Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and others.]
GS: And later incorporated within The Self-Devoted Friend. Did you include a lot of other pieces that you had finished in the past?
MC: I wrote all of those pieces in isolation of each other and then combined them once I had the idea of a longer work so I think the only previously published small piece in The Self-Devoted Friend was the beat generation piece.
GS: Do you remember how you got the idea for The Self-Devoted Friend.
MC: By writing short pieces, I thought to myself, “Why not have the same characters, me and my friend?” Once I got that idea, I did my friend and me until finally I had enough compiled to make a whole book.
GS: I notice you play with clichés. You make fun of clichés.
MC: I played around with them as well as making puns.
GS: Did you actively try to avoid clichés in your writing?
MC: Yeah I tried to make everything fresh but if I was making fun of something that was different from making the mistake of writing a cliché.
GS: You mentioned you went to a lot of parties. Do you have any crazy stories for me?
MC: I can’t think of any now. I knew people who went to art gallery openings and in general having writer friends and artist friends, wherever there was a party I told them tell me about it so I went to a lot of parties that were readings and artists in galleries.
GS: Did you enjoy those or were they boring?
MC: Well I had different feelings about different parties.
GS: Do you remember what the best one was?
MC: Not offhand, no. There was so many of them. I leeched on others to get free drinks.
GS: Do you remember Tom La Farge?
GS: I’m friends with Wendy Walker, Tom’s wife.
MC: Oh, I don’t know her well. I met Tom La Farge through Wallace Shawn. He was an actor [in The Princess Bride, the voice of Rex in Toy Story, etc.] and writer.
GS: Were you good friends or what was that like?
MC: I was good friends with Wallace Shawn.
GS: And Tom?
MC: No, I mainly went to them because Wallace Shawn. I needed a place to stay because I was teaching somewhere or giving a reading and then I would stay at Tom La Farge’s place. That was near Madison Avenue in the 70s.
GS: Wendy told me you emptied out their fridge.
MC: Oh yeah, that’s right! I emptied out their fridge. So are you a friend of Tom?
GS: I did not get to meet him. He died recently.
MC: Oh, so how did you know that I emptied out his fridge?
GS: I’m friends with Wendy.
MC: She was called Mrs. La Farge.
GS: Did you empty out many fridges in New York?
MC: No, I didn’t want to upset people so I had to do it on the sneak. But I didn’t really empty out fridges, I just tried to get food where I could.
GS: I’m just joking with you! I think we covered everything. I have a question about humor.
MC: Humor is my favorite writing.
GS: Nowadays many people are very sensitive about certain jokes.
MC: Yeah I try to avoid the sensitive kinds of writing where people are critical of it.
GS: Even back in the day you tried to avoid it?
MC: Back in the day I was more careless about it.
GS: Did you get into any trouble?
MC: No. I didn’t offend anybody.
GS: Do you think it’s a good thing to restrain yourself as a comedic writer or should we be careless?
MC: No, I don’t want to restrain it. I like comedy.
GS: So we should offend people then?
MC: Writing comedy doesn’t necessarily mean offending people. I try to be funny but not offend people.
GS: What about plays, what’s your experience with theater?
MC: With the theater, I had some works in The Public Theater in Manhattan. I had some plays in New York and California and Cleveland, so I have some plays. I’ve not written a play for many decades, but I’ve accumulated lots of short dialogues.
GS: Did you try acting at all?
GS: No interest?
MC: Well, I would have wanted to. I did dialogues with friends. I’d acted one part and they acted another part.
GS: So like an informal reading?
MC: No a lot of these were dates, people coming to a place where the address and time were given.
GS: Did you attend a lot of plays?
MC: No, I couldn’t because I couldn’t hear well enough to enjoy them.
GS: That makes sense. So I asked this earlier. I like to focus on underappreciated works.
MC: Well, I’m underappreciated!
GS: That’s why we’re talking and I enjoy your fiction. *Laughs* Does any underappreciated work come to your mind that you could recommend to our readers?
MC: No, since I’m not a reader, so there’s no one I’m qualified to recommend. I can’t think of anybody.
GS: I thought of another question. Do you have to be old to be wise?
MC: No, sometimes you can be old and foolish.
GS: Do you consider yourself old and foolish or old and wise?
MC: Neither. I’m not especially wise in some respects. I’m interested in human nature and psychology.
GS: Did you attend lectures or read books on that or just observing?
MC: No lectures, no books. I used to read books on human nature and psychology but not anymore.
GS: What are some of your fondest memories looking back?
MC: Well, I enjoy being with friends, so a lot of my fondest memories are having a good time with friends and I enjoyed when the New York Yankees won championships.
GS: Did you have big parties to celebrate that?
MC: I didn’t give parties but there were no special celebrations that I remember with baseball. There were a lot of parties in general where a lot of them were celebratory, having a good time.
GS: I guess that’s all I have unless you wanted to talk about anything or say anything specific.
MC: You pretty much covered all the bases and then even some bases that were not there. I enjoyed our interview.
GS: I enjoyed it too. Thank you so much for your time, Marvin.
MC: Okay, I’ll see yah the next time!
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Special thanks to Nicole Melchionda for transcribing the conversation.
Marvin Cohen, who turns 90 this July, was one of the most innovative voices in American literature during the 1960s and 1970s. He authored 9 books, two of them published by New Directions, and his short fiction and essays appeared in more than 80 publications, including The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Village Voice, The Nation, Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, Fiction, The Hudson Review, Quarterly Review of Literature, Transatlantic Review, and New Directions annuals. Staged readings of his 1980 play, The Don Juan and the Non-Don Juan, featured such actors as Richard Dreyfuss, Keith Carradine, Jill Eikenberry, and Wallace Shawn. Despite this success, few people know of Marvin Cohen, let alone read his work, but much of it has been reprinted or published for the first time by a couple of small presses, including Sagging Meniscus and Tough Poets. Learn more here.
George Salis is the author of Sea Above, Sun Below. His fiction is featured in The Dark, Black Dandy, Zizzle Literary Magazine, House of Zolo, Three Crows Magazine, and elsewhere. His criticism has appeared in Isacoustic, Atticus Review, and The Tishman Review, and his science article on the mechanics of natural evil was featured in Skeptic. He is currently working on an encyclopedic novel titled Morphological Echoes. He has taught in Bulgaria, China, and Poland. Find him on Facebook, Goodreads, Instagram, and at www.GeorgeSalis.com.