From a BOMBLive! conversation between Peter Cole and Edward Hirsch, filmed at the Brooklyn Public Library on October 22, 2008. To watch the full-length conversation, visit BOMB Magazine.

A recipient of a 2007 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, Cole is the author of three books of poetry, most recently, Things on Which I’ve Stumbled. He has translated widely from Hebrew and Arabic, and has received numerous awards for his work. Edward Hirsch, is the president of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and author of over ten books of poetry and prose, including the national bestseller How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry.


Peter Cole: The poem that Ed wanted to hear was one called "Improvisation on Lines by Isaac the Blind." Isaac the Blind was a 13th Century Provencal Kabbalist. And so it begins with lines of his that I came across somewhere, and somehow they just struck me and they turned into this poem. The word "bulbul" here is actually a word in English dictionaries—it's a Persian nightingale. We have many of them in our backyard in Jerusalem.

[Cole reads "Improvisation on Lines by Isaac the Blind"]

Edward Hirsch: There are a lot of traditional forms in this book and the villanelle is one of the recurring forms; so is the ghazal. And what does the villanelle do for you?

Cole: Poetically, I come out of a more American experimental tradition, but over the years I've always read extremely widely, both in the English tradition, the Hebraic, and Arabic also, and I've always had a very catholic sense of what's possible in poetry. What I feel is that—I mean all poetry, your poetry, really anybody's poetry. if it's real poetry, it is responding to a given situation and the situation is dictating the form on some level. And experimental poetry that turns out to look like something we expected, something we can predict in advance, to me is not experimental.