"Leonard Cohen Talks About Book of Longing,
Monk's Life, Fameá
by Robin D. Schatz
June 5, 2006
-- Dressed in a natty pinstripe suit and a rakish cap, Leonard Cohen picks up his new volume of poetry, Book of Longing -- some 20 years in the making -- to read me a poem. "Oh, boy, are we going to have fun," he says.
Known more for his endless brooding than for playfulness, the songwriter-poet and erstwhile Buddhist monk is on a roll at age 71. Besides his new poetry book, a concert film of his life, called I'm Your Man, will be released later this month. He has a new album from Columbia Records -- Blue Alert, a collaboration with his singer-girlfriend Anjani -- and he's working on a new CD of his own.
We talked at Bloomberg's New York headquarters.
Schatz: You've been famous for a very long time. What don't we know about the real Leonard Cohen?
Cohen: I don't think there's anything interesting that you don't know about me. I remember being visited by a German filmmaker in my flat in Montreal and he said he wanted to make a documentary. We were sitting at the kitchen table and I said, &"But what are you going to show? I sit at this table. It's extremely dull, and it's a kind of small and shabby life, and it doesn't really invite much exploitation."
Schatz: This is a very good time for Leonard Cohen, isn't it?
Cohen: Well, it's busy. And I'm very grateful that people are still interested in my work, so I'm happy to get out and hustle it in a modest sort of way.
Schatz: Tell us about your new book. It's taken you a long time to put it together.
Cohen: A friend of mine called it the "Book of Prolonging." I never thought there was much urgency in the whole enterprise, or anything else I do for that matter. I really did follow the advice of Horace, the Roman poet. He said you should leave your poems in your drawer for at least nine years. And I tend to do that.
I tend to let them sit for a while, work at them over the years, and when the whole work seems to suggest a kind of coherent sequence and the poems have matured -- both by being left alone and by being scrutinized intermittently -- there's a moment when they're ready, when a book is ready.
Schatz: What are these poems really about?
Cohen: I depend upon reviewers to indicate what the work is about. I think the echo one gets from one's readers and critics very much helps to clarify the nature of the work. I wasn't quite sure what it was about. Some of the reviewers said it was about old age, desire and the inner life of the elderly. Someone else said it was a shaped autobiography. It does have a kind of buried story line, which prefaces the burial of the author in the future.
Schatz: Well, there does seem to be a lot about growing old in there.
Cohen: Growing old becomes clear to you at a certain point. I think it's after the age of 70 you realize -- you begin to actually be convinced -- you're growing older.
Schatz: Many of your poems come from the period you spent at the Mount Baldy Zen Center. What was that experience like?
Cohen: I was about the worst monk the monastery had ever experienced. I was a bad monk in the sense that I was there somewhat under false pretenses.
Schatz: What do you mean?
Cohen: I wasn't really interested in Buddhism. I had a religion of my own which was perfectly serviceable. I wasn't an enthusiast for the dogma or the Buddhist scriptures. What I was there for was to be in the company of Joshu Sasaki Roshi, who was the central figure of that monastery.
I bumped into him many years, ago, maybe 35 years ago. He had these two qualities I observed: He was at ease with himself and was at ease with others. And very few people really achieve that. I wasn't so interested in any spiritual education. What I was interested in was feeling better.
Schatz: You eventually left the monastery. It didn't give you what you were looking for?
Cohen: That system is designed to overthrow a 20-year-old. It's a very rigorous life. And I always spent several months of every year with Roshi, often as his secretary and finally as his cook. I left because it just seemed appropriate. I was about 65. It was just too rigorous.
Schatz: Which tends to come first, the song or the poem?
Cohen: I don't operate at a buffet table where I can choose among the delicacies, a poem today, a sandwich tomorrow. Most of the time, you're scratching the bottom of the barrel and nothing is coming.
Occasionally a few lines arise, or an interesting chord change or the sound of the guitar one day invites you to supply some words, or a deep feeling of affection or loneliness seizes you. You're picking through the rags and bones and debris of your life and something arises and it invites you to refine it. And then, the long, long process begins -- from that moment to recording a song might be four or five years.
Schatz: Does age accord any advantages to a poet-songwriter?
Cohen: You know you're going to get out of the racket pretty soon, and that has various ambiguous implications. I've been very lucky to have friends who grew old and I was able to enjoy their company. If we're lucky, we grow old.
Book of Longing is published by Ecco (232 pages, $24.95).
To contact the reporter of this story:
Robin D. Schatz in New York at firstname.lastname@example.org.