It’s never too late to be discovered.
Longtime Teaneck resident and poet John Edwin Cowen is a published author of textbooks and has had more than 100 poems featured in literary magazines, but he’s never had a collection of his work published in one book, until now.
Cowen, age 70, is professor of Literacy and Education at Fairleigh Dickinson University. He also is a former teacher in the Teaneck Public School System and was assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction for the district from 1984 to 1995.
In May, Cowen was invited to the International Poetry Festival in Wales, where he spoke on the topic of poet Jose Garcia Villa’s connection to poet Dylan Thomas, and he also read some of his own poetry. Cowen later was approached by two young poets who asked to purchase his book. When Cowen told them he didn’t have a published book of his poems, those two individuals recommended him to Anaphora Literary Press, which upon reading Cowen’s manuscript offered him a contract in November.
Cowen will read about 25 poems from his new book, “Mathematics of Love,” at Louie’s Charcoal Pit this Friday. Two readings will be held: one from 4 to 6 p.m. and the other from 8 to 10 p.m. Before the second reading, The River Acoustic Band will perform. There’s no charge to come to either event, and Louie’s is offering a small discount on certain food items for anyone who orders during the readings.
THE ‘LINGUISTIC FORCE’ BEHIND POETRY
Cowen said he was always interested in writing, but it wasn’t until attending a local college in Jersey City that his passion for poetry began to emerge. And around the time he started teaching at Benjamin Franklin in 1963, Cowen's interest in reading and writing poetry took off.
“It was at that time I was aware of The New School for Social Research, and they always had important writers and workshops,” Cowen said. “I saw that there were two poets teaching at the time, one was Kenneth Koch and the other was Jose Garcia Villa.”
Cowen said he connected instantly with Villa’s poetry.
“There was something about Villa’s lyrical quality that drew me more to him,” Cowen said. “So I went to The New School and applied to be in his workshop. He was a very strong taskmaster, but he also was my teacher and my mentor.”
In explaining how poetry differs from prose, Cowen shared what he learned from Villa.
“With prose, you always know what the message is that you want to convey first, and so you’re goal-oriented and you write and meet that goal. And the main goal is to be understood and that to make sure that your message is understood,” he said. "In modern poetry, especially lyrical poetry, Villa taught me that there are three major principles for poetry: Poetry must have an excellence in form, poetry must be lyrical, and poetry must not be prose.”
Cowen further explained that very often poetry becomes a form of self discovery.
“The distinction that lyrical poets make is that it’s the linguistic force that drives the poem and not meaning first,” he said. “The poet discovers meaning through that linguistic force.”
In 1963, Cowen began his long educational career in Teaneck, which would include teaching at Benjamin Franklin and Teaneck High School, as well as teaching special education. He bought a home in the township in 1973 with his wife Jay, who also taught in the district. The couple has two children: Juliet, who teaches first grade at Lowell, and Jill, who’s in marketing.
“I love the diversity of Teaneck, and I wanted my children to go to school here and grow up here,” Cowen said. “Both my daughters are graduates of the Teaneck Public Schools.”
Cowen has been a regular at Louie’s Charcoal Pit since 1963. He said he’s gotten to know the owners, Gerry Stamatelatos and his son Dino, through the years.
“I come here every Saturday morning, and for a very long time, I used to come in here almost every night for an hour or two to hobnob with Dino,” he said.
Cowen said his daughter Juliet was the one who suggested he do a poetry reading at Louie’s. They decided to do two readings in hopes of catching local teachers for the earlier 4 p.m. event and then anyone else who is getting out of work later for the 8 p.m. reading.
‘MATHEMATICS OF LOVE’
Cowen’s book is available in hardcover and paperback. It features a mix of 100 poems that were written between 1962 and 2011.
“It’s funny – a lot of people will ask why is the book called “Mathematics of Love”? The main reason is that the feature poem, which is titled ‘Mathematics of Love,’ is the longest poem I wrote,” Cowen said. “And also to some degree there’s a form of love in all these poems.”
A few poems are to Cowen’s wife, and there’s even a critical, yet comical poem composed out of a rejection letter Cowen received from The New Yorker.
“All writers have to endure rejection,” Cowen said. “For years I have been reading The New Yorker, but they would reject my poems. So one day I took one of their rejection slips, and I rearranged the words, and I wrote a poem in my book called ‘To The New Yorker Editors.’”
Cowen said until now, no publisher had offered him a contract to do a book, even though he’s had more than 100 of his poems published. Cowen also is a small press publisher himself, but he refused to self-publish.
“I felt that to self-publish, to some degree, was not totally bonafide,” Cowen said. “I know that there are a lot of people who self-publish, and I don’t have anything against their self-publishing; some of the great poets had to self-publish because people wouldn’t recognize their work. I just felt I had enough poems out there that I felt pleased with, and so if I hadn’t published until this point in time, so be it.”
Next up for Cowen is a second book titled “Poems from Dylan’s Wales,” which will contain 44 poems. It should be out later this year.
“It took me a lifetime to get this first book published,” Cowen said. “And already I’m working on a second book.”
Cowen will sign copies of his book “Mathematics of Love” at both readings. Books will be available for purchase at that time, or you can buy the book online at Amazon.com or at Anaphora Literary Press. Cowen also is in discussions with the FDU bookstore to carry his book.