May 2024
Dee Cohen on Poetry
Dee Cohen

Johnny Cordova

If you meet the Buddha ….

Poet Johnny Cordova begins his day on Triveni Ashram north of Chino Valley with formal meditation practice. “Meditation itself is an opportunity to tap into an interior space that exists prior to the thinking mind. I believe that’s where poetry comes from. The more time I can spend there, the better my writing tends to be.”

He has lived at the sanctuary since 2021, after spending ten years teaching hot yoga and English in southeast Asia. He often finds that poems come on his walks from his cottage to the hall to meditate. “Something about the early morning seems to unlock words for me. On a 2014 trip through India I wrote 24 poems in 24 days. Most of those poems were started during early-morning walks in search of coffee or chai. I’d get the first few lines down and work the rest out in my notebook over the course of that day.”

For Johnny, meditation and poetry share a common source. “Poetry and meditation practice have had a symbiotic relationship throughout history, something that is most evident in the Zen tradition. Ryokan was a Japanese Zen master who renounced the political structures of monastic life to live as a mendicant hermit. He was a great meditator, but is remembered for his poetry. I’ve long looked to him as a role model.”

Johnny appreciates poetry’s ability to express the inexpressible. “It is the best way I know to capture (or point toward) the inexplicable, the mystical, the intangible aspects of human experience.” He is also drawn to its brevity. “As a writer, I can get in and get out. As a reader, I can get in, get out.”

With his wife, poet Dominique Ahkong, Johnny publishes Shō Poetry Journal, which has evolved over the years. “Shō started out as a small-press print journal in 2002, featuring work by turn-of-the-century street poets. With the present incarnation we aim to be more eclectic. Poetry is undergoing a renaissance of multiculturalism. We seek to publish as diverse a representation of contemporary voices as we can, in that regard.” He finds that the poems submitted have a positive influence on his own writing. “So far we’ve been thrilled with the quality and variety of submissions we’ve received. The sheer variety of styles that I’m being exposed to has had an expansive effect on my own style. It’s deepened my appreciation for types of poetry that I might not have been otherwise drawn to.”

Johnny’s poems are concise yet powerful, capturing the essence of circumstances in carefully crafted language. “I want to write poems that feel spontaneous and at the same time demonstrate economy and precise use of language. I want my poems to feel honest, above all.” He avoids using poetry to lecture or instruct the reader. “I think that’s a trap that a lot of poets with spiritual practices fall into. I want to convey something about my view and experience of the world, as well as my inner life, without agenda. I think poetry should be free of agenda.”

In “Foot Massage,” he says, “Bangkok is a sprawling, dense, frenetic city with a noir quality that I find irresistible. I wanted to capture the constant buzz of traffic, the oppressive heat, the ferocity of tropical downpours, and juxtapose those things with the sanctuary that a Thai foot massage can provide. For me, this poem is something of a microcosm of the greater experience of living in Thailand. One feels a thread to an ancient Buddhist culture very much alive within an urban, Blade Runner-esque landscape.”

“If You Meet the Buddha at the Flea Market” presents an insider’s understanding of Buddhism. “Ninth-century Chinese Buddhist master Linji Yixuan famously said to his disciples, If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him. It’s a koan that speaks to the need toz break free of spiritual materialism, to break identification with all obstacles on the path, including the teacher and the teaching itself. The title alludes to that saying, and the poem itself enacts a symbolic killing of the Buddha. It’s meant as a bit of humor for those in the know.”

Johnny believes that living on the ashram enriches his life as writer. “For years I’ve been drawn to a retreat lifestyle. It’s very quiet here. I find the silence and the solitude essential to the creative process.”

More at and

If You Meet the Buddha at the Flea Market

Wandering on a Sunday afternoon

through the Berkeley Flea Market

I find a perfect wax replica

of a Buddha

with a candle wick

running up and out of

the top of his head.

He’s about a foot high

and turquoise blue,

a strange color, I think,

for a Buddha,

and I haggle over the price

with an old Chinese man,

settle on two bucks,

and take him home.

I find a stool and position it

in the center of the room,

put the Buddha on a plate,

the plate on the stool,

turn out the lights,

strike a match,

watch the Buddha

burn down

into nothingness.

Published in Chiron Review

Foot Massage

Some things are constant.

The oppressiveness of heat,

the darkening of light,

the low humming roar of late-afternoon traffic

in Bangkok.

You hear it through the glass,

like waves pressing into your mind,

as you drift in and out of consciousness.

A girl with thick eyebrows and very gentle hands

caresses your calf muscle,

slides down around the heel of your foot

in long, firm strokes.

Each time you open your eyes, she smiles.

Her beauty is giving in a world that takes.

It begins to rain, suddenly,

a hammering, blanket rain,

the sound of it drowning all other sounds beneath it.

Someone opens the door and it crashes in.

The door closes and the room again becomes a womb.

Published in San Pedro River Review

Dee Cohen is a Prescott poet and photographer.