Helen Degen Cohen reading her work (videos)

Many thanks to Bill Yarrow for providing these wonderful videos of Helen Degen Cohen reading from her work. We’re pleased to give them a home here.



RHINO Reads! on March 20, 2014

Reading from “Habry” at the Glass Lyre Reading in Glenview, Illinois, on September 27, 2014.

Reading from “Neruda Nights” at the Glass Lyre Reading in Glenview, Illinois, on September 27, 2014.

Reading her poem “Zimmerman, or Stand Your Ground” at the Glass Lyre Reading in Glenview, Illinois, on  September 27, 2014.

Reading her poem “Truth” at the Glass Lyre Reading in Glenview, Illinois, on  September 27, 2014.

Reading some film poems at the Glass Lyre Reading in Glenview, Illinois, on  September 27, 2014.

Glass Lyre Press Reading, “100 Thousand Poets for Change”, The Book Market, Glenview, September 26, 2015.

Helen Degen Cohen – Beloved Poet, RHINO Founder and Editor


helen degen cohen photo by valerie wallace

Helen “Halinka” Degen Cohen

November 19, 1934 – November 24, 2015
Memorial Service on Friday, November 27, 2pm
First Congregational Church of Evanston, 1445 Hinman Ave.
Reception to follow at the home of Ralph Hamilton
630 Clinton Place, Evanston, 3:30pm


unnamedHelen Degen Cohen was born Halina “Halinka” Degenfisz on November 19, 1934 in the town of Grojec, located near Warsaw, Poland. A Holocaust survivor, Helen was kept in hiding during World War II by Maria Szumska. Helen and her parents Joseph Degen and Bluma “Bella” (Dreyer) Degen later settled in Chicago. Helen graduated from Roosevelt High School, and later from Trinity University and University of Illinois Circle Campus. She married Arnold Lewis Cohen, with whom she had three children – Richard Scott, Daniel, and Laura. She later married Donald Neil Memmer, who preceded her in death.

Helen had a long career as a writer and educator. She was a co-founder and continuing editor of the RHINO Poetry Journal, which next year celebrates its 40th anniversary. She was an elementary school teacher, taught college classes, and toured the State of Illinois as an Illinois Artist-in-Residence. An acclaimed writer of poetry, short stories, and novels, Helen received many prizes and awards, including the Paladin Award for extraordinary long-term contribution to poetry in Illinois. She leaves behind a vast body of literature, some of which will be published in the coming years. 

When Helen passed, she remained engaged in her lifelong passions. Her life-ending brain aneurysm occurred while participating in a RHINO Poetry Workshop. Her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren were making plans for one of her favorite family get-togethers – the Thanksgiving Holiday.

Helen leaves behind three children – Richard Scott Cohen (Gitte Hansen-Cohen), Dan Cohen (Micki Sand-Cohen), and Laura Cohen; four grandchildren – Tara Cohen Kisner (Ryan Kisner), Josh Cohen, Claudia Cohen, and Eric Cohen; and three great-grandchildren – Samantha Frost, Ella Kisner, and Kailynn Kisner. She also leaves behind a multitude of friends and colleagues, many of whom have expressed sincere appreciation for the influence Helen had on their lives.

Those wishing to do so may send a donation in Helen’s memory to:
Rhino Poetry
PO Box 591
Evanston, IL 60204

or online through the secure JustGive portal.


Videos of Helen reading from her work are now available here.



RHINO at Evanston Lit Fest! May 16 and 17, 2015


We’re thrilled to be a featured event (2 events) at the inaugural Evanston Lit Fest!

Saturday, May 16
RHINO 2015 issue reading – featuring poets & editors from RHINO 2015
John McCarthy
Ruth Goring
Lisa Croneberg
Heather Cox
Bill Yarrow
Virginia Bell
Helen Degen Cohen
Angela Narciso Torres
with Dina Elenbogen (RHINO 2010)
3 – 4:30 pm 
Creative Coworking
922 Davis Street
Sunday, May 17
Workshop and critique, with Jenene Ravesloot and Tom Roby IV
Evanston Public Library
Church & Orrington
1:30-4:30 — ROOM 108 – Small Meeting Room


RHINO Reads! Open Mic & Featured Readers Maja Teref, Steven Teref, & Helen Degen Cohen 11-30-12

Open Mike        6:00 pm – 6:30 pm

Featured Poets        6:45 pm – 7:30 pm

Brothers K

500 Main St.

Evanston, IL


Maja Teref is the translator of Assembly, the selected poems of Novica Tadić (Host Publications, 2009). Her translations have appeared in Conduit, Black Clock, and 6×6. She teaches AP Literature and Composition classes at Von Steuben Metropolitan Science Center, Chicago and is an CollegeBoard AP English Lit Reader. She is also a past president of IL TESOL (Illinois Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages).

Steven Teref is the translator of Assembly, the selected poems of Novica Tadić (Host Publications, 2009). His poems and translations have appeared in Conduit, Rhino,
Dirty Goat and elsewhere. He teaches poetry workshops and literature at Columbia College Chicago.

Helen Degen Cohen is the author of fiction, essays, memoir, work for theater and for children, and most of all poetry, including the collections Habry, On A Good Day One Discovers Another Poet, Neruda Nights, and the larger collection The Book of Night Writing. “Edge of the Field”, an essay, is featured in the anthology “Where We Find Ourselves“and received first prize in Stand Magazine’s International Short Story Competition (England) and is reprinted at TheScreamOnLine.com. Her essay “God of the Prison received an Illinois Arts Council Literary Award and is at  Levure Litteraire. Her poems about the war received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Cohen has also received  three Illinois Arts Council Literary Awards in fiction and poetry, an Indiana Writers’ Conference Award in Poetry, an Illinois Arts Council Fellowship, and fellowships to the major art colonies, including Yaddo, The MacDowell Colony, the Virginia Center For Creative Arts, and Ragdale, or, as she once called it, Home.  She  has worked statewide as Artist-In-Education through the Illinois Arts Council, taught at Roosevelt University, and is a founding and current editor of RHINO and coordinates its monthly Poetry Forum.

Her poems have been published in The Partisan Review, Another Chicago Magazine, The Minnesota Review, The Spoon River Poetry Review, The Antigonish Review, Versal, Stand Magazine, Akcent, and Nimrod. Her work is the subject of the essays “Rootlessness and Alienation in the Poetry of Helen Degen Cohen” by Miriam Dean-Notting (Kenyon College), in Shofar (University of Nebraska Press) and “This Dark Poland – Ethnicity in the work of Helen Degen Cohen” by John Guzlowski in Something of My Very Own To Say: American Woman Writers of Polish Descent (Columbia University Press).

Helen Degen Cohen was born Halina Degenfisz (Halinka) in Poland.  Her childhood includes time in the Lida Ghetto in Belorus, a year in hiding, and a couple of post-war years in a Displaced Persons camp in West Germany.  Upon coming to the U.S. her parents decided to settle in Chicago, where she remained and raised her own family.

As always, authors will have books available for purchase & signing!



Who gave him the nerve to be this delicate? – Helen Degen Cohen on Roethke

Note: Each year RHINO has a four month “down” period (last year from January to April) during which we do not read submissions, focusing instead on getting the issue to press, as well as various administrative and business matters.   In order to stay more closely connected to poetry during the “down time”, in 2011 we used part of each meeting to hone our skills as an editorial board, as well as to make ourselves more conscious of the assumptions and criteria we apply in assessing poems.  One aspect of this was to compile a list of “most frequently made comments” at the editorial board table.  More significantly, each editor was asked to choose a poet/poem from “Groundbreaking Books” listed on the American Academy of Poets’ website, and to present that poem for discussion as if it had been submitted.  Editors were encouraged to choose work with which they were not familiar. This post is a retrospective by Helen Degan Cohen from her discussion of Theodore Roethke.

On Breaking Out of Boxes: Rediscovering a poet — Theodore Roethke

I had an interesting conversation with another poet recently––interesting, because it had to do with the current box we seem to be in, as we both agreed.  While driving leisurely to a reading, we, rather spontaneously, arrived at the same conclusion:  that we tend to “no longer trust” what we once trusted ––the gut, the expansiveness, the experiment, the emotion, the very length or density a poem wants to be.  We’re careful.  Often we don’t trust authors we once trusted, or ourselves, really.

Recently, Rhino editors began to do brief presentations at our bi-weekly meetings, each of us focusing on a poet  from a prescribed list.  I found myself choosing Roethke, a poet from one of my past lives, thinking that, since I was already so familiar with him, it wouldn’t be a challenge or take much time.   I was wrong.

I chose Roethke because a poem once again popped into my head whose first stanza I still remembered from years back when Roethke had come like a storm and then passed us right by:

I knew a woman, lovely in her bones,

When small birds sighed, she would sigh back at them;

Ah, when she moved, she moved more ways than one:

The shapes a bright container can contain.

That poem lilts, though it’s quite worked.  It is unspecific, and  interpretable––by critics but also by people unfamiliar with poetry (as is evident even on line).  Behind its craft and cleverness is longing.  It is fun, poignant and lasting.  I remembered it because it had been pleasurable to recite it in my mind. I enjoyed dancing the rhythm, accents of the line, I knew a woman, lovely in her bones.

I have also always remembered these two lines of Roethke’s from In a Dark Time, which, perhaps because I thought myself a little mad as well, I found comforting:

What’s madness but nobility of soul

at odds with circumstance?

They still make me smile.  And so I chose to present I Knew a Woman and In a Dark Time, along with my notes — two of Roethke’s most famous poems.  And in the process I remembered, and in part discovered, what it is that we may no longer do:  not allowed, not cool.

Aside from the obvious unspoken taboos –– among them:  we must not rhyme, we must not get too emotional, or serious or wordy or––I realized that we must also not use direct statement, we must not rhapsodize or grieve, or long for, or philosophize –– too much –– or indulge in too many musical rhythms, or in too much pleasure.  All of which Roethke did, and was loved for doing, once.

Of course Roethke too was in a way stuck in his time and what was acceptable.  But he experimented continually, learned from his predecessors, found his own style/s, and did something brand new  more than twice.  (Check out I AM, SAYS THE LAMB.) The latter is most difficult.  Doing something new takes not only courage, but a great deal of trust in going your own way.  It may also take a recognition, at times, of the boxes we’ve been in, are in, even as we think ourselves “now” and “cool”.  (Which is the first sign of being––passe?  As soon as you can say “new”, it’s old.  Who was it who said There is no such thing as the avant garde?) This is all subconscious, of course.  It’s impossible to see the nose on your face when you keep wanting to be all the other noses in your mirror. Which may all be clones, too.

Roethke grew up in a plant nursery, and he made use of his obsession with nature, and wanted to crawl into a slug and be the glorious, insufferable slug, down to the slug-mush––instead of talking about a slug.  He was ripping out his being.  He let himself sink into his excess, which is also not cool to some of us.  And––as we sometimes hate to realize––might not be so easy.

But it’s his book, Words for the Wind, that first drew me in, years ago, along with Plath, who was influenced by Roethke, who was influenced by Stevens, who was influenced by Whitman –– so I hear.

These poems are blatantly adoring.  (My lizard, my lively writher/May your limbs never wither… from “Wish for a Young Wife”).  This from a man of height and heft.  Who gave him the nerve to be this delicate?   The freedom that poets are supposed to have so much of, takes a hell of a lot of permission.

“When you read him, you realize with a great surge of astonishment and joy that, truly, you are not yet dead”, said Harold Bloom of Roethke.  But who dares to live?  I mean, talk about trust.

Or, who can stay alive?  “”Only a few years ago he could refer to himself sardonically as “the oldest younger poet in the U.S.A.” America wants to wither its artists with neglect or kill them with success.””–– Stanley Kunitz.

Roethke allowed himself to do everything:  form, rhyme, free verse, direct statement, imitation, humor, children’s poems, angst, longing, adoration, despair.  He didn’t write about nature, he lived it:

I can hear, underground, that sucking and sobbing,
In my veins, in my bones I feel it,–
The small water seeping upward,
The tight grains parting at last.
When sprouts break out,
Slippery as fish,
I quail, lean to beginnings, sheath-wet.

“In a dark time,” he said, “the eye begins to see.”   Well, yes––if you trust the eye.

As always, when I become immersed in another poet, I learn about my own work.  Which I did, in doing this private little Roethke retrospective––for which there’s no space here.  Of course I’ve been influenced by dozens or hundreds of poets since Roethke, but sometimes we have to return, with all that’s happened to us since, and begin to suddenly see how we’ve been seeing things now.  That is, who we are as poets, at this moment.  And the variety of ways in which we get ourselves boxed in, and forget the sheer chutzpah we once had.  Very creative of us.

Let me finish on an optimistic note.  There are indeed poets who dare to trust, amongst us.  And it’s delicious to be made to ponder or feel.  For instance, I just heard Roger Reeves (at Rhino Reads) busting through, with lines like these:

(the ending to Parable of a Blade of Grass)

Watch them eat fire.
Watch the children grow
legs below the knees, watch
the old men kiss the old women
behind the house walls.
Love is when you can hear the flood coming.

I told Roger afterwords, “I’m so glad passion is back.”  Perhaps it wasn’t really gone––we just had it well under control beneath layers of craft and wit and the thin air above disillusionment and pure fatigue––the recent death of the 20th Century.  But where can you go but up––or out–– from there?  You can’t go beneath what the box sits on, when you open the door.  But there’s every other direction, and a past chock full of poets who went there––like Roethke––and can start some fire under you, and allow you to do whatever the hell you please.

~ Helen Degen Cohen

RHINO Reads! Open Mic and Featured Poets Sarah Carson, Helen Degen Cohen, Tim Hunt, Allan Johnston, Susanna Lang 10-28-11

Sarah Carson

Helen Degen Cohen

Tim Hunt

Allan Johnston

Susanna Lang

Open Mike        6:00 pm – 6:30 pm

Featured Poets       6:45 pm – 7:30 pm

Brothers K

500 Main St.

Evanston, IL


featuring Finishing Line Press Chicago-area poets Sarah Carson, Helen Degen Cohen, Tim Hunt, Allan Johnston, Susanna Lang

This project has been partially supported by grants from Poets & Writers and the Illinois Arts Council, a state agency.

RHINO Reads! Open Mic & Featured Readers Sarah Carson and Helen Degen Cohen 7-24-09

Open Mike           6:00 – 6:30

Featured Poets       6:45 – 7:30

Brothers K

500 Main St.

Evanston, IL


Sarah Carson teaches writing and filmmaking at Westwood College and East West University.  She is the author of the “Being a Screenwriter” series of books for children. She is currently finishing her MFA in creative writing at National Univ. in La Jolla, California and is an editor at Rhino.

Helen Degen Cohen (Halina Degenfisz) writes about (1) The War, and (2) Everything Else.  Her major awards include the NEA in poetry, First Prize in British Stand Magazine’s fiction competition, and 3 Illinois Arts Council awards.  A former Artist-In-Education and instructor for Roosevelt University, she co-edits Rhino.  Widely published, she has had two collections published in 2009, Habry, and On A Good Day One Discovers Another Poet, as well as another novel excerpt in Where We Find Ourselves (SUNY).