Interview with Arielle Greenberg
Arielle Greenberg is the author of Given (Verse, 2002), the chapbook Fa(r)ther Down: Songs from the Allergy Trials (New Michigan, 2003), and My Kafka Century (Action Books, 2005). With Rachel Zucker, she recently co-edited an anthology of essays on women poets and mentorship, Women Poets on Mentorship: Efforts and Affections (University of Iowa Press, 2008). She is also the editor of Youth Subcultures: Exploring Underground America.
She teaches in the poetry programs at Columbia College Chicago, where she is a co-editor of the poetry journal Court Green and was, easily, one of the most important mentors in my poetry career. It was, I think, her curiosity and her ability to push me towards risk that made me choose Arielle as my thesis advisor. I remember her telling me to put all of my anxiety into the poem instead of making a poem that is “clean.” And, once I knew I was allowed to be as messy on the page as I was in my head, poetry started being something necessary—becoming something like bread.
I met with Arielle over lunch in early June to discuss poetry and poetics; I'd intended to talk about process or something relatively simple, but our conversation moved towards class identification/politics in poetry and women's bodies as parts of—or, even, as—text. With Arielle, the expected is never what will happen, but all the detours and deviation take you somewhere entirely new and utterly wonderful.
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KO: I remember reading Given and, my reading group at the time asked me if I liked it; I didn't know what to say. Your work seems to resonate later—some time after finishing the poem, when watching television or listening to music. Like the work needs a lived experience in order for it to engage with all of your mental synapses. And, maybe, it depends on culture—American culture—for all the references to start piling and gathering their own logic.
AG: The work is American, very idiomatic. I've always been interested in slang, idiom, regionalism—it's funny, I'll love a book and flip to the back to read the blurbs and they will say, “This poet is working with the American vernacular.” And I'll realize, “Oh, yes, that's why I liked it.” It's related to my academic interests too: my study of cultures and subcultures.
The weirdness of everyday, used language. Joyce's Ulysses is one of my touchstones and I love how the language in that book is taken from soap advertisements and bar conversations, totally low culture stuff, alongside all the high culture references. Joyce was very much in love with that vernacular.
My books do depend on American cultural reference points. But, that said, I don't think my work is nearly as difficult as some poetry out there. In every poem I write, there are seeds of emotional narrative: very few of my poems come from a purely intellectual or poetic exercise. I think my work falls in a gutter between Confessionalism and Language poetry, and perhaps this makes it harder for some readers.
KO: What do you think about poetry in our contemporary moment? What do you make of post-avant-garde poetry, neo-confessional poetry, and all of these other “types” of poetry. Do you think we need a new “movement” or do you see something gathering, something starting to happen?
AG: I don’t think there is such a thing as the “post-avant-garde” because the avant-garde should be whatever is the most innovative, groundbreaking thing at any given moment. It should be constantly changing and shifting and evolving and enduring. But the way I described my own work above, as falling in that gutter between Confessional and Language, etc., is what gets called “post-Language” and “postmodern Confessional” and a variety of other names. So it would not be in my best interest to disparage these groups!
But seriously, I like work that borrows from a variety of traditions. It’s also just what makes sense to me—how can a young poet in this day and age not borrow from many traditions?
Honestly, I don’t believe poetry needs anything. I believe this in principle, because I don’t think you can force an art form toward something—I think movements and schools and whatnot arise out of their cultural moment organically. But I also believe that poetry doesn’t need anything because I think we’re in a very exciting moment for poetry right now. I’m reading many wonderful first books by young authors.
I wonder, actually, whether there has ever been a genuinely bad moment for poetry, or if those who thought so just weren’t finding their way to the exciting work.
KO: I think poetry enters the world differently than prose. With prose, there is an immediacy. Like, all of a sudden it's there. Poetry is much slower somehow.
AG: I think of my poetry as pretty fast. It’s like I am riding a horse into town and picking up people along the way, saying, “Come on!” But I am conscious about putting in a point of entry.
KO: How do you cultivate a point of entry for your readers?
AG: Some people have a context for the poems—they know the presses or magazines and journals where I am published and that provides a context. But in general, I feel like my poems always have some germ of humor or emotional transparency or narrative hook that provides a point of entry.
Also, I have to remember that it's not possible to reach everyone. And there are such low stakes: I only need to be beholden to myself. Pragmatically, I'm at liberty: in poetry, since so few read it, there are very few expectations. Nobody expects anything from my work like they expect from Danielle Steele or Anne Rice. I am in it mostly to amuse and challenge myself.
I went to P.S. 122 in New York City to see a play. It was a stripped down musical with three girls, a motorcycle boyfriend, and nothing was clear. The actors spoke in this disaffected, completely stylized manner. All of a sudden, out of nowhere, they would break into song with the same, apathetic voice. I was laughing hysterically and Rob, who was my boyfriend at the time, didn’t get it. I was like, “It's genius!” And later, at a dress store, the boutique owner sounded exactly like one of the women in the play. Rob heard her voice, looked at me and said, “Oh.” He got it. This is also my goal in poetry: to highlight the strangeness of the world. Don't invent the strangeness, it's already there—allow for that uncanny sense to come through.
KO: Sometimes I wish you would have told me all of this when I was finishing my MFA and wanting, so badly, for everyone to love what I was doing. I wanted them to drop on their knees and say “This is great.” How'd you get this kind of autonomy over your work?
AG: I started out writing what I thought of as very linear narrative poetry, but even when I thought it was clear, I would bring it into workshop when I was in graduate school and everyone would say, “What is happening here? What is this?” And I would be thinking, “But it's so clear, isn’t it?” Baroque—that was a criticism I always heard.
My poetry was, and is, thick with language. I'm not interested in representing reality. I'm writing a poem. Language is the thing. I just kept hitting my head against walls doing the stuff I thought was expected until finally I allowed the fact of my oddness to just exist: I embraced it, went fully toward it.
When I was in middle school, everyone said I was weird, and I honestly didn't know how to be normal or popular. I could keep trying to be something that I didn't know how to be or I could embrace how weird I was. And I made that decision. I started coming to school in crazy thrift store outfits—that I loved—and I owned the weirdness. That got me through adolescence.
Then, I felt like myself. In high school, I became friends with all the other freaks and it was wonderful! I made the same split with my poetry.
KO: There is narrative in your work. Maybe it isn't clear, but it seems to be in there. Also, history. My Kafka Century seems so immersed in history—personal history and collective history. Were the ethics of representation important to you when you worked on My Kafka Century?
AG: Linear poets have a responsibility to make their narrative, a story that already exists, an art. I hold linear narrative poetry to a different set of standards. For me, I wasn't as worried about representation because my poems so often prioritize language over clarity or story.
KO: What about working as an upper middle class poet? You admit, in your poetry, to a certain degree of privilege; what compels you to admit this and to give voice to this experience?
AG: I do feel it’s important to acknowledge the existence of class. I did not grow up upper middle class. I grew up in an upper middle class environment and my parents were money-conscious and they acted like we were poorer than we were, but we were solidly middle class. I didn't have a fancy Bat Mitzvah. My parents were also sort of hippies and anti-materialists. They would never have taken us to Disney World. We didn't have cable or an answering machine. That just wasn't how we lived.
But I felt poor when I wasn't and that was wrong. I was aware of those disparities and oddnesses, even as a child.
So I think I constantly try to write class onto the screen. I feel like what I can do about class in my poetry is to recognize it. I agree with something Harryette Mullen said when she visited Columbia College, something along the lines of: Poems aren't political. If you want political, go work at a soup kitchen. I think class is always in the back of my head.
KO: I think it's a Western New York situation—to feel this way about class—since the property value is so cheap, but there aren't any jobs.
AG: In Belfast, Maine, there is this socio-economic diversity: working class people and middle class professionals and working artists and hippies and people who have chosen to live without a lot of money and people who help each other out. My family loves it there. It feels right to us. If you go even a little further south along the coast, people are on their cell phone in the food co-ops.
KO: And that's what is so surprising about your poetry with relation to its class acknowledgment—how detailed it is. You know how to put in a small detail that makes the poem very aware of its time and of its status.
AG: Raised the way I was, without a lot of extra stuff, I noticed the details. If I saw a doll I wanted, I'd save and save for it for years. One thing, one object, could really matter.
KO: Intellect is part of this, too, right? You know a lot about psychology and are dealing with it in Given and My Kafka Century. What is it like to peel back the brain? What is it like to put all of that in a poem?
AG: I am not trying to write poems of intellect. Some critics have said that about my work but I’m not sure I know what it means. My poems are only as smart as I am. I try not to play any smarter or dumber than I am in my poems.
I am really interested in how the brain works and in psychological makeup, and I think I use poems as a way to sort through things I’m interested in, to ask questions that occur to me about why I act a certain way, feel a certain way. Poems can be a space for not-knowing, which is one thing I really love about them.
KO: Fa(r)ther Down: Songs from the Allergy Trials shows the influence of music as pretty directly on your work. It seems like each book embodies a different genre of music—blues, punk, pop—do you think what you are writing is influenced by what you are listening to?
AG: Music, and all the other art forms, are always at work in my poems. I love music, I love film, I love paintings and performance art and photographs.
Music was a big part of my identity formation. I grew up listening to Janis Joplin, Doo Wop, Buddy Holly because that’s what my parents loved. My parents owned albums up to 1968, then they got married and they stopped buying as many albums, but what they had in their collection was great. I loved the Beatles. At some point I had that epiphany that what you listened to is who you are (at least, it is in high school). I remember my first serious boyfriend brought a carrier of CDs to our second date and said, “This is what you have to listen to if you want to date me.” I had been listening to rock and psychedelic rock, so the punk he brought over wasn't a huge leap.
That became my world. I was a college radio DJ. I saw a lot of shows. I was in the presence of a punk scene and I wasn't that into further extremes of the music, but I liked the people.
Most people who are into good rock go back to the roots, so my discovery of bluegrass led to the basis for some of Fa(r)ther Down.
I've been listening to a lot of current music lately—I've been finding stuff I like. There is nothing like a good album to provide a certain kind of energy and that's the same energy I use to write poems—it's almost like nostalgia and immediacy combined.
KO: Was it in Either Or where Kierkegaard suggests that all other arts seek to be as high as music?
AG: Poetry is so self-conscious and insular, whereas music is often about a communal experience—being at a concert, being sweaty, and everyone jumping up and down and signing. I wish poetry readings could be more like that.
KO: Can we talk about the new homebirth lyric essay project? It seems important to know that books are happening and poems are being published alongside, sometimes because of, complex and troubling realities.
AG: My third manuscript has poems about my recent stillbirth: the book ends with those. It dives off a cliff with those poems and it doesn't come back. Because that's what happened. That's the end of the story of a certain phase of my recent life—and there is no recovery from it, exactly. I’m fine, my family is fine, but we can’t go back to the top of that same cliff. My baby’s death can't be undone.
The Home/Birth book, which is another project, a collaborative project written with Rachel Zucker, has some stillborn stuff and an afterward I wrote about my own stillbirth, but the book isn't actually about stillbirth. That book is about birth.
KO: There aren't that many poems written about stillbirths, are there?
AG: There are actually a lot of excellent poems about birth, and probably some about stillbirth. But this book isn’t poetry. Rachel and I don't know what to call this project: an essay, creative nonfiction, a long poem, a polemic, a conversation. It's trying to do, to be something different. Maybe to be an argument, which is not a way I usually write poems.
KO: Do you think women are still looking for a language to talk about birth and stillbirth?
AG: Writing about it required me to be present about what happened. The whole experience required me to be present. There are uncanny or creepy parts in Home/Birth that foreshadow my son Day's death that I wrote while I was still pregnant with him. We talk about horrible things that happen to women in the hospital or to the babies. While writing one line, where we are talking about the practice of throwing stillborn babies into the incinerator, Rachel said, “It's so hard to read that. I hate that.” And then there was a line that came up right after the section where I say “the baby just kicked,” because I wrote it when the baby was still moving and the baby had just kicked. I said to Rachel, “We should put 'the baby just kicked.'” And Rachel said no. She thought we couldn't say that.
Working on that book, which I wrote throughout my pregnancy, makes the stillbirth present for me, but even if I’m not working on a project about birth or stillbirth, the experience always present for me.
KO: You've read some of the work and I've heard Rachel talk about how it's been received. How are audiences reacting?
AG: We've only read from Home/Birth to two audiences so far. The first audience was mostly made up of childless students in an MFA program, and they seemed mildly appalled. The book is somewhat anti-lyrical, and Rachel and I are both known as these more lyrical, experimental poets, and here we were reading this overtly polemical piece. They almost seemed embarrassed for us, embarrassed that we were talking about the body, the actual body—actually talking about the vagina. But that’s also what some of the audience—notably mothers and politicized students--responded to. They told us how important it was to them to hear poems have something to do with the real world and politics. One mother in the audience was crying. The second audience we read it to, who were all mothers, seemed to love the work.
This is not surprising to us, this divide, and Rachel and I are completely up front and proud that it is a feminist project.
I’m also working, with Becca Klaver, to put together an anthology for teenaged girls of contemporary poems by women, and in doing so, I've been thinking about what it means to write about sex and sexuality. For example, it’s hard to find poems, and I can't even find any science articles, about how women have more sexual desire when they are most fertile. Our bodies are kept such a mystery to us in our culture.
KO: I remember my mom saying, “When you want to have sex, that's when you shouldn't have it,” and then throwing a basal thermometer my way.
AG: You’re lucky: usually, nobody talks about this! So many women are completely unaware of this!
I'm encouraged, honestly, by how many things there are left to write about. I remember, especially as a young poet, feeling like everything had already been covered, all the good stuff had already been written, so what was there left for me to do. At this point in my life, I wake up excited about new things to write about, by how much hasn't been covered. As I said, there are a lot of wonderful first books by young poets that feel genuinely new to me. I love when there's a new poet or book I'm reading and I have to stop and wonder where it’s coming from. That's so exciting.
Kristen Orser is the author of three chapbooks, Winter, Another Wall (Blossombones, 2008), Fall Awake (Taiga Press, 2008) and E AT I (Wyrd Tree Press, 2009). Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in With+Stand, If Poetry Journal, Indefinite Space, FOURSQUARE, Cannot Exist, Womb Poetry, Ab Ovo, and elsewhere. She teaches at Columbia College Chicago, but misses the smell of grapes in Western New York.