Thursday, July 23, 2009

12 or 20 questions: with Arielle Greenberg

Arielle Greenberg is the author of My Kafka Century (Action Books, 2005), Given (Verse, 2002) and the chapbooks Shake Her (Dusie Kollektiv, 2009) and Farther Down: Songs from the Allergy Trials (New Michigan, 2003). She is co-editor of two anthologies: with Rachel Zucker, Women Poets on Mentorship: Efforts and Affections, personal essays by young women poets on their living female mentors (Iowa, 2008); and with Lara Glenum, Gurlesque, a theory-driven collection (Saturnalia, 2010). She is the founder-moderator of the poet-moms listserv and is an Associate Professor at Columbia College Chicago, though she is currently on leave in Maine, working on non-fiction projects, one about midwifery and one about the new back-to-the-land movement.

1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

My first book was accepted just as I was graduating from my MFA program, and I was (and am) enormously grateful and lucky for that. I felt like I'd achieved what I set out to achieve, which is to be a poet with a book that I was proud of and might get read by others, and I was really thrilled with the press (Verse) that took it, and felt at home amongst its authors. When I got the news, I danced around my house to Joni Mitchell's song "Carey," which has Joni acknowledging her own success: it was my rock star moment! And the next year I went on the job market, since I had a book, and ended up getting a job in Chicago, and all of THAT changed my life, but honestly in most ways publishing a book of poetry does not change one's life in the way one might imagine: financially, or in terms of guaranteeing any kinds of future success or ease. Some things certainly are helped along by having a book, but not all.

My first book was the product of my casting around, aesthetically, in grad school, exploring and experimenting. It's therefore a playful, somewhat diffuse book--I wouldn't say it has one tone or voice, and it feels young and wild to me, in good ways. My second book is much more purposeful, focused: I went into that project with the aim of writing about my Jewish identity, and by that time I think I'd figured out some things about what worked and did not work for me about my own writing, so even though the poems are often dense and difficult and in some cases quite weird, the book feels settled to me, more adult, in that sense.

Since then I've written two more poetry manuscripts--plus a hybrid, collaborative manuscript about homebirth with my friend Rachel Zucker--and each of these feel like continuations of that same trajectory: I think in some ways my work is settling down, getting more focused, even as it decides to be even weirder and more personally investigative as I get older and my life gets more complicated. I try to make myself always write about whatever feels hardest and scariest, in some ways, and that changes as my life changes. Certainly since becoming a mother, mothering has become a central theme of my work, though gender and womanhood were always central themes.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

I have to say that I just don't think I have much of a narrative urge. I'm not good at plot. I can write essays (and enjoy writing non-fiction, and always have written non-fiction) but I can't sort of move characters around in a scene or have them scoot linearly toward a goal. When I was younger I wrote more narrative poems that I thought were clear and readers would struggle with them and how non-linear they were: I finally made the conscious choice to not try to be so linear in my work! So I think I am just better cut out for poems...although when I write non-fiction, that is a totally different process for me, much less about inspiration and more about revision. I think fiction would require equal parts muse and hard work and that is very intimidating to me!

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing intitially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

I am usually speedy once I start something, but it can take me a long time to come up with an idea, and once I have an idea I mull it over for awhile in my head before writing anything down. And I can go months, sometimes even years, without ideas for poems, and during those periods I have no disciplined practice--I just wait. But I kind of think of those times as letting the fields lie fallow to recuperate, and trust that when I get an idea I'll write again. I don't call it "block" or flog myself about it. It's a long life. I trust that another idea, another poem, will eventually come.
In terms of individual poems, the first draft better look pretty close to the final draft, or it's just not happening. Meaning that my best work comes pretty spontaneously--I am not one to tinker with a poem forever once it's down. It has to come in a burst or not at all. Which is not to say I don't do some revision: I always write longhand, and I revise as I go, and then I usually let the poem sit a bit, then type it into the computer, at which point I revise again, and sometimes ask others to look at it, and revise again, etc. Often the form of the poem will change dramatically during this process, and sometimes I go back in and try to work on sound, meter, etc. But the basic germ and energy has to be there from the get-go, and that part happens in a sort of trance-state.

4 - Where does a poem or piece of fiction usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

Some of both, usually. I often have a conceptual project in my head, a "book" or series or chapbook or overall arc or idea, and then also "random" poems will come to me at the same time and get jotted down and collected.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I love giving readings, though I wouldn't say they are part of my writing process--I am not someone who generally uses readings to think about revision, etc. Readings are like the cherry on top, the prize for having written anything at all. I try to mostly read new work at readings, and don't pursue readings if I don't have new work. They are a reward in that way. I love hearing from people, being with people, with my work. Connecting. Such a rare treat.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

I do have theoretical concerns behind my writing, but I try to keep them pretty far behind, because if they sneak up to the forefront, they usually impede more than improve the poetry. I would say the things I am often thinking about include: gender; taboo and "risk"; honesty and authenticity; class; privilege; "making it new;" and slang and dialect and regionalism.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

Right now I am living in a small town where poetry seems to actually have a big impact, and it's so encouraging. In Chicago, where I normally live, poetry has a pretty big presence as well, in a lovely way, but it sort of gets muted in the bigness of the city. Here it's so tangible: the local paper's arts section this week featured a whole page worth of poetry-related news and events! So I think writers have a similar role to other artists, which is to reflect the culture back to its citizens, provoke thought and emotion, challenge, make strange, make beautiful--all of that. And it's happening! It happens!

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

A good editor is a godsend. If an editor seems to really hear my work the way I want it to be heard, I love nothing more than to get some suggestions. I will say that Joyelle and Johannes at Action Books were this way for me with my second book, and Rob Caspar at jubilat, a magazine I adore, has done this for me. It's enormously satisfying to be well-edited. But it's rare to find editors like this, or those who take the time to perform this function, and so I don't count on it happening. I'm just thrilled when it does.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

In graduate school, I was worrying over poetry contests or recognition or some such thing, and the poet Malena Morling, a professor there at the time, basically said that she tries to just keep her head down and write a good poem. In response to any flare-up of insecurity, ego, po-biz nonsense, etc.: just go home and try to write a good poem. I have thought of this so many times, and it keeps me grounded. Malena was too humble to have offered it as advice per se, but I am a less pure soul than she is, and I have passed it on as advice to many students.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction to critical/creative non-fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?

I do a fair amount of genre-shifting between poetry and criticism and non-fiction, and I find that helpful. The processes are so different for me, and each taps into a different kind of work ethic and vein. It's also nice that in the lulls where I have no poems coming to me, I can try to work on essays, because, again, I don't rely on inpiration to strike in the same way for those. Though I think the times when I am flush with poems coming to me right and left are the most exciting to me.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

See above. No routine for poetry. Relatively workwoman-like for non-fiction, so those pieces are shoved into little blocks of work time when I can catch them, in between teaching and mothering and activism and domestic duties and friendships and the other things I do.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

Again, I am somewhat relaxed about stalled phases and try to just let them be, but if I want a kick-start, I read. New poetry, poets I adore and who are my touchstones (C.D. Wright, Michael Burkard, Jean Valentine, Frank O'Hara, Dickinson), novels. The truth is, though, that since I've had kids it is rarely the situation that I have the time but not the impetus to write. I rarely have the time at all. If I do, it's probably because an idea feels so urgent that it has to break through my schedule and get written down. Which happens far too seldomly right now. But again, I feel like it's a long life, children are only young once, and at some point in my life I will have the luxury of time again.

13 - Betty or Veronica or Archie or Reggie? Drive or fly (or sail)? Laptop or desktop?

Jughead. Walk (or run, slowly, when not pregnant). Desktop--Mac, all the way.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

Oh yes! One of my chapbooks is from bluegrass music and a court trial. Another is from Shaker artifacts and religion. One of my books is from Judaic lore and culture and dogma. Another is from fashion and consumerism. And I have many poems that come from watching movies or listening to "Science Friday" on NPR or looking at visual art or thinking about the earth, all of it. I desperately need and love all the other mediums, museums, history, all of that.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

Important to my work, in addition to the ones I've mentioned above: James Joyce. Nabakov. Lydia Davis. Anne Carson. Whitman. Kathy Acker. Lorrie Moore. Any writer who reminds me that one can be playful and innovative and profound and subversive and entertaining and difficult all at once.

Important to my life (of which my work is a part, not outside): Ina May Gaskin, Marsden Wagner and others who write about birth and maternity care in America.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

So much! I would like to learn various crafts, like rug-hooking. I'd like to learn how to bake bread, how to raise chickens. I would like to work with my hands more in general. I would like to see all of the United States, and more of the world. I'd like to improve my French, go back to Latin, learn American sign language.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

I wish I could be a graphic designer, since that's something I'm really interested in, but I honestly don't know if I'd be very good at it. Same with other kinds of design: clothing, product. I think I'd be a good real estate agent. My dream profession right now is to be a homebirth midwife, but I'm not sure I'm cut out for it, because the life-and-death responsibility of it is intimidating to me and because I value being able to unplug from any job, which you can't really do as a homebirth midwife. But in any of these situations, I'd also write poems. I don't think of writing poems as my occupation: I don't make a living at it. I teach for my occupation, and I feel well-suited to that as a job.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

It was what I was told I was good at early on, and I tend to stick with things about which I feel confident...perhaps to my own detriment. And I love language probably as much or more than anything else. I started reading at four, voraciously. So I think it just follows that I became a writer.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

I am almost done with a novel my husband loves and recommended: Mrs. Bridge by Evan Connell. It's pretty great, though it hasn't shattered my world. The last book that shattered my world is probably Michael Burkard's collected.

20 - What are you currently working on?

A number of things: a nonfiction book that's a guide for women thinking of working with a midwife for their pregnancies and births; an oral history of the new back-to-the-land movement in Maine; trying to publish the three unpublished poetry manuscripts I have so that I can start writing something new. I've also got three anthology projects going: a book version of the poems from Obama's first 100 days blog that I've done with Rachel Zucker (it will be called Starting Today and is almost surely forthcoming from Iowa); a collection of Gurlesque work with Lara Glenum (forthcoming from Saturnalia); and a book of contemporary women's poetry aimed at teenage girls with Becca Klaver. And I'm supervising some graduate theses, writing some blurbs. Mostly I am working on gestating my third kid and bringing it into our family and the world happy, healthy and at home. That's a lot of creative work in and of itself!

12 or 20 questions archive (second series);

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