Interview

Arielle Greenberg

Melusine: You and Rachel Zucker edited a volume, Women Poets on Mentorship:  Efforts and Affections, in which you invited younger women poets to discuss women poets of a previous generation who in some way, formally or informally, served as their mentors.  If you had chosen a woman poet to write about for the volume, who might you have chosen?

Arielle Greenberg: Oh, there are so many, and Rachel and I often discussed who we'd want to write about and what we'd want to say.  For myself, Lyn Lifshin is one obvious choice: I met her when I was a young girl (about eleven?) because she happened to own a home in my hometown, and after attending a couple group workshops she led, I started meeting with her privately.  It was my first intensive introduction to contemporary poetry and she was a fantastic mentor and generous teacher.  She also had this lovely, modern home that was unlike any house I'd ever been in (serene, minimal, very writerly -- a far cry from the suburban family spaces I was used to, and it felt so conducive to making poems!), and a very active writing/publishing practice, and it all added up to a vision of a life as an adult, woman poet that was very appealing and possible-seeming to me.  Lyn's also been supportive and wonderful to me ever since.  I owe a great deal to her and how seriously she took me and my work, even when I was really just a child.

As an adult, there are many living women poets whose work and/or teaching have had an enormous impact on me.  Jean Valentine, Heather McHugh and C.D. Wright are just three of the contemporary women poets whose poems I constantly go back to -- I aspire to do what they do in their work.  And I am lucky to have been taught by Ruth Stone (in undergrad school), Mary Karr and Malena Morling (in grad school), all of whom mentored me in different ways. 

I will also say that Lyn did not have children -- and wrote about that choice -- and I was aware, even at a young age, of the significance of that in terms of my own life and future as a poet who also always imagined being a mother.  It was important that both Mary and Malena, my grad school professors, did have children and spoke openly about mothering and its relationship to their lives as poets.

Melusine: Which male poets would you cite as most influential for you, and how is a mentorship relationship different across the genders?

Arielle Greenberg: My single most important mentor has been a man: Michael Burkard.  He was my professor in graduate school and became a close friend as well.  Michael's own poetry -- its strangeness, its everyday-ness, its purity, its humor -- is a touchstone for me.  He also guided me toward a lot of the work and aesthetic that has become most crucial to me as a poet.  And he's a wonderful guy, and just hanging out with him was a real education in seeing the world, and poetry, in a particular way.  But Michael -- who has led a very different life than the one I have chosen -- couldn't advise me, or serve as an example, of what it would mean to be a woman, much less a mom, in academia or in poetry.  For example, Michael often has a lot of time to himself, by himself -- he goes for long drives, collaborates with other artists, stuff like that.  As a mother of young children, that's not what my life looks like. 

The mothering bit is just one part of this gendered equation, obviously, but as I'm typing this with my newborn strapped to my body in a sling, with the sounds of my older daughter playing in the next room, it's what I'm most mindful of at this stage in my life.

Melusine: Your style is both distinctive and eclectic, and so tends to defy easy categorization, but is there a particular school or movement in poetry today that you most identify with?

Arielle Greenberg: Well, I do identify with a large chunk of my peer group who I consider also to be writing in ways that defy easy categorization, but get called "post-confessional" or "post-Language" or "elliptical" or whatnot.  To my mind, as a generation, we're all borrowing from these various periods and strains: the Modernists, the Black Mountain School, the New York School, the Confessionals, the Language movement.  I think my work is a rather typically Gen X amalgam of all that stuff, though I am not aware of that when I sit down to write, mostly.  I am always trying first and foremost just to be myself, but perhaps the eclecticism of that -- the multiple selves I embody in my work -- is testament to that postmodern condition.

Melusine: How would you describe the atmosphere for poets in Chicago today?  There seems to be a lot going on at Columbia College, where you teach, and elsewhere in the Windy City.

Arielle Greenberg: Chicago is a fantastic city to live in for a poet.  It's a very active scene, with everything from the avant-garde to traditional narrative to spoken word stuff happening all the time.  You could honestly go to some kind of poetry reading every night of the week throughout the year.  And the best thing of all is that there is wonderful friendliness and crossover between these different aesthetics -- it's not nearly as clique-y as other poetry scenes I know about.  And Columbia is an amazing institution.  My students are nontraditional, passionate, kind people, and there is a spirit of innovation about the place that is pretty rare.  I feel very lucky, and very at home, there.

Melusine: Your second book, the 2005 collection My Kafka Century, deals in part with the subject of Jewish-American identity, and many of the poems reflect a sense of pain and inner conflict resulting from anti-Semitism.  Was this the organizing idea behind the book as you originally conceived it?

Arielle Greenberg: Yes, absolutely, and thank you for picking up on that -- not everyone figured that out.  But that's pretty much exactly the organizing idea...although even more specifically I would say it's about Ashkenazi Jewish-American identity post-Holocaust and not anti-Semitism per se (although there are poems about anti-Semitism, and certainly about ethnic self-hatred, in the book).

I realized after writing my first book that I had failed to address my rather intensive Jewish upbringing in my work, and I wanted to face that stuff head on: it felt important to do for any number of reasons.  So to my mind that second book is my "Jewish book," even though of course those themes and that identity is with me always.

Melusine: Some of the poems in your second book also deal with pregnancy.  Do you feel this is a topic that is underexplored in contemporary poetry, and if so, why do you think that is?

Arielle Greenberg: Well, the wonderful Fence Books anthology Not for Mothers Only goes a long way to rectify the dearth of motherhood poems in contemporary poetry: it's full of incredibly exciting ones, though not all about pregnancy. 

But yes, I'd say that the actuality of motherhood, the gritty stuff of it -- pregnancy, child-raising, all of it -- is still underexplored in poetry, and I'd venture that part of the reason is the patriarchial nature of the field, as well as the simple fact that it's really hard to find time to produce creative work like poems while one is mothering young children.  We can all talk about how far we've come, but I bang my head against this on a daily basis: I'll say it again: it is REALLY HARD to find time and energy to be an artist while mothering young children.  It's different than fathering, though bless the fathers who try to equally co-parent (as my partner does).  It's different than other kinds of work.  It just is.  I could go on and on about this, and I can't here (because I don't have time! because I have kids!) but take my word for it: it's rough.  I think it's very important to be honest about this.  It's not at all impossible and there are many others who are doing it -- and doing it well -- and, finally, some great resources are out there for working artist moms, but it is not easy.

Which is not to say that there aren't incredible poems about mothering being written and published now, and many from previous generations as well: I adore the work of Alice Notley and Bernadette Mayer for many reasons, but the fact that they include their mothering work in their poems is enormous to me.

Melusine: Has being a mother changed the way you write or the topics you are drawn to?

Arielle Greenberg: Yes, in countless ways. I will just say here that I think it's important for me to admit that during this last pregnancy, and since my son was born three months ago, as I've been balancing various bits of salaried and unpaid creative and scholarly work plus mothering my older child plus birth activist work plus taking care of myself, I have written hardly any poetry at all.  I'm not exaggerating: I have hardly written more than a handful of poems.   I am writing other stuff -- creative nonfiction about motherhood and nonfiction book project stuff and responses to student work and notes about my kids' development and emails to friends and the like -- but not poems.

I feel like that's ok: I will write poems again when my life is not so full.  But I feel it's maybe helpful (to others, to myself) to say out loud that sometimes, for personal or financial or political reasons, you just have to prioritize other things over writing poems.

Melusine: You coined the term "the Gurlesque" in 2003 to describe elements you noticed in the work of poets such as Brenda Shaughnessy and Chelsey Minnis.  Do you see any elements of the "Gurlesque" in your own work, past or present?

Arielle Greenberg: Yes, it's there, though not in all of my work -- most of my work is not particularly Gurlesque, because most of my work is not particularly grotesque or subersive in that way.  But occasionally some of it crops up, mostly in the form of kitschy, girly images, especially when I'm working a lot of my theoretical writing about the Gurlesque and immersing myself in reading the work I'm studying.  Overall, though, I don't consider myself a Gurlesque poet.

Melusine: What was your primary objective or mission in defining the category of the "Gurlesque?"

Arielle Greenberg: To document what I see as a very exciting and important strain in contemporary poetics, and to shine a light on aesthetic innovation being undertaken by young women poets specifically, as well as to interrogate the historical underpinnings of this strain.  Too often work by young women is not taken seriously, and work that focuses on the images and motifs of girlhood is not taken seriously; I wanted to take this work very seriously indeed (even though the work itself does not take itself that seriously sometimes, to its credit and as an aesthetic principle!).  I also wanted to give a name to something I was seeing happening in a general way, so that others could think about it, too. 

What was NOT my mission: I did not want to codify or cordone off this work, or to suggest that these poets *intended* to be Gurlesque, or are even OK with the term, or to suggest that this is any kind of club or school.  I wanted to name something I saw, but I did not want to draw any lines in the sand.

Melusine: The term seems to have generated a lot of debate and discussion recently among poets and critics.  You and Lara Glenum are coming out with an anthology of the "Gurlesque" next year.  What misconceptions about the term are you most eager to clear up?

Arielle Greenberg: You know, I've mostly steered clear of the online debates.  It's very, very odd to me to have come up with this term and then to see it actually used out there in the world and to not be a participant in all of the ways it is getting used, but I guess that's what it means to come up with a theory.  I have to let go of it, let it flourish or get re-read as it will.  But it's a bit problematic that so many folks are debating it without really knowing what I meant, without having read the (scant!) writings I've published on the term.  There maybe hasn't been enough time and I haven't published enough about it for these debates to be happening, to my mind.  It's all so burgeoning.  I mean, all people are going on right now are one book review, one article and one interview I've done: other folks are taking it up and writing more about it themselves, but all they have to go on in terms of my original ideas are these very brief writings.  I've had the intention of writing more about the theory but it just hasn't happened yet...and even with the anthology, I've only written a short introductory essay -- mostly we're just hoping that by putting the poems in one place together, with some visual art and our two brief essays, people will get a better sense of what we mean.  I am hoping that the anthology will thus help clear up the very notion of the term, so that at least the debates can be rooted in some carefully developed thoughts from myself and Lara.

One misconception is that my own work is Gurlesque.  As I stated above, I think my work is mostly NOT very Gurlesque at all.  Folks seem to associate my poems with the term rather than understanding that I came up with the term to describe the work of others.  There also seems to be some idea that I think Rachel Zucker's poetry is Gurleseque because we are frequent collaborators and good friends, but I don't think hers is at all.  If you looked to her work and my own, which it seems some people are doing, you'd be pretty darn confused about what the term means.

Melusine: Who are some new female poets you are especially excited about?

Arielle Greenberg: Not to be redundant, but I'm genuinely excited about the women in the Gurlesque anthology, some of whom -- Dorothea Lasky, Ariana Reines -- are quite new.  I'm also really looking forward to reading Ish Klein's book, just out from Canarium Books.  And while she's not exactly new, I only found out about Kate Greenstreet's work in the last few years and I think she's really amazing.  I'm also very excited about Brenda Coultas and Eleni Sikelianos' latest books, since they're always up to something fascinating.

Melusine: Do you feel that journals who focus on publishing work by women have a useful role, even as more women editors can be found heading mainstream journals?

Arielle Greenberg: Oh, of course!  A particular and necessary space is created when a journal is focused on the work of women.  It's great that mainstream journals might be getting more open to women's poetry, and poetry about the "women's sphere" (I think there is still such a thing!), but there is very much a place for women-centered publishers in the culture, just as there is still very much a place for venues focusing on the work of Asian writers, queer writers, working-class writers, any marginalized population.  Such outlets, and forums, are absolutely needed.

 

Melusine: What role does feminism play in your life as a writer and/or as a human being?

Arielle Greenberg: I don't know that there is any part of my life as a writer or a human being which is not thoroughly impacted by feminism, if we can take feminism to mean issues related to a gendered experience of the world and to the struggle for justice for women.

Today, for example, I basically did not leave my house, and just tried to get some housework and then a bunch of other work -- teaching work, writing work -- done with my two children at home.  All of this -- my work, my mothering, my co-parenting with my partner, my consumer decisions, my friendships, the way I interact with my colleagues, my other domestic and professional duties, and how I split up all that time and how those pieces of work are valued and/or paid (or not valued or paid) -- well, I could talk about how each and every one of these is impacted by gender politics and therefore could be considered a feminist issue.

Melusine: On that note, where do you see feminism evolving?  What will a fourth-wave feminism look like, in your opinion?

Arielle Greenberg: I would love to think about this question but I am too saddled by second- and third-wave realities at this moment -- namely, I am strapped for time because of the lack of high-quality and affordable childcare, the isolation of mothers from extended family and other care-givers in the culture, and the ways in which pursuing a career track clashes with the biological timing of child-rearing -- to be able to focus on envisioning such a future!

I'm starting to sound like a broken record here.  I don't mean to fill this interview with whining about my lack of time, but finding time to work/write/think is perhaps the number one issue for most artist-moms I know who are mothering young children, and it really is what I'm dealing with as I'm working on this interview, so I feel like I keep needing to speak this truth.  I think it's politicized for me to admit that as I wrote my responses to this interview, I got interrupted a million times by needing to put away laundry, make braids in my daughter's hair, nurse the baby, walk the dog, put the children to bed, do some teaching work for pay, do some activist work on behalf of midwifery, etc.  That's what my "life of the poet" looks like right now, and it's not particularly rarified or romantic, and it's also pretty energy-zapping, leaving little left over for creative endeavors.  I kind of feel like what I'm saying is a bumper sticker -- women would have already solved all the world's problems if we just weren't so busy raising all these kids! -- but it's true, and refusing to hold up any myths to the contrary seems to me like it might help somehow.

Melusine: Bonus Question:  Has anyone mentioned that your own name, like the name of Court Green, the journal you cofounded, brings to mind the poet who has influenced so many women poets, Sylvia Plath ("Ariel"/"Esther Greenwood.")  Or am I the only one with an overactive imagination? :)

Arielle Greenberg: No, it's not your imagination, and it's not a coincidence, either.  I was not named after the Plath book -- Ariel is an Old Testament name and my parents were primarily thinking of that -- but I was also born within the wake of Plath's peak of fame, and my mom was a feminist and comparative literature major and I'm sure at some level Plath's Ariel got the name into my mom's head.  In any case, she did own a copy of Ariel (and my name was originally spelled that way) and it was in the house and so Plath was the first poet I ever read deeply (since my name was on the cover!).  Plath remains a huge influence on me, and Court Green is named after her home: me and the colleagues at Columbia College who founded the journal all adore Plath.

Arielle Greenberg is the author of the poetry collections My Kafka Century (Action Books, 2005) and Given (Verse, 2002) and the chapbooks Shake Her (Dusie Kollektiv, 2009) and Farther Down: Songs from the Allergy Trials (New Michigan, 2003). Her poems have been included the 2004 and 2005 editions of Best American Poetry and a number of other anthologies, including Legitimate Dangers (Sarabande, 2006), and she is the recipient of a MacDowell Colony fellowship, a Saltonstall grant, and other awards.  A translated volume of her selected poetry is out in German from LuxBooks. She is co-editor of three poetry anthologies: with Rachel Zucker, Starting Today: Poems for Obama’s First 100 Days (Iowa, forthcoming 2009) and Women Poets on Mentorship: Efforts and Affections (Iowa, 2008); and with Lara Glenum, Gurlesque, based on a theory Arielle originated (Saturnalia, forthcoming 2010).  She is also editing, with Becca Klaver, an anthology of contemporary poetry on girlhood aimed at teenage girls.  Another scholarly interest is American subcultures and countercultures, and she is editor of a college reader, Youth Subcultures: Exploring Underground America (Longman, 2006). She is the poetry editor for the journal Black Clock, a founder and co-editor of the journal Court Green, and the founder-moderator of the poet-moms listserv. She is an Associate Professor in the poetry program at Columbia College Chicago and faculty for the Stonecoast MFA program.  She lives in Evanston, IL with her family, though she is currently on leave in Maine working on an oral history of the new back-to-the-land movement.