Arielle Greenberg is the author of the poetry collections My Kafka Century (Action Books, 2005) and Given (Verse, 2002). She is co-editor of three poetry anthologies: with Rachel Zucker, Women Poets on Mentorship: Efforts and Affections, which centers around personal essays by young women poets on their living female mentors (Iowa, 2008) and Starting Today: Poems from Obama’s First 100 Days (Iowa, forthcoming 2010); and with Lara Glenum, Gurlesque, based on a theory Arielle originated (Saturnalia, 2009). She is also editing, with Becca Klaver, an anthology of contemporary poetry on girlhood aimed at teenage girls.
Amy King: Hi Arielle, just wanted to let you know that I wasn’t as productive as I’d hoped to be at AWP and am currently looking though some of your books and previous interviews now.
Arielle Greenberg: When I got your email, I was at work on an essay for Mantis, a journal out of Stanford, which solicited me for an essay about “aesthetic developments in the last decade.” I’m writing about the Gurlesque, natch, but am trying to write about the problems therein as well as how I feel about having developed the whole idea…it’s very complicated and I’m not sure it makes any sense yet, and I’m on deadline! Yikes!
AK: Well, since we’ve already been chatting about the Gurlesque, this seems like a good jumping off point and way in to discussing the in’s and out’s of what it means to be an editor, especially of a movement-in-the-making (or is it a temporary trend?).
So as noted, we encountered each other online when I offered up a quick critique of your most recent anthology, co-edited with Lara Glenum, GURLESQUE, on my blog. I don’t think it’s necessary to get into those details too deeply here, but it is worth noting that I had an issue with what felt like something of a letdown; the book seemed to be heavily-premised on queer theory and work by many queer writers, while the book itself felt notably empty of overtly queer content. Moreover, omissions must always be a risk when one edits such a book, especially while simultaneously trying to define what it is that is making up the book.
Can you briefly describe the project and speak a little bit about what compelled you to even attempt to put together such an anthology? Did you feel it was a necessary project? Now that the book is out, is the work of describing what you were seeing finished? Is defining the Gurlesque an editor-defined project or can others participate now?
AG: I’ll paraphrase myself from the Mantis piece: In about 1999-2000, I started noticing interesting aesthetic constellations amongst the diverse (geographically, aesthetically, educationally, otherwise) younger women poets I was reading and artists and musicians I was interested in. I called what I was seeing the Gurlesque. I created the term not as a way to form a movement or forward a manifesto, but as a way to describe something I was seeing, as a new way of thinking. The term, a conscious mash-up and nod to other literary theories and cultural phenomena including the grotesque, the carnivalesque, burlesque, and riot grrl, describes work which performs femininity in a campy or overtly mocking manner, risking being inappropriate, outlandish, even repulsive. The artists (across disciplines) seemed to feel the license to be overblown, funny and obscene about topics that were previously held up as Serious in feminist American poetry.
I saw these strategies rooted in a post-Second Wave feminist cultural moment in which women had the privilege to be irreverent and over-the-top about subjects that typically demand a more straightforward approach. They seemed able to turn their anger into dark comedy, to go for broke and the baroque, to camp it up.
In the Gurlesque, girliness is key, and the main way I think Gurlesque poetry is genuinely subversive is its desire to put the girly—imagery, vernacular, topics and tone—in the forefront of the work. By “girly” I mean work that name-checks some of the stereotypical desires and detritus of girlhood and girl adolescence—skating rinks, dolls, kidnapping fantasies, tutus, ponies, lipstick, et al—and by so doing, risks challenging those who encounter it to find it “ditsy” or “shallow” or “slutty” or “dumb.”
There’s more to it, really, and the issue of queerness, as well as race and class, are important ones which many have rightly brought up, but I’ll stop my definition there for the purposes of this interview.
It’s really interesting to me to think about whether or not the Gurlesque is a “necessary project.” On one hand, it doesn’t feel at all necessary: because a) it’s a literary theory, for lord’s sake, not a cure for cancer or a new way to produce clean energy or a plate of yummy, good-quality food, all of which I consider to be far more necessary, and b) because the work I’m describing as Gurlesque was and is already being made, regardless of whether or not I came up with a cute and/or useful term for it.
On the other hand, I think it is a necessary project, for me personally as a scholar, and for the state of contemporary aesthetics. For me personally, I’ve long aspired to the kind of scholar-on-the-street, interdisciplinary, rogue nature of cultural critics like Susan Sontag or Joan Didion: work that’s not confined by academic field or degree-bearing expertise, but which is capacious and capricious and useful. The whole notion of the “public intellectual” is really exciting to me. (On a side note, I’ve actually kicked around this idea for years about the intersection between the pathologies of pedophilia for young girls and teenage girl anorexia, but felt completely ill-equipped to pursue it, even though I think there’s something interesting there.) So when I came up with the idea of the Gurlesque, I really wanted to run with it, to push myself as a critic, to throw my hat into the ring, to “make something new” in the world of ideas about poetics. That felt brave and foolhardy and brazen to me, and it still does, partly because, as you note, there are risks and problems inherent in any such genuinely new idea, not to mention with the inclusion/exclusion problems inherent to anthologizing.
And as far as how the Gurlesque is necessary to the world, well, I just think it’s not a coincidence that all these interesting poets were and are writing about, say, adorable but bloody deer and ouija boards and rape at the same time that I was seeing all these hipsters in the DIY craft movement make pillows with adorable but bloody deer embroidered on them and the New York Times Magazine is doing long profile pieces on how freaky and spooky and sexy musicians like Coco Rosie and Joanna Newsome are, who sing haunting, weird songs about deer and ouija boards and violence. So the term feels useful to me in that way, as a neologism for something that’s genuinely occurring in the zeitgeist. I’m sure Douglas Coupland rues the day he came up with the term “Generation X,” but gosh, it’s useful, you know? It did capture something real, if limited and problematic. And it’s good shorthand. Those were probably my original hopes for the term “Gurlesque” as well.
On the practical level, I had hoped to do an anthology, or maybe an exhibit and reading series, as a way to illustrate what I was thinking about, but had shelved it until Lara Glenum came along and proposed that we do one together. I love collaborating, especially with other women artists, so this seemed like a good opportunity for various reasons. It seemed like we could make a fun, cool book that we ourselves would love to own and read: that was the main goal. But I don’t think of the anthology as conclusive, and I certainly don’t think of the work around the Gurlesque as “done,” for me or for others.
It is really a struggle for me to have this intellectual work out there in the world for others to use and critique and despise and embrace. I experience little distance between myself and those who are discussing the ideas I’ve put forward, and that’s hard for me: I feel called out by my own peers, and I am at heart a goody-goody who wants to be liked. I’m not much of a badass. So I don’t enjoy the drama and controversy, really, and therefore I mostly avoid looking at or posting on blogs where it’s being discussed (yours was a rare exception!).
Looking at what I’ve just written here, I have to say that all this stuff feels really gendered to me: would I feel this way if I was a guy? Would I have this same need to be liked and “friendly”? I wonder how Marjorie Perloff and Helen Vendler feel about the public reception of their criticism, or how Sontag felt about it. Or how Silliman feels about his. Maybe this has more to do with personality than gender? And then I think about how even admitting all this stuff in print, and in WILLA, is a gendered move: would a guy admit to such vulnerability? And now this is turning into a cuckoo hall of mirrors, sorry…(she says, apologizing for herself “like a girl”).
AK: Inherent in editing an anthology is the project of tapping into or skewing a zeitgeist. I’m intrigued by the notion of a poet as “public intellectual.” Are there poets (esp. women poets) today who might fit the bill? As you mention, the Gurlesque touches on things like the femininities of Gen X, body image, American girlhood, gothic horror and the culture of violence — what other areas of public discourse are, in your opinion, prime for a poetic tapping, voicing, (re)claiming? How, in your opinion, is poetry a part of contemporary public discourse — where can it be more so? How would a woman poet go about becoming a public intellectual?
AG: Good questions! I guess I wish that poetry were more a part of contemporary public discourse than it is, though I think the blame here lies in a culture that feels alienated from poetry. I think many contemporary poets are doing a fantastic job of writing into vital and urgent discourses in ways that are complex, fresh, intellectual but also accessible and pleasurable. But they are not accessed as public intellectuals. I think this is partly an economic reality: my idealized notion of a public intellectual is predicated, I think, on not being tethered to one academic post. The job of the public intellectual would just be to think, and write, and go around talking on TV and at community lyceums and such. Somebody would pay them to do this: a foundation or the government. Ha ha. I’m partly kidding, but I do think that a country where the government substantially subsidizes its artists tend to have better public access to its artists. Everybody wins!
But also, I think the kind of writing and thinking I’m imagining would be best produced without regards to academic discipline or a particular journalism beat or other kind of job parameter. It would be boundless. And boundless freedom to create means some very unusual means of an income, no? If I’d figured out how a woman poet could go about becoming a public intellectual, I think I would be pursuing that path!
As for what the current zeitgeist demands, certainly I think we still have so much to say about race in this country (I don’t know if there will ever be a time when this is not true for Americans), and there are luckily so many poets doing important work in that arena. I’m so excited about Camille Dungy’s anthology of black nature poetry, and by the anthology of experimental African-American writing Every Goodbye Ain’t Gone, for two examples. I am really excited by some of the writing by poets of color that’s showing up in the magazine jubilat these days, and I’m always eager to see what new projects the poets Haryette Mullen, C.S. Giscombe and Kevin Young are working on (neither of the last two is a woman, but I don’t hold that against them). Beyond the black experience, though, I’m really interested in a poetics that manifests the multiracial, multiethnic, interlingual reality of so many Americans these days. To my mind, poetry is maybe one of the best mediums we have for writing into the polyvocal experience of a heterogenous racial and ethnic background, because of its circuitous, multilayered possibilities. The magazine and press Tinfish publishes some amazing work in this category. And of course, I think it’s crucial that we white poets write about whiteness, too.
And class issues in some ways more than race even: there’s a marvelous tradition of poets of color writing about race and ethnicity by 2010, but I’d say we’ve got a long way to go in figuring out how to write about money and class in poetry (I think perhaps they’ve gotten much further in fiction). I still see so few interesting poems about making a living, about paying bills or deciding how to spend money. Brenda Coultas is one poet I look to for this. And in my latest (as yet unpublished) book project, I tried to do some of this myself.
I don’t know: race and class are pretty obvious parts of our zeitgeist. I honestly think there’s an endless amount of stuff to write about that really needs to be written about by poets. I’m so glad Nicole Cooley and Katie Ford, among others, are writing about Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans. I’m so glad Brian Turner wrote that book about being in the military, in a contemporary war. I love C.D. Wright’s work about prisoners and prison culture, which was largely the inspiration for a project that I did: a collaborative book with Rachel Zucker that’s coming out next year, a creative nonfiction/poetry hybrid, on the politics of birth, the birth industry, homebirth and midwifery. There is no lack of important, interesting, political stuff that needs to be tackled in our culture.
On a lighter and very specific note, I’ve spoken with my students about the lack of poems which describe the experience of being at a rock concert or summer festival with a whole crowd of people: that thrilling, claustrophobic, churning sensation of having a wonderful time with a huge bunch of strangers. Where’s the poem that seeks to replicate that feeling in an honest, weird way? I want to read those poems!
AK: The last example you give, the “stadium experience” poem, is really a kind of anthem. Is it true that rock anthems have taken up some of poetry’s ground & the ability to strike major chords? I myself am typically drawn to poetries that are, as you say, hybrid, polyvocal, multilayered. What’s the way into such work for someone looking for “major chords,” heart’s quick fix? In a complex, fragmented world, why this need for anthems? How does the concept of “anthem” relate to gender? And to open a conversation about your anthology Starting Today: 100 Poems for Obama’s First 100 Days, how do contemporary poems do the work of accessing the political anthemic – how do they move & hope to change the world?
AG: “Anthem” is a word that crops up a lot in my poems in the last few years, in fact! “Bunting,” too, actually. Hmm. Anyway, yeah, I suppose the notion of the anthem is a song that is simple, one-dimensional in its desires or goals, but enthusiastic about them. And I suppose it’s been a male-dominated form, both in rock and in patriotic use, since both rock music and war are pretty male-dominated. But I actually think there could be another kind of anthem, a more complicated and nebulous anthem that nonetheless loses none of its riot or exuberance, and I love the idea of a gynocentric anthem: I’ve been really interested in reading and writing such poems. I think the rock concert poem, for example, could and should be a layered, hybrid thing, to get at the crowd experience, the personal experience, the ecstasy, the body odor, the violence, the carnality, the anonymity, the banality–I want the poem of the individual in the crowd, but I want the band and the crowd, too. And the music fueling it all, and the music of the individual and the music of the crowd, and all of this coming from a woman’s experience. So it would actually be a pretty cacophonic and unusual poem, to my mind, and one with enormous potential for strangeness and impact. I kind of want to see that movie about the Runaways, even though it got mixed reviews; I also want to see Ladies and Gentleman, the Fabulous Stains. (Both are girl-rock-star movies.) Have you seen either? I wonder if either feel anthemic in the candid, complex way I’m hoping they might.
I think I’m looking for the same thing in a political poem: the difficult intersections of where the personal meets the communal, the national the global. And to me it makes sense if this takes the form of an “elliptical” or otherwise nonlinear poem. But I am open to the idea that it can take other forms that can also be effective, interesting, startling, beautiful, etc.
I already mentioned C.D. Wright and though I don’t think she gives a “quick fix,” I do think of her work as being very political in its way, able to truly change hearts and minds, and also able to work from these varied vantage points in nonlinear, sophisticated ways that nonetheless can “make sense” even to a reader used to a more narrative poetry. But you know what? I also think it’s fine that there are many poetries and many kinds of poetry readers. I myself have wanted different kinds of poems–to read and to write–and different places in my life, and I imagine I will continue to shift and change as a reader and writer. No one writer can please all readers, of course. I advise my students to write the poems they themselves most want to read at a given moment in their lives, and that if they find a vibrant and true voice that is surprising and pleasing even to them, they’re probably onto something. I try to take this advice myself, too.
AK: Let’s switch gears and turn towards an anthology you co-edited with Rachel Zucker, Women Poets on Mentorship: Efforts and Affections. I’m really enjoying this book, getting a real sense of “foremothers” while also realizing how little they were (not!) discussed in many of my grad school classes. In fact, I rarely encountered many of the poets cited during my tenure at SUNY Buffalo, except Fanny Howe, Susan Howe, Lyn Hejinian, and Jorie Graham. I had read a few others mentioned in my undergrad Women’s Studies courses. But overall, we repeatedly discussed so many male poets seriously, earnestly, and with an esteem not similarly felt in relation to the female poets who came before us. “Pound” elicits god-like awe and complex discussion over and over, while Clifton and Olds seem to simply be applauded for writing “women” poems. Can you talk a little about this project, what inspired it and what you hope comes after the book? Is there a particular contributor’s entry that resonates with you?
AG: Rachel and I decided to do the book as a celebration of finally arriving at a cultural moment at which we had a full generation of women poets who had come before us who are alive and accessible and who represent a variety of life choices. At the time we were beginning the project, Rachel was the mother of very young children and I was newly in an academic job. We felt the heavy limitations of “role models” like Plath and Sexton and Dickinson, Moore and Bishop: we loved these writers, but were these our only options as how to live our lives as women poets? Thank goodness, we said to one another, that we had studied with and become friends with or knew about older women poets who had made careers for themselves that felt like they showed us some other ways of being. We enjoyed swapping their stories between us, and wanted, selfishly, to hear how other young women poets had been influenced by the older women poets they knew, and what wisdom and lessons they’d gleaned. We had both devoured the anthology The Bitch in the House and were eager for more candid, personal essays on being a woman writer: in part, we wanted to make a book aimed at poets that felt juicy, intimate, informal, instructive, female: something other than a traditional, male academic tome. We wanted to make a book that was as much about the difficulty of figuring out how to be a woman poet in the world–how to be in relationships; how to mother (or choose not to mother); how to make money; how to build community; where to put one’s energy–as it was a way for people to discover the current wealth of American women poets. It was also a way to celebrate and further our own developing friendship. We wanted to document women poets’ complicated and profound artistic relationships with one another, because that’s what we were experiencing with one another.
I can’t choose one essay in the book over another; I love so many of them for different reasons. I will say that Rachel and I always hoped to have a companion website where we posted our own stories about our mentors: I’d like to tell my stories about Lyn Lifshin, Mary Karr, Jean Valentine and others who have made an impact on me. And Rachel and I have hoped that the book would be nourishing to younger women writers, that it would be taught in colleges and graduate programs as an antidote to the kind of patriarchal canon you describe.
AK: You have many proverbial irons in the fire: editing, teaching, writing, mothering, moderating, etc. Do you feel like you’re juggling too much sometimes? How do you get things done? What obstacles do you face and are you able to absorb or ignore them without feeling like you’re doing a disservice to your own work? What takes priority in relation to your assorted literary hats?
AG: Yes, I do feel like I’m juggling too much. Yes. All the time. Not sometimes: all the time. I cannot overstate how divided I feel, how much I wish I had more energy and time to devote to each aspect of my life, how hard I struggle with where and how to cut back, do less, be more present, simplify. This is the number one anxiety and reality for me these days. I could fill this interview with the banal details of this all-too-common struggle, which feels really charged and political and relevant to me despite its banality. (This very debate has been everywhere in the press lately, too: see the Boston Review’s July/August 2010 forum on feminism, work and family.) I feel like it’s important to say this very plainly and loudly here because I want to be honest with anyone reading this that, to resurrect an old Second Wave aphorism, I do not actually think it’s possible to “have it all.” I cannot figure out a way to be the mother I want to be, have the paying job I want to have, and do the unpaid creative and domestic and community work I want to do all at the same time with any modicum of serenity or contentment, nor do I see a way to combine these with the activism or friendships or other things that I desire. I try and fail; I keep trying and failing. I can’t see a way out.
Here comes the Too Much Information Department: I’ve been pregnant or breastfeeding for the last six years straight, which takes a huge emotional and physical toll. My youngest child turns one this Sunday, and it’s a fraught time for me spiritually. He is most likely my last baby and I am mourning the loss of that phase of my life, difficult as it is. At the same time, I’m sleep-deprived and still nursing and so hormonally, there are a lot of parts of myself that I haven’t been in touch with for a long time: my libido, my body, my dreamlife. And of course this has an impact on my relationship with my body, and with my partner, but I’ve realized what an enormous impact it also has on me as an artist: for example, without access to my dreams, I don’t think I can tap into my poetics. And I think my sex drive is related to my creative artistic drive: I’ve noticed that when my libido is awake, that’s when I get really interested in listening to music, seeing films, and all those things fuel my own creating. And of course there is just the reality of very little time to myself, very little time alone, very little time period. So mostly these days I feel like I am waiting for the return to a buried self I hope and pray is still within me somewhere. And yet, despite all this, I wish I could be an even more available, consistent, present mother than I am. I would not choose to mother less intensively, with more outside childcare or more time away from my children to write. That is not a choice that appeals to me.
So yes, I do feel like I’m doing an enormous disservice to my creative work. My family comes first, and then the obligations I do for pay (and though I am enormously fortunate to also care deeply about what I do for pay, that caring means more energy given away), and then the obligations I do for pleasure and fulfillment, and then, at the very very bottom, and often dropped entirely off the list, is my poetry. That’s the truth, Ruth.
AK: I think the creative work, no matter what hat you’re wearing, is the work that often takes the backseat, most especially for women. Unfortunately in our society, the domestic work, especially that of mothering, requires the work of the mind to take a backseat in favor of attending the immediacies of bodies and their needs, whereas such shifting is not expected when fathering; constant-sacrifice doesn’t feel built into his requirements. That’s why men are applauded when they “step up” and father, however much, and women are shamed if they don’t mother in a way that entails complete sacrifice.
Very generally and historically-speaking, “woman” defaults to “nurture,” which entails a loss of self if needed, whereas “man” is expected to default to “go, seek, and conquer” or something akin. This dichotomy, as prevalent and built into the fabric of our culture it may be, is incredibly unfair to everyone. The fact is that you have completed a number of projects, while also learning in a more immediate way what it means to be responsible for enabling a person to grow, and I’m guessing it’s because you have a partner who shares that “domestic” work in a more equitable manner than is expected of him, so he benefits similarly too. This sharing speaks to the larger notion of what it means to “mother.” I don’t think one must be a mother to learn how to nurture, nor does nurturing need to be limited to one’s biological child.
AG: Absolutely. Nurturing requires a great deal of energy and care, and it can be done by anyone for anyone: one can nurture a student, a friend, a lover, an elderly parent. For most of us, it’s a conscious act that requires a lot of us, though I know some people who seem particularly gifted and effortless at it!
And yes, my partner is truly equitably involved in not just the parenting in our household but much of the domestic work: he cleans and cooks more than I do, and I think I’ve maybe done three loads of laundry in the nine or so years we’ve lived together. And he is a warm, affectionate father: I love seeing him interact so tenderly with our baby boy, because he’s modeling such an incredible and sadly unusual way to be a man in our culture. My partner is a deeply domestic soul–a Cancer–so it also satisfies something in him to do all this stuff. Wow!
But even though I really could not imagine a better partner for the kind of life I want for myself and my children, it’s pretty amazing how when my husband travels for work, it’s not particularly hard for him. He’s eager to come home, but he isn’t distraught or conflicted about being away from the kids for a few days. He feels bad for me going it alone, but he’s not worried about the kids. Whereas, even though I completely trust them in his care, leaving the children is very hard for me, and I actually have never been away from my son for more than a few hours at a time, because I chose to exclusively breastfeed him for over ten months. This is a choice I made, possible only because I’m on sabbatical this year (and largely influenced by the fact that I had to go back to work when my daughter was four months old and it was terribly hard on me and on breastfeeding). It’s not a choice I regret because I really believe in the long-term health and emotional values of nursing, and I am the kind of person who likes to stick close to those I love (I’m a Scorpio). But it’s a choice that has severely limited the ways I get to spend my time, the ways I get to work, this past year.
(I realize I’m talking an awful lot about breastfeeding in an interview about poetry and poetics! But I’m also realizing how much of the last year I’ve spent breastfeeding, and how much of an impact it’s had on the other ways I spend my time.)
AK: I’m thinking of James Baldwin now, who had removed himself to the south of France for the sake of his sanity and creative work. When the Civil Rights movement was in upswing, he returned to his country to participate in a self-sacrificing way. He was an openly gay black man who went to the south to speak for those rights, often putting himself in harm’s way, and he became a public figure overall, which he said does not permit one to be a writer. He spoke a lot about love and hope, essentially, in an attempt to guide and nurture humanity. I think it’s no accident that he speaks of love in terms of “growing up” and in relation to the cost of love. He also taught while he was here for those thirteen years; he paid for those labors of love, for his nurturing of the young and his audiences, with his health and his creative writing suffered. To me, this is an extension of the more immediate work of mothering and the juggling required. Without looking it up, I think Baldwin said that anything worth doing isn’t easy.
Similar to Baldwin’s public service, do you think editing resembles a kind of nurturing and all that entails?
AG: No, not in the way that teaching or true mentoring or parenting requires. I think part of what takes so much energy is the work of ongoing interpersonal relationships, of negotiating differing needs, power imbalances, communication. One does not really need to do much of that in the typical editorial gig. I do feel a kind of love for my students and colleagues and poet-friends, but I don’t have that same personal connection, usually, to people whose work I include in editorial projects (although sometimes these people are also friends, former students, etc.). The act of editing feels less personal, less intimate, to me than the acts of teaching or mentoring or parenting. Nor does it feel like activism in exactly the same way the one-on-one connection of teaching can to me. But maybe others experience editing in this way: I certainly think editing can make a powerful difference in the world. But I don’t experience the work of editing in that emotionally charged of a way.
AK: As I have no doubt that your somewhat dormant creative self will re-emerge, I’d like to invite you to “dream in words” a little bit about how, when it re-emerges, your creative self might look; how your renewed poetics might embrace your experiences over the past six years.
AG: Mmm. It’s nice to dream about such a self. But I really have no idea what my poetics might look like, because that will depend so much on what art I turn to, what reading I do, what conversations I have, when I once again have time in my life for such conversations and reading and art-following and all the rest.
I hope whatever it is, it will be more compassionate, stranger, more truthful, more expansive, more provocative, wiser. I hope I will have learned more things about being a good person, and that my artwork will reflect that. I hope I will be writing in a way that engages with the world, with the environment, with politics, with lived experience, but that it will still feel playful and full of joy and gratitude. I think of Joyce’s Ulysses, always, as an example of how a writer can do this. Ulysses is the ultimate to me in this regard. Maybe that’s a cliche, but it’s true for me.
I can tell you that two artists I think about a lot these days and admire greatly are Maira Kalman and Miranda July. I love Maira Kalman’s eye for eccentricity, her embrace of humanity and grief, her humor and whimsy and folksiness and innovation. I love that she makes incredible, weird books for children, too: I wish I could tap into the same stuff that fuels my “adult” work and do something for children. And I love that Miranda July’s work is at once unsettling and full of heart, mournful and joyous, girlish and sophisticated. I love that she works in so many disciplines and seems confident in her powers while also emphasizing what is most vulnerable in herself and in us all. And in a very basic sense, I hope I will be doing multimedia, cross-genre work like July and Kalman do. I’d like to turn to their work more deeply when I emerge from this intensive parenting phase.
And in poetry, I always, always, always go back to the work of Jean Valentine, Michael Burkard and C.D. Wright. There is something so pure, visionary, completely their own about each of their work. I’d like to find my voice as fully as I think they’ve found theirs.
AK: Finally, what are the difficulties you encounter as an editor? What are the pleasures of editing? Can you leave us with some advice for present and future editors?
AG: I edit both anthologies and literary magazines, and those are very different from each other, and then of course each particular project is so different from the next. I’ve had editorial projects where I’ve solicited every poet I’ve included, and then projects that were extremely open and public.
I’ll start with the magazines. As one of the editors for the magazine Court Green, I edit in collaboration with my faculty colleagues at Columbia College and our changing graduate student assistants, and so that’s a process of negotiation and discussion amongst multiple personalities, frustrating and exciting. We get a lot of unsolicited material for Court Green, and it can be tedious—like every literary magazine, we get inappropriate, mediocre work by people who have clearly never read our publication—and also thrilling, when you discover a voice that is new to you and fresh and vital. We also solicit for poetry at Court Green, but with both the solicited and unsolicited work, I’m on the lookout for work that feels true, strange, lively, untidy, moving and fascinatingly crafted. I’m also always looking for those “voices from the margins”—poetry by underrepresented people; long-forgotten or new poets; work that seems far-out and wild. Luckily, those are also issues my co-editors are interested in. At Court Green, we’re blessed, because the four of us who most often work on it—myself, David Trinidad, Tony Trigilio, and Lisa Fishman—bring distinct sensibilities and concerns about poetry to the table, and are also very open to a wide range of work. We aim to include older poets who may not be on everyone’s radar anymore as well as very young or emerging poets. We sometimes talk about whether or not there is a “Court Green style”—we kind of think there is, and if I had to define it, I’d say that we lean toward work that is darkly funny, concise, invested in popular culture, a little funky.
Black Clock is another story, because I’m more like a contributing editor there. I believe in Steve Erickson’s vision for the magazine, so mostly I think of myself as trying to match my sense of his tastes, which is its own kind of challenge and pleasure, to try to choose poems for someone else—it’s like trying to pick out a birthday present for a friend. Some years I’m not involved at all, and sometimes I solicit two or three poems for an issue (each of which have a very specific theme) and those are the only poems they print. Issue 6 was an all-poetry issue, and even then, I was not responsible for every poem that appeared, though I chose the vast majority. And when I edit a project like this, I certainly think about trying to represent the diversity of American poetic voices in terms of gender, race, aesthetics, and other concerns…though my sense of what might be “diverse” is always more limited than it could be, which is something I’m aware of and try to keep working on in each new project I take on.
(Knowing about VIDA’s Count, I just did one on Issue 6 of Black Clock—there are 68 poets included, and 40 women, so, what is that, 59%? My bet is that, left to my own devices and not thinking about gender any more than I do normally—which is to say, thinking about it A LOT but not trying to think about it, and trying to be “balanced”—I’d probably edit most co-ed projects 60/40 in favor of women. And while there’s a wide range of ages and styles represented in this issue of Black Clock, I think there are unfortunately only a handful of non-white poets, for example. I wonder what Court Green’s Count will be like. My guess is it, too, will be about 60/40 women to men. I hope I don’t turn out to be unpleasantly surprised about this.)
Then there are the anthologies I’ve co-edited (Women Poets on Mentorship and Starting Today, both with Rachel Zucker; Gurlesque with Lara Glenum; and one in progress, a collection aimed at teenage girls of contemporary American poems by women, with Becca Klaver) . Three out of the four of them are devoted to women’s writing and women’s expereinces, but these have been vastly different in their goals, aims, and parameters.
With Women Poets on Mentorship, Rachel and I tried to identify a diverse roster of women poets of a particular generation (born in the wake of the Second Wave feminist movement) and at a particular place in their careers (“emerging” verging on “established” with at least one book but no more than three published when we solicited them). We cast a wide net, actively sought to discover poets we hadn’t heard of before, and had no control over which older living woman poet they’d choose to write about. So there was a lot left up to chance, in a way, and that was both a pleasure and a worry. Then we asked each contributor to write an original prose essay of a very specific sort—we wanted personal, not academic essays, short but meaty—and of course many poets panic at being asked to write prose. We edited some of the prose quite seriously; we were true editors for this project, not just curators. And that was a ton of work, a ton of time, as were the permissions. Doing an anthology like that one is a huge administrative undertaking, and you must be organized and professional about it with your collaborator, and pray that your relationship survives the project. In our case, I think the book was a hard but ultimately terrific thing for our friendship.
I’ve already spoken a bit about Gurlesque, but that was such a different kind of editing: there, it was really more like curating. I had an aesthetic/cultural theory, and Lara was fleshing it out, and together we were trying to find poets and poems that illustrated the theory. We weren’t looking particularly to discover new voices or be as inclusive as possible: we wanted sharp, vivid examples of an aesthetic strain we were noticing. So each poem was carefully chosen. What was amazing—and delightful—was how often Lara and I agreed about which poems and poets to choose: we’d look at a poem and both say, “Hmm, no” or “Hell, yes!” at the same time. We did sometimes have to argue a point with the other, but rarely, and always civilly. We disagreed more often over the visual art, but that was such an exciting part of that project: to get to think about visual art, hunt for the right artists (although the permissions were often even more of a nightmare than poetry permissions can be.)
For the anthology aimed at teenage girls (there is no good shorthand to describe it, sadly! We are trying to make an anthology of contemporary women’s poetry that we imagine would thrill a teenage girl poet, but not all the poems are about adolescence…though many are), Becca and I unfortunately keep going on hiatus. I had a baby who died, and then she went to a PhD program, and then I had another baby, etc. But we are about to start back up again. Here, too, more often than not, the two of us part ways with packets of hundreds of poems, reunite to discuss, and find we’ve chosen the exact same ones.
I’ve done each of these anthologies with a partner (woman/poet/friend). (I’ve also published a college composition reader as a solo editor, though I collaborated with some of my students on some of that work.) So clearly I enjoy collaboration, and enjoy the experience of working closely with another woman poet on a project like this. I love the back and forth, I love having another mind thinking through the same ideas I’m thinking through, I love splitting up the grunt work. I am so happy not to shoulder the full responsibility of a project like an anthology by myself, because I want a system of checks and balances. It’s not that I don’t trust myself, or don’t want to do the work, but I really appreciate having the eyes and ears of someone I respect on my work. Collaboration is not without some struggle, but my collaborations have had far more benefits than woes. In any case, my experience of editing anthologies is inextricable from my experience of collaborating with another woman.
In general, I’d encourage other women to collaborate—sure, why not? (So many already do, of course, including the whole VIDA board!). You learn so much from your co-editors about the work, about yourself, about your strengths and challenges. And collaboration keeps you honest and moving forward. It also requires you to be kinder, more compassionate, more forgiving, more open-minded—if you hope to succeed. There’s such a long and wonderful history of women’s collaboration in art and literature and politics; I like being part of that lineage. Poets often speak fondly of isolation and solitude, and I love a couple of hours of quiet time as much as the next person, but I think the ability to and desire to collaborate is an incredible aspect of being a human animal, and as a woman, I seek intensely collaborative experiences in nearly every part of my life.