In his monthly poetry podcast, Radio Free Albion, Tony Trigilio interviews poets about their recently released or forthcoming books. Always informal, each interview is a conversation—two poets talking about the work and play of the creative process and showcasing some of the most innovative new work in contemporary poetry.
In this interview transcribed by Cameron Decker, Trigilio talks with Kate Greenstreet.
Tony Trigilio: Hello Kate. How you doing?
Kate Greenstreet: I’m doing well.
TT: I know I’m catching you between readings. You’ve been travelling a lot. How’s the travelling going?
KG: Actually, I’m just about to start again. I was in New Hampshire, but it wasn’t for poetry. I recently got back to Portland, and we’re going to start the second leg of this tour on September 11th, here in Portland.
TT: I’m excited to talk about your new book, Young Tambling. It’s a book-length poem that begins with echoes of the Scottish ballad “Tam Lin.” It feels like everything gets triggered by your revisiting the ballad. But the poem does so much more than just revisit it; it goes way past the ballad. Can you talk a little about the background context of the book, especially the role that the ballad played as you were writing it?
KG: You know, I knew years ago that the name of my next book would be Young Tambling, and I knew it had something to do with the Anne Briggs version of “Tam Lin,” called “Young Tambling.” But I didn’t really know more than that. And so, writing the book, I had to find out. But what I found out is still a little hard to describe. Poetry can’t be paraphrased, so I can’t exactly paraphrase what I found out by writing this book. I knew that it should be something like a memoir. But even though I knew that, I was really opposed to the idea, because I really don’t like writing about my life, at all. Do you?
TT: I was going to ask how you felt about that. I like writing about my life as long as I feel like I can shape it into something that’s not just me dumping my life onto the page. The work/writing doesn’t feel like it’s crafted, if I’m just emptying it all onto the page.
KG: Right. I knew I had to write this prose for the book, and I hate writing prose, I really do. It’s just hard for me. That was the most work of the book, trying to get the prose to feel and sound right to me. I wrote a lot, and most of it didn’t make the cut, thank God. I was interested in the question: “How can a life be represented?” I’m not really that interested in just talking about one life, so I took the story of “Young Tambling” as a—I don’t really want to use the word “beacon”—but it was like a light to me that I could keep returning to. Like if you were out in a boat and it was dark and there was a lighthouse, you know. [Laughs] It’s a little bit obvious.
TT: But it’s still going to be hazy and dark with the lighthouse.
KG: Yeah. So in that sense I felt guided by the story of “Young Tambling.” Does that sort of answer your question, or am I getting there?
TT: Part of me was thinking, “Well, I need a first question that gets readers and listeners into the context of the book.” And the ballad is a really bright sort of first door to walk through in the book. But if you think that’s the only door, you’re going to be really lost. As you said, the poem is trying to answer the question how a life can be represented, but with that extra caveat that you’re not just talking about one life, so there have to be so many more doors than just the ballad door, even as important as that door might be.
KG: That’s how I feel about it.
TT: When we talk about our writing, we often will say “I’m trying to discover what I’m writing as I’m writing it,” and then sometimes I think we can mistakenly—I’ll speak for myself—I can mistakenly give the impression that, “Oh, the book is done so now I’ve discovered what I was writing about.” But that’s not true.
KG: Yeah, it’s not really like that! On the other hand, you do have to wait until you feel like the book itself is satisfied. That’s how I think of it. I try to do what the book wants, and lots of times that’s not exactly what I want. But I feel into the way it should open, and I just try to do what I’m supposed to do.
TT: And really listen to what the book is saying.
KG: Yes, exactly. Because that’s what writing is like for me: listening. And trying to be a clear channel. I don’t want to get New Age-y about it, but you know what I mean?
TT: But you can if you want. Because I do feel like when we’re writing, we’re a conduit for something else. We’re working in the five senses, but we’re a conduit for something that’s beyond those senses.
KG: I feel that way too.
TT: And on that note—this is a totally accidental segue, I did not think I was going to talk about channeling—but I did have a note that I wanted to ask you about. In the ballad, and I think especially in your book too, you’re dealing with a life or many lives (mortal lives), but also with this anxiety and sometimes this threat of violence that comes with being mortal in a world of spirits. “Ghost” becomes one of the most important verbs of the book. But you’re always rooted in the here and now, because as you say earlier in the book, talking about the ballad, “for once the hero is a girl.” So I really appreciate the way you’re balancing a kind of look beyond the senses while rooted in the senses.
TT: I’d like to know a little more about what you were reading or what you were listening to as you were writing the book. For me, as I was reading it, I was thinking of a lot of different writers, but one that kept coming up was Blake and The Book of Thel.
KG: Ahh, yeah.
TT: The way that the female—I’ll say it as if it were a movie—the female lead, the way she’s trying to navigate this hostile world of mortals and spirits, while also feeding her imagination.
KG: At the time, I was looking for material about ballads in general and about “Tam Lin” in particular. I was also looking for stuff about Francis Child, for instance, the guy who collected these ballads, but there’s not much out there about him. That was really surprising. You almost feel like “Gee, I’d like to write a biography of that guy. He sounds like a very interesting person. How come nobody has done that?”
TT: I would have figured there’d be more out there about him, definitely.
KG: I couldn’t find much, so I ended up reading whatever I could find, like people’s papers. I have stuff in the notes about interesting things that I found, written by various women, some examining the ballads from a feminist point of view. I’m trying to think—what else was I reading at the time? It’s a while ago and I don’t remember. [Audible ding] That’s my damn email thing.
TT: I wondered! While you were talking earlier, I don’t know if you heard a buzz, but someone was calling me on my phone, so there’s all these other media coming at both of us. [Laughs]
KG: Is it OK? I’m trying to figure out how to disable it.
TT: If you can’t, don’t worry. Everybody listening, if you hear a little beep, that’s someone emailing Kate, so don’t worry about it. [Laughs]
KG: Tell them to stop!
TT: But, please, tell them to stop!
KG: Yeah, so I don’t know. Sometimes when I’m really in the throes of writing, I can’t read much. Instead, I’m listening. That’s a funny thing, maybe.
TT: I’ve noticed that at times when I’m really in the thick of a book project, not necessarily at the beginning, but sort of when I’m in such a groove that I’m immersed, I’m afraid sometimes if I’m reading too much else, I’ll start to get dominated by other voices when I don’t even know what my voice is yet for the book. I don’t know if that makes sense.
KG: That does make sense to me.
TT: Well let’s hear a poem or an excerpt from the book.
He stands beside the body of the man he couldn’t help.
For a moment they’re alone.
It’s such a long day
what a long day it’s turning into.
She brings him some medicine.
When he starts to beg, he crumbles. Like dry soil. Even as he turns cold and hard, he’s crumbling. Nothing holds. Nothing will transmit.
Now he’ll be cruel. That’s the human touch.
Is he going to take that medicine with him when he leaves?
At the doorway, he hesitates, asks: will she come with him. And she does!
The medicine is left behind.
What will their days be like? Next week. Will they start a little business?
Move somewhere else, get jobs, have savings?
The woman who asked to sit alone sits with us, instead.
I think the other man wants her, the one she doesn’t love.
Does she only have two choices?
She prays. If only God would be a sport.
Sometimes she thinks that there’s a fire.
One explanation is she’s trying to escape the fire.
TT: I’m thinking about the personae and the excerpt you were reading. If you don’t want to answer this because it would destroy the mystery of composition, just tell me and we’ll keep right on going, because I don’t want to mess with the mystery of the writing of the book. But towards the end of the book, you say that “this is not autobiography, but about biography.” Can you say a little bit more about what that phrase meant for you, as you were writing the book?
KG: Basically, I hoped to write a book that could be said to be about biography. I don’t really think I achieved that, but the idea was something that came to me and I wrote it down. I have little things, you know, my secret epigraphs or thoughts that come to me that I don’t really understand. I was intrigued by the possibility of writing a book about biography, but I couldn’t really do it. I didn’t know how to do it. But the idea had an impact on me. I didn’t know how to do it, yet it had an impact on me. I used stuff from my own life, so when I’m speaking about working in the dry cleaners or stuff like that, it’s true; it’s supposed to be plain and true, in that way. I wanted to have plain prose. Not prose poems, but just prose and then have the prose break down, and then sort of build itself back up again in the list. I didn’t have this in mind at the very beginning, but as I was going along. And so the thing about it being about biography—it’s like the lines from one of the poems: “People often ask why my photographs are torn. / The purpose would be // to learn. To represent a life.” I guess I don’t feel it’s really possible to represent a life as a whole thing. I think those photographs, those sentences, those paragraphs, they need to be torn to try to accurately represent what it’s like to be alive.
TT: To accurately represent a life while you’re still in the midst of living it, which is a really difficult sort of hall of mirrors to be in.
KG: Yeah. You can write a biography of Virginia Woolf; I’ve read a few. You can say what her life was, but you don’t know what her life was, no matter how many times you read the pages of her diary. And you can’t really represent your own life while you’re in the midst of living it, as you say. But this kind of relates to the other question that I have for myself, which is: “Is there a new way to write? Is there something that can be done that we haven’t done yet, that will tell us more, that will be more moving and illuminating?” I think practically everybody’s working with breaking down forms and combining forms to try to make something that’s more true. You see that so much, and that’s what I’m trying to do, too. But I’m not satisfied yet. [Laughs] I guess that’s good.
TT: I think that’s great because if you were satisfied, you might be thinking, “There are no more books, then. I’ve done it.”
KG: Yeah. So, obviously, I’m not.
TT: When you talk about really representing the life accurately, and the way that we’re all trying for a new way of writing to do that, do you partially mean that we’re stuck with language, and we’re stuck with this thing—language—that brings us closer to our subject matter but then also always keeps us at arm’s length from our subject matter?
KG: I’m really grateful that we are stuck with language on one hand, and yeah, that’s why I do video and paint and other things too. Just making things out of language doesn’t seem to do everything I want to do.
TT: For me, this is why music is so important: it fills the gaps. There’s something authentic I get from writing and something authentic I get from making music, but they’re different kinds of authenticity, and I need both of them to come together holistically.
KG: Mmhmm, yeah.
TT: Can you talk a little bit more about your creative process in other forms (how that informs your writing), like video or painting or music? How your work and your love of other art forms streams into your writing, or how your writing streams into those art forms?
KG: I think it’s a little more like that last thing, because you can put words into video or painting or music. I did try with Young Tambling. I included some details of paintings and stuff like that. Most people seem to be completely mystified by what that stuff is doing there. [Laughs] Which I get. But I just felt that if this was the memoir of Kate Greenstreet (because I don’t think I’m going to be writing another one), in trying to represent my life along with other lives that were important to me or that I just feel alongside me, it would be natural to try to include some representation of visual work, because that’s the thing I’ve done most in my life. So that’s one reason those things are in there. But it’s just a trade paperback, and black and white. People have really said to me, “What is it? What is it doing there?” But I feel represented by it; I do. They’re mostly pieces of things and basically that’s how I make anything, out of pieces of things. I might make something and then I might cut it up and then I’ll re-form it or something. So that’s how I do writing, how I do video, how I do visual work. It’s how I do music. I’m not a musician, but I don’t have to be. I’ve got GarageBand.
TT: There you go. [Laughs]
KG: I play a little bit; I make something, then cut it up to form a rhythm.
TT: You were talking about how some readers have had trouble with the visual elements of the book. It is, as you said, a trade paperback, so I think the general expectation is going to be, “I’m going to get text; I’m going to get text shaped like prose or shaped like poetry or maybe at times shaped like stuff so that I don’t know if it’s prose or poetry.” You also said, with regard to the paintings in the book, “I feel represented by the visual elements.” It feels very much like as we dig into the book more, as we play around in the book more, the self, the many selves that are being represented—language isn’t enough for those many selves. The image-making properties of language are always suggesting images themselves and image manipulation. Like at the end of the book, you talk about the pages you were composing as you were designing the interior of the book. You tacked them to your wall, and they became a big rectangular piece of temporary art. And as readers, we have to open ourselves up to more than just being text-centric at that point in the book.
KG: Yeah. And right now I’m working on some videos based on the book. It’s going to take a while, as I’ll be traveling for the next three months, but I’m hoping to get that stuff done in the deep winter and spring.
TT: I think that it would be great for readers to come to your website looking for more information on the book and then find videos as one more bit of information on the book.
KG: And there are a couple up on the site right now. If you click on the word “videopoems,” it will take you to where all the videos are indexed. One is called “locating faraway objects,” and I think it might be the only time I’ve made a video where I actually had a poem first, and made a video from the poem. So it’s got the text of the poem and the poem is in the book—it’s marvelously straightforward, for me. [Laughs] And there’s another video called “The Ballad Form,” which I made a few years before I started really writing this book, when I was thinking about it and reading stuff about ballads. It has some writing that ended up in the book too, and it was shot in New York City. It would give a reader a sense of where I’m coming from, I think. A different kind of sense. So those two videos are at my site, and if people were interested they could check them out. They’re short.
TT: Go to www.kickingwind.com or Google “Kate Greenstreet,” and the two videos are accompanying the book. And you’re working on others right now too?
KG: Right. There are other videos at the site too, but “locating faraway objects” and “The Ballad Form” are the two that are directly related to Young Tambling.
TT: We’re talking about the visual elements of your book, as we’ve gone straight to image and video. But, I want to go back to text now, because one of the things I found really striking was the way that you have these sort of hazed-out or half-erased versions of the epigraphs between sections. We’re trying to make a sense of these ghosted-out, hazed-out epigraphs and then, ten pages later, the full text is there. Can you talk a little bit about what was behind that?
KG: To me, that was my most brilliant idea.
TT: That’s great!
KG: I was so happy with this idea. It’s funny, because I don’t usually get and stay that happy with my own ideas, and I shouldn’t say it was my own idea because, of course, you’re always just listening for the idea. But I felt that there should be chapters or sections of the book, I wanted to break it up a little, and I wanted it to have a form that was recognizable, if anyone was interested in that. I’m always interested in “what’s the structure of a book?” Because I wanted the sections to have titles, I had a page of possible epigraphs that I’d collected over a couple years that I thought might work with the book, that might be helpful or illuminating. So at a certain point, as the stuff was coming together—I mean it was a mess trying to write this book and it needed organization so much but I didn’t know what kind—at a certain point I realized that one of the themes of Young Tambling is erasure, the erasure that women have experienced since—seems like it must have been since the dawn of time, I don’t know. There may have been some other time I don’t know about. But because the hero of the song “Young Tambling” is a girl, and that is so unusual, I thought it might be interesting to use erasure in some way in the book. I’ve done a few erasures, but I’ve never really been that satisfied with them. I usually abandon them. But I’m interested in the idea. Anyway, at a certain point I had the idea that I could use a phrase or word from some of these epigraphs, so I started playing around with that. That’s the basic idea of how it happened. I wanted to have a table of contents that read with some kind of rhythm. “Narrative,” “Act,” “Memory,” “Forbidden,” “Sung,” “We.” It’s satisfying to me in how it sounds. Actually “Sung” was one I didn’t have for a long time, but then I read that book of Dan’s, Dan Beachy-Quick’s, and that quote I used for the epigraph was just so perfect. I was trying to figure out, “How can all these things go together?” So I thought, “OK, you have a title, then you have a piece of prose that lasts for say three pages, then you have the epigraph, the whole epigraph, not just the word, and then the poetry, and then start again.” That’s why I had to do it on my wall, just to keep the form in mind.
I put Janet [Holmes] through some hell, as I always like to do—sorry, Janet—with trying to get the erased epigraphs to look exactly right. We kept doing it, and she said, “You know, nobody’s going to notice this,” but I really, really cared about exactly how it would look. It looks a little bit like Farsi or something and I liked that. I liked that message too, that secret message. Getting those erased epigraphs to look right was a big deal, but I’m very happy with that aspect of the book. I played around with it for quite a while, trying to get the exactly right writing to be with the exactly right title, obviously. Some people might say I really go too far in trying to just have it feel right. But I felt like, in the end, it felt right.
TT: I felt like the hazed-out, erased epigraphs had to look the way they looked. You key the reader in to the fact that visual representation is as important as text in the book. I’m looking right now at the Walker Evans hazed-out epigraph, which is page 31. I remember just looking at that for a while like a piece of visual art, not just like, say, an inkjet printer that’s going bad. [Laughs]
KG: Right, which is another idea that might come up.
TT: I could see how that would drive Janet Holmes, the publisher, crazy.
KG: And of course Janet wrote that amazing book of erasures of Emily Dickinson, The MS OF M Y Kin. So she’s really keyed in to the idea, but I just wanted that white line in the exactly right place. And now it is, so I’m set.
TT: In a second I’d like us to hear another excerpt, but I also wanted to ask about when you do poetry readings, since you’re about to go on the second half of a reading tour. You have a real gift as a reader to just command the room. And in commanding the room I don’t mean “command” hierarchically. You come in, you kind of own the room right away, and in doing that you break down the wall between poet and audience so it’s not hierarchical at all. Can you talk a little bit about how you approach a poetry reading or how you view readings in general?
KG: Well, thanks! Usually there’s at least an hour of terror, I don’t like to exclude that. I make these poems to say them. If you ever knew me before, I was hardly anybody’s idea of somebody who would ever get up in front of a room and say anything, never mind some fucking shit you can’t even understand. But because I make the poems to say them, saying them finishes the job of making them. And…it just comes through me, basically.
Now, with Young Tambling, I try to read the prose, too, because it’s part of the book and it’s part of the idea—mixing up some really plain prose with some really out, or whatever you want to call it, poetry. But it’s hard to read the prose because it’s just one sentence after another. I often feel like I’m dying when I’m up there reading some of the prose, but then people will come up to me afterwards, and the thing they really like, that they can really hook their mind onto, is the prose. It makes them relax. That’s part of what it’s there for: to talk to them. So how I approach readings basically is that I want to connect. I’m very old-fashioned that way. I want to really connect with people. That’s what I’m there for, and I’m serious about it. It’s what matters to me. So that’s what I’m trying to do. And I usually make a new reading for every single reading; I drive myself insane with this. Oh god. But it’s because I need it to be new. I need it to engage me in a certain way. I need to not know everything about it. I want to have a new story. I want to have a new movement. Certain parts of the book I read often, but it’s a pretty big book and I can really mix it up. I have been thinking about going out this time, whether or not I’ll use new poems or even read from older books. But I’m trying to do what I can for Young Tambling. So I’ll probably read mostly from it again, just try to find some new combinations.
TT: Well let’s hear another excerpt from the book.
Because rain has been falling.
Because I always sing when I’m alone.
This type of chorus is called
because it was once submerged.
All our habitats
To put a spell on someone
or to break a spell.
Ever think your luck was really changing?
He should be able to save himself but the knife goes deep into his left shoulder. I notice that I can feel it, though I’m just watching.
Because I like to sing a hard song.
Every day I rewrite the same poem. Now the town is gone, the girls are gone, “stay with me” is gone.
Over the buildings is like over the water. If he makes all the stops, he’ll never get out.
you have to feel it
you have to let yourself
stop touching it