Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene
ERIC GREINKE: A Poet and Publisher who Promotes Mental Expansion
Interview with Doug Holder
Eric Greinke, a native of Michigan, makes no apologies about his ambitions for his work. Greinke, 61, has always been about mental expansion, a way to advance not only the awareness of individuals but society as a whole. I was introduced to Greinke by Hugh Fox, the noted small press poet, writer, and critic. In 2005 Fox told me that Greinke was starting up a small press (Presa Press), and was soliciting select small press poets for an avant-garde anthology “Inside the Outside…” Fox had recommended me for the anthology and I was thrilled to be in a collection with the likes of A. D.Winans, Lyn Lifshin, Hugh Fox, Harry Smith, Stanley Nelson, Richard Kostelantz and so many other noted poets.
Greinke founded his first literary magazine “Metamorphosis” with Ronnie Lane in 1968. His first poetry chapbook “Earth Songs” was published in 1970, followed by “Canary Wine, Milk run & and Other Poems,” and “Sand & Other Poems,” (A full length, hardcover book.) In the early 70’s Greinke started Pilot Press Books with Ronnie Lane and established a national literary magazine while at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. He published a wide selection of poets early in their careers like: Diane Wakoski, Etheridge Knight, Donald Hall, Kirby Congdon and many others. Greinke was also a book reviewer for the Grand Rapids Press for many years, and brought writers like Robert Creeley, Charles Bukowski, Clayton Eshleman to the attention of a mass audience. After a long hiatus from the publishing game Greinke, along with his wife Roseanne, birthed the Presa Press, and in a short time Presa has been making a name for itself on the national literary scene. Greinke generously consented to an interview, but wanted to concentrate on his life as a writer, rather than on his publishing that has been well-covered in previous interviews.
Doug Holder: A lot of poets talk about how journalism helped them learn the discipline needed to write. Did the Coast Guard contribute to your maturation as a writer, as well as your journalistic background?
Eric Greinke: I went into the Coast Guard in 1966, at the height of the Vietnam War, mainly to avoid the draft. Saving lives seemed preferable to taking them or losing my own. Also, we were poor & I had no money for college, so I wanted the G.I. Bill, which had generous educational benefits back then. I did apply for a job as a journalist in the Coast Guard, but there were only two slots for journalism because the Coast Guard was smaller than the New York Police Department, about 28,000 at that time. Being the literary editor of a high school newspaper didn’t qualify me. So, I went on a Search & Rescue team on the Great Lakes, which was home, so I was quite pleased with that instead of death abroad. I did write my first attempt at a novel during my night watches, however, & of course, later wrote Sea Dog as a quasi-autobiographical-90%-true experiment in creative non-fiction. But, Sea Dog probably owes more to Mark Twain than it does to the Coast Guard. I was inspired by Huckleberry Finn to write it in the first person naive voice that allows for many funny double entendres. But, I guess I did learn the value of writing every day, because those night watches were four hours of nothing much to do but listen to the emergency ship to shore channel & hourly security checks around the station. The dog that was the inspiration for Yogi (the dog character in Sea Dog) kept me company on those watches.
DH: I noticed the first magazine you put out was “Metamorphosis.” Were you a Kafka freak, or just into the over-all idea of transformation?
EG: My work has always been about mental expansion. Metamorphosis Magazine started as a newsletter subtitled “a Transcendental Newsletter” & it evolved into a local literary magazine supported by book & record store ads, primarily. But, yes, the idea that poetry should be seen as part of the human potential movement, a way to advance the awareness not only of individuals, but also of society as a whole, was central to my philosophy from the beginning.
DH: Were you part of what Hugh Fox coined as the “Invisible Generation” of writers?
EG: Not exactly. I think Hugh meant that immediate generation of post-Beat poets & writers that were less primitive than the Beats but who found it difficult to follow such a popular act. I knew all those guys, but they were all older than I was. Hugh Fox & Harry Smith were already icons in the early seventies. Hugh was the most avant-garde poet/publisher in Michigan then, with his Ghost Dance. Harry was the most active small press publisher in New York City. I was recognized early by the established avant-garde. In my early twenties, I had already published in magazines alongside Robert Bly, Donald Hall, William Stafford, Robert Creeley, Allen Ginsberg, Phil Whalen, Diane Wakoski, Ted
Berrigan & other well-recognized poets. Because our last names both started with ‘G,’ I found myself published a page or two away from Allen Ginsberg regularly. I was also published alongside Lyn Lifshin quite a bit in the early days. Joel Oppenheimer, Jackson MacLow, Paul Blackburn – I was acquainted with all those guys. But, most poets born in the forties tend toward deconstruction. We have been influenced by not only the Beats, but the New York School, the Black Mountain poets & the neo-imagists like Robert Bly. As a generation, the boomers are more diverse & literate than the more primitive Beats, therefore not as accessible or popular as a result. We were certainly more visible back then with only four or five hundred poetry books being produced a year instead of the four or five thousand produced today. It was easier to get attention back then. Also, poetry became quite popular in the seventies on college campuses.
DH: You were a book reviewer for the Grand Rapid Press in Michigan. What for you constitutes a good book review?
EG: That experience was amazing in hindsight. The Grand Rapids Press has a high circulation – a half a million readers. I didn’t realize how unusual it was for a large city newspaper to print big reviews, some up to a half page, of poetry books. I reviewed Charles Bukowski early in his career, Robert Creeley, Tom Clark, Dan Gerber, Diane Wakoski, Clayton Eshleman, Jerome Rothenberg, Joe Brainard, Nikki Giovanni, & numerous other poets during the seventies. John Martin of Black Sparrow Press regularly sent me everything he published, among others such as Jim Harrison’s Sumac Press, Caterpillar Press, etc. The overall effect was that poetry actually sold in the Grand Rapids area. The reviews were part of the whole scene. When a review is well-written, it reveals the essence of the book being reviewed. It answers the question of whether the writer accomplished what he set out to do. It identifies the primary message of the book & how well the message is delivered. I also like it when the reviewer confesses to any biases regarding the material. I guess the most important thing is to write honestly about your response to the book, qualifying your opinions when fair & necessary. Sometimes this means going against popular opinion. I panned The Autobiography of Andy Warhol for its facetiousness. He’d sent all the reviewers signed copies. But, the book was campy & lacked the substance it could potentially have had. Decades later, the critics mostly agree with me on Warhol’s work. But, at the time, I was out on the proverbial limb.
DH: Transcendentalism has a big influence in your writing. Your work seems to be steeped in nature, nature imagery, like Thoreau. Can you talk a bit about this? I am more into character study, does this appeal to you at all?
EG: Thoreau & his transcendentalism had enormous influence on my world-view. Let me go on record saying that Thoreau was the greatest American writer/philosopher of all. He was a kind of American Zen master. He was right about everything, & he had the personal courage to live his convictions. The true test of genius is that their works continue to be relevant over time. Thoreau surpasses even that test. His philosophy is actually more relevant today than in his own time. I believe deeply in human potential & in poetry as a tool of social consciousness & personal awareness. Poetry is like humor, in that it attempts to break through to a higher level of awareness, a new recognition or a relationship that you didn’t see before. Thoreau believed in immersing oneself into whatever natural environment one was born into. Every man is a microcosm of the larger macrocosm. Pure spirituality outside of religious dogma is a human potential. Nature is my cathedral. It renews me & energizes me. The best way for me to overcome writer’s block is to go outside. For me, that usually means hiking or kayaking, maybe fishing. I love to spend time with friends on these activities, & do so regularly. I live by a large lake in an area of numerous lakes & rivers. (Michigan has almost 12,000 lakes.) I have two ski resorts, a large park with hiking trails & a big nature preserve that includes a good-sized lake, all within about a five mile radius of my cottage. I purposely chose the place for its outdoor recreational value. As a poet, you write about your environment & experiences. I do include the human world though. It’s an essential ingredient in my so-called nature poems, because I want to evoke the contrast between the human world & the natural world. We need to recognize that nature is alive too, & become respectful of that, for our soul’s sake, & for the survival of our species. Character study does interest me, but not in poetry. My novel-in-progress, Elephant’s Graveyard, is a character driven book. I see poetry, at least for me, my impulse, as dealing with big mysteries, paradox & perceptual awareness.
DH: Allen Ginsberg wrote, and I paraphrase: “I saw the best minds of my generation lost to madness.” How about you? Is this poet as a madman a lot of hype, a misguided romantic notion?
EG: I think the stereotype of the mad poet is mostly hyperbole, with a few notable exceptions. Writing poetry is high functioning. Perhaps it was only when they were writing that the so called mad poets were sane, or super-sane. Like a joke, a poem needs a punch-line that delivers that “Aha!” that lift to a new recognition. That’s why laughter is transcendental. It’s that moment of mental integration, when recognition rushes in. Good poems do the same thing. They take the top of your head off, to paraphrase Emily Dickinson.
DH: You said in an interview that you are concerned with perception vs. reality. Isn’t perception reality… for the person that is? Is there a collective reality…really?
EG: The human condition contains a wide range of experiences & states of mind, but taken as a whole, there are parameters. Poetry, like humor, plugs into that common shared experience. Morality is an expression of shared values. Again, there is diversity, but there are also universal or near universal taboos on the negative side & positive values such as altruism too. There is a big reality, but we are limited by our sensory perception & our mental capacity in perceiving it. In the context of the rather large expanding universe, human reality is limited indeed. Dogs hear & smell far more than we do. Eagles have telescopic vision. Whales have a bigger brain to body ration than humans.
DH: You say you want to “break through the surface of things” Have you? And what have you found?
EG: Philosophically: personal growth requires divergent thinking. If one is convergent in thought, forming dogmatic attitudes, progress is halted. Degrees of abstraction are like rungs on a ladder. Climbing requires flexibility. An internal locus of control increases responsibility & leads to better choices. Being in love is the highest level of human experience. It takes you out of yourself. Nature abhors a vacuum. When you’re hurting, give until it feels good. Worry about the past or future causes anxiety. Time is precious & limited. Death is inevitable & unpredictable. Make each day Thanksgiving & Valentine’s Day. In poetic terms, I’ve learned that ambiguity & mystery are desirable, & that the poet’s intention is not necessarily the real message of a poem. Poems symbolize deeper thoughts & feelings, the way dreams do. I’ve learned to trust my intuition as my greatest strength as a poet.
DH: Why did you work as a social worker as opposed to English teacher, editor, etc…?
EG: I felt a strong need to get physically involved in the effort to treat child abuse & neglect. Although I had some sudden fame as a poet, I felt that it would be vain to prioritize it over working directly toward social change. I needed to see myself as a man of action. I had the energy & I wanted to tussle with evil. Later, when my conscience was clear, I began publishing my writing again.
DH: Hugh Fox wrote in a critical essay about you that it seems that you advocate dropping out of the work-a-day world, tune out the rat race, and tune into the natural world. Should I, for an example, quit the day job, and retire to the wilds, living off the land. In other words how can a man or woman combine the demands of everyday, with the need to connect to our natural selves?
EG: Obviously we can’t all retire to the wilds. But we can, as Emerson advised “simplify, simplify.” (Why the hell did he have to say it twice?) We can pare down our material possessions; make time decisions based on the potential quality of an experience instead of material gain or superficial social compulsion. I think people should choose an occupation based on meaning. My youngest son told me he wants to major in philosophy. “That will have no occupational value.” I said. “That’s what I like about it.” he replied. He’s right.
DH: Can you talk about the genesis of the Presa Press?
EG: The word presa is a musical term that refers to the entry-point into a canon. We felt that the non-academic post-Beat poets were poorly represented in relation to each other. The need was there to document the underground canon. The whole thing developed through conversations with Kirby Congdon, Harry Smith & Hugh Fox. Librarians & others interested in documenting the independent press poets expressed the need to me originally. I had the experience of running the successful seventies press Pilot Press Books. Some of those Pilot Press Books are selling for over $600 a copy on the international market. We’ve tried to publish the edgiest, most consistently good poets, like any other press. The strength of a small press is its backlist. We are committed to keeping everything we publish in print. Sales of well-received poetry books are cumulative over time. Of course, a lot depends on the poet. The poet is the best salesman of his own books.
DH: I consider you one of the exalted gray beards of the small press along with Hugh Fox, Len Fulton, Lyn Lifshin, Alan Catlin, Ed Galing, A.D. Winans and the list goes on. What would the world be like without the small or alternative presses?
EG: Lyn Lifshin has no beard at all, but she is, & should be exalted! The world would be less hopeful without the small press, for one thing. For another, literature would stagnate. Historically, the greatest writers have never been academics. They were either Bohemians, or they worked in another non-academic profession. Frost was a farmer. Eliot & Stevens were businessmen. Williams was a physician. The academy didn’t like the Beats until City Lights sold a million copies of Howl. Even though Olson & Creeley were academics, they were relegated to the small press because they were avant-garde. Today, college teachers like Gerald Locklin or Hugh Fox, if they work in the Whitmanic, colloquial manner, choose the small press. I’ve learned that every poet who writes represents a group of people who feel the same way. Some of us, like Billy Collins, have wider audiences, & some of us are closer to the minority on the cutting edge. You’ll find that edge in the independent presses. Folkways are ultimately much more powerful than the current fashion of a socio-economically privileged few. All will be reconciled through the test of time.
Light emanates from my coat
My coat that contains
A shining stream
My coat of fool’s gold
Wiser than the stars
Singing in its pockets
Imprisoned by the fragrance
Of the rosy clouds
Like the dark heart
Hidden in a bright cave
Hidden in infinity
So far out in the open
That little fish
Swim through its fabric.
“Interview with Eric Greinke” Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene/Wilderness House Literary Review/Doug Holder website, Boston, Massachusetts, 2009.