Interviewer: Tim McLafferty
Tim McLafferty: Let’s start with Surreal.
Eric Greinke: I can never get surreal enough: a good place to start from. We can come full circle.
TM: Or maybe never come back.
EG: Or not.
TM: What about surreal in poetry? Where does that come from, your influences?
EG: I discovered Surrealism, the paintings, when I was probably 12 or 13, 14, right in there, and just the idea of the universal subconscious and our access to it and the many different ways of getting there. I do see poetry as part of that.
TM: You mentioned that you have writing modes, and Dream Mode was one of them.
EG: Yes, it’s pretty consistent. I was just thinking about that yesterday.
TM: What’s consistent about it?
EG: Its appearance. It seems to pop up pretty regularly, right on through, if I look at all my work chronologically.
TM: Is your poem Garment in Dream Mode?
EG: No, that’s a space poem. That’s more like an outer space poem. It’s about inner space, so in that sense it is surrealism too.
TM: Is that a mode: outer space?
EG: Yeah. Outer space is a metaphor for inner space.
TM: So when you have all these modes going, you’ve mentioned Old Chinese, French Symbolist, and Autobiographical Narrative, do you use the same voice, or do you feel like you change when you’re in each mode?
EG: I think there’s a little carry over. There’s a carry over of what is your authentic voice, but you also do have different voices, as in drama. Personas are each a little bit different, and difference is the whole point, trying to get away from yourself, instead of always being in the same mode, pushing the envelope and opening up the doors of perception.
TM: So if you find yourself in a persona, you let yourself go there?
EG: Oh yeah. Why would you not? I mean, that’s an opportunity for expansion of consciousness. Every time you try on something different and experience or produce something different, you’re expanding your ego boundaries and your consciousness. I think that’s really the basic function of poetry.
TM: To quote you from an email you sent, “I define poetry in particular, but all art really, as functioning to expand our consciousness.”
EG: Yeah. I think some arts are more sensual, but the element of ego expansion is there in all of them. Dance and music are a little more sensual. They expand emotionally more than intellectually, but still, emotional consciousness is consciousness too, and one might argue it’s more important. We tend to over intellectualize anyway, and get defensive. Thinking becomes a defense against feeling.
TM: That’s not one of my problems.
EG: That’s because you’re a musician.
TM: I never over intellectualize.
EG: And we hate musicians who do. You go to jam with someone and they wanna talk: it’s “Shut up and play.”
TM: If poems function to expand our consciousness, how would you define a poem?
EG: I think that a poem explores unknown areas. That’s why metaphor and symbolism is essential. That’s why when we were talking about narratives that are really just ragged edged prose, they really are prose. There has to be a delineation between prose and poetry. I think that you hit upon that heavily in the interview with Simon Perchik, he was talking about that same border.
TM: Yeah, he’s a fanatic about that.
EG: So am I. I’ve lost relationships because I’ve told a person, well, this is really nice writing but this is not a poem by my definition. To me there has to be some mystery, some ambiguity there, and that is what makes you go back to it. That’s what makes it a non-throwaway piece of writing. A poem is a piece of writing that should never be thrown away because it fits together perfectly, it’s a perfect little word machine, and it shouldn’t be destroyed. It’s an object of art. If it’s just throw-away language, just a throw-away anecdote, something that could just as easily have been written in prose, and you would have accepted it that way, and the only disguise is that you put it ragged on the page, then to me, that really kind of sullies the art of poetry a bit. Writing an autobiographical narrative, I mean, that’s a real tricky assignment. The values shift.
TM: You’ve told me that when you met Charles Reznikoff you thought that he might have been warmed up to you because of your use of symbolism…
EG: And by my leaving myself as a subject out of it, relying more on imagery.
TM: Right, but you see, I think that even a good narrative poem, it stays more objective; in your poems, if you get subjective, it seems like it’s the last sentence. In that way it’s very much like an Objectivist concept.
EG: Right, it’s the afterthought as opposed to the prime number.
TM: Don’t you think that this still leaves room for the reader to partner with you and become the poet like you like them to?
EG: It’s essential. It’s essential that you push those buttons in the reader. Universal subconscious archetypes have to be there. Why are we writing poems if they aren’t meant to be around forever, like any other great art?
TM: Why are we writing these? What do you think?
EG: Great art. To expand our collective consciousness as part of human progress, greater use of our minds, our hearts, our souls.
Reznikoff and the old Chinese were known as Objectivists. That’s taking the personal out of it. That means that the human is what’s left—what we share, what we have to share is what’s left. That’s what we should be focusing on. It’s like an editing process or self-censorship process, keeping the personal out of it so the universal is what’s left. It then becomes useful to other people. I think this is what’s wrong with American poetry. It often fails to make itself useful to others, relevant to others.
TM: Do you think that we help other people do that when they read poetry?
EG: Absolutely. We help them help themselves.
TM: You told me that you had waited a long time to start writing narrative poems, so what are your red flags, what do you not want to have go into a narrative poem, and what do you want to put in one?
EG: I don’t want subjectivity. I want universality. I want images that mean something to the reader, because in the lyric poems, the reader actually is the poet. I give him an outline, he has the poem, whereas with the narratives, you’re much more restricted to the narrative, so you want to evoke feeling. If you put in feeling, it’ll probably evoke feeling. If it’s important to you, it’ll probably have enough importance to stimulate a response in the reader, a recognition and sharing of a feeling that’s at least meaningful to the reader.
TM: Do you spend a lot of time on these poems, do you revise a lot?
EG: It depends. My last two poems, one of them took six months, and the other one took two days.
TM: How long do you sit on a poem before you even send it out?
EG: It varies. I would say that I never send them out sooner than four to six months, right in there. But that’s current practice. Over the years I’ve varied it quite a bit. This was the big debate I used to have with my mentor Don Hall, because he was all for holding them a long time. We used to argue about this point.
TM: About holding the poems?
EG: Yeah, and revision. He probably thought he didn’t impact on me at all, but he’s wrong. I do think about those things. I’ve been willing to revise a thing when I didn’t have the right feeling. It has to have the right feeling. If it gives me the thrill, and I know it’s done, then I’m willing to accept it whenever it comes. A lot of my best and most popular poems have come with one draft and a slight clean up.
TM: Did you have those poems in your head before you sat down to write them, like are you out in the backyard and come in and it’s pretty much ready to go?
EG: No, what I get is a feeling, you know, like you’re about to do something, um, like a physical urge, yeah, that kind of a thing. It’s a feeling: oh, here comes one, better go get a pen.
I always wait for inspiration, I do not write on demand. Even in my collaborations I wait until I’ve got inspiration. I’ll look at the line that Alison sent, or Glenna sent, and wait until something hits me, then I’ll leap up and write the line. It comes from the subconscious. It comes shooting out of the subconscious.
TM: Okay, but the argument with Don Hall was also that you were writing these automatic poems.
EG: Yes, I used to indulge in that kind of thing.
TM: And he didn’t dig it.
EG: He thought that quality was affected by it: the longer you let them sit, the better. I think he was completely wrong about that. I think his work reflects that, but he was strong in his arguments. He would revise like crazy, was very anal about it, but I respected him a lot, and so I took that to heart. I let it modify my behavior, not to the degree he did, but in that direction.
TM: At what point do you start vocalizing your poems?
EG: Only at the end. I’m just looking at it, and something is right, or something isn’t, and I’m taking things out and putting things in—it’s getting better or it’s not, like this one that took six months, just to get clarity, and it’s very colloquial sounding. It’s short, but I just couldn’t get it right because my dog died, and I just loved this dog, had this dog for thirteen and a half years, and then was able to get the one that is pictured in the back of Zen Duende, another Pekingese. I wanted to say something about the loss of the dog and I wrote it, and wrote it out again, and kept looking at it, and I looked at it some more but it just didn’t sound right. Nothing was right, but I had the elements all there. I’m gonna get it here and read it to you. This is Old Dog:
for Ruth Moon Kempher
When our dog got old
& was unable to walk,
we carried her down the street
so she could check her pee-mails
on the grassy spot where the dogs stop.
She would reward us afterward
with a furry smile, or sleep
sweetly at our feet, face gone white.
We loved her even more because
we knew we were going to lose her.
At the end, her eyes reflected
the light at the end of the tunnel of love.
It was then that we realized
that it was she who had carried us.
TM: That’s beautiful.
EG: Sounds simple, you know?
TM: Oh, it’s not simple.
EG: And here’s the one that came in two days.
Coyotes chuckle in the deep woods,
While inside the cabin
The cats huddle nervously
By the wood-burning stove,
Aglow in the half light
Of the mysterious corners
Where a mouse hole reveals
Two small, reflective eyes
That peer out, wary of the cats,
but drawn toward the woody warmth.
Outside, raccoons chitter by the trash can,
Clever fingers trying to break in.
A log glows orange & falls,
Sparks exploding into ash.
Time to turn in, to sleep with cats.
EG: That was just evoking the scene of one of my best friends who lives alone in the woods in a cabin with five cats and no electricity.
TM: Was Old Dog always that short?
EG: No, it was about twice, maybe almost three times that long. I think the best editing is usually just taking things out. Crystallizing, or condensing, compressing.
TM: Generally, when do you start to edit your work?
EG: If there’s an excitement level I might run through several drafts real fast, have a finished poem within that day, even within the hour, but even then there might be some revision, like the original draft and then several other drafts in quick succession, and then it’s a completed poem. Some have come through complete, where I recognized them as fully realized when they came out. It’s like throwing darts, when you know it’s gonna hit the bull’s-eye when you throw it. That sort of feeling. I think you feel that a lot as a drummer, that precision, when you know that you’re hitting it just right. The groove, in other words. I love a groove.
One of the concerns I have with poetry is the collaborative feeling, what happens in collaboration where a third person is created.
TM: You just said that in collaboration two people create a third person.
EG: Yes. It’s more consciousness expansion. It’s finding more you that you didn’t know existed, but was brought out in sensitivity and empathy with the other poet’s voice. It’s going for a collective subconscious that’s greater than the sum of its parts.
TM: And this third person has its own voice?
EG: Oh definitely, and it’s different for each collaborative pairing.
TM: You had said that you felt that you were in a groove when you were writing with Hugh Fox. What was that groove?
EG: Well, I think we were at the point of talking about the great subject of Death, because he knew he was dying. I wanted to help him, and we were trying to get at something, a meaning, to leave with a meaning. We wrote two poems simultaneously, actually. People may think we wrote two poems, one in first person, one in third. What actually happened was that we wrote one long poem and then I separated the first person sections from the third person sections to make two poems. Hugh kept shifting back to his personal stresses. I had to keep pulling him back to the universal level. The tension came between my effort to get him to rise above his individual view, and his fear hauling him back into it. To me that’s why Carnations is not as good a poem as the other, because Beyond Our Control puts it on a higher universal level: it’s us, it’s a third person.
The one that was left over, Carnations, is Hugh stuck in that fear of loss. What does death mean, and what’s it gonna be? Is it going to be anything? Just going around and around those eternal questions about mortality. It was a subject that we could not avoid. The poems couldn’t have been about anything else because of the situation he was in. We were writing for our lives.
It’s not something that you could arrange for: to write a collaborative work with someone who is dying. We couldn’t keep it out. It became the subject on its own.
TM: I’d be curious how you keep it out anyway.
EG: Well, yeah, you don’t try to keep anything out. When you collaborate you get surprised. You always surprise each other, don’t go the way it would be predictable. When you write a poem on your own, there’s a strong pull in the direction of predictability, but with another person, there’s more of an opposite kind of a pull, to experiment a little bit, to try to see what they’ll do if I do this.
TM: They’re probably doing that to you too.
EG: Exactly. You need tension in a work of art. You need to have some kind of conflict.
It stretches out a thought. Another of my mentors, Robert Bly,that was his big thing, the associative leaping.
TM: Do you do much revision on these collaborative poems?
EG: No. We do a little editing, but it’s not very much. Very minimal. Less than you would do with your own work, because we tend to think about our contribution a lot before we send it, so it’s more finished. Openness is the attitude you want to strike to collaborate. That’s the whole thing. The purpose of collaboration is to open you up. You have to start with an open attitude. The more open your attitude, the greater progress made.
TM: Let’s talk about leaps and jumps. How do you use those?
EG: You get into an intuitive groove, and you let the free associations flow.
TM: You say, “let’s have another one.” because you’re enjoying them.
EG: Yes. They’re intuitive, so there’s little surprises.
TM: But underneath you feel like the beat is the same, or do feel like there is a radical shift in the sound of the poem?
EG: I think sound is one of the main vehicles that images ride on. They ride on sound. I think a lot of times you’re just blowing. But then I don’t think it’s possible to say anything that doesn’t have meaning. And that’s one of the great fun things about poetry, that poetry can be used as paint, or it can be used as musical notes, but it can’t be separated from meaning. Even when you attempt to make it meaningless, you can’t avoid meaning because it’s intrinsic to words themselves. Words are concepts. Any time you put two words together, you get a combination concept, and sometimes if you take radically different things and put them together, you see relationships you never would have seen in a rational mode, and yet they have validity, if nothing more than that they sound or look good together, but that’s validity. There are all kinds of things to think about then. The more you think, the more you contemplate the unusual and the accidental even, the more your mind opens its little doors of perception.
TM: How do you deal with cliché?
EG: It’s one of those rules that are meant to be broken. Ezra Pound talked about making it your own. I think what happens with some subjects, they become clichés for a while because tired language is used for them, tired metaphors, but just because the metaphor is tired doesn’t mean that the concept behind it, the archetype, should be avoided. We have to write about love and death. We don’t have to write well about them, but we can. Just because others have already written well about them doesn’t mean we can’t write well about them relative to today’s imagery and today’s zeitgeist in today’s world. I think cliché is badly done classic. A classic is a well done cliché. They’re really not different, it’s just a matter of degree, of quality. Some of it is timing. What was great back in the day of Lord Byron would be a cliché today, and it’s precisely because it was great back in the day of Lord Byron! I think it’s cyclical — cliché, classic, cliché, classic It’s how you do it.
There are a lot of rules that were made to be broken. Here’s another one: people adhere to these creative writing class rules. They’ll tell you, don’t say tree, say sycamore. Well, if I say sycamore, people with other kinds of trees on their mind, won’t be able to get past it. They’ll get hung up here on sycamore, and I don’t want that. Sometimes I want to say tree. I don’t want to say granite, I want to say stone. I want it to flow, not stop, so I break that rule of specificity. That’s one of the reasons I have a large international audience, because my use of simple language translates easily.
TM: When I first read Williams and encountered plants like choke-cherry or viburnum, I thought that was pretty cool, because I would just say tree or bush.
EG: As an end in itself, I suppose it’s pretty cool. It’s like in art, we have little sketches, quick sketches that an artist might do, and they’re valid art, but they’re little quick sketches, and we also have great big paintings that took a year. I think as musicians or as poets, we have a right to do both. We can do something small if we want to, something quick or spontaneous if we want to. We should not be denied that right, but at the same time we don’t only want to do that.
TM: Do you ever count feet or syllables or think about that kind of thing?
EG: Pretty much always. I always count syllables, actually. Syllabics is one way to do it without going heavily into iambic pentameter. It’s an alternative to feet. It still scans but it scans in a more colloquial way. It’s musical. I am a syllabic writer and if you looked at just about any of my poems and counted the syllables, you’d see the pattern. I think it works to give that to the reader without the reader really knowing. Given to ride on, you know? Kind of a backbeat.
John Elsberg and I messed around with the uneven syllabic line a lot in our haiku and tanka. Because, of course, with those forms, they’re syllabically uneven. There are lines of 7 and 5.
TM: What are projective techniques, and how do you use them?
EG: There are so many different ways to do it, the ink-blot test, looking at clouds would be one, and writing what the clouds remind you of. That’s projecting.
TM: You mean you’re projecting yourself into what you are looking at?
EG: Yeah. The words are coming from you, but you’re taking your tip-off point from something external. It can be an ekphrastic work, like a poem based on a painting. Automatic writing is pure projection, letting it come out without censorship. There are lots of ways to project. You can steal lines, as Simon Perchik said, and then transmutate them into your own. It’s just a huge font of possibilities.
TM: When do you employ that?
EG: Whenever I get the urge. It’s an urge that comes along. The whole thing starts with an intuitive feeling, no matter what mode it takes. I have to be inspired. I can’t write unless I feel the emotional oh, here comes one.
TM: How often does that happen to you?
EG: Well, it happens a lot in November. It all depends. It happens every day to some extent with these collaborations. I might write three or four of my own poems within a month, and then I might not write any for months.
The best ones actually get rewritten and revised subconsciously and come out almost whole. The ones that people like the best are the ones that came out like that. They were easy to write because by the time they came to consciousness they were already finished.
TM: How long did For the Living Dead take?
EG: Oh, that took nine months. My mother was dying during the whole time, and it sounds like an odd thing to write about your mother dying. It’s no Kaddish, but it was like the way she lived and the values of her generation inspired the whole thing. The idea too of breaking the rule against using public symbols. That’s the main thrust of the poem: using symbols that are known to the public.
TM: The vampires, zombies and robots?
TM: Did you use those symbols to write about values without lecturing people?
EG: Right, well again, it elicits the response in the reader. They can’t accuse me of talking about people. I’m taking about zombies. Getting someone to think is my main goal. I’m not saying I know something you don’t know, I’m saying, “I found this door. I’ll go through and you can come too, if you want. Let’s do this door. Here it is. I call it a poem.”
TM: How is a symbol different from a metaphor?
EG: A metaphor is more specific. It’s describing something as if it’s something else. A symbol is something deep that we share. It’s an archetypical image that comes from deep inside. Leaping is both outward and inward, and what I’m trying to do is uncover and bring out shared images that are symbolic. You take out the metaphor, but you leave in the mystery, you have a symbol. The reader’s own mind supplies the meaning.
TM: You’ve been working with symbols for a long time.
EG: Oh yeah, I have a symbolist manifesto, of all things, you know? It’s pretty wild, with many capital letters and some exclamation points. I wrote it when I was twenty-four, with all the depth and wisdom that age insures.
TM: Do you have some rules that you don’t like to break?
EG: I do. I don’t like poems about poetry, politics or religion, unless they’re atypical. I don’t like poems that are narcissistic navel-gazing exercises.
TM: What’s a navel-gazing exercise?
EG: “It’s all about me, and self-indulgence. You can peek in if you want to share in the glory of all that is me, but it isn’t written to you or for you.” It’s the antithesis of my values.
Okay, here’s the big one, the So What? poem. That’s what I try to avoid. I don’t want readers to say so what? I want them to be intrigued, or stimulated to think about it or to go back to the poem again. The main thing I want to avoid is that So What?
I want to write poems that are universal and special. I think of art in a classic sense. I think poetry should offer something that we really need. If I write a poem that makes me say so what, then I throw it away. If the garbage man went through my trash he’d find some every month or so. But I let them sit for awhile first.
TM: Were you able to balance editing a magazine and writing your poetry?
EG: Yes, because I’m extremely interested in poetry and all its aspects. I spend a lot of my time on it. I enjoy it. I don’t have any conflicts about it, I just like it. I enjoy editing, reviewing, collaborating, translating, all of it, not just writing poems.
It’s time consuming and takes attention from my own art, and requires a commitment. A lot of what I do is for the sake of Poetry itself. For the art.
TM: Do you stay open to reading new poets?
EG: With poetry I’m always open to anything. I read it all. I like it all. That’s my big secret, actually, is that I like it all. I don’t think all of it is great, but I understand that’s a subjective opinion. But I like all of it because I try to understand where they’re coming from, and get the value from it.
“Craft Interview with Eric Greinke”; Forge – An eclectic journal of modern story, culture, and art; New York, Lincoln, London,Winter, 2016.