The Abbey Interview
ABBEY: Walter Stewart, a Canadian journalist, wrote last March in Macleans that Grand Rapids is “a prosperous, smug, hard-working, decent, self-righteous, pious and conservative town, a place that turns out furniture, auto parts and patriots.” With the output of your PILOT PRESS and the other publishing ventures of your friends, why is it also a place that turns out poetry?
GREINKE: Grand Rapids has another, completely opposite psyche, produced by the repression and conservatism you speak of. This is one of the few places in America where radical art has an establishment to rebel against. The state of the arts here is very strong, a very committed and vocal “underground” segment of the population. We have seven colleges in the area contributing to the intellectual and artistic atmosphere. Members of the underground art scene tend to pass through the colleges, especially the experimental modules at Grand Valley State, but the underground scenes are not limited nor strongly tied to the local academic world. Most of the participants are from working class backgrounds, so it’s a committed, energetic, grassroots, existential orientation.
ABBEY: Tell me about the beginnings of Pilot Press.
GREINKE: Pilot Press began as a conscious effort to market our writings. There were several people, including ourselves, in the scene here and elsewhere whom we wanted to see made available to a larger audience. It also gave me a form of employment which did not detract from the essential energy of writing and pursuing a literary career.
ABBEY: In 1973 you expected to have 40 book titles in print, 38 more than you had published during 1972-73. Why did you fall short of this goal?
GREINKE: It was a case of great blind expectations that went beyond rationality, driven by the force of sublime enthusiasm and eventually slowed by sheer bulk of work. To date, Pilot Press has published 31 titles.
ABBEY: By 1974, Pilot Press was considering poetry from school and movements like Dada/Surrealism, Black poets, etc. Why did you put this emphasis on your publishing efforts?
GREINKE: At first it was just poetry itself, and as we settled into it we centered on those aspects of the art which we saw as having the greatest moral value and aesthetic clarity. Both Black poetry and surrealism have in common a paradoxical bipolar nature which reflects the human position: both attempt to relate highly subjective values to “objective” human reality, to be universal while simultaneously personal. All art strives to do this, but in contemporary poetry only the Black and other minority group poets and those WASPs who consciously address themselves to common experience/public symbolism are actually near anything like a universal language or symbological synthesis.
ABBEY: In 1975 Pilot Press began to emphasize the “Paris On The Grand” poets, i.e. you and your area friends. Did you feel that such an emphasis might turn Pilot Press into a vanity operation or a regional press?
GREINKE: I had no notions of a regional aesthetic but was responding to what was at that time a particularly energetic and aesthetically consistent group which included Tibbs, Lane, the Copes, several of my students at the alternative City High School, my wife and myself. At that point we had stopped considering what the literary world thought of us. We were more interested in whether or not they met our expectations, which to a large extent they did not and still do not.
ABBEY: Let’s deal with some of the realities of the Pilot Press operations. What’s the average size of your first printings? What have been your best-selling books? Who is your buying audience?
GREINKE: We have printed as few as 100 copies of a book and as many as 5000. 10 MICHIGAN POETS, FACE THE WHIRLWIND: AN ANTHOLOGY OF BLACK MICHIGAN POSTS, and the books by Ben Tibbs, Kirby Congdon, Bill Oldenburg, Herbert Martin and myself have been the best sellers. Our audience varies by book. Some books sell mainly on a regional basis, like Oldenburg’s POEMS 67 TO 72 or 10 MICHIGAN POETS. The Congdon book sold mainly to a Gay audience. Herb Martin’s THE SHIT STORM POEMS and FACE THE WHIRLWIND have sold to Black audiences and others interested In Black literature. My own books sell mainly to students. A lot of books are sold to libraries and to the trade through the big book jobbers like Baker & Taylor.
ABBEY: You once mentioned that you edited to have an effect on society. What type of effect would you hope your Pilot Press books have on their readers?
GREINKE: I want readers to be aware of their own polarities, to recognize the ambivalent nature of being. In short, I want them to be poets. Only by becoming aware of the subjective perceptual boundaries can one transcend subjectivity and attain spontaneous creativity. We are at a point in the history of our species where we can and must take active part in evolution. This means that the rational mode of thought must be placed in a perspective which recognizes that there is another side to the coin. Poetry can provide this insight as well as many other valuable lessons.
ABBEY: You’ve got a broad list of influences. From many of the French surrealists to a lot of the younger American poets like Nikki Giovanni and Robert Hayden. Aside from Kosinski and Barthelme, you don’t seem to be much influenced by novelists like Heller, Pynchon, and Vonnegut. Why is this?
GREINKE: I’ve read a lot of fiction. When I was a kid my mother used to go downtown every Saturday and come back with four or vie remaindered novels. These were mainly first novels. When 1 was in the Coast Guard I read a lot of fiction too. And later, as an English major in college. I have twice the number of hours for my English major so I consider myself to be well-read. I’ve attempted to write fiction, or rather to rewrite the concept of fiction. I’m only now having some success with it. Big-press, mass-market fiction is hopelessly rigid in point of view and structure, except for Barthelme and Kosinski and a few other lone experimenters. The growing movement of small press fiction gets my attention and support when it offers genuinely alternative fare. I am thirty pages away from finishing my first competent novel, which I hope to throw into that arena soon. But Barthelme and Kosinski are the only contemporary fiction writers, big or small press, whom I think of as great.
ABBEY: You’re also greatly influenced by your friends in the Grand Rapids area like Ronnie Lane and Ben Tibbs. Since most of our readers are unfamiliar with these names, tell us about them and their impact on your writing.
GREINKE: Both have had a big influence on me and neither has had much public success. I’ve known Ronnie for 14 years. He was my debate partner in high school. We started the first student newspaper at our high school together, with Ronnie as editor and me as literary editor. I’ve been writing poetry since the age of nine. Ronnie started in college. We were verbal and graphic and musical friends. That is, we shared an enthusiasm for creative writing, drawing! painting, and playing music.
Ronnie composed music and played piano for piano and chorus. One of the first things he did in poetry was the allegorical, camp/ mythical(primitive) poem “The Greatest Show On Earth,” composed by automatic writing over a long night of inspiration during a mystical state. He has also written several other long poems which may be seen as offspring of this poem. “The Greatest Show On Earth” is an instant masterpiece. It is THE spontaneous mythical circus allegory and has great range and facets and levels of consistency. Another favorite of mine is his “Under The Blood-Gorged Moon.” Ronnie writes with great existential clarity. His productions are radical overcompensations in a sense. They are expansive, ambiguous and unashamed. For him, poetry is survival, not a game. This is what I prize in him, beside his long and sustaining friendship. His best poems are among the major works of our generation. He’s currently working on a science fiction novel, using plants as his main characters. He’s also president of Free Books, Inc, a non-profit organization dedicated to the free distribution of literature.
Ben Tibbs is an un-discovered literary giant. He deals with abstractions, or rather, he plays with them. He is 70 years old with a beautiful eye-smile, white beard hair, and personal presence unmatched in my experience, though I’ve known some heavy old dudes. His philosophy is that a man’s life is an evolution toward the celebration of now, similar to Gestalt Therapy or Zen. His main style of poetry and prose is multi-leveled and thick-imaged, though he is capable of great simplicity, as revealed in the series of “30 Poems” or in his “High Coup” suite. He’s had mainly a spiritual influence on me. I edited his selected poems, called “Bombs”, in 1974 (Still available as a Pilot Press Book).
Since then, he’s been involved mainly with prose-poems and his freewheeling autobiography, which will be his best book. He’s had some acceptance from other lone experimenters like Anais Nin and the late Kenneth Patchen, but he’s mainly unknown due in large part to his anti-academic attitude. He’s been personally involved in a lot of major projects. For example, he did the cover design and drawing for Charles Bukowski’s first book of poems. He avoids intellectualizing, preferring a spontaneous attention to experience to the withdrawn and affected attitudes fostered by endless criticism and association. He’s more of a dis-associator, an embracer. He is currently the director of the art gallery at Western Michigan University. He’s always in love.
ABBEY: You and I are both about 30 years old. I’ve noticed for one so comparatively young that you’ve published a great deal of work. You’re in a lot of the small press journals, and you’ve had a half-dozen books on the market. Do you agree with Irving Layton that a poet ought to release nearly everything written and let the public decide what is best? In other words, do you fear that you might get overexposed to the point your readers might react, “Oh look, there’s another one of them Eric Greinke poems?”
GREINKE: I used to operate under Layton’s” theory, publishing nearly everything I wrote (in poetry) with the conviction that all of it was at least experimentally valid. But a valid experiment is not necessarily a strong and beautiful poem. Over the years and with the help of some critics such as yourself and Don Hall, I have developed a critical faculty which tells me that certain of my poems are classics—the most me, the “best”—and I have this particular group collected now in the second edition of my selected poems, which contains one-third previously unpublished and new work, and all the best ones from the first 120 page edition, and it’s only 48 pages long, the proverbial slim volume. I am proud of the work in this book, “The Broken Lock: New and Selected Poems.” ‘My other favorite books are “Iron Rose,” “Masterpiece Theater,” and my collection of Rimbaud translations, “The Drunken Boat & Other Poems From The French of Arthur Rimbaud,” just out in an expanded second edition. The Rimbaud translations have been particularly satisfying and have drawn praise from some pretty hard-boiled critics. Robert Bly wrote to me after the first edition stating that they were the best translations of Rimbaud he’d seen, superior to the popular New Directions versions by Louise Varese. So, in general, I can say that I have no regrets about my published work.
ABBEY: I’ve written in review of IRON ROSE that your writing is “superbly controlled.” I’m curious as to how this control is achieved. If there is such a thing as an average poem of yours, how long and what stages does it pass through before it is acceptable to you for inclusion in one of your books?
GREINKE: I complete a poem in one sitting, including as many or as few rewrites as seem needed to make it beautiful and complete. I believe I prewrite subconsciously and by the time it gets physically written out it is either completed or near completion. Around two-thirds of what ends up being published is original draft, although it is also true that every poem gets changed in some way— words get changed— I try different formats, etc. Mostly, I edit out extraneous and prosaic elements. When I write is whenever they want to come out, which could be anytime. I just wait for them. A tremendous feeling of warm excitement proceeds their arrival. Their completion is followed by excitement, satisfaction, joy!
I recognize completion when I feel both mystified and gratified. The formats are intuitively evolved from the emotional impact of the images, sometimes to contrast or compare or add an ironic, tension-producing element, it seems in retrospect. But I want to stress the intuitive nature of my creativity. It’s a form of psychic projection, like a dream: a message from the subconscious. It’s very similar to a treasure hunt.
ABBEY: My recent re-reading of your collected poems, THE BROKEN LOCK, showed me that you are one of the few poets today not utilizing the interior landscape as your basic reference point, choosing instead to use the nature/man contrasts as the surface for your readers to draw their meanings from. Why have you chosen to use natural rather than abstract symbols?
GREINKE: I am dedicated to confronting the obvious. I am more interested in discovering universals and similarities in the human experience than in emphasizing and thus supporting our differences, which are fewer. Writing is communication. This is where contemporary poetry has failed to enter. Whitman used public symbols, because he recognized that by internalizing them, by making them his own, he could transcend subjective experience and achieve communication. I believe that our hope of raising the consciousness of the race lies in embracing what is most us, most human. The consciousness behind cliches, for example, is said to be trite or bad because it is common. This attitude is a remnant of Puritan self-hate (alienation) and original sin doctrines that perpetuate a negative historical spiral. At the foundation of every literary work is a commonality, a cliche, an archetype. The kind of poetry that emphasizes our differences is no more than a manifestation of the neurotic need for attention and affection and approval. Artists have neglected their mandate for too long, and the public has sensed this and turned away, back into angst. But it doesn’t have to be: poetry is a. primitive magic that enables us to overcome alienation by assimilating its contents to ourselves. If we assimilate some poet’s internal values, we become further alienated. But when we recognize the assimilated material as truth about ourselves as well as the poet, we move closer together. I want to shake poetry out of its sheltered complacency. To do this, I openly confront the taboo against the use of public symbols, and I enter the mythological realm wherein lies our inheritance.
ABBEY: Most poets, I assume, want to render something intangible to their readers. Or, as poet Derek Walcott writes in his new book SEA GRAPES:
Now I require nothing
from poetry but true feeling,
no pity, no fame, no healing.
Is this your basic hope when you write?
GREINKE: I do not provide my readers with my feelings. I provide them with their own. They get a poem from me, not an interpretation of one.
ABBEY: You participate in the small press world as both a publisher and a poet. What can we expect from both you and from PILOT PRESS in the near future?
GREINKE: I’ve learned not to predict, but you can bet something’s going to happen.
“The Abbey Interview: Eric Greinke,” by David Greisman. Abbey, Columbia, Maryland, March, 1977.