Arielle Greenberg is the co-author, with Rachel Zucker, of Home/Birth: A Poemic (1913 Press, 2011), and author of My Kafka Century (Action Books, 2005), Given (Verse, 2002) and the chapbooks Shake Her (Dusie Kollektiv, 2009; republished by Ugly Duckling Presse later this year) and Farther Down: Songs from the Allergy Trials (New Michigan, 2003). She is co-editor of three anthologies: with Rachel Zucker, Starting Today: 100 Poems for Obama’s First 100 Days (Iowa, 2010) and Women Poets on Mentorship: Efforts and Affections (Iowa, 2008); and with Lara Glenum, Gurlesque (Saturnalia, 2010). Twice featured in Best American Poetry and the recipient of a MacDowell Colony fellowship, she is the founder-moderator of the poet-moms listserv. In 2011 she left a tenured position in poetry at Columbia College Chicago to move with her family to a small town in rural Maine in pursuit of a different pace of life.
Tell us about your relationship to your art.
Whenever possible, I seek to demythologize my relationship to my art. I find statements about the poetic process and life mostly pretentious and frustrating (for myself), so I try not to contribute to the ongoing aggrandizing of it all.
Therefore: I write poems. When I can. Which is not very often. In my life, I’ve had times when I write poems every day, sometimes many poems per day, and months and years when I’ve written no poems. Since having children, I am more likely to have months go by in which I write no poems whatsoever.
But I think I have a smaller percentage of mediocre poetry coming out of my body now that I am so miserly and impatient with the amount of time I give to writing it. It has to be a good idea to merit the time and energy it will take to find a way to write it down. So that’s gratifying: fewer poems, but a higher ratio of decent ones, maybe.
Also, I don’t do much revising of my poems. Either the poem is pretty good as it comes out, and I tweak it as I write it and once more as it goes into the computer, or the poem is not really worth the energy it would take to try to make it better and I let it lie.
Before I had kids, I used to be more playful with writing poetry. I don’t mean that my poetry is no longer playful in tone: what I mean is that I don’t let myself indulge my whims to write something that is simply an experiment, with no emotional or political core. Even my fun poems have to have a purpose now. I have so little time to myself, so little time where thinking up poems feel possible, and so the time I do have, I want to use for things that feel like I have a real stake in them, and like I might discover something useful if I write them.
What's a project that has been exciting you lately?
A year ago, I moved my family out of a big city where I had a tenured job and our family life was terribly hectic to a small town in a rural place where I stay home with my youngest child and do things like bake bread and knit and go to potlucks. It’s not really as simple or quiet as it sounds—I also do a bunch of little jobs, both paid and unpaid, and our lives are still very busy. But comparably speaking, things are much more sane now. It’s been a huge blessing...and also a very big deal for us all, but primarily for me, whose life has changed the most radically in the shift.
And the move has meant that, over the course of the year, I’ve had to re-envision my identity, my sense of selfhood. I’m done having babies; I’m turning forty; I am not, at the moment, a professional with a career. Who am I? This has led me, as I’d hoped it might, down several interesting paths, including an exploration of my relationship to my spirituality. And then, a little later, an exploration of my relationship to my sexuality. I guess one might call this a midlife crisis, but it hasn’t felt like a crisis at all: it’s felt like a wonderful, sometimes overwhelming, very exciting opportunity.
For the past several months, I’ve been working on a series of poems I’m calling “Experimental/Pastoral Sex Poems.” They’re funny (I hope); they’re serious (I hope): they’re explicit in content (I think); they are nontraditional in style (I think). They are “sex-positive.” They are about sex and desire and lust and masculinity and femininity and gender and kink and hormones and monogamy and nonmonogamy. They are about nature and animals and food and rural living. They are poems I have not been seeing out there in the world and poems I myself want to read. They feel genuinely risky and exciting and daring and scary to write, which is a good thing, to my mind (I’m forever challenging myself to write something that truly unsettles me). I’ve got about a dozen so far and hope to write at least a few more. I think they will become a big part of the manuscript I eventually hope to put together of poems I made in the wake of my move. (I also hope to have a manuscript of the poems I wrote while deciding to make the move; they feel like two different manuscripts to me.)
Anyway, they came as a surprise to me, and I sort of love them. I also realize, looking back on the work I made over the last several years, that the seeds of them were planted in earlier poems I wrote in the wake of new motherhood.
I haven’t started sending them out yet, but I’ve read them at one or two venues, and that’s been really fun. I’m eager to get them to a point where I want to bring them out into the world.
Tell us a little of your motherhood journey.
When I read this prompt, my mind immediately turns to birthing. I had three babies, all at home in the water and attended by professional (non-nurse) midwives. The way I chose to birth—at home; with midwives; the first done underground, illegally—hugely informed every other decision about mothering I’ve made. And it made me a birth activist. And I wrote a book, Home/Birth: A Poemic, with Rachel Zucker, about all of this, and that book is one of the projects I’m most proud of in my life thus far.
The other thing that I think of when I see that prompt is that my first and third children are now seven and three years old; my second child, my son Day, was stillborn. He died at thirty-one weeks in utero after a healthy pregnancy, for no known reason, and I decided to birth him naturally, which involved waiting for two and a half weeks with him inside me before I went into labor. I buried a baby I never met alive, but whom I had felt kick for fifteen weeks inside me. This story is in Home/Birth, too. Everything about my journey since then—not just my motherhood journey, but my life journey (see above)—has been impacted by the decisions we made around Day’s pregnancy, birth and death.
What are some crucial elements of your process? How has that changed since having children?
I addressed this in the first question, I think. Here I’ll just say that I think having access to my dream life is a big part of my poetic process, since I rely on dream logic and images to inform my aesthetic, and that since having children and almost never getting a full night’s sleep or waking up by choice anymore has meant that I rarely remember my dreams these days. I’m hopeful that this will start to change as my kids get older, because I think I’ll get a part of my writing voice back when I get my dreams back. I’m making due in the meantime, but my language is more straightforward and less imaginative as a result, I think.
What are some of the ways your family and your art interact?
There is no way in which they don’t. I mean, I go to poetry readings alone a lot of the time, because my kids would not happily sit through them, and I try to be away from my family (like, in a room with the door closed while someone else is caring for the kids) if I’m actually in the midst of writing down a poem, but in the truly significant ways, beyond these logistic and temporary separations, they are completely enmeshed.
Do you find your attitude towards your art might be different because of your parenting / has it changed since you became a parent?
In addition to what I’ve already said about this above, I’d say I also have a lot less patience for poetry that is devoid of “content” now that I’m a mother. I look for some kind of investment, engagement, beyond the self: a connection to larger political or cultural concerns, a sense of genuine complexity and questioning. I used to enjoy poems that prioritized weird language play over all else, or that was glib or superficially surrealist; I can’t really get much into this kind of work anymore.
Are your children ever subjects in your art?
Yes. I write poems about my children, about things my children have said or done, about birth, about myself as a mother, about my post-pregnancy body, about images that come to me through their schools or books.
How does travel figure into your art? Do/did your children come along? How has that worked out?
I used to try to travel with my kids to readings or conferences; I don’t like being away from them for long. But as they get older, I’m more likely to travel solo for poetry-related activities, and the truth is, if I know they’re with my husband, who is wonderful with them, and that he has the support he needs so he’s not terribly taxed by the trip, than I enjoy the trips more without my kids along. I can focus. I can feel the parts of myself that are involved with being a social creature, an artist, an intellectual, etc., begin to bloom. I can do other things on my own, like go to a museum or have long talks with other grown-up poets or take long walks through interesting neighborhoods, all of which feeds me enormously. Sometimes I get ideas for poems the minute I shut the door and leave my house and get into a cab or plane: the relationship to my artistic mind and to time feels that dramatically altered by leaving the kids behind.
That said, I still feel sad—not guilty, but genuinely sad—about leaving my kids for more than a few days, a few times a year. I enjoy being with my family. In my ideal scenario, I could travel for my art and bring my family along, housed happily but discreetly in some fun, family-friendly hotel, complete with fabulous, affordable childcare and things for them do to, and I could check in whenever I wanted to and then leave again. Suffice it to say, we cannot afford this kind of travel. I imagine it’s what some successful, committed-to-parenting Hollywood mothers might do. That’d be nice.
What about promoting the arts with your own children--any fun projects to share?
Nothing terribly original, but I’ve taught poetry at my kids’ school, and that’s been fun and rewarding.
How do you escape?
See above. It’s very nice to be invited to give a poetry reading or lecture, and be put up at a hotel, and to get my travel paid. Then I feel like I’m being a good worker bee and a professional and an artist and an intellectual while also having a get-away. And then I try to find a way to do something really pleasurable—go shopping, meet a friend for a delicious meal, have some wild sex, see a movie—while on my “work” trip. Like most mother-artists, I’m pretty good at multi-tasking.
What advice do you have for expectant mothers in your field?
Streamline your life and cut out the bullshit wherever possible. Tune out the static in the culture around what you should and shouldn’t do and try to tune in to your own inner mystic and wise woman. Schedule time for yourself, even if it’s just an hour a week to read a semi-dumb magazine: do something that makes you remember who you are outside of being a mother. Ask for help. Find community. Build community. Take the long view. And my biggest advice: remember that you, and your seemingly conflicting desires—to produce art, take a nap, be important, care less about being important, make money, stay home with your children, live more simply, be more ambitious, do more, do less—do not mean that you are broken. We live in a broken system as far as these things are concerned: you are not broken, the system is. Work to change the system. Start by questioning it.