A Sense of the Elemental: Jeffrey Greene on Writing and Life in France

Jeffrey Greene

JEFFREY GREENE is the author of three poetry collections and a chapbook. His most recent book, Beautiful Monsters (Pecan Grove Press, 2010), was selected by the Texas Institute of Letters as one of three finalists for best book of poems in 2010. His memoir, French Spirits (Harper Perennial, 2003), has appeared in eight countries, and he has written two personalized nature books, Water from Stone and The Golden-Bristled Boar: Last Ferocious Beast of the Forest (University of Virginia Press, 2011). Shades of the Other Shore, a sequence of sketches, prose pieces, and poetry written in collaboration with painter Ralph Petty, is scheduled for publication in 2013 with The Cahier Series, and his latest nature book, Wild Edibles, is under contract.

His work has been supported through fellowships and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Connecticut Commission on the Arts, The Rinehart Fund, and Humanities Texas, and he was a winner of the Samuel French Morse Prize, the Randall Jarrell Award, and the “Discovery”/The Nation Award. His poems, short stories, and essays have appeared in numerous publications, including The New Yorker, Poetry, The Nation, Ploughshares, AGNI, Southwest Review and the anthology Strangers in Paris. Musical settings of his poems have been performed by the Mirror Visions Ensemble in Paris (France), New York (USA), and Cambridge (United Kingdom). He is the director of creative writing at the American University of Paris, and divides his time between Paris and his country house in Burgundy.

Apart from your numerous prose publications, you have written narratives based in nature writing as well as a memoir. They synthesize to form a set of rich, personal accounts of life in France. Yet, you began writing as a poet. Your fifth collection of poetry, Shades of the Other Shore, is coming soon. What does poetry satisfy that the nature narrative and other genres do not?

This is an important question on several levels, particularly when you use the word satisfy. I feel satisfaction should be subverted in poetry. The best poems have an evocative discomfort that compels us to come back to them again and again with a sense of wonder. It is this discomfort that gives the poem a life beyond its last line, the irreconcilable paradoxes of human experience. While poetry is an art of language, the best poems have a sense of truth that transcends words. Language seems to have its own built-in intelligence. When writing poems, I feel like an opportunist, maybe even a treasure hunter. A kind of contact is established with the first line in terms of pace and music. I feel physically a need for a certain utterances before I even know what I will say. The sound dovetails emotional sense. The process is pure imaginative art.

My memoir writing and nature books are different. There’s art to creating setting, characterization, dialogue, narrative tension, and lyrical reflection, but these books are subject-driven.

You’ve collaborated with artists using different mediums: writing poems for The Mirror Visions Ensemble, and now writing alongside Ralph Petty’s new paintings. What inspires you to want to collaborate with other artists, and what has been the result?

I’ve been asked to write a film script, short stories based on themes, and poems for occasions. I am invariably pushed out of my comfort zone, and it is no different when trying to collaborate.

While poetry is an art of language, the best poems have a sense of truth that transcends words.

I was secretly commissioned by the three singers to write the finale of the Mirror Visions 20th Anniversary Celebration to be performed at several venues in Paris and at Merkin Hall in New York City. The finale was meant to be a surprise gift for the Artistic Director, who was also the original creator of Mirror Visions. My poetry would be set by three different composers with a progression of a solo, duo, and trio. It seemed like an impossible assignment, but I managed to generate a poem in three parts that I thought would suffice. It came back with a polite message: “It’s the wrong tone. Too melancholic. Would you try again?” Eventually I wrote a poem inspired by a major work that each of three commissioned composers had produced. We corresponded, tinkering to get the phrasing right. When it all came together, I found the experience very moving.

Work on the book with painter Ralph Petty began with two failed attempts. The first process involved my trying to respond in poetry to Ralph’s beautiful work. But the book itself failed to find a thematic center. My second attempt was a personal essay that didn’t fulfill the aesthetic inclinations of either the editors or publisher — “too narrative.” The third attempt finally worked: a parallel effort. I used Ralph’s river images as leitmotif while writing a sequence of dialog sketches, prose poems, and poetry called Shades of the Other Shore, a title made up from Dante’s Inferno.

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