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.

The Golden-Bristled Boar

The Golden-Bristled Boar: The Last Ferocious Beast of the Forest
BY Jeffrey Greene
(University of Virginia Press, 2011)

Beautiful Monsters

Beautiful Monsters
BY Jeffrey Greene
(Pecan Grove Press, 2010)

In a recent interview, you said that you’re someone who likes to make things; whether it’s building, crafting or cooking. Similarly, in the preface to Shades of the Other Shore, you mention that your writing is grounded in physical things rather than the abstract. Can you explain why this tangibility is important, and how it emerges in your writing?

While I don’t think satisfaction is the business of art, I do get much satisfaction from building a room or a bookcase, restoring parts of our old house, or just going to the market and making a good dinner for my friends. These involve physical activity and engage the senses while producing pleasurable results.

In my preface, I start out by referring to the thingy-ness in the language of the old Anglo-Saxon laments and riddles, how a metaphor, the kenning, is made by juxtaposing two things. It creates a sense of the elemental. Our engagement with the world begins in things, through sensation and senses, and not through abstractions. In poetry or extended metaphor in prose, we put together two disparate things that share an ingenious likeness. But it is the unlikeness that creates tension. Where love can be so near but definitively impossible as Dickinson’s poem 640:

With just the Door ajar
That Oceans are –

In my preface, I am repeating a persistent romantic idea: in the case of my new book, ghosts pierce the silence through the elements, through seasons, hues of light, and the moods of nature.

Are there certain writers, in any genre, who you always come back to throughout your life? What is it about their writing that persistently draws you to them?

When I’m stuck, when I want to reset my mind into the lyrical mode, I find myself picking up Stevens, Eliot, Emily Dickinson, Plath, Berryman, and Lowell. I share nothing with these writers in temperament; it’s the sheer brilliance of their image making and sense of sound that puts me into the lyrical mode. Prose is much different. I don’t pick up Tolstoy or Proust or Márquez and suddenly feel like writing a paragraph. Kundera and Ondaatje do inspire me; they also make me feel like I don’t have a prayer. Influence is tricky business.

Are you sometimes aware of a central or overall truth that you want to express before sitting down to write — something central at stake? Or do certain truths reveal themselves and click into place as the writing takes shape?

The crucial test for all writing is the sense that it has a reason for being. In all three genres of imaginative writing, the raison d’être is revealed through conflict, transformation, and recognition. Perhaps the sonnet form provides a micro-blueprint. There is an initial conflict, problem, or argument presented in the first stanzas, and then we are presented with the volta, a turn in perspective, or the telling crisis. Then comes transformation of the argument or character with a sense of recognition. This is classic narrative structure. The paradox in this is that one often starts a poem or a short story without knowing what the emotional crux of the piece will be. It is an act of faith that some truth will reveal itself by stirring the inner mud of obsessions and memories.

You moved to France from the United States with no ambition of staying long-term, but found yourself cultivating a second home there. You could say you’ve taken a risk in settling in foreign country, and in turn taking risks to experiment with many genres. How important is it for you as a person and a writer to take risks?

The notion of risk has to be put in perspective. I haven’t been compelled to go to the poorest places on earth or to war zones to witness life reduced to its most basic elements. My risks were choices in craft and life. I don’t think I became a real writer until I stopped imitating my influences. Some writers start off wholly original. I continued for a long time trying to write polished work so that it looked publishable rather than letting the work be what it wanted to be. I just became more intrepid with voice and form and then with different genres. The second most important step was to give up a tenured university position to be a permanent resident outside of the United States. But I just put my faith in the idea that my writing would help me find a new, more productive balance in my personal life and my professional life. For twelve years, I lived like two separate citizens between family life in France and teaching in the States.

Wild Edibles, your new nature book, is equally as engaging and exploratory as your previous success, The Golden-Bristled Boar. You whisk us off into the forests of Burgundy on mushroom hunts, introducing us to the eccentric characters in your village and their modern day hunter-gatherer traditions. The narratives are both educational and historical, while charmingly witty. How is nature both an amusing and timeless theme for you?

Jeffrey Greene

My mother ran away from a boarding school in New Jersey at fifteen, and my father was a black sheep in classic New York Jewish family for choosing sculpting over fabric design for a family business. Both were very young, surviving their fractured family situations. They met in Greenwich Village. My teenage mother, wanting a family and an artist husband, decided that we could move to the country and live off the land if we had to. It all turned out to be a fiasco, particularly planting gardens destroyed by deer and rabbits and our goats that were intent on poisoning themselves on mountain laurel. Still, a passion for the New England seaside and the woods was infused in me from the beginning. I experienced a Wordsworthian type of childhood in the country, a real sense of the nurturing powers of nature. Later in life, I regain this sense of the world by restoring an old presbytery in rural France. Ironically, my mother lives with us, and furniture, paintings, and objects from my childhood were shipped over.

While my nature projects are both deeply serious and personally important for me, I try to make the writing pleasurable to read. The aim is to engage readers as willing companions. I begin as a naive guide who takes them on a narrative journey into a subject.

You write in the preface for Shades of the Other Shore that your imagination has been “compelled by a sense of wonder” in your present work. How has your current work transformed or evolved from your earlier writing?

Jeffrey Greene

The informing theme behind Shades of the Other Shore is the process of aging — facing the deaths of one’s parents, friends, and oneself, but I juxtaposed these underlying concerns to life in our village, its layering of history. The book involves deep mapping of self and place. I focus on a sense of wonder about these correspondences — ghosts and nature — rather than writing one elegy after another. The way the past speaks to the present has been a conspicuous theme throughout my work.

Two things have evolved. In my earlier years, I never imagined that I would write personalized nonfiction and fiction. It seemed challenging enough to write poetry. And as I said in my response on risks, I’ve learned to experiment, try out new forms, and be less fearful of failing, something that haunted my early writing.

What is the role of publishing in your work?

I confess that I only write nonfiction with an advanced contract because these books demand a huge commitment in terms of time and personal resources. I need to know that these projects have a future. Poetry and fiction writing is different. This writing is generated from inner life and experience and then processed through sensibility and craft. Writers publish to complete the triangle of writer, work, and audience. Readers/audiences have their part to play. They bring their sensibilities and experiences to the art to make it whole, and the work takes on a life in the larger world. The writer can never fully know the implications.

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