Processing: An Interview with Justin Greene


Image: “Schwarze Weisheit #1,” by Frank Stella, 2000.

Emma Raddatz: When were these poems written? Were they written together?

Justin Greene: Three of them were written at the same time, mostly in my advanced poetry class, which was a year ago, or so, and then one, “Mimesis,” I wrote in my intermediate poetry workshop two years ago when Ben Lerner came to speak. He’s my favorite author ever. He kept vomiting genius at me, and I wrote everything down and thought, ‘Why not turn this into a poem?’ So that happened.

Liz Cettina: Why did you put these poems together? What unites them?

J: I’d say the overarching thing is the connection to theory. I’m very much a theory nerd – I’m an English and Anthropology major. The three that were written together are from various texts I’ve encountered either for pleasure or in class. And poetry is my way of processing the texts almost. You get some good quotes while you write essays so you’ll compile sheets of quotes, take some and put them together, helps me crystallize the thoughts by shaping them into, not a narrative, but something cohesive. So I guess riffing off other people is the link between all four of them.

E: Could you talk more about Ben Lerner?

J: Ben Lerner is a great author. He is a poet and novelist. His poetry is very mathematically and scientifically inspired. He has this one sequence called the “Doppler Elegies” from his book Mean Free Path in which all the poems are structured as Doppler shifts. Cool things with math and proportions. His fiction is an interesting example of autofiction so putting himself as a character in the novel, kind of blurring the line between fiction and autobiography, and probing at these heavy ideas like time and environmental disaster in both colloquial and academic language while also being really reflexive about himself, his position, his thoughts. He mixes registers a lot, which I really like. And he came to read when I was a sophomore, he visited my intermediate poetry class, and I’m just like, ‘Oh my, God. I love you.’ We had to read two of his books for our class. He signed both of my books, and I got a poem out of it so it was fun.

L: You said you use poetry to crystallize abstract concepts, how does this work?

J: First, I’ll correct myself with the word ‘crystallize’ because I feel like ‘crystallize’ implies a certain totality to it, whereas it’s more of a working through to me. I guess ‘processing’ is the better word. In terms of whether my poems operate with narratives or not, it depends on the texts I encounter and how much I relate to it. For instance, the last poem was based on Wayne Koestenbaum’s book Humiliation, whereas the first poem was based on a book called Precarious Japan by Anne Allison. I’ve never been to Japan, I’m not Japanese, I understand theory, and I think it’s really interesting and worth engaging with, but I don’t relate to on an experiential level. Whereas Koestenbaum was talking about humiliation, which I feel is a pretty ubiquitous concept, and he sort of defines it as the shifting of the interior and exterior and that any sort of fluids like vomit, piss, whatever, signify a humiliating act because it brings the abject internal, external. That’s a longwinded way of saying it’s contingent on what I’m writing about.

E: Do you think differently about prose and poems? I know you mentioned you’re writing a fiction thesis, so how do your poetry and prose influence each other?

J: I’d say poetry really influenced my fiction. I took the fiction sequence, so techniques, intermediate, advanced all by second semester sophomore year, which I think was kind of premature, because I took intermediate poetry first semester sophomore year, and I found that the precision of language necessary for poetry helped make my fiction a lot tighter. Because I would go on these weird flowery rants, very much developing, and one would think poetry would make you flowery, but I found it reigned me in. It helped me think of cool metaphors. With poetry, I don’t think in narratives, whereas with fiction, narratives are definitely an essential component to it. Though my fiction thesis kind of disrupts that because it has the anthropological bent of “Oh, we have no totalized things, ethnography is a working through.” So my fiction and poetry both share that sort of perceptual nature, but of course since it’s fiction, it has to be a bit more contained in the narrative framework.

L: Can you talk more about your fiction thesis?

J: I’d love to! I love talking about my thesis. So it’s an English and anthropology thesis like I said, and I went to Dublin this past summer to do fieldwork with some grants from the English and anthropology departments. Thank you departments! And I’m really into metal music so I researched Dublin metal subcultures and just hung out at a bunch of gigs there, it was really fun. Originally it was going to be about the political valences of metal, so metal since it’s characterized as this angry white man’s music, whether that affective dimension of it can be channeled into some sort of political feeling against the water tax or abortion rights or stuff like that. Then they were all like “No, we don’t want to talk about politics fuck politics,” so then it became about masculinity. Because metal has this caricature of being hyper-masculine and angry like I said, so I found that there were a lot of different alternative masculinities going on. And just seeing the communities and how loving they are. I’m thinking of calling the thesis “Unyielding Love,” after the main band I was interacting with, called “Unyielding Love.” So talking about how these metal communities foster an alternative masculinity predicated on a sort love that, while it’s aromantic, deals with a sort of intimacy through intense physical contact and tight communal bonds, not always explicitly hierarchical or predicated on one-upping or whatever. That’s the reductive version, at least.

L: Do you find that you need an external prompt?

J: For fiction, I’m more experientially based. Poetry, it’s more theory, text, whatever. With fiction, theory definitely plays a part. In my thesis, one of the main narrators is an anthropologist, because I copped out and wanted to get the theory in there. I’m not the type of person that thinks, “I have this story just laying around in my head in a vacuum.” I can’t do that, so I guess it’s based on real life but fictionalized.

E: Do you prefer writing prose or poetry?

J: I probably prefer writing prose, because I find it harder. Poetry I can slap together a bit more. I don’t know why, but it comes more intuitively. But prose is something I really have to work towards, because narrative is something I’m not instinctive about. So by challenging myself to do that I find I can push myself to make my prose better, and often I think it is better than my poetry.

L: What’s so hard about writing the narrative?

J: I think I care too much about language and aurality. A reason that poetry comes so easily is because I love wordplay. Whereas if you do that in fiction, there’s value to it, but ultimately it has to fall into some narrative frame. Something has to happen or no one cares. And that something happening is the harder part.

L: Is it finding things or pulling from experience?

J: I prefer finding things. I guess that’s the anthropological fieldwork side. I don’t think I’ve written about childhood ever, if that would be antithetical to going out and doing something to write about.

E: Moving more towards the form of your poetry, can you tell us about your use of line breaks, length of stanza?

J: I love line breaks, that’s probably the biggest draw to poetry. Ben Lerner taught me this actually, through reading his work. I like lines when the line on its own will say one thing and then by breaking it, it contradicts itself. I try and put those in. In the last poem, I wrote, “I exercise a great deal/of caution between fluids and solids.” “I exercise a great deal” deals with physicality but “caution” has a different bent, more cognitively based to counteract a more embodied practice. Still training, but a different kind of training.

L: Do you use formal aspects to perform certain functions? For example, punctuation?

J: For punctuation, I’d say that’s more of a fiction thing for me, using it for mood and rhythm. I like accelerating and decelerating sentences. For instance, it might be this crazy crowd scene where everyone is beating the shit out of each other so the prose will be very rapid, very little punctuation. If it’s a quieter moment or something choppier—if the music gets staccato—I’ll write lots of periods and short, clipped sentences. In poetry, I don’t think I use punctuation as deliberately. I feel like I avoid punctuation and do more of what’s intuitive. It’s more about line breaks than punctuation for me.

E: Where are your poems situated in a sort of time continuum?

J: I have some poems that are more historically situated so that would be linked to a specific time, but I think since most of my poems are culled from theory, they are immortal I guess since theory is sort of immortal—to sound really annoying about it.

L: What sort of trajectory do your poems follow?

J: For fiction and poetry, I go in with my idea, but I don’t have an expectation of where it’s going to go because if you prescribe it, it’s going to be really contained and you’re going to miss out on so many opportunities that are outside that parameter. So I definitely have my point of access and a broader umbrella of, “This is the topic I want to talk about,” and I just write and let my subconscious mind take me wherever it’s going to take me.

E: Are you reading anything right now?

J: I’m reading Ulysses for a class, which is great and horrible at the same time in that it’s brilliant and the Irish Novel and my thesis is based in Ireland, but it’s also really hard and his style sort of seeps into mine sometimes counterproductively. Sometimes he’ll just make up lots of words and have page long sentences, and that’s not what I’m trying to do right now. But it happens anyway.

L: You said your subconscious guides you. Do you find that you guide what happens in your poems? Where is your place as the poet in your pieces?

J: That’s a difficult question to answer because I very much believe in a state of flow in writing—flow being this positive psychological term by this guy Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who basically says when you’re concentrating on a task that is of some degree of difficulty and requires concentration, you get into this state of flow where you just don’t notice anything around you and you sort of lose your identity in the process. I’d say, when I write line breaks, they just come intuitively. I find with fiction, though, I revise as I write, which lots of people say not to do but whatever. In fiction, it’s a lot more calculated. With poetry, it’s like I’m on autopilot.

E: How many drafts do your poems usually go through?

J: I always edit my poems. I edited my poems right before is sent them to you even though they’re a year old already. There’s always something where I’m like, “Oh, if I move this line break to there-” Nothing’s fixed. Except when my thesis is done, it will be very fixed.

L: Who is the narrator of your poems?

J: I’d say the narrator’s identity is not important. Or you could link the narrator to me. I’m trying to make sense of things, but there are no indicators within the poem that say, “This is me speaking right now.”

E: Are you writing poetry right now?

J: Only fiction.

L: I noticed there’s a sense of urgency in your poems. Can you describe that feeling?

J: Something I do that involves immediacy is what I said earlier about Ben Lerner. I frantically wrote things he said down because I was like, “Wow, there are so many gems in here.” Or I read an interesting text, and I’m like, “Wow, I need to type this quote.” I have a collection of quotes on my computer so I guess I have these feeling of immediacy that’s like, “Wow, this is great. This needs to go in.” But when I’m writing, I take it pretty slow.

E: Who are your other favorite poets or writers?

J: Ben Lerner, of course. Anne Carson, Colum McCann. Colin Barrett is this young Irish author, not too big in the States, but won a ton of prizes for his first short story collection. I’ve been reading lots of Irish writers recently just because Ireland. Donal Ryan. He wrote The Spinning Heart.

L: Do your poems accomplish something for the reader, or are they about your process of working through theories?

J: One thing my thesis adviser says (I love my thesis adviser. He’s great), but one point we disagreed on is the idea of a “take-away” of a story. I don’t want to prescribe something for readers to take away from my pieces. I want to give readers things to think about, and then readers can process them. Reading poems aloud—I was the circuit poet last year so I went on this tour of Connecticut—in my delivery, I try not to emphasize things like, “This is where you need to pay attention. This is where all the meaning is.” So I try to read with the rhythm of it and try not to be like, “This is the crux of it,” because honestly I don’t know where the cruxes of some of my poems are. I like that there are secrets.

L: What was it like touring?

J: It was fun. I’ve always been a theater nerd so I’m interested in performing and reading aloud. It’s interesting to see people in the audience react. For audience members who were into it, they were really into it. There’s nothing more gratifying than someone coming up to you after a reading and shaking your hand and being like, “Wow, that was a dope poem.” I’m like, “Yes, I did my job!”

E: Did you visit universities mostly on the tour?

J: Mostly. We did some festivals. The best was when we went to—I don’t know if it was a nursing home—but it was these five old women. They were the only people there. And the other poets and I were just their personal entertainers. It was so uncomfortable, but I got paid for it so I’m okay with it. It was so strange. They had been workshopping their poems before we came, and then they were like, “Oh, the youth are here!” It was a lot.

Justin Greene is a member of the Wesleyan Class of 2016. Check out “Four Poems,” by Justin here. 

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