Friday, June 5, 2009

6 + 1: Interview with Timothy Green

I introduce a new feature, the "6 + 1" interview. I ask my guests six questions, and they get to ask me one question in return.

My first interview is with Timothy Green (blog and full bio here), editor of the poetry journal RATTLE. Thank you Tim! His poems have appeared in The Connecticut Review, The Florida Review, Fugue, Mid-American Review, and Nimrod International Journal, among others. Green has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and is winner of the 2006 Phi Kappa Phi award from the University of Southern California. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, the poet Megan O’Reilly Green.

American Fractal is his first book-length collection, just out from Red Hen Press.

RATTLE is a biannual print journal, based in Studio City, CA. Founded in 1994, its simple premise is that poetry is something everyone can enjoy—it doesn’t take a scholar to be moved by the written word. Lawyers and landscapers, nurses and professors all share the pages in what’s become one of the most-read literary journals in the U.S.

Lobster & Canary: What is your favorite cloud formation, and why?

Timothy Green: Definitely cumulonimbus. Since moving to Los Angeles five years ago, I haven't felt a good rainstorm. I'd love to see a nice angry anvil looming in the distance, and then the electric in the air and the subsequent burst of rain. All this sunlight is getting boring.

L & C: Paul Muldoon starts his study of the relationship between Plath, Hughes and Moore ("The Literary Life" in his The End of the Poem) this way: "In my discussion of W.B. Yeats's 'All Souls' Night,' a poem written in Oxford in 'Autumn 1920,' I tried to suggest that it was difficult to read it without a proper regard for its intertextual relations, in particular the links between it and a series of poems by John Keats, including 'To Autumn,' published one hundred years earlier, in 1820." Do you think poets and poetry readers are as intensely aware of (and familiar with) our literary antecedents as Muldoon argues we need to be? Should they be?

TG: I think I’d argue against the words “should” and “need” wherever they’re applied to poetry. “Should” and “need” have driven what is really a fundamentally human art form to the fringes of society over the last 100 years. Poetry doesn’t have to do anything other than move you – “you” being anyone who happens to pick up and enjoy a poem. Of course the vast majority of poetry readers are much less familiar with the literary canon than Paul Muldoon – I know I certainly am, and that’s probably why I find Muldoon’s work to be a little dry. (And why he’d probably find my work to be pedestrian.) But the knife swings back to defend his opinion, too – I’d never say a poet or reader shouldn’t be aware of history. As it happens, I’ve read and enjoyed “All Souls’ Night,” but I’ve never read its corollary Keats. Would I get more out of Yeats if I was familiar with “To Autumn”? And would I then recommend the poems be read of together? Very likely. But I think almost any citizen of the modern world would recognize the absurdity in a mandate that I must. Exclusivism leaves a bad taste in the mouth, and it’s very unfortunate that it’s become the primary flavor of poetry for most people. How often have you heard someone dismissively say they “just don’t get” poetry, as if poetry is something that needs to be gotten? Suddenly we’re talking about a puzzle instead of what it really is – a pleasure. Who is Paul Muldoon (who am I? who are you?) to dictate how someone else should find their own pleasure? If Muldoon finds his in literary allusion, I’m happy for him. Personally, I find too much emphasis on the past to distract from the experience of a poem – and when I’m writing on my own or selecting poems for Rattle, I tend to keep the admission price relatively low; if there’s somewhere specific to go I want to guide you there. The only way I think either of us could be wrong would be to say that either of us are right.

L & C: You studied not only English but also biochemistry, psychology and philosophy. Do you feel the rift between "the two cultures" famously identified by C.P. Snow, or is the rift overstated and/or superseded?

TG: If I’m being honest about my experience, and am sure to make the appropriate disclaimers about biases and a small and non-random sample, I’d have to say that there is a rift, but that it’s one-sided. There’s a wall between arts and sciences, but poets tend to pass through it easily. Poets, I think, just tend to be interested in things, and one of those things is often science. Given my background and some coincidence, I’m still in touch with many active researchers, mostly molecular biologists, but it’s always the poets who I find talking about The Elegant Universe and Michio Kaku and particle physics. It’s the poets and painters who ask for my back issues of New Scientist. Few engineers have ever asked for copies of Rattle, and when I showed a postdoc on my softball team a copy of my book, he didn’t know what to say. There are plenty of poets who are scientists, but no matter how irrational, it doesn’t seem to follow that there are as many scientists who are poets. We could speculate on reasons for the division – the overblown pop-science of left brain vs. right brain, or hyper-specialization as a response to modern life’s increasing complexity. Or maybe, since only 14% of the population reads poetry anymore, it’s just the odds. So there’s a gap, but poets cross it easily as they use imagination to explore the world. Poe solved the dark sky paradox and presaged the big bang theory by 80 years – that should tell you something.

L & C: Rattle's stated interest is in "accessible" poems that "have heart." Delve into these descriptors for us--how does a particular poem show its heart, how do you feel the language to be accessible?

TG: Accessibility mostly refers to what we talked about before – Muldoon and the admission price. We tend to avoid poems that rely too heavily on allusion, and if they refer something from the past, then at least they point you in the right direction to research, maybe with an epigram or just by spelling it out. We never publish those poems that are so unmoored from reality that you feel lost within them. Of course the word “accessible” immediately becomes a slippery slope – accessible to who? The college-educated middle-class? Speakers of English? Nell? Basically, we want the average person to be able to pick up a copy of Rattle and find something in it that they’d like to take with them. That has more to do with clarity than any restrictions on language, but I suppose if we have to look up an inkhorn word, we want to be happy that we did. Heart is harder to place, but like Potter Stewart, I know it when I see it. Some poems are technically strong, intellectually interesting, linguistically pleasing, but lack a sense of purpose, or the feeling that the poet is really engaged in the subject matter. The goal is always to provide a transformative experience, and to do that the poet has to be transformed.

L & C: Each issue of Rattle has a "tribute theme." The June issue, for instance, has an African American theme, including interviews with Terrance Hayes and Cave Canem co-founder Toi Derricotte. How do you select the themes...or do they somehow select you?

TG: The sources are as varied as you’d expect. We more or less chose the African American theme, to fill in a gap after Filipino, Chicano and other similar issues found us. But it also had to do with Barack Obama’s presidential run, with Cave Canem appearing in a lot of bios, and specific requests that we interview Terrance Hayes. There was a confluence of reasons that it seemed to fit. With the Greatest Generation issue, we just happened to notice that we’d accepted work from a half-dozen poets in their 80s, so it seemed like it’d be interesting to find a dozen more and try to listen to their collective voice. Other times themes come directly from reader suggestions – we work hard to be an approachable journal, and listen closely to the feedback we receive. So if you have any ideas, send me a note.

L & C: Rattle's tagline is "poetry for the 21st century." What will Rattle look like, how will it sound and read, in five years, in fifteen years?

TG: We always strive to be eclectic, and in a way, diversity is slow to change. We’ll keep publishing poems that are readable and moving, in as wide a range of styles and subjects as we can find. That won’t be any different in 15 years – though I think we publish a bit too much narrative free verse, as a result of the kinds of submissions we tend to receive. Hopefully we’ll print a little more formal poetry, and a little more experimentation. As far as production goes, I think we’ve hit our stride – 200-page issues twice a year, beautifully constructed to be saved, plus a strong and free online component that continues to expand. More people will have e-readers and maybe we’ll end up print-on-demand, but otherwise I’m not going to predict any flying cars. Books have plenty of shelf-life left, and so do we.

The Seventh Question. TG: You write speculative fiction, and your novel is coming out with a spec fic press. I’ve always felt like there’s a deep affinity between poetry and speculative fiction – poets who write novels tend to dive into the surreal, personally it’s the main genre of prose I read, and prose poetry has become such a natural hybrid of the two. What do you think that link is? What are the differences, and what do they have in common as artistic works?

L & C: Great question, Tim, one we should explore with colleagues on a panel sometime. Due to limited space here, allow me to focus on the links and come back to differences in another posting.

In the beginning, poetry was the language of speculative fiction, and the fantastic was the heart of poetry. The mimetic mode intervened in the West, but, nevertheless, the best speculative prose embeds within it the poetry that is our birthright. (I am not surprised that our New Stylists, e.g., Valente, Goss, Taaffe, are accomplished poets as well as writers of prose.) Our common ancestor is the Singer of Tales, whose stories and images were-- and are!--isometric with the language he or she used.

The Singer of Tales and his/her audience viscerally understood--and understand!-- the magic inherent in the power of words. (Interesting: the singer is called the "jeli" in the Mande languages of West Africa, i.e., their own word for what the French called "griot"--my understanding is that "jeli" is etymologically related to the Mande word for "blood.") To pick just one from many, many examples: in the Finnish epic Kalevala, Vainamoinen defeats Joukahainen in a duel of song-spells, the power of words both the point of the action and the means by which the action is sung by the teller. "I find my power in a chant," sings the singer as Vainamoinen, sings Vainamoinen through the singer, "I win my magic from a song."

And so our modern poets do the same.

"The stone had skidded arc'd and bloomed into islands/...curved stone hissed into reef/ wave teeth fanged into clay/ white splash flashed into spray/ Bathsheba Montego Bay/ /bloom of the arcing summers..." (Kamau Brathwaite, "Calypso").

"An unseen rivulet,/ thick as tar distilled/ [...]/ ...and it joins the oily stream/ from the elephants' graveyard-/ / the secret of whose map-defying location/is that it's everywhere./Slower than oblivion,/the river winds past/buckled roots of mountains,/..." (Sarah Lindsay, "From the Elephants' Graveyard").

"Nothing is in my own voice because I have not/ Any. Nothing in my own name/ Here inscribed on water, nothing but flow/A ripple, outwards. Standing beside the Usk/You flow like truth, river, I will get in/Over me, through me perhaps, river let me be crystalline/ As I shall not be, shivering upon the bank./ A swan passed. So is it, the surface, sometimes/ Benign like a mirror, but not I passing, the bird." (C.H. Sisson, "The Usk").

"A field, a sea-flower, three stones, a stile./ Not one thing close to another/ throughout the air. The cliff's uplifted lawns./You and I walk light as wicker in virtual contact./ / Prepositions lie exposed.../" (Alice Oswald, "Sea Sonnet").

"I am the hunted king/ Of the frost and big icicles/ And the bogey cold/ With its wind boots.//I am the uncrowned/Of the rainworld/Hunted by lightning and thunder/ And rivers./ [...]/I am the maker/Of the world/That rolls to crush/And silence my knowledge." (Ted Hughes, "Robin Song").

Coda: The relationship of poetry to fiction and of reality to fantasy are, of course, not simply matters of concern to the spec fic community. Nabokov started his Lectures in Literature by stating that "Mansfield Park is a fairy tale, but then all novels are, in a sense, fairy tales." Borges, Calvino and Eco, to name just three others, devote enormous energy both in their fiction and in their literary criticism to exploring, and playing with, the nature of language poetical and otherwise. But further conversation about their project(s) will have to await another posting.


Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (orig. 1946).

Jorge Luis Borges, "The Translators of The Thousand and One Nights" (trans. Esther Allen), in Lawrence Venuti, ed., The Translation Studies Reader (2000, orig. 1935).

Italo Calvino, "Levels of Reality in Literature," in Calvino, The Uses of Literature (1978).

Umberto Eco, "Languages in Paradise," in Serendipities: Language & Lunacy (1998).

John Miles Foley, Traditional Oral Epic: The Odyssey, Beowulf, and the Serbo-Croatian Return Song (1991).

Thos. Hale, Griots and Griottes: Masters of Word & Music (1999).

Lauri Honko, with Chinnappa Gowda, Anneli Honko & Viveka Rai, The Siri Epic, as Performed by Gopala Naika (1992).

Kathryn Hume, Fantasy & Mimesis: Responses to Reality in Western Literature (1985).

John W. Johnson & Fa Digi Sisoko, The Epic of Son-Jara: A West African Tradition (1986).

Ursula Le Guin, "Stress-Rhythm in Poetry and Prose," and "Rhythmic Pattern in The Lord of the Rings," in Le Guin, The Wave in the Mind (2004).

Albert Lord, The Singer of Tales (orig. 1960; 2nd ed., 2000, ed. by Stephen Mitchell & Gregory Nagy).

Michael Moorcock, Wizardry & Wild Romance: A Study of Epic Fantasy (2004, with intro by China Mieville, afterword by Jeff VanderMeer).

Vladimir Nabokov, "Jane Austen: Mansfield Park," in Nabokov, Lectures on Literature (1980).

Tzvetan Todorov, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre (orig. 1970).

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