Writing Life

Talking Community with Kate Greenstreet

One of my professors recently urged me to contact a writer I truly admire and am inspired by, Kate Greenstreet. It’s hard to put into words exactly why I am drawn to Kate, her writing, and her process, but, inevitably, whenever I’m forced to talk about my own work, Kate ends up being the measuring stick.

After wrestling with myself, trying to figure out exactly how to approach Kate about an interview (and, honestly, if I would even be “worthy”), I took the plunge. I was met, rather immediately, with warmth and gratitude as well as graciousness and honesty. After a few email exchanges, we settle on talking about artistic and writing communities and what they mean (a theme that’s been a big part of my writing life lately and, as luck would have it, Kate’s as well).

Two things before I get into the interview:

  1. Check out Kate’s latest and previous work and interviews!
  2. Maybe we shouldn’t be so afraid to reach out to those we admire.

 


 

JS: What is community to you?

KG: I picture a circle. People in a circle creating a space where something can happen. In the case of poetry, that’s where you’d say your poem. The circle would give you a place to do that. Then, ideally, anyone who wanted to could take a turn in the center.

We know there’s really no such thing as “the poetry community,” just like there isn’t any “art world.” There are many communities in poetry, serving different needs, different tastes. But I imagine this circle to include every kind of poet and everyone who loves poetry.

JS: When was the first time you felt engaged in a community?

KG: I began reading poet blogs in 2003. I was excited by the online conversations: people were talking about poetry and poetics, about their own work and each other’s. They were also starting magazines and reading series, they were getting their small presses off the ground. A place was being made. The internet gave me a kind of home base in poetry. I remember saying once, “If I’m a regional poet, the internet is my region.” I felt I was engaging with a community long before anybody knew me, through reading. Then I started my own blog in 2005.

In early 2006, I read in Brooklyn for the first time, opening for two popular poets. That night I met so many people I’d only known from the blog world or from reading their poems, it felt like I was meeting every poet in New York City. I’d gotten an idea, maybe the day before, that I could interview some poets at my blog. My idea was to interview a few people who had only one book out. A lot of the poets I met that night were in that situation and everyone I asked about being interviewed said yes. My main question was going to be “How has your first book changed your life?”

I hadn’t planned on doing many interviews, but the thing just grew. Pretty soon, poets were getting in touch with me to ask if I would do an interview with them. And of course the more I read, the more new poets I discovered. One book leads to another. Eventually I’d interviewed 103 first-book poets (archived here if you have an interest).

The interviews were connecting me with people from all over the U.S. and in Canada, so when my first book was published, I felt okay about writing these poets to ask if they could suggest any place to do a reading in their area. I had no idea how to make the arrangements or get the dates to line up for a tour. I put a large map up on the wall and stood in front of it, imagining routes.

JS: When has your engagement with the poetry community been a negative experience?

KG: I would say never. If the community is one huge circle, that circle only exists to make things possible.

But if you mean: did I ever get my feelings hurt? Sure. That’s gonna happen. I think the feeling of being an outsider is pretty common among poets. You could say we’re a community of outsiders.

JS: How has your relationship or your involvement with your community changed?

KG: For a long time, I toured with considerable devotion. I got to meet a lot of poets. People were incredibly generous and I made friends. I visited classes and met students—it was great. Something in me took to the challenge of lining up readings. I toured when I had a new book and between books as well. In 2013, when my third book came out, I was on the road all year. Since then, I haven’t done any readings. My community relationship has changed significantly, because I’m not seeing people. I used to be on Facebook, which let me feel connected in a loose way. But I found I couldn’t keep it up when I needed to turn inward again.

JS: What does authentic engagement look like for you now? How do you remain engaged with community in a meaningful way when isolated?

KG: Wherever you are, one thing you can always do for poets is read their poems. You can buy their books and recommend one poet to another. We come to the poetry community in the first place searching for something good to read or listen to. We’re the audience, and an audience is vital.

Writing our own poems and making them available is another way to participate. Right now I’m having a turn passing through the middle of the circle: I’ve got a new book out. I made some videos and recordings to go with it—they’re free, you can find them online. I think we do our work hoping to be able to give back what others have given to us. Along with feeling like outsiders, we have in common our gratitude to all the artists whose work has helped and inspired us.

JS: Do you have any advice for poets who are just beginning to find our footing in the landscape?

KG: Extend yourself as far as you can. Then stop. Stop for a minute. And then go a little further. Do the kinds of things you’re actually equipped to do to help other people, and let them help you. If you can’t do X, do Y. And just be the decent person that you are.

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