Book Review

Eric Greinke, Conversation Pieces – Selected Interviews, Presa Press, 2012

by Timothy McLafferty

“Pure spirituality outside of dogma is a human potential.”

Conversation Pieces is a collection of five interviews with Eric Greinke, the first of which was given in 1977, and the rest in 2008 and 2009. Interestingly, these are not transcriptions of real-time interviews: in all five, Greinke was given the questions and was able to compose and return his responses. It’s also interesting to see that his values and thoughts on art have remained consistent through the 30 year gap in these interviews. The interviews cover craft, work habits, publishing, translation, and his career as a social worker. There is also ample biographical information, and some information on other Grand Rapids poets.

On his introduction to writing:

[I’ve been writing] Fifty years, I wrote my first poem at ten… Once that door of perception was opened, there was no closing it. By twelve, I was walking around with a giant copy of the collected poems of Keats & Shelley & reading Allen Ginsberg.

I had a strong grounding in American transcendentalism in high school, & it’s lasted my whole life. Thoreau’s philosophy has had a profound effect on me.

Greinke stopped publishing his writing for 25 years in order to devote his time and energy to being a social worker, he explains:

I felt a strong need to get physically involved in the effort to treat child abuse & neglect. Although I had sudden recognition as a poet, I felt that it would be vain to prioritize it over working directly toward social change. I needed to see myself as a man of action. I had the energy & wanted to tussle with evil. Later, when my conscience was clear, I began publishing my writing again.

On his own poetry, and views of the responsibility of poets, from the 1977 interview Greinke writes:

I am dedicated to confronting the obvious. I am more interested in discovering universals and similarities in the human experience than in emphasizing and supporting our differences, which are fewer. Writing is a communication. This is where contemporary poetry has failed to enter. Whitman used public symbols, because he recognized that by internalizing them, by making them his own, he could transcend subjective experience and achieve communication. I believe that our hope of embracing the consciousness of the race lies in embracing what is most us, most human.

At the foundation of every literary work is a commonality, a cliché, an archetype. The kind of poetry that emphasizes our differences is no more than a manifestation of the neurotic need for attention and affection and approval. Artists have neglected their mandate for too long, and the public has sensed this and turned away, back into angst. But is doesn’t have to be: poetry is a primitive magic that enables us to overcome alienation by assimilating its contents to ourselves. If we assimilate some poet’s internal values, we become further alienated. But when we recognize the assimilated material as truth about ourselves as well as the poet, we move closer together. I want to shake poetry out of its sheltered complacency. To do this, I openly confront the taboo against the use of public symbols, and I enter the mythological realm wherein lies our inheritance.

Symbols are, in fact, central to much of Greinke’s poetry, and in 2008, while discussing his chapbook For the Living Dead, he writes:

My favorite short poem is Garment, because it expresses transcendence from the personal to the universal. The imagery works perfectly for me & evokes the feeling I had when I wrote it, reliably. My favorite poem in the chapbook is the title poem, For the Living Dead, which I composed over a seven month period during which my mother died. The poem has too many built-in features to enumerate here, but its complexity is subtle & it works beautifully as a unified whole. I wanted for years to create a major poem that would encompass the full range of emotional tones, so the reader would experience a full range of emotions all within the same work. The poem is also cathartic for me. It is something I really wanted to say, said in exactly the way I wanted to say it.

.… the poem utilizes pure symbolism unattached to a specific metaphor, which puts the reader in the position of poet.

I wanted to use symbols instead of metaphor. [to] ask the reader to supply his or her own metaphor.

How interesting to see this sustained interest in symbols, and the intense desire to engage his readers, making them poets, and making poetry a communicative and transformational experience. Back to the 1977 interview:

I want readers to be aware of their own polarities, to recognize the ambivalent nature of being. In short, I want them to be poets. Only by becoming aware of the subjective perceptual boundaries can one transcend subjectivity and attain spontaneous creativity. We are at a point in our species where we can and must take active part in evolution. This means that the rational mode of thought must be placed in a perspective which recognizes that there is another side to the coin. Poetry can provide this insight as well as many other valuable lessons.

I do not provide my readers with my feelings. I provide them with their own. They get a poem from me, not an interpretation of one.

Conversation Pieces offers us a rare opportunity to approach and understand a poet’s more abstract work via the poet himself. This is a fortunate gift, and helps in appreciating the dedication and artistry of Eric Greinke.

Degrees of abstraction are like rungs on a ladder. Climbing requires flexibility. An internal locus of control increases responsibility & leads to better choices.

In poetic terms, I’ve learned that ambiguity & mystery are desirable, & that the poet’s intention is not necessarily the real message of a poem. Poems symbolize deeper thoughts & feelings, the way dreams do.

From another interview in 2008:

I use recurrent personal symbols, sounds devices, color, tonal variation and irony regularly. I also use a variety of projective and associative compositional methods. Poetry is a way to open doors of perception. My favorite works are those that mystify me with implications of deeper, perhaps ineffable meaning.

Some time is given over to his work as the publisher who founded and operates Presa Press, a publishing house dedicated to documenting the underground canon, presenting non-academic post-beat poets, and “to presenting and preserving divergent voices that restore the art and expand consciousness.” On Presa, he writes:

Poetry should always be mind-expanding, open not closed, a vehicle of human potential. We want to be a resource of positive energy. We’re on a mission. It’s good karma.

In Conversation Pieces we that see much of his philosophy of life is interwoven, if not identical, with his artistic persona. Certainly a product of his era, and very American, Greinke is in the woods with Thoreau, and even a bit Merton-esque. Looking for poetry to be a medium of personal and social change and enlightenment, he writes with a responsibility, curiosity, and a sense of fun.

This is a good year for Eric Greinke, who has just won the 2012 Allen Ginsberg Poetry Award, and this is a good book for us, offering us insight, cause for introspection, and giving us a chance to get to know a fine American poet who deserves greater attention.

Timothy McLafferty lives in NYC and is a professional drummer. His poems have appeared in Pearl, Forge, Painted Bride Quarterly, The Portland Review, Talking River, Soundings East, RiverSedge, and Short, Fast, and Deadly. His book reviews have appeared in Verse Wisconsin. He provides cover art and illustrated letters for Forge.