Jul/Aug 2007  •   Reviews & Interviews

An Interview with Kate Greenstreet

Interview by Jeannine Hall Gailey

Kate Greenstreet's first book, case sensitive, from Ahsahta Press, is a wonderful hypnotic interweaving of narrative, dialogue, science, and mystery. The book has garnered positive buzz in the blog world and many positive reviews from places like ForeWord Magazine, and case sensitive doesn't disappoint; as twisty and turning as any good mystery ought to be, it satisfies those looking for subtlety, intelligence, and a deeply embedded sense of speaker as reader. Even the beginning of the book indicates this; the first lines are as follows:

Many things about the story are puzzling.
The women cooking, the men
swimming in the sea.
I believe we need light
inside the body.

In her author's statement, Greenstreet describes her book:

A woman is driving across the country. She has experienced a fracture in her life, a sudden opportunity. Her traveling companions: two books of Lorine Niedecker's letters, writings of Agnes Martin, the letters and journals of Paula Modersohn-Becker, a biography of Marie Curie, and a collection of interviews with Louise Bourgeois. As she drives, she's listening to a novel, a mystery. When she stops to eat, she brings a book into the truckstop with her, also her journal. Writing down some of her thinking from the past 50 miles, she is reminded of a comment of Modersohn-Becker's to Rilke, which soon shares the page with observations about radium and a few scraps of conversation from the neighboring booth. Poems arise.

case sensitive is a narrative experiment. I had a character in mind. I thought about her. She thought about me. We were in it together. I had a question. Or two. What happens in the book I want to read? And: how would it sound?

A beautiful artifact (like all of Ahsahta's books) as well as a fascinating read, case sensitive will appeal to those looking for challenging, layered material, at once prosaic and densely poetic.

I first learned about Kate's work through her series of First Book Interviews on her blog, which were tremendously interesting to me as someone who had recently had a first book published. These interviews answered all the questions I'd curious about: how did other writers feel about their first books? How did they promote them? How did their lives change? I was honored to have her interview me as part of the series. When I heard Kate read in Seattle, the work seemed to be immediately accessible, with an intimate voice, a speaker casually dissecting her surroundings and investigating the world around her. On second and third readings, this sense returned to me—that a woman directly communicating her stream of consciousness as described in the author statement might sound exactly like this book. Here's a fragment from the first section/chapbook/long poem, "Great Women of Science":

Once mentally created, they had life,
didn't realize they were dead and wouldn't just
disappear when their presence

became uncomfortable for him.
One night, while he was at a meeting,
I ripped out everything: shelves, cabinets, wallboard.

I corresponded with Kate Greenstreet through e-mail to discuss her work.


JHG     You've said in a previous interview that although you sent out your first manuscript for years with little response, case sensitive was picked up on the first round of submissions by Ahsahta. How did you find out Ahsahta was going to publish your book? What was your first response?

KG     I got an email from Janet Holmes. She'd been unable to reach me by phone. My husband Max was sitting at the desk when it came in. "Listen to this," he said. I actually screamed and jumped up and down. Then I hugged him and screamed again and jumped up and down some more. I remember this mainly because Max was surprised by the screaming part.

JHG     How long did it take you to write the poems in the book/to put the manuscript together? In your author statement, you talk about creating a character who narrates the sections (or chapbooks) in the book. How did she come about?

KG     I started thinking about writing a mystery story back around 2001. I was sending out my first manuscript and continuing to work on it—I mean the new poems I was writing tended to become absorbed into that manuscript as I attempted to improve it. At the same time, I felt lonely for a certain kind of book (to read) and also I wanted my writing to DO more—I wanted to expand. But I couldn't really write fiction—I hadn't even been able to read fiction in years. What I was able to do was keep a notebook about a character, to try to find out more about her. And I asked myself questions about the story I wished I could read. As I began looking for answers, I started to write poems that obviously didn't belong to my first manuscript and, over the course of the next few years, they became my second manuscript (my first book), case sensitive.

JHG     Your work is full of painterly imagery and descriptions of landscape. For instance, here are some lines from "Great Women of Science":

The fortuneteller climbs up a ladder with a roller in her hand, in a hot pink shirt. She seems young to know so much. The door is open. She's been painting the inside of her place bright white. The outside of the storefront they did last week: a surprising golden ochre.

How do you feel your work as a graphic designer, as well as your surroundings and landscapes, affected this work?

KG     There's a town where I like to walk, about 5 miles east of where I live. The fortuneteller is right next door to the pizza place, and I saw her one day on a ladder, exactly as described. I walked in that town so much while I worked on case sensitive! In the hills, by the harbor, downtown—I used those places as a source of energy and inspiration.

I don't know that my job had much impact on case sensitive, except that it supported me financially while I was writing. But graphic design is essentially just the combination of words and pictures, and I did take a lot of photos of the town and sometimes writing came directly out of that. In "The Purpose of Discouragement," near the end of the book, the character says something I was also feeling:

I've been walking around the harbor and the streets of the town with my camera. When I come home and download the pictures, I see the other town—the one I'm always looking for.

More than my current surroundings or any place I've lived having an effect on the book, I'd say that it grew from my desire to find a place I haven't found. A story of a person who is given a house—it really isn't influenced by home but by a kind of homesickness.

JHG     How did you decide on the organization—for example, you state that it is a collection of five chapbooks, why five? Is each chapbook really a long poem? And what about your decision to include footnotes at the end of every section?

KG     Great Women of Science, [SALT], and Book of Love are long poems. Where's the Body? and Diplomacy are collections of shorter poems and chunks of prose.

The idea about the chapbooks came when I was pretty far in and wondering how to organize the material. Most of all, I wanted to write a book. In other words, it wasn't the specific poems that I was most interested in but the larger shape. Organizing the book into chapbooks was just what felt right finally, in my attempt to make something whole. Turned out to be five chapbooks—all these things took time to see—but I didn't make it five for a reason.

I did have reasons for including the footnotes at the end of every section though. For one thing, I wanted it to be obvious that the character was thinking about what she was reading, that she was engaged in a dialogue with people who weren't there. And that's why the quotations aren't the kind you'd find in a book of great quotations. Often they're things that anyone might have said. But they were said by people that the character was involved with—Lorine Niedecker was a person to her, not "just" a poet. Paula Becker, Marie Curie, the same. I wanted to indicate too that the character wasn't making notes or lists of quotations, but forming pieces of writing deliberately. Also, I like books to lead me to other books—I was reading the same things that my character was reading, and I wanted to mention those particular books and people because I just like it when writers do that. It's one way to find out where to go next.

JHG     When I first read your book, your poems appeared very fragmentary, tumbling from one thought to another with little obvious narrative. For example, from "dusting for prints:"

The subject is distant, and dark.
Each instance has its rewards. Sex can't explain it.
"Their goal is to empty themselves."

If you feel you can no longer pray, personally, I like trees, birds.

Personal & unintelligible, my addiction bores me.
We still need spoons, plates, and knives. Bowls. Your star sign.
Those weeks with you?

When I heard you read these poems aloud (at Open Books, in Seattle) you read them very conversationally, albeit in a stream of consciousness way. Is the collection best read as a character's inner monologue?

KG     I think of it as an inner dialogue more than an inner monologue.

I need some narrative but I don't like explaining, filling everything in—or, as a reader, having things filled in for me. For instance, that the character made these chapbooks was part of my picture of her but, by the time the book was done, all that remained of the chapbook angle were the notes pages at the end of the sections and the lines in "new units of distance" about the poet's needle, which referred to her sewing her books to bind them. Those lines can have various meanings though, even for me. You wouldn't need to know I was imagining a woman who put her poems into sets, designed their covers, and stitched their pages at the fold.

JHG     I noticed on the back of your book, where there would typically be an author bio, you include just the URL of your blog. Do you feel your blog represents who you are? What do you feel are the benefits (we always hear about the disadvantages) of keeping an online journal?

KG     I tend to find author bios boring. At least, mine is! I didn't feel like putting something so dull on my book. My blog isn't really an online journal—I tried, but I've never been able to keep a journal for long. Still, a reader who sees that address on the cover could go to my archives and find out quite a bit about the author. And at the time we were designing the cover, the blog did reflect more about me—that was before I got into the interview thing.

In calling the blog "every other day," I made a commitment to post that often, so I wound up doing writing and visual experiments that I wouldn't have done otherwise. Some of these led to the forms or helped me develop the material that will become my third book. I find prose a lot harder to write than poetry—I don't know if blogging has made it easier but at least I've been practicing. And everywhere I go, traveling to give readings, I meet people from the blogging community—it's really nice. Being part of that group, I feel less foreign in strange towns all over.

JHG     Your first book interview series has been a wonderful resource for poets looking for information and guidance in that fraught time during which they're trying to publish a first manuscript. Why did you decide to do it? Did it help you to know what to expect?

KG     I had the idea of interviewing a couple of people (Shanna Compton and Stephanie Young, whose first books I happened to be reading), because I find it difficult to write critically and I wanted to point to their books in a bigger way than merely to say: I like this. I admire poets who are doing something more than just getting their own work out—poets who publish other poets, run a reading series, write reviews. Doing a couple of interviews seemed like a small step I could take. And my own first book was coming out, 6 or 7 months down the road—I wondered what would happen then. It was almost like I wanted somebody to tell me not just what to do but what I would do.

It was still in the idea stage (Shanna and Stephanie had said yes but we hadn't gone further) when I read in Brooklyn for the first time in the Burning Chair series (this was March of last year) and met Andrea Baker, Brenda Iijima, Jen Benka, and Stacy Szymaszek that night. (I actually met Shanna for the first time that night too.) Anyway, I asked a few more people: I sent questions, they sent answers, and I put the first interviews up. I asked a couple more people. It wasn't long before poets and publishers were writing to me, asking to be included. And of course I kept finding new books too. I began to have a mix of writers I wouldn't have thought of all on my own, from various poetic neighborhoods. I felt that might be useful and, judging from the response I've gotten, I think it has been.

And yes, knowing what other people experienced has helped me. At some point, I'll answer those questions myself.


A poem from Kate Greenstreet's book case sensitive:

dusting for prints

The subject is distant from and dark.
The subject is seen through glass.
The subject reflects, or has a luminous body.

If you feel you can no longer pray, care less, don't be selfish.

Was he an artist?
I remember him cutting a sword out of wood, and painting it gold.
"Arms" seems wrong. It's their nearness.

Sometimes it's you and I'm calling to you but I say the wrong name.

Several glass ashtrays, the panther lamp. The light
bent toward the map. I spent a long time under the table, learning
to recognize wires. How we would change her.

How the bullet is scraped as it moves through the barrel.

The subject is distant, and dark.
Each instance has its rewards. Sex can't explain it.
"Their goal is to empty themselves."

If you feel you can no longer pray, personally, I like trees, birds.

Personal & unintelligible, my addiction bores me.
We still need spoons, plates, and knives. Bowls. Your star sign.
Those weeks with you?

I remember driving you somewhere. Driving, and it was snowy.
Nothing was figured out.
You said redemption looked like a painting of fire, after a fire.


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