Interview with Kate Greenstreet on Young Tambling —
June 27, 2013
Kate Greenstreet’s third book Young Tambling is new from Ahshata Press. Her previous books are case sensitive and The Last 4 Things, also with Ahsahta. Her poetry can be found in Colorado Review, Boston Review, Chicago Review, and other journals. Visit her website, kickingwind.
Christopher Nelson: Let’s start by talking about the ballad, as a form. While Young Tambling would be an unconventional ballad, it does have many of the traditional features: incidents that happen to common people, domestic settings, characterization achieved through dialog, abrupt transitions, and tragic situations presented with simplicity. I don’t ask because I want to categorize the book—I enjoy how your work defies the human tendency to taxonomize—but I’m interested in hearing how (or if) you see it participating in the ballad tradition.
Kate Greenstreet: Back in 2010, I made a videopoem called "The Ballad Form," wondering if I could approach the area of memoir using some of the strategies of traditional ballads. I was just beginning my research for the book. The most relevant reading I did for Young Tambling is cited in the notes. Several phrases and sentences from that reading also found their way into the prose. The observation made by Rachel Blau DuPlessus, “Ballads condense and focus areas of emotion and social pain, yet they are rather uncomplaining,” was particularly important to me. I wanted the book to be that way! I kept it in mind.
Nelson: And what drew you to the titular Scottish ballad?
Greenstreet: Even before The Last 4 Things came out in 2009, I knew that the name of my next book would be Young Tambling, but I didn’t know why. The title is borrowed from the Anne Briggs version of the ballad “Tam Lin,” recorded in 1971. I saw a review the other day at Goodreads in which a reader expressed his disappointment that my book was not about the ballad. I guess he felt I shouldn’t have called the book Young Tambling if I wasn’t going to explain why or make the connection to the song overt. But I was interested in the buried connections.
On page 130, there’s a paragraph beginning with the word “Similarities.” On page 164 is a note about it: “Thinking about similarities between the kidnapped Young Tambling and the deer who first appears on page 12.” I included the note partly to say that if you want to look for other levels of meaning, you’ll find them.
Nelson: One of the book’s delights is the inclusion of some of your paintings. Both your poems and paintings lean towards non-representation, or at least ambiguity in their representations, yet they work together so well to form a whole or a motion toward wholeness. Are the poems and paintings made in response to one another?
Greenstreet: Thanks, Chris. I really like your phrase “a motion toward wholeness.” I tend to build my work—anything I do—from pieces. I usually make the pieces first, then assemble. That process is a motion toward wholeness—not seamlessness, but wholeness.
The images in the book are mainly details. Because they’re isolated fragments, you could say they are a response to the poems in that they show only a part of something, as the poems do—but the writing and paintings weren’t originally made in response to one another.
Since one of the things Young Tambling is about is becoming a painter, I thought I could use art to talk about that life. Any painter’s days are punctuated by paintings. The passage of time is understood in relation to what you started, what you were working on, what you got done. Recalling a span of years, you’d remember certain parts of paintings—areas that came easily or fought you every step of the way.
Nelson: You’re a videographer as well. How do each of these various media—poetry, painting, video—satisfy you? And does poetry do something unique?
Greenstreet: Each is unique, with its own pleasures and problems. The kind of poetry I do can be put into a painting or used in a video without losing its essential nature. Poetry travels well. It’s adaptable and doesn’t demand good lighting or good reproduction. It doesn’t require equipment. It’s cheap to make and versatile in its applications. But for most people, poetry—almost any kind of poetry—is an acquired taste. More than something that hangs on the wall, regardless of style. More than movies, for most of us.
What draws me to video is that so many things I like can be brought together there, including music and noises, also tones of voice, and subtleties of punctuation that there are no marks for. Going back to the earlier question, where you mentioned the ambiguity of my poems and paintings, the main problem with video is that it’s easy to show too much, or to show things in a way that limits a viewer’s freedom to imagine.
Painting is a very physical activity—that’s one thing I love about it. How you breathe when you’re painting isn’t anything like how you breathe when you’re editing footage or writing a poem. The trouble with painting is that it’s from before. A new painting always seems to be asking you to forgive it for being old-fashioned. Poetry isn’t like that. I mean, you can form a poem in a traditional way, but poetry still feels open at one end.
Nelson: I was impressed by your reading at Casa Libre en la Solana; you didn’t move through Young Tambling linearly, but instead seemed to “jump around,” turning to pages randomly. Surprisingly there was narrative cohesion and a consistent atmosphere. What sort of magic is this?
Greenstreet: I know next to nothing about stage magic, except: it isn’t accidental. Before I read at Casa Libre, earlier in the day, I’d spent a long time searching for that narrative cohesion, as I flipped not-randomly through the book, writing things down, crossing them out, reading parts out loud, arranging and rearranging—building that reading. The way I seem to be turning to pages at random is a trick you could learn, like cutting and restoring a length of rope. I hope knowing that doesn’t ruin it for you!
Nelson: The title page, the epigraphs, and some of the paintings are effaced and partially erased, which seems consistent with what I feel as a desire to encounter what isn’t known or what isn’t knowable. For you, does the book implicitly comment on knowledge, on the endeavor—and possibly the futility—of knowing?
Nelson: Can you talk about memory as a subject or “through line” in Young Tambling?
Greenstreet: Memory works something like the narrative tactics of a traditional ballad, described in Francis Gummere’s The Popular Ballad (published in 1907) as “alternate leaping and lingering.” My poetry works that way too. My grandmother used to say about people, “They have to be talking about something.” You know how a magician will keep the audience’s attention on one thing while doing another? In Young Tambling, memories or passages that feel like memories are mostly there to distract you. I never thought of this before! but I think it’s true. I’m trying to divert the attention of the reader (or listener) while creating a space in which something else can happen.
What is entertainment for? What is art for? What is it supposed to do? I imagine a person goes to see a magician in order to be mystified, expanded, lifted out of the mundane for an hour. I think that’s why we have art, of all kinds—that, and to connect us.
I asked a friend once, a painter, why he paints and he said, “We paint for the same reason we dream: to keep in touch with a self no one believes in.” Art is magical. If it turns out there is no self and art is just a bunch of tricks—well, they’re the tricks that got us through.
Nelson: And lastly, if you could re-dream Frank Zappa and his bizarre eight-stringed instrument, what would you ask him to sing?
Greenstreet: Instead of asking him to sing, I think I’d ask him to show me how to play the instrument. He invented it. I’d like to see it work and hear what it sounds like in his hands.
Nelson: Thank you, Kate, for the interview, for your beautiful poems, and for your commitment to art.