In I Live in the Country & other dirty poems (Four Way Books, 2020), the fifth collection by Arielle Greenberg, pleasure is out in the open. The setting is the idyllic countryside, with its animals, its rain and smells of earth, its farmers, its filth. The poems’ speaker has decided to ditch the city for a more bucolic life, and in this new wide-open space, she sets upon opening her marriage as well. What’s set in motion is an ongoing project to see how far she can go in achieving sexual freedom.
The poems themselves create pleasure, and strive for pleasure, even as they sometimes deny or tease, making readers crave the next dirty line. This work is by a poet who believes in erotic possibilities while still investigating the lack of those possibilities. Using the pastoral and the prose narrative, Greenberg delicately builds scenes of sexual deviance, balanced throughout by a feminist philosophy.
In “chat,” a poem styled in the time-stamped format of a g-chat transcript, she writes “that’s the big question for me—how to own my / consensual submission within what is still a completely misogynist / system. Is it possible to genuinely own (and therefore consensually / overturn) that kind of power, the power of surrender? I want to believe / it is …”
Greenberg has published four previous collections and a work of creative nonfiction and has coedited three anthologies, including the influential Gurlesque (2010). A former tenured professor at Columbia College in Chicago, she moved with her family to rural Maine in 2011, where she writes and teaches.
Over Skype on a gray January afternoon, Greenberg and I talked about becoming an animal, already being an animal, the ways in which poetry is similar to sex, and the tension between a desire for pure libido and raw expression.
Over email, we talked about the kinky film The Duke of Burgundy (2014), which mirrors many themes in your book. You capture this constant moving between the animal, wanting to consume and be consumed, and then needing control. There’s a desire to be carried away in the writing, but you’re also creating narrative poems, which are loose but still tied to rules. There’s an internal questioning of one’s sexual ethics. You capture so well this tension between being the animal and being subject to a code of rules and conduct.
How I always start talking about this book is, I left Chicago. I left an academic position to move to Maine with my family. [People] had this idea that the decision was so wholesome—this idyllic vision of what it looked like moving to the country. What actually happened when we moved to Maine was, I had space for the first time in a long time to think about what I wanted in life, and I was like, oh, I want to open my marriage, and I want to explore kink and adventurous sexuality, which I’d been interested in forever. There was a disconnect between the perception of my wholesome rural life and my pretty wild sex life.
I knew I wanted to write poems about sexual pleasure because I couldn’t find any by women that weren’t about trauma, so I gave myself specific rules for these poems. They had to be sexually explicit, and they had to mention the natural environment in ways that couldn’t be naive. (I moved to this rural place, but I have no illusions we’re in some pristine ecological Utopia. The fucking planet is being destroyed.) The other rule for the poems is that they are pastorals, so I was very much thinking about this sense of pulling someone into the country.
I’m curious about the book’s first poem, “I am an animal” (“First I wanted to fuck, to turn this moment all the way into my flesh like / a starred sky and think of nothing else, to explode”). Where do you see the animal emerge in poetry for you?
I guess I'm interested in poems that explore the tension between formal procedure, craft, and mess. Because that’s my personal taste. Like, the confessional; you know, it’s a fraught term, but what do I love about Plath? I think it’s that line she walks between tight craft and mess: psychic mess, language mess, sprawl, unable-to-be-contained fucking mess. I’m not interested in a formal poem that follows its rules. That feels patriarchal to me.
I love to let poems be raggedy. Your poems are contained, but the eroticism allows a messy quality, allows the poem to be full of cum.
One comment from my editor early on was like, “Does there have to be so much jizz?” And I was, like … yeah.
Give us the cum poems!
I really wanted to write queer, feminist, cock-centric poems and be unapologetic about that. It felt scary and still does, I guess.
I consider many of your poems love poems. I thought of The Women Troubadours (1980), an anthology of 12th-century women poets from Provence, while reading your poems, and I thought about the female speaker as a romantic. Are you a pessimist about romance or hopeful?
I’m such a pragmatist, so I'm suspicious of the grand gesture, though I love it in theory. I think that's why I like the kink approach. It feels like you're playing with it in a subversive way; it feels interesting or more political to me, and that’s the kind of “bad romance” I’m interested in.
Seduction, however! I love the notion of the cock tease. Because that’s about control. It doesn’t feel like manipulation but like reclaiming space within rape culture to harness our sexual power for what it’s worth, and I mean literal worth. I’m really interested in hearing stories about financial domination. Like, pour the cash on my body. We live in a capitalist culture—let’s just say what it is.
I’m also interested in the dumb blond trope because it’s an act. Marilyn reading Dostoyevsky in the corner. As women, we are in a transactional power dynamic in this culture, so let’s fucking use it. Why pretend otherwise?
Speaking of the dumb blond trope, sometimes there’s a real want to turn off your brain and not think. Your poems ponder this. As sex books gather on your nightstand, you’re like, am I just going to shut everything else off? As a reader, I found that very seductive. Shut out everything else and go into the animal!
What I say to my many friends who are in long-term monogamous marriages is this: everyone needs an escape pod. As primates we just do. It’s incredibly sad because monogamy seems like the birth of so many problems. Why would you not want your partner to be sexually alive in the world and attractive to other people and attracted to other people? It just means they’ve got, you know, energy, sexual energy, happening in them. If you cut them off to other people, how are they going to bring it on for you?
I want to talk about gurlesque, the term you coined for a theory, or a school, of poetry. The anthology came out in 2010, and another is set to come out this year. I was a young writer when I found that first collection, and it made me interested in poetry, which before that had seemed inaccessible to me. Have the themes of gurlesque defined your writing?
I'm so happy to be associated and thought of with gurlesque, but I’m more a fan girl than a practitioner. I think it goes back to me being a good girl. I’m a little too yay team punk rock cheerleader.
They are often bad-girl poems.
And there’s a lot of bad behavior. Chelsey Minnis—I love the title of her book, Bad Bad (2007). Certainly I have dark poems, but I don’t think of that as my aesthetic at all. Gurlesque is an aesthetic theory that I originated and developed, but I don't write in it. I have thought a lot about what it means to be a gurlesque poem, so I’m running my poems through this sort of rigorous test in my mind.
What’s the test?
They have to traffic in the detritus of girlhood. Maybe there are unicorns and glitter, but there’s also snot and vomit. They’re femme, maybe high femme. It has to be girly, but it has to be aggressive and assertive; it has to take you by the throat and throw you down the stairs. It has to be a little fearless and badass for sure. I love that your book is called Porn Carnival (2019). Gurlesque is like that real sense of the carnival: sweaty, gritty, and trouble.
The way you dedicated yourself to a full sex life seems like an art form itself. As we’re talking, I’m thinking about the expression of sex as an art and about the relationship between sex and poetry, how both have raw expression and form.
There’s something about the ephemeral and the ineffable in both good sex and good poetry. Both are trying to capture some kind of container that is destined to dissolve. I also think there’s something to the form of a poem that reminds me of edging, or orgasm denial or delay, like you said about withholding. In any good literature, a good poem does withhold, so there is the thing about giving you just enough drip of pleasure to be like … stay with me. It’s good.
I used to write a kink series for the Rumpus, where I’d ask writers to think about their writing practice in relation to their kink practice. I never wrote one about mine, but if I had, I would’ve written about objectification and the sort of worshipping of words that one does in a poem. I want to be reverently objectified. And I think that a poem reverently objectifies language. I think that’s part of why I’ve always loved poetry. The way it traffics in the concrete and in sound play and in just the dense material fact of language feels really fetishy to me. I guess because it’s like worshipping the power of this stuff. Like, leather, god, I just want to feel it and smell it, and I think a poem is like that. I want to just stay there and go deep with it. I want to ingest it. I want to pray to it. It’s the talismanic power of it.
I love when you write “What good’s an open marriage when I’m so goddamn choosy and I don’t go outside when the moon pulls my name.” Even as your book questions openness, it always moves toward it. You set out to write a book of pure pleasure, and for me the beauty of poetry—unlike prose—is that it can stay in the moment, can strive continually toward pleasure and ecstasy. The novel is more doomed to circumstances and the sum of one’s life.
I think you just said something absolutely key to the link between poems and sex for me, which is, ideally, both would happen in an almost trance-like state. Whether or not we want to call that tantric, to my mind, all good sex is tantric sex because all that means is you’re fully present and fully embodied. Like Jack Spicer said, “I am not the signal coming through the radio and I am not the person receiving the signal but I am the radio.” In the best sex, I am the radio, and in the best poem, I am the radio. You’re like the most you version of yourself. But it’s an interesting line because you’re also, at times, out-of-body, but you’re also like, yes, yes, I am also all here.
One of my mentors in grad school talked about Emily Dickinson feeling inevitable. Dickinson’s lines feel inevitable. It’s like, what the fuck is she talking about? And yet, it’s so inevitable. I’m with you for this ride. That is the best kind of poem and the best kind of sex too.
And when you find it, the next phrase, the inevitable next word or stanza, it’s the best feeling. It’s like an orgasm. In “And a Brief Memo on Impossibility,” you write, “I am not trying to ignore rape // […] I am trying to turn my eye toward joy.” Here again is that ethos of the poem striving and reaching out, just as, throughout the collection, you continually reach for pleasure. That poem seems important.
I had a conversation with my editor where she or I were like, it's not the strongest poem in the book but it needs to be there because it's important to me that I am holding the possible impossible. I have to hold it to be true that there can be pleasure, feminist sexual pleasure, in a rape culture, when what’s the alternative? Only a dead end. I have to accept I have no agency ever, and any pleasure I have is marred by misogyny. I know that’s true in a way. It’s not a level playing field, and it’s not a culture that respects sex or in which sex is not transactional. And, yet, I want to believe in the possibility of pleasure.
Rachel Rabbit White is a writer based in New York City. She is the author of Porn Carnival (Wonder, 2019) and Poetry is so Lesbian, a chapbook (Wonder, 2019). Her work has been featured in The Believer, Brooklyn Rail, BOMB, Vogue, The Poetry Project, The Rumpus, and more. She is...