Kate Greenstreet: Why do you write? Is there a difference between writing poetry and writing prose?
Linda Norton: I write because I read, and also because I hate to be misunderstood, and because I have witnessed and experienced things that are unbelievable but real, and I need to tell. I guess being misunderstood really means: me misunderstanding myself, unless I write.
I pay a lot of attention to things, books, people, places, history, and ideas—it’s not normal. I had to find ways to get stuff out of my head and into shape—poetry, prose, collage, collaboration, anonymous or credited—it’s all the same for me. I consider myself a writer and not a poet, but the fact that my best friends are poets may mean that I am one, too. Poets created the world in which I can be myself and no self—liberation.
I’m a devotional writer—I write to pay homage or to honor and remember, or to communicate—via letters, votive candles, collages, prayer or argument—with the living and the dead: “Pour a sip on the concrete/For the deceased.” All of my work is collaborative in some sense.
Poetry is about paying close attention to words and sound, and opening oneself to associations that would be impossible without poetry. Collage, and prose in its highest form, or even its lowest—documents, memos, lost and found sound, scraps, etc.—can be poetry for me.
KG: How do you feel about sending your work out for publication?
LN: Diane Arbus said she honestly believed there were things that people wouldn’t see unless she showed them. I like to publish things when they approach that standard, or when they are as complex, simple, and powerful as the music I love.
The first two writers in my life were strong characters, and they are gone now. I thought I would live out my life appreciating the work of those two as well as the work of the painters in my life, but now I am left on my own to keep finding out, living, making things.
I have been writing poetry and other things for a long time. I started publishing fiction, non-fiction, and criticism sporadically in my twenties but I wasn’t happy with my work and kept myself busy being a wife, sister, daughter, chief mourner, wage earner, reader, editor, and publicist—a noticer and an appreciator-in-general (my friends were writers, painters, composers and musicians) through my twenties and thirties.
I was shy and filled with mortifying self-doubt and shame. Becoming a mother in 1994 was the beginning of a great change in me. I think of Emily Dickinson’s “If your nerve deny you/go above your nerve” (sounds like a song for jumping rope).
I worked out a lot of things in my notebooks. In fact the manuscript I recently completed, THE PUBLIC GARDENS: Poems and History, includes a long prose section of memoir in the form of notebook entries (with poems mixed in) from the late 1980s and early 1990s, when I lived in Brooklyn. The book is half poetry, half prose—very much place-based. A kind of spiritual and sexual autobiography.
KG: What about readings? Do you feel performing is part of the work?
LN: I don’t consider performance to be part of my work, though I do find that reading aloud can help with revision. I like to do readings because I like to participate, to contribute, and I often hear people say, “I had no idea you wrote!” or “I had no idea you were a visual artist!” (If I am known at all, I am known as someone who used to be the poetry editor at University of California Press.) It’s funny to take my interior life out into the public, out loud, instead of publicizing the work of others, which I loved to do when I worked in book publishing.
I don’t speak loudly enough to be a good performer, though. In college I was always around the theater but never wanted to be on stage. I loved being part of a team, doing tech work or being a stagehand or writing something for others to say.
A lot of what I write is funny—I think so, anyway—and it’s good to hear people laugh when I give a reading. I love voices and have read with some masterful performers. In fact, I mention Claudia Rankine’s voice in the essay that’s posted online at Counterpath Press. Whenever I read Claudia’s work, I hear her voice as I read. It’s phenomenal.
KG: What is the relationship between the essay at Counterpath online, “The Great Depression and Me,” and your memoir-in-progress, My Little Brown Book?
LN: The online essay is illustrated with collages I made in 2006. I started making collages in my office on 42nd Street in 1993. I was inspired by Susan Wheeler, who used to send me postcard collages and thus drew me into the long tradition of poets working with paper, paint, and collage. (We both lived and worked in New York, not far from each other, but sent each other things in the mail—so wonderful.) For me collage was a way to circumnavigate my superego. Language and ego, the Word and the Truth, were so intertwined and freighted, in my case, that I needed a different format to give myself permission to make and play.
So I was making this series of collages, or it was making me, in 2006, when I was grieving about several people and it was raining a lot. I was also doing research about my father’s mother, an Irish immigrant who gave birth to him during the depths of the Great Depression. She wasn’t married, she worked as a domestic, and eventually, when he was two years old, she had to give him up. I love the WPA and FSA photographs of that era and I gave myself permission to add commentary to some of them, including the most iconic images. That permission was important to me—it is one of my “issues.”
I thought a lot about mash ups and sampling as I was working on the collages. The essay was originally called “Antic Documentary.” It was a way of writing about the process of making the collages, but it evolved into a meditation on history, poetry, race, ethnicity, class, music, lost mothers and fathers, and place (New York and Boston).
If Julie Carr and Tim Roberts and others hadn’t expressed interest and confidence in what I was doing, I wouldn’t have had the nerve or the motivation to shape the work for public consumption. Editors and friends and collaboration can be instrumental in the making of new work. Collaboration helps me find a way to get the inside and the outside into right relation to each other, and alleviates loneliness.
My Little Brown Book takes various characters and incidents from the “Great Depression” essay and opens them up with chapters that include memoir and a lot of research into some mysteries or ghosts that remain mysterious to me—but now they have facets and antecedents.
KG: What will you be reading on February 5th?
LN: I will probably read several poems from the new manuscript, poems triggered by the Psalms of David, and also a section of Brooklyn Journals. Maybe I will distribute a sort of broadside, an erasure I made with a page from a rain-soaked bible I found in the wreckage when I visited the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans in April of 2007—a poem called “The Stars” that comes from the Book of Job.
I won’t be selling copies of my Etherdome chapbook, Hesitation Kit, at the reading, because there aren’t many copies of it left. And I haven’t yet found a publisher for the new book. Perhaps I will raffle off a few of my collages.
I no longer think of my written work as separate from my work with photographs, paint, canvas, and paper; I like for them to be juxtaposed, as they are in the chapbook and online at Counterpath’s site. The process of composing my collages—looking for material, or happening upon it—cutting things out, preparing the ground, arranging and re-arranging and layering things—waiting for the right placement or accident—unattached to any particular outcome, open to delight—this has helped me to learn how to write.
Linda Norton is the author of the chapbook Hesitation Kit (Etherdome, 2007) and the essay “The Great Depression and Me” (Counterpath Press online). She recently finished writing a cross-genre book called The Public Gardens: Poems and History. She works at the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley and lives in Oakland.
Kate Greenstreet’s second book The Last 4 Things is just out from Ahsahta Press.