A Moment with William Greenway

A Distinguished Professor of English at Youngstown State University, William Greenway’s poetry winds its way from the hills of Wales to the darkened corners of Ohio dive bars, finding the profound within the ordinary at every turn. The language of his poetry is ever-snowballing, picking up pieces of dialect along the way.

In his own words:

    “Perhaps because I was raised in the South, I care as much about how people say things as about what they say. I try to catch this realistic, perhaps regional tone in my poems. The other thing I notice about my work is that it is nourished by my dreams. And so there is a contradiction in most of my poems–though they are often set in a real and particular place, the place is changed, almost surrealistically, as in a dream, to a place which, though still recognizable as a particular place, is now universal, an Everywhere which I hope is accessible to everyone.”

William Greenway’s tenth collection, Everywhere at Once,and his eighth collection, Ascending Order, are the recipients of the Poetry Book of the Year award from the Ohio Library Association. He has published over 600 poems in such publications as Poetry, American Poetry Review, Southern Review, Georgia Review, Southern Poetry Review, Prairie Schooner, Poetry Northwest, and Shenandoah.

We are pleased to present an audio interview with William Greenway for our first issue of Jenny, as well as to publish five original poems.


An Interview with William Greenway

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Chris: Hi, this is Chris Lettera here for Jenny. We’re very lucky to be speaking with Dr. William Greenway today. Will is the author of ten collections of poetry, most recently Everywhere at Once, published by the University of Akron Press Poetry Series. He has published over five hundred poems in publications including Poetry, American… – oh, six hundred! Ok. I stand corrected – in publications such as Poetry, American Poetry Review, Southern Review, Georgia Review, and others. He has won the Helen and Laura Kraut Memorial Poetry Award, The Open Voice Poetry Award from the Writer’s Voice, the State Press Chapbook Competition, an Ohio Arts Council Grant, and Academy of American Poets Prize, and has been named Georgia Author of the Year. Will is currently distinguished professor of English at Youngstown State University. Will, thanks for being here with us today.

So, you’re a fisherman. I was creeping on your Facebook, and on the bio section of your page you wrote “Fishing for me is a spiritual experience and related to poetry.” Can you talk more about this?

Will: Yeah, well, when you talk about shamans, and your totem, I think a fish is my totem. It’s because my father… that was the only time I really connected with my father and my love of Florida, where we would go on a brief vacation every summer. But, you know, if you wanna get sort of artsy-fartsy and Freudian about it, to me it suggests what a poet does, and that is… you don’t know what’s down there, you know? And the underwater is the traditional symbology of the unconscious, or the subconscious. It might be the unconscious too. It’s exciting to me, and what’s exciting about it and the reason I think freshwater fishing is boring is there’s nothing dangerous down there. But in saltwater there’s always something dangerous down there, and that to me is the kind of thing you wanna pull up for a good poem, something that’s uh… “Oh my god, I didn’t know this was down here!” Maybe watching too many of those “Creature of the Black Lagoon” movies. But I like being scared, and I like being scared about what’s going on under my own surface.

Chris: Speaking of those movies, in “Double Feature,” your poem in Where We’ve Been, you wrote about two films: “Shane,” the great, great Western with Alan Ladd, and “The Thing From Another Planet,” with James Arness in that latex suit get-up. What other media captivated you as a young guy, and what stories caught your attention and moved you?

Will: Lordy. I… . for a long time I never wrote anything before midnight or without watching old movies. They just pull up so many memories. Again, it’s a way to run the subconscious data stream by the conscious data stream letting and giving things a chance to hook up. I’m not sure if your question is just about movies or about… . well, I started writing poetry in response to folk music, which is what really grabbed me first was, uh, you know when everybody else was listening to The Beatles “He loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah” and I’d just go over to Bob Dylan and Joan Baez and Peter – especially – Peter Paul and Mary, who were singing all these wonderful lyrics. And the minor key music, which somehow touched something in either my religious upbringing, the hymns and things, or something Celtic I like to think, because of my Irish grandfather, my Welsh grandfather, so… and then I quite early turned into an Anglophile. The poems I liked best were, you know, the British poets like Dylan Thomas, he was my first real influence, and I remember when I was nine or ten years old one summer – hot dusty Georgia summer – reading Hound of the Baskervilles ten times in a row. Soon as I finished it I’d start it over again, probably the way kids nowadays read Harry Potter. But that became… anything British became wonderful to me. Which led, you know, which led me to read really great poets.

Chris: Cool. I’m gonna read something you wrote a while back. You wrote, “Perhaps because I was raised in the south, I care as much about how people say things as about what they say. I try to catch this realistic, perhaps regional tone in my poems.” Can you tell us about where you grew up?

Will: I grew up my first nine years in Atlanta and then the other time was outside of Atlanta which was a little more rural. And to this day I still think that even the least educated, un-poetic people spoke with a kind of flair, a way of expressing themselves that was just wonderful. And I still have a lot of those expressions in my own… poetic vocabulary, I suppose it is. William Stafford once said… .they said “What’s your greatest influence?” He says “My mother. She had a way of saying things that was just different.” And there’s always something in a Stafford poem that’s… . . odd, about the way he says something. And I think, you know, in this Southern colloquial talk… it’s very quirky. And I love to get something like that in my own poetry, something you can say “Wow!” and a “that’s never been said before!” kind of feeling to it.

Chris: I was speaking to a friend recently about the author bios on dust jackets and how nowadays they almost read like a CV or resume.

Will: Yeah, right, right.

Chris: But you know, back in the day, you would find a list of real world experiences. From what I read online, you were an aspiring Baptist preacher, football star, folk singer, a carpenter, you were drafted into the Navy and served four years as an electronic tech guy down in New Orleans. How did these experiences shape you and shape your writing, the stuff that you get outside of the classroom.

Will: Yeah… .uh, two things that come to mind… . my not aspiring to be a Baptist preacher or football player, to avoid those things at all costs the way I avoided… .I mean, the thing that made me conscious of racism was the people around me who were so racist, you know? I said, “Well, I’m gonna do the opposite,” even before I took a real moral stance on it. So, to get as far away from that as possible… but of course, I’ve got a poem where I say “I’m just like my daddy.” I’m holding the text at a pulpit in front of a class and I’m… you know, I’m preaching, is essentially what it is. And the other thing is… Yeats always talked about being a poet and a man of action. And to me that was really important. It wasn’t to be sort of sequestered indoors. It was out there working in the world. And I don’t know of any direct connection that sort of — this sounds really corny — made me more well-rounded somehow, to spend that much time out of academia and with guys that could take apart jet engines and put ‘em back together, you know, or these carpenter guys. I don’t know, it’s like I say, it gives you a wider range of things to write about. Billy Collins, God bless him but one of his books is called Sailing Alone Around the Room, and that’s typical Billy Collins for you. He’s always sitting there in his living room or his dining room or wherever and that circumscribes his whole poetic world.

Chris: Yeah…

Will: And, I mean fishing is about that too. It’s getting out there in nature in some way, shape, or form.

Chris: Yeah. One thing I’ve noticed about your work is that the setting varies quite a bit. You’ve set poems everywhere from the West Fork Restaurant up here on Belmont Avenue near Youngstown… You’ve set poems down south. What draws you to writing about a certain place?

Will: Whatever memories that they conjure up… I write best about Georgia, for instance, when I’m in Wales. I write best about Wales when I’m in Georgia (laughs). I’m not sure I can explain how that works, but it just gives you a different perspective and slant on things and you’re not seeing the things you see every day. You’re somewhere else and so you’re seeing new things that are hooking up with older things. But if you just, if you don’t travel… Eudora Welty told me one time, she was one of the few great writers I ever met… I told her I’d just won this prize at American Poets and she said “Oh, what are you gonna do with the money?” I said “I don’t know.” She said “Oh, I’d just buy myself a ticket and go as far as I can on the bus and come back home again.” That’s good advice, I think. Just get in the car. It’s amazing how many – on a long car trip – how many amazing ideas for poems come into your head.

Chris: Oh yeah. Tell me a little more about Wales. Can you talk a little more about Simmer Dim and how that came about?

Will: Yeah, um… Wales. Wow. It’s not a terribly literary experience except in the sense that you’re surrounded by different stories and different legends and Simmer Dim has a lot of those in there. And that’s… they’re archetypal stories, so when you can pull ‘em into your own work you’ve tapped into a sort of universal consciousness, I hope. What I wanted to do with Simmer Dim was… my style had gotten so, um… standardized. You know, every time I started to write a poem I could almost hear the factory whistle blow and see the words lining up in a typical Greenway poem and you know “here we go again.” I thought, “Damn I’m gonna do something different,” and when I started – it must be something in the water over there – but I started writing poems that were rhymed and metered again, ‘cause I’d admired people like Richard Wilbur and I saw in many of his poems… you know, he never would have gotten to this word or phrase if he hadn’t been rhyming. So, I just needed to mix things up, and that’s what I did in that book: A different environment, and different styles.

Chris: Cool. You came to Youngstown in 1986. How has the city changed since you came here back then and what do you think Youngstown can do better as a community?

Will: Oh… what I miss most about Youngstown was… there was an old sort of cadre of poets who all knew each other, and there was a kind of distinctive Youngstown style, very wry humor. Iit could be I’m just not going out to poetry readings like I used to, but it seems to me a lot of those people, some of them have died, some of them have moved on in different ways. So that’s very different. I haven’t noticed really much physically that’s changed. The most gratifying thing to me is there going to knock down another “x” number of buildings and houses and create more green space. I just think that’s fantastic. You know, if I could have a flying saucer with a ray gun that disintegrated stuff, that’s what I would do.

Chris: (laughs)

Will: I would go all over Youngstown and just… just atomize every old crap building that’s still there, you know? Just let it grow up into weeds. So, that seems to be… changing our actual physical environment is a great idea.

Chris: Yeah, cool. That’s a hell of an image and you heard it here first. Will Greenway with a ray gun (laughs) going around Youngstown. Well, we’re definitely in a struggling economy. We’ve been in one for a while and… there’s all this emphasis especially among my generation on developing math and science jobs and tech jobs. Um, you know I flipped on the TV the other day and I think it was Dick Armey, the former rep from Texas, who was talking about, you know, how do we reduce the deficit? And the first thing he jumped to was, “Well, let’s cut the NEA.” Let’s cut the National Endowment for the Arts.

Will: (laughs)

Chris: You know, the knee jerk response, and in light of this… what would you say to someone here at YSU who is considering taking a poetry course or to anyone who is considering picking up and reading a book of poems?

Will: Well, my stark response to that is somebody wrote in to Newsweek about some story and said “What is all this about poetry? Poetry is useless. I’d rather have a light bulb than a poem.” And my friend wrote back and said “If you had a child or a loved one on a ledge getting ready to jump, would you more likely hand them a light bulb or a poem? William Carlos Williams said, “There is no news in poetry but men die miserably every day for want of what is in poetry.” And I think we ignore an old-fashioned term – the soul – at our peril, because all we seem to be interested in… not all, but the interest has so shifted in education to… you know, it’s important to get a job to provide for the bodily needs. But at the same time, like I say, we neglect our spiritual growth at our peril.

Chris: Yeah, it seems to tie back into something you wrote a while back. You said that poetry helps to keep us whole as individuals, as communities, and as a world. William Heyen came here a while back to talk at the YSU Poetry Center and he was reading this poem about Mickey Mantle that he considered one of his favorites, and he said that the good ones come really quickly. Do you find that’s true, or are the good poems the ones you have to work over and labor over?

Will: That’s funny. I just said this to Mindi after struggling with this poem that I couldn’t get right for a week and I’m saying, “I’m… I’m killing myself over this mediocre poem when the good ones come very quickly.” And I didn’t have to work… I mean, I worked hard at making them better, but I didn’t have to work hard at finding an ending or the whole second half of the poem. Um, still I agree it’s… it’s like having to think like… like going out on the basketball court and saying, “Gee, well lemme think about playing the best game I can. Well, you’re screwed.”

Chris: Yeah (laughs).

Will: You know, if you get out there and go with the flow, it seems easy but…

Chris: Right, right. So, don’t doubt the flow. Um, how can a writer establish a flow like that? Aside from listening to the inner spirit, is it just reading a lot? Is it…

Will: Well, it’s reading a lot, and I know some people… my friend Elton Glaser says, “I always read somebody’s work I like and then I take a nap.” (laughs). You know, give it time to sort of… and to me, the two things are… getting, uh, it sounds funny – building your regularity (laughs). Your poetic regularity. And the way I did it was I did the same thing every day. I watched the old movie and drank beer, or I wrote in my journal. I think poets are just people who have learned how to listen to themselves, and if the subconscious gets the chance to talk to you anytime except when you’re asleep, it will begin to… it’ll begin to look for that time to have its say, as it were.

Chris: One last question. You wrote again a short while back that one thing you noticed about your own work is that it’s “nourished by your dreams.” Can you tell us more about this?

Will: I used to think I was alone in this, and there’s a wonderful quotation I could use from Yeats where he says, um, it’s, it’s… “Our dreams are wonderful. They’re flowing. Things are changing continually, and things aren’t predictable.” And I think good poems are sorta like that. They’re… they’re kinda dreams on paper, even if they’re about real things. I think they purge in the way dreams try to purge about our fears and so forth and so on. You know, like the monster chasing us is a real monster, it’s just that we have to identify what that monster is in real life. So, I think it’s a wonderful world to enter into, and as long as the dreams are good ones, I can imagine it would be something like a great afterlife experience just to go into this dream world and live there.

“William Greenway’s Everywhere at Once travels between muggy recollections of a Southern Baptist childhood, meditations on the otherworldly beauty of Wales, and commentary on life, death, and the revelry in between. In lines taut with bluesy musical precision, Greenway clearly demarcates the before and after, pivoting on his wife’s stroke and arduous recovery.”


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