Bel Canto to Bulgaria: The Rumpus Interview with Garth Greenwell

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Garth Greenwell’s first novella, Mitko, won the 2010 Miami University Press Novella Contest. Greenwell discusses “gay identity,” loneliness abroad, and art songs with Shara Lessley.His poems have appeared in Yale Review, TriQuarterly, Boston Review, Salmagundi, and Beloit Poetry Journal, among others; his essays have appeared in West Branch, Fourth Genre, and Parnassus. He has received the Grolier Prize, the Rella Lossy Award, a Dorothy Prize, and the Bechtel Prize for his work. Greenwell lives in Sofia, Bulgaria, and teaches at the American College of Sofia.

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The Rumpus: You moved overseas in the fall of 2009 and Miami University Press announced that Mitko, which follows the story of an American who initiates a relationship with a male hustler shortly after arriving in a foreign city, won its novella contest in January 2011. What sparked the writing of this book and how long did it take you to complete it?

Garth Greenwell: The first and most important provocation for writing the novella was simply the experience of living in Bulgaria. When I moved here two years ago, I’d never spent an extended period abroad. I arrived a month before the other American teachers at my school and had weeks of solitude to explore my new city. I’d studied the language a bit before arriving and could make myself understood for basic necessities, but nearly everything around me was entirely opaque, and I felt all the usual displacement, bewilderment, and loneliness, emotions that are at the heart of Mitko. I also found myself entirely captivated by this place, which is unlike anywhere else I’ve ever been. Sofia is an ancient city, and Bulgaria has had an extraordinary history, from a period as one of the great powers, rivaling the Byzantine empire, to a history of successive subjections: Greek, Roman, Ottoman, Soviet. I’ve never been anywhere where such a rich and layered history is so visible: there is an area downtown where one can stand in front of a mosque built during the Ottoman empire, descend a staircase to a hallway interrupted by Roman ruins, turn into a bright European metro station, and then board a Soviet-era train. There’s an extraordinary sense of eras and empires colliding into each other, their rises and falls legible in their human traces. And there’s also natural beauty, my sense of which grew over the course of my first year here, as I saw more of the country outside of Sofia. I wanted to write something exploring the beauties and ravages and contradictions of my surroundings, and the ways in which those surroundings seemed to influence the lives of the people I was meeting.

At the same time, so much around me seemed very foreign, I also found that much of what I was experiencing, for all of its strangeness, returned me to earlier experiences, especially to my childhood and youth in Kentucky. Half by accident and half by seeking them out, I stumbled on erotic communities here—gay cruising spots like those I describe in the book—that were nearly identical in their expectations and mores to those I had known in the States. Thanks to improving language skills, I was able to engage increasingly with the people I was meeting, and then found that there was a secrecy and shame about them that also reminded me of the men I had met in my first sexual encounters in Louisville in the 1990s. So writing about the places and communities in Mitko was also a way of reflecting on and processing my own experiences growing up in what seems in some ways like a similar environment, though those connections remain largely tacit in the novella. (I’ve explored them more explicitly in a recent essay.) I wanted to write a book that could serve as something like a literary record of those places and lives. I wrote the first draft of the novella very quickly, beginning it in the spring and finishing it by the end of the summer.

Rumpus: In Beloit Poetry Journal’s recent symposium on gay poetry, politics, and poetics, you identify Bulgaria as a place where “powerful public figures warn of ‘faggots’ on mainstream news programs and where last summer a man was killed in Borisova Gradina… by nationalists who said they were ‘cleaning up the queers.’” Given its Bulgarian setting, do you see Mitko’s publication as a political act?

Greenwell: It’s hard to see the publication of the book in English as a political act. But I would very much like for Mitko to appear in Bulgarian, and there I think it could have some significance. I’m still just in the beginning of my reading of Bulgarian literature, but I’m told by friends that there’s almost nothing in the tradition that offers a portrait of gay lives as worthy of a full measure of human dignity. In popular culture, nearly all representations of gay people present them as stereotypes, the butt of jokes (though this does seem to be changing); and, as I wrote in the BPJ symposium, there is shocking tolerance of speech about gay people in the public sphere, including speech that goes beyond what even the most conservative mainstream figure in the States or Western Europe would dare.

Part of what I would like for Mitko to do is to make visible communities that to this point have remained almost entirely invisible in this part of the world. Gay writing is only just emerging here (including in the work of the very talented young poet Nikolay Atanassov, whose work is appearing in translation now in places like Poetry International and American Poetry Review); I’d be very happy for Mitko to have a place as part of that emergence.

Rumpus: And yet, to exclusively categorize the novella as “gay literature” seems limiting to me. One of Mitko’s accomplishments is its ability to expose and engage the complexities and ambiguities that accompany intimate relationships both physical and emotional, regardless of whether the players in those relationships are hetero- or homosexual. Isn’t the book’s real concern the universal link between longing and power?

Greenwell: I think that’s exactly right. In the BPJ symposium, I tried to think a little bit about my own ambivalence about “gay literature” as a category and “gay writer” as an identity. On one hand, I do think that there is a gay tradition in literature, and that tradition has been intensely important to me as both a reader and a writer; in some sense it is important to me to identify with it. On the other hand, I absolutely reject any notion of “gay literature” that might cut off works engaged with gay lives from the larger, “universal” (if there is such a thing) themes and traditions of the literary imagination.

This question of the relationship between local circumstance—those facts (of gender, class, race) that might get in the way of readerly identification with a text—and universal significance is one of the thorniest and least resolvable in literature, I think. It matters, in some crucial, essential way, that Mitko is a book about certain lives in a certain place—that it is, among other things, a gay book—but surely one of literature’s functions is to train our sympathies to allow us access to shared experience across circumstances that can seem to (or that actually do) divide us.

When I think about the books about love that have seemed to speak most powerfully to me about some universal experience, it strikes me that nearly all of them seem studies in various kinds of extremity that quite decidedly distance them from my daily experience. Death in Venice and Lolita are studies in pedophilia, the poems of Frank Bidart are frequently meditations on violence, the tenth book of the Metamorphoses explores in each of its stories disordered love, what we might think of as perversion. In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James makes an argument for the use of the extreme case as a particularly effective object of examination, functioning as a kind of magnification to allow us to study ubiquitous phenomena that in their daily manifestations can be difficult to see clearly. The particular circumstances explored in Mitko may exert a special pressure on the characters in the novella, and certain aspects of their experience—prostitution, cruising, anonymous sex—may be foreign to the experience of some readers, but I do hope that the book is also invested in larger themes familiar to our shared lives: loneliness, ambivalence, the impossibility of certain or absolute knowledge of another, and also, as you say, the relationship between longing and power.

Rumpus: When Mitko shares a video clip of a much-loved French songstress, you describe her as “affecting an extremity of dignified, photogenic devastation,” a posturing the narrator vehemently resists. You’re a classically educated opera singer. How has that training influenced you as a writer? Do you find any connection between “voice” as musically scored for stage vs. that which appears on the page?

"Fag = Subhuman"

"Fag = Subhuman"

Greenwell: Classical singing gave me a sense of the physicality of language I’m not sure I could have acquired elsewhere, and the tradition of the art song was my first experience of literature. The settings of Schubert, Schumann, Duparc, Hugo Wolf were my education in poetry, and Benjamin Britten’s settings of English poetry seem to me the best interpretive readings those texts are likely to receive. In both prose and poetry, as reader and writer I do feel as though I experience the shapes of sentences and lines physically, in something like the same way I experience musical lines; certainly I owe whatever sense I have of the music of language to my life as a singer. And it occurs to me now that perhaps the long, bel canto lines of much of the repertoire I sang are also the source of the excitement I feel at language stretched over great distances, an experience I try to recreate through various strategies for extending syntax.

In terms of both dramatic and emotional form, the love I feel for chamber music (especially the chamber operas of Benjamin Britten) informs the excitement I feel about lyric forms in both poetry and prose; I love the sense of concentration such forms bear, of emotion heightened through relatively minimal means. There’s a kind of maximalist approach to minimal material in a work like Britten’s Turn of the Screw—which, in addition to the chamber size of its ensemble, is structured on the model of a theme and variations, so that the whole work is based on a principle of obsessively reworking the same ideas. This is a brilliant approach for an adaptation of Henry James, whose work makes so much of so little, constructing whole worlds of interior experience from the lightest visual trace (a raised eyebrow, a shoulder turned away). It seems to me that this degree of attention—a kind of pressure exerted on the surface of the world, hoping it will crack—is at the core of that province of the literary imagination we call the lyric.

Rumpus: Emotional intensity heightened by “relatively minimal means, ” it seems, is precisely what the French singer lacks: “It wasn’t the manipulation, which of course is the aim of all art, that offended me,” you write, “but rather its bareness, the vulgarity of its methods, so that the whole apparatus of provocation and response lay stripped to its essential meanness.” What has the young prostitute, Mitko, in common with the French performer in terms of beauty, public pretense, and string-pulling? Do you agree with the narrator’s assertion that art’s aim is manipulation?

Greenwell: The source of the narrator’s growing unease throughout the novella is a sense that he is having an emotional response to Mitko incommensurate with the reality of their relationship, which is—to use the word the narrator uses repeatedly—a transaction. In the scene you mention, the act of their watching this video together appears at first to be a kind of opening up on Mitko’s part, an attempt to share a private significance. But the singer, who seems so histrionic, so staged in her emotions, so unaccomplished in her art, serves instead to puncture and deflate the narrator’s emotion toward Mitko, and to make him suspect Mitko’s actions—including the sharing of this video—as themselves a kind of artfulness, a cynical manipulation. This artfulness (and, as the narrator notes, if Mitko is an artist in this sense he is far more skilled than that French singer) is a kind of power, as the narrator’s money is a kind of power, so that both of the characters are in some sense prone to some constraining force.

I do think the narrator is right that art is engaged in “provocation and response,” and that its goal is manipulation: by putting a frame around something, in images or words or sounds, art determines what we see, and so attempts to determine what we feel. Great art makes us feel richer for that manipulation and therefore grateful for it; bad art makes us feel cheap.

Rumpus: Rumor has it recently appointed Poet Laureate Philip Levine wanted to be a novelist, but claims poetry is better suited to his attention span and temperament. Whitman and Cavafy appear in Mitko’s pages, and many readers know you primarily as a poet. What is it about prose that attracts you? Do you work on multiple projects simultaneously? What does each genre demand of you in terms of attention and methodology?

Alexander Nevski Cathedral

Alexander Nevski Cathedral

Greenwell: I’ve always written critical essays, but only started working in prose as a medium for more imaginative writing since moving to Bulgaria. In some ways I don’t fully understand the shift in genre is tied to the shift in culture, landscape, and language. Perhaps it’s simply that I have felt overwhelmed by new information since arriving here and have needed a more spacious medium to process it. Poetry so often feels like a kind of sculpture to me, a kind of carving out of speech; it has been a pleasure to work in prose, where I can think in larger units—the unit of the sentence or scene, instead of the unit of the image or line or (more often) of the single word.

I do find myself tending to work on only one project at a time, and when I’m engaged in longer prose pieces, other writing can come to seem like an interruption; as a result, I’ve found myself doing less critical work in the last couple of years. I haven’t written any poems for some time, and now I’m deep into another prose project. I hope that eventually I’ll find myself writing poems again. Whether working in poetry or prose, since starting work as a high school teacher five years ago, my writing practice has remained mostly unchanged: a fairly strict regimen of two hours a day. I stick to that as religiously as I can, and now it seems to have become a fairly natural rhythm—though I often long for a life able to accommodate longer stretches of work.

Rumpus: Like the book’s protagonist, you’re an American teacher of literature at the American College of Sofia. How has the book been received there? Do you worry about confusion between what’s fictive vs. that which is autobiographically based?

Greenwell: The book deliberately draws parallels between the life of its narrator and the life of its author: everything we learn about the narrator’s biography, about the facts of his past and present situation, matches my own. And so my adamancy in refusing to confirm or deny where autobiography ends and fiction begins can seem (even to me) like coyness. I can’t say that I worry about confusion between fiction and nonfiction, except in the least interesting ways; for me, at least, there’s a pleasure to be had in that confusion, an energizing tension. The distinction between the genres is most profoundly I think one not so much of material as of orientation: where the narrative of Mitko makes use of autobiographical material, it does so for the purposes of its own advantage and art making, not for the sake of any commitment to something like “the truth.” It’s that essential commitment (however muddy or impure), and not the accident of alignment in regard to facts, that marks (for me) the distinction between the genres. So far, the attention the book has gotten here, both in the College and in the larger ex-pat community, has been supportive.

Rumpus: One of things we have in common is life lived overseas. Have you found a community of artists or authors (ex-pats or otherwise) with whom you share ideas or exchange work? What are the challenges you face as an American writer living abroad? Are there advantages?

Greenwell: I have made some friends among writers in Sofia, but I wouldn’t say that I’ve found a community of artists. Part of that is due to a demanding job; given my responsibilities at the American College, it’s nearly all I can do to make time for writing, and I seldom make it to readings or other events. But it’s also partly a choice, since the most valuable thing I find about being abroad is a certain degree of apartness—the solitude that, even as (at times) it seems a kind of suffering, also seems necessary for my writing. Writing has increasingly come to seem to me an act of almost absolute privacy, and I think that’s largely due to the fact that I’m not part of a writing community now, and so I can go months and months without showing my writing to anyone. But of course that privacy or solitude isn’t really absolute, and life abroad still allows for a great deal of connection. When I’m ready to share a draft, I have a few readers who have been friends and trusted critics for years.

One disadvantage of a life abroad, at least here in Bulgaria, is the difficulty of finding English books. I teach in English, but at times (usually in the middle of grading a batch of essays) I do worry about losing touch with English as a medium for expert, supple, artful communication. But mostly I think that this distance, too, is an advantage, and the fact that English is not the language of the streets here helps allow for the added dimension of privacy that I find so fruitful for what remains the solitary work of making meaning on the page.


Shara Lessley is a former Stegner Fellow. Her awards include the Diane Middlebrook Poetry Fellowship from the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, an Olive B. O’Connor Fellowship, the Tickner Fellowship, and a “Discovery”/The Nation prize. Shara’s poems have appeared in Ploughshares, The Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, The Cincinnati Review and Alaska Quarterly Review, among others. Her collection, Two-Headed Nightingale, is available from New Issues in 2012. She currently lives in Amman, Jordan. More from this author →