The Rumpus Interview with Arielle Greenberg

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Arielle Greenberg is the author of several collections of poetry and chapbooks, including Slice, Given, and My Kafka Century, and the hybrid genre nonfiction book Home/Birth: A Polemic, a collaboration with Rachel Zucker. She co-edited four poetry anthologies with Zucker, including Women Poets on Mentorship: Efforts and Affections and Starting Today: Poems from Obama’s First 100 Days. She also edited an anthology with Lara Glenum titled Gurlesque.

Greenberg currently curates a series on the Rumpus, (K)ink: Writing While Deviant, which examines the intersection of alternative sexuality and literary praxis.

In July, she released Locally Made Panties, a collection of what she calls “micro-essays” about fashion, style, body image, consumerism, and other related ventures into the personal-political. Greenberg writes accessibly about the “superficial” issues, yet a politically charged undercurrent runs through the entire book—starting with the cover, a foreshadowing of the subversiveness within.

She took some time out of a road trip to grant us her first interview about the new book, the shame of sharing it, and why women are always wearing the wrong size bra.

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The Rumpus: One of my favorite things about this book is how deceiving it is—and how it seems like it’s “just” a book of meditations on fashion and motherhood and these things that women worry about. But it’s so subversive. I don’t know if that’s how you would describe it though, so could you speak a little bit about that?

Arielle Greenberg: Yeah, definitely. I think you’re right. It’s like a stealthily serious book and I wrote it purposefully in a light tone. It’s by far the most accessible thing I’ve ever written. My poetry is not terribly accessible and my previous book of nonfiction was more accessible but still more innovative in form and less of an easy read, and I wanted Locally Made Panties to be read in one sitting, to be really enjoyable. And there’s absolutely intentionally a very serious undercurrent in the book around questioning notions of consumerism and conventional markers of femininity and all of those kinds of things. I wanted it to be able to deliver that while still being a fun, lighthearted read, able to be enjoyed on multiple levels.

Rumpus: Why did you decide you needed to write this book? Was there a particular essay in it that sparked it?

Greenberg: I have been telling my students for a long time that you should write what scares you most and you shouldn’t avoid the hard stuff and you should take genuine risks, like revealing something that feels really scary to reveal. And in my own work, I have written sexually explicit material and feminist material and material about my family and none of that felt all that scary for me. Some of those things are scary for some writers to reveal but the truth is that we each have our own boundaries and limits or parameters for that stuff and just because it might be really hard for someone to write the narrative of their childhood abuse, for example, for somebody else, maybe that story is actually very easy to tell for whatever reason.

And I had just gone through the experience of having my baby and he was stillborn and I had written a whole book about that sort of unintentionally. When I finished that project, I thought that that’s pretty much the scariest thing I could imagine writing about and then I was kind of like, now what? I wasn’t purposefully looking for a new project but it turned out that I needed to write and I felt like I didn’t know where to go from here. I really tried to do some self-examination around what would be scary for me to write about after my baby’s death.

I realized what’s scarier for me than writing about all these taboo or difficult subjects would be writing about the superficial stuff because that actually is harder to admit as a feminist and an intellectual and that’s what I don’t want anyone to know. I’m glad to talk about all these really difficult things but I don’t want anyone to know how much time I spend thinking about my hair or what shoes to buy. That feels genuinely embarrassing and shameful. And so really that became a project. I was actually enlisted to be part of a chapbook collection and I thought that the project would be for that and that it would just be this short little series and then once I started, it just kept going. And I decided I had to keep pushing deeper and deeper to get to the really serious stuff within that material. So that’s how the book came about.

Rumpus: I’m glad you brought up the fact that it was scary to write this book, or to at least share it, because I was curious about that. I am totally ashamed of how much time I spend on the J.Crew website and I swear, when I read that piece in the book, I felt like I was reading my own story! Knowing how embarrassed I am about something like that, I wondered if you were nervous about sharing this work.

Greenberg: Definitely! I think it’s a “dirty little secret” for many feminists and for powerful women—we fight so hard to be taken seriously in this culture and to have our work taken seriously, but it’s also true that we are not necessarily out from under thinking about how we look or how it relates to our image of ourselves as feminists and intellectuals and powerful creators of culture. Before this actually became a book, I read from it a couple times and it went over really well because I think so many people were like, “me, too!” And then I saw a shock of recognition of, “Wow, somebody’s saying these things out loud that I’ve never dared to say out loud before,” which was really the goal for me in writing it. It’s like we talk so much about giving voice to difficult things—and I don’t mean to be irreverent about that. I think we do need to give voice to difficult things that are much more important than this, certainly, but this is important stuff because it gets to the heart of what it means to be a woman in this culture and where our money goes and where our energy goes and those are serious concerns that I didn’t see out there in literature in this way.

Rumpus: Every once in awhile in this book you have certain pieces like “Volunteerism,” for example, when you say, “there’s a war on, for god’s sake.” How did you find a balance between essays about the more “important” things like that one and the ones that are about superficiality but do still have that underlying commentary?

Greenberg: I wanted the project to be punctuated with those parts so I feel like in structuring the pieces, I didn’t want to go too far for too long of a stretch without being reminded either directly or sort of sarcastically [of the “important” things]. You know, sometimes I just say, “won’t I look better at political rallies if I’m wearing these shoes?” or whatever. And it’s sort of a joke, but I mean it, like I do genuinely think about that and it’s extremely problematic and I recognize that. But it’s also true that I want to go to political rallies. So I structured the book so that you can’t just ride the wave of pleasure for too long without being brought down either by the reality of self-loathing or the reality of the fact that I had a baby that just died or just all of the political realities of the world.

Rumpus: Can we just talk about the cover for a second? It’s so audacious! How did it come to be?

Greenberg: Yeah, this is a great question! By the time I actually got to thinking about publishing this book, it was years after it was written. And I was really deep in another project when I got the contract for Locally Made Panties a couple years ago. It was a project of “pornographic pastorals” which are all about sexual pleasure and what it means to experience sexual pleasure as a feminist in the patriarchy. And those poems are very dirty and explicit on purpose and so I was in that mindset where nothing was too raunchy for me. And because I was writing poems that were so X-rated, I was definitely influenced by that because before, I don’t think I ever would have chosen an image like that in the moment that I wrote Locally Made Panties. I wrote this book in 2003 and by the time I was working with a publisher on it, it was 2013 and I was really just in this different space, so that’s part of it.

For the cover originally, I’d always imagined an image of panties but I was really certain that just a beautiful, sort of flowy Martha Stewart-type photograph of panties would really look too decorous. And I wanted it to have an edge, so then I thought what if it’s an image where you just see the legs of woman sitting on a toilet with her panties around her ankles? But that seemed like a movie poster for some rom-com, that image also felt a little sweet and coy and I really didn’t want that because the book is meant to be more in your face than that. So then I went looking for images on Etsy and I came across this guy whose name is James Mullineaux—he’s credited in the book—who collects vintage erotica. This image, I don’t know who the photographer is. We made an effort to find out but there was no way to know so if the photographer is out there, I hope they will come forward because I would love to credit them! But this guy sold me the image so I would be able to use it and I love it because it is really provocative and obviously it was shot as porn or something, but the woman, to me, her facial expression looks so ambivalent!

Rumpus: Yes! I was trying to figure out how to describe her face and I had such a hard time!

Greenberg: She’s not giving this “come hither” look to the camera, she looks maybe uncomfortable or sort of interested in herself and so it feels like a really feminist image to me. I believe in the possibility of feminist pornography and so I love images that can be both explicit and erotic where the woman doesn’t seem disempowered and this woman looks, to me, like she’s very interested in just the process of putting on her own panties. It’s looks uncomfortable for her or like she’s questioning it—I don’t know, you can’t really read her facial expression! But she is not looking at the camera and she’s not trying to look hot—or at least her facial expression isn’t. So I’m really interested in that uncomfortable face. And it’s a very ’70s image and I’m a child of the ’70s.

We’re a little nervous about the cover obviously because I’ve gone so far down this road of sexually explicit material and I edit a kink writing series so that world is very familiar for me at this point and kind of was even before. I am totally comfortable with that image, but I’m very aware that others might not be and I’m excited that some people might be provoked by it. But I will say for myself that I feel really at home with that image. So it’ll be interesting to see what happens. I talked to my publishers about it, wondering if we were risking censorship with that cover or would people not display the book or something? And of course the obscenity laws in America are pretty vague and sort of hard to interpret on purpose. But the basic idea is that if it’s only seeking to arouse and there’s no literary or artistic value, it’s obscene. And I think it would be hard to argue that with this book.

Rumpus: At first, seeing this cover, I expected a little more raunch from the content of the book, but I get it now, how you’ve described it. The book is subversive and it’s deep and so the cover is just as provocative as what’s inside—it doesn’t look “fluffy” on the outside.

Greenberg: Right, and I feel like the book is definitely not trying to be erotic. It’s often just about panties and lingerie and I think that another thing I like about the cover is well—you know what? Women do just put on underwear everyday! We have breasts! That should not be news to anyone at this point. The fact that people get so worked up about it in this culture was always sort of ridiculous to me. And this is a book about women getting dressed and I think one could argue that that is just an image of a woman getting dressed. I don’t want to be naïve about it, but it is kind of funny that so much porn is just images of women getting dressed or undressed, which is something we all do everyday.

Rumpus: I’m glad you brought up breasts. In the book you write, “I think about how if only I had a bra that was sporty yet flirtatious, comfortable and minimizing, encapsulating and supportive, everything would be okay.” And this might sound silly, but it’s relevant—so many women do not know their own bra size.

Greenberg: Yes! It’s true.

Rumpus: It’s crazy and I feel like it’s mostly because you go into a place like Victoria’s Secret and you get measured and they’ll tell you your size based on what sizes they have—so I’m letting that secret out. And everything is so much better when you’re wearing a bra that fits you!

Greenberg: Yeah, and the thing is, too, that I grew up wearing cheap bras and they’re terrible. They’re just really poorly made, like most things you buy in a mall that are made in sweatshops. And bras, I guess, are for other purposes, but mostly for those of us who really need to wear them, they are supposed to serve a practical purpose and so many just don’t. And it was a total shock to me! I had been wearing completely the wrong size band and the wrong size cup for years—

Rumpus: Me, too.

Greenberg: I totally hear you and I talk about this in the book. A woman I worked with and for and was friends with when I was in New York City marched me to this old European bra shop where these really old Russian ladies measure you and my friend said, “you are being fitted for a bra” and she introduced me to the world of $60 bras which at the time felt like so much money to me. I was fresh out of college and not making a lot of money but it really changed my life. I was like, “oh! This is what this is supposed to do!” But, people of the world. Women. Listen to us. Go buy a Wacoal or a Chantelle! It really matters!

Rumpus: Locally Made Panties is marked as creative nonfiction. To me, that implies that these are short essays but they could also be prose poems. Could you speak a little bit about your background as a poet and how it informs other types of writing that you do?

Greenberg: For a long time I identified as a poet; now I identify as a poet and a nonfiction writer. I wrote a lot of prose poems as a poet but I would say I definitely do not think of the work in Locally Made Panties as prose poems. I think of them as micro-essays or flash nonfiction or whatever you wanna call it. When I write prose poems I’m really emphasizing language and they’re often in the Charles Simic vein or in the Russell Edson vein—the realist influence, image-driven, not particularly narrative work and that’s not how I think of this book.

In Locally Made Panties, the language is spare—and this is not to say one cannot write prose poems that way—but I feel like you really need to read a series of three to five, at least, to get the feeling of this project. It’s meant to be read cover to cover in order, so although I had published some of these pieces as micro-essays, I felt like it needed to be a whole book.

That’s not how I write prose poems; my prose poems are stand-alone. They can be part of a collection but they don’t need to have a larger context. I really feel like this book needs to be read in full for you to get the point. So that’s one of the differences in my mind between these micro-essays and prose poems. Also, the book I turned in right before I drafted this book was Home/Birth with Rachel Zucker which was a nonfiction book. With Locally Made Panties, I was still working through that voice or that different form—more prose-oriented—even though the tone and the language of Locally Made Panties are vastly different from Home/Birth.

Rumpus: Since this book is intended to be read in one sitting from cover to cover, how did you know where to start and what the arc of the essays would look like from beginning to end?

Greenberg: I started it thinking it was going to be a chapbook length project and then I just started seeing that it wanted to develop and have a larger arc than that. And I had to decide, how much am I going to talk about the baby? How much about the war? How much about money? And I started to put together a book-length manuscript. And I would say the J.Crew stuff and the Project Runway and What Not to Wear stuff, some of that came very early, but then I didn’t want that to be the majority of the book. I felt like if it was just a response to popular culture then it wasn’t going to go deep enough into the self-investigation, which is a major part of this work.

Rumpus: I also want talk about the series you’re editing for the Rumpus, (K)ink: Writing While Deviant. How was this idea conceived and how are you curating the essays? Are they for other kinksters or a broader audience?

Greenberg: I put together a panel proposal for AWP last year on this topic. I really wanted some of writers I knew who are kinky to talk about their kink-related writing, but I didn’t want a panel about erotic writing or that subject matter. I was interested in the formal and aesthetic parallels. The panel didn’t happen, but I still I wanted there to be a space for these writers to speak. So many people were interested in participating that I got permission from the Rumpus for the series and I put the call out and what happened was what I hoped would happen—once the essays started appearing, people have gotten in touch with me to propose more ideas. And I hope that it has a wide readership with the Rumpus readers because I think they tend to be pretty sex-positive and kink-aware because of the nature of this outlet that Stephen Elliott created. It seemed like a great fit and I think it has been a great fit. I don’t really have a sense of the full readership because most people who get in touch with me are kinksters who thank me for publishing a certain essay or who want to be a part of the series. I don’t really hear from vanilla people but the mission behind the series is at least in part about visibility and pride in the kink community, but also trying to have a better, more nuanced, and more complicated representation of kink than what you probably find even at the best, most sex-positive kinds of outlets and especially in television and movies.

For example, where is the portrayal of a feminist submissive? There is none. There are some feminist portrayals of female dominance, like in Shortbus, but that pro-domme is really kind of miserable and a trainwreck, which is not a great representation. Mostly I love Shortbus, but I felt that was a problem. And you know Fifty Shades is the worst and it’s so common to show a D/s relationship in which the woman is just being genuinely subjugated and not consensually choosing—in the context of an otherwise egalitarian relationship in which she holds a lot of power—to be erotically submissive. And that’s the majority of submissives I know in the scene. They’re doing so from a place of wanting some release and relief from their regular lives in which they hold an enormous amount of power and responsibility.

Rumpus: Okay, final question. Do you have a current Look?

Greenberg: Thank you for asking! One of the things that is fascinating to me about having this book come out now is that in the book I say I’ll be looking for my Look forever. And at the time, I had a young child and I was going to have another baby and I was wearing knee-length skirts and looked like Salma Hayek as Frida Kahlo in the early part of the movie.

In the years that followed, my marriage became non-monogamous and I’ve always been kinky, but I found community within the kink scene, and I started writing stuff that was so sexually explicit and I got so far down the road into the sex-positive world that now I want my clothing to reflect that. But when I first started, technically, I would see something and be like, “That skirt is so short! How could I ever wear a skirt that short?” And those same skirts that I thought three or four years ago were so short, now I think, “I need to get rid of that skirt because it’s so long!” In Locally Made Panties I talk about my breasts and not wanting to show them too much and feeling like I wanted to minimize them and now I’m just like, “This is the body I have and I’m gonna wear clothes that show it off in these ways.”

Now I have young kids and I still teach and for all those things I dress appropriately, but sometimes an occasion arrives where I really have to go find something very modest. I struggle to find the right clothes because now most of my skirts are shorter, my tops lower, everything is more form-fitting than it needs to be. So I think now an important part of my Look is 1970s groupie, but if I had to name my Look, I’d call it Punk Rock Sex Kitten. Or Bohemian Cowgirl Bombshell.


Nicole Guappone is an MFA candidate in the nonfiction writing program at Columbia College Chicago. She's been previously published by The Rumpus, HelloGiggles, BUST.com, Complex, The Establishment, Ravishly, and others. More from this author →