The Rumpus Poetry Book Club Chat with torrin greathouse
The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with torrin greathouse about her new collection, Wound from the Mouth of a Wound (Milkweed Editions, December 2020), inventing forms, revenge poems, how the pandemic has affected accessibility for writers, and more.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month the Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts an online discussion with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To join the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, click here. Upcoming poets include Erin Belieu, Adrienne Christian, Threa Almontaser, Kayleb Rae Candrilli, Andrés Cerpa, Kevin Simmonds, Kaveh Akbar, Carly Ingram, and more!
This Rumpus Poetry Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian S: I can start with the piece I wrote on why we chose this collection for our Poetry Book Club. In it, I talked about your use of craft, the way you used erasure to work with haibun, which is a form I’m not super experienced with. Can you talk some about the ways you use craft in your work, and maybe why you chose that form in particular?
torrin a. greathouse: So, the burning haibun is a form I invented as part of the process of writing this book, and it came out of reading several books but primarily Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds, specifically the poems “Immigrant Haibun” and “Aubade with Burning City,” which got me thinking about the ideas of the haibun form and a memory in collapse side-by-side.
Brian S: Oh interesting. I love when poets fiddle with form and remake them to suit a need.
torrin a. greathouse: Many haibun focus on recounting travel or describing an exterior landscape, so it emerged to me that the form could model instead an interior landscape—which could be emotion or memory, both of which are subject to collapse, erasure, burning…
I’m very much of the mind that a poetic form doesn’t just exist in a structural sense, but also in an emotional/affective sense. So, when I use form, I’m trying to attend to both of these concerns. For example, if I’m using a sonnet, it’s not just the formal shape I’m attentive of, but also the expectations carried by the canonical themes of sonnets (which preload tones for some readers, and can allow me to follow or subvert expectation) as well as the affective move of the volta.
Annata Tempinski: It was my first time seeing the form. And, I admit, I didn’t know how to read it: left to right ? The left side, then the right side?
Emily Francis: Have you created or adapted any other forms?
torrin a. greathouse: The idea of mirroring a poem is (to my knowledge) my innovation. Also, Julian Randall and I created a new form over this last summer called the fox’s gambit, although the first poem I wrote in that form will not be coming out until, I think, November 2021.
Brian S: Can you give us a sense of that form?
torrin a. greathouse: It’s an Oulipian form that involves using a random generator, or having a collaborating poet remove letters from your lexicon to restrict your language as you progress through a seventeen-line poem. It’s based upon an episode from the 1990s anime, Yu Yu Hakusho.
Emily Francis: I can’t wait to see the new poem!
Brian S: What a coincidence! I just watched the first episode of that the other day. I’m trying to expand my knowledge of anime.
torrin a. greathouse: It’s a personal fave.
Brian S: So, you write a line and your partner removes a letter or letters, and then you continue?
torrin a. greathouse: If I remember right off the top of my head, it’s every other line starting on the third? So: 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, etc. It’s a hard form. Maybe tougher to write than burning haibun, but I might just have more practice at those lol.
Brian S: That’s an interesting restriction, not being able to use particular letters. Back when I taught poetry, I would sometimes use that as a prompt just to force students to widen their vocabularies.
Annata Tempinski: torrin, how did the “mirror”poem originate?
torrin a. greathouse: So, I had a professor in undergrad who… essentially argued that we should not use the identity of a poet, or the physical form of a poem, in our reading of that work. In particular, he said this in response to me talking about a section of The Black Maria by Aracelis Girmay being about Black motherhood.
He pissed me off bad enough that for the final assignment, I decided to write a poem which could not be read without taking into account the form, or my identities. That poem was my final assignment of undergrad, and the first draft of the final poem in Wound from the Mouth of a Wound.
Brian S: I’m sitting here kind of dumbstruck by that take on poetry. Like, I could see suggesting that it’s possible to read too much of a poet’s identity into a poem, but to ignore it completely?
torrin a. greathouse: It’s a hell of a take for someone purporting to be worth their salt as a professor.
Brian S: And to ignore the form itself is even farther than the New Critics went, if I recall correctly. Grad school was a long time ago…
Emily Francis: Seems like even when a poet writes a poem that’s not autobiographical, it’s still their experience told in a different context.
torrin a. greathouse: Yeah, it was a hell of a moment.
Annata Tempinski: I agree, Emily. How can the two be separated completely?
torrin a. greathouse: But I got a better poem out of it than he’s written in the last couple decades, so we’ll call it a win.
Brian S: I wonder how many poems have been written because a professor said something dumb?
Emily Francis: I love revenge poems.
torrin a. greathouse: At this point, I think the “workshop poem” is a time-honored genre.
Brian S: I mean, we’ve all written a few, I’d imagine.
torrin a. greathouse: Though maybe Marwa Helal has the best one…
Annata Tempinski: Yes, and maybe that is why he made that statement. To give the writer an impetus to write in a unique way.
torrin a. greathouse: I sincerely doubt that
torrin a. greathouse: Regarding Marwa’s poem, I encourage y’all to save this and read it later.
Brian S: Oh, yes, we read Marwa’s collection, Invasive species, in the Poetry Book Club two years ago!
Emily Francis: torrin, in your reading the other night, did I hear you correctly when you said you usually have a poem fully formed in your mind before you come to the page?
torrin a. greathouse: Yes! I tend to build them in my head before I ever write them down. I sometimes take notes when I have a good line or image pop up that doesn’t belong to another poem, and I’ll sometimes slide those into poems. But mostly, I create scaffolds of images and ideas in my head and write poems in a single sitting. It’s mostly the longer ones, or ones with more intricate or delicate topics, that take me more sessions to compose slowly.
For example, if y’all know the poem “On Confinement,” I probably spent about six months writing that one on and off.
Emily Francis: I imagine you must be revising in your mind, too. Do you have a process for revising once you have a draft or is it pretty much done once you get it to the page?
Annata Tempinski: I admire that! I have several half-baked poems in my notebooks. I dwell too much and then when I put a poem aside and come back to it, I will make changes. I admire the one-sitting poems because I think that speaks to confidence and a surety in one’s writing.
torrin a. greathouse: A lot of the revising does happen in my head. About half of my poems never get revised on the page beyond their form and structure changing, line breaks being tweaked a little, etc. But the divide is harsh. Poems always come out almost finished, or take weeks to months to finish. The current long poem I’m working on for my MFA thesis has been in progress for nearly two years of drafts and revisions.
I’m also the kind of person who, unless I absolutely cannot, will just stop everything and write it if a poem comes, or just speak it aloud to myself over and over until I can reach a phone or computer.
Brian S: Something I’ve been asking everyone in the book club for the last almost-year now is what it’s like trying to launch a book in the middle of a pandemic.
torrin a. greathouse: Tbh, as a disabled poet who is also enrolled in graduate school… it’s kind of a dream come true. I can do gigs, speak at colleges, read two or three times a month, without interrupting my teaching or fucking up my sleep or ruining my fragile health.
Brian S: That makes sense.
torrin a. greathouse: It’s also suddenly so much more accessible, with CC and ASL for many events. For example, my book release had nearly three hundred people there, from as near as my roommate in the other room of our apartment, and as far as Nigeria. And so many deaf and hard of hearing people who would never be able to access a reading like it before.
Brian S: So, this pandemic has forced the accessibility issue for a lot of organizations who hadn’t considered that a priority? That’s amazing.
Emily Francis: This has been my experience as well. I’ve been able to watch so many readings! I would never get to them if I had to go in person.
torrin a. greathouse: Also, it helped me to push for my book to be released as an audiobook as well, which is now in production; I recorded it in December and hopefully it should be releasing by February.
Emily Francis: That’s fantastic!
torrin a. greathouse: Exactly!
Brian S: That’s excellent.
Annata Tempinski: Congratulations on all your accomplishments, torrin!
torrin a. greathouse: And, not only that, but things that disabled people have been asking for for years are now being done because everyone needs them—and I really hope that stays after the pandemic is over.
Emily Francis: I hope so, too!
torrin a. greathouse: I’m going to be reading with Zeyn Joukhadar for Women & Children First Books on January 21.
Shelly Stewart Cato: torrin, this book is a marvel. You are so brave with form. I am a big fan of the abecedarian. Did I spell that right? 🙂
torrin a. greathouse: Shelly, thank you! That’s one of my faves to read! Also, I believe this is usually an hour-long chat, but I’ll definitely stick around longer if folks have more questions, because I’m having a nice time and my internet had me drop in late.
Shelly Stewart Cato: Oh, good. I’ll try to come to the reading on the 21st—“seizures / rattling inside my skin” was so apt.
torrin a. greathouse: Fun fact for that one: it’s actually the newest poem in the book and was written a week after getting out of a week-long seizure observation. Hence the bitterness lol.
Shelly Stewart Cato: Did the five sections in the collection evolve naturally?
torrin a. greathouse: The five sections took a long time to emerge as I was building up the book. It kind of ended up being four sections: 1, 4, 5, & one that was the current 2 and 3, but that section felt too damn long. The current sectioning and ordering didn’t emerge until I found the Franny Choi epigraph, which kind of helped separate those ideas out a little bit and then things naturally fell into place.
Brian S: What’s been on your reading list lately, torrin?
torrin a. greathouse: I’m rereading Meg Day’s Last Psalm at Sea Level. I also just finished Jubi Arriola-Headley’s original kink, and I’m about halfway though Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House.
Brian S: I think we’re going to call it a night now. Thank you again torrin, and Annata, Emily, and Shelly, for your comments and questions!
torrin a. greathouse: Alright! Thank y’all so much for chatting tonight! Hopefully I get the chance to chat with some of y’all more in Q&As etc. for future events. And maybe run into each other in the IRL future. Have a great night y’all!
Brian S: Wow, an IRL future seems so weird now.
torrin a. greathouse: Yeah… tbh it does. But here’s to the IRL.
Photograph of torrin a. greathouse by Tarik Dobbs.