INTERVIEW | Feeling Deeply: A Conversation with Leah Naomi Green
A friend first introduced me to Leah Naomi Green’s work with the poem “Field Guide to the Chaparral,” a beautiful poem that seemed so perfect as I, a newlywed, read it in New Mexico. Later that year, I found a copy of Green’s chapbook, The Ones We Have (Flying Trout Press, 2012), and was struck by her quiet attention to life’s little moments—the powerful way she elevated these moments into true points of connection for those people existing in her poems and me, the reader. I read her chapbook on a trip with my family, my wife, my parents, my sisters, and my brother-in-law. It seems, upon reflection, Leah Naomi Green’s work has slowly moved into my life, making profound meaning in moments often taken for granted.
Now, my wife and I are at another turning point in our lives, the future uncertain, as our time in New Mexico comes rapidly to an end. Within the “new normal” of social distancing and isolation, this impending farewell seems all the stranger, more upsetting. We are spending a lot of time thinking about our relationships with the people we’ve come to cherish and the place we’ve called home for the first two years of our marriage. And, within this new normal, I have in my possession, Leah Naomi Green’s latest collection, The More Extravagant Feast (Graywolf Press, 2020), and I have been lucky enough to spend time in conversation with her. Our conversation spanned about an hour over the phone, but the hour spilled over into emails that slipped back and forth between us just as easily as our conversation seemed to do. Filled with laughter and joy, the app recording our conversation couldn’t seem to transcribe it accurately. The joy was rooted in Green’s easy way of speaking, the poetic, thoughtful way she went about answering my questions, and the patient way she took my words and gave them a familiar and generous profundity.
Generosity is at the base of The More Extravagant Feast, winner of the 2019 Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets. Leah Naomi Green generously invites us into relationship: relationship with the greater-than-human-world, with one another, and with the written word. And it is in these relationships that Green challenges us to feel more deeply. This collection and conversation brought me dearly needed joy.
—Tyler Truman Julian
Tyler Truman Julian: Well, first off, I want to say that I've been a fan of your work for quite a while. I read your chapbook, The Ones We Have, last summer actually and—
Leah Naomi Green: Oh wow.
TTJ: —and I think that I've read just about every other poem you have floating around. I have a question about “Field Guide to the Chaparral” that I'll bring up later, but I remember seeing that in The Southern Review and I loved it immediately. So, needless to say, I was very excited when you won the Walt Whitman Award and saw this book coming out from Graywolf. That's such an amazing press. I mean, all the people that get published there, I'm a fan of, and so it's nice to see you on the shelf there too.
LNG: Oh, that is just so nice. Thanks.
TTJ: Sorry, I’m fangirling a little bit, I think.
LNG: Well, that's lovely. That's honestly the whole thing. To just connect with people is the whole thing, so thanks!
TTJ: I’ll have some questions about that in a second, but could you maybe start by talking about the prize first. What is the Walt Whitman Award, and what does it mean for you as a writer?
LNG: Good question! It is an award given annually to a first book of poetry. The judge who selected my book is Li-Young Lee. I hadn’t submitted it to many places, and I really almost didn't submit to the prize at all, but honestly, because it was Li-Young Lee and because the prize was named for Walt Whitman, (to whom I owe so much) I did. But really, I submitted largely because it was Li-Young Lee. I just connect with his work so deeply that I thought maybe, possibly, therefore, he’d like something I wrote. So, that was sort of a beautiful decoding for me. It’s not about asking is my work objectively “the best”? God's not sitting at a desk judging these contests. It’s whose work do I connect with? There's some chance that that person might also connect with my work.
TTJ: I think that that’s so much what it is. I mean, publishing is so subjective. It’s about catching an editor on a good day it seems like, and so for you to build a connection with Li-Young Lee through this award is amazing—and that you were a fan of his work and that you felt that there might be something there. That's very cool.
LNG: Yeah, it is subjective. But I think there's a lot of beauty in that subjectivity, you know? There's no reason it could or would be objective. People like different things, and that’s beautiful. I do feel a connection with Li-Young Lee through his work, but I haven't met him, and maybe I never will, and that's fine. I also feel connected to W.S. Merwin, whom I never met—he died just before I won the Whitman—and that is one of the astonishing capacities of art: to connect humans with one another. I have been just incredibly lucky to find an earthly friendship with Sally Mann through this book—the cover photo is hers—and she has just been unbelievably generous. Such a remarkable, clear-eyed human.
TTJ: Yeah! Well, then maybe a quick follow up before we dive into the work itself. This might be a good segue. You said that you owe so much to Walt Whitman, and I know, obviously, through the collection, there are references to the idea of “the body electric.” There are references to Emerson’s “Circles,” even. And there are a lot of really beautiful Transcendentalist references, Naturalist references, and so, could you talk a little bit about Walt Whitman and what that connection looks like for you, especially with this award in mind?
LNG: Gosh, yeah, I often teach the Transcendentalists. So, I teach English and environmental studies at Washington and Lee, and I can't say that I teach the Transcendentalists with a lot of verve—well, maybe with a lot of verve, but maybe also with a lot of critique. Like, Thoreau is definitely not my man. And, you know, my thanks to Thoreau; definitely, we would not be where we are—wherever we are—without him. But Whitman is so different, in that he's so full of compassion. I find a lot of judgment in Thoreau, though less so in Emerson for sure. And so much of that judgment is tied in with that deeply, sort of, American strain of individuality, and in Whitman, that is just gone. There's none of that. His version of America is that he is everyone and everyone is him—and he thinks he’s the best being that's ever been created, but he also thinks you are! He's constantly putting himself on this incredible spiritual pedestal and then pulling everybody up there with him and everything up there with him, and it's just this fascinating move that—that I love. I feel like Whitman was also just willing to be loving and celebratory in his time, and that takes a lot of vulnerability, a lot of courage, you know?
TTJ: Well, that’s just very—I mean, just from your emails I could tell this interview was going to be different. You were so kind, so poetic, even, in your emails. So, this is a great response, and I want to come back to it a little bit later because I have a couple of questions about spirituality in the work, and it just makes so much sense, these connections between you and Whitman and Li-Young Lee and nature and this kind of all-inclusive spirituality that I think comes out in your work. So, I guess, I just want to thank you, first, for that work and then say, Congrats, and then talk about it.
LNG: That’s kind. Thank you.
TTJ: The More Extravagant Feast then. This book, as a whole, felt fairly distinct from your chapbook—
TTJ: —but I do know that some of the poems from The Ones We Have found their way into the collection. The More Extravagant Feast feels very cohesive and very lyrical and image-driven and very sensual; you know, there’s a feast in it! And at the same time, it felt like a slice of life narrative, like we’re looking into your world—or at least the speaker’s—and we’re invited in in that very Walt Whitman way that you mentioned. So, how did this collection come about, first, and then what were some of your goals with it?
LNG: It came about really slowly. My process with everything I do tends towards focus. Sometimes that works well for what I'm doing and sometimes it doesn't. It seems to serve poetry much better than some tasks. That's for sure! But, yeah, I tend towards focus, and I think that's why, for me, poetry is the genre. I just want to do one thing well. I love that! It's like time just disappears when I'm writing, and I just want to refine and refine and, like, roll over the stone in my hand until it's smooth, and that takes a long time, and I love it.
Yeah, so, the book came about that way, you know? There was no grand blueprint. It really was just like, Let me do this thing well. Let me do this thing well. Let me do this well. And then how do the poems relate to one another. It did become a cohesive project once it started becoming a book, and that was really fun.
George Saunders has this great piece called, “What Writers Really Do When They Write,” I think. It came out in The Guardian years ago, and he writes about it being a process of, sort of, like—he compares it in his very George Saunders way, to a guy in a basement with a toy train set, and you move one thing in the train set, like, you move one of those human figures in the train set and all of a sudden it’s looking at another human figure, and then all of a sudden, there’s a relationship between those figures. And then, you know, and then what? And so, I love that metaphor for the creation of the book itself. It's like, Oh, here's a poem and here's a poem. Oh, but now they're next to one another, and then the poems change, and then I revise the poems. It's an ecosystem, you know? And frankly, that's informed my way of viewing not just books, but all relationships. There isn't a right answer. There isn't the wrong answer. It really is, how does this relate to that and how can they find paths between one another?
TTJ: That’s beautiful. That image of the stone you just mentioned, holding it in your hands and shaping it, right? I mean that comes out in your poems. You have several poems about this stone image, right?
TTJ: I'm trying to remember where it is because it's one that struck me, but that idea, too, of just craft and that focus—I mean the poems toward the end of this collection, they start getting fairly short, like “Carrot” and “Table.” They're very short and very terse and that, I think, reflects that each word is going to count: I've spent so much time on this, I'm trying to focus on the idea of a carrot, right? And on this idea of harvest and because of it “we’ll flicker to the table, / we’ll gather to your orange flame.” Those are powerful lines, and I can count right now and it's probably 10 words! So that’s a very interesting approach that I think serves you well.
LNG: Yeah, as I said, it suits some tasks better than others, you know?
TTJ: And so, I think the next question, related to this then, is about technique. I was wondering if we could talk a little bit about that. So, we got some of your general writing technique. Now though, looking at the poems themselves, I want to know what you're looking for in them as the book takes shape.
Form in your work, in this collection, seems fairly understated compared to a lot of poets, and I think that pushes your storytelling to the forefront of the poems and that makes them feel very accessible.
TTJ: And when I say form, I’m thinking, like, if we looked at Layli Long Soldier’s Graywolf book, Whereas, right? That’s all about form—erasure and pulling words out—whereas this is much more story-driven and image-driven. I think that challenges the reader in a nice way, while also being very accessible. You said that it became about relationship once you started putting the poems side by side, so how do you see your poems working formally in the collection? Is there a larger story? I felt there was. How do you go about shaping a collection?
LNG: What gave the collection a backbone was realizing that I had all these poems from the weeks of my pregnancy—of both pregnancies. It was realizing that that could be the structure, the backbone of a narrative arc and that time could, sort of, weave in and out of that structure. That was really helpful to me and, I hope, can give the reader sort out a timeline to follow, but not a linear one, not a timeline that has to be sequential. It was really fun for me to realize that the C-Section poem could come before “Seed and Fugue,” which I think of as the first pregnancy poem in the book. It was really that gestation which offered a narrative arc, and I think, also, it's that gestation that tied all the necessary themes together for me.
I think always—always—I’ve been interested in the human relationship to the more than human world and I think, you know, that was probably in my chapbook. And I've always been interested in human relationship, which was definitely in my chapbook, and I think it was having the experience of pregnancy and childbirth and nursing that made me realize, Oh, not only is the land my body, but my body is my children's bodies, and my partner's body is my body, is my children's bodies. This abstract idea of interbeing, (that's what Thích Nhất Hạnh would call it anyway) became so concrete with pregnancy, right? It was like, Oh, not only is there a seed in the tomato and a tomato within that seed, but also that's my body. I have this child in me and where do I end and where does she begin? It became just so so humblingly, abundantly real, through pregnancy, that I was no different from any other form of life. Pregnancy is really what pulled together the book, both in form and function.
TTJ: Well, that makes a lot of sense, and now that you say that, I think, so much of the book is about gestation beyond the pregnancy, right? To go back to that poem about the carrot for example, that short poem tracks the development of the carrot until it’s sitting on the table, right?
TTJ: And it'll be ingested by the speaker and her family, and so it becomes that very real elevation of the mundane to this spiritual place, but pulling everybody up, as well. Everybody around the table is engaged with the very mundane image of the carrot.
LNG: Yeah! I love that. Thank you.
TTJ: And that's very obviously present. My next question was about the narrative and how it jumps between the far off past to the present to the future to the near past, but I really think you hit on that, so I’m going to jump ahead because something you said really struck me about interbeing.
I loved your poem “Venison,” in which the speaker’s beloved butchers the deer that will feed the speaker and her family for the rest of the year. And then, later in the collection in the poem “Narrative,” the speaker announces, “I am a deer.” This seems just so wrapped up in the collection’s presentation of, what I think is, faith as a type of transubstantiation, as this all-enveloping love that pushes the speaker beyond self-interest into this more universal engagement with nature, engagement with family and those relationships you talked about. So, this might be a good segue into this question then: Can you talk a little bit about how nature and spirituality work together in the collection, within this idea of gestation and relationship?
LNG: I would say that nature—although I don't really use that term, but that's the academic in me—I would say that nature—or the greater-than-human-world (because, you know, that makes room for us within it, right? It doesn't exclude).
TTJ: Right. That’s great.
LNG: Anyway, we can say nature because it's a useful word, but let me just specify and then I don't have to worry about that term at all. So, the garden, the woods, the things that grow there and live there have been such gifts to me, and they take the abstraction out of spirituality for me. I always tended towards spirituality. It was always what I wanted, and I'm just so grateful to the garden and the woods for making those things concrete in my life. And so, for instance, interbeing was this abstract idea and then all of a sudden it was totally real and my life was contingent upon it.
We try to grow most of our food for the year. My partner and I do. And we hunt deer, which you probably picked up on, and we have chickens and trout. So, we provide most of our food for the year and that is such a joy to me, like, it's this reestablishment of responsibility and gift, which is joyful. I have a lot of friends who worry a lot about the state of nature, and I do too, of course, but I feel really lucky to be part of these systems that carry me or, rather, that it's the constant exchange of responsibility and gift, and it's responsibility in the way that I have responsibility in marriage or in parenthood—joyful responsibility—the kinds that keep me on earth.
I feel like I got off track.
TTJ: No! That's perfect. I think you hit on what I was trying to so un-poetically articulate in my question. I think even the way you phrase nature as the greater-than-human-world rather than this man versus nature kind of motif we use all the time academically—
LNG: Or even man having disappointed nature or, you know, like man at all as separate from nature. And again, I think that's my beef with Thoreau, right? That he had to leave society to do it, and I just think we’re part of it and that’s our only hope, to be part of it. Yeah, so, I think the answer that I'm trying to give to your really good question is that I think the relationship between nature and my work and spirituality is that “nature” is what makes it real. I get to see it. You know, I'm so lucky that I get to see it. Not everyone does, but because I live where I live it makes it real to me and not abstract.
TTJ: That’s really beautiful and something that I really admire. I grew up in a ranching family and grew up in Wyoming, where the nearest town is two hours away on the Interstate, and so you can just see creation around you all the time and that's something that I really look to explore in my work, humanity's relationship to nature, so everything you're saying is just hitting home for me, with a lot of my thoughts about your work and about nature in general—or greater than human world in general.
LNG: That's really cool.
TTJ: So, this spirituality—you called it the responsibility and gift of our relationship to nature. I love that idea, and it seems to play into a theme that appears throughout the collection that really struck me, and maybe it's because it comes out in “In Field Guide to the Chaparral” that I love so much. But in that poem, the first poem of the collection, you write, “It will only be love // that I love you with” and then follow it later with, “It is okay if we hurt / one another.” There seems to be this conflation of love and pain throughout the collection—or maybe not pain so much as a fear for the future, maybe with the children, or fear is not right either. Maybe it's that idea of responsibility and gift again, the seriousness of love and the seriousness of trying to better ourselves in this almost transcendental way so that everyone around us, our children, the animals we interact with are all on a more equal playing field. I was really struck by this love and pain conflation and how that was playing out in the poems with the mother and her anxiety for her children going forward as well as the relationship to the beloved; you also have the death of the speaker’s grandfather mentioned in “The Death of My Mother’s Father,” and so I was wondering about that kind of love and pain and what that meant for sacrifice with the self in the speaker.
I don't know if any of that makes sense but—
LNG: Yeah, it all made sense. I think there is also a line in that poem something like, “The Buddhists say / that the front of the paper // cannot exist without the back. / Because there is a there, // there is a here.”
LNG: Is that right? Did I get it?
TTJ: Yes! That was perfect. Great lines.
LNG: Thanks! And Buddhists do say that. I didn’t make up that image.
LNG: But I think your question is in that poem—love and hurt are two sides of the paper and in order to fully love all our love we have to be willing to be hurt. The best surprise for me in relationship, in my relationship with my partner has been realizing—just that line—that we can hurt one another and that hurt can be important. And so, I think you’re right that “fear” is not right for that emotion. I think that it is trust actually, and it’s a trust that has to come out of being willing to be hurt. Having an ocean underneath the waves. To not have to worry about hurting one another or about being hurt because we've done it before, and we know that we don’t break, and we know that it often leads us to what we need. So, I do think love and hurt are very much like that image of the two sides of the paper because there is a there, there is a here. Because there is a love, there is a hurt. Because there is hurt, there is love, you know?
TTJ: Yeah, that's very beautiful. I'm just now looking back at the collection and in the poem, “Engagement,” there's this image at the end of this old man with a stiff hip, and his wife is carrying all the groceries. It’s one of those very mundane moments that becomes elevated because you end the poem with these lines, “It is impossible to tell / which of them is doing // the insisting: how necessary every / thing is.” I underlined “how necessary everything is” and wrote key next to it—
LNG: Wait, what’d you write?
TTJ: I wrote key. K-E-Y. Like, this is key.
LNG: Mm-hm. Right.
TTJ: It seems to play into that idea of hurt and love, and I think when I said “fear”, I was thinking there seems to be this understanding that the speaker knows that her children, one day, will grow up and leave, and that seems to be weighing on her heart. She's saying, We're the same atoms, we're the same fruit we ate, we’re the same deer. I created you with my partner; we're all the same, but at some point, there is that differentiation, and so trusting that the relationship is strong enough to withstand that differentiation is a type of love and is also a type of pain.
I might be extrapolating there, but that seems to make a lot of sense to me, especially with this idea of necessity as it plays out in “Engagement.”
LNG: Nice. Good.
TTJ: I just love all of this collection—
LNG: Good. Yeah, I mean, really making sense to people is what it’s about, even if it's not exactly the sense that I had, that I intended. Really just connecting, helping anybody feel more is the goal. I mean it; that kind of connection is so much more meaningful to me than, I don't know, any kind of public persona. Frankly, it’s a little weird to me to have a public persona, and so it really does me good any time I hear, This was meaningful to me, or, This helped me. That's what it is about, really.
TTJ: I really appreciate that. I appreciate this conversation, and you've really hit on the majority of my questions, and so I just had maybe one or two that are a little bit less dense—
We've obviously talked about Whitman. We've talked about Li-Young Lee a little, and I felt there were similarities in your work to poets like Chelsea Dingman, as well as someone like Carl Phillips, and obviously Li-Young Lee, and so I was wondering, who are some of your influences?
LNG: Yeah! All great questions. I have to say W. S. Merwin is huge to me. Though I don't think I take after him stylistically. I read his work because it's not about artifice, like it's not art in that way. It's about spiritual feeling. It's purposeful. It’s art without being artifice. It doesn't feel like a thing that was made to be made. It feels like a thing that had to be made in order to contain what he had to say. And he had such clear vision, even when he was blind, maybe more so when he was blind, and I’m just grateful for his vision, and I think that is the common thread in writing that I love. It’s what I feel with Li-Young Lee. Both Lee and Merwin pull this off so gorgeously—with form and diction of course, but the form and the diction are what they have to be to contain the poem and it doesn't feel like artifice. It doesn’t feel like they set out to make a poem, you know? It feels like they set out to contain it.
TTJ: And then, this last question is because of the times. I was wondering what you are doing these days to keep yourself grounded, and then if you had any advice for readers and writers and everybody in between during this strange time of isolation.
LNG: Yeah, yeah. Thanks. I just finished an essay about that this morning. I'm not sure exactly what is going to become of it, but it definitely speaks to that question. But I will say, the garden has helped a lot to ground me.
Leah Naomi Green’s collection, The More Extravagant Feast, is the 2019 winner of the Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets, selected by Li-Young Lee, and is now available from Graywolf Press. The essay referenced at the end of this interview was published online by The Paris Review.
Leah Naomi Green is the author of The Ones We Have, winner of the Flying Trout Press Chapbook Prize. She teaches English and environmental studies at Washington and Lee University. Green and her family homestead and grow food in the mountains of Virginia.
Tyler Truman Julian is originally from Wyoming, though he currently resides in Mesilla, NM, with his wife. He is an MFA Candidate in New Mexico State University's fiction program and serves as the Managing Editor for Puerto del Sol and Review Editor for The Shore. He is the author of Wyoming: The Next Question to Ask (to Answer), available from Finishing Line Press.