What an exciting time to be a booklover in Evanston! The 2nd Annual Evanston Literary Festival is currently in full swing, and from now until May 14th, you can celebrate Evanston’s vibrant literary community at more than 50 free events produced jointly by the Evanston Public Library, Bookends & Beginnings, Northwestern University, and the Chicago Book Expo 2016. Here on Off the Shelf we’re joining the fun by featuring interviews with some of the participating authors, poets, and graphic novelists, and first up is poet Chris Green. A Senior Lecturer in the English Department at DePaul University, Green is the author of three books of poetry: The Sky Over Walgreens, Epiphany School, and most recently Résumé. His poetry has appeared in such publications as Poetry, The New York Times, New Letters, Verse, and Nimrod, and he’s edited four anthologies including Brute Neighbors: Urban Nature Poetry, Prose & Photography and most recently I Remember: Chicago Veterans of War. On Saturday, May 14th at 5:30 pm, Green will share his work as part of the “5 Poets, 20 Poems” reading at the Unicorn Cafe, and in anticipation, we spoke with him via email about his poetic origins and inspirations, his writing process, and his new poem “Chicago, September.”
Evanston Public Library: Can you tell us a little about your background as a poet? What started you writing poetry?
Chris Green: I never liked poetry as a student. The poems assigned in high school and college were all so unfun, unrelatable, impenetrable. I actually became a poet by mistake. It didn’t happen until after graduate school when I was writing an essay about one of my grandfathers who was a silver miner in Park City, Utah, where I’m from. I’d sweat blood over the thing for six months until I finally asked my wife to read it. She said it was horrible. And it was, but looking at it again, I realized I’d compressed the language to a point where certain paragraphs were poems. I submitted the paragraphs to a poetry contest and won! So I’m a poet? It’s the last possible profession I would have chosen for myself as a young man, just below priest and bullfighter.
EPL: What did you write about when you began, and what do you write about now?
CG: I first wrote about those I loved—my grandparents, parents, brothers, and pets. I’m still writing about them, but I’ve added my wife, children, and new pets. Of course, I don’t only and always write about my family, but I feel my best poems are the ones I’m emotionally invested in.
EPL: Can you give us a window into your writing process? How do you begin, and what are the essential ingredients of a good poem?
CG: I begin by free writing and then gradually cut back to a poem’s essential images or image. Getting started is hard, but revising is fun. The ingredients for a good poem? To quote Franz Wright, “A good poem is completely clear, completely concrete, and completely inexplicable like reality itself.”
EPL: Has your idea of what poetry is changed since you began writing?
CG: It has and continues to change with every new great poet that I read.
EPL: What poets have inspired you?
CG: Seamus Heaney was my first major influence—my first poetry boyfriend. Then Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, James Wright, Phil Levine, Larry Levis, and Raymond Carver. I keep their books close when I’m writing to remind myself of what a poem is.
EPL: What are you reading right now?
CG: I’m reading a great Irish poet named Desmond Egan. His book Elegies is beautiful in the way that reminds of why I love poetry. His work is more than clever, it’s humanly meaningful. I’m actually giving a reading in Ireland this summer hosted by him. I’m honored and excited to be reading in the land of Heaney, Egan, and my horse thieving descendants.
EPL: Can you tell us a bit about the poem you chose to share?
CG: “Chicago, September” has been percolating inside me for years ever since a baby sparrow fell at my feet (from a skyscraper ledge) while I was walking along Michigan Avenue. The dilemma of what to do with the bird while I was holding it brought up all kinds of emotions and associations. The writing was difficult, but I wanted to get the part about my brother just right—my feelings for him came hard and fast in that moment.
One rainy late afternoon,
fixed, submissive head
down. Great stone and steel
monuments to upwardness
or the downed.
September falling everywhere,
and the going on.
Banks of bodies.
I walk south. Chicago
sags in a fall drizzle,
the old marshes buried
in the deeper city.
Everyone passes so fast,
the street beautiful
in its driving madness.
A single scrawny sparrow
falls real at my feet
down from a ledge
like a tossed rag.
In that moment,
from the sidewalk, innocently
looking up, the fully real memory
of the brother I neglect,
someone for whom
my guilt is a waiting bird,
the formal love
erupting out of nowhere.