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Eric Greinke
Poems

About the Poet

Eric Greinke's poems have been published in hundreds of journals, including the New York Quarterly, the Paterson Literary Review, California Quarterly, The South Carolina Review, The Hurricane Review, Mad Poets Review, The Pedestal Magazine, Wilderness House Literary Review and Main Street Rag.

Recent international publications include Prosopisia (India), Ginyu (Japan), The Green Door (Belgium) and The Journal (UK).

His poem Shooting Lessons won a 2012 Allen Ginsberg Award from The Poetry Center at Passaic County Community College. 

His poem Lifelines was a finalist for the 2014 Jeff Marks Memorial Poetry Prize from december magazine. 

Three of his poems appear in the recently published international anthology The Second Genesis - An Anthology of Contemporary World Poetry (Anuraag Sharma, Ed.; ARAWLII Press, Ajmer, India, 2014). 

His most recent book is For The Living Dead - New & Selected Poems (Presa Press, 2014)

www.ericgreinke.com.

 



Spring 2015 ~

Old Dogs At Play: Collaborating with John Elsberg

It was in late 2006, after I’d completed a series of collaborations with The Smith (a.k.a. Harry Smith), that the idea of collaborating with John Elsberg first came to me. Harry and I had done a series of ‘sympathetic poems’ that reflected each other’s subjects, tones and settings. We had published this set as a split chapbook (Up North, Presa Press, 2006).

I had begun a correspondence with John Elsberg a few months earlier. One of my styles, which critics have frequently compared to Japanese forms, was similar to John’s minimalistic, Japanese-influenced style. We shared a strong reliance on imagery. John had accepted ‘a sequence’ of my haiku-like poems for Bogg. I spoke to Harry Smith about my idea to invite John to collaborate, and he encouraged me. In May of 2007, I wrote to John, and he was enthusiastically agreeable to a collaboration and suggested we concentrate on haiku.

We had been discussing haiku values as applied to free verse in our correspondence. John suggested that we do a split chapbook project of haiku-like poems. I suggested that we put them in non-linear sequences of ten haiku to a sequence, each sequence to have a title, similar to the sequence of mine that he’d accepted for Bogg. We also agreed to contribute sixty haiku each to the project. Everything fell into place easily.

The final collection was comprised of twelve sequences of ten haiku each. We wanted to explore the possibilities inherent in the ancient haiku form while using contemporary language, formal innovations and cultural references. We were intrigued with the idea of placing the haiku in titled sequences, thus creating longer, non-linear, imagistic poems by combining the individual haiku. The relationship between the haiku within a sequence was associative and abstract, yet fecund with implied meaning.

John had specific ideas that he wanted to explore. Here is an excerpt from one of his early letters:

 

“As I sat outside tonight with the dogs thinking about the book, the rough working title that came into my head was “Pushing the Envelope.” My sense is that we’re collecting haiku in spirit and (modern) form, that seek the quickness/immediacy of the haiku tradition, but that push the envelope at least a bit in terms of content, distance (abstraction), tone, development (the free association of image and statement that you mentioned, in effect pushing the traditional counterpoint) and sequencing."

  (email, 5/20/07)
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We began from different levels of readiness. John sent me one hundred already- written haiku. I only had twenty or so to send to him. We kept all of mine and I began to write more. We cut John’s group to the forty or so that were the most visually imagistic. After that, John sent me groups of new ones to select from.

John felt that I have a talent for sequencing, so I agreed to create sequences of his haiku. My selections were basically intuitive. I put haiku together that had similar images or tone, or implied a story. I also sequenced my own haiku. We titled each other’s sequences, drawn from the poems themselves, usually from the last haiku in the sequence. We also sequenced the sequences.

The book begins with Catching The Light (haiku by John) and ends with my Hearts Of Light. Ironically, Hearts Of Light is the original sequence that John accepted for Bogg before we agreed to collaborate.

Because I stuck largely to the classic Japanese syllabic count while John experimented with syllabic variations, the alternating sequence arrangement had an integrative effect.

Here is the title sequence haiku by John:

Catching The Light
 
a starry night
suspended judgement
incubating
       
  *
luminous bands
where hands still touch
old brass knob
       
  *
one candle
leads to another
    this old?  
       
  *
blue grass
blue-glass vase
blue strobes on the stripper
       
  *
she’s had her chorus
now all she wants
is a perfect fugue
       
  *
she whispers
“my pubic hair is red”
rewriting spring
       
  *
in the future
and the past between
I loved her now
       
 

*
pink orchard
blue apples
brushing her hair

       
  *
coasting to the beach
on a blue highway
buffalo farm
       
  *
morning beach

a flash of fish

catching the light
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Another innovation of the collection is our extension of the Zen value of egolessness to the format of the book. We did not identify which of us wrote which haiku, in order to put the emphasis on the work itself. This extended to the acknowledgments. We felt this enhanced the project. It’s a statement: put the poem above the poet.

I got the idea of anonymity from the collaboration between Jim Harrison and Ted Kooser (Braided Creek, 2003), but our use of it was more complex than theirs. We felt that the haiku tradition itself implied a Zen neutrality. It also reflected the ease and compatibility of our writing relationship. We never rushed each other, never disagreed. Catching The Light took nine months to complete. Cervena Barva Press was the only publisher we sent it to. Poet-publisher Gloria Mindock accepted the manuscript right away.

The thirty-six page chapbook was published in 2009. It was reviewed by every major haiku magazine, which was gratifying. All the reviews were positive. Then, we were contacted by Ban’ya Natsuishi, the president of the World Haiku Association in Japan. Natsuishi is a major authority on haiku. He has written numerous books on the subject as well as many original haiku collections. He asked to translate some of our haiku to be featured in Ginyu, the journal of the World Haiku Association.

We were thrilled and honored when Ginyu was published with twelve of our haiku translated into Japanese with the English versions alongside (Ginyu - International Haiku Magazine, No. 46; World Haiku Association; Fujimi, Japan; April, 20, 2010). We felt that making a contribution to the haiku tradition as judged by a Japanese expert was a major literary accomplishment.

We began the sequel, All This Dark – 24 Tanka Sequences, immediately following the completion of Catching The Light. It took two years. John had suggested that we also do a tanka project back when we first began our work on the haiku sequences. The idea of arranging three tanka to a sequence was mine.

As with the haiku in Catching The Light, we built larger poems out of smaller ones. We also tried to open the tanka form itself to new subjects and tonalities/language.
One of the interesting developments for me was our exploration of water and seaside imagery. Although we lived a thousand miles apart, we both related strongly to the big bodies of water near us (The Atlantic and Lake Michigan).

Our aesthetics were similar in many ways, and there was a subtle but distinct exchange that reverberated in each other's contributions. We were very open to each other's influence.

Unlike the previous project, we both wrote poems for the tanka project from scratch. This made the process more interactive. Once again, I did the sequencing of John’s poems, and wrote the titles. John wrote about half of the titles for my sequences. The title for the tanka collection was my idea, taken from one of John’s lines. My own poems were written as sequences. John’s were written first as individual tanka, then sequenced.

As before, the process was gentle and naturally paced. Our compatibility was always a source of confidence. We felt no need to ‘push the river.’ The Japanese forms encourage an essentially imagistic approach with a quietly confident tone. In our correspondence we joked about being two old poet-monks who met on a mountain path.

Early in our second collaboration, John sent me an anthology of tanka. I learned that tanka are traditionally written in three modes: lyric, narrative and imagistic. I resolved to produce three sequences of each. I found the narrative mode to be the most difficult, but was ultimately pleased with the results. John’s tanka also fell into the three modes, but I don’t know if it was a conscious effort on his part or just a natural one, because we never discussed this aspect. The three modes were a guideline for me, though.

Just as images of light dominate in Catching The Light, darkness colors All This Dark. Here is one of my tanka sequences that explores darkness:

The Dark Roofs

in the new darkness
the white light ......of a firefly
skips ......on the thick hedge
it makes us think of fairies
even though we know better

*

wet city streets ......shine
under crisscrossing headlights
leftover snow ......melts
into the whirlpool storm drains
we breathe the heady spring breeze

*

the low moon is huge
surrounded ......by distant stars
silhouettes of trees
decorate black hills
bats whirl over ......the dark roofs

......

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Cervena Barva Press published All This Dark - 24 Tanka Sequences, in 2012, just months before John’s tragic death. He was pleased by its publication, but unfortunately he didn’t live long enough to see that the book eventually became as critically successful as Catching The Light.

The collaborative process evolved. When John died, we were two-thirds of the way through a third collection. We developed our own hybrid form, based on both haiku and tanka, and on the uneven metrics/syllabics Japanese forms. These were completely interactive, with both of us contributing lines to the same poems.

In early February of 2011, I sent John a hybrid of the Japanese forms with seven lines. John responded with a seven-liner of his own. On 2/21/11, we agreed to a third project, this one to integrate our voices into the same poems. By 3/15/11, we had come up with the final form of fifteen lines divided into three stanzas of 3, 5, and 7 lines. The order of the stanzas would vary. One of us would write the seven line stanza and the other would write the three and five line stanzas. We projected the collection to eventually have thirty-six poems. We finished twenty-four of them. None of the poems have been published until now.

The records of our email correspondence, over the five-plus years that we collaborated, fill a good-sized box. In going through it, two things stand out for me. The first is that our correspondence focused a lot on metrics. Essentially, we were using Japanese syllabics, which are always uneven (3, 5, 7), to resist iambic pentameter. Our lines were also breath units. We used caesuras to break the even beats and, most importantly, to more closely replicate natural, breath-based, free associations.

The other thing I note from the correspondence is the non-poetry relationship, those personal comments about daily events like John’s trips to the Eastern Shore, or my kayak trips. Building poems together led to a valued friendship despite the miles between us.

We would have done another twelve poems with the 3-5-7 arrangement. We also would have eventually given the sequences titles. Here are two of my favorites, illustrating the two stanza-orders we completed:

Sequence 8

if you say
you’ve seen a ghost
they’ll call you
more eccentric ..........than you are
but what of neutrons
faster than the speed of light
white holes ..........matter

*

my shelf life
is longer
than my journey


*

weeds grow from cracks
in an old pier..........rusted steel
upangles from white sand

 

 

 

 

two old dogs ..........play at waters edge
puppies at heart

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Sequence 24

the sky stretches out
over clueless cities
by seas that birth ......tidal waves
aimed at distant shores where
campfires blink...... innocent eyes

*

a man with a metal detector
finds a penny on the beach
& does a little chicken dance

*

the sand is dimpled
in morning sun...... the river
hums vwithout occasion
and willows drop their peals
here is no flirt...... that
tide won’t change
no promise...... for tomorrow

  To top

In the years that I collaborated with John Elsberg, I was always secure in his warmth and patience. John had a high regard for process. I loved writing with him, because we were so compatible. Some artistic collaborations thrive on tension, but some, more sublime, thrive on compatibility. My collaborations with John were of the sublime kind.

When two poets collaborate, a third voice emerges that is greater than the sum of its parts. The new voice can lead to a state where shared symbols reveal universal truths. The effect of this on each poet’s individual voice can be profound. John Elsberg’s voice is a part of me now, enriching and nourishing my own. Isn’t the purpose of poetry to transcend one’s self?



Eric Greinke ~

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