At an age when many people think of retirement, Kate Greenstreet is traveling across the United States on a year-long, cross-country tour in support of her new book, Young Tambling. Kate is a poet, visual artist, and filmmaker who also plays guitar ("but not very well," she laughs). When I spoke with Kate over the phone, she was in Beaufort, North Carolina, on her way to Austin, Texas. "It's so warm here," she noted. "The people are great, so friendly. Even when the audiences are small, I feel appreciated. People listen."
About touring, she said, "The beginning is the hardest part, breaking out of introversion. You begin to long for sleep in a special way." Kate is no stranger to hard work, having held jobs that range from washing dishes to creating websites. She works comfortably in multiple, creative genres. "I ask myself, can I do this? I try many things." At the age of 57, Kate published her first book. She now has seven chapbooks and three full-length collections, as well as her painting, photography and videos. Here is the link to Ahsahta Press and Kate's latest book.
Kate's tour will take her from the East to the West Coast, and points north and south. "We're driving most of the way," she said. "The car is one of the few things we didn't sell," referring to the decision she made to sell her New Jersey home of eighteen years and move to Ireland for six months. Now back in the US with her husband Max, she's not sure where they will end up. "I've lived all over – in New York, New Jersey, Oregon, California." She thought she'd finish her latest book, Young Tambling, "in a cottage in Ireland, looking out of a tiny window at the sea and wearing my special sweater."
It's difficult to discuss the elements of Kate's art separately from each other. To quote her from My Own Eyes, a short film by Max Greenstreet, Kate's husband and frequent collaborator, "it's made of pieces." Kate's work mixes up and layers the senses: you can hear the landscape and see the poems. "I think my work on the page is difficult for people," she told me. "I don't explain it." The poems benefit from multiple readings, just as the videos stand up to multiple viewings. Here is the link to My Own Eyes:
Kate is the sole creator of the visual as well as the written parts of her work; therefore, her aesthetic is consistent throughout. From paintings to photographs to film to words, she maintains her sensitivity to the highly specific, suggestive detail, leaving the interpretation of a connected whole to the reader or viewer. For example, in "locating faraway objects," it's pointless to attempt to derive a narrative from the poem or the video; instead, let the visuals and the poem exist as fragments, illuminating various parts of the imagination:
Kate's first experience with video was in support of her previous book, The Last 4 Things. Here is an excerpt from the DVD that accompanies the book, up at The Tower Journal.
The video for Kate's poem, "Goodbye," is one of the most successful poetry videos I have yet to see. First of all, the poem itself is a non-linear rumination, with lines that move back and forth between the speaker and another voice. Reading the poem feels like eavesdropping on a dialog between two people who know each other so well that they speak in coded bits of language instead of complete sentences. Indeed, the poem has no clear beginning or ending, but feels overheard and transient. The video reflects and deepens that quality, with Kate's precise choice of images and her impeccable editing:
People appear in ghostly fragments, as negative images in photographs, or a pair of hands, perhaps a glimpse of a face. The landscape rolls by, as if seen from a moving vehicle, and almost always the scenery bears the mark of humanity: bales of hay cover a field, a window frames a view blurred with rain, a hand rests on a stone angel. One of my favorite images in "Goodbye" is near the beginning, where the pages of a handwritten journal flip by, faster and faster until they end in sheets of blank paper. Later in the video, fragments of writing appear, in blacked-out erasures, postcards, books, and names on gravestones, all fleeting before the viewer can make out the words.
Throughout the video, a stick-figure house builds itself on the screen: lines turn into a triangle for the roof and a square for the house. An "x" appears in the center of the square before the house quickly disappears. "I think there's no place to live anymore," the narrator declares, echoing the rootlessness at the core of the poem, its sense of endings and openings, unsure of what lies ahead.
An interesting quality of the video is that, in spite of its intense assemblage of visuals, it works seamlessly with the poem. Narrated by Kate and Max, the video feels very much like the seen part of their conversation, in that way that images move by us as we move through our lives. The video preserves the randomness of our daily encounters, which is just one reason why it deserves multiple viewings. The other reason is to enjoy the sheer beauty of the images, blended with the poetry.
Kate's latest project is her book, Young Tambling, which she calls an "experimental memoir." The book is comprised of prose, poems, and black and white images of her paintings, as well as reproductions of handwritten notes. The title comes from an ancient English ballad about a girl who saves a man from enchantment. The story, complicated by the fact that this same man rapes her ("at her he askt no leave") and leaves her pregnant, appealed to Kate because the girl is the hero, and ultimately triumphs over everything that's done to her: violence, evil, bondage. The way she triumphs – by accepting and even loving her rapist, bearing his child, and rescuing him from some fairies – is an unsettling story, to be sure, but as Kate writes in the book's first chapter, "For once, the hero is the girl, and her point of view and actions are the primary focus as the story unfolds." She then quotes Helen Mirren: "It's so rare, even to this day, incidentally, that a woman drives the narrative of a drama." Kate has videos in the works based on poems from Young Tambling. Here is a link to "The Ballad Form," first published in Dewclaw:
It's clear that Kate Greenstreet is the driver of her own unique narrative. As a woman, an artist, a poet and filmmaker, Kate is an inspiration to not only women but to all creative people. "Everyone takes pictures and makes videos. We're all in it together," she said in My Own Eyes. The DIY impulse is strong in Kate's work, and so far, the results are rich and rewarding.
Kate's reading schedule is here.
"Things explain each other, not themselves." – George Oppen