A Conversation with torrin a. greathouse, Judge for the 2023 Award for New Poets
Frontier had the honor of chatting over email with torrin a. greathouse, guest judge of the 2023 Award for New Poets, about her work and insights into poetry.
Please enjoy their thoughtful responses, and be sure to check out our Award for New Poets. Of the contest, our judge says: When I was an emerging poet, Frontier gave a home to the original burning haibun, a test run of a form I was so excited about but had no idea if it even worked. That risk paid off though, and as a judge, I want to honor the way Frontier rewarded that risk. Send me not just your “best,” but your weirdest, wildest, most inventive, riskiest, and most boundary-pushing work! I want to read poems that rewire my brain, that jump-start my heart, and push my notions of what a poem can be and do.
MEGAN KIM: To start us off, could you please tell us a little bit about a current project and some of the recurring themes you find yourself returning to in your poetry?
TORRIN A. GREATHOUSE: Absolutely! So, right now I’m at a little bit of an inflection point in my poetics as I begin work on a third collection of poems, which I’m not quite ready to talk about in detail, but that is a major departure from some of the themes and formal approaches of my first and second book. There are certain things, like transness and disability, which are inextricable from my work, but after two books I’ve gotten pretty tired of a more autobiographical mode and am interested in seeing what themes and emotional tonalities are opened to me through other approaches.
MK: Could you very briefly discuss your writing process and two or three ways you’ve seen it change over time?
TAG: When I was a younger poet, my work was often very through-composed. The process was quite linear and I often revised as I went, spending six to eight hours on a poem in a single sitting, working long into the night. The more I grew as a poet though, the less my process resembled how I began. I often describe my process now as being one of accrual and improvisation. I collect poem ideas, formal approaches, images, lines, etc., and when these develop enough gravity, they attract one another, leading toward a poem. From there, I use these in a fashion akin to musical improvisation, with different elements acting as time signatures, the key, and rehearsed licks. This way of working has allowed me to be more experimental and less of a perfectionist in the initial compositional stages, as well as injecting far more play into my process, which I’ve found essential for sustaining me when I am writing my heaviest work. This approach has changed a little due to the nature of the new project, but not in ways I can fully articulate just yet.
MK: What is one book of poetry from any time period you wish people would talk more about?
TAG: Without a doubt, Zaina Alsous’ A Theory of Birds. It was a 2020 Arab American Book Award and Norma Farber Book Award winner, but still frankly didn’t get as much shine as it deserved. The book draws incredible connections from ornithological history to colonialism and race formation, from the violent euphemisms of the state to the language of birds. It’s a collection I return to again and again, filled with poems so brilliant I’ve dog-eared nearly every page.
Also, I know you just asked for one, but I also wanted to shout out Ashaki M. Jackson’s incredible chapbook, Surveillance, which is sadly no longer available for purchase. It’s one of my all-time favorite projects though and does some absolutely incredible work critiquing the violent and voyeuristic public spectacle made of the murder of Black people by the police. Some of the poems from this project are collected here by Cultural Daily.
MK: What would you consider some of your major influences to be? This doesn’t need to be strictly limited to writers!
TAG: This question is always so hard for me because I could keep listing for days, and have in many interviews in the past. So, if people want to know some of those answers, they’re around. Since you said it needn’t be limited to writers, I’m going to focus completely on influences from other mediums. I got my start in writing something akin to poems as a vocalist for shitty garage punk and post-hardcore bands, and music runs a deep thread through my poetics. Early influences range from Springsteen and Against Me!, to My Chemical Romance and Chiodos, to The Wonder Years and Brand New, to MF Doom and R.A.P. Ferriera (fka Milo). Some recent musical influences are Ethel Cain, Peach Rings, boygenius, 100 Gecs, and Food House. Also, the early work of the visual artist Jenny Holzer is so deep in the DNA of my second book, and in some ways the new project I’m working on.
MK: What would you want to tell the version of yourself who was just beginning to write?
TAG: Two things. First, you don’t have to cut yourself on the jagged edges of your own words for the poem to be good, and sometimes the poems will be worse off for the damage you let them cause you. Second, there are some things that poems cannot do in this world, they are a part of the work, but not the entirety of it.
torrin a. greathouse is a transgender cripple-punk poet and essayist. She received her MFA in creative writing from the University of Minnesota. Their work has been featured in Poetry Magazine, The Rumpus, the New York Times Magazine, Ploughshares, and The Kenyon Review. She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Effing Foundation for Sex Positivity, Zoeglossia, the Ragdale Foundation, and the University of Arizona Poetry Center. They are the author of Wound from the Mouth of a Wound (Milkweed Editions, 2020), winner of the 2022 Kate Tufts Discovery Award, and DEED (Wesleyan University Press, 2024). She teaches at the Rainier Writing Workshop, the low-residency MFA program at Pacific Lutheran University.