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Like a Fractal: A Brief Conversation with Timothy Green

David Shook

Timothy Green is well known in the poetry community for his editorship of Rattle, one of a handful of established West Coast poetry magazines. This year his first collection, American Fractal, was published by Red Hen Press. Lauded by Bob Hicok, Gregory Orr, and Denise Duhamel, the collection is a serious exploration of the nested patterns of our society, tackling subjects from Hopper to horses (Green writes, “Love is a horse, all sweaty suede and lean / muscle, heart bigger than its head.”). His collection is balanced by a light touch of surrealism; in many poems I imagine Green winking, not because he’s not serious but because he knows he could appear to be too serious. His poems are fun.

At 9 PM on Thursday 3 September 2009, Timothy Green will read from his book American Fractal at Apiary Gallery at 1402 Micheltorena St., Los Angeles, CA 90026, for the Molossus sponsored event LOCALCULTURE. Other performers include comedian Barry Holiday and filmmakers Nate and Sarah Kathryn Harrison.


They could have been us
hours ago. Two figures
huddled hip to hip in their
parkas like one big foam
finger for the sky’s yearly
coughing of sparks and
spangles, these percussive
pops that stand in so often
for independence, the blank
case, the empty shell.
It took the human race
five thousand years to invent
nothing as a concept, I think,
my headlights flashing their
coupling of ooh and ahh,
their addition by subtraction,
long division into unity,
two faces to one mouth—
a numeric ideal found
faster than zero, harder
to lose. Any infant knows
the letter I, the silver look
of a mirror in white light.
They could have been us
studying the many shapes
of one hand inside another,
fleshy certainty of the body
as it tries on disappearance.
The crackle of gunpowder
through the car window,
the yellow sodium glow as
fallen angels of incandescent
ember halo their hair.
Could have been us if only
we’d dressed for the weather;
these cold desert nights,
this copper chloride blue.

from American Fractal, published by Red Hen Press in 2009

timI understand that you and your wife are both poets. How does that work? Are you guys competitive? More Hall-Kenyon or Hughes-Plath?

Well, given their histories, for Megan’s sake I hope it’s none of the above!  We’re not competitive at all, so guess I’d have to say it’s much more Hall-Kenyon.  The truth is, neither of us really care about poetry enough to be competitive.  It’s something we enjoy doing, something that keeps us balanced and tuned to the world, but it’s not a sport; no one wins.  We actually met as part of a poetry group, so you could say we liked each others’ work before we liked each other.  There’s always been that fantasy, her clattering away on a typewriter in the next room, me with a pad and pencil, cats and coffee, meeting in the hall mid-day to see what the other came up with.  But in real life writing is always solitary; I do my thing, she does hers.  We talk about a million things more often than poetry.

You’ve been an editor for a long time, on that side of the poet-editor relationship—how was it working with an editor as a poet?

At least in my experience, there isn’t much editing to editing.  There are so many poets out there, being an editor is mostly just throwing out a net and finding what fish you like.  I assume you’re referring to Red Hen Press, but when they published my book, there wasn’t much editing back and forth.  I’ve never been a reviser, actually—all my poems pretty much end up how they started.  Kate Gale, their managing editor, read through the manuscript, and I think there were two poems she suggested I cut.  I kept one and replaced the other.  She did catch one tick of mine, a tendency to begin sentences with a kind of Biblical “and,” which would have annoyed the hell out of me in a few years if it found its way to print.  I’ll always be grateful for that. But really, an opinion is just an opinion, no matter who its coming from, and I think most people who’ve worked in poetry long enough realize that.

AmFracWEBfrontSmallYour first collection, American Fractal, came out this year on Red Hen Press. How did you know that you had a complete collection?

One day, for no particular reason, it occurred to me that I might have enough poems to fill up a book.  So I opened an empty word file and started adding, until I had a failed manuscript.  Over 100 pages, but no cohesive theme.  It took another two years of fiddling, and a small epiphany, before I was happy with it.  Eventually I was calling the thing The Dream Token, which was a line from one of my favorite poems that worked well to tie it together—but the word Dream in a title is awful, so I wanted to think of something different.  “American Fractal” was probably the best individual poem title in the collection, and suddenly I realized that the whole book was an American fractal.  Once I understood that, the arranging it became easy.

I like what Bob Hicok said about your collection, about your “looking for the order within disorder.” I think that describes the tone of the book well. It also makes sense of the Fractal in your title. Tell me, how would you explain what makes the collection American?

Well, the United States is all I know, is all I’ve lived inside.  I’ve called both coasts home, worked in several fields, experienced poverty, seen real wealth.  It’s not that I know more America than everyone else, I just don’t know anything else.  We all know America, it’s big and ugly and beautiful, and like a fractal it’s infinitely recursive, endlessly complex.  Any aspect of America can be used as a metaphor for any other aspect of America.  I find that fascinating.  What are Democrats and Republicans, if not your mom and dad?  What’s the military-industrial complex, if not your paranoid schizophrenic roaming the streets?  Bombs and fireworks, God and The Gap, movies and masturbation…  What would I write about that isn’t American?

August 2009

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  1. LOCALCULTURE at The Hive | Timothy Green - September 3, 2009

    […] One of the organizers even did an interview with me, which you can read here. […]

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