Interview with Jessica Greenbaum

The below is an excerpt of Andrew Kuhn’s interview of Jessica Greenbaum. Full interview text is available in the book How a Poem Can Happen, or upon special request.


AK: You studied with Kenneth Koch in your early days; he also wrote vividly of the city, and was associated with the poets loosely described as “the New York School” . . . . Like you, too, he taught poetry in innovative ways and in places it’s not typically found. Was he a lasting influence, or were those affinities and paths you would have come to on your own?

JG: Koch—along with Marilyn Hacker, and Bill Zavatsky, with whom I also studied as an undergraduate–remains a treasured coach in the mental dugout. Thank goodness I was in the foamy wake of the New York School with all its candor, humor, irreverence, narrative and humanism. I am still friends with poets from that year long class—Stephen Ackerman, Daniel Meltz, Jeffrey Harrison—and Koch’s penultimate book, New Addresses, continues to present itself to me as the book I wish I had written or could write, might perhaps approach kind of like almost writing . . .

AK: I understand you recently got your Master’s degree in social work, establishing forever your credentials as “a lifelong learner,” as if being a poet weren’t enough in that regard. Can you say a little about that experience, why you did it, and how it relates if at all to your practice and teaching of poetry?

JG: Nice to talk about social work. First, I guess: art just can’t do everything. I want to be able to throw my puny weight against the massive wall of various difficulties . . . for what it’s worth. I have an interest in the field called Narrative Medicine and I was invited to teach a workshop for 9/11 first responders through the World Trade Center’s 9/11 Health Program, which was kind of dream come true as I have always wanted to work with the police and firefighters. We had a great time, and part of what’s satisfying is how the discipline of writing poems—observation of outer and inner worlds—can be meaningful to people suffering from PTSD. If you can be here now, you can move back a bit from the movie of trauma that interferes with a full life.