In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors–Molly Tenenbaum
1. Tell us about your poems in Volume 21, “To Shade a Green We Say a Noun” and “O Pie of Grace.” How did they come to be?
“To Shade a Green We Say a Noun”: I was frustrated with sea-green, forest-green, mint-green. There are so many greens! Description is so hard! I thought I’d experiment with different nouns in front of green. What new colors and concerns might emerge? Could I describe, discover, distinguish more fine shades of color? It was just after New Year’s, and I’d resolved to work on description.
“O Pie of Grace”: Recipes are so picky; I wanted to argue with them. As a friend I frequently cook with says while we’re putting together fruit, butter, and sugar, “How bad could it be?”
2. What excites you as a writer? What turns you off, makes you turn away or stop reading a piece of writing?
One test: Is it more interesting to look out the window than it is to read the poem, story, essay, novel? Of course, this may be more about what’s out the window than what’s on the page, but my backyard tree and the weather are always interesting to look at. So how long can I stay on the page without suddenly needing to look up? Apologies: that’s an apples-to-oranges answer. But otherwise my answer’s the same as you’ll hear everywhere: I want surprise and sound and a balance of mystery and clarity. And to learn new things. Also, I really love sentences, so I look for interestingly formed ones.
3. What was an early experience that led to you becoming a writer?
Poems that were read to me when I was little: Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Counting-Out Rhyme”: “Silver bark of beech, and sallow / Bark of yellow birch and yellow / Twig of willow.” And Walter de la Mare’s “Silver”: “Slowly, silently, now the moon…” In both poems, I loved how the sound created the image, and in “Counting-Out Rhyme,” how the poem was made of a list of trees, and then the poem seemed to become the trees you could see and say in your mind.
4. How does the current political climate influence your art or creative process?
I’m so angry and depressed about what’s happening in this country that all my old concerns seem irrelevant, and my new ones, well, other voices do it better. So I’m doing a lot of scribbling and journal writing and trying to figure out what my writing is in this place. I’m excited to be reading a lot of the urgent voices being published now.
5. What books, writers, art, or artists inspire you and your work? Do–or have–you had any mentors in your writing life?
One of my mentors was my aunt, who was a painter, biologist, botanist, birdwatcher, chef, hiker, adventurer, conversationalist, gardener, tea-drinker and letter-writer. She studied Zen with Suzuki Roshi, was one of the early residents at Tassajara Zen Center in California, and then studied Chinese brush painting. Her lifelong project was to use the Chinese brush to paint the plants, animals, and landscapes of Los Padres, Big Sur, and the Marin coast. It’s not like she guided or commented on my writing, but her letters to me have always been a big influence, full of description of her hiking adventures, sunsets, meals, conversations, gardening tales. The way she was, the way she observed things, the way she practiced painting, repeating a brushstroke a hundred times a day, deciding which one was best, trying to do more just like that, and then going with paper and ink into the woods, in one movement on the page, flash the brush across to make a branch. Her bay trees blowing in the wind are on the wall by my left shoulder.