‘Playful uncertainty’ apparent in new poetry by Charlie Green

Poems have origin stories, and a series of seven poems in Charlie Green’s new book, “Feral Ornamentals,” has an especially silly one.

One April, a poet friend challenged others on social media to set writing goals for the 30 days of National Poetry Month, such as write a poem a day or create an epic challenge of formal poetry: a crown of sonnets.

Charlie Green

“I scrolled down and someone else had posted something about clowns,” said Green, who teaches expository writing in the Department of Literatures in English in the College of Arts and Sciences. “My brain transposed ‘crown’ and ‘clown.’”

This whimsical word-switch led Green to write “A Clown of Sonnets,” seven related sonnets in which surface silliness digs deeper:

"All seven of us fold inside the car,/Our limbs and flowers wrinkled and uncouth./We’re geared for joy, our tears and losses far/Away. We have no interest in the truth/Beyond the laugh."

In “Feral Ornamentals,” his first book of poetry, Green finds whimsy in uncertainty and humor in the “terrifying,” creating new poems with a fact-based look at the natural world and a sense of exploration through process.

“I find that when I’m writing a poem and I start getting too serious too early in the process, the whole thing falls apart,” Green said. “There has to be a part of me that is approaching it as whimsy before anything else.”

Some of the poems in “Feral Ornamentals” start from a child’s point of view, such as the poem “Drowning.” Others seem to take place within a body of accumulated knowledge, like a trip to a museum. In “Under Glass,” a museum docent describes a “little man” in a terrarium outfitted “with everything he needs and thinks/he needs: a few books, outfits/he considers but rarely wears, a treadmill.”

“In ‘Feral Ornamentals,’ Charlie Green takes the particles and atoms that are our lives, reads them inside out and gives us beauty that says we are here and that every breath is art, whether we are grieving, loving, at war, or simply watching the snow fall and boiling eggs,” Mukoma Wa Ngugi, associate professor of Literatures in English, said about the book.

In “Glacial Erratics,” boulders in the landscape speak—for a serious purpose.

“The landscape always has a history we don’t know,” Green said. “We walk blithely through, at times, answering the call of that curiosity and other times, ignoring it. That’s the challenge of the age we’re living through, the sense of time moving a little faster, news cycles moving faster, of things like climate change moving much faster than we had anticipated.”

Green, who previously focused on fiction, started writing poetry alongside his Cornell students, as he taught the poetry section of a general creative writing class.

“In class, I gave a lot of 10-minute writing exercises,” Green said. “I needed something to do while sitting there. I thought of writing poems as lower stakes than writing fiction. It allowed me to have more fun.”

Fun is important to Green’s writing process. It’s also key to the process he teaches his students, tapping into an approach described by writer Dinty W. Moore.

“In the early drafts you are like a child playing with Play-Doh, and it’s later that you become the adult and then the parent in the writing process,” Green said.

This semester, Green is teaching a course on writing personal essay and a course on reading memoir. He models the writing process for his students to show them the messiness of early drafts.

“When students read published worked by these great writers, they don’t see the first draft, they don’t see the draft that never came to be,” he said. “So, I spend time talking about process.”

The cover of “Feral Ornamentals” is by Green’s older brother John, a painter and graphic designer, who taught Green to love the museums that inspire so much of the poetry in the book.

“He was a big influence on me, getting me to read a lot and encouraging me to write,” Green said. “The sketches he made for the cover: some of them look like ferns, others look like strange animal formations. I feel it captures what in the poems is interesting—the animal world and science and a kind of whimsy: is this Thing A or Thing B? There’s an uncertainly to them, and it’s a playful uncertainty.”

Green will give a reading from "Feral Ornamentals" online April 21 at 7 p.m. (sharing the stage with Cornell fiction professor J. Robert Lennon), hosted by Buffalo Street Books.

Read the story in the Cornell Chronicle.

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Book cover: Feral Ornamentals