The Lightning Room with Arielle Greenberg


–Interview by Diana Clarke


Arielle Greenberg sees clothing as costume change, a way to perform for the world the identities we inhabit and move between:“ teacher, parent, activist, poet, sex kitten.” In January, PANK ran excerpts from Greenberg’s forthcoming book, Locally Made Panties. Below, she talks people-watching, punk, Buddhism, and George Saunders.



1. How do you, as a person—not a writer, or not only as a writer—engage with fashion and performance when you go out into the world? That is, how do you decide what, actually, to wear?

Oh, I love this question! The truth is, there’s probably some kind of algebraic formula which I’ve never quite figured out, a combination of factors that determine various parameters, eliminate certain choices, etc. Probably the primary factor is weather: I live in a place with four distinct seasons, and so the first question is always how cold or hot is it going to be. I check the weather on my phone. Is it going to rain or snow?

From there, I can make decisions like “wear those black wool leggings, and find a sweater that looks good with those.” A second factor is what’s on the schedule for the day: sometimes I’m running errands with kids, sometimes I have to look professional, sometimes I’m sitting at my desk all day, sometimes I’m going out on a date later. These things determine if I’m going to wear something that needs to be dry-cleaned (which are generally only broken out for interviews and special occasions) or if I can show a lot of cleavage or what have you. Probably the third factor on the list is how I’m feeling about my body, which is highly influenced by where I am in my cycle. I can almost guarantee that if I’m wearing a form-fitting little dress and heels, I’m about to ovulate, and if I’m in a big comfy sweater and dark stretchy leggings, my period’s about to arrive.

But there have got to be at least seven more such questions/circumstances that get factored in, including the question of “performance”: who is going to see me today, and what activities am I undertaking? What role am I playing today: teacher, parent, activist, poet, sex kitten? I definitely think of clothes like costume changes, and sometimes I want to look polished and chic, and sometimes I want to look mainstream and “normal,” and sometimes I want to look sultry; some days I want to dress like a 1970s rock groupie, some days I want to dress like a 1950s French schoolgirl, some days I want to dress like a well-heeled 42-year-old mom.

I have a little fashion mantra right now that involves making sure that there’s something hippie, something punk, and something bombshell, in every outfit I put together. I don’t always achieve that (today we’re just getting through a blizzard, and the kids are home from school, and I have a sinus infection, and the only thing I tried to achieve was “cute, warm and comfortable”), but that’s my current aim.

2. You write, “I love visiting towns or cities with good style, good street fashion.” What are some of the best places for street fashion you’ve visited? Any particularly memorable sights?

SoHo and the East Village of New York City are typically excellent, and are places I’ve gone to be inspired by street style since I was a kid, although more and more I find the influx of chain stores to those neighborhoods are making them a bit less original. I find San Francisco—the Haight, the Mission–really exciting: there tends to be a bit less following of current trends than in NYC. I was in Venice Beach, in LA, last spring for the first time and was so enchanted by surfer style, and I’ve also been teaching in Bend, OR, for the past few years, which is great for a cowgirl-punk-extreme athlete kind of look.

I live in rural Maine now (which actually has some amazing style all its own, which is especially on view at the annual Common Ground Country Fair: I have a blog about the street style there), so my life is more isolated now in terms of seeing new, stylish people around all the time. So when I travel, I pay close attention in airports: airports can be great for style-watching, because some folks really dress up and sometimes dress for the place they’ve just left or the place they’re headed. I love the tradition of dressing up to travel. So many people just wear whatever is most comfortable and practical, and while I understand that, it’s an incredible thing to see someone dressed to the nines, fully made up, wearing insanely precarious heels and lugging around a suitcase. You know they are performing a role that’s very exciting to them.

3. The idea that you get at in these pieces, of consumer envy that masks deep dissatisfaction with personhood–or longing for a Look that might make life as ideal as the clothes suggest it to be–is so much about performance, looking and being seen. How do you think about panties–which are generally intimate and hidden, except from sexual partners and maybe children–in relation to that idea of exterior performance? (Also, have you read Leela Corman’s Unterzakhn?)

I have not read that book! Will go and look it up!

There’s something luscious to a secret garment or accessory, isn’t there? Even if no one else can see it, you know you have it on, and there can be something very illicit and thrilling about keeping that secret in public all day. This can be true of panties, although if the panties are good quality, hopefully they’re so comfortable that you’re not actively feeling them all day long. (You’re still aware of them whenever you go to the bathroom, though!) When I wear a garter belt, it definitely gives me a little extra oomph, even if no one sees it, because I can feel it throughout the day, and I feel a little more special, a little sexier, a little retro, a lot more femme, and also, yes, a little inconvenienced. That interior knowledge affects the external performance of my identity.

4. You write, “I felt called out, like when I went to a Buddhist retreat and the first thing the rinpoche said was, “Everyone is here for the wrong reasons,” and I knew he was right, at least about me.” What drew you to that retreat? What is the right reason?

I’d left NYC to go to graduate school, and newly out of an unhealthy relationship and into a new, saner one.

In some ways my new life was more grounded, less toxic than it had been for years, and in other ways there was still a lot of drama and craziness (I was in an MFA, after all, and one in a very weird city!). I was trying to find balance, and two of my professors—George Saunders and Malena Morling—were practicing Buddhists, and so I started down that path.

I think “the right reason” to go to a Buddhist retreat is to be present and work on your meditation practice. I think most people go because they want to impress someone else, or think of themselves as more noble or cool or righteous, or to get a quick-fix to a current problem: at least, those are some of the reasons I think I was there. American Buddhists, like American yogis, tend toward thinking of themselves and their practice as really special and groovy, and requiring various purchased accessories (activewear! bells! pillows! yoga mats!), which is of course counter to the kind of ego and material detachment such practices actually encourage. Oh, well. That rinpoche wasn’t saying we were bad people: he was just reminding us that our egos were very much still in play. Which they were/are. I don’t know anyone who has achieved enlightenment, though I know some people I think of as pretty darn close. I am not one of those people.

5. The first excerpt from Locally Made Panties ends with the line, “I sometimes think about the challenge of being an old woman with a Look,” which beautifully sets the tone for the satire that follows, and does a kind of George Saunders-like Emphasis of Absurdity in Ordinary Jargon. How else but through humor can we possibly live within the stifling set of requirements for womanhood—for gender and personhood of all kinds? What works or writers influence you?

Ah, you found the hidden George Saunders in the book! I do love what he does with vernacular, and I love Joyce and Nabakov and Flannery O’Connor and Heather McHugh and CD Wright and Miranda July and so many others; earlier, as a kid, I loved Edward Gorey and Lewis Carroll and Francesca Lia Block. What all these writers have in common is a mixture of intense playfulness (especially around vernacular and language) and dark humor and edge combined with vulnerability and sweetness and empathy.

Absurd, surrealist, black humor is certainly the register of my heart: there’s a reason my first book is titled after Duchamp and my second book is titled after Kafka.