The Radical Possibilities of Pleasure: A Conversation with Arielle Greenberg

Arielle Greenberg’s most recent books of poetry are I Live in the Country & Other Poems (Four Way, 2020) and Come Along with Me to the Pasture Now (Agape Editions, 2020); her most recent book is the creative nonfiction work Locally Made Panties. She is co-author, with Rachel Zucker, of Home/Birth: A Poemic, a book-length collaborative lyric essay, and co-editor of four anthologies, including Electric Gurlesqueforthcoming and co-edited with Becca Klaver. Arielle wrote a column on contemporary poetics for the American Poetry Review, edited the series (K)ink: Writing While Deviant for The Rumpus, and lives in Maine, where she works as an editor and teaches in the community and at the College of the Atlantic.


Emilia Rose Hamra: One of the epigraphs at the beginning of I Live in the Country is “I believe in the radical possibilities of pleasure, babe,” from Bikini Kill’s “I Like Fucking.” What are some of those radical possibilities? Do you think pleasure could pave the way toward revolution?

Arielle Greenberg: I do think pleasure can pave the way toward revolution, and that some revolutions have been fueled for the desire for pleasure—which is of course tied to freedom, justice, security, etc.

In terms of what the radical possibilities of pleasure could be, I have personally found that pleasure can be a portal to presence, to release/relief, to empathy, and to change. But I also hope that there are many other radical possibilities of pleasure I haven’t experienced or understood or imagined yet, which is why they are possibilities!

ERH: A portal to presence. That’s beautiful, I love that.

AG: Thank you. That’s the most direct one for me personally: when I am experiencing pleasure, I am often most able to be in the moment, to be fully in my body/mind. And I can’t really think of a more radical possibility than having more humans able to be present. If more of us were able to be more present more of the time, don’t you think that would lead to vast social and political change?

ERH: I love the opening poem, “I Am an Animal.” It’s a gorgeously written reminder of our roots and how our sexual desire goes hand-in-hand with hunger, hibernation, birth. Though we are animals at our core, how do you think our humanity changes the way we fuck? You never see, for example, any animals with foot fetishes or bondage kinks.

AG: First, I think it’s totally possible that many other animals have kinks. I recently went to an exhibit at the Museum of Sex in NYC that was all about animals’ sexual behavior, and it is actually quite complex. And really, humans can be so ignorant and oblivious about the other species with whom we share the planet: we haven’t really bothered to ask or study their sexual proclivities much.

But yes, I definitely think our human-ness—and our choice to see ourselves as something other than animal, which we are not—definitely fucks with our fucking.

I have had homebirths with all three of my children, and many homebirth midwives say that it’s often most difficult for really educated and/or cerebral women to birth naturally at home, because they can tend to be too much in their heads, and birth requires something else, a different kind of surrender to the body and its power. Which I think good sex also requires. And I think I’m lucky in that despite being a really anxious and analytic person who also loves to plan and organize, when I get into a physically pleasurable and intense space like birth or sex or dancing, I am able to completely surrender. It’s why I’m also into the D/s [Dominant/submissive] dynamic. I’ll also say that in my own mind, this book is LARGELY about how humans are animals, are mammals. And I think a lot of us are drawn to animals—and want to see them, be with them—because they remind us of a part of ourselves, our more primal selves, that we miss and with which we want to connect.

ERH: That’s fascinating about the homebirthing, and it makes so much sense. It seems like the more complex our minds are, the more control we want to have over things, including over our own animal nature. That even reminds me of psychedelic trips, or any situation that requires one to give in to nature. I suppose surrendering in a D/s dynamic is a good way to practice that.

AG: Yes, I can totally imagine that psychedelics is another pathway to this! There’s that new book out about that from Michael Pollan, right? I’m interested. I’ve never done psychedelics but want to try them, though I am scared. I prefer to get there through sex and dancing and ritual and being out in nature and stuff, just because it feels a bit more under my control!

ERH: Yes, that’s on my reading list! But I agree, sex and dancing can most definitely be spiritual experiences if you’re doing it right.

You edit The Rumpus’ series “(K)ink: Writing While Deviant,” which explores the connections between people’s sexuality and the way they write. How does your own sexuality affect your creative method?

AG: I am planning to write my own essay for the column about this eventually, but I have come to think about my interest in the materiality of language—in its plasticity and specifics of it—as a kind of fetishism, a fetish for words. I think that’s how and why I came to poetry: I was just in love with individual words, their sounds and shapes and meanings. They had magic powers and were like talismans—which is what fetishes are, and is how fetishists feel about the things we fetishize. Being around the things we fetishize makes us feel safe and blissful and enraptured and high. And we just want to be around that thing we fetishize as much as possible, get close to it, be in it, lick it, touch it, surrender to it, etc. Which is really how I feel about language.

ERH: Many of your poems celebrate masculinity—“everyone here has a truck / has a pick-up / & what I love about men is how they are men”—while it seems that too much of our media portrays men as feminism’s enemy, tries to stifle anything too manly. In “The Boy,” you even mention “the problematic lack of discourse around the possibilities of pleasure and joy in heterosexual male desire.” That’s a radical thing to say as a feminist today! Can you talk a little more about that?

AG: Well, first of all, of course, masculinity isn’t equivalent to men: they don’t mean the same thing. I do a lot of celebrating masculinity—or a very particular aspect and possibility of masculinity—but I’m not really celebrating men at all, as a group. I don’t think that feminists or anyone else will do ourselves any favors by pathologizing or hating on or trying to stifle masculinity. We are all connected—all our genders, our sexualities are part of a spectrum, and to cut off or try to excise any part of that spectrum does all of us a huge disservice. Just like in agriculture, we need diversity!

Masculinity is to blame for A LOT of problems in the world, it’s true. And in our own culture, we think of masculinity mostly as the kind of toxic masculinity that hurts all of us. But I’d like for us to remember that “toxic masculinity” is just that—the toxic sides and outcomes of masculinity. There can be healthy, constructive masculinity, too. There IS. Just as there are toxic and healthy femininities.

But for those of us who are attracted to masculine presentations—well, I wish we wouldn’t condemn it all. Clearly there are things to love and admire about masculinity, and some of us are very pulled toward people who mindfully and graciously embody those energies and attitudes. We need to learn, as a culture, how to make space for healthy expressions of masculinity. Which of course also means destroying the patriarchy and combating misogyny—that’s how we could cultivate healthy masculinities.

ERH: One of my favorite lines of the book is, “I am not trying to ignore rape…I am trying to turn my eye toward joy.” I feel like most writing about sex that I’ve see lately is so negative! Not anti-sex necessarily, but hyper-focused on the issues surrounding sex or whatever the buzzword of the day is, and it’s so refreshing to read a book that is so shamelessly sex-positive. What do you think happened to sex-positive feminism? How can we get back to that?

AG: Yeah, I took on this project because I myself wanted to read sex-positive poems by women-identified people and couldn’t find hardly any. So I wrote some! I mean, sex-positive feminism is always going to be a “possible-impossible” sort of thing, as I call it. It’s why I used the Bikini Kill quote—I want to believe in the radical possibilities that women and queer people and trans folks and others who may have experienced a lot of sexual trauma or shame can experience sexual pleasure, but it’s not an easy thing!

And yet I must, and I do, believe that it’s possible. I cannot give up on my own pleasure, on identifying and sourcing my own pleasure, just because I live in a rape culture and a brutal patriarchy. We have to just keep holding on to that flicker of possibility, and enacting it wherever we can, and fostering and nurturing and supporting it in others. We have to be the magical sex-positive feminists we want to see in the world, you know? And we can do this by honoring sex workers’ rights, by refusing to hate our bodies the way they are, by refusing to stop dressing how we like, by respectfully telling other people that they look great (especially people who maybe don’t get to hear this as often). We can do it by saying, “That person is conventionally attractive” (if that’s what we mean), instead of, “That person is pretty.” We can do it by listening to our true desires and choosing to act on them, and to find partners who mesh with them.

ERH: Your book is dedicated to “the community.” Though kink communities are invaluable for those seeking a safe space to express themselves and connect with like-minded people, I feel like they can quickly veer into cult territory—I blame those creepy Doms that hover around inexperienced subs like vultures. When a community inherently has to be open to things like power dynamics, how can they make sure that doesn’t become problematic?

AG: There is definitely no guarantee that any particular community will remain safe, and many BDSM “communities,” or scenes, are rife with problems. I myself am not part of any particular geographic community or scene. But I am grateful to have made some good, thoughtful friends who identify as kinky and/or non-monogamous and/or sex-positive, and I’m SO grateful for that, because it’s really helpful to talk to people about this stuff. I mean, the mainstream culture is so sex-negative, and there are scant positive representations of kink or non-monogamy. My partner and I find it extremely nourishing and important to make sure we regularly gather with other people who share our values around sex and sexuality. Or even just to listen to podcasts or read books when we can’t gather with friends or strangers. So that’s what I mean by “community” here—a kind of “community of practice” of other feminist, queer, anti-racist, body-positive, justice-minded people who also are super into non-normative sex.

ERH: That sounds lovely. If only all communities—kink or otherwise—could be a little more like that.

AG: To be clear about the above: the kink community is NOT all like that! And my friends are not saints! I just mean—sometimes you have to reach out and know someone else is out there.

ERH: Your poem “Commons” ends with the line, “What I am really after is connection.” Can you expand on that?

AG: I’m not steeped in knowledge about tantra, but my sense of it is that it’s basically about connected sexual experience, which is really getting right back to the thing about being present we talked about at the beginning of this interview. First you are trying to be connected to yourself, and for a lot of people, that on its own is very difficult. Then you are trying to stay in that present state while connecting with someone else—someone with a different body, different smell, different opinions, different desires. Relationships are hard! But they are also, I believe, the one real reason we’re here: to forge meaningful relationships. Humans are pack animals.

So while I am all for the kind of recreational sexual activity that gets called “no strings attached,” I still want it to feel connected. I want all people involved to feel present and alive and to come away nourished and awakened. I don’t mean that it has to be a spiritual or “tantric” experience—but we all know the difference between going through the motions with an activity and doing it with our full hearts and minds and souls involved. Even if no names are exchanged, if you never see a person again, you can still connect deeply with them in a way that stays with you and feels healing and awe-inducing and delicious.

ERH: You have me literally clapping over here! That’s such a gorgeous way to look at every interaction we have with a person, not just the sexual ones.

AG: Yes, I am after connection in ALL my interactions with other beings, not just the sexual ones! Deep, authentic, meaningful, two-way connection.

ERH: Now that you’ve finished I Live in the Country, where are you finding your next inspiration? Who are you reading lately? Who are you listening to?

AG: I have two creative nonfiction projects I’m hoping to work on, which are also largely about sex, in different ways. But it may take a bit for me to get to those, because frankly life is just very busy!

My reading has largely been in order to serve my students or other specific requirements—I would love to get back to reading literature for pleasure. That’s a resolution for 2019 for me.

And I am always listening to many things. But I’ll say my very favorite podcast is “Still Processing,” and I am grateful for SiriusXM (especially the 1st Wave, Rock the Bells, and Underground Garage stations), and I have recently discovered Lizzo, who is fabulous. And I am always watching good things. We just saw the film Support the Girls, which is fantastic and I feel like no one has heard of it.


Emilia Rose Hamra

Born in Arizona on an Aries new moon, Emilia Rose Hamra now lives and writes in Philadelphia. She studied Creative Writing at Arizona State University and worked as a copy-editor for Four Way Books. A recipient of the Norman Mailer College Poetry Award, she has poems published or forthcoming in Four Chambers, Santa Ana River Review, Reality Beach, and others. She is the founder and editor of The Shoutflower, a print publication of art and writing with a dark/dreamy/delirious theme. You can usually find her getting sweaty at the Muay Thai gym or reggaeton night.

No Comments Yet

Leave a Reply