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Artist Profile: Kate Greene on Writing as Discovery

Kate Greene is a poet, essayist, and author of “Once Upon a Time I Lived on Mars."
Kate Greene is a poet, essayist, and author of “Once Upon a Time I Lived on Mars." By Courtesy of Dia Felix
By Vivienne N. Germain, Crimson Staff Writer

Speaking via Zoom, Kate Greene sat in front of a healthy houseplant, a print of a flower, and a volcanic map of Mauna Loa. Her apartment provided much insight into her mind: She absorbs and engages with the world around her.

Greene is a poet, essayist, and author of memoir “Once Upon a Time I Lived on Mars” — but it’s not surprising that she was initially a physicist. Greene blurs the inward with the outward, the artistic with the empirical, and her poetry with her prose. She observes, explores, and experiments.

“I love discovery,” Greene said in a conversation with The Harvard Crimson.

Her simple, naturalistic setting — adorned by the flower, volcano, and houseplant — echoed her simple yet complex approach to discovery in her work.

Because Greene began her writing career as a journalist, her writing was initially motivated by deadlines and urgency. Now a poet and creative nonfiction writer, she approaches her work by “unearthing feelings” in a “very bodily” way.

“Writing for me, I do think, is pretty somatic,” Greene said. “I honor bodily feelings in my process.”

Her writing grows organically from within her, then extends into the world around her. Her poetry and prose stem from, chronicle, and respond to the moments in which they are written. She describes her creative work as a “record” of its time — notably echoing a primary objective of journalistic and scientific writing.

Before Greene was a journalist, she was a laser physicist. Before that, she was a science kid.

“I wanted to be an astrophysicist at age nine because I learned about black holes, and thought, ‘yeah, that is where it’s at,’” Greene said, drawing out the “yeah” like a wide-eyed nine-year-old.

Religion was a central concept in her childhood home. As a result, she was drawn to “mystery and the unknown,” which, for her, meant growing curious about the natural world and drawing connections between theology and science.

Greene’s curiosity and her ability to draw connections to science permeate her writing, which is evident in her poetry published in SUITE earlier this month.

In “REMEMBER,” she writes, “I’ll read you equations from this / electrodynamics text / we’ll make them our own / to remember forever.” Another poem, “EASY WOOL SWEATER,” uses astronomy figuratively, describing “a sweet-faced cat / floating toward venus.” The poem entitled “A FLYING SAUCER CLOUD RELIQUARIES THE MOON” does not explicitly mention outer space, yet the outer-space title provides valuable thematic framing for the poem’s content.

None of the six poems are about physics — they’re about people and relationships, intimacy and regret, aspiring and longing — but Greene’s physicist mind enriches all of them in concrete, abstract, or perplexing ways.

“It’s my intellectual landscape,” she said, discussing the reason she brings science into her writing. “I studied it for so long. It’s like the stuff that you populate your brain with: It’s always there, ready to come out.”

Referencing Jack Spicer’s metaphor about Martians entering a person’s brain and rearranging the furniture, Greene said that she doesn’t control the position of science in her mind.

“You’re not quite in control of how the stuff that you’ve dumped into your psyche over the course of your life comes out when you open up to the space of writing a poem,” she said.

Greene took time to contemplate her profound yet humble thoughts as she formed them, while laughing at the occasional funny remark and at times, laughing at herself.

She chuckled upon mentioning the “little nonsense asides” in the margins of her notes as a journalist. She said that she only realized later in life that her “asides” had “poetic potential.” After years of writing explanatory stories, she found poetry liberating. Unlike physics and journalism, poetry does not require explanation.

“It’s a site of great relief to not have to explain and to live in sort of a confusion, or a strange metaphorical land where the sense-making happens — or not,” Greene said.

“A poem never has to say it’s sorry for not explaining itself,” she continued. “I find that is a very important place for me to spend some time, especially after all those years of explaining things — and [explaining] myself.”

Greene’s poetic freedom influences her prose. Her memoir, “Once Upon a Time I Lived on Mars,” recounts her time as the crew writer and second-in-command on NASA’s first HI-SEAS project, a four-month simulated Mars mission. She wrote the memoir in “an extremely poetic space.” As a result, she finds that it shifted away from her explanatory writing.

“It loosened up the rigidity of the structure of prose,” Greene said.

“[Poems] come from the site of extreme attention to the internal for me, and where my attention moves,” she continued. “Structurally, the ‘Mars’ book was written from that space, which is a similar space for me as poems.”

The memoir is organized by fundamental aspects of life — including solitude, diversity, boredom, and food — instead of chronological order. Considering its innovative structure, “Mars” illustrates Greene’s poeticism.

“Mars” also captures Greene’s integrative approach to writing. In one chapter, she explains Robonaut 2 and the issue of legs in microgravity; then, she writes that “it can feel almost repulsive to have a body, the truth of it, so greedy.” In the introduction, a niche anecdote about “returning to Earth” produces a universally relevant conclusion: “Sometimes leaving is the only way to know it was ever home in the first place.”

Through scientific details and unique memories, Greene artfully unveils mysteries of human experience. Fittingly, her method of writing “Mars” was rooted in discovery.

“I like serendipitous discovery and connection,” Greene said, explaining her process of writing the memoir. “Not that I don’t do research, but I honor the impulse first, and then I will look around to see what’s there, and that might spur other things — but by and large, I love discovery.”

“Mars” is poetic, but it’s nonfiction prose. It’s a personal narrative, but it’s also cultural criticism. It’s about science, but it’s really about humanness. Greene’s work transcends genre. Again referencing the natural world, she said that she is interested in how “seeds,” or genres, “inter-pollinate” one another.

She reflected on the stretch of history when “a writer was a writer,” a time when most writers were simultaneously novelists, journalists, poets, and essayists, and the genre of writers’ work was less prescriptive.

“If you had a way with words, and you also had access and could see things, whatever that means, then you just wrote it,” she said.

Greene clearly values reaching across genres. On her bookshelf, she keeps poetry by Brian Blanchfield, Audre Lorde, and Anne Carson, all of whom are also essayists. Her shelf also holds nonfiction by Wayne Koestenbaum and Jack Spicer, who are more known for their poetry.

Through poetic prose that combines physical science with interior experience, Greene’s interdisciplinary writing continues in her current project: an essay collection about the connection between artificial intelligence and queerness.

“It definitely is an interrogation of the self and the other, and that sort of dichotomy. It’s like a personal essay, but it’s looking inside, and it’s looking out broader, kind of like the ‘Mars’ book,” Greene said. “But with more sex.”

Combining technology, queerness, introspection, extrospection, and sex, Greene is not afraid of fusing disparate ideas. She consistently finds oppositions to harmonize and curiosities to scrutinize. She pushes the limits of possibility. Through the written word, Kate Greene embraces discovery.

—Staff writer Vivienne N. Germain can be reached at vivienne.germain@thecrimson.com.

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