Confounding Assumptions: An Interview with Lynette Reini-Grandell

It's Animal but Merciful contributor Lynette Reini-Grandell chats with great weather for MEDIA editor, George Wallace 

Rhythmically innovative poetry. Nordic Rune-Singing. Burlesque Jazz-Violin. Collaborative art projects with her transgender husband Venus deMars. What less would you expect from an artist who comes from a state founded by "a large contingent of leftist-leaning Scandinavians who immigrated America a hundred years ago or so"? Meet Lynette Reini-Grandell, a Minnesota poet who has been pushing the envelope for much of her career as a poet and artist, and doesn't show any signs of stopping now.


GWFM: Describe the aesthetic and psychic geography you grew up and live in, in Minnesota.

LR-G: I grew up in a residential neighborhood of Duluth, which is in northern Minnesota at the western tip of Lake Superior. My parents were products of the Depression, so we didn't throw much away; old clothes, hats, furniture, Finnish skis, model trains, my brother’s magic paraphernalia, a Victrola, antique linoleum—it all got stored in the attic, basement, or garage. I was one of those kids who keeps searching the house for secret passageways. When I played in the attic I could look out the front window over tree tops and see the huge lake about a mile away seeming to blend with the sky. I thought this was normal.

This may have led me to develop what many would consider an extremely impractical streak. I fell in love with the most creative person I know, my husband, who in the early days of our relationship was the lead singer and songwriter in a rock band. After we’d been married about 5 years, my husband started acknowledging his transgender identity and is now known to most people as Venus DeMars. It has not been a smooth ride, but we've stayed together through it all.

This is a big part of what’s currently in my psychic geography because Minnesota has a state constitutional amendment on the ballot this election outlawing gay marriage. I recently wrote a piece trying to draw attention to the cruel idiocy of that kind of legislation called Life on Earth between Venus and Mars: Musings on My 29-Year Big Fat Queer Marriage. I’ve posted it on Facebook as a public note and hope that it makes a difference in people’s lives.

GWFM: What's your Minnesota?

LR-G: I see Minnesota as a very eclectic place. I can give a poetry reading with the Bosso Poetry Company in a bakery/garden center where we all bring a few beers, then camp in tents overnight a few blocks away. I live in a low-income but progressive neighborhood in Minneapolis that immigrants, refugees, artists, and people of many cultural backgrounds find welcoming. There’s huge support for the arts and social welfare programs in Minnesota probably due initially to the large contingent of leftist-leaning Scandinavians that immigrated to the state a hundred years ago or so. There’s a strong spirit of collectivism and taking care of each other here. Climate-wise people might complain about the cold winters, but that makes possible the vast number of lakes, rivers, ponds, and all the green space. It’s also a good justification for having a fire pit in the back yard.

GWFM: In Minnesota you've performed at the Minnesota State Fair, sing in a church choir, and have served as president of the state's Council of Teachers of English. But you're also prolific at spoken word venues, collaborate with Venus, and do burlesque on jazz violin. Are there issues you deal with to reconcile these seemingly disparate vortices for your art, either personal or practical?

LR-G: It’s possible that I volunteer too much! That’s how a lot of these things have happened. I've already mentioned the impractical streak, and only a few people are aware of all the different worlds I inhabit. I enjoy confounding people’s assumptions. I used to try to keep these different worlds separate from each other, but participation in Facebook has broken down all that, probably for the better. Most people seem to be fine with it. It helps to have tenure—I don’t feel the need to appear conservative, etc.

As a poet, rhythm, the sound of words, and music are very important to me. Lately, that orientation has led me to experiment with chanting. Doing readings with musicians in bars and other performance spaces gives me an opportunity to move beyond certain literary conventions. Also, reading newer pieces in public is a little like participating in a writing group for me. I like getting feedback from an audience—if they’re chattering away while I’m at the mic, maybe I need to give them something more interesting. I was introduced to the concept of jazz improvisation at an early age, and that philosophy seems to spill over into other areas of my artistic life, making me always interested in trying new things or tweaking some of the old things in new ways.

GWFM: What other locales nationally or internationally have you come to call your own?

LR-G: I’m been very lucky to have traveled to interesting places with my husband when he’s on band tour. I also traveled the documentary film festival circuit a bit when Emily Goldberg made a documentary about us called “Venus of Mars.” Along the way we've met some wonderful people, and honestly, if someone gives us a free place to stay, we usually go back.

New York City, particularly the neighborhood around the Carlton Arms Hotel, at 25th and 3rd Ave., feels like a second home. We've stayed there so often and so long that now we wander around like old farts tsk-tsk-ing the demise of CBGB’s, Mother, the Limelight, etc. Bisbee, Arizona is another place we try to get to at least once a year. It’s a small community near the Mexican border that supports a lot of art. We try to get there at least once a year and lately have been doing poetry/music events there. We met some fantastic people at a film festival in Tui, Spain, and although we haven’t been able to return for a while, we’re still planning to go back. Tui is in northwestern Spain, right across the river from Portugal. It’s a medieval city, like something you’d find in England, but with palm trees. The people there are wonderful.

Another place I love to return to is London. We usually stay in one of the bed and breakfasts along Gower Street near London University. Several years ago we were eating at a sidewalk restaurant near the Goodge St. station and kept hearing a repeated sample over and over again of symphonic strings through someone’s apartment window. About a year later we heard it stateside and it turned out to be “Bittersweet Symphony.” I keep on wondering if was someone involved in making the recording was playing it over and over that summer.

GWFM: At the University of Minnesota, where you got your PhD, you focused on American Poetry and the Rise of the Recording Industry, 1920-1940. What's that about?

LR-G: I've always been interested in the relationship between literature and the other arts, and there was already a great deal of scholarship on literature and visual art, so I started looking at literature and music. I listened to what was available of music recordings, radio programs, and spoken word recordings of the 1920's and 30's to see how that amazing new technology affected what was being written at the time. I discovered that reaction to the new technology was mostly split along class lines, which also encompassed racial lines. Recording technology increased access for a lot of people. I believe it also made us think differently about voice. I’m still using ideas from that research in my own writing and performance.

GWFM: Your poetry is on the walls of the Carlton Arms Hotel in Manhattan, in an installation created with Venus. How did that come about?

LR-G: Venus’s band started traveling to NYC in the late 90’s and I researched what hotels we might stay in. Seventeen was full, so I called the next hotel on my list, the Carlton Arms. We love it there—every surface of it is an art installation. And the manager, John Ogren, used to live in Minneapolis. Eventually Venus asked if we could paint one of the rooms and they said yes. We painted over a somewhat unpopular installation in room 5D on the 5th floor. This was a year or so after 9/11 and a lot of the hotel was vacant. One night we were asleep and woke to the sound of a garbage truck and voices talking about this being a cool place. Then I heard the zip of our fire-escape window opening. A man’s hand, clad in fingerless gloves, started reaching through the open window. I screamed and he went through a window to the empty room next door instead, escaping down the hall through the fire door. When we roused the night manager there was no sign of the intruder. But as we looked at the men loading garbage from the dumpster underneath the fire escape, we noticed one guy was wearing fingerless gloves. We’ve decided that an enterprising garbage carrier discovered that the room we were in was usually vacant, and he could get in that way and show his work buddies. He was very surprised to find someone sleeping in the room.

GWFM: Any big projects 'down the pike' for you?

LR-G: I've been working on Nordic rune-singing and chanting some of my poems with a friend of mine, Kari Tauring, who has been working in that area for about 20 years. We did a show together in May in Duluth, and it’s been a really mind-expanding way to explore artistically my Finnish heritage. We’ve got a gig coming up in mid-October with the theme of the Wild Hunt, and probably more will develop from that. I’m also planning to work with someone to help me find the common thread in my poems to assemble a good manuscript.


 To find out more about Lynette, visit her website.

Lynette's poem "Radio Girls" is published in our anthology It's Animal but Merciful

Lynette performs at our Spoken Word Sundaysseries at the JujoMukti Tea Lounge, NYC, on Sunday October 7th.