Michelle Greenblatt was my best friend. As an editor, she was the best that can happen to a poet: listening carefully for meaning, sublimating her own assumptions into my thought processes, and drawing from a huge range of readings and observations to further refine my technique. As a writer whom I had the privilege of editing, she was even better: pushing, exploring, and challenging herself in ways that forced me to study constantly and question everything I thought I knew. As a publisher, she was a better employee than I ever thought I'd have, and we planned for her to take over the month-to-month work of Unlikely Stories, promoting her to from "Poetry and Music Editor" to "Editor" so that I could expand our base as "Executive Editor." Given all this, I feel significant pressure when trying to properly eulogize her. I can take oblique comfort in the fact that I'll be writing about her for the rest of my life.
Michelle was born in 1982 in south Florida to Pearl Goldman and Lyon Greenblatt, Canadian-born Doctors of Jurisprudence who firmly believe in education and the arts. She spent her adult life deeply in love with and completely committed to Kyle Ramsay (whom we will call her husband, a clear social truth, without fussing about their legal status). She is survived by Pearl, Lyon, Kyle, her younger brother Kenneth, and her cat Sebastian.
Michelle appeared on the independent-press literary circuit while still studying Writing and Rhetoric at Florida Atlantic University. I first became aware of her in 2005, when I was Webmaster for Big Bridge. She was aggressively studying literary magazines, seeking ones she found appropriate for her work; she sent work to Unlikely Stories pretty promptly after our first interaction.
Michelle loved literature. She loved literary magazines, she loved the independent press, and she loved the people who sustain these industries. She loved collaboration, dated all her work, and thoroughly documented drafts. Florida Atlantic University is an excellent school, but a Bachelors of Arts in Writing and Rhetoric does not automatically impart upon one a world of literary contacts, so she seemed, to us, to come from nowhere. She was sincerely effusive in correspondence, but also protective of her private life, and both her letters and her photos struck one as very mysterious. She was young, beautiful, and incredibly talented. In short, she was extremely crushworthy, and remained so until her passing. I called her "the prettiest poet" to tease her and her fans, but also because it was true.
Michelle was clearly brilliant, and the arrival of such a brilliant—and warm and loving!—person into our world was properly celebrated by most, and we chatted and admired in appropriate, casual ways. There were exceptions. The few editors who felt entitled to her—to her words, and to more than that—shocked and embittered me, changing the way I do business in an industry that takes its identity from its defiance against normal workplace structures.
Given how widely-loved Michelle was and is in the independent press, it might seem wasteful to reflect upon those who attacked her. But it strikes me that the occasional viciousness that she inspired helps us understand her body of work. Michelle wrote most about the ways she had been physically and emotionally victimized. She wrote extensively about approaching the world with an open heart, meeting men and women who were attracted to such openness, and realizing that some needed to destroy that openness. She wrote very personal poems, but she did so with a clear understanding of heteronormative dynamics (toxic and uplifting) and feminist theory. She used fictional characters, such as the raven-haired Scarlet, to explore how her traumatic experiences were part of an all-pervasive misogyny that provides much of the framework of human society.
Michelle was a strong woman. We are all victims at some point, but none of the people who knew Michelle would think of her as a "victim." In her writing, she chose to return to her moments of victimization repeatedly, to explore them, to expose them, and to combat them. When reading her work, it is vital to remember that she chose to write it—that she achieved emotional mastery over her circumstances. Michelle was not weak; she was not broken. She was the captain of her weak and broken places, and she shared them with the world—as warning, as criticism, as love letter.
Michelle's victimization was the story she most frequently wrote about. It is an important part of her story, and a part of her story that I am privileged to help publish. It is not my story of Michelle.
In 2008, Michelle and Kyle moved to Texas's Gulf Coast. They had a difficult time, financially and socially, and Michelle's health began to sharply deteriorate. She did not communicate with poets while in Texas—I didn't hear from her for several years, and I'm not aware of other publishers hearing from her. She contacted me on Facebook in 2011, after she and Kyle moved back to her parents' home in south Florida. She was thoroughly afraid that I, and other editors, would be angry about her disappearance. I am happy to say that her fear was baseless. It's true that poets often hold a grudge, but we certainly don't begrudge fellow poets who spend a big chunk of their twenties off-the-map, finding themselves. That's kind of a standard thing here in poet-land. Michelle was joyfully received back into the world of independent magazines and presses. Her old friends re-connected and she made many new ones. She came back to us smarter, wiser, and psychically leaner than she left us. She also came back to us very, very sick.
It was in these last four years of her life that she became my best friend. We worked together constantly, and she took a position here at Unlikely—a fact which, to my endless astonishment, pleased her as much as me. When my own work for other presses caused me to neglect Unlikely, she covered for me in small ways and forced me, with sweet stubbornness, to refocus my energy back to Unlikely as necessary. I do not know what would have happened to Unlikely without her.
I was not the only poet and publisher to benefit from her productivity. She collaborated on a number of literary and artistic pursuits with a very large number of people, beautiful people whom she touched in beautiful ways (and there will be time, G-d willing, to praise them by name). And although her work in exploring her own victimization has become an important part of our generation's literary output, she also left a different literary legacy, in the form of the writers, poets, editors, and publishers whose lives she touched.
Without wanting to demonstrate my ignorance of brain chemistry, I think I can safely say that Michelle's was wrecked. She was in constant pain—the sort of chronic pain that creates a chemical despair. She was born with atypical brain chemistry, and this combined with her pain and her medication in brutal ways. By our ability to measure happiness as a biochemical function, she was very unhappy, indeed. Michelle could take it. Indeed, she did take it—took this biochemical unhappiness, and not only found joy in it, but spread joy from it. She spent years lovingly, gently, and fearlessly telling me how our friendship would end. She readied me for her death, and she did so while her body deteriorated and her brain fought her. She did this while solidifying the dark legacy of her writing and establishing the bright legacy of her literary friendships.
There are not many rewards to being an American poetry publisher in the 21st Century. It is not a time or culture that values literacy, let alone artistic commitment. It is a time that values only the most overt and simple symptoms of success, and poetry is not, and cannot be, about success.
This was just as true about American culture fifty years ago. But the technology—the Web, and then social media—which allows the independent press to flourish also makes us even more desperate to appear successful and important. In the past few years, I've watched talent after talent lose their art and trade it in for Facebooking—a pseudo-capitalistic competition of self-congratulation and fictional status.
I don't mean to suggest opting out. An independent publisher will have extraordinary difficulty opting out of social media, particularly Facebook (the platform overwhelmingly preferred by literary artists). But Facebook offers very real value to authors—not only instantaneous correspondence and real-time remote workshopping, but a worldwide network of people suffering from every imaginable illness. Michelle was one of a huge number of authors and artists helped by Facebook acquaintances with similar difficulties.
Art and "real life" aren't separate things. An artist needs to communicate with the outside world. Our art is this communication, and the dissemination of that art is a necessary part of our real selves. The way we display our art and our selves on social media is an authentic part of who we are. When we allow this aspect of ourselves to get caught up in false positivity, we corrupt our artistry.
So when I say Michelle taught me how to Facebook, it is not casual praise or soft thanks; rather, it is inextricably tied to the ways in which she helped me learn how to live. There is nothing dishonest in Michelle's Facebook life. There is an open discussion of suffering. But each time she posted of her agony, she posted of her gratitude, of her love for the people that she worked with, of the family, friends, and associates who brought her such happiness, such ecstatic joy, when her chemistry sought to disallow it.
Dear poet: life is not an accomplishment, or a series of accomplishments. Life is not merely a series of struggles, pains, losses. Life is a sloughing away, an acceptance that our individual lives are designed to yield to something beyond our ken. Life is an understanding of our smallness, of the way our consciousness is a tiny piece of existence, an understanding that long after our consciousness scrambles, Life Itself will end. So much of human pursuit is in denial of this fact. Poetry need not be.
My story of Michelle is how she taught me to find not only poetry, but joy, in The End.
Kyle Ramsay, K.R. Copeland and I are working on a tribute issue to Michelle, here at Unlikely. Submissions are now open.
In 2014, Unlikely Books published Michelle's ASHES AND SEEDS (as contracted before Michelle took a staff position at Unlikely). I'm attempting to drop the price to Amazon's minimum so that more people can acquire it easily. We'll be working on other free and reduced-price versions of her work in the future.
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