Cynthia Greenlee is a historian, writer, and editor. Based in North Carolina, she writes about anything she likes (or hates—she believes a combination of research and emotion make the best stories), including the American South, reproductive justice, Black food, and mystery novels. She co-edited The Echoing Ida Collection and won a James Beard Foundation Award for food writing. Zócalo’s Poetry Curator for November, Greenlee chatted with us in the green room about The Sound of Music, her hidden talent, and why the 1880s is her favorite historical decade.
Who are poets you’re currently reading?
I read any poem that Kemi Alabi puts out in the world. Any poem. I feel like they are just fit with meaning and structure and they’re never empty calories. I also read Dong Li’s new book The Orange Tree. They’re narrative poems and you may think they’re about fruit, but they’re so many things—about war, surveillance, migration, family history, pain, and pleasure, all intertwined. It is a book of revelation.
How has the pandemic affected how you think about or write poetry?
It gave me the time and the hunger to read different things and think about form differently. And, as I was cooped inside my house, it gave me the desire to experiment and to look at how you structure phrases and sentences and rhythm. I don’t know if I would’ve done that if I were just doing my usual 9-to-5. It made me diversify my readings. I’ve always read poetry but I yearned to read things that were sometimes more meaningful, sometimes meaningless, and a little frivolous. My poetry diet became much more balanced. I also read more short stories. I needed to read things that were briefer because my brain couldn’t hold as much but they needed to be very valued-packed. There’s something about poetry that, as a prose writer, makes me think about language in different ways. I feel like I write nonfiction better when I read poetry.
What’s your favorite holiday tradition?
My family’s a Black family from the American South. We had a tradition of always watching The Sound of Music together during the holidays when it came on national broadcast. Remember when there were only three channels and it was a big event, people used to sit together and watch TV together? So, I know all the songs and can sing them. In fact, my dog Ramona has a special song, a version of “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?” and it’s called, “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Ramona?” And she knows it’s her song. She gets hyped when she hears me sing it.
Who’s a dream dinner guest and what would you serve them?
I would like to go back in historical time and meet this anonymous person who was believed to have propagated this tomato that I’m obsessed with. There’s an oral story that it’s a tomato that an enslaved person carried the seeds across the Ohio River with them as they were going from slave states to free states. I would love to have dinner with that person and have it be a summer dinner, hear the story of the tomato—“Is this true?”—and have a whole tomato smorgasbord. There’s nothing more decadent than heirloom tomatoes in season and usually, every summer, I grow about a dozen varieties of them.
If you could time travel to the past, where would you go visit?
I do have a favorite historical decade, which, in the United States and particularly within African American history—which I study— is the 1880s. People are like, “Why do you want to go to the 1880s?” because they think of the 19th century as being associated with slavery and Reconstruction, that period of social and political revolution where African Americans become citizens and also lose citizen rights in many places. They think it’s a terrible time. I think it’s the most significant period in American history. 1880, for me, is really like the lost decade because historians think of it as being squashed in the middle of two important periods: The end of Reconstruction, which conventional timeline say around 1877 or so, and the onslaught of Jim Crow, which came into being legally around 1890s. They forget all about the 1880s, which is an incredible period of Black institutional building and creativity. I love that part, and I have to force myself to remember that people in the 1880s, they didn’t know exactly what was coming, in the ways in which they would be really disenfranchised in the following decades. I also would go in that decade because I have really big hair and it looks good in an updo. I always wanted to have hair like Ida B. Wells.
Do you have a hidden talent?
I can fall asleep anywhere. This has been a lifelong talent/non-talent to the point where— I’ve done a few things in life, including spending seven years getting a PhD and winning some food writing awards. But my mother, if you say something about how lovely or interesting I am, she’ll respond and say, “And she always slept through the night!” Which is kind of funny because I’m approaching 50 and this is the most extraordinary thing she can say about me.
What do you do to decompress?
I recently have been gardening and I’m probably terrible at it, but I actually like the practice of being terrible at things. It’s good character education. At the moment, if it weren’t raining right now, I would be out in the front yard, watering my favorite native plant, which is called pink muhly grass. I’m totally obsessed with it.
If you met multiple versions of yourself from alternate universes, what would those versions be doing in their lives?
One version would be out foraging in a forest somewhere exotic. I love foraging but not so deep in the rainforest or swamp or wherever. I imagine a more interested version of myself in some remote, exotic locale, collecting some fruits that have only been seen by 12 people in the world.
Another version would probably be traveling through time, dimension-hopping. just stopping in bookstores over time. I want to go to, like, a bookstore that Samuel Johnson visited in England.
Another version of me would be wearing a sparkling white body suit and would be Storm in the X-Men so I can levitate to the sky and have fantastic silver hair and tell people what to do and command the elements.