A. Kendra Greene, self-portrait
University of Iowa alumna, author, and artist A. Kendra Greene recently published her first full-length book, The Museum of Whales You Will Never See: And Other Excursions to Iceland’s Most Unusual Museums. Greene graciously took some time to reminisce about her University of Iowa experience as an MFA student in the Nonfiction Writing Program and graduate certificate student in the Center for the Book, as well as the impact of receiving a Stanley Award for International Research.
Can you tell us a little bit about what is covered in the book and your motivation for writing The Museum of Whales You Will Never See: And Other Excursions to Iceland’s Most Unusual Museums?
At its heart, this is a book about two defining human impulses: the way we love material things, and the way we love stories even more. Which is to say it’s about stones and sea monsters, birds and witchcraft, herring and old men who can tell you something you didn’t know about yourself—what it means to collect and the possibility of museums. But always it’s about the human drive to keep, restore, repurpose, or just plain invent those things that will help us hold onto the stories that shape our understanding of the world and make us who we are.
How did your experience at the University of Iowa influence you and/or the creation of your book?
You studied nonfiction writing through the MFA program at Iowa – how did you find this experience?
Robin Hemley’s steering of the Overseas Writing Workshop meant that the first day I ever showed up for a University of Iowa class, I had to fly to Venice and take a train to Trieste. I still find myself quoting David Hamilton’s remarks, not just about the importance of getting the Missouri peaches while the Co-op still has them, but about how maybe all essays are travel essays, or that perhaps a modern writer should not be afraid of aphorisms. Certainly so much of how I build workshops for my students is directly descended from the framework—and jaw-dropping attention to the page—of Susan Lohafer.
How did your experience with the MFA program at the University of Iowa contribute to your writing career?
One of the things I value greatly about the Nonfiction Writing Program was its trust that we should study not just writing but those many things that can inform the writing. My time at Iowa was profoundly enriched by the Center for the Book, which gave me not just my ongoing practice as a book artist and letterpress printer, but equipped me for my very first conversations with my editor at Penguin. Especially because of classes with Sara Langworthy and Sara Sauers, I had crucial insight into the life my book could have as an object. I could advocate for trim size and endpapers and the necessity of maps and half titles and appendices. I’d fallen in love with small caps while setting lead type in the UICB type kitchen (it was 10 point Bembo), and now it signals the frequent new sections in these long essays. The method of drawing I first cultivated because it was suitable for polymer plates, a decade later set me up to add some 40 illustrations to this book.
You received a Stanley Award for International Research as a student at the University of Iowa to study the collection history of the Icelandic Phallological Museum. How did this funding impact your experience as a graduate student at Iowa?
The Stanley came at the end of my time at Iowa, so it had more to do with launching me towards my writing life after grad school, but its effect on my life thereafter has been profound.
Did your experience in Iceland as a recipient of the Stanley Award for International Research serve as a catalyst for your recent book?
This book would simply not exist without the Stanley Award for International Research. Just knowing there was such an opportunity changed me, gave me reason to think more freely and expansively and imagine what kind of project I’d really, ideally like to pursue. I only discovered a museum of note in Iceland because I was trying to come up with a worthy project for the award. Then the actual structure of the award, being in country for at least a month, gave me time to look around for context and notice three remarkable trends: the sheer number of museums in such a small country, the ease with which private collections could become public museums, and how almost all of them had sprung up in the previous decade or so. I went to Iceland the first time on the hunch there might be an essay there. I’ve returned six more times because what I encountered demanded a whole book.
How do you spend your time when you aren’t writing?
I am a visiting assistant professor teaching creative writing workshops at the University of Texas at Dallas, as well as an associate editor of prose at Southwest Review. I’m a regular contributor to the White Rock Zine Machine, which has leveraged old baseball card vending machines to issue tiny books, and I have an ongoing engagement as guest artist at the Nasher Sculpture Center bringing a variety of book arts practices to families and educators and veteran groups.
Do you already have an idea in mind for your next book?
I’m increasingly steeped in the dangerous things we keep in archives, libraries, and museums—both things that are literally toxic/unstable/likely to explode, and the ideas housed in language or objects that we have reason to fear will corrupt or harm or threaten us. I think it’s worth noting how purposefully we will safeguard the things that might hurt us, knowing it is more dangerous still to forget, censor, destroy, or deny then.
Where can people learn more about your work?
There are reviews at The Guardian, Star Tribune, and Dallas Morning News; interviews with Scandinavia House, Lost and Found, and Deviate; new essays up at The Wall Street Journal, Atlas Obscura, The Guardian, and The Common; and of course my website: akendragreene.com.
Any chance you could do some readings for us?
The Museum of the Story I Heard
The Museum of Icelandic Polar Bears
The Museum of Darkness