Midwestern Gothic staffer Jamie Monville talked with poet Sarah Crossland about crafting, the spirit of the Midwest, finding inspiration in cinema, and more.
Jamie Monville: What’s your connection to the Midwest?
Sarah Crossland: The first time I went to the Midwest—I grew up in Northern Virginia near D.C.—it was on a family vacation where we packed up our Toyota Previa and drove around to pop culture meccas and dead presidents’ homes in Ohio, Indiana, Missouri, and Illinois. While other kids were getting sunburned on beaches, that summer we paid tribute at the Rock ‘N’ Roll and NFL Halls of Fame, visited the Longaberger factory with its basket-shaped office building, and wandered the grounds of Ulysses S. Grant’s vibrant green homestead, White Haven. Like any place where you do not live and only visit, I came to think of the Midwest as a constellation of images: the hot oil that still clings to Cozy Dogs just pulled out of the fryer, the tiny mechanical chairs that carry you to the top of the St. Louis Arch, the taxidermied animals in the museum beneath it. It felt more American than any place I’d ever been, in a complex and welcoming way. These kinds of discrete experiences are what I focus on so much in my poetry, and both spectacle and tourism are huge themes in my manuscript Tomorrowland.
It wasn’t until I moved to the Midwest (Madison, Wisonsin) in 2011 to pursue an MFA in poetry that the constellation began to blur, and I began to understand the spirit that threads through it all, what at the time made the strange seem everyday to me, and everyday strange.
JM: How were you influenced by the Midwest during your time at University of Wisconsin-Madison? Is the work you do today still influenced by your time in the Midwest?
SC: Having grown up in a suburb of a large city—what I like to call a “consumer conglomerate,” rather than a town—moving to the Midwest encouraged me to take a deep breath and pause much more often. Though it was partly the product of being in a studio MFA program with full funding, I began to wait a lot more. For poems, of course, but I also begin to stitch every night (I cross stitch), bake homemade bread, and play more music (I play the harp). Instead of spending 20 minutes banging out a first draft of a poem and editing in between quick bursts of other activities, I’d spend hours at my computer, quietly churning, tinkering with small words, examining everything.
I’d never lived anywhere near a body of water before, so part of it, I think, was how steady and patient the lakes were in Madison. They took forever to freeze when I was there. Just watching them—from the English building, from the terraces, or from the highway, it reminded you how much time you have. That willingness to wait, to rest, to not write sometimes, is one of the most valuable lessons I learned in Madison, and it’s changed the way I approach my work.
JM: What do you think is the biggest difference between Wisconsin and Virginia, and how has it affected your poetry?
SC: Madison and the city where I went to college, Charlottesville, are actually very similar—just that Madison’s much bigger and has infinitely better beer, and Charlottesville has a much more substantial urban exploration culture. Living in Wisconsin, though, I experienced real, relentless, sequential seasons for the first time in my life. Virginia will vacillate between 30 and 70 degree weather in winter sometimes, all in the same week, which means that you’re never sure what to wear (flip-flops the week before Christmas?), and you never feel like you’re writing according to time. Winter in Wisconsin was, of course, vast. But so was fall and spring and summer. I found that in Wisconsin I had a much stronger sense that I was writing “winter poems” and “fall poems” that felt full of the season, something I could rarely say in Virginia.
JM: At Woodbridge Senior High School, Center for the Fine and Performing Arts you concentrated in Creative Writing and at the University of Virginia you had an interdisciplinary major in Fiction, Poetry, and Folklore. Have you always known that you would be a writer?
SC: The joke is that I wrote my first screenplay when I was five. It was a bastardization of The Lion King, called The Lion King, and for the longest time I wanted to find a copy of it in my house, because I had every other piece of writing I’d ever done saved. It took me a few years to realize that I actually wrote the screenplay before I learned the alphabet, so somewhere there was a “screenplay” of violet squiggles and shapes that looked something, but not quite, like lions. I wrote a lot of plays in elementary school for my friends to perform (we never did—seven-year-olds aren’t very reliable), and for the longest time I wanted to be a screenwriter. That all changed in high school when I discovered metaphors, which for me are the meat of the whole thing. Once I fell in love with language itself, I wanted to write in ways that would revel in the decoration, the artifice, the craft. I found that it was hard to do those kinds of things in screenplays, so I drifted away from them—though I’ve periodically returned to the form as a hybrid with poetry.
JM: Why did you choose to focus on poetry for your MFA instead of Fiction? Do you still use elements of Fiction in your poems?
SC: I just think I found what I was looking for: I tend to write very lyrical prose and narrative poetry, so most of my projects end up meeting in the middle. Right now, I’m researching for a new a book about the Romanov sisters, Raspution, and the Russian Revolution, and I know that the poems will be instancial, but woven together will tell a story in many voices.
Some of my work is much more traditionally narrative than that. Last year, when I was reading a lot about the Civil War, I wrote a long narrative poem, “Impostress,” about a fictional young woman who disguises herself as a soldier to fight in the war. Character building is essential in a work that long (it’s more than twenty pages), and I found it even harder to change from summary to scene in poetry than in fiction. Dialogue also usually presents problems—I’ve found that people are skeptical of quotation marks in poetry, but sometimes I think it’s really just the best way to organize speech when you have several people speaking in a poem.
JM: According to your website, crafting also is a passion of yours. Some of your creative writing projects have taken the form of blackout poetry of atlases, handmade journal making and in 2009 you co-founded the hands-on, DIY literary-arts magazine Glass, Garden. The connection between both crafting in the form of physically creating something—like a journal—and crafting in the form of writing poetry—or creating it from an atlas—seem very connected in these three projects. How do you see the connection between these two versions of “crafting”?
SC: I love the book as a physical object. I would really like to study art more, so I could make illuminated books like William Blake. That would be my dream way to publish—letter-pressing my books in editions of twelve or fifteen, with calligraphy and water color and gold leaf. One of my favorite publications is McSweeney’s, which was the model for Glass, Garden, and I think they just get it so right. I want what I make to be beautiful. It’s an old-fashioned idea by now, but there is so much pleasure in the excess—you can become devoured, in a way, by the sublime.
JM: At least two of your larger works, God Factory and a manuscript that you’re currently revising—62 Short Films on Creation—as well as a creative project involving 3D glasses and poetry seem to be influenced by cinema. What interests you about cinema, and why do you think it so often finds itself in your poetry?
SC: I had kind of a religious upbringing on movies. My parents began to showing me classic films when I was young—my dad loves horror movies, and my mom is partial to whodunits and Hitchcockian thrillers. When we go to watch a movie, my partner and I often joke that the last time I saw whatever we’re about to watch was when I was eight, so there are always things that went over my head that I only get now, watching them as an adult. There are so many things, for example, in the movie Grease, which I’m pretty sure we all missed.
But as to why I return time and again to cinema, I think it’s so easy to become enthralled by the images, by the pretending. And there’s that social contract where everyone in a theatre sits and all agrees to stare quietly ahead, suspending their disbelief. It’s Victor Turner’s idea of communitas—that ecstatic moment of community where everyone is there together, going through the same experience. I’m also very interested in that idea of an American pantheon—the old gods (and goddesses) of Hollywood. Most of us are in awe of the dead, but the dead of Hollywood get to be immortal—they get to keep on living as they flicker on the screen.
JM: Which poet and or writer has most influenced your style?
SC: Oh, it’s Colin Meloy, the lead singer and lyricist of the Decemberists. I know I have some friends (and mentors) who will groan when they read this, but I think Colin Meloy is one of the few people out there right now who is successfully balancing the lyric and narrative impulses in an incredible way. I studied epics at length in college—my favorite’s the Finnish epic The Kalevala—and folklore feeds a lot of my work, just as it does for Colin Meloy. To borrow from Eliade, a lot of Decemberists songs, at least my favorites, illuminate the profane for its moments of surprising sacredness. I haven’t written a murder ballad yet, but perhaps in time.
JM: What’s next for you?
SC: As I mentioned above, I just started researching for a new book about the Romanovs and the Russian Revolution, and it’ll have a large cross-section with Russian fairy tales, folk lyrics, and magical traditions. This is the first full-length collection I’ll be writing that will be 100% based on research and one single subject, so it’s kind of a gentle behemoth in my mind. Every time I read about the assassination of the czar’s family, I have trouble sleeping. I’ve had nightmares in which I am Alexandra Feodorovna in that room of bullets. But even more horrifying are the stories of the peasants who don’t get to have individual names in history. I’m taking my time reading and thinking, but I still wonder how I will be able to capture everything—how to do justice to the material. I keep a black box of notecards on my desk, the notecards in alphabetical order, with titles like “Measles” and “Aftermath” and “Four Brothers.” I’m still a ways from beginning to inhabit their voices, but I can feel it building steadily. It’s that patience again—you have to have faith in the work, that it will come to you, even as you coax it slowly along.
Sarah Crossland has been the recipient of the 2012 Boston Review Poetry Prize, a 2013 AWP Intro Journals Award, and the 2013 Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry, and was recently named one of Narrative’s 30 Below 30 Emerging Writers for 2014. She currently lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, where she serves as the production editor of Devil’s Lake and is currently researching for a book of poems about the Romanov daughters, Slavic folklore, and the Russian Revolution.