Midwestern Gothic staffer Sydney Cohen talked with poet Curtis Crisler about his collections THe GReY aLBuM [PoeMS] and “This” Ameri-can-ah, pop culture inspirations, the relationship between poetry and theater, and more.
Sydney Cohen: What’s your connection to the Midwest?
Curtis Crisler: I am a Hoosier. I was born and raised in Gary, Indiana, a.k.a. “Little Chicago” when I was growing up—part of the tri-states—Ohio, Michigan, and Indiana. Now, I live in Fort Wayne—the second largest city in Indiana.
Also, to chronicle urban Midwestern life, I have coined “urban Midwestern sensibility (uMs).” An uMs “examines the Great Migrants who’ve migrated from the south to the north, from about the time of 1915 through the 1970s (even though some have written it wasn’t a fluid migration, but more broken up into two periods). Urban Midwestern sensibility examines the black migrant’s past, present, and future.” I am now submitting the manuscript, Playbook for an Urban Midwestern Sensibility (Crafting Work Cross-Genres), for publication. It is a book on craft, and “illustrate[s] my vision, through craft, and what an ‘urban Midwestern sensibility’ (uMs) fully encompasses through the genres of poetry, fiction, drama, and essay.”
SC: Your upcoming book of poetry, THe GReY aLBuM [PoeMS], is a playfully inventive manipulation of form and sound with influences from history and pop culture. What was your inspiration behind the collection? Which pieces do you find particularly moving, and why?
CC: My initial inspiration was a manny (manuscript) I was submitting and trying to get published called The Black Album [poems]. It was a play on all The Black Albums done by artist like Prince, Jay-Z, and Metallica that played off The White Album of the Beatles. It did make it to the finals of the 2014 Omnidawn Open. After that, I put the manuscript away. I was thinking I wouldn’t publish it, and maybe after I died, it could be one of those treasures found and later released. A couple of years later, and the death of Prince, connected me to myself. What I mean by that is that I feel I live in the grey area of life, not the black or white so much. So, I put together THe GReY aLBuM [PoeMS], writing some new poems to replace some in the original, The Black Album [poems], and I dedicated the manny to Prince. I wanted to address my headspace on the times, the passing of one of my favorite artists, and poems that wanted to play in the ether of existence. So, I let them loose.
I feel all the pieces are moving in THe GReY aLBuM [PoeMS]. In the first section, called “Grey Hot Tracks,” the first poem, “Living in Grey Matters (a pattern),” along with the poems, “living in the grey matter cento,” from the third section, and “Living in the Greyz Redux” (the sixth and last section), are three poems that were seminal to a thematic lyrical throbbing of me living in the grey matter (this life). These three occurrences (poems) were detrimental to the book’s existence. These three sections pulse in a reality that is so uber-realistic that they become surreal. Also, the first poem, “Living in Grey Matters (a pattern),” addresses how we are desensitized to people being killed on video due to technology, and how it renders such a disassociating occurrence to many that the effect of death seems tame in our social construct. The poem ponders an implied question I can’t seem to answer, Why can’t some trained police officers get an unarmed person from point A to point B without them ending up dead? The poem goes on to pose more philosophical questions we never seem to reconcile. The “re-” throughout the poem plays on the denotation of the prefix: 1) indicating return to a previous condition, restoration, withdrawal, etc.: rebuild, renew, retrace, reunite, or 2) indicating repetition of an action: recopy, remarry (dictionary.com). For me, the recurrence of killings in our public space is not a reoccurrence but a continuation, and we can view the loss of lives like tutorials on YouTube. Yet, it’s nothing new, especially from a musical representation of brutality—good, bad, or indifferent. From Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar to Tupac and Biggie; from Public Enemy to NWA and Ice-T; from Prince and Sweet Honey in the Rock to Marvin Gaye and the Temptations; from Jimi Hendrix to Aretha Franklin to Stevie Wonder to Sam Cooke to Nina Simone; from Billie Holiday to Paul Roberson; to Mahalia; to Armstrong, back to Buddy Bolden and King Oliver, back to Robert Johnson and Lead Belly; back to the slaves moaning in the cotton fields, there has been music about the conflicts between blacks and many of the authorities in America.
The second section, “The Grey Singles,” makes the surreal real. The fourth section, “Top 10 Greyz,” is like dreaming underwater. And the fifth section, “The Grey 12-inches,” springboards romantically through the lens of Junior’s song “Mama Used to Say,” and represents the most linear theme within the book. The combination makes for a great conception album—I think, but I could be crazy.
SC: You graduated from Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne with a minor in Theater. As poetry is largely a performative art, how does your theater training play a role in the way in which you write, understand and share your work?
CC: The mechanics of performance: stage presence/awareness, articulation, projection, breathing, and body control—the body as an instrument—is so apropos in theater and poetry. The poem works through the body, lives there, and then is released like breaths a woman has when giving birth. If Betty Davis really said something to the extent that acting is being on stage naked, and slowly turning around, I feel her statement embodies poetry as well, where you get to see, hear, feel, the truth of words coming to life. Like Lucille Clifton, I am open to poetry, so poetry comes to me. Also, like a friend and poet, Eric Baus, I am obsessed with the poem, the object, the subject, the words, until I’m not. The call to write can come at any time, and usually does, but just like theater, you live with a character, become the character, know the character, the same can be said with a poem. Maybe it’s why I believe when my books are published that they are my children graduating from high school, and going out into the world—some go to college, work at libraries, bookstores, middle schools, high schools, travel overseas—some have fast tongues—some are clever and slow—some don’t care what you think of them—some just want to look you dead in your eyes, and say, “Hey,” just so you can feel their breath on your face.
SC: Another one of your collections, “This” Ameri-can-ah, is comprised of eclectic and humoristic poems that work to illustrate American life. How does your writing subvert, or reaffirm, notions of “American” poetry? How does your work contribute to the discourse around what it means to be American? In your definition, what is Americana?
CC: “I have always been enamored by the relationship/s of man and woman, woman and woman, woman and child, woman/man and son/daughter, man and animal, nature and nurture, poor and privileged, the ‘other’ and the status quo, religion and science, sci-fi and comics, insider vs. outsider, and so on. This comes from examining my surroundings—the people around me, the environment around me—my community—local, regional, and global” — Playbook for an Urban Midwestern Sensibility (Crafting Work Cross-Genres). America is built on relationships, good, bad, indifferent. Along with all the controversy of our differences, we tend not to notice the things that make us alike. We trust each other more than we think we do: think driving, and for the most part, everyone doing what they need to do to get to where they need to be—most times this happens without fault. Think buying food from grocery stores, farmer’s markets, restaurants, etc. Even when things go badly, say we get in a car crash, or meat, milk, and vegetables get tainted with something bad, for the most part it is a blip on the screen of our lives in the milieu of all the people that make up America. That’s not to say that people don’t die or get maimed in car crashes, or that people don’t die and get sick from viruses. Yes, those can and do happen, but far less than we think. Most Americans have access to the above mentioned; still, many don’t. I worry about them. I believe America is both circumstances: being alike, functioning alike, for most of us, but the other side of the coin are those who aren’t in that majority—they have problems functioning (be it inadequate education, job opportunities, housing, health care, lack of viable transportation, living in food deserts, etc.) compared to their counterparts.
The Americana part, for me, is how we manage to get through this messy existence. Somehow, we do get through it, or we don’t get through it, or we just keep trying to get through it—living with the memory of it all.
SC: Your poetry is rife with historical and pop cultural references. Which cultural figures inspire you the most? Is your integration of these figures conscious or subconscious? What work do these references do to ground a poem in a specific historical or cultural moment?
CC: I wish I knew which cultural figures inspired me the most, but I’m always moved by a person’s artistry, and how a person does what she/he does. I wouldn’t know who would come up in a poem, per se, until I was conceptualizing the poem. For example, with “Richard Pryor and me,” I have always felt Pryor shifty when too many people were around, but when it’s just us (that us is me, but it’s a universal we too)—with us, he could be real. And, it felt like he was more real on stage than he could be in real life. With “Boxing Arethas,” Aretha Franklin’s singing knocks it out the box, and is home as well because she connects me to every house I’ve ever lived in, and reminds me of weekends, and my mother. Aretha’s singing places me, viscerally—is happy, dark, soothing, angry, and punchy. She shows up in the last section of the book too. Prince died. Wow! Prince, M.J., and Madonna were all born in 1958. I was born 7 years later. M.J. died in 2009. Prince died 7 years later. If Madonna dies in 2023, I’m done. I won’t know what to do with all the 7s (thinking of Prince’s song as I say this).
I can’t say if it’s conscious of unconscious—probably a combination of both, at least in the case with Prince for this book. An exception would be my book Don’t Moan So Much (Stevie): A Poetry Musiquarium (Kattywompus Press). It is a book with poems of wonderment and praise for Stevie Wonder.
I am at a time in my life where family members, friends, peers, and the cultural figures I grew up with, die. That’s just a fact of life, and one that sucks. I think people can see death has a huge presence in this book, and it does, but in many interesting ways—death turns people into birds, has us reneging on our dietary choices when we become zombies, has your Greek teacher and his son sharing pie with your grandmother, has you not calling Stuart Scott back in time, or has you visit Donny Hathaway’s daughters in verse. How I got to these gems took a lot of mining. Death and Life are symbiotic. But sometimes, I’m like, “DAMN!”
SC: What are the greatest challenges to writing poetry, and what comes easily to you?
CC: I think the weirdest thing that challenges me the most is when I finish a project. I always feel like I will not be able to do anything productive again. And, since I address books like they are my children, maybe subconsciously I feel another child is out of the question. This is rather scary to think that it is all gone—verve, creativity and the like. Yet, the lady in my head gets me going again and again and again, until she tells me we have a baby on the way. That’s crazy, right?!
Unfortunately, the things that come easily to me are my mother’s voice and those voices that live in the margins. My mother’s voice works like a tuning fork for me. The voices in the margin, I feel like I speak for them, or that I have a platform where they can be heard. Narratives are always there, I just need to pay attention to them. Like I stated earlier, I really enjoy writing about relationships.
SC: What is your ideal writing environment—the sights, sounds, and smells?
CC: Okay, this is weird, but I’m going to answer this with an answer I gave to Chris Rice Cooper for her blog, “Celebrating 20 years of National Poetry Month from Around the Globe: 113 Poets on Sacred Spaces, Sacred Places…” I was one of her featured 113 poets on April 6, 2016. She posed a question, like yours—
What is your sacred space/place where you do most of your writing? Describe that sacred space/place using all of the five senses.
Now, I can write anywhere. I think you have to be mobile, and with our new technology, I can wake up out of the night and text myself on my phone when I get one of those images or lines of words that bombards my subconscious. I’d just like to state that first, but I do have a favorite place to write. My favorite sacred space is laying on my couch. I’ve always wanted a couch where I can relax or fall to sleep on after a long day of work, after a good workout and, a couch that accepted my body and wanted me there. I have that with this couch. When writing, I am adorned with my fantabulous throw cover and a myriad of pillows holding up my head and my legs for the most comforting experience I can have while writing. This way, my circulation doesn’t get cut off like when I’m sitting in a chair at my desk. I love the noise of the wind moving the trees to the left of me, as I hear birds, squirrels, cars, and voices in the distance, or just the moaning of my abode when the snow, rain, and sun encroach and play upon it. The environment around me plays heavily on my writing experience, for I know when I need something, and I can’t see it or hear it, I open my senses to where I am, and my environment comes rushing in with answers. But there is the ultimate experience, like when I’m in the zone. I have completely become one with my couch and my stirring for a more comfortable position as I type and type with a madness and the words that I will fuss with like a wife and husband fussing over finances. When in the zone, all sound is lost, and there is a whiteness around me (as best as I can express/explain it), and the couch is the foundation of where this takes place. For example: I always tell my students, and audiences now, that Black Achilles (Accents Publishing: an independent press for brilliant voices) was written on my back, with my left leg on top of the back of my couch since I had to have it elevated to control the swelling after my Achilles tear. My mother was in one of my comfy rocking chairs to my right, talking to me, talking on the phone, talking to the television, eating, snoring, and caring—the music of the chapbook, and a once in a lifetime experience. That is the truth! No need to embellish. Mama is my love. Also, there’s nothing like waking up out of the zone, or a needed nap, with the imprint of decorative pillows or couch on my face. Somehow, when I do come back to life, it’s the smell and feel of the couch, and the requisite markings on my face, arms, and legs that let me know I’ve put the work in. I then sigh, and murmur into the day, or night. I need to write an ode to my couch—give my couch a name.
SC: What’s next for you?
CC: I am working on quite a few things. THe GReY aLBuM [PoeMS] will be a new kid on the block, so I will be marketing and promoting it heavily through interviews like this, readings, etc. I have another book coming out, Indiana Nocturne(s): Our Rural and Urban Patchwork that Kevin McKelvey and I have been working on for around 10 years, give or take. Kevin is from Lebanon, Indiana—a rural farming area, and I am from Gary, Indiana—an urban city area. We are friends, and met in grad school at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Our book brings our rural and urban histories together, through poetry, and illustrates that even with our differences we are Midwestern and Hoosiers. Oh, we will also have an artist from Indiana who will do the artwork for our cover. We wanted to keep it all in house, so to speak. Playbook for an Urban Midwestern Sensibility (Crafting Work Cross-Genres) is a book on craft the elaborates on my urban Midwestern sensibility (uMs) through poetry, fiction, drama, and essay. Currently, I am looking for places that would be a good fit for Playbook for an Urban Midwestern Sensibility (Crafting Work Cross-Genres). The last thing that I am working on is a young adult book called Cheetah and Earl. I hope to start submitting that to places soon.
Curtis L. Crisler was born and raised in Gary, Indiana. He received a BA in English, with a minor in Theater, from Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne (IPFW), and he received an MFA from Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Crisler’s book, THe GReY aLBuM [PoeMS], was picked by Steel Toe Books for their 2016 Open Reading Period, and will be published in 2018. His recent poetry books are Don’t Moan So Much (Stevie): A Poetry Musiquarium (Kattywompus Press) and “This” Ameri-can-ah (Cherry Castle Publishing). His poetry chapbook, Black Achilles, was published by Accents Publishing. His previous books are Pulling Scabs (nominated for a Pushcart), Tough Boy Sonatas (YA), and Dreamist: a mixed-genre novel (YA). Other chapbooks are Wonderkind (nominated for a Pushcart), Soundtrack to Latchkey Boy, and Spill (which won a Keyhole Chapbook Award). He is the recipient of a residency from the City of Asylum/Pittsburgh (COA/P), the recipient of fellowships from Cave Canem, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA), Soul Mountain, a guest resident at Hamline University, and a guest resident at Words on the Go (Indianapolis). Crisler has received a Library Scholars Grant Award, Indiana Arts Commission Grants, Eric Hoffer Awards, the Sterling Plumpp First Voices Poetry Award, and he was nominated for the Eliot Rosewater Award and the Jessie Redmon Fauset Book Award. His poetry has been adapted to theatrical productions in New York and Chicago, and he has been published in a variety of magazines, journals, and anthologies. He edited the nonfiction book, Leaving Me Behind: Writing a new me, on the Summer Bridge experience at IPFW. He’s been a Contributing Poetry Editor for Aquarius Press and a Poetry Editor for Human Equity through Art (where he’s now a board member). Crisler is an Associate Professor of English at IPFW. He can be contacted at www.poetcrisler.com.