Episode 032: Crystal Williams


Note: due to a scheduling problem, this interview and two others are text-only.  Audio podcasts will return in the fall.

Crystal Williams’ third collection of poems, Troubled Tongues, was chosen by Marilyn Nelson for the 2009 Long Madgett Poetry Award and was short-listed for the Idaho Prize. It is forthcoming in January 2009. Her poetry appears in the American Poetry Review, 5AM, Callaloo, Court Green, Luna, Fourth River, The Indiana Review, and in the anthologies American Poetry: The Next Generation, Poetry Nation, Sweet Jesus, and Beyond the Frontier, among others. Raised in Detroit, Michigan and Madrid, Spain, she is currently working on two plays and a collection of essays. She holds a Bachelor of Arts from New York University and a Master of Fine Arts from Cornell. Williams is Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, and lives with her adopted standard poodle Oliver. They spend as much time as they can in Chicago, Illinois, roaming the lake front and keeping tabs on the stars.  Williams read at Cornell's Goldwin Smith Hall on April 19, 2009, and answered J. Robert Lennon's questions via email the previous week.

Though your second book came close on the heels of the first, I see a real transformation between the two--"Lunatic" seems less tentative, more free with the rhythms of natural speech, more comfortable with long lines and snatches of dialogue.  It seems as though the poet is allowing herself to be more obscured, to serve as a conduit for the sounds of the world.  Do you see it this way?

The short answer is: Yes. I do see it that way. I think what you’re describing is growth and hope that in each of my books growth—artistic, intellectual, spiritual--is evident.

It is true that in my second book, Lunatic, my interest in and fascination with various modes of storytelling began to crystallize in such a way that I was more conscious of and deliberate with the types of languages I employed. And it is also true that prior to the publication of that second collection, I’d been labeled a “code-switcher,” which, from the labeler was meant to be pejorative. And yet, I do code-switch. I do it purposefully and all day and every day. And so that was of interest, the ways in which African-Americans in particular, or perhaps more broadly, minority communities in this country, move back and forth between what I’ll call a “home language” and an “away language.” Investigating, challenging, and documenting that duality is of deep interest to me. There is so much about American identity to be found in those crossings. So the poems in Lunatic were a beginning of sorts. In Troubled Tongues, that same fascination with modes of telling is more overtly addressed and is, really, the book’s primary goal. Another goal of the third book was to challenge myself to become more artistically agile and to become better able to cross aesthetic boundaries.

It's easy to make a facile comparison of your poems, with their elevated colloquial language, political engagement, and of course all the ampersands, to the work of Amiri Baraka.  But I was listening to the radio show "Bookworm" the other day and heard a group of poets talk about their relationship to Walt Whitman, and now I can't help hearing something of his long, wild litanies in your poems, too.  What's your relationship to Whitman, and for that matter the many other seminal American poets who could never have conceived of such a thing as a forceful black woman writer?

Well, first, thanks for thinking I’m a forceful writer. That’s great. Secondly, it’s an interesting thing to think about Baraka as a forefather. I don’t really place myself firmly in his continuum, though I admire his artistic trajectory, and the power of the BAM. Of Baraka’s work, I am most enthralled by “Preface to a Twenty-Volume Suicide Note,” which I think is a gorgeous, gorgeous poem. To your question to do with seminal poets: Margaret Walker, Nikki Giovanni, Langston Hughes, and Sonia Sanchez influenced me in my early-reading life. As an adult reader (and a poet) I find deep lessons in Clifton, Gilbert, Gluck, Everwine, any poet, really, who deals masterfully with metaphor. I also value tenderness and compassion in poems. So I often find lessons/poems to do with grace and generosity the most helpful as I think about what I’m driven to say. But that list of seminal American poets is too long to engage, I think.

There is a thing we poets sometimes do: We pontificate, typically over some sort of liquor, about who our forefathers and foremothers are. Sometimes this can get pretty rowdy, especially if it’s a group of my friends and we’re at, oh, I don’t know, a conference or something. Mostly, Whitman and Dickinson seem to be the two folks talk about most commonly. And though I’d love to be really clever or interesting, Whitman is the poet upon whose door I most consistently knock. It’s true. So in those conversations or jonesing sessions (whichever you like to call it), I just say “Whitman’s my guy” and leave it at that.

The title of "Lunatic" puts me in the mind of the oft-cited connection between madness and art.  I certainly don't think you've got to be crazy to be a good writer, but it seems to me the poet needs to be able to break conventional patterns of language and thought--to rip them apart, down to their rudiments, and reassemble them in new and surprising ways, which outside the confines of art could be construed as lunacy.  Do you feel that you have access, when you write, to some small kind of madness?

Yes. But lunacy is triggered and manifests multifariously. For me, a heightened state of emotion is a tremendous artistic catalyst. If I am annoyed or disturbed or joyful, then I am gnashing and gnashing means thinking and that means a poem isn’t far away.

The poems in "Kin" are full of physicality: bodies touching, kissing, eating, dancing; there are lots of mentions of hair, and hips, and skin.  "Lunatic," while still aware of the body, seems more inward, more about consciousness.  Can you comment on this shift in focus?

Kin was a book that tried to document a group of people, a series of relationships from whom I often felt alienated. In order to document I needed to describe. So the bodies were a way of describing fully the external world. Lunatic is exactly about interiority versus exteriority, consciousness manifested in either realm. As a writer I am much more interested and invested in interiority than exteriority. It’s one of the reasons I’ve never written fiction. I could care less what the body is doing in the room or how it gets from the door to the car. I’m much more interested in the internal machinations, which is why my favored poets are people who write, principally, in metaphor.

In Troubled Tongues, the body reemerges as a focal point. But here, a focal point by which I try to get at the more spiritual sense of who we are. Questions to do with race and beauty, for example, depend on the external because the external is the primary means by which we define one’s racial identity or one’s aesthetic value. Part of the book’s project is calling into question the value in the external and relating that to our use of language, as language is the manifestation of the internal.

In "Lunatic" you write, "We are a conglomeration of memories--some real, many not."  I like the notion of the writer as a person who takes this natural process of self-mythologization and bends it to her will. To what extent is your writerly impulse an exercise in elevated self-expression, and how much of it is focused outward?  And has the balance between the two changed over time?

Aren’t all writers simply engaged in the act of “elevated self-expression”? I’m not sure I understand this question fully other than to say that my work is projective work. That is, I approach the page in an attempt to say something to someone other than myself. This, however, doesn’t mean that I’m not also speaking to myself or that I don’t often surprise myself. But the reason I approach the page isn’t, primarily, self-reflection. I’ve done most of that work prior to saying, “Okay, I’m going to write a poem about this.”

I know there are writers who do not have this outwardly impulse. I have friends like this and we have rich conversations. But I’m just not one of them. I am an outwardly focused writer. Indeed. This is a result of many colliding factors—the fact that I come from an artistic heritage that suggests art should be functional, the fact that the writers I read when little were deeply engaged in social justice and political movements, and the fact that I was trained in theatre and engaged performance before being published. Combined those factors made it almost impossible for me to be anything other than a projective poet. (Is that even a thing, really? Yikes, making stuff up, John.)

I don’t think the balance has changed over time and it may well never change. This is, fundamentally, at least to me, to do with what I think art is and is for. However, the way in which I express myself outwardly has changed and probably will continue to change. This has to do with temperament, maturity, interests, etc. The older I get, the less likely I am to stomp and shout for example.

Nothing wrong with making stuff up, not on my podcast anyway!  One last question. There are lots of students and teachers in your poems, and this leads me to as you what I've been asking all writers visiting as part of our "centennial plus five" celebration: what impact has your schooling at Cornell, and your connection to academia, had on your work?

I had a great time at Cornell. In the first week I got to Cornell I met A.R. Ammons. Archie, though he had just retired, was tremendously influential to the way I thought about writing as a career, something that has a trajectory and is changeable. Archie was able to assuage my fears and related to me, I think, as an outsider-to-the-academy—he from the South, me from Detroit--though he was clearly not an outsider at that point. The fears I had to do with leaving the community from which I gathered artistic impulses was something we frequently talked about. We talked about what it meant to be a writer among scholars. His viewpoint was incredibly helpful in giving me context and the authority to say to folks, “Back off.” On the other side of things was Ken McClane who really did serve as my primary mentor; he showed me ways of seeing and hearing my work that I had not. And, he’s just a tremendous human being and so served as a model for the kind of teacher and person one can be in and outside of academia. So, firmly settled between those two beacons, I found Cornell to be a tremendous place.

As for my connection to academia: I enjoy teaching. I enjoy being surrounded by people who are engaged in the life-of-the-mind. I like my students. Though, I do sometimes worry that the poems I want to write aren’t as easily found walking the halls of Reed College as they might otherwise be if I were, oh, I don’t know, doing some other sort of work. And yet, “aren’t as easily found,” is not “cannot be found.” And so, I stay until something more interesting comes along.