Pink Museum: An Interview with Caroline Crew
How must poetry concern itself with the unfoldings of the world? Caroline Crew’s poems work deftly to sculpt and resculpt new abstractions out of existing realities, resulting in unconventional—and often, utterly surprising—ways of getting to know the world. Grace Shuyi Liew talked to Caroline over email about her chapbooks, her forthcoming full-length collection, and her views on interrogating present realities as a poet. – ed.
Grace Shuyi Liew: In your chapbook The Polychrome Clinic’s final poem you write: “before the monochrome was puritan / or red was sin and not gospel golden.”
I love this idea of chasing back or regressing to a time before colors were imbued with meaning (as if that is even possible). Can you talk a little about the world you are building in this book, as well as how you are working with the notion/theory of colors? As well as the title, Polychrome Clinic?
Caroline Crew: This is such a regressive book, in the same way, I think that all obsessions are regressive. The colour poems were written in an odd transitional year—I had just moved back to England after living in the US and trying to deal with the fallout of that. So yes—I was trying to build something solid from more basic facts, but of course what is the ‘mineral fact.’ Colour appeals to me as such as a fundamental fact that in reality is perception. I had thought of it in universal terms—what everyone sees, what everyone reads when they see red—but really, it’s no more stable than language.
The title comes from Fernand Leger’s essay “On Monumentality and Colour” that I love for questioning what is decorative: “Colour tries to cover over humdrum daily routines. It dresses them up. The humblest objects use it as a concealment of their real purpose. A bird on a handkerchief, a flower on a coffee cup.”
This is a poetry issue—in the same way we can ask when colour is fundamental and when it is decorative, I think poets ask the same questions of their urge to decorate.
GL: Despite what you mentioned—the instability of language, of the concept of color—some of the poems in this collection has a real sense of rising tension, of something steadily creeping/heightening as the poem progresses (I’m thinking of “Rubies for Dorothea Lasky”), which can be a kind of logic in its own way. How do you guide a poem as it unfolds?
CC: As with any theory, a lot of poems rely on an initial proposition. I can be a culprit of that. I think of Aimee Bender’s “The Rememberer” as a perfect example of that movement, and how the pacing of that story works so that the reader never looks back to question the original proposition that: “My lover is experiencing reverse evolution.” Pacing is it’s own kind of logic. That’s how I guide a poem, I think, through pacing. Plus I’m a sucker for a sense of menace—and though menace is often a linear movement, it’s unstable, and can destabilize language, like how the pure blanket of snow becomes suffocating.
GL: Your Web Conjunctions essay “I Am A Burning Girl,” which I really love, has a fluidity that mimics a quiet scream, a rising hysteria. How did this essay come about?
CC: Actually as research for poems. Last year I had a fit of poems come about based on the lives of female saints (some real, some, like Kathleen Hanna, I sainted myself.) The end product, a chapbook called Caroline Who Will You Pray To Now That You Are Dead (Coconut, 2015), contains some of my favourite poems, and I wanted to revisit that space. I spent a lot of time researching female mysticism and its specific type of performativity. I’m an obsessive note taker, and so alongside my quotation notes were my own notes, and questions, and slowly I realized that it was here the work was happened. Moving in to non-fiction has made me rethink the voices I allow myself in poems, and how, I think, the poem can be a way to limit or to veil one’s voice. In poems, I can be nude in a cold field but still distracting with beautiful jewelry, but in an essay I only the have the option to be naked.
GL: What else do you journal or take notes on?
CC: One of the reason’s I love Carrie Lorig’s poems is that she gives me permission to function through footnotes. In that poets often talk about the seductive quality or muscle of negative space, footnotes are a blunt reality in demonstrating what material has been chosen and what has been jettisoned. The space of that decision is really productive for me, and is the basis for my note taking. I’m a very failed journal-er: never kept up a diary, have a whole trail of beautiful notebooks with only the first page used. Truth is, I’m part machine at this point! I think through typing, and I like the non-commitance of it.
My note-taking has definitely become freer, in giving myself permission to talk back / claim the space. Dutifully in college I would make facsimiles of interesting passages from critical tracts, ethnographies, plays. It was a way of imprinting to memory. But now I’ve loosened a bit—I still do the transcribing so that I can keep everything in one place, but now I’ll respond right there in the messy document, and it looks like a script into which CC inserts her snide comments.
In terms of process, this pretty much is my process! (And coffee.) More so with essays, this wading through a wide landscape of ideas slows me down enough to be able to connect ideas not immediately linked, and not force the poem to happen too quickly.
GL: In addition to Caroline Who Will You Pray To Now That You Are Dead, you also have Your Stupid Fortune Gives Me Stupid Hope forthcoming from Furniture Press Books, and a full-length PINK MUSEUM forthcoming from Big Lucks. How do you conceive of your projects? What are you working towards currently?
CC: Oh, Your Stupid Fortune Gives Me Stupid Hope is so beautiful! Furniture Press Books made these gorgeous bundles of handmade chaps—(with Lisa Tallin, Nicole Steinberg and Joseph Cooper)—that won the 4×4 award. I think I’m always going to love that one a little harder because of having written it with Chris.
In terms of manuscripts, I’m a very project driven writer, and so there tends to be a larger shape in mind from the get-go. PINK MUSEUM for example, was almost an act of ventriloquism, using someone else’s vessel (Elizabeth Barrett-Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese) and so there was a ghost of a shape always looming. With Caroline Who Will You Pray To Now That You Are Dead I had so much fun, because it was cheating on my other projects and I just had so much fun with my trashy sainthood. It felt like the best kind of dress up!
Once these shapes have been filled, I do what everyone does, I think: put everything on the floor (I don’t have any big enough blank walls.) At that point re-ordering is an act of making the melody of connective threads disrupted enough.
At the moment, I’m really focusing on longer works—to see what I can do beyond the chapbook length! Much of this is non-fiction, mostly loosely circling the idea of women and performance. I am trying to finish a longer poem dealing with how I grew up (on a rural farm in the south of England), because I tend to avoid writing about it (and it’s given me an unfair attitude towards the natural world).
GL: Your Stupid Fortune Gives Me Stupid Hope is a collaboration with Chris Emslie. Why collaboration? How did it come about?
CC: Well, I love Chris. He is my heart-twin. We’ve known each other since college, and somehow both ended up in the US. We are each other’s biggest fans / most frequent first readers, but had never thought of collaborating until the Spring / Summer of 2013. I was living in between Massachusetts and Atlanta, Chris was coming off MFA applications and becoming more and less certain about where his future was. I wanted to be of some comfort / distraction, so I sent him a fake horoscope I’d written for him. He responded, and we kept those poems coming over that Summer, til we got our happy endings for that year. One of the reasons I love talking about ILK (the journal Chris and I edit) and about this collab, is that so often the “why do you do it” question is vague and hard to answer, but in this case, it’s that long distance friendships are difficult, and this is one of the ways we worked at being there for another.
GL: Speaking of long distance—you grew up in England. You write in your bio that you live between Old England and New England, and I can’t help but read an implied forward motion into “Old” vs “New.”
How does this distance, this shuttling between different places (from the linguistic to the physical or historical) interact or interfere with your poet-mind?
CC: Most of all, coming from a different but not too different canon ameliorates rampant imposter syndrome. But in my personal poet myth, the Atlantic has been a vessel for many feelings. There is a sense of interference, though, in that I really didn’t interact with contemporary poetry or view myself as a maker until I moved to the U.S.. So I built it into a kind of promised land. The problem is, that kind of potemkin village always falls down. That movement—and you aren’t imposing anything, it is definitely an intentional drawing of lines—has become more complicated. I see this positively, a range of larger language I have access to (I will never drop the U from colour!) The historical self, though, is harder to package. I’ve never consciously engaged with the my ideas of growing up English or on a farm (I think there’s one line about being a farmer’s daughter in The Polychrome Clinic, but it isn’t pushed further than a figure), though moving into non-fiction and trying to view myself as both a poet and essayist has made the rupture impossible to ignore. I’m working on a long poem called “vacation politics” that is my farm poem, and in a way I think I’m ready for it, in other ways I’m still stamping my feet and trying to ignore how I was grown.
GL: Is there a particular poem or poet that you are currently “stuck” on (in good or bad ways)?
CC: I’ve been thinking about this question all day, because the answers seem both obvious and frivolous. The obvious answer is Claudia Rankine—I’m reading Citizen, slowly. Slowly, because Rankine’s sentences are so beautiful that they can happily swallowed, but there is so much here that needs to be taken in with attention rather than solely pleasure. The frivolous—though that’s the wrong word—are the poets that I keep near me, luckily as friends, especially Carrie Lorig, Alexis Pope, and Katie Hibner. Katie was actually a student of mine, and has poems forthcoming in Bone Bouquet. To be in the company of such amazing women and poets keeps me wanting to speak.
I like that you asked about being stuck in ‘bad’ ways—because I do have a tendency to expose myself to things and writing I already know will hurt my heart. I’m currently reading Maggie Nelson’s The Art of Cruelty, and in introducing the project she questions the purpose of examining cruelty, how Buddhist teachers urge to meditate only on compassion as focusing on violences of any kind “only sows seeds of aggression.” I feel that often in reading—in seeing reading lists that constantly reproduce a white male canon, in seeing the violence we do in erasure—but there is, I think, a value in knowing this violence, not only to change it but to implicate ourselves as writers in culture and the world, and not blissfully floating on a separate cloud of “art.”
GL: Oh, I’ve been reading Sara Ahmed’s Promise of Happiness and her critique of the drive for happiness as privilege, as erasure. So, thanks for the Maggie Nelson suggestion! I think that does hit at the heart of poetry—the imperative to implicate ourselves and interrogate what already exists in this world.
But really, though—do you want to get a little stickier with this? Is this a conscious process for you when creating poetry? Is it something you think about a lot, and how?
CC: Not enough. I don’t know if we ever think about it enough. I wonder if we’re talking about what to expect from poetry, and also, how often we ask ourselves that question. Do I expect to experience empathy? Do I expect the page to project into greater understanding? When I was in college I desperately wanted to get the Pre-Raphaelite rallying cry of “art pour l’art” or “art for art’s sake” tattooed on the inner arch of right foot. How heinous to commit to a singular demand for art’s capacity. Thank god I never found the money for it.
But in terms of interrogation: I don’t think I’ve had the nerve to make a poetry of that action. In recent months, writing has been the last thing on my mind, speaking has taken all of my possible utterance. I’m in my final year at UMass Amherst’s MFA Program, a space that has allowed some extremely racist and sexist situations to arise without consequence. The only black woman in our class of 66 students was subjected to racist comments in workshop, and then removed from workshop entirely when a white male student reduced her to tears by shouting at her. In the following weeks, the small group of students who defended her, who stood in solidarity and asked for the MFA administration to commit to change were retaliated against—removed from workshops, threatened with legal action (our online letter of solidarity was accused of cyberbullying)—and still, months after the fact, there has been no tangible change.
I haven’t processed any of this into writing—partially because my voice isn’t needed in this conversation, and partially because I’m still flabbergasted at attempts to interrogate racism being so repeatedly silenced.
So, not enough. I don’t have an answer for how interrogate the issue of being an ally in poetry. I don’t even know how to have a voice for this. I suppose, yes, I am conscious of some effort, but not concrete visions. Enough is never enough. Why else keep on?
Caroline Crew is the author of several chapbooks, including Caroline, Who Will You Pray to Now That You Are Dead (Coconut Books, 2015). Her work appears or is forthcoming in Conjunctions, Salt Hill Journal, and Black Warrior Review, among others. Her full-length collection, PINK MUSEUM, will be out from Big Lucks in 2015. She’s online here: caroline-crew.com.