Crystal Williams writes poems that vibrate like tuning forks to the frequencies of contemporary social politics, personal responsibility, family, and identity. Her third and most recent collection, Troubled Tongues (Lotus Press, 2009), won the Naomi Long Madgett Poetry Prize and was a finalist for the Oregon Book Award and shortlisted for the Idaho Prize. Her previous two collections are Kin (Michigan University Press, 2000) and Lunatic (Michigan State University Press, 2002), and she has recently completed a fourth manuscript, titled Walking The Cemetery: Detroit Poems.
Her poems have been widely anthologized and have appeared in The American Poetry Review, Ploughshares, 5AM, The Crab Orchard Review, The Sun, Ms. Magazine, The Indiana Review, Callaloo, and many other publications. She has also performed her poems in venues across the country, including as a member of the 1995 Nuyorican Poets Café National Poetry Slam Team.
Williams holds a B.A. from New York University and an M.F.A. from Cornell University, and has received fellowships and grants from The MacDowell Arts Colony, the Oregon Arts Commission, and the Money for Women/Barbara Deming Memorial Fund. She is an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, and she has a deep, generous, and irresistible laugh.
You grew up in Detroit and wound up getting your start in poetry in the slam scene in New York. Can you walk me through how you got there?
I originally went to college for acting, then went up to New York City to study acting with a fairly famous acting coach. When he accepted me, he said, “You’ll be a very good character actress, or you could lose fifty pounds and be an ingénue.” I thought “character actor” sounded lame. I didn’t know that’s what you want to be, a character actor. But I had also started writing dramatic monologues at Howard, because my friend Stevie was running talent shows, and the prize was a hundred dollars.
So when I came up to New York and decided, “To hell with acting,” I kept writing dramatic monologues and got involved with spoken word. I was at the Nuyorican Poets Café from ’93 or ’94 through about ’97, and I was on the ’95 Nuyorican Slam Team. At the same time, I had started studying creative writing at NYU with poets like Ruth Danon and Karen Volkman.
Two things were gnawing at me: I was tiring of the three-minute constraint of the slam poem, and I was getting more interested in the craft of poetry as a vocation.
How were you paying the rent at the time?
I was also managing an accounting operations department at NYU’s book center. It was a big operation: thirty, thirty-five million dollars came through that department. It was nine to five, but as jobs go, it was a good one. In D.C., I had been working in and then managing bookstores, so when I saw the ad for a manager of NYU’s Health Sciences Book Store, I thought, “I can do that.” So I applied, and Anne Larsen, the human resources manager, called me for an interview. We talked a little bit and she said, “You realize you’re not qualified for this job?” I said, “Well, I can do the job.” She said, “Well, I bet, but you’re not qualified. I wanted to meet you because you have on your resume spoken word, and my stepson does spoken word. And you have chutzpah.” So she gets the director of the book center, JoAnn McGreevy. She’s got this blonde ponytail, she’s rail thin, and she comes whipping out of her office, whip-whip-whip with that hair. We talk, and they send me on my way. And I get a phone call a couple days later, saying there might be a job in accounting operations and would I be interested in it. I say, “Sure.” I didn’t care. I was broke.
Ultimately, I found out that they made the job for me. That was fifteen years ago. But it was only recently that I was having lunch with Annie and she said, “You know why JoAnn made that job for you?” And I said, “Yeah, because you both liked me and needed somebody in accounting operations.” And Annie said, “No, she liked you, but she made that a management position because in order to get tuition remission at NYU you had to be a manager, and she wanted you to finish school.” You never know how things are working on the planet. That just blows me away.
You think it was the chutzpah that sparked that chain of events?
I think that there are people in the world who are just yours. When you meet them, you know. I think JoAnn met me and she knew. We clicked. I am still one of her people and she is one of mine. When my mom died, JoAnn flew to Detroit for the funeral.
Sometimes when I’m more sentimental, I think there’s a kind of destiny, that things aligned in such a way that I put on my resume a thing that made Anne say “Hmm.” It may be that there are a thousand things like that in your life every day, and nine-hundred and ninety-nine of them don’t align, and the one that does align is the one that makes all the difference. Maybe that’s not destiny. Maybe it’s luck. But I’ve certainly had plenty.
Were your parents artists? Did they encourage you to go into the arts?
My mother was not. She was a school psychologist. My father, in addition to working at the Ford foundry for thirty-some years, was a jazz pianist. There was always music in the house. My mom was encouraging of whatever I was interested in. When I was little, I ice skated for six years, and I took jazz dance and theatre, knit class, swim classes, on and on. My mother was that kind of mother: always supportive of whatever I was doing.
But she was also a very private woman. When I’d gotten the contract for the first book, she was so proud, going around telling all of her friends. Then I said, “Well, mother, the book is coming out now. You can tell your friends to get it.” And she said, “Oh, no. Send me the book first.” I sent her a copy and she read it and said, “Okay, it’s fine, I’ll tell my friends.” She was making sure that I hadn’t told all the family’s dirty secrets. But she never once said, “Don’t say anything, don’t write—” it was all about, “You do whatever you’re going to do, and I will make adjustments on my side.”
You went through all those different creative pursuits as a child and studied acting in college before writing. How did it become clear for you that you were a writer?
I am still not fully convinced I’m a writer. I mean, I do it. It is the thing that I know to do to get control of my inner and intellectual space. Mostly, it was a decision. I remember a conversation with Ruth Danon at NYU, who said to me, “Clearly you have an aptitude for language and sound, and people like it. But I would challenge you to dig a little deeper.” I remember walking out of her office, up Washington Place and down Broadway, thinking, “What she said absolutely rings true. You know you’ve not been digging beneath the surface of things. Do you want to do the work to do that? Do you actually want to be a poet?” It was a decision: I was going to have to do that hard work. That doesn’t feel like a calling to me. More like a vocation.
Theatre feels like a calling, and sometimes I’m drawn back to it, but of course now I’m most interested in the writing side of it. When I was in New York and performing a lot, I was in the subway one day and a guy came up to me and was like, “Hey, Crystal,” and started talking to me. We were talking for five minutes when I finally said, “I’m sorry, I don’t know your name.” And he said, “Oh, no, we don’t know each other. I just saw you performing at the Nuyorican.” That freaked me out. I thought, “I don’t want that. I don’t want some yahoo walking up to me like he knows who I am.”
And as a writer, at conferences and readings, you don’t have yahoos walking up to you who’ve read your books and think they know who you are?
Not who think they know who I am. Last night, I walked up to a table where I knew a couple of the people, so I was introducing myself to the others. And this woman said, “Wait, what is your last name?” And she said, “Oh my god,” and she was just going on. It was clear to me that she had liked the work that she had seen of mine. It was very lovely, actually. But she kept my hand, and I freaked out. [Laughs.]
I have to grow up, because that’s what happens. You write something, people like the work, and they tell you that they do. But I don’t like the hierarchy it implies. I’m slogging through the shit just like you. Maybe I’ve been doing it longer. But I don’t want you putting me ten stories up so when my ass falls I have to fall ten stories down, when I really feel like we’re all just working in service of the work.
Are there ways that you’ve found to deal with those implied hierarchies, and with having both a public self and a private self?
One of the ways I deal with it is to not involve myself in groups of people I don’t really know. Which is not the best way. That’s really the only way I can figure out to deal with it. I’ll hide my nametag, or not to tell people where I teach. I’m just a baby girl poet.
I think it was James Baldwin or Toni Morrison or both, possibly, who said that there comes a point when you write yourself out of the community. I remember Toni Morrison coming to Ithaca, New York, and she insisted that as part of her visit she do something in the community. So she went to this Baptist church, and after the reading there was a dinner, and Toni Morrison was sitting on a chair by herself. Everyone was milling around and we were watching her, like [gasps] “It’s Toni Morrison!” And I thought, “That woman is just writing stories—albeit great ones—and because of her art, she’s alienated from a community she wants to serve.”
I saw her recently at the 92nd Street Y, at an event with Leslie Marmon Silko and Maxine Hong Kingston. After the signing, she had to leave a little early, and I was watching the way she walked out of the room, surrounded by a throng of people still trying to get at her, get her to sign something, tell her how much they love her, and the generosity with which she just kept nodding and smiling and saying, “Oh, that’s nice, thank you,” as she was—
Trying to get out.
Right. Surrounded by people but at the same time totally isolated.
I do worry about the cult of celebrity around writing. The only writer I’ve really felt in awe of was Lucille Clifton. With everybody else, I feel like, “Thank you for your work on our behalf as human beings,” but okay.
What was the occasion for meeting Clifton?
I saw her in a wheelchair at a conference, sitting on her own, so I said, “Ms. Clifton, do you need something? Do you need some water?” I think she was like, “Whoa, who is this person in my face?” But she was very kind. She didn’t know me from Adam. I just was predatory and saw her there. [Laughs.] What an idiot. But there’s nothing you can do about it. When someone approaches me like that woman did at the conference, I just try and say, “What are YOU working on? What is going on with YOU?”
When you were starting out, did you have a vision of what it would mean to make it as a writer?
No. I was so naïve, so full of joy for writing poems. I had no idea of any professional anything. In fact, I got my first book published doing all the wrong things. I put together a chapbook, because I was in spoken word and we like chapbooks. You know, gotta make some money somehow. There was a contest, and I called to find out if I was too late to submit. This woman said, “Yes, but are you a Michigan writer? If so, Michigan State University Press has a long history of publishing black female writers.” So I sent a letter with the chapbook and said, “I have a manuscript, want to see it?” [Laughs] The editor wrote back and said, “Yeah, send it.” I did, and I got a contract in the mail. That was it. I went into grad school with a book contract. I was less savvy than I should have been, and a lack of professional guidance has probably not served me well.
My second book contract, I had in grad school. I essentially did the same thing, emailed my editor having put some poems together and said, “I’ve got a book. Want to see it?” And they said, “Yeah, we’ll take it, here’s a contract.” Great! And that was how it went. What did I know? So it’s only in the last five or six years that I began to become aware of the political machinations in publishing. People have advocates and professional networks, membership in groups, some informal, some formal, and those work on their behalf. I don’t belong to groups. I’m kind of crotchety about it, I guess, kind of a loner. I’m trying to get a little better at it but fear it’s too late.
I was at MacDowell last fall, and I got friendly with Amy Bloom, who is fantastic, and a straight talker. I said something off the cuff about, “Woe is me, nobody’s helping,” and she looked at me and said, essentially, “So sad, too bad for you, sister. Join the crowd.” One of my dearest friends can walk down the street and somebody will stop and say, “Can I help you? Do you need some help?” There are a lot of people who elicit that help response. Amy was saying that, like her, I’m not a woman who elicits that response, which may or may not be a good thing. It certainly means that people see me as self-sufficient. But self-sufficiency is tiring. Whew!
You did have that kind of experience with the job at NYU.
Yes, you’re absolutely right to say that. I suppose I mean to make a distinction: People don’t do that on my behalf in poetry. But in my capacity as an administrator, absolutely they do. I think that women who are in positions of power are eager to mentor young women who exude a kind of presence and power, right? They see possibility in that. But in poetry, if you exude a kind of confidence, a particular kind of self-reliance, people take that as, “Okay, she can handle stuff on her own. She doesn’t need me to work on her behalf.”
Was there ever a moment of serious doubt as to whether this was what you should be doing?
I’ve struggled for the last three, maybe four years with serious doubts as to whether or not I should continue writing poetry. In part, because I have a sense that when you are doing the thing you are supposed to be doing, the universe opens to you, based on what I previously took to be proof. Which might well have been a misinterpretation. [Laughs.] My third book was very hard to get published, and this fourth manuscript, to be fair, I haven’t given it a full year yet, seems to be in line with the third book.
I’m cursed by having amazing friends who have done so well via their art, with this prize and that prize, and that has caused me to question myself a lot, has contributed to my sense that I may not be doing the thing I’m supposed to be doing. I don’t know where I’ve come down on that yet.
I don’t fully understand people who write and write and write in obscurity. That’s not who I am. I think of myself as a public poet, and I want to be in conversation with an audience, in service to people. I think art should be functional and of use to other people, which is why I believe in clarity. So if the work isn’t going to get published, I want to do something else that might.
What might that something else might be?
I’m interested in creative nonfiction, and in theatre. The thing that I don’t like about poetry is that often, only poets read it. Theatre takes an audience, so there’s a democracy that happens: if you write something engaging, people will pay money to go see it. As a nonfiction writer, too, if you write something compelling that has some drama and a message, by and large, people are going to read it. And, likewise, with fiction: tell a good story, folks will read.
In poetry, audience isn’t driving who’s getting published and winning prizes. Other poets are driving that, and poets are fickle—lovely and nuanced, but also, ironically, deeply distrustful of the poets who people actually do want to read. So they will talk like a dirty dog about Billy Collins and Ted Kooser and Mary Oliver—because guess what? Folks who are not poets want to read them. As if somehow that is a crime. That’s bizarre to me.
With that in mind, what would your advice be to beginning poets?
There are two tubs into which I can reach for an answer. One is the cynical tub: you’ve got to find a hook, got to do a project book, got to be political—find a mentor to advocate for you publicly, get in with a cohort that you think is going to make it shake and happen. That’s the cynic’s harsh view. The true believer’s view is: do the thing you love, no matter what happens, in spite of what happens. I think some of both is required if you really want a career in poetry.
It is naïve to say, “I’m just going to do the thing I love.” That’s the cream-rises-to-the-top argument, and that’s bullshit. There’s a lot of cream at the bottom. If you Google the list of canonical writers who died in obscurity, you’ll find a long, depressing list. So if you really want to be publicly successful, which is, after all, related to your marketability, your ability to get a job, get published, etcetera, you’ve got to be a little savvy. You’ve got to be strategic.
Saul Williams once came to Cornell, and somebody asked about his career in poetry and he said something ridiculous like, “Art got me to where I am.” Later I said to him, “Saul, don’t tell those children that. I saw you being very strategic about the places in New York City where you would and would not perform. I saw the strategy enacted.” So if you want to be honest with artists, I think you be honest with them and say, “I was very strategic.” A businessperson doesn’t just say, “Huh, I somehow got a job in the mail room and then I just—Whoop!—lucked up and got into the board room.” That’s not what happens. You’re strategic, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Somewhere along the line, as it relates to the arts, especially poetry, “strategy” became a bad word. And that’s a shame—and a sham, really. A big ole sham.
It seems like there are a lot of writers and teachers who say, You just have to focus on craft, focus on the work, make it the best you can—
—But not having the conversation about the career side of things does seem to enlarge the anxiety that a lot of beginning writers have.
Sure it does. Not having that conversation is duplicitous. It’s okay for prose writers to be strategic about the agent they want to work with, for example, but it goes against the art of poetry. A sham. You’re not going to apply to just any MFA program, right? If you apply to Michigan and Cornell and Columbia and NYU, that is employing a strategy. Yes, you have to write good work. But being strategic is smart, and I didn’t learn that until maybe it was even too late.
So, back to your question, I think my advice is to reach into both tubs and take a bit from each. It’ll certainly, I think, keep one saner and probably less jaded than if one were to engage either way of thinking fully.
Is there some sense, though, that even if you’ve made strategic choices, owning up to that invalidates the work?
I think we do a disservice to the art when we do that. To show people how very smart we are as artists is important. I respect people who are like, “No, I’m not going to apply to that prize, because I don’t want to win it. It’s not a prize I care to win. I would rather wait five years and try for those two prizes than win that prize.”
Perhaps it’s hypocritical of me to say this, after that long rant, but I sometimes worry that young people don’t write the thing that they love. They try and write in a particular way that is not their way, trying to get noticed. I work with some graduate students, and one was doing all kinds of stuff, just moving all over the page. I said, “What are you doing?” And he said, “Well, you have to be different to get noticed.” There’s a lot of talk about formal innovation these days, a lot of play on the page, and not a lot of talk about content. So much so that when people hear a poem that’s actually saying something of depth and magnitude, they’re struck that it’s unique. That is crazy to me! I can go to a poetry reading and listen for an hour and not hear a single poem that actually digs around in the muck of our deepest, darkest selves. How is that? I’m much more interested in the poet who’s willing to do hard emotional work.
You mentioned working with students. How did teaching become part of your life?
I was working at NYU, and I would get off at five or six and troll around the city until ten or so doing poetry stuff, and then I’d go back across to Staten Island at night and get home at eleven. I thought, “This isn’t sustainable. You have to figure out a way to incorporate what you’re doing in poetry at night and make money at it.” So I thought, “Okay, I can teach, which means I need a terminal degree. And I’m not paying for it, so I’m going to apply to programs that will pay me.”
And you wound up at Cornell.
I applied to Cornell, University of Texas-Austin, Michigan, Arizona State. Only to programs that gave full rides. I did not want to go into debt getting an M.F.A. That seemed, to me, a bad idea. Michigan and Cornell both admitted me, but I misread the letter. I thought Cornell was offering me more money, but Michigan was. And nobody told me that I should be looking to see who was going to be my teacher, who I was going to be working with. Had I been thinking about that, I would have gone to Michigan. There were more people there at that time.
As it turns out, Cornell was a fantastic place for me to go. Ken McClane, on faculty up there, was the perfect reader for me. He knows the African American poet tradition backwards and forwards, he has a great ear, it was in tune to my ear, and so he could say, “Listen to this line.” He’d read it and say, “Do you hear that?” I’d say, “Yes,” and he’d say, “You have to change that.” So it was great for me. The people there were really nice, and by and large they left me alone, but in terms of advocacy, those folks weren’t particularly tied into the poetry monolith, so they weren’t real advocates.
So now you’d gotten the M.F.A. How did you wind up teaching at Reed?
I was still in school, and Cornell would pay for you to go to MLA if you had an interview. I wanted to practice interviewing, so I applied to a couple of jobs, Reed being one, and I only applied there because my friend, the poet Joseph Campana, said, “That’s a good job, you should apply.” So I did, and they called, and I was like, “Great, I’ll go practice. Give me the money, Cornell!” [Laughs] I was not expecting to get the job and wasn’t particularly hungry for it, because at Cornell you could stay two additional years and teach. It was part of the contract and it was the other reason I went to Cornell. They also gave you a summer of teaching training before they put you in the classroom.
So I went into the interview at the MLA in Chicago and just bullshitted my way through the interview, which doesn’t mean I didn’t take it seriously as an interview, but I just thought there was no way I was going to get the job. I remember somebody asking me about aesthetic differences and I said, “I think of teaching poetry like making Thanksgiving dinner. You make many dishes and put them on the table. People will take what tastes best to them.” That was ridiculous. But they called me back.
Once I got the campus interview, I had to take it seriously, and my administrative self took over. I made packets and had foresight enough to understand that at the final stage of interviews, what they really want to know is what kind of colleague you will be. And the best way to do that is to show them who you are as a person, and you can’t do that if they’ve got their head down, looking at your CV. So I prepared packets, walked in and said, “In the packet are sample course syllabi, sample course descriptions”—whatever else I had. They said, “Great, now tell us about you.” And for thirty minutes, then, we just had a conversation. I remember Bob Reynolds in the physics department saying, “If you get the job, I could show you around on my motorcycle.” [Laughs]
They had faculty from other departments in the interview?
Oh, sure. At Reed, the search committee is composed of two or three people from the department, and usually two to four other people. It was almost two full days of interviewing. I interviewed with the Dean of Faculty and half the department. We just went, went, went, went, went from nine to five for two days. It seemed like forever. But the hotel was great. And they made everything super easy. It was impressive.
As a faculty member now, how do you motivate and discipline yourself as a writer in the midst of your teaching work?
When I’m working at Reed, I’m not writing. There’s too much commotion. I need nothing happening to really write. In that way, I’m incredibly undisciplined. I just had sabbatical, a year off, and it took me a good month and a half to de-clutter from the year. I write best when I tap into emotion, and also when I’m writing something that I don’t particularly care to have the world see, which usually means I’m uncovering some nastiness about my foul attitude. Like that poem I read today [at the AWP Conference and Book Fair in Washington D.C.], “People Close to You,” it’s a nasty poem. It was not an easy poem to write.
It was an amazing poem to hear.
Thank you. But I write best when I’m writing difficult material. If it’s easy for me, then usually the poem is kind of meh.
There are so many questions that beginning writers ask those who have achieved some level of success. What would you, in return, ask beginning writers? What’s your hope, expectation, or demand of writers starting out now?
I am a really hard reader. I expect a lot. And I think writers are not like my mother, who was a good woman, lived a good life, and sometimes was a little introspective—but not all the time and not nearly deeply enough. It is the writer’s job to do work that other people don’t do. That is our imperative. And if you’re not doing that work, you are wasting my time. I do not care to watch you do mental gymnastics. I do not care how beautiful and florid your mind is; I’m going to the page to learn how to be a better human being. If you have nothing to add to that, I could care less about anything else. I could go read Agatha Christie. Right? So the questions I most want to ask, and sometimes do ask young writers are: “Why am I reading your work? What do you have to tell me about being a better human being?”
Now, I do realize not everybody goes to the page to learn how to become a better human being. I’m only one reader. But James Baldwin said a couple of things that I like. He said, “I am a witness. That is my job. I write it all down.” And then he said, “If you tell everything, no one can hold you hostage.” I have found both to be true, and when I go to poems, I almost always know when someone is not telling their everything, their truth. I can tell when they’re just fiddling and dishonest. And when you’re being dishonest, you can be held hostage. I’m not interested in watching your hostage-taking, and I’m not interested in being taken hostage by you.
It’s one of the reasons I love Louise Glück. I get a sense when I read her work that she’s really showing me how to be a better human being. The stuff she says is hardcore. Now, I don’t particularly think that’s her goal, to show me how to be a better human being. But that’s what happens because she’s being honest. Likewise, I feel that way about Peter Everwine, a writer so different from Glück that it’s amazing. What I’m advocating for isn’t an aesthetic, it’s something deeper, more spiritual, more scary.
On the other hand, all of this has everything to do with the ways people make meaning. And I know some people make meaning through mathematics and patterns. So where I may interpret that pattern on the pages as fiddling, another person may interpret it as a map, a very moving map.
A different type of honesty?
Maybe, yes. Certainly, a different kind of communication.
Interview by Harvest Henderson
Photo by Owen Carey