National Poetry Month |  A conversation with poet Curtis L. Crisler

Mitchell L.H. Douglas recently spoke with poet Curtis L. Crisler. Dedicated to what he calls writing of an “urban Midwestern sensibility,” Crisler uses poetry to tell the stories others might…

Mitchell L.H. Douglas recently spoke with poet Curtis L. Crisler. Dedicated to what he calls writing of an “urban Midwestern sensibility,” Crisler uses poetry to tell the stories others might miss in the scrutiny of his beloved hometown, Gary, IN.  

I recently saw a reading by poet Erin Belieu at the University of Indianapolis where she told a student that you should never be ashamed of where you come from (she is a staunch advocate of her native Omaha, NE). As a Gary native, standing up for your hometown is something you’ve done since your first book Tough Boy Sonatas. Why was this important to you early in your publishing career? How have readers responded to your advocacy for Gary? 

Like Erin, I’ve always felt that my voice represents many voices who don’t or can’t speak for themselves. Lending myself to the multitude who never get any representation keeps me grounded. Every time I go back to Gary, I’m just picking up where I left off. They don’t give a shit about me being a professor, my books, etc. They are about me. What’s real. What’s love, and family will call you out when you not bringing the real. So, with the writing, I must bring it there, too. See, I got to witness a Gary most of the world will never see again, when the mills were poppin’ on the job scene and people came to shop on Broadway because all the stores were off-the-curb, before moving to the malls in Merrillville.  

I think I have an interesting array of readers. Some cajole and reminisce about those old times, some are amazed that I’m addressing the old times compared to the Gary that they hear and see now, and some think I must be crazy because the future is bleak in mill towns, so me chronicling experience Gary seems out-the-pocket. Yet, we dream.    

One of my favorite Curtis Crisler poems — “Return to Boomtowns” — can be found in your collection Pulling Scabs. In this poem the speaker declares 

“this is 

Gary, Indiana—America the beautiful, 

                                                          and you are young boy 

stepping on splintered  

                    wood between snaggle- 

toothed opening in street” 

How did Gary inform the imagination of a young Curtis Crisler? What role does it play in the poet you are today?   

In “Return to Boomtowns,” I’m looking at what Gary was and what Gary was turning into, before the fall of the mills, and in conjunction to Chicago, Johnstown, Lackawanna, Pittsburgh, Detroit, etc. Gary saw the steel mills crumble, affecting economies: jobs, housing, schooling — upward mobility — poverty — status. The poem was about me playing in the rubble of someone’s condemned house, “snaggle-/toothed” between two other standing houses.  

We played in the rubble like it was war-torn, or a playground, finding trinkets. You can’t escape that no more than you can’t escape the friends you had whose parents were still able to work at the mill. What they got for their birthdays, Christmas, etc., was different from what you and those who got laid off got. Also, if their parents lost their jobs at the mill, they basically disappeared. “Seriously, they truly vanished.” Because now, they had no means to obtain the lifestyle that they once inhabited.  

My mother worked at the post office. She hurt her back, had taken in her two sisters (at different times), and had my younger sister, before she returned to working. We were on food stamps and received free lunches when I started high school. We got off food stamps, and before graduating, I took bag lunches to school. My mother had everyone participating in making the house function. My dreaming, me being a “dreamist” (dreamer and realist) all come from the above-mentioned conditions. It affects your work ethic, your push, your hustle, your way of thinking: “you can be right back here if you don’t hone your skills.” Parents and elders told us to get out, find a job, a trade, apply at the post-office, join the military, do something. You HAVE TO do something. Poetry was always there.       

The poet Cornelius Eady, a mentor to us both through Cave Canem, has identified a style of poetry he calls “urban pastoral” — verse that delves into the particulars of city life with the sense of exploration typically associated with poems about rural settings. How do you feel about Eady’s term and how does it apply to your work? 

I dig “urban pastoral!” Hells yeah! That gets to a lot of what my work is about, as well. His “urban pastoral” overlaps with mine, which I never thought about until doing this interview! Like our man Cornelius, I have coined my own diasporic mantra-like essence into what I call an “urban Midwestern sensibility” (uMs). “What does uMs mean? It examines the people of the Great Migration, who migrated from the south to the north from about 1915 through the 1970s. It examines the black migrant’s past, present, and future.  

I have a craft manuscript I’m seeking a home for called, Playbook for an Urban Midwestern Sensibility (Crafting Work Cross-Genres). This is a craft book. But a craft book initializing my crafting of content in the genres of fiction, poetry, drama, and essay to illustrate uMs in practice. I hope to have this out in the world soon. 

You’ve been a professor at Purdue Fort Wayne for 19 years. What has been your most challenging/rewarding time as a teacher of writing poetry? What do you think your time in the classroom does for your art? 

I would say it was deciding would I return to college to obtain a PhD, like so many of my other contemporaries were doing at the time, or to concentrate on my publications instead. It took me five years to decide that publishing was the better of the two for me. It was a difficult decision, but I can say that it paid off in the end.  

All the above has shown me patience in the classroom — working, workshopping, reading and synthesizing concepts, designing curricula, adhering to creativity, but most of all, learning from my students. We tend to think that teaching is just a one-way learning process (professor to student), but it’s not. We must be open to the call & response of sharing so that we may be able to apply various methods to our writing. 

We both have a fondness for crafting music-related poems and your passion led to a collection about Stevie Wonder, Don’t Moan So Much (Stevie): A Poetry Musiquarium. Wonder has used the musiquarium term in an album title. Tell us your definition and how it applies to poetry. What happens to the poetic voice in that extended examination of one person/artist/icon? 

Wow, OK. So, Stevie is a genius! Let’s start there. LMAO! The “musiquarium” came from Stevie’s anthologized album. I think it’s so much more too! When I started doing centos of his music, it opened a portal for me to explore and imagine a musician who sees what no one else sees. He, MJ, J5, Motown, have been the soundtrack to my life and I felt I needed to write the book before he died. Stevie gave me the “sonastic”—where a persona poem marries an ekphrastic poem. So, where you usually do an ekphrastic poem by writing lyricism to a painting, with a sonastic, you can write it to any artform — sculpting, dancing, singing, masonry, civil engineering, auto designing, etc. You must use the persona of the artist to transport you to adhere to their creation, whatever that creation might be. It should sound like the poem is from the artist that you’ve chosen (that’s where the persona comes in). That is “what happened to my poetic voice in that extended examination of Stevie.” He helped me birth a new form, that’s all.  

You’ve accomplished something as an artist that has always seemed daunting to me: writing a book with another poet. There are some good recent examples of poets with the same distinction: Simone Muench and Dean Rader (Suture); Molly McCully Brown and Susannah Nevison (In the Field Between Us); and Ross Gay and Aimee Nezhukumatathil (Lace and Pyrite: Letters from Two Gardens). How did you and poet Kevin McKelvey decide to add your name to this list with Indiana Nocturnes? How did you remain friends and inspire each other in the process? 

Well, it all goes back to grad school. There’s a few of us from the University of Carbondale, IL (C’Dale). There’s the first African American Poet Laureate of Indiana, Adrian Matejka, Liz Whitacre, Kevin Whitacre, Kevin McKelvey and myself (to name some), all rambling around Indiana. After we moved back from C’Dale to Indiana (another story for another day), Kevin and I started attending this Midwest Writers Workshop (MWW); I believe that’s what they were called, in Ann Arbor, MI. We did 3-4 of them in the early 2000s.  

At our first panel at MWW, Kevin read a poem, or I read a poem, and then we followed each other, poem for poem. It was not our plan, but those first ten poems were the nucleus of Indiana Nocturnes: Our Rural and Urban Patchwork. It only took us another fifteen years to get it published. Through all that time there were marriages, divorce (mine), children, career fluctuations, other books (from both of us), but still a magnificent friendship. In Indiana Nocturnes, you see the country mouse (Kev) and the city mouse (me) show readers that Hoosiers are made up of all types of things, but of all those things, they are human. 

Please tell us about what you’re working on now and what we can look forward to soon. 

Recently, I won the C&R Press 2022 Poetry Award for my manuscript Doing Drive-bys on How to Love in the Midwest. I don’t know when it will be released, but it is in-press. The poems address loss, the love for wanting them back, the pandemic, the fear and joy we tend to capture in the smallest of moments, the weight and give of death, the honesty in the air we get to breathe and share, some afro-futuristic ish (talking to the dead, necromancing the stone), the love affair with beds and bedding via Alice Coltrane’s mysticism, a baby named Navy, a friend named Venus, a woman named Breonna, a boy named Emmett, a woman named Zora, an uncle (and painter) named Mack, a friend and mentor named Tribble, just to touch the surface. Get your hands on it when it drops! 

Also, I’m working on a young adult novel for girls, a third YA book for boys, the Playbook for an Urban Midwestern Sensibility (Crafting Work Cross-Genres) that I mentioned above, along with some other goodies. Hopefully, soon! 

Finish the following statement: Poetry is… 

Our breath. The thing we take advantage of every day, but without it, we are nothing. 

Curtis L. Crisler was born and raised in Gary, Indiana. He received a BA in English, with a minor in Theatre, from Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne (IPFW, now PFW), and he received his MFA from Southern Illinois University Carbondale. His awards include a Steel Toe Books Open Reading Period Prize for his poetry book THe GReY aLBuM [PoeMS], a Keyhole Chapbook Award and a Kathy Young Chapbook Award. He has also received several Pushcart nominations for his poetry chapbooks. He is currently a Professor of English at Purdue University Fort Wayne.