Adrian: First off, congratulations on your new collection THe GReY aLBuM [PoeMS]. Can you talk a little bit about the book and what inspired you to write it? How does it differ from your previous collections?
Curtis: I wanted to replicate/play off the black and white albums that were spun off The Beatles White Album. Metallica, Jay-Z, and Prince did both black and white albums, I believe. I started with The Black Album (poems). I thought it was a beautiful way to capture what I wanted in a book, and it was going to have this clever black cover, with the name surrounded in red or gold. The book made it as a finalist in the 2014 Omnidawn Open Contest. After that, I put it away, resigned it would be a manuscript that people would find after I died—a complete and ready for the world manuscript. Then, Prince died on April 21, 2016. I pulled The Black Album (poems) manuscript out, looking to upgrade it. I feel like I live in the gray area of life, not the black and white of life—hence THe GReY aLBuM [PoeMS] was born. With revision, cutting, restructuring, and new additions like the poems “For You (Mr. Nelson),” and “Living in Grey Matters (a pattern),” I felt I established/chronicled a written lyricism for the book, speaking for marginalized voices, and greyer things. I tend to format my books like I’m putting together an EP/album—mood, tone, inflection—that feeling of wanting to be a rock star lies in there somewhere, I guess. Lol. It won Steel Toe Books 2016 Open Reading Period, and THe GReY aLBuM [PoeMS] was later published in 2018. It is great to be on STB’s author’s list with authors like John Guzlowski, Allison Joseph, Michael Meyerhofer, Martha Silano, and Jim Daniels.
I believe it’s different than my other books in that it’s driven by my connections to identity and place, history, and to those I lost (be they family, friends, influencers), and especially to those without a voice. This is apparent with the opening poem “Living in Grey Matters (a pattern).” It would be great if I didn’t have to create another poem about people of color being killed—and having that killing shown on video—where everyone can see a person lose his/her last breath. We are desensitized to a disenfranchised number of citizens when viewing these deaths on video. And what’s sadder, if it weren’t for the video would we even know about it?
Adrian: You’re from Indiana, but you left the state for a while. How has coming home influenced your work?
Curtis: Coming back home was interesting and surreal because it was a place I’d known and recognized, but it was a place that had changed too—without me. Returning brought me back to something one of my professors/peer/dear friend, Dr. George Kalamaras once said to an undergrad class I was in. He said something to the extent of: “When I moved to Colorado, I wrote about Indiana. And when I moved back to Indiana, I wrote about Colorado.” He’s originally from Indiana, and a recent Poet Laureate of Indiana. I felt what George had said to us was now my experience too, when returning back to Indiana. Once I moved to Carbondale, IL (SIUC) for graduate school, I wrote about Indiana. When I moved back to Indiana, I wrote about Carbondale. There must be something to displacement that gives one perspective when moving about—that not being in the present when present, but then when the present becomes the past, that can give us room to accommodate reflection in its truest nature as we’d have time to live with it. I wonder did that happen for you as well since I know you have moved around too?
Adrian: You’ve always been a master of allusion in your poems and music and popular culture figure prominently into the new book as well. How does allusion work in poetry? What does it mean for you to include Prince, for example, or Richard Pryor in a poem? How does bringing in a well-known, complicated figure like Prince, for example, or Richard Pryor change the poem?
Curtis: Oh wow, thank you. That’s wonderful coming from you. Really! Ok, wow! How do I go about answering this? So, allusion to the “known”/”famous” (Pryor, Prince, Aretha, etc.), has me adapting and playing with those “known” folk, who I’ve enjoyed for their artistry. Pryor, Prince, and Aretha are/were valid people in my world, so I tried to capture them from a humanistic posture. That is, I try to see them in the everydayness of things, when they’re not rocking the crowds. What would it be like to hang out with Rich, to have him to myself, to have him as a friend? That’s my way in. From there, things tend to grow more organically. I want to create a unique moment where the reader can touch or be touched by Rich or Aretha when they are not the shiny, glittering, objects attracting us, and that makes them myth/legends. At least that’s what I’m searching for when writing these type of poems.
If I am being good, at listening to the pulsations that are driving me, I can get the reader to veer into another way of re-envisioning Rich’s humanity, or lack thereof, or both, for whatever reason. My call to write about celebrities is weird in that I’m never thinking of them like celebs, but more like people I know, or like people I would want to know, or like people, I think, would want to know the real me.
Adrian: What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
Curtis: “Read and write.” “Put your butt in the seat because no one is going to do it for you.” And “You have to love writing because writing won’t love you back.” These are paramount to accomplishing any type of word-cultivation on that blank, white, page.
Adrian: What Indiana poet are you reading right now (or recently) that other Indiana poets should be reading?
Curtis: There’s a lot of them, but I’ll try to list a few—Mari Evans, Etheridge Knight, Karen Kovacik, Ross Gay, Allyson Horton, Helen Frost, Mitchell L.H. Douglas, George Kalamaras, Ketu Oladuwa, Kevin McKelvey, Eric Baus, and you (Adrian Matejka). These are just some of the people off the top of the dome. I could go on and on ‘til the break of dawn, and then some because Indiana is blooming with poets doing the work.
Mama Does a Walk-by
I’d rather have my cinnamon-skinned-toned boy
than the viscerally vibrant mural on brick and mortar
that’s soulful, but still 1-dimensional compared to
his hot 5-octave swagger. Yes, the artist did capture
them dimples and the depth of struggle in his eyes.
And yes, my heart feels like the timbales the drummers
seduce at the drill-team competitions. Every time I walk
past 5th Avenue and Stanton Drive—two blocks away
from my house, I get lumps in my throat the size of
oranges. And yes, the super-weak hugs from Sister Ewing
put me in space, even though she got cancer. She don’t
need this—lost all four of her boys in these streets.
And the hugs from little Denise, my next-door neighbor’s
4th grader, are so strong and tight. She said, one time,
“He let me push his waves the opposite way they went,
on his head.” I said, “Oh, he hated that.” She said,
“I know, he told me that you did that, once. He said I
was the only one he’d let touch his waves.” I held her
tighter—didn’t want to release her because she didn’t
want to release him. “Thanks baby. Thanks for messing
up his waves.” We laughed, shook, and cried. Her tears
on my face, on my lips—I could taste her salt, her
hair care products. Now, I’m the lady who walks the
streets. I’m the lady who lost her child. I’m the lady
who hands out hugs, wishing they could get me back
to a son who believed tomorrow not some wasted dream.
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), and he received an MFA from Southern Illinois University Carbondale.Crisler’s book,THe GReY aLBuM [PoeMS],won the Steel Toe Books Open Series Prize and published in 2018. Other poetry books are Don’t Moan So Much (Stevie): A Poetry Musiquarium(Kattywompus Press),“This” Ameri-can-ah (Cherry Castle Publishing), Pulling Scabs (nominated for a Pushcart, Aquarius Press), Tough Boy Sonatas (Young Adult, Wordsong: An Imprint of Boyds Mills Press, Inc.), and Dreamist: a mixed-genre novel (Young Adult, Jordan’s Rainbow YA Books: A Division of Aquarius Press). His poetry chapbooks are Black Achilles (Accents Publishing), Wonderkind (nominated for a Pushcart, Aquarius Press), Soundtrack to Latchkey Boy (Finishing Line Press), and Spill (which won a Keyhole Chapbook Award, Keyhole Press). He is a Cave Canem Fellow (‘03, ‘05, ‘06), the recipient of residencies from the City of Asylum/Pittsburgh (COA/P), the 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’s been a Contributing Poetry Editor for Aquarius Press and a Poetry Editor for Human Equity through Art (HEArt), as well as a board member. He’s the creator of the Indiana Chitlin Circuit (ICC), and an Associate Professor of English at Purdue University Fort Wayne (PFW). He can be contacted at www.poetcrisler.com.