This interview with James Crews is the second interview of six with our pushcart nominees.
with a new blizzard each week, I had nothing else to do
but face my grief. I sat down one evening intending to
write about the crows cawing outside my window, and
suddenly unearthed all these memories of my father."
Interview conducted by Ellie Tipton, managing editor of Poet Lore.
Before he died, my father tried to teach me
the only language of manhood he knew—
Phillips-head, needle-nose, catalytic converter—
but I left him hunched under hoods
or sprawled on cardboard pallets beneath
stalled cars, thinking the dust of books
and blue glow of computer screens
could keep me from work like that. I hated
his oil-stink, the orange goop he used
to clean his grease-black hands, and those
homemade tattoos of lightning on his biceps.
I hated the cigarette dangling from his lips,
his eyes squinting against smoke snaking up
as he scraped a deer skull clean of meat
for mounting. But now, I want it all back.
I replay every scene in my mind as if
seeing my father again could keep him alive
and tinkering in some other realm, some
halfway-heaven he’d love because everything
needs fixing there. I think of the green-
striped tube socks pulled to his knees when he
mowed the yard, the scratch of sandpaper-
stubble against my cheek each time he
kissed me goodnight. I still hear the way
he’d say sorta speak when he meant so to speak,
while explaining, for instance, why tomatoes
taste better with a kiss of salt: Brings out
the sweetness, sorta speak.
ET: I was very touched by your poem. My first book was an elegy to my father, and, for me, it was important to create distance from the man and search for him in the landscape. In this poem, you seem to turn towards him and find him in his tinkering and his language. The scaffolding of the poem works well in this respect – the memories coming to the surface and attaching to the man who is no longer visible —connecting the audience to this search; and, we suddenly feel his presence in the ultimate line.
JC: I'm so glad the poem touched you, and I'm sorry to hear about the loss of your father as well. I lost mine more than seventeen years ago now, but was not able to write about his death, or my ensuing grief, for a long time after. In fact, I took every chance I could to run away from that grief until I finally allowed the time and space in my life to feel it, and thus to write about the loss. As a result of this, so many of my memories of him are fragmented, and return to me piecemeal. So this poem is one of many attempts from my second book, Telling My Father, which will be published later this year by Southeast Missouri State University Press, to feel his presence in my life again.
ET: Would you discuss your process for composing this poem? Sometimes, poems that involve grief can be difficult for some people to bring into the world. What was your experience like for inspiration and composition?
JC: I wrote this poem during one of the worst winter storms the East Coast had seen in decades. I was living alone in Providence, Rhode Island, commuting to Boston for work, and had never been lonelier in my life. Out of the wide-open white space of that long winter, with a new blizzard each week, I had nothing else to do but face my grief. I sat down one evening intending to write about the crows cawing outside my window, and suddenly unearthed all these memories of my father. This poem is one of the most honest I've written too, because I could finally admit that, while he was alive, I was often ashamed of my father -- the smoking, the taxidermy, those green-striped tube socks pulled up to his knees. But once he was gone, even years later, I would have given just about anything to have all of him back. So this poem, unlike many others, came out in a rush for me that didn't require much tinkering, though I had to trim a lot of unnecessary parts (like those crows).
ET: It does seem that this poem is so much about the connection the two of you had. Yet, the memories you conjure do not present themselves as moments of strong emotional connections; though, you explain it is the way that he tried to bond with you – as a man. Now that you have distance from him, it seems that the memories that present as disconnection offer themselves as points of connection. Is that an accurate read? Can you talk about how you tried to play with these notions when constructing the poem?
JC: I wonder: did some of the same things happen to you in the course of writing about your father? It seems strange that my differences with my father could bring us closer together after all these years, but they certainly have. When I looked back while writing these poems, I had to ask myself if my father ever criticized me for simply being the way I was, or ever implied that he loved me any less for preferring books to car engines, and he never did. He was, in fact, always quick to point out that he and my mother would love me "no matter what," which I now take as code for: "we love you no matter whom you love." It makes me emotional to write about it even now, but my father -- in spite of the fact that he'd never seen much of the world, had never been on a plane, and never even finished high school -- loved and respected me for who I am. It saddens me that I was never able to come out to him (which is part of the subtext of this poem), but I have no doubt that he knew.
ET: I can’t say that this exactly happened to me. But, this is fascinating. In your forthcoming book, do you bring about this subtext to the surface in other poems?
JC: Yes, I think the subtext is very close to the surface in the title poem, "Telling My Father" and in "My Father Asks for One Last Thing," among others. But "Halfway-Heaven" is perhaps where that tension is most alive and present.
ET: Can you discuss the form of this poem? Why did you decide to use the single stanza with primarily lines ending with enjambment to deliver this poem?
JC: The poem began as a prose poem. One of the exercises I often give myself and my students is to write poems in the form of lists so the mind doesn't have time to edit out what you might be afraid to include, and the instruction is simply to let the poem unfold as one long litany. As things took shape with "Halfway-Heaven," I began to feel that the poem would gather more momentum if it was a single stanza with enjambed lines, so I broke the poem where it felt most natural to do so. Quite honestly, much of my writing comes from pure instinct; I try not to overthink it as much as I used to.
ET: Do you have advice for poets who write in the elegiac mode?
JC: I would say, wait a while. Try other forms. In my first book, I wrote a long elegy about the artist, Felix Gonzalez-Torres and his lover, and those poems were great practice for writing about a much more private grief. But most importantly, I would say: read, read, read, and see how other poets across time have handled the subject of loss. I resisted writing about my father for so long because I sensed that I couldn't do the event justice in my work. I hadn't read enough yet (and still have a lot to go). I needed books like Sharon Olds' The Father, Carol Muske-Dukes' Sparrow, Mark Doty's My Alexandria and James L. White's The Salt Ecstasies (among many others) to get a sense of where I might begin.
ET: Finally, Poet Lore published two poems of yours in this issue. The first one “The Question” connects to “Halfway-Heaven” and precedes it in the journal. For our readers who don’t have the issue handy, they both give us a wide glimpse into your father’s personality. If your father read these poems, what would you want him to know?
JC: I think my father, who never wrote a poem in his life, and read very few, would be touched and amused that he appears in so much of my work. I hope he would feel honored too, though he would probably laugh and tear up at the same time. I would also try to explain to him, as I have my mother, that memory is always a shaky thing, and my allegiance is first to the emotional truth of an event as it reappears in my mind and on the page. My main goal is to recreate a moment, to take myself and readers so deeply into a charged scene that they emerge changed a little as a result. I do my best to write what I think of as "poems of deep attention," though I often fail to capture the fleeting vision that seems so vivid in my mind. My next collection is dedicated to my father, and I like to imagine him coming out of the garage and wiping his hands on a rag as I hand him the book I wrote for him.
ET: Thank you. That is such a lovely image. It’s been a pleasure to ruminate on your poems for a while.