Crystal Williams is the author of three collections of poems, most recent of which is Troubled Tongues, winner of the Long Madgett Poetry Award and finalist for the Oregon Book Award. She has received awards and grants from The MacDowell Arts Colony, the Barbara Deming Memorial/Money for Women Fund, and The Oregon Arts Commission. She is on faculty at Reed College. These poems are from an in-progress manuscript about her hometown, Detroit, Michigan, tentatively titled, "Walking the Cemetery."
Can you talk about what you are doing in these "Detroit poems"?
Walking the Cemetery (the tentative title for this collection of Detroit
poems) is about memory and loss and uses Detroit and its demise as its
central metaphor. In it, it is my goal to write poems that risk
sentiment, exposure, and that say difficult things about race, class,
As with most things, at least in my artistic life, I didn’t fully know
what I was doing until the project got underway. Even now—a third of the
way through the book—I’m a little leery of declaring my objectives. In
part I’m afraid that those objectives will change. In part I’m afraid
that naming the project and its intention will become an elephant around
which I’ll have to write (or, perhaps more accurately, a vacuum into
which I’ll have to write). But that’s the superstitious beast in me.
Mostly I like to work without parameters or naming or defining until the
project is much closer to completion when I need to do those things for
clarity and to identify holes in the collection. In any case and at this
stage, I find the sort of freedom with which I’m working now to be
helpful and necessary.
So I can talk about what I see as the predominant concerns in these
poems: Primarily, of course, I want to be writing compelling poems. But
then, I want to accurately represent what it means to be from and in
Detroit—for me, in 2009/2010 as the country is experiencing its own
recession. That also means, since I’ve not lived in Detroit since 1990,
writing poems that take into account my insider/outsider status. And I
want to write poems that also take into full account the fact that I
grew up in a middle class, fully racially integrated neighborhood in
Detroit. So even now, the things I see and the places I go while in
Detroit, are different than they would be were I from a different
background, the suburbs, for example, or from a less financially or
socially privileged space.
I’m also hoping to write poems that move beyond the poverty porn that we
see so much of as it relates to my city. I tire of it. Actually, it
really makes my blood boil. Oh, you know: abandoned houses, photos of
urban prairie, etc, etc, yadda, yadda. What really burns me up about
this is that the folks who live in and love the city are never to be
found in that work. I mean, come on! If you let the poverty-pornsters
tell it, nothing good exists in the city, not the waterfront, not the
DIA, not the myriad people living, working and loving, not the Eastern
Market, not the downtown YMCA, not Fishbones, not Belle Isle. That’s
like going to NYC and taking photos of sewer grates and suggesting that
that’s all there is to the city. I tire of folks not from my city coming
in and depicting it thus. And I’m trying to write poems that at once
honor what is (which isn’t always pleasant), but which also suggest that
there is something more, something like joy, something like love,
something like hope. I struggle with this and hope that the poems are
doing that work.
In any event, I’m also trying to lengthen, deepen, and completely change
my syntax, to tighten and complicate it, and to use more images. Images
don’t come naturally to me. In fact, I have to fight for each one. Of
course, I can’t be sure that I’m writing longer poems that anybody else
wants to read. But it is an experiment that seems to be going well
enough for now.
I also wanted to risk emotional exposure in these poems. Troubled
Tongues (Jan. ’09) was a fairly, at least for me, heady book. At root it
sought to investigate the efficacy of language and argued that language
gets in the way of our understanding of one another. But at root I am a
consumer of art who responds to emotional content, a writer who wants to
engage a readership on a primarily emotional plane, not an intellectual
one. So risking, engaging emotion, while not a new mode of writing for
me, is a return home of sorts, a reinvestment in what I believe art
should be doing.
Structurally, the poems vary a lot. Might you talk about your formal
Well, on this point I am less coherent. In part I’m unclear because
there are so many more poems to be written and the ones to be written
are, I already know, significantly different in tone and scope than the
ones that exist.
Again, I’m interested in lengthening, as I tend to dislike long poems.
So it’s my hope to find a way to write a long poem that I like and want
to read. (A friend once told me about his work that this is what he
does, he writes poems he wants to read, which I thought was a brilliant
way of thinking about one’s goals for one’s own work.)
Beyond that, I am also always interested in using different structures
as a way of creating music in the manuscript. I find it refreshing to
move from one kind of music to another intra-book.
Also, some structures on the page suggest a certain kind of music while
others another. In “Brewster Projects” for example, my experience of the
place suggests a music that is repetitive, long, and deeply intertwined
with what people are doing and experiencing there, something inescapable
(and in this sense I see a stanza break as an escape or a moment of
release). So that there aren’t stanza breaks makes sense to me. I tried
to break the poem into stanzas and musically it was too open, not at all
representative of what I heard or saw on the ground that felt, mostly,
like a fist punching, punching, and then punching again. No openness in
that, you see? Likewise, “Enlightenment,” is open (or airy, if you like)
because I experienced first the sight of the woman in the car, then the
first thinking about the woman in the car, then the second thinking
about her, then the sense making—all over a period of months. So
couplets made sense.
The POVs vary as well; who are your speakers?
Ah, what an interesting question! For now the speakers are me. When I
was young I learned to use different speech patterns as a means of
survival: In order to not get beat up by folks who found the way I spoke
so different than theirs I learned to negotiate many different ways of
speaking and therefore, how to engage many different points-of-view. In
this way, my poems are often shifty. Folks call this code switching,
which I’ve not done in these poems—yet. Whatever you want to call it, I
find it great fun. And it’s necessary. And it’s the way I speak, talk,
jones, vibe, relate in the day-to-day. Indeed.
Additionally, it’s also an interesting question because I realized, as I
stated before, that I need to write some persona poems in order that
this collection be true to what I think and believe about the city. In
part this is because I’m not sure I can or should fully articulate the
complexity of the city without using other voices. Detroit is a city of
many mouths—and not all English speaking. We have huge populations of
Arabs, Polish-Americans, Mexican-Americans, etc. Now we have African and
Asian immigrants. It’s just a very, very interesting city. So there will
be more voices, more points-of-view.
What bad habits are you trying to break in your new work?
Wait, what? Are you kidding? Me, bad habits? Um…
Okay. Well, I’m not sure I’d characterize it as “breaking bad habits.” I
once saw Louise Gluck talk about reevaluating each of her collections
and setting before herself a series of challenges, a plan to “break
habits of syntax,” she said. I think of this comparative book-to-book
work as gaining new skill-sets. So, as I’ve said before, I’m hoping to
learn how to lengthen without putting folks to sleep, change and
complicate my syntax, diminish the use of the personal “I,” and return
to humor and sentiment. But I don’t, again, think of engaging any of
those elements as engaging in bad habits. I just think of them as things
I want to change—for now. Probably in ten years I’ll be saying, “I want
to use the personal ‘I’ and stop being so damned sentimental.”
~After Robert Hass
All the new thinking is about loss. Like a diseased lung,
the city is shutting down & the parks are first to go.
The grass is long-toothed & wicked, not grass at all,
mostly weeds, their tough tongues covered with trash.
& the trash is all magic: it mysteriously appears & disappears.
Beside it today, lovers lie. & beneath the goldfinch on its branch
lovers sit on the park bench. & another pair, oddly entwined,
roll down the street, she on his lap, her head resting on his shoulder,
he sitting straight in an electric blue motorized wheelchair,
a bony arm cradling her back.
Oliver cocks his head because they are odd. His glistening snout
pokes the air as if to taste what sort of love this is,
this homeless love, this dirty in the grass love,
this broke-down park bench, middle-of-the-empty-street love
which is all about holding onto something, I think, stroking his sweet head,
which is nothing more than a long, slow song about loss. This neighborhood.
Love. Detroit. The purple martin overhead. The dog with his cancer.
These paramours amid their abandonment. Something is always dying.
Brush Park is so much like the city it is nothing more than the city:
mansions burnt or shackled by time or remade into monuments
to fortitude & foresight. & amid the ruins, people
insistent & loving. This panorama is what life looks like
in my city where loss & cliché wear the same tight dress,
where the music is exquisite & slow & nothing more than a moan
on most days & then too, on most nights.
But these crazy lovers, in the weeded grass, high on something,
eyes full of magic, some wispy memory, the life before this life,
the possibility of a perfect & round orange,
make me happy with their surprise & stubborn headedness.
& as the wind rustles the weeds’ spiky fingers, bustles
a plastic bag across the street, fluffs Oliver’s poodle ears,
another sound begins its haunt: Something lonely,
something that approximates the sound of extinction, proof
of an exact & impending death: an echo perhaps,
a trill of the last Heath Hen, small avian spine
gone from the earth seventy years ago,
his throat coarse & quivering with need.
There were people beneath him that last day too,
listening to his bleak beak bleating & bleating for a mate.
How odd that these lovers in the thickets
almost fool me into believing something more than the facts,
that ambering history, that bleak branch.
Listen to Crystal Williams read "Extinction"
It must be like this in Iraq, after a bombing, the killing.
So many tall, windowless buildings, mattresses propped against the openings,
silence making the thing more barbarous. Danger & death bloom,
balance in the wind as if the pregnant heads of weeds. Always
the same amputee rolling down the street, swathed in dark, fuming garments,
something brutal about his eyes, his arms powerful & veering,
across the line set on the street, towards your car
causing you to abruptly shift, swerve.
& some other vacant body standing on the sidewalk,
staring into the oblong sky. Another’s back quickly turns a corner:
Something is happening out of sight, some life beneath this life,
in these discarded buildings, some drug perching its swart self
against the brink of light. You can feel that life brimming,
its blistering hand twisting, its shadowy heart making a home
in the small, daily changes of the place: a mattress two feet to the right,
the tattered cloth hanging from a third floor window
when yesterday it was two floors up.
People perch here, their bodies making a thin line you dare not cross.
So you do not heed the STOP sign waving its angry head.
You speed up. You avoid when possible, drive around the entire thing,
the compound & its recreation center, the fifteen buildings,
the almost-town houses, the tennis-turned-basketball courts, parks,
ceded playgrounds, grass & trees not dead but not as they are meant to be,
bits of fire & char lining the edges of everything, people, addicts
wandering their slow way along, weaving in & out of the torn & near-gone
chicken fencing as if their bodies & minds are fighting partners,
their legs & backs shuffle & slide, their red eyes like mortar, like shells.
The city means to tear this down, this & what it means. But today,
some man, the fool, has brought a clutch of children to this desert.
They are on the thin, rotted wood plank of the teeter totter.
Their mangy rottweiler is unsteady & tied to the tree.
He watches as the children, bundled against the cold, learn to balance & shriek.
Listen to Chrystal Williams read "Brewster Projects"
She is merging onto the Edsel Ford Freeway in a car no
in a city that no longer makes it, talking on her cellular
phone, slouched to the left,
fingernails purple & red & caging the wheel, head cocked &
In pursuit of a race car, she has bought a roll of black duct
tape, has rolled three racing stripes down the sedan’s hood
as if she has been whispering with Buddha & he said,
Sister, relinquish your resistence, your discomfort, forsake
your ego. Which she has done, which is what it means to
want but not have
in a city stacked with desire, to know that desire is our
most ruinous trait,
is the moment in the morning when you decide to be
unsatisfied and unhappy.
Our want is just one of many in a line of wants & the line
of wants is ancillary to the line of needs.
People close to you are hungry & you have ignored it.
People close to you have lost their jobs.
Today somebody’s mother has died. Today somebody’s
child has been murdered. Today some body lost sight.
& your Lumina runs.
Your Lumina runs well; Luminosity,
woman: No one is coming to save you. There is nothing