Spotlight: Marisa Crawford
Interview by Erin Lyndal Martin
“Tonight, I feel like my whole body is made out of memories. I’m a mix-tape, a cassette that’s been rewound so many times you can hear the fingerprints smudged on the tape,” writes Rob Sheffield. Poet Marisa Crawford knows this feeling well, as evinced by the poems in her new collection Reversible (Switchback Books, 2017). Between the book’s covers is the messiness of a mixtape itself, the songs that were anchors and the everything to which the tape is a soundtrack. For Crawford, that “everything” is fashion and self-discovery and the friendship between adolescent girls. But, like a cassette tape, there is a flipside. Crawford exposes the underbelly of girlhood, the disordered eating, the abusive relationships, and the everyday grind of street harassment and finding sexism everywhere in classic rock.
ELM: You mention many celebrities, mostly musicians, but there’s a wide array. Do you see the celebrities you reference as bodhisattvas of this book’s project? As in, are they each an embodiment of something you wanted to bring into your book?
MC: I think that people, and especially teenagers, and perhaps especially teenage girls, often construct their identities around celebrities and celebrity culture. I see each of the celebrities in my poems as part of the larger cultural moments that are swirling around the poem’s speakers & worlds. When we’re teenagers, we’re so readily influenced by pop culture. And when we grow up to learn more about how gender and race and other social constructs influence media, I think we’re able to take a step back and think about the music that influenced our youths in a larger social context. For example, a lot of the poems in Reversible deal with classic rock songs from the 60s and 70s — music by mostly male artists like The Grateful Dead, Tom Petty, Lou Reed, Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles, etc. These were artists and songs that I loved religiously as a teenager, but when I look back on them now I realize that so many of these songs have sexist and otherwise problematic lyrics. So the poems look at how we construct our identities around sexist, racist, heteronormative ideologies, and in particular how teen girls understand themselves in the world through media that simultaneously teaches them to objectify and doubt and hate themselves.
ELM: Is there one musician (or other celebrity) that’s the patron saint of this collection, to change religious metaphors entirely? If so, why that person?
MC: On one hand I think it’s too hard to pick just one. But if I had to choose, I think it’s either Courtney Love or Janis Joplin. These two women are both so largely understood through a mainstream white male gaze, and as part of mainstream white male popular rock culture, but in totally different ways. Joplin is one of not many women musicians who is widely recognized as part of the boys’ club that is American classic rock. Love, on the other hand, is a woman musician who’s widely hated by this same boys’ club. They were also two women musicians who I loved growing up and were a huge influence on me. I’m interested in these two women’s relationship to rock n’ roll and the culture that surrounds it.
ELM: There are a lot of descriptions of outfits you wore (all of which I want), and a reference to writing down what you wore each day. What purpose does so much detail about fashion serve?
MC: In her blurb for Reversible, Becca Klaver says that these poems understand that fashion is imagery. I love that idea and that description of my work. Fashion is and always has been totally fascinating to me. It feels like a physical manifestation of the book’s concerns around how memory and identity collide with capitalism and the misogynistic messages of mass media. Fashion and style for me have always felt like extremely powerful vehicle for bringing art and an artistic perspective into every single day, even when you’re an adult and your days are spent toiling away at a day job you hate, and so in that way fashion and style feel like a little piece of rebellion or resistance to the banal late-capitalist everyday.
But then — wait! — fashion and clothing and style are also totally wrapped up in and products of and producers of late-capitalist ideologies that actively promote oppression—ads in fashion magazine featuring only airbrushed skinny young white cis women’s bodies subtly teaching women to hate their bodies and that we are never enough; designer clothes that are made using socially irresponsible and oppressive labor practices that very literally harm and oppress women; and these same clothes selling for thousands of dollars that no one can afford unless they buy into capitalist consumerist messages/goals. But then also on the other hand I see fashion and style in its purest form as a type of art that is derided and not taken seriously solely because it is the territory of women as opposed to men, and so I want to explore and celebrate it as a totally valid and important form of artistic expression—so I include the thoughtful details of a young woman speaker who is putting together different outfits every day as a way to feel balanced, to feel alive, to feel strong and self-sufficient and confident in a world that tells her every day in every way that her ideas are stupid, that her hopes are laughable, that her existence is dismissable. Fashion serves as a poetic vehicle for exploring all of these ideas.
ELM: Do you consider Reversible confessional? Why or why not?
MC: There are definitely elements of the confessional in these poems, and also elements that play with the expectation of the confessional in women’s poetry. I’ve gotten some responses to Reversible, and to my earlier work, where people assume my poems’ speaker is me, and that the stories/experiences conveyed in the poems are all real things that happened to me. Some of the things that happen to the poems’ speakers happened to me, and some of them are made up or are experiences of people I’ve known or read about or fake experiences passed on in teen urban legends. But also: I think poets are really scared of their poems being seen as confessional, because that might mean they’re not being taken seriously. This is especially the case for women poets who have to write against the false legacy of confessional women’s poetry spewing forth in a haze of emotion, rather than being thoughtfully crafted. But actually my poems totally spew forth in a haze of emotion sometimes, and also they are always carefully crafted. I see reclaiming the confessional as connected to reclaiming teen girl culture; both involve a speaker saying “hey fuck you I am smart and valuable” to a culture that dismisses them or doesn’t take them seriously.
ELM: I’d describe a lot of this book as “shiny,” mostly because it makes me think so much of adolescent girlhood and all the lip gloss and eye-catching outfits that time brings. Where are the moments of counterpoint to the shininess of the book?
MC: I think the counterpoint to the shininess and brightness and glitter of adolescence and girlhood is the simultaneous darkness of the everyday of girlhood; the flip side of the same coin. There’s lip gloss and outfits and music and kissing and there’s abusive families and boyfriends, cutting and disordered eating, street harassment, your favorite band asking to see your tits. I’m interested in how those two pieces connect and are inextricable of one another. Girlhood is totally terrifying.
ELM: In one poem you write “I imagine that I’m opening a time capsule. And inside of it is another time capsule.” Some of the most interesting parts of the book for me was the moment where your-present day self reaches back to the younger self we meet in this book, or worrying about her Saturn return in the same poem that began with her freshman year of high school. What is the relationship between Now-You and Then-You?
MC: The present-day speaker is thinking about the speaker’s younger self in the 90s, and the younger past version of the speaker is imagining herself in the 70s through fashion and music and a desire to be something more than what she is. But also they’re the same person in the same place, because I don’t think we age out of the feelings we had when we were teenagers. Not entirely, and anyway I really don’t want to. I think that we’re taught that the instincts we had when we were younger are impractical or too idealistic or unrealistic or silly or stupid, because they don’t fit into the practical concerns of capitalist adulthood; we’re taught to suppress those instincts and to accept that things that feel totally wrong are actually totally acceptable. These poems try to interrupt that idea by saying, hey, that voice is still here, it’s part of your day, it’s with you when you go to work, when you get dressed and when you plan your future. Listen to it because it’s smart and useful and important.
ELM: How did writing these poems change the way you view your adolescence? Do you see anything differently now, having written this book?
MC: I think that writing poems about adolescence that draw from my own experiences has helped me to value my adolescent self, in all her totally unabashedly girly and sentimental and sparkly vanilla lip-glossed glory. Everything about our culture tells me and all women that our adolescent selves are dumb and worthless, but these poems aim to remind the reader that that’s not true.
ELM: I thought it was interesting that you include some song lyrics as you misheard them then. Were there other moments where you chose to be faithful to your memory, even when you knew your memory was wrong?
I think memory is slippery and it’s so hard to say what is right in wrong in how things are remembered, so I’m interested in exploring that idea and playing with it. Sometimes you get so attached to a memory, and draw so much meaning from it, and then find out that’s not how someone else remembers it, and maybe that’s not how it happened at all. I think these poems are so much about memory and about what we do with memories and how we choose to navigate them and choose to let them serve us. Song lyrics are just one example of this — there are misheard lyrics in Reversible that meant so much to me at the time, in the 80s or 90s especially when I didn’t have the Internet and the only way to know what a song was saying was to listen closely.
ELM: There are a lot of cassette tapes in these poems. Obviously, they definitively mark an era, and also the subculture of teenagers who made mix tapes. What other purpose do cassette tapes serve?
MC: I think that cassette tapes capture very viscerally the act of moving forward and backward through time that my book is interested in, and how that connects to memory, identity, consumerism, romanticization of the past, etc. In my poem “Sisterhood Isn’t Powerful,” I talk about the pre-Internet phenomenon of having to guess what song lyrics were because you couldn’t look them up. I used to listen to tapes and write down the lyrics as I listened, pausing the tape as I went through the song, and also rewinding if I missed something. In that rewinding there was a very particular moment of stillness and reflection that we don’t have anymore in our culture. Rewinding and fast-forwarding tapes required listeners to pause and wait in silence in anticipation of the song they wanted to hear, and the feeling they wanted to feel. For however many seconds that took, there was a moment of waiting to get to where in the album you wanted to be that feels like time travel.