Curtis L. Crisler

Crisler

Soundtrack to Latchkey Boy (Finishing Line Press, 2013)

What are some of your favorite chapbooks? How did they influence your writing or your desire to make a chapbook of your own?

Most of my favorite chapbooks would be by people no one has heard about. For some reason, it seems that there are a lot of people working on chappys, who can never get a book manuscript. Many times these writers are so interesting in their execution and raw lyricism that they take my breath away. They are so out of the mix of more established writers, even those established writers that write chappys. Their work is just untainted by the establishment, for lack of a better phrasing. Thomas Sabel is one of those writers, along with Sarah Sandman, Kevin McKelvey, David Edenbach, and Liz Whiteacre.

Other more established writers I like are George Kalamaras, Eric Baus, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Michael Meyerhofer, David Baratier, Randall Horton, and Doug Kearney.

What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?

My first poem “…fat meat’s greasy” would be the oldest. When I was thinking about the things that my mother used to say, this was the first one that came to my mind. I wanted to capture a son recalling being reprimanded by his mother through her words. That’s where it starts. Then it gets into the head of the son, and why he couldn’t comprehend her at the time because as he says, “i adhd. i lightbulb for the on. i matchless to her sane.” And “disney’s my shades. grimms’ my eyes.”

I was looking to capture the fissure between a single Black mother and son in a lyrical way.

A question from Kathleen Jesme: If you have a theme or a topic you are working on, in what ways do you approach it?

It depends on the theme and/or topic. Once I receive it, I then try to let it take over, and I just become obsessed in being the vehicle when it is thematic in nature. With Soundtrack to Latchkey Boy, I had this idea that came from the song, “Mama Used to Say,” by the singer/ songwriter Junior. Junior Giscombe and Bob Carter wrote the song in 1981, and it was released as a single in the UK in 1982. So the chapbook is broken up into three sections, and the individual sections are from the song. For example, section two opens with this:

How his mommy passed away, but these lines she used to say
And at that time he couldn’t understand
And mama used to say…

I let the ellipsis trail off, or fade out if you will, having the reader needing to go to the next page. Then, on the next page, there’s a quote from my mother that runs right into the poem. In other words, I used the song to present the possibility of the poem.

By the time the reader gets to the third section, there’s the line from the song that says:

A small boy once asked, When will I grow up
When will I see what grownups do see…

After this, there are no more lines starting with the mother’s words. The boy has become a young man, and into his own, but only due to the fact that he heeds his mother’s maternal words. This comes from the thematic lyrics in the song that are married to some of the actual things my mother said to me.

What’s your chapbook about? How is it similar to or different from your earlier work?

Although I am using the premise of Junior and Bob’s song, along with my mother’s affirmations, I was looking to capture the passage of time where a boy becomes a man in the household of a matriarchal single parent, and also exhibit how women are doing the job of both parents in many instances, and pulling it off.

Soundtrack to Latchkey Boy is different from other chapbooks of mine because of its execution and prose, but it is similar in my representation of Black culture and art.

What made you decide to gather your pieces in a chapbook instead of another format? When did you realize you were working toward a chapbook?

I was working on the premise of putting together a full manuscript, the first part dealing with Stevie Wonder, and the second half deals with Junior and Bob’s song “Mama Used to Say.” I finished the second half first, and decided to send it out under the name Soundtrack to Latchkey Boy. Both halves seemed to work themselves out as individual chapbooks. In writing the Soundtrack to Latchkey Boy half, it all came together from the first poem to the last. It was a very organic process. Although I think I remember having Erica Hunt, Harryette Mullen, and Kwame Dawes in my head.

How did you decide on the length, arrangement, and title of your chapbook?

As I stated in the last question, the full manuscript dictated the split in its two halves. Since I wanted a smaller manuscript, around 60 pages or so, it worked out that each half could be a chappy.

Once I decided on the three segments, from the song “Mama Used to Say,” it was easier to write the thematic segments in a very chronological order, and marry them with those affirmations my mother used. On the last segment, I did not use my mother’s affirmations, so that the son could be seen to have grown.

The picture I used for the cover of the book gave me insight to naming the chappy, Soundtrack to Latchkey Boy. The picture I took is of two Maxwell UR cassette tapes that are on my desk. One of the tapes is labeled “Ntozake Shange” and the other one is labeled “Etheridge Knight.” They both are on top of papers I was commenting on.

Did you submit your chapbook to contests, open reading periods, or both?

Yes, I did submit to several chapbook contests. I didn’t win any contests, but Finishing Line Press accepted it for publication, and the rest, as they say, is history.

In what ways did your chapbook change between the version you submitted and the final published version? Did you revise, rearrange, or make other changes? To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?

By the time I sent Soundtrack to Latchkey Boy to FLP, there were not many changes, other than specifics on factual information, and probably referential data. But the poems themselves had been through the ringer, so I didn’t need to work them more. Also, these poems are prose poems, and small in their execution, so they were concise from the get go.

FLP was very accommodating in accepting my cover art, but also would provide art if I didn’t have anything. FLP did the layout and editing.

What have you done to promote and publicize your chapbook?

FLP wants the writers to promote and publicize their chapbooks, and they gave us a lot of material on how to go about marketing it. Soundtrack to Latchkey Boy has been marketed through magazines, journals, newspapers, through interviews, featured in the Allen County Public Library’s (ACPL) Book Fair, and through sending out samples to other people/venues.

What are you working on now? What is your writing practice?

Currently, I am working on a few writing projects, along with the full manuscript that includes Soundtrack to Latchkey Boy. I will be sending out the full manuscript for possible publication. Also, the first half of the full manuscript is being considered for publication as a chapbook. I’m liking that.

Since I am a professor, I have to write when I can. Balancing professorial duties with my own research is daunting. So, I do a lot of incubation (thinking things through—mental writing—obsessing), while I wait to get back to stints where I can address white space, unfinished poems, and revisions. Most times, this takes place on the weekends, with little bursts of writing here and there between prep, reading, advising, and commenting on/ grading my students’ work.

What advice would you offer to an aspiring chapbook author?

It seems that more and more I see presses wanting thematically appropriate chappys that have a skeletal element through them. So, I would enlighten new writers of chappys to seriously take into consideration what the presses/editors are asking for in their submission guidelines. This is very important. Also, write about the things that interest you. I believe, no matter how idiosyncratic the subject matter may be, good writing will always be intriguing to the reader.

Do you have a favorite prompt or revision technique? What is it?

No, I don’t have a prompt or anything like that. Most times, the poem will dictate what will happen with revision. But I do layering a lot. I push the poem as far as I can push it, then I go back over it, addressing layering. For example: the first layer might address verb usage; the second layer might address phrasing and lyricism; the third layer might address associative leaps, and so forth and so on, depending on what the poem needs.

A question from Bianca Spriggs: Which poem is the “black sheep” in your collection and why?

This is an interesting question. I guess it would be “…boy, you working my last nerve” because the first two-thirds of the chapbook play off of actual affirmations my mother used to say to me, and those are represented with italics. With this poem, there are italics all through it, so the reader can understand that the mother is continuing her conversation with the son, but it is broken up with regular script, where the mother comes out of her rant and asks questions to the son, like an aside. It has the feel of a soliloquy to me, and is unique compared to the rest of the poems in the chappy.

A question from Justin Hamm: what’s the most interesting concept or design you’ve seen for a chapbook?

A friend, Douglas Kearney, has a chapbook that is formatted like an actual 12” inch album. Soon as I saw it, I knew I had to have it. All the pages are inserts that go within the album jacket, looking like liner notes. I really dig that artistic vision, and it let me envision how writers can do a lot of fab things with the presentation of chapbooks and books in general.

A question from Lisa Ampleman: What is your own experience of reading a chapbook like? 

It’s so funny that you ask this because I just read through my friend’s chapbook, Reckless Pilgrims, in the airport, while waiting for my flight. I read straight through it. Thomas Sabel’s poems are very economical in their presentation.

Most of the time, the above is the case when I read a chapbook. It just depends on the content and context of the work. Sometimes, I may have to come back to one, due to its denseness, or my lack of understanding something. And sometimes I have to reread them, due to them being really entertaining and well-written, or again, due to the dense nature of the content.

What question would you like to ask the next chapbook author featured at Speaking of Marvels?

Does your new chappy start out as a self-contained chappy, or is it something larger that you assimilated out of parts to make into a chapbook? Or, if it started out as a chappy, is it something that can be changed into a full manuscript? Why, or why not?

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Curtis L. Crisler was born and raised in Gary, Indiana. His books are Pulling Scabs, Tough Boy Sonatas, Dreamist: a mixed-genre novel, and Soundtrack to Latchkey Boy. He’s been published in many magazines, journals, and anthologies. He is an assistant professor of English at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne (IPFW), a contributing editor for Aquarius Press, and a Cave Canem Fellow.

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fat meat’s greasy. gristly brain matter. artery pasta. “got bacon?” don’t write a check yo behind can’t cash. i palpitate. i adhd. i lightbulb for the on. i matchless to her sane. mama’s tomorrows wrapped in butcher-paper-honesty. disney’s my shades. grimms’ my eyes. chicken. uncluck. able. mama put me down. my tongue lava spit. magma. she cut it off. me dull. butterknife. no butter.

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i’ll slap you into next week. mama magic. how to turn diamonds back. coaling. how to dark witch skin inside out. how understanding not in right gear (clicked on). how harder uphill was. how money too tight. she didn’t mention. bills. how on same page kismet was. if there’s no sync up. connection’s at sea. leaving me in desert. a course. fool with shame.

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boy, you ain’t gone worry me. dismiss me like sergeants diss grunts. shift me. handlike verbs. chilly love breasting shore with wave of you should give me some room to breathe, else i’m gone get ugly. i push pulsing to shovel. want each pebble-seed of her zeusness. even what dangles edges. i negative procession. gnat in her face. “why would she not swat, band/snap?”

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i am nat love on a barren ranch of my forefathers. in my mind. learning… i am mishikinakwa looking at the clouds of my ancestors wave back to the migrating buffalo. searching… for i am. i am apple. moved from the original garden to uprooted earth. everyone takes. the bite.

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