What’s your chapbook about? What is the significance of its title?
On Good Friday in the year 2000, the adult protagonist, a former Christian and current agnostic, looks back on various periods of his life, periods when he had faith, was losing faith, had lost faith, or was being pressured to regain faith or place it in a different religion, namely Islam. He revisits different periods in his life but not chronologically. The move from one moment in time to another is triggered through associative thought. Thus, the “story” is fragmented and remixed, replicating the workings of the human mind—or of the speaker’s mind, at least. The “story” occurs mainly in the Magic City (Birmingham, Alabama) but also in Washington, DC.
Aside from signifying the date on which the speaker revisits his past, the title invites the reader to look back at Christianity’s 2000-year history and compare then to now. The title was also a nod to Yeats, who believed history cycled, one era replacing an antithetical era every two thousand years. For him the events of the early 20th century augured the end of the Christian age, which had itself displaced the Greco-Roman age. My title marks not the end of the Christian age but rather the ongoing absence of faith in the speaker’s heart.
What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? Or can you name one poem that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?
The chapbook is one long poem in eleven sections, though some readers interpret the book as containing eleven separate but related poems. The sections vary in poetic mode, from lyric to narrative to dramatic. The dramatic sections are monologues delivered by a black Baptist minister.
Over the years the poem went through innumerable revisions. The opening lines of section two were the first lines I wrote:
The sky lights up like a blank TV screen,
then blackens. With a boom the tube
shatters and clear shards shower down. It’s day
but it’s so dark I can almost believe
God’s reminding us of an ancient Friday’s weather.
These lines, in less polished form of course, came to me on Good Friday in the year 2000. That day, it was dark all afternoon; and I imagined God was using the weather to remind humanity of his son’s crucifixion and sacrifice. Did I believe God was actually thinking of us that day? No. Do I even believe in God? No. Well, not exactly. Like the speaker, I’m an agnostic. What a coincidence. At any rate, the above lines were the seed from which the poem grew. They encapsulate what I myself felt on Good Friday 2000. The mask I wear in the poem does not completely conceal my face.
To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
My chapbook features art on the cover and throughout. My editor at Q Avenue Press, which creates visually stunning chapbooks, by the way, was very open to my ideas about what art to use. I realized that pieces by a painter whose work I first encountered during a Vermont Studio Center residency would be perfect for the book. My editor agreed, and together we decided which pieces to use and where and how. My editor had great ideas regarding types of paper, construction (the book was handbound) and layout. Working with him was fluid and fun. And it was a boon to have so much say in how my work would be presented visually and physically. I even got to decide on the font.
Does the chapbook form have an impact on the politics of the poems that appear inside it?
If anything, the chapbook form accentuates the politics already present in the poem. Each section appears on its own page and falls into one of four categories: 1) a lyric capturing the speaker’s real-time existentialism; 2) a scene placing the speaker with his religious, sometimes political family; 3) a dramatic monologue in which a black Baptist minister promulgates Christianity from on high; and 4) a scene in which a black Muslim, touting an Islam steeped in black nationalism, tries unsuccessfully to proselytize the speaker. For much of the poem, only sections of types 2, 3 and 4 appear, and they do so in that order, again and again. With each section on its own page, this pattern is more apparent and thus more effective at depicting the multiplicity of pressures the speaker endures.
What was the final section you wrote or significantly revised for the chapbook, and how did that affect your sense that the chapbook was complete?
The poem’s final section was the last thing I wrote. Before I wrote it, it became apparent that the poem was incomplete, that a final section was needed, bringing the speaker back to the present and dramatizing his current and longtime agnosticism and existentialism.
Who do you most hope will read your chapbook (either an individual or a particular group of people)?
When I wrote novels, I was advised to have a group of readers in mind and to describe this target audience to potential publishers. If I’m supposed to have a specific group of readers in mind now that I write poetry, I don’t. I don’t care if my readers are poetry lovers or people simply willing to give the genre a chance. While I hope to reach a wide swath of readers, I don’t change how I write just to reach certain people. I write to the best of my ability in a style and mode that I believe in, and I let the rest – who ends up reading me or not – take care of itself. Okay. I don’t completely leave it to chance. After publishing a poem or a poetry book, I, like most writers these days, promote it through social media, email, and word of mouth.
Did you set out with the intention of writing a chapbook? Does your chapbook follow a clear arc?
I didn’t set out to write a chapbook. I was working on my full-length poetry collection when an editor at Q Avenue Press expressed interest in publishing a chapbook of my work. Though I did not initially plan to write a chapbook, I was thrilled with the opportunity when it presented itself. Through the chapbook form, you can achieve a kind of focus and intensity that is seldom achieved in full-length collections. That said, I’m quite a fan of the latter form as well. As for structure, my chapbook, given that it’s one long poem, certainly has an arc.
What kinds of writing (comics, dictionaries, magazines, novels, etc.) that aren’t poetry help you to write poetry?
Any type of text—even road signs, a task list, or a weather forecast—can help me write, either triggering a phrase that might lead to a new poem or helping me fill holes in poems in progress. There’s something else that often happens. Whatever I’m reading, whether it’s a newspaper, dictionary, novel, poem or some other kind of text, I occasionally come across places, plants or animals whose names are unusual, or full of symbolic and sonic possibilities that are waiting to be exploited. For instance, in a poem I’m working on right now, newlyweds appear in a field. They’ve yet to consummate their marriage. For reasons not worth explaining, I found it more powerful to imply this than state it outright. I implied it by placing “Sweet William / and maidenhair at their feet.” Months before and at different times, I encountered these two flowers while reading, and I jotted them down.
What are you working on now?
I’m at work on a full-length poetry collection. Some of the poems explore the effects that love and lies, absence and presence can have on a family. Others concern trauma and depression, love found and lost, faith and loss of faith. The collection will likely include Good Friday 2000. Cosmopolitanism, the concern not just for the people of one’s country but for all the people of the world, figures in the collection as well. I consider myself a world citizen and subscribe to what Kwame Anthony Appiah calls “universalistic cosmopolitanism”—the “celebration of difference that remains committed to the existence of universal standards.” My cosmopolitan poems bring together virtually all of the world’s cultures, races and nations. The poems are in part a celebration, in part a warning and call for action. They depict the uncertainty, unrest and natural disorder agitating much of the globe.
Aside from poems, I’m penning essays on culture, literature, social justice and other topics.
Dana Crum is author of the chapbook Good Friday 2000. Twice he won the Eva Jane Romaine Coombe Writer’s Residency, and also had residencies at VSC and VCCA. Crum won a seat at the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop at Brown and received a fellowship from Virginia Commonwealth University. The Paris Review Daily profiled him in 2013. His poetry and fiction have appeared, or are forthcoming, in Blackbird, Plume, African Voices, Carve, Gumbo: an Anthology of African American Writing, and elsewhere. NPR affiliate WBEZ 91.5 FM Chicago broadcast a dramatic reading of one of his short stories on Stories on Stage.
from Good Friday 2000
The sky lights up like a blank TV screen,
then blackens. What happens
to the soul? Does it
arrow north or south, a flock
of Arctic terns? Does it
stir the limp limbs
of a fetus
in its bubble? Or does it
crumble, a fist
of dry oak leaves?
I squat between a murmuring metropolis
and a cacophonous town.
I visit. I roam their streets alone.
Strange tongues point like fingers.