Contributor Spotlight on James Crews

by Dan Froid

Filed under: Blog |

In a twist on our usual Contributor Spotlight posts, this week we present an interview with poet James Crews. Crews is the winner of the 2010 Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry. His award-winning manuscript, The Book of What Stays, was published in 2011 by the University of Nebraska Press. He is also the author of three chapbooks: What Has Not Yet Left, Bending the Knot, and One Hundred Small Yellow Envelopes. He agreed to speak with me about the prize, place, influence, and more. He previously appeared on our blog in another interview, in 2013.

1. What did winning the book prize mean for you as a poet?

Winning a prize like this, you begin to take yourself more seriously as an artist, which is the golden ticket to a meaningful creative life. You realize that no one else is ever going to make extra time for you to write, or will care much if you publish another poem. You have to care, very deeply, and make the time and do the work every day for yourself. The book prize finally gave me permission to treat myself more like a professional poet, instead of just stealing time here and there to write poems on the sly.

But the book prize also makes other people take you more seriously. When you have published an actual book, people are more apt to accept that this is something you do seriously (there’s that word again!), that it is not just a hobby. Since the publication of The Book of What Stays, I have been lucky enough to be invited to readings and solicited for submissions to a few magazines, which certainly never happened before. I’m still a nobody (as Dickinson said), but at least now I’m a nobody with a book.

2. Do you think that the various places you’ve lived have inflected your writing? Has Nebraska, for example, seeped into your work?

Place is so important to my work, and I prefer to write and read poems that are firmly located in time and space. The lakes and massive snowfalls of Wisconsin still haunt my poems, as well as the redwoods of Northern California and the constant rain and Douglas firs of Portland, Oregon. I travel a lot to visit friends, so lately scenes and images from Minneapolis, Los Angeles, and Boston have all figured into the poems. I certainly wrote a lot of “Nebraska” poems during my time there (the prairies, the grasses, the wind), but it is usually not until I am far away from a place that it starts to seep more palpably into my work. There’s a Gary Snyder quote I’m quite fond of: “Find your place on the planet. Dig in, and take responsibility from there.” I try to do this no matter where I am because I don’t believe that any of us have just one place on the planet where we belong. We can “dig in” and pay deep attention to our surroundings wherever we happen to find ourselves.

3. What influences you, or compels you to want to write (not just literary influences but musical, personal, etc.—anything)?

I’m a big believer in writing at the same time every day. I wake up, make coffee and get to the desk as soon as possible. If I’m lucky, something is already tugging at my sleeve, in need of revision, but usually, I’m starting with a blank slate. I do some reading that stretches my mind (Jane Hirshfield’s new book, The Beauty, has been doing that for me these past few weeks). Then I wait until a line appears in my mind. Often it’s some strong statement that I then have to go on and prove—“The future lies dormant in the mind like a seed” was a recent such line. But sometimes it’s a piece of art or a scene from a novel or movie. I just finished E.M. Forster’s novel, Maurice, and found myself writing about that wonderful passage where the closeted protagonist meets the man with whom he ends up falling in love. What announces the presence of this young man to Maurice is the scent of an apricot lingering on the cold night air, and that apricot, of course, changes his life. I couldn’t resist exploring that a little—how the smallest of moments can shift everything for us. I think that’s what most good poems try to help us see—hat there are these moments in life that operate as signposts, guiding us in this direction or that. But we have to pause long enough to notice them. Poetry slows us down and shows us the world as it actually is.

4. On a related note, I loved the central poem in The Book of What Stays, “One Hundred Small Yellow Envelopes” [a long poem about the life and work of artist Félix Gonzáles-Torres]. What drew you to him, and why did you want to write the poem?

I have always thought that Félix found me when I needed him the most. There was a wonderful convergence of events—I had remembered an ex-boyfriend’s description of “Untitled (Lover Boys),” and then wrote a poem based on that piece, not knowing the name of the artist until a friend pointed it out. Later, I got to see that candy spill in person at the Pulitzer Center for the Arts in St. Louis and was able to take one of those silver-wrapped licorice snaps home with me. I still have it to this day. I was also lucky enough to see several of Félix’s pieces at the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago in the span of a few weeks. It was as though this path was being laid out for me, and I had only to follow it.

I think that, as a gay man, I needed to explore the lives of Félix and his lover, Ross, both of whom died of AIDS in the nineties. I wanted to understand better what the AIDS Crisis was like, and so I took the risky step of assuming their voices, letting them speak through me in a way that was sometimes uncomfortable, while using the pieces of art as a guide into their lives. And now I know, with the benefit of retrospect, that “One Hundred Small Yellow Envelopes” also allowed me to channel my own grief for my father, who had died just a few years before I began those pieces. The poems were an outlet for emotions I was not yet ready to feel or put into words.

Félix’s work continues to follow me too. I have heard from a graduate student in London who used my poems as part of his dissertation, and a curator in Barcelona who used several of the poems in a catalogue for an exhibition of González-Torres’ work. A former boyfriend, after reading the poems, created a replica of “Untitled (Perfect Lovers),” which consists of two identical clocks placed side by side, and hung it on the wall for my birthday. More recently, I’ve begun working on an essay that explores how Félix’s art was so important to me at that turbulent time in my life.

5. Has your relationship to your book changed since it was published? Do you think of it differently now?

I think of it very differently now. I honor it because it was the best I could do at the time, but when I read from it now, though the poems are intimately familiar, it often feels as though someone else wrote them. And I suppose that’s true: I was someone else then. It’s been about six years since it was finished (four since it was published) and I am a different person, a different poet. There was also a lot of surrender involved in the writing of that book, a decision just to back off and let the words do what they wanted on the page, so that might also account for the distance I still feel from the book.

6. [Prior to the interview, James alluded to a story about Kate Bush and referred to her as his good-luck charm. I included this question because of our mutual love for her work.] So, you danced to “Cloudbusting” after you sent off the manuscripts of your book? Could you expand on your comment that Kate Bush is your good-luck charm?

I took a sick day from work (I actually did have a cold, just for the record!) but decided to use the time off to send off manuscripts to contests. I dragged myself through the rain to a Kinko’s in downtown Portland where I printed off copies of my book and stood in amazement: I actually wrote a book! I didn’t necessarily believe it would get published or win a prize, but seeing that copy machine physically spit out the pages, and then holding each collated manuscript in my hand gave me one of the greatest thrills of my life. I know online submissions are more convenient, but it still makes me kind of sad that presses and magazines have moved almost completely online. I worry that writers will miss out on that same sense of tangible accomplishment.

After Kinko’s, I stopped by the post office, mailed off the manuscripts, and when I got home, I found that my housemates were gone. Something just came over me then. I went into my room, put in my earbuds, and the first song that came on was Kate Bush’s “Cloudbusting.” As I listened, these were the lines that got to me: “Ooh, I just know that something good is going to happen. / And I don’t know when. / But just saying it could even make it happen.” I wouldn’t call it a premonition exactly, but I really did feel that something good could happen as a result of all those pages I’d printed and mailed off. So I danced and sang along with the song several times, in spite of my cold. And lo and behold, a few months later, I got a call from Nebraska that told me something very good indeed had happened. And my life was never the same because of it.


Do you have a poetry manuscript to submit? Prairie Schooner’s annual book prize contest remains open to submissions through March 15. Find out more information about the prize, as well as about more of our past winners, on our website. Or, if you already know you're ready, submit here.