Poet Spotlight: Marisa Crawford on pop culture, feminism, and the value of emotional knowledge

Marissa Crawford

I’m so thrilled to be able to feature Marisa on my site. I met her many years ago when we were both interns at Aunt Lute Books, and it’s been a delight seeing her flourish as a poet in the time since.

Marisa Crawford is the author of the poetry collections Reversible(2017) and The Haunted House (2010) from Switchback Books, and the chapbooks 8th Grade Hippie Chic (Immaculate Disciples, 2013) and Big Brown Bag (Gazing Grain, 2015). Her poems, essays, and interviews have appeared in BUST, Broadly, Hyperallergic, Bitch, Fanzine, The &NOW Awards 3: The Best Innovative Writing, and elsewhere, and are forthcoming in Electric Gurlesque (Saturnalia Books). Marisa is the founder and editor-in-chief of the feminist literary/pop culture website WEIRD SISTER. She lives in Brooklyn, NY. (Bio from poet’s website.)

How did you get started as a poet? Why draws you to writing poetry?

I fully credit the movie My Girl for making me a poet — this movie basically destroyed my childhood but also made me the person I am now, and the poem the main character, Vada, writes about her best friend dying made me want to write poems myself. I wrote my first poem in 4th grade when my best friend moved away, and continued writing poems in high school. When I got to college, a few teachers encouraged me to write more and that’s when I started taking myself seriously as a poet. I’m drawn to poetry because I think it’s the way I naturally think — poems can be weird and sad and scary and funny and political and they can about 100 different things all at once. And poetry to me is kind of the pinnacle of valuing emotional knowledge over rational thinking, which is far too often disregarded in our mainstream capitalist culture.

Your origin story makes perfect sense to me in the context of your poetry, as your work seems to often draw on popular culture — particularly 90s culture — to explore girlhood and female relationships. Can you talk about the intersection between pop culture and poetry, and what draws you toward this mix in your work?

There’s a long history of literary critics and gatekeepers insisting that poems that reference pop culture or contemporary culture are necessarily not serious works of art, and that great literature must be timeless. I reject this idea — I think it’s dumb to try to divorce art from your lived experiences and the culture it comes out of, and that trying to ties into this false notion that literature can or should be “universal,” which historically has really just meant writing that appeals to straight white men. I’m drawn to writing that feels honest, that I see myself in, and my life has always been steeped in low-brow pop culture. My girlhood was formed around watching Saved by the Bell every day after school and reading Christopher Pike horror novels all summer by the pool and watching the movie Pretty Woman at every family gathering. My models for relationships were TLC songs and My So-called Life and Sex and the City and The Real World and perhaps most of all the show Friends, which we watched every night at dinnertime. Pop culture is in many ways what has shaped and inspired me most as a human and an artist.

Reversible-Marissa CrawfordYour most recently collection is Reversible (Switchback Books, 2017). Can you talk a little about the book and how it came into being? How was your process of writing this book different than with other collections you’ve published?  

I wrote Reversible over the course of around 7-8 years, starting right after I finished my MFA in 2008 until it was published in 2017. The poems in Reversible are mostly about time, and girlhood, and feminism, and identity formation and self expression through cultural ephemera like music and clothing — how in the 90s I was obsessed with clothing and music from the 70s, and now everyone is obsessed with culture from the 90s. Sometimes I think Reversible is the last of anything I will have written that won’t be written in a mad scramble to find time — I remember sitting in a coffee shop on Valencia Street in San Francisco in 2008 and writing one of the long poems from Reversible, called “8th Grade Hippie Chic” (which was published earlier as a chapbook by Immaculate Disciples Press) in its entirety in my notebook while listening to songs by Fergie and Avril Levigne playing on the coffee shop radio. I worked 3, sometimes 4, days a week and even that felt like a lot, and also the pace of everything just felt so much slower then. I’m so jealous of my younger self!

Now ten years later I live in New York and I work full time and have a zillion other writing and editing projects and other life responsibilities and I feel like my relationship to time and my writing process has been totally exploded. Now when I write, it’s on my commute or in moments stolen from my workday or from sleeping or from doing some relaxing thing I’d really like to be doing, and I’ve had to allow my approach to writing evolve with the requirements of my life as a full-blown adult in late capitalism.

Can you talk a little more about how you approach writing a poem? What might launch you into a poem? How do you decide when it’s done?

For me a poem always starts with a line repeating in my head, so I write it down and go from there. I remember deciding when I was about 19 and first started taking my writing more seriously that if I ever felt inspired to write down a line or idea, I would always stop whatever I was doing and honor that moment of inspiration. So I still try to do that — if I’m laying in bed, if I’m at work, if I’m walking to an appointment, if there’s a line repeating in my head or a poem feeling in my brain I’ll take a few minutes to sit with it because once it goes away it’s usually impossible to get it back. That’s usually what launches me into a poem. Then I usually work and rework lines a bunch until I have a feeling that it’s done, but I can always keep working on something. I feel like at a certain point I need to show a poem to someone else, or read it out loud at an event, to get a sense of how other people react to it. Then I might go back and rework it a little more based on that feedback.

What is the favorite thing you’ve written or published so far? Why?

Hmmm that’s a hard question! I don’t have one favorite thing; it’s more what I’m most excited about in the moment. I recently published an essay about second-wave feminist themes in young adult author Judy Blume’s books, which I feel like has basically been my life’s work.

Speaking of feminist nonfiction writing, you’re also the founder and editor-in-chief of the feminist literary and pop culture website Weird Sister. Can you talk a bit about this project?

I started Weird Sister in 2014 because I wanted there to be a space online dedicated to feminist perspectives on literature and art and pop culture that’s creative, experimental, incisive, and sometimes playful. I’d been noticing for a long time that most of the literary blogs at the time were lacking in inclusive feminist lenses and often felt like total boys’ clubs, and the super smart feminist blogs that I loved and depended on for news and culture criticism were often lacking in literary content, and were very traditionally journalistic. I wanted to carve out a space and community that was centered on weird, experimental, inclusive feminist views of literature and the world. Since then, we’ve evolved to feature work from over 70 contributors, and have hosted readings and events across the country exploring feminist issues.

Do you feel community is important as a writer? How do you stay connected?

I think community is 100% vital to being a writer. My favorite poet Emily Dickinson wrote in her room and didn’t have much of a physical life outside her house, but she had a thriving community of friends and colleagues who she wrote letters to prolifically and was constantly in communication with. I wouldn’t be able to be a writer without community — I need to feel like my work is in conversation with other writers’ and artists’ work, and find inspiration and motivation in that. The past year after the election especially I just wanted to lay on my couch and watch dumb TV and quit writing forever, but I have to force myself to stay connected by going to events and being with people — my sole New Years resolution this year was to be more intentional in creating community, because even when it feels really hard to push yourself to leave the couch and continue to connect with people and make work, it’s absolutely necessary and always makes me feel better; some places where I’ve gone to find community and inspiration in the past few months include Small Press Traffic and This Will Take Time’s Small Time Residency, the Project for Empty Space’s Incision exhibition, seeing Michelle Tea read from her amazing new book, a Weird Sister reading I co-hosted at Soho20 Gallery, and Women, Action and the Media‘s happy hour.

What advice do you have to offer to emerging poets and writers?

Go to readings, events, workshops, parties, shows, etc and find your community of writers and artists who understand and support your work and perspective. Write what you want to write and trust your own vision — I think this advice is particularly important for young women and non-cis-male writers, since we’re so often taught that our perspectives are frivolous or unimportant. As a wise woman once tweeted, live every day with the confidence of a 26-year-old man with a framed ‘Scarface’ poster on his wall.

Name a poet you would like more readers to know about.

Cyree Jarelle Johnson is a really amazing poet and essayist who recently read for Weird Sister at our event collaborating with Soho20 Gallery in Brooklyn; their first collection of poems is forthcoming from Nightboat Books and I can’t wait to read it.

What can the world expect from you in the future?

Right now I’m working on a collection of essays about nostalgia, pop culture, and feminism called GROUPIE,  a manuscript of poems called DIARY, and a possibly book or chapbook-length collection of mini essays about Sex and the City that I’m excited about at the moment.