Jason B. Crawford called me cute once on Twitter, which is a tweet I keep around in case I’m ever feeling less than cute. We ended up talking about dance, reclaimed language, and friendship.
MM: I wanted to start by asking about intertextuality in your work. You’ve invoked Missy Elliot, you’ve invoked the X-Men, but much, much more frequently, you’ve invoked dance. So lemme start by asking, what is it about dancing that is such an influence on you?
JBC: When I was younger, I wanted to be an R&B singer (to be like Mike) and I would hold concerts in front of my family. We would play music and I would lip sync and dance. I started around 5 and I would put a light up sketcher down and stomp near it to make it my light show! I always wanted to spin like Mike too. To be honest, being a singer and dancer made me a better performer. During the Jerk dance craze, I had a crew. We would go to random parking lots and such and dance on camera for hours, then I would edit the videos for YouTube. (This will not be found! *laughs*) But dance has always been there. Inherently, I write about dance because I write about joy, my family, my friends, my lovers. We all have that in common, a want to dance! That’s where it comes from.
MM: It’s a real through line in your work as far as I’ve read it, and I think it really does bring all those threads together. I think one of the things it accomplishes is this blurring of performance and intimacy. Am I dancing FOR you or dancing WITH you. Are we connected? Or are you just staring at me?
JBC: But I think within that as well is if you are not in the circle how much do I truly care that you are staring? Like we are both here and I’m here for myself
MM: That’s interesting to me, because that independence is in the strength of your voice, AND at the same time, so many of your poems are about community, family, friends, running around, cook outs. How do you balance that existing in community, in network, in interdependence, and that independence, that “I’m here for myself”
JBC: It truly boils down to who I write for, which is me. If I write a poem about my friends, it’s still for me. I use this to make sure I’m always saying what I need to say. I invite others into the space all the time, but they just have to be aware that they are a guest and I will not change my home to appease them.
MM: The poem as your home. I like that. I’ll be thinking about that. Reminds me of your poem Space, the physical presence in the poem of you, writing about your physical presence in a classroom with white people.
If you don’t mind a shift, could we get into queerness and youth? I feel like your approach to queerness but also sex in your work has a lot to do with being young, with the sensations of youth, including, sometimes, powerlessness. I guess the question is, why does that ring true to you?
JBC: I wasn’t especially queer at a young age. I mean I most likely was a little bit but I also wasn’t. So for me, my youth and being powerless stems from the overprotective family I grew up with. I never went anywhere without my parents or my grandparents for many years. Most of the sleepovers (if I got to go to them) were at my house. So exploration of sex happened after I moved out/went to college. Being sheltered forces you to understand how helpless you really are without the vice you’ve leaned on so long.
Secondly when speaking on queerness and sex, queer bodies are not often given the opportunities or freedoms to exploration at a younger age (14,15,16, etc) because of the connotations of sin. This turns queer sex into an act of both shame and danger. But it also turns having sex at 23 with a guy for the first time (my first male sexual partner) into a young experience.
MM: Makes sense. What is your poetry’s relationship to memory, to revisiting and preserving moments? I’m reminded of a line in your work, I can’t find it just this second, about black snow finding the loudest way to be temporary, and that made me think that that’s what writing is.
JBC: Love this question. So the line is “Black Snow doing what black does best: finding the loudest way to be temporary.” Ironically enough, a lot of my newest poems are about a memory or a single event and trying to expand over that small space for at least a page. This has been done exceptionally by Jon Sands in “Moons over my hammy” and in Ross Gay’s “Be Holding.” I don’t want to just revisit memory, I want to slow it down, reverse it, look at it for all different angles. There are whole novels stored within every second, I just want to see what I can pull out of it.
MM: That variety of angles on the same moment provides so much richness.
JBC: It really does.
MM: In a way that makes me think of your poem “Red Hat Society” which zooms in on the color of a MAGA hat to examine all the ways the hate that it represents spills out and endangers you.
JBC: Oh that poem… wheeew! I was in a mood when I wrote that one!
MM: *Laughs* I know the feeling. But like a lot of your work, it starts with one strong emotion and then moves us into another, almost seamlessly. There, it’s anger into fear into a desire to survive. Much more often you seem interested in the movement from joy into grief and then back again. What about those transits are so appealing to you?
JBC: The original version of Summertime Fine was almost all grief. I was listening to Danez Smith talk about their book “Don’t Call Us Dead” and how they had to sit down and understand that not everything about Blackness is filled with grief. Sometimes we are allowed to find joy. I wanted to find the JOY in Blackness and write from that. Not every project is this way but both this one and Twerkable Moments works in this realm.
MM: So while we’re talking about joy in Blackness, I want to talk about your relationship to two words that I don’t actually say, seeing as I’m neither black nor queer, but which you build some really fine poems around. As a Black Queer poet, what does it mean to you to work with “N****” and “F*gg**”? Is there joy in those words that can be found?
JBC: Those are two words I use often in my daily speech. My truest written self had to include them but with that, I had to include their histories. In some poems, I try and push the boundaries of me talking to my friends and using that language. In others, they return to their blood roots. With all language, the language underneath it has a history of pain and pillage.
MM: Absolutely. And I guess, to loop this back to our first question: why turn dance into language? I guess my thought behind this question is, not only is Dance an art form to itself, you could argue that language is the art form furthest from it. In my head, it goes dance, music, film, visual arts, and then way at the bottom, poetry. So why go through all that trouble of getting a feeling of dance into a poem?
JBC: I would argue that watching two boys break dance downtown mid summer in 90° heat is a poem. Poetry is everything and can be found everywhere! If I limit where I find my poems, I’ll start talking about the flowers and that’s it. Secondly, Marlin M Jenkins wrote a chapbook about Pokémon. When asked why, it’s because it’s something he loves but also it’s something people say you can’t substantially write about. Dance is the same way. What your canon is doesn’t have to be my canon. What white people say is allowed in poetry doesn’t have to be the end of it. Black people have been groovin’ since before we got here, I can’t talk about heritage without talking about rhythm, and isn’t that where poetry began? With a rhythm?
MM: Absolutely, and thanks for the reminder to not be so narrow-minded about where poetry starts. I didn’t really mean that a dance can’t be a poem, of course a dance is a poem. I think I was trying to get at the motivation behind the act of translation. But is it a translation? Or is watching two boys breakdance just naturally a poem?
JBC: That’s just it, dance is part of the language. Trying to figure out how to express me loving my friends sometime is about twerking with them. Sometimes it’s just watching them do it
MM: Hmm, I’ll think about that for a while. Interestingly enough, I think that porousness, am I loving them or twerking with them or watching them twerk or just walking by, I think that porousness comes up in your work about cruising and sex. Which makes sense, the ways we enter each other, the ways we exchange insides.
JBC: I think a lot about interactions in poems. I also just realized I have at least 2 cruising poems out from my full length
MM: It’s a rich topic! Did you ever read Larry Mitchell’s The F*gg**s & Their Friends Between Revolutions?
JBC: I did not but it’s in my need to read collection now
MM: It’s good stuff.
JBC: Thank you. Added to my list.
MM: Okay, I am gonna choose two images at random from your work and make you choose, okay?
MM: Slurpees or Thighs rubbing together?
MM: I can’t fault you on that choice, but I feel like the humble Slurpee will have its day.
Things I wished I’d asked them: What is the most important thing about writing about celebration? What movement do you wish there was just one word for? What are the poetics of cruising?
Jason B. Crawford (They/He)was born in Washington DC, raised in Lansing, MI. Their debut chapbook collection Summertime Fine is out through Variant Lit. Their second chapbook Twerkable Moments is due from Paper Nautilus Press in 2021. Their debut Full Length How we Fed the Hunger will be out in 2022 from Sundress Publications.
Mordecai Martin writes for the traditional reason that he is no damn good at anything else. A 5th generation New Yorker who has called Jerusalem and Mexico City home, he currently resides in Philadelphia with his wife and Pharaoh-Let-My-People-Go the cat. He tweets @mordecaipmartin and blogs at http://www.mordecaimartin.net.