I met Curtis Crisler at The Virginia Center for Creative Arts (VCCA) in 2012. We were both early risers and so, every morning before heading to our studios to work, we sat over our coffee, waking up, laughing, sharing stories, and getting to know one another. He graciously allowed me to interview him. Below he shares so much: his writing process, a cool writing prompt for beginning poets on cliches, and links to his many publications and inspirations. Amazing guy.
What kinds of writing do you do?
I write in a variety of genres: poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction (CNF), drama, essay, and review, as well as in different arenas: adult, young adult (YA), and children’s. They all have their individual rhythms and idiosyncrasies, which is really enjoyable and really frustrating as hell. But I’ve learned that transitioning from one genre to another helps initiate fresh ideas and helps elevate my voice.
I would say poetry is my forte—the genre that comes the easiest to me.
When did you know you were a writer?
It would be when I decided to attend Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne (IPFW) in the early 90’s. I had been writing on and off since the fourth grade, but with no professional application until my entrance into the university. At first I was interested in journalism, which disappointed me because the school newspaper always looked for work to fit a limited amount of space, which made it hard to do a full article. I had to truncate things, and I realized it was more about politics. I would send stuff to our school paper or our local paper and things were always edited out. Yet, when I sent the same article to our Black paper they would print the entire article. I just found that a bit tedious playing between the different factions. I changed my focus to creative writing, specifically poetry since I had been doing it so long. I found myself in the academy, as I was learning in and outside of the university. The poets I read were not being taught in class, and the poets in class were new to me, so it was like having a duel education.
When you write a poem, what is your revision process like?
Ah, poetry. My process, I push the poem as far as I can with the image or phrase or character or whatever gets me to the page. I push and push and push until I come up with a workable draft. Next, I do what I call layering. I look at my weaknesses, then attend to them one by one. Next, I look at what the poem wants (listening to the poem talk to me—yeah I know, crazy but they do talk, and this can happen from the beginning of the process). Then, I do a lot of incubation (inner revision and editing within my head) until I can get back to the page due to other commitments. I don’t write every day—I mean sit down and actually write for three hours a day, but I write every day—in bits and pieces, be it physically, mentally with the incubation, or both, especially after I have a working draft. This is not to say it’s a chronological process like a 1-2-3 type of situation. These processes are always in flux and overlap. This is the best way to give you some type of visual for lack of a better term.
What books are on your nightstand, kindle, etc.? Why?
\blak\ \al-fǝ bet\ by Mitchell L.H. Douglas, Slag by Leslie Anne Mcilroy, Hemming the Water by Yona Harvey, Hum by Jamaal May, June Jordan’s Poetry for the People: A Revolutionary Blueprint edited by Lauren Muller and the Blueprint Collective, Our Difficult Sunlight: A Guide to Poetry Literacy, & Social Justice in Classroom & Community by Georgia A. Popoff & Quraysh Ali Lansana, Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine, Hip-Hop Poetry and the Classics by Alan Sitomer & Michael Cirelli, and Method and Madness: The Making of a Story by Alice LaPlante.
I use all the books for my courses. The first four books, (\blak\ \al-fǝ bet\, Slag, Hemming the Water, and Hum I use in my W203: Creative Writing—Poetry course, along with our textbook Contemporary American Poetry edited by Ryan Van Cleave. I use June Jordan’s Poetry for the People: A Revolutionary Blueprint for my W314: The Performance of Poetry: Finding Where Poems Live course (using Our Difficult Sunlight: A Guide to Poetry Literacy, & Social Justice in Classroom & Community, and Hip-Hop Poetry and the Classics for reference material). I use Method and Madness: The Making of a Story for my W301/C511: Writing Fiction course (hybrid for undergrads and grads). Citizen: An American Lyric I recently bought, but haven’t had the chance to read.
Was there a book you read in childhood that helped shape you as a writer?
I can’t say that there was one. I really liked reading, and my mother encouraged it. I read a lot of the Fairytales (more of Grimm’s then) and Dr. Seuss, until my aunt and I got into comic books. We were big Marvel comic geeks, but owned DC, HarveyToons, and even Archie comics. We used to draw back in the day, and the comics facilitated that need, along with reading. I moved from Encyclopedia Brown to Poe, Dickens, Kipling, Clemens, and Harper Lee. So the long way around your question, there wasn’t one book that had an effect on me, but many have influenced me since middle school and before.
You are an English Professor. What kind of exercise might you give to a student entering your intro to creative writing class?
Most times I’m getting them to break bad habits and to own their voice. One exercise I have them do to move away from using clichés is to “refresh their clichés” and write a poem using the newer constructions. For example: “White like snow” could change to “brown like deep dirt.” They still address the same content of the cliché—color in this case, and they make it theirs. They would then use “brown like deep dirt” in a new poem. So they create a poem doing the prior-mentioned prompt, but also thinking about their voice, while also using inspiration from examples of contemporary poet’s work for reinforcement.
Where can we find your work?
“This” Ameri-can-ah, a collection of poetry, will be coming out later this year from Cherry Castle Publishing, out of DC. Be on the lookout for this upcoming masterpiece. (Laughs).
I have a new poetry chapbook out, Black Achilles by Accents Publishing. It can be found here:
A one-act play called Fade on the Eleven Eleven website:
Other books of mine can be found at the following:
Who is Curtis L. Crisler? Crisler was born and raised in Gary, Indiana. His forthcoming poetry book, “This” Ameri-can-ah, will be released in 2015 by Cherry Castle Publishing. His poetry chapbook, Black Achilles, was recently released by Accents Publishing. His one-act play Fade was recently released in Eleven Eleven: Journal of Literature & Art, Winter Issue #18 (online). His other books are Pulling Scabs (nominated for a Pushcart), Tough Boy Sonatas (YA), and Dreamist: a mixed-genre novel (YA). His chapbooks are Wonderkind (nominated for a Pushcart), Soundtrack to Latchkey Boy, and Spill. He is a Cave Canem Fellow, and the recipient of fellowships from the City of Asylum/Pittsburgh (COA/P), Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA) [Editor’s Note: This is where I met Curtis}, Soul Mountain, a guest resident at Hamline University, the recipient of the Sterling Plumpp First Voices Poetry Award, the recipient of two Indiana Arts Commission Grants, the Eric Hoffer Award, and was nominated for the Eliot Rosewater Award. He is a Contributing Editor for Aquarius Press. His poetry has been adapted to theatrical productions in New York and Chicago. His fiction piece, “The Gift” (first published in The New Sound: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Arts and Literature), was adapted into a short film by the independent filmmaker, Timeca Seretti (Austin, Texas), and was featured in Gary’s IndependentFilm Festival 2014. He is Associate Professor of English at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne (IPFW).