Talking with Friends is Poetry:
A Conversation with jason b. crawford
Contributor Interview Series #1
When I approached Variants EIC, Tyler Pufpaff about starting an interview series featuring past contributors, the first person he wanted us to reach out to was jason b. crawford. jason’s first book, Summertime Fine, was selected by Ross White for the 2020 Variant Literature chapbook contest. Summertime Fine is a powerful chap filled with poems written “specifically for black people to see themselves in”. Since Summertime Fine, jason has gone on to publish two more chapbooks, Twerkable Moments (Paper Nautilus) and goodboi (Neon Hemlock) as well a full length from Sundress Publications, Year of the Unicorn Kidz. The day before Tyler and I spoke with jason about community, representation,, and art making, the July/August 2023 issue of Poetry Magazine came out, with three new jason b. crawford poems inside.
This interview was conducted over Zoom in July 2023 with Tyler Puffpaff, Megan Nichols, and jason b. crawford. It has been edited and arranged for clarity and length.
Tyler Pufpaff: What are you working on right now?
jason b. crawford: I’m working almost solely on a project of ekphrastic poems. Each one of the poems that are in Poetry are all ekphrastic poems based on Alvin Baltrop’s photography. He was a queer photographer from the Bronx that lived until 2004 and died from cancer. He took pictures of the Chelsea Piers. It was a very queer scene in the 1970s and 80s. I found out about him and I instantly wanted to write a poem.
I remember in undergrad my ekphrastic work was garbage. Truly garbage. I didn’t understand how to dive into the picture. I could tell you what was happening in the picture. I could give you a description of the picture, but I couldn’t give you a poem or story. I wrote [the first Alvin Baltrop poem], and I was like, I got it. I can do another one.
TP: How would you describe your writing before Summertime Fine?
JC: I started writing real poetry in 2014. I was a fiction major before I switched to poetry and I wrote poems here or there before that, but they were not good. I felt like those poems were really trying to be someone else. A lot of those early poems were just me saying other people’s lines in different ways, until Summertime Fine.
My first visit to New York was in 2019. I got here and something clicked in my head. I literally crossed the bridge into New York and immediately had a poem in my mind. That whole weekend, I basically wrote three-fourths of Summertime Fine. Of course [later] those poems were edited.
There was something transformative about me being in New York that changed my writing process. The thing about Summertime Fine, Twerkable Moments, Year of the Unicorn Kidz, and even this new work, is it’s all either persona or speculative poetry. I’m not really in most of these poems. I felt like when I crossed into New York, I crossed into a body that was not mine either, that I needed to write from. It’s almost like a spirit hit me, which may sound weird, but it just hit me. It was, “Okay, I need you to tell this story for me.” I sat down at a computer and I started looking up slave names that had very little to no story attached to it. That’s where all the untitled poems [in Summertime Fine] came from. They were the names of slaves that didn’t get a full story told.
MN:: Were you thinking about audience when you wrote Summertime Fine?
JC: I was thinking a lot about growing up, the friends that I grew up with, and how we were taught poetry. Of course, it was the same dusty poetry that everyone else is taught that makes you not want to write poems, especially as a black person. I grew up in Lansing, Michigan, but it was still the South Side – it was still considered the – quote unquote – “hood”. And [poetry] was not the thing on our mind. We never even got the chance for it to be the thing on our mind. We were taught “Here are some old white men that died, and here are their poems. And they really have nothing to do with you, but we have to teach you a unit on poetry.” I wrote Summertime Fine specifically for black people to see themselves in and for their stories to be told. When I wrote Twerkable Moments, it was the same. I really wanted to write a book about black joy and dance and I probably did that for Unicorn Kidz too.
MN: I loved Summertime Fine. I have one question about it but I’m afraid I might be misunderstanding so correct me if I’m wrong: I felt like when I read Summertime Fine there was only one poem that explicitly talked about queer experience. Does that sound right to you?
JC: That would be “On Junkin Wit a White Boy” which is also in Year of the Unicorn Kidz and I think you are also mostly correct. “On Twerking In White Spaces” takes a queer lens where the narrator is being asked to do all these black feminine things. I feel like that is somewhat queer because black queer males are more allowed in white spaces especially with white women. But yes, the most explicit queer one is “On Junkin”.
MN: I’m curious about that. Right after I finished reading Summertime Fine for the first time, I began to take a walk. At the beginning of that walk I was struck by how singular “On Junkin’” was. It’s in the middle of the chap and it felt like the only poem directly referencing sexuality. And at first I had this kind of Pollyanna interpretation, as though maybe this aspect of the narrative’s life is so accepted and understood that it didn’t need to be a major theme in the chap. But by the end of the walk I had shifted to interpreting the singular poem to be a reflection of being closeted. The queer experience was kind of hidden within the chap because it has to be hidden. I just found it really curious especially because in your current work queer experience is discussed more.
JC: I wrote a really bad chap book in 2016, and I submitted it and they didn’t take it. I self-published it but I pulled it down immediately. That chap was like a mixture of blackness and queerness. I tried to play both sides. I was like, “Oh, these are going to be the queer poems, and these are going to be the black poems, and then some of them are going to intersect.” Because I failed so hard at it, I told myself that I could not be both black and queer in a poetic space, which is completely incorrect. I wrote Summertime Fine, and it was mostly black, and I just wanted to focus on blackness and then Twerkable Moments kind of blurs the line a little bit – you get both. But then I wrote goodboi, and Year of the Unicorn Kidz. Year of the Unicorn Kidz used to be both – it was a mixture of both. And I pulled everything out of it that was black because I was thinking, “I’m doing way too much. There’s too many themes.” And then I wrote my thesis, which is hyper, super black, speculative poetry that who knows if it’ll ever come out, but that was completely black. And then I started writing another thing that’s completely queer. And I’m working more on trying to blur that line and allowing both to be in there. I know MARS Marshall’s Flower Boi is a perfect example of blurring that line. For me, it’s on the level of The Tradition by Jericho Brown. I just had not mastered it yet. So the reason that it’s like that is because I personally did it so poorly in 2016 that I’ve scared myself off from doing it ever again.
MN: That makes my heart hurt. I am thinking about how exciting your Alvin Baltrop poems are and how I sense that through his photography you’re getting closer to yourself in a way.
JC: I do feel that way. I’m not the narrator of most of my poems, like I said earlier, including these. There are four Self Portrait poems that are after pictures of Alvin that he took. In each one of those I get to kind of have a conversation with Alvin versus telling what the story is. I get to sit down with a black queer man in his twenties and thirties, who experienced this almost like, gay utopia, and say, “Teach me how you did this and how you survived it for as long as you did with everything that was up against you.” At that moment, I almost feel like I am having a full conversation with this person. So, yeah, I feel like that is the most “me” I’ve ever been.
TP: I wouldn’t have thought that you would say that you haven’t made that connection in your poems previously. And it’s an interesting observation when I think about Summertime Fine, because it certainly didn’t have a queer narrative. And then to hear you say that you don’t feel like you’ve accomplished that merge between the topics. In one sense, I would disagree because I think you’ve written a black and a queer poem, and it feels intertwined as one. I’ve never really thought about a line that would separate them.
JC: I think the best I’ve done at that would have been the “The High Fashion Gala Says I Cannot Twerk Here”, which feels like rebelling against white gays. And I think outside of that, I’ll maybe drop a line or two where it’s like,”Oh, also I’m queer.” That’s basically at most what I do. There’s “Unicorn Kidz Dance Under The Moonlight, Too”. There are poems that I have successfully done it. Yes. But I feel like as a full narrative, as a full collection, I won’t allow myself to fully dive in and say, “This is both black and queer.” It’s like one with a little sprinkle of another. And I really would love to figure out how to do it in a way that feels good to me.
MN: Could you speak to the role community plays in your writing?
JC: I owe everything to Lannie Stabile. Everything. We went to college together. We were both in the creative writing program and I hit her up and said, “Hey, I’m doing this pride thing for Ann Arbor. Do you want to come read some poems?” She hadn’t been writing. I hadn’t been writing. She said, yes, and we did it. I think we did it maybe three years in a row. In 2018, we sat down and decided to start writing together too. We went to our first ever open mic and we met Eric Sirota, who is a good friend of ours as well, and a slam poet. Those people made me want to write. Sometimes, Lannie would not let me leave a writing session without submitting a poem. She’d ask “Did you submit today?” “No.” “Did you submit yesterday?” “No.” “You’re going to submit right now. Let’s put together a pack of the poems. I’ll look them over, we’ll edit them, and we’re going to submit them right now.”
I wouldn’t be here if that community wasn’t so open.
And then there are people like Taylor [Byas], who is literally like my little sister. She drove across the country with me to look at this apartment. I picked her up from Michigan, I went down to Cincinnati and then drove all the way to New York. She did the first edits for my book.
MN: You and Taylor connected through Twitter?
JC: Yeah. She was in a magazine that I was in, but she was in a later issue. She reached out and said, “I love your poem. I loved it. It was great.” I was like, “Oh, your poem is on there now too!” And we have been best friends since. I’m really grateful for those interactions and the community that I have.
[Friends] offer to edit my poems and in turn, I help edit their poems. But also, it doesn’t have to be about poems. I talked to Sofia Fey today, and it wasn’t about poems. We talked about life and love and being sad because sometimes you need that, too. So, yeah, community is everything,
MN: Congratulations on finishing your MFA. Do you feel you work best in a structured setting or are you excited to have more space and time to explore?
JC: I think I did some of my best work outside of the classroom.
I think when I write something and I’m like, “Oh, that’s the last poem I’ll ever write. I have nothing else. I’m empty” I have to remind myself that it’ll come back. It’s not the structure that I need. It’s not the environment or the class or for someone to tell me I have to write a poem. I just have to let myself gather information. Even when I’m outside, just walking – that’s writing for me. Sitting in a cafe and talking with friends, that’s writing for me. I just have to remind myself of that sometimes.
TP: Do you have any rituals when you want to write poems but don’t feel driven to?
JC: I’m very lucky in the sense that I’ve never had to do that for poetry. I have a rule that I write the poems as I write the poems. Probably since 2020, I’ve not been like, “Okay, I have to have four poems by next Friday. So let me write them down.” Those aren’t the poems I want to write. Those are the poems I’m forcing myself to write. Poetry is my main craft so I let it work with me. I’m a strong believer that the poem knows more than I do, and because of that, I cannot try to force it to be written. It’ll be written when it’s ready to be written.
MN: Do you revisit your past work?
JC: I read Summertime Fine a couple of months ago.That was the first time I really sat down and looked at the book and evaluated the book since maybe 2021. I haven’t really opened Year of the Unicorn Kidz in 2023, outside of a reading. I do look at poems online like when I’m updating my website.
I can’t write what I’m writing now; I can’t write what I wrote for my thesis; I can’t write anything – if I didn’t write Summertime Fine. Those poems gave me something that I didn’t have before, and I needed to get those poems out, and out of the way, to lead to where I am.
MN: If I’m lucky I might look at an older poem of mine and think “If I wrote this poem today, I’d be happy with it.” Do you feel connected to your older poems? Does it feel that you wrote them?
JC: I think I have edits. I have strong edits, even in Year of the Unicorn Kidz. I do feel connected to them. I do feel like those poems are important. Those are pieces of me.
MN: Could share some advice to newer writers?
JC: Rejection is really not the end of the world. You don’t know who’s reading, what mood they’re in that day, what they’re looking for. You cannot hang yourself up on a single rejection or even a string of rejections. They hurt sometimes, but they get easier if you just understand that it’s just part of the game. Allow yourself to get rejected. And once they get rejected, don’t just throw them back out there, but look at them and see where maybe you’re missing something.
Try to build a community. Go to open mics, go to readings. Talk to people that aren’t just the feature. Make friends that will stand the test of time.
Read as many books as you can and it doesn’t mean you have to buy every book. It means get a library card, if you can, and go to the library and work your way back. So if you’re a black trans kid like me, buy some Danez [Smith] or some Taylor Johnson or something like that and try to engulf yourself in that. And from there, maybe move back to Audre Lorde or move back to Lucille Clifton. And from there, move back to Robert Hayden. And from there, move back. And then at some point, you’re going to be reading something like Frank O’Hara. And I can tell you ten years ago, I would have never read Frank O’Hara because I didn’t understand it. But because I’ve taken what I’ve learned and worked backwards, I’m able to pick apart what’s happening with cadence and with metaphor.
Take notes and refer back to them. Ask yourself, why this happened and how it made you feel and try to mimic it. All these things will help you be a better poet.
MN: Your Twitter bio says “Transdad” and I wanted to ask you about that. When I think of parenting I think of passing on what one’s learned – a desire to share, encourage, and model. I also think about leadership and a willingness to take on responsibility. This reminds me of a previous interview where you said as a child you wanted to grow up to be an R&B singer or basketball player, which to me are performers, yes, but also leaders. You seem very much like a leader to me and I am wondering what if any plans you have around teaching or leading in that sort of way?
JC: So when I was growing up, I wanted to be a basketball player or an R&B singer. This is true. My father said that that was not a viable income source and I had to pick something else. So to him, I said I wanted to be a teacher.
I’ve had a very lucky, blessed life of getting to do things that most kids don’t. I went to a K-12 school and I was on the basketball team and I was valedictorian. Because of that my high school knew I was doing the right thing and I got to work with the kindergartners, first graders and the second graders in their classroom because I was already ahead of all the other students. In the second half of my junior year, I had no classes. I just worked in an elementary school full time. I pulled kids out of classes and I got to work with them. So it really did put me on this path. I went to college to be an elementary ed major. I took all the classes. I worked in schools for a little bit.
There was this switch halfway through when I was like, “I’m doing this because I told my dad I would do it.” And yes, I love children, but truthfully, I wanted to do something else. So I moved over to the creative writing side.
I’m non-binary. I’m on the trans spectrum. There are so many people that once they come out as queer or once they come out as non binary trans, their parents disown them. Sofia Fey and I have this co-parenting thing we do for a lot of queer youth, where we say, “If you just need a person to tell you that you truly matter and they’re are proud of you, we’ll do it and we’ll mean it” I’m not doing it because you’re going to give me anything – I don’t need anything. I just want you to know that you matter.
And I have been thinking about teaching and courses and things like that. And I would love to do something in a nonprofit sector for younger kids or for people trying to learn how to do what I do, with poetry. But ultimately, my legacy is just making sure people know that they matter.
jason b. crawford (They/He/She) is a writer born in Washington DC, raised in Lansing, MI. Their debut Full-Length Year of the Unicorn Kidz is out from Sundress Publications. crawford holds a Bachelor of Science in Creative Writing from Eastern Michigan University. They are a 2023 Lambda Literary Emerging LGBTQ Voices fellow. They are the winner of the Courtney Valentine Prize for Outstanding Work by a Millennial Artist, the winner of the Rhino’s Founders Prize, and a finalist for the Frontier’s Open prize. crawford was a finalist for the Tom Howard/Margaret Reid 2021 and 2022 Poetry Contest. Their work can be found or is forthcoming in POETRY Magazine, AGNI Magazine, Foglifter Magazine, RHINO Poetry, Four Way Review, Cincinnati Review, Frontier Magazine, Beloit Poetry Journal, among others. They hold an MFA in poetry from The New School.
Megan Nichols is the Associate Managing Editor of Poetry for Variant Literature.
Tyler Pufpaff is Founder and Editor in Chief of Variant Literature.
© Variant Literature Inc 2023