As a writer of memoir and essays, my personal practice of finding creative fuel to “do the work” is often through exercise and in large part due to the playlist. I workout to music from the early 2000s, some late ‘90s pop, and what my car radio has annoyingly labeled “urban.” I do this because it makes my younger self feel within reach. It transports me to different versions of myself that once existed, and the different versions I’ve witnessed of other people in my life. Each song is a fragment of my life’s soundtrack: the song I listened to when I decided when to leave a lover, and when to marry another; the song that played at my first dance recital, and the one that I labored to in the bathtub.
After reading Marisa Crawford’s latest poetry collection, Diary (Spuyten Duyvil, 2023), it was obvious that music also served her work as a type of portal. Her multifaceted professional life as a poet, writer, editor, and podcast host is made up of questioning cultural norms and exploring how various forms of media have informed our personal narratives. Crawford’s poetry gave new form and potential to what personal narrative is and can be, and it had an impact on me that felt as familiar as Brandon Boyd’s voice in a dark room. Her prose felt conversational and relational, like re-visiting a song I once knew all the lyrics to. Diary gave me a coming-of-age vibe that felt more truthful in that it never really ends. It’s an ongoing, fragmented evolution.
I spoke with Crawford about the importance of a writing community, pushing the boundaries of genre, following our intuition, and how vulnerability from female writers has long deserved more literary merit in our culture.
Ashley Rubell: Scattered among many of your poems in this collection, you often refer to your cubicle, and I found myself interpreting that space as more of an adjective to describe the female existence. Could you tell me about your day job? You mentioned in your outreach that this was written in the tiny gaps of everyday life, on walks, and on work breaks.
Marisa Crawford: Oh, I love that. The speaker in the book is working at a corporate job as a copywriter, and that’s something that I’ve also done for the last decade or so. The poems are a lot about navigating that space,finding time to be a writer while also being someone who thinks critically about consumerism and being in a corporate space and those gaps where you can find time to write.
These poems feel a lot looser and more open than a lot of my earlier writing because I kind of wanted to make space for the poetics of having a day job that sucks up all your time and energy. I did write a lot of these poems on my lunch break, walking around in Manhattan, so there’s that feeling of stealing away time, when and where you can get it.
AR: You’re both a published poet and editor, have edited an anthology of essays before, and co-edited another. I’m curious to hear a little bit about the differences between writing and editing a project.
MC: My background is in poetry and I’ve published two books of poetry, a couple chapbooks, and in 2021 I co-edited an Anthology of Writing and Visual Art about the Babysitters Club with Megan Milks. Now I’m working on an anthology of writing from the blog that I founded called Weird Sister, a literary and feminist pop culture blog that I founded in 2014, coming out next year with feminist press.
The last few years I have been really focused on a lot of editing work and it’s definitely a different brain. I enjoy both roles. I really enjoy curating and being able to work with writers, but it’s a totally different headspace than working in poetry. I finished the manuscript for Diary in 2018 or 2019, so it’s weird how [these poems] can feel old already once it’s coming out into the world.
I feel like editing and writing are two complimentary pieces and I really enjoy both of them.
AR: I write more essays, and I find myself editing a lot as I go, which can be debilitating at times. Does that happen to you while writing poetry?
MC: It definitely happens to me with essays, I’ll edit myself as I’m going. I remember a professor I had in grad school talking about this concept of being a bleeder as you write. And the single best advice I ever got on nonfiction writing was from a friend in college who said, just write for length. So now I try to just get something out on the page, then go back and revise it later. That’s my approach with essay writing or nonfiction writing of my own, but with poetry, it’s a different process. It’s a little more intuitive for me.
The poems in Diary are made up of a lot of fragments. I would think of a line while on my lunch break and write it down on my phone in the Notes app, and I kept doing that and eventually put them together to make a poem. For me, poetry is always about a feeling. I’ll write lines down, and then piece it all together later. It’s more intuitive.
AR: That fragmentation felt so intentional. I loved all the lyrical references. They were huge contributors to the nostalgic feeling I got from reading this book. The influence of music brought a lot of humor to the heaviness of growth and its accompanying contemplations.
MC: Yeah, I write a lot about music, particularly music I grew up on, nineties music and older. For me, a lot of it is thinking through the relationship between my past selves to those lyrics and then thinking about them now. I actually have a nineties music podcast that I do with a friend— we’re both poets— and we overanalyze the stupid nineties lyrics that we thought were so deep when we were kids, some of which holds up and some of which doesn’t.
Music was such a huge part of my life, growing up especially, and it’s interesting to look back on [some of the lyrics] and think, especially as a woman and a feminist, what was I listening to??
AR: And what does it mean if I know it’s not “good” but I’m still listening to it?
MC: Yeah, to be drawn to that! I think a lot of my writing is about the things that were such big impacts on us growing up —the songs, movies, music, fashion, tv— and looking at it through a new lens, through a love for the past and your previous self, but also with a curiosity about what it actually taught me about the world, what I got from it, how that has influenced me. Some of it is weird and problematic.
AR: Yeah, it’s like reckoning with our cultural grooming, being a product of this particular type of upbringing at a particular point in time. So much of that can feel beyond one’s own will, and that felt like a big conflict for the narrator, as I was reading it. That line where she references the computer as an extension cord of herself, really struck a chord with me. It was as if she was untangling some metaphorical phone cord of subliminal messaging that was never so subliminal after all, but had dictated her entire existence. Was there a specific internal conflict that you were writing your way through with this collection?
MC: That’s a great question. I’m not sure if there’s one main conflict. Thinking more about music brings me to this idea of the confessional and talking about life, what’s personal. That was definitely something I was thinking about a lot as I was writing these poems. Growing up I listened to Alanis Morissette. I have a poem named after one of her songs in the book. She was this artist in the nineties who was very dismissed for having these really personal, raw, emotional songs. I think, in our culture in general, women’s writing that is personal and emotional and vulnerable is often dismissed and specifically dismissed as, oh, these are just diary entries.
AR: I wondered about that, having read your essay about this in Electric Lit, if that thought process is what influenced the title of this collection.
MC: Totally. It’s such a sexist thing to say. [Take] Frank O’Hara —who’s one of my favorite poets0151 no one’s ever called him “confessional”. He’s lauded for being literary and his commentary on his personal experiences are seen as reflections on the state of the world. That is how men’s writing is more often experienced. I kind of wanted to almost push writing in a way, writing about everyday life and seeing how to push and play with that idea of the confessional and personal. To just allow my writing to be less polished against this idea that women have to be very polished, or chill or cool, not showing too much emotion. I think that that’s one of the main tensions of the book. The title is a nod to that idea, and to taking the so-called confessional to its most extreme.
AR: I noticed a lot of these poems had earlier drafts that had been previously published. I think the biggest tension I’m working through in my own writing is how to know when a piece is done and when to let it go. I get caught up in not knowing if an essay is freestanding, or a part of a bigger body of work. How do you know when a poem is finished?
MC: Oh, man. I know it’s so hard. I definitely struggle with that a lot, especially with nonfiction writing. I’m still trying to figure it out. I am somebody who has historically edited and revised poems a lot. I don’t know when they’re done. In a way it’s almost like you just have to put it out there. Did you ever see that tweet that was like, Go through life with the confidence of a 25 year old man with a Scarface poster framed on his wall?
The desire to keep revising is a feeling. I always want to make things better and nothing’s ever good enough. But sometimes I get in my own way by doing that. Send it out. Let other people be the judge. See what other people feel. Once we work on our writing for so long, it’s like you can’t even see straight, you can’t even tell what you’re looking at in a way.
I published different versions of these poems and played around with the last section of my book [where] there’s a bunch of poems titled “Diary,” and they’re all made up of fragments that went together. I wasn’t sure if it would be one long poem, like what you’re talking about, or if they were pieces in a serial poem. It’s hard. I feel like it could have different iterations and I just had to choose something and see how it felt, and show it to other people. Having a writing group or people who read your work is so important because it can get you out of that headspace of overthinking and get a fresh set of eyes on it. It’s intuitive, [knowing when it] feels right, and then trying it out.
AR: When did you begin to see all of these poems as a part of one singular collection?
MC: Well, there’s three sections. The middle section is called “Big Brown Bag.” It was [originally] published by Gazing Grain in 2015 as a chapbook. The diary poems are more of these long fragments [at the end] and then the beginning section has more cohesive, individual poems. I started thinking of it as a collection because it felt like they were all doing a similar thing— a conversation I was having with myself, looking around for something. They shared a mindset and I felt like they belonged together. My first two books were poems about being a teenager,girlhood, and childhood. These [Diary] poems felt different, more in the present moment, and in conversation with each other. And then I workshopped it with a writing group and they gave me feedback about some of the ordering questions I had, so that helped me figure out the structure.
AR: Hearing you talk about this conversation with past versions of yourself has me thinking about memory which is a core interrogation for so many memoirists. It’s making me realize I’ve always categorized poetry as a form of nonfiction in my mind. I’m wondering if you do too, or if it feels closer to auto-fiction to you? Or something else?
MC: The speaker or voice of these poems isn’t necessarily me, so in that way they are fiction. But some of the speaker’s experiences mirror my own if that makes sense. These poems are interested in messing with pushing the boundary of our assumptions that a woman writing personal and everyday details is diaristic or a purge of emotion rather than a crafted piece of art, and therefore not worthy of being seen as literary or taken seriously.
AR: I have a curiosity around publishing decisions and how it ties into our approach to writing. It feels so woven into the fabric of craft and that murky area between profitability and sustainability. Was going with a small press intentional? What are some of the biggest perks in that decision?
MC: Yeah, it’s interesting. I mean, being a poet is such a different experience. I think that many poets have such a different experience thinking about publishing than fiction or even nonfiction writers have because the poetry world is so small and insular. It’s rare to have an audience for poetry that’s beyond poets. I think of the poetry world as sustained by poets publishing each other, reading each other’s work, writing about each other’s work, and that there’s not a lot of money that happens in that world. That’s been my experience with poetry. It’s more about the community. I’ve worked with bigger presses for the books I’ve edited because there’s a different kind of audience for those books.
I do like working with small presses. It’s inspiring. Spuyten Duyvil, the press that I’m working with for this book, has been around since the eighties. They are independently publishing all this cool poetry and experimental writing, experimental fiction. It’s such a labor of love, all of it. That is what’s positive about it. Being a writer is hard in terms of sustainability. There’s definitely a privilege in some ways to being able to do work that you don’t often get paid for. That’s what’s challenging about being a writer, having a day job, and having to figure out that balance —I don’t know what the answer is.
AR: On page 49, one of the lines that you wrote was, “Somebody told me, memory is a tire. Change it. Go from there.” This had me thinking about the advice in Cheryl Strayed’s newsletter —she often asks her interviewees to tell her “about a time when you took advice that turned out to be really good or really bad.” How would you answer that?
MC: I worked a jewelry stand after college, and a woman I knew who came by told me that I COULD be a person who wears dangly earrings when I said that I didn’t wear them: I found this advice very freeing, and kind of profound. Like, letting go of these fixed ideas of who we are and what we need to do that aren’t really serving us and getting out of our own way. I wore giant chandelier earrings that whole summer.
Marisa Crawford is the author of the poetry collections The Haunted House, Reversible, and, most recently, DIARY (Spuyten Duyvil, 2023). She is the editor of The Weird Sister Collection (Feminist Press, forthcoming 2024), and co-editor, with Megan Milks, of We Are The Baby-Sitters Club: Essays & Artwork from Grown-Up Readers. Marisa is co-host of the ’90s rock podcast All Our Pretty Songs. She lives in New York.