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Sublime swagger

A conversation with a pure poet, Crystal Williams

MT illustration: Courtney Wilcox
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Published 3/29/2006

At its worst, the term "performance poetry" reeks of bad coffee and equally gritty verse. Too many performance poets write sentimentally overcharged abstractions about jazz, anarchy and the agonies of being culturally maligned, and unfortunately the sight of gesticulating hands can too easily seduce the listener into believing that the work is actually pretty good, or, at least, not so god-awful.

But there are some who rise above the limitations outlined above, who take the best elements of performance — the velocity, the swagger, the attitude — and transport the reader into the sublime realm of the poem. Crystal Williams, a former Detroiter who lives in Chicago, is one such poet. The author of Kin and Lunatic (both from Michigan State University Press) visits this week to give a reading and conduct a workshop with Citywide Poets, a group of Detroit high school students from the InsideOut Literary Arts Project.

Metro Times: There's a musicality about your poetry that sings off the page. When you compose, do you sometimes speak the poems before putting words down on paper?

Crystal Williams: Most often, I "hear" a poem, eyes closed, typing as I'm speaking (or chanting, if you really get down to it). Sometimes, in the early stages of a poem, I'll hear a line before knowing what language to affix to it.

MT: It's certainly strange how some scrap of language, said over and over, can take on the power of a mantra.

Williams: I think of repetition and chant as a way of identifying "feeling," and a landmark, a place I use to guide me to the appropriate terrain. In this way, music and repetition and sound tell us everything we need to know.

MT: Speak a bit about the epigraph you cite — Gwendolyn Brooks' poem "A Song in the Front Yard," which reads "I want to peek at the back/Where it's rough and untended and hungry weed grows."

Williams: That epigraph reflects my hope to move beyond topical emotional investigations, to get behind the action or moment and unveil the "why" of that moment. The yard is a metaphor for the human psyche. The front yard: our public face, the backyard our private and secret faces.

MT: Philip Levine, Detroit's self-exiled poet laureate, left the city, his birthplace, with bitterness in his mouth. He's built a body of enduring work out of his Detroit years, what he refers to in one of his poems as his "years of growth." What are your feelings about how the city has influenced you?

Williams: Addressing Detroit is such a difficult topic. I have tried to write a Detroit poem to no avail, but there are things that deeply impacted my understanding. I learned from my father, who worked for Ford for 30-some years, that one can have a job and not be a job. He was a jazz pianist and his milestones happened around who he was, not what he did.

I learned about power. Growing up here was largely like what most of the world must feel to white folks. Of course, I didn't know until I left and saw the world in very different terms. In Detroit, the main post office rocks the O'Jays. This is unheard of. Can you imagine going to a post office in New York and hearing Rufus over the loud speakers? So, no, I'm not like Phil Levine; I have sweetness in my mouth when it comes to Detroit. And still, there are things about my city that deeply, deeply upset and disappoint me. Not bitterness, maybe bittersweetness.

MT: What do you like to say to the young poets you speak to?

Williams: It can be done, but should not be done because we seek fame or fortune, but because we want to be of service. That's not to say that aspiring writers have to write political or socially conscious poems, but we must promote something we deeply believe. For me, that is forgiveness, responsibility and love. For others, it might be the promulgation of beauty. For still others, and there is some of me here too, it's to be as Baldwin wrote, and here I'm paraphrasing, "a witness, to write it all down."


Crystal Williams reads with four members of Citywide Poets troupe at 7 p.m., Friday, March 31, in the cafe of the Detroit Opera House, 1526 Broadway, Detroit; 313-965-4052.

Peter Markus is author of The Singing Fish and a poet-in-resident of the InsideOut Literary Arts Program. Send comments to

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