Books In Conversation
LAURA CRONK with Justin Sherwood
“To write, I need to feel like I'm hiding, like I'm completely invisible.”
(Persea Books, 2020)
Laura Cronk is the author of two books of poems, Ghost Hour and Having Been an Accomplice, both from Persea Books. She is the chair of undergraduate writing at The New School in New York City where she teaches and coordinates programs for writers such as the Riggio Honors Program, Writing and Democracy. Originally from Indiana, she currently lives with her family in New Jersey.
I first met Laura Cronk when I was a poetry student at The New School; she hired me for a teaching assistant position, and then as an office assistant. I would go on to become colleagues with Cronk at The New School for nearly a decade, and I’m proud to call her a friend.
As I prepared to speak with Cronk for this interview, and to read her new book Ghost Hour, I told myself to be careful, when reading, not to over-identify. Cronk and I share certain things in common: our aforementioned years as colleagues; that we are poets; that we were raised in neighboring states in the Midwest before fleeing to New York City for poetry, and then landing in New Jersey for family. What else we have in common is harder to describe: an ethic of care; a preference to host rather than to be hosted; a respectful fear of interior design. Identifying with a poet on the page can be good, and enjoyable, but it can also cause the reader to be uncareful, to miss details, to miss difference. I wanted to locate difference.
As I began to read Ghost Hour, taking pains to not over-identify with the poet on the page, who is and isn’t Cronk, I was thwarted at every turn. The book turns out to be, in large part, about the pull of identification. In the two poems called “Ancestry” (the second of which is published below), and more obliquely in other poems, Cronk considers her multiple identities, and how they position her in the world—as a poet, a mother, a white woman. And she considers the identities and legacies of her ancestors—the Appalachian clockmaker, the German Catholic, the Ku Klux Klan member—legacies to which she does and does not belong.
When I asked Cronk if she saw Ghost Hour as being about identification, or disidentification, she replied that for her it is more about complicity. I think complicity could be described as the guilty side of identification. By refusing to disidentify with one’s ancestry, or one’s race, one can contend with legacies that must be confronted lest they be continued. Or, as James Baldwin more succinctly put it, “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
Justin Sherwood (Rail): I don't think Ghost Hour would have me thinking about politics overtly—national politics, US politics—in the same way that your previous book, Having Been an Accomplice, does. But just as I began to prepare for this interview, there was a siege on the US Capitol. And so I’m thinking about national politics, and of your first book.
As I understand it, the poems in Having Been An Accomplice were written during the George W. Bush administration, and the book came out in 2011, early in the Obama era. The title section of the book is centered on a person who’s trying to grapple with her complicity with Bush as an American citizen, how she might as well be the President's handmaiden, or as you titled one poem, "The President's Companion," to live so comfortably in this country. I’m not sure how many people were thinking that way during the Bush era, but I know many people are feeling that way now, under Trump. Having said all that, I’d love to hear how you think about Ghost Hour as a departure from Having Been An Accomplice, especially as the books’ publications bookend such radically different epochs.
Laura Cronk: The title section of Having Been an Accomplice came out of this feeling of profound powerlessness that I had when the Iraq War was beginning. As citizens we’re responsible for our government, for the unjust wars begun in our name. But we also have to reconcile that responsibility with the limits of our own practical power. Voting didn’t stop the war. Marching didn’t stop the war. I remember the poet Marie Ponsot, who wore a large button every single day that said, “Against the War,” and then “Still Against the War.” She wore these buttons for almost 20 years, until she died. She saw clearly what power she had—to keep this war in the consciousness of every person she encountered. I was also trying to think of what I could do with what I had. That was how the character of the mistress of the president came about. I spent a lot of time trying to get into George Bush's head, to accompany him and exert psychic pressure. But I also wanted to wrestle with the connections that I shared with him as an American citizen.
With Trump, I can't touch it directly. I can't write about him. He's just too toxic; trying to approach his psyche would mean entering a malignant void. I still vote and march and take political action, but I can’t let him into my poetry. It's a measure of self-preservation. There are writers who are doing really great work in this vein. Leah Umansky, who is a friend, has a whole manuscript dealing with a Trump-like figure called Of Tyrant. But I can’t.
I let the poems in this book come, mostly, out of my life. They have less invention around them. That’s not to say that everything in the book is autobiographical, but I was less interested in a conceit as a way in.
Rail: One thing that strikes me as a sort of through line between your two books is that I feel the poet—Laura Cronk, writer, speaker—very present on the page. I’m able to pinpoint that feeling most exactly in the poem from your first collection, “I Have Humbled Myself beneath the Night Sky.” You write, “I have walked penance (lie), run penance (lie), worked slowly at a desk toward penance (big lie), chopped vegetables for stew in penance.” Why do you not edit those moments of ambivalence away, the way another poet might?
Cronk: The ambivalence, and questions, are the whole point. If I edited that out, it would just sound sure. The point is to share that questioning, to reach that kind of intimacy.
Rail: In Ghost Hour, you mobilize the language of the supernatural. You consider things like witchcraft, hauntings, vapors, inhabitations. As I spent time with the book, I began to see that as another way of talking about legacy and identification. Do you see identification as something this book is after?
Cronk: I think the first section is, definitely. It's wrestling with origins and ancestry. And the question of complicity, I'm interested in wrestling with that, too, the way that it is tied up in identity. Maybe less explicitly in the third section of the book. About the witchiness of some of the language, one side of my family is very interested in the supernatural, and so that was bound to come up as I thought about where I’m from and what formed my identity.
Rail: How do you understand complicity as it relates to identification?
Cronk: I was trying to think of the connections between the two in a couple of these poems, and in many of the poems I think I wanted to let those themes be in the air.
Rail: It occurs to me now that maybe complicity is one side on the spectrum of identification. Complicity is on the guilty side. And then there's another element, on the other side, that would be like radical acceptance.
Cronk: Right. In the poem “As Made” I wanted to challenge myself to think about the ways I was upholding oppressive values in the world I was in at the time. I wanted to interrogate that. I wasn’t aware of it, but I think I was also working toward a radical acceptance of that story.
Rail: “As Made” is a long poem, an elegy. It describes a young woman and a young man who meet through the theater in their community. They both have religious backgrounds. They eventually become what you call “the chastest boyfriend/girlfriend.” The poem moves through time, through the evolution of their relationship, and through their evolving understandings of themselves. The young man starts to come into a queer identity. As you’re narrating this in the poem, you pause to ask, “Is it a kind of queerness, / loving someone queer?” You stay present on the page, in the moment that you’re writing, and you answer, “No. But what is it?” What is it to love someone queer, Laura? Is it a kind of queerness?
Cronk: I guess I think it is. But I was aware that that was a “wrong” thing to say. I almost took that out.
Rail: I'm so glad that you didn’t. I think that's such a crucial pivot in the poem. I love both that you ask the question, and that you answer it. And I love that I don't believe you when you say “no.” Can you tell me more about constructing this poem?
Cronk: I’m glad that you didn’t believe it. Well, this started as an essay. I had recently read Brenda Shaughnessy’s masterpiece of a poem “Is There Something I Should Know?” which is about being an adolescent girl, and the realization that becoming a young woman means irrevocably entering rape culture. I realized I had never written about adolescence, and in particular the most formative relationship I had, my first love, who happened to be gay. I wanted this piece to be an essay, because I wanted it to have a wider audience. I have a strong proselytizing impulse and I have to check myself regularly. I wanted to use our story, which I experienced as an intense, sweeping, tragic but beautiful love story, to reach people with conservative religious beliefs, or what they might consider protective attitudes, and convince them to accept and celebrate their queer children. But that’s a prime example of the ways that proselytizing is problematic—there’s something grandiose and condescending and limited about it, and I’m glad that I accepted that this was a poem. I know I was actually able to honor our story more fully in a poem. I’m grateful to my dear friend Michael Dudley who gave me his blessing to explore it.
Rail: Another gesture you make in the poem is to pause and ask, “Am I getting any of this right?” I felt that in the moment of writing, you're asking this to this friend, but you're also asking it of yourself, and you're asking it to the reader. There’s a kind of queerness in that gesture, keeping that question open.
In “Ancestry,” the first poem in the collection, you consider the different ancestors who comprise your lineage, and their possible influence in shaping you as a person. You confess in the opening line, “I never know who is looking / out from my eyes: Sadistic German / Catholic or silent Appalachian Clockmaker.” Are these real folks in your family line?
Cronk: The impulse to write this poem came when I had a feeling of possession. I was with my daughter and two neighbor boys. One was having a meltdown, and something escaped my mouth—it was not me. I said something, a phrase, that was not a phrase I had ever said before—I can't remember what it is now, but it really felt like it was some ancestor speaking through me. I think many of us have had similar experiences. But it stopped both me and the kids cold. I began to think, who else is in there? Everyone I mention in the poem is an actual family member, someone I either knew or heard stories about. I’m interested in the multitudes each of us carry with us—what we carry in our DNA and in our unconscious minds.
Rail: There are moments in the book where the question of lineage becomes more complicated. One of those moments is in the poem “White,” where you consider your position in the world as white person. You attribute catastrophe and environmental destruction to the existence and proclivities of white people—I think fairly—and the poem ends with the figure of the sun addressing white people directly: “I see you / each and every white / one of you. I see you— / cancerous, half-blind, white.” How did you arrive at this poem, and to what extent does it reflect your real grappling with your racial identity?
Cronk: I think it does reflect my grappling with whiteness, and it was written maybe six years ago. The seed of it was this memory of when my daughter was born—being dazzled by how totally unique she was from the instant that she was in my arms, but also the idea of her in a nursery of babies—her sameness, and her primary identifier, her whiteness. I wrote the poem to try to break into that memory. And then Mayakovsky kind of bubbled up at the end of the poem.
Rail: I like the moment early in the poem where you write, “Writing it I'm not less white.” Which I thought was a way of indicating that, to the question of complicity, “I am not only writing this to acknowledge that I know that I'm white, and to perform that knowledge for you, dear reader," which I think is an easy trap to fall into. I appreciated your willingness to acknowledge, even in the space of the poem, that it isn't enough to be writing the poem, but you're doing it anyway.
Cronk: This is a poem I wondered about taking out of the book.
Rail: You would have taken out so much good stuff! I'm glad you didn't listen to your instincts.
Later in the book, in another poem called “Ancestry,” a person considers the racism that is possibly, maybe even probably, in their family’s history. You shift into the conditional in that poem, using “if” in a way that keeps the question open. There's identification and disidentification at the same time: this is my family, and this isn't my family. You write, “If my grandfather, / the kind one, the gentle one, / if he marched, if he didn't / disagree.” There are all of these levels at which he could have been complicit—actually marching in these racist displays, or just quietly going along. You seem to know that it's possible, but maybe on some level you don't want to know what the answer is?
Cronk: What I was trying to do with the conditional construction was to ask a question about responsibility. If these things are true, what is my responsibility? I can see now that the conditional could also be a kind of evasion. All of the details in this poem are true. I don’t want these details of my family history to be true, but they are. I did some research about the KKK in Indiana in the 1920s and I learned that 30% of the adult men in my hometown were members. That means, thinking of statistical probability, close to 100% of the teenagers sitting in my high school civics class also had at least one great grandfather who was a member of the KKK. What we read in our textbooks about the equality of all people was disregarded in our lives at home constantly—in jokes, in warnings that were supposed to keep us safe but actually just made us ignorant, and in the lack of representation of anything except whiteness everywhere we looked.
The cultural changes that the Klan sought to enact in the 1920s were successful in so many ways. Their mission is still being carried out, often unwittingly, but also often very consciously. It’s been on horrible display this past week [with the storming of the US Capitol]. Donald Trump’s father was arrested for being a part of a violent KKK rally in 1927. That Trump’s father was an active member of the Ku Klux Klan points to one way that he’s an absolutely average white American. So I’ve been working off-and-on on an essay about all of this, and I wrote this poem from material in the essay. I felt that if I was including poems about origins, I had a responsibility to include something about this. I also happened to be reading Jericho Brown’s book The Tradition as I was trying to find a way to get some of this material from the essay into the form of a poem. One of his poems uses this conditional construction and I realized that this structure could be a way into the language that could help me transition from prose to poetry.
Rail: Ghost Hour had me thinking a lot about identification vs. disidentification. Allowing yourself to say, Yes, I am one of these people. Or the converse, I am not one of these people, and I want to name it so that I can disavow it. I started to wonder, what would it mean to be a white person and to actually disidentify with whiteness? Would that be possible? In psychology, disidentification is when a person belongs to a group that they do not wish to belong to, and disidentification can happen when a person sees belonging to that identity as a threat to the self. Do you see whiteness as a threat?
Cronk: I do see whiteness, as it is shaped by white supremacy, as a threat. It is a certain degree of threat to me, perhaps a spiritual threat, but it’s a much graver, existential, physical threat to people of color. Trying to disidentify seems like a serious cop out, and I wonder if I unwittingly have that impulse. Even though my religious education was pretty spotty, the Catholic concepts of confession and atonement are lodged in my psyche and I know they inform my poetry. I’m not consciously interested in absolution, though there might be an unconscious desire there. I think what I’m working toward in my poems is reaching a kind of communion, a kind of community, a community of sinners. Confessing to them. Just being with them. Being together in the work for atonement that will maybe never arrive. Though logically I really dislike the idea of sin, it’s another concept I can’t shake. And I appreciate the definition of the sinner as being synonymous with being human. Perfection isn’t possible and our imperfection only increases our responsibility to examine and try to repair what we’ve done and what we’ve been a part of.
Your question makes me even more aware that when we write, we accept that a reader may see what we’re expressing unconsciously in our writing. That has always been a part of my fear around writing and maybe every writer feels this way. What am I getting wrong? How am I being selfish and self-protective? That fear is what makes me want to edit out the risk and the exploration. But if this personal history is true, if this cultural history is true, then what? I’m thinking a lot about it, and for me, so far, the then what has to do with confession and atonement. I want to address these aspects of my identity in spite of the shame and inadequacy that emerge in the process.
Rail: The third section of Ghost Hour contains some of what your friends know as the notorious “Jersey City poems.” This was a series you were writing while living there, and they were not happy poems. This could be my memory failing, but I remember the poems as angrier. I don't know if it's because of how they land in the book, because they're recontextualized, but can you talk about the evolution of these poems?
Cronk: I divorced these poems from that series and reworked them in the last section of the book because I was trying to think more allegorically about these poems, or that time. I had a couple of poems that I'd written during a bout of writer's block that I wrote by pulling tarot cards and writing poems in response to the cards. I ended up finding some tarot language and applying it to some of the Jersey City poems to enlarge them a little bit, to help them not be so myopic. I also wanted to stretch out the way they were grappling with some of the complexities and difficulties of adulthood. I’m from a very rural place, and though I love living in a city, all of the sensory information that pours in all the time is a lot to process. We had an incredibly noisy downstairs neighbor. There’s no way I can describe that noise and do it justice, but a number of the poems came out of the constant frustration and feeling of powerlessness in that situation.
One thing I especially miss about living in Jersey City is the banter on the street. But another thing I was writing about in those poems was the constant hum of potential sexual assault. I’m older than I was when I wrote those poems, and that threat definitely feels less present. But that was part of what I was processing. There was difficulty, but there was also such a strong familial feeling. It felt like everyone on the block had an allegiance to each other and was, in really deep ways, there for each other. I miss that brotherly-sisterly feeling of being called out to when you drop something, or having someone spontaneously help you back into an impossibly tight parking spot. And I miss the little things I could do to be helpful or buoy someone. There’s more openness to that kind of interaction in a city.
One thing I use poems for is a place to put language that isn’t part of my social self—the vicious thoughts can go there. I can intentionally dive into them and investigate them. My friend Craig Teicher, who blurbed this book, texted me after he read the manuscript that the poems were surprisingly mean. He meant it as a compliment, and I took it as one. Maybe he was referring to the “Jersey City poems.”
Rail: There’s such a variety of form in this book: poems built of couplets and tercets, prose poems, the longer elegy that we discussed, filled with long lines dotted with caesuras that spread across the page, and then later in the book, poems with small, compressed lines. How do you find a poem’s form?
Cronk: It’s very intuitive for me. I love the way that poetry connects with visual art in this part of the process. What happens to a poem when you shift it into couplets, when you have long lines that follow the breath, when you make it as long and skinny as you can? That adding and subtracting and physically moving things around is a part of the experimenting that I love. And then sometimes a poem just clicks shut. That doesn’t mean it’s in its perfect form, but it does mean that I’m locked out and it’s finished whether I want it to be or not. But often I keep rearranging and only stop because I know that fussing isn’t going to provide clarity. The only sure-fire way to have clarity is for a deadline to pass!
Rail: I love the poem “The Professionals,” in which you consider all of the quotidian design decisions that impact our experience of the constructed world —from the “offices of a university president” to “who picked out the awning at the hospital entrance.” You home in on three design aesthetics in particular—“Mid-century with a Victorian nod,” “Farmhouse Minimalism,” and “Scavenger Maximalism”—all of which seem to describe some aspect of this book’s poetics, and maybe even some aspects of Laura Cronk’s aesthetics? Are these aesthetic terms invented? How did they come to be in this poem?
Cronk: I’m laughing because you’re totally right! I love that you focus in on those phrases that I included just to amuse myself and found their larger resonance. Thank you for that! Also the phrase that follows these terms applies: “With a sense of humor and on a budget.” But, actually, these were just mashups of some of the words that I see floating around in design blogs when I pour over them, trying to teach myself how to outfit a room. Figuring out where to put things, what color to paint the walls, how to stay organized, all of the aspects of homemaking do not come easily to me, and yet really matter to me. How do other people do it? But about the last phrase, I remember my aunt, my mother’s twin sister, who has amazing style, heard her mother describing her style as “Scavenger Maximalism.”
Rail: That is so perfectly shady! At first blush it sounds like a compliment. And then the more time you spend with it, you're like, oh, you're calling me a hoarder.
There are a couple of moments in the book where you talk about what poetry is, or what a poem is—one comes before the book even starts, in the Acknowledgments. You’re addressing Megin Jiménez, whom you call a “sister in poetry”—you follow that acknowledgement by saying, “A poem is a poem if you say it is.” Is that a working definition of poetry for you?
Cronk: I stand by that, that almost anything can be a poem, as long as it’s Megin deciding [laughs]. I trust her so deeply, and trust her intelligence. Most things that should be poems will be poems, according to Megin. But the last poem in the book came out of my interest in exploring what feels like an inadequacy—that I don’t have a surer grasp, a more academic grasp, of what a poem is. I know I can just go over to Merriam-Webster, but really, what are these powerful, capacious, mysterious things? The only way I know what they are is by making them and experiencing them.
Rail: Let’s talk about the cover art for the book. The first time I saw it I instantly recognized it as Laura Cronk’s book cover. Partly because the tunic looks like something you would wear. But also, it’s reflective of Ghost Hour—it feels haunted, but not menacing.
Cronk: The poetry editor at Persea Books, Gabe Fried, forwarded me the work of photographer Bill Jacobson who has several incredible series of haunted-looking landscapes, cityscapes, and portraits. I was thrilled by all of his work, but I especially love the photograph on the book’s cover. I was so delighted when we got permission to use it. This floating object feels like a portrait to me. I love the androgyny of the cover; don’t we most often gender ghosts as female? I love the spareness.
Rail: You and I shared office space at The New School for many years. I know you as a professional with a demanding job, and also as someone who shows up for her family, and also as someone who shows up for her poetry. You mention in this book having to write on the train, even as your fellow passengers are nosily trying to read what you’re writing. That balancing act is never easy, but at least before the pandemic you had some separations—you had your office in the city, you had your commute, and then you had your time at home. However, in the past year, everyone’s routine has been so radically altered. Your office is now your bedroom, your kids’ classroom is your living room, your husband’s office is your office. How has that affected your writing life?
Cronk: The thing that’s been hardest for me throughout the pandemic regarding writing is not having privacy. People now either have an excess of privacy, and they're isolated, or there's just so much togetherness and nowhere to go. I’ve been really grateful for the time with my family. But for my writing, it's been hard. To write, I need to feel like I'm hiding, like I'm completely invisible. It’s in those private moments that I can think. One reason I've been working on essays is that I feel like I can write a 500-word chunk, and then another 500-word chunk, and keep adding. Somehow prose has been easier to keep in my head and come to in the moments that I can steal. So that's what I've been working on. But I do want to write poems again.
If the quiet Appalachian clock maker,
If his friends. If their pastor
and their wives. If his wife.
If it didn’t need to be hidden.
If the clockmaker.
I resisted knowing.
It’s true even though.
If he was the gentle one.
If his children.
If he held them easily.
If his rough hand smoothed their hair.
If, before he left, he tossed
them in the air.
If the twins, with their
sensed something impure.
If they didn’t.
If his shirt was freshly pressed.
If his shoes were shined.
If he only had
one pair of shoes.
If his walking down
the steps and onto the street
and gathering with the others.
If flowing toward the church basement.
If changing there,
putting on hoods and robes.
If the town turned out.
If they clapped and
cheered and ate sweets.
If he marched with the others
ghostly but unbothered.
If everyone there, unhooded,
in plain sight,
was unbothered too.
If they all knew anyway who
each man in each hood
was by his shoes.
If that’s where I’m from
If what was taught at school
was dismissed outside.
If the chasm was just
left there open
and like other adult things
made no sense.
If my grandfather,
the kind one, the gentle one.
If he marched. If he didn’t
disagree. If his thoughts
were the rope and the tree.
If I was raised to protect
the rope and the tree.