Ann Bracken (AB): Ginny, congratulations on your wonderful poetry collection questions for water. Your poems greet the reader like open arms, inviting them in to the world you’ve created. Tell me about the title poem and say a little about your stylistic choice to use lower case letters throughout the book.
Ginny Crawford (GC): The title poem came about through an invitation to participate in an ekphrastic show at the Hamilton Gallery in Baltimore. I fell in love with a painting (mostly blue/turquoise and white). It also had pieces of torn paper glued to the surface which suggested mountains and a few other things. I saw a single person in a small boat approaching a literal piece of rusted barbed wire hung across the bottom of the painting. I immediately thought about immigration and the horrifying images we were seeing from our southern border. And my own grandfather who came from Italy – I’ve always wanted to write something about him but hadn’t yet. And the daily emotional, physical, financial struggle far too many Americans face not because they don’t work, but because of the poverty wages they are paid. As well as a tragic story a Russian woman told me about her coming to America. And my grandmother who came from Crisfield, MD where opportunities were very limited. And I could go on. The painting gave me the opportunity to write all of that in a single poem.
I’ve always been captivated by water and its abilities, the way it is essential and deadly at the same time. I tried to replicate the repetitive rocking motion of being at sea in the repetition throughout the poem. The repetitions act as a kind of mental break for readers as well as a bridge to the next part of the poem. It also reflects the day-in and day-out struggles many Americans have and continue to live with.
The choice not to use standard capitalization and punctuation was to reflect the way punctuation provides artificial boundaries-just as thoughts of nationality or heritage are artificial. Sure people from different cultures celebrate different holidays and have different languages etc, but in the end we’re all humans. We all want food and shelter and love. We all want to see our children succeed. While we may speak different languages, these differences are superficial.
Not using punctuation was a way to say no, we’re not different; we’re not separate from each other. We cannot place a period here and turn our backs on what might come next. Often we try to and do, but it’s artificial. We are not separate but deeply connected. American individualism, “ownership society” says we are successful or not based on our value to society, our job. If you’re not financially successful you must be doing something wrong. Too bad for you. This kind of thinking is deeply flawed and harmful. Not using punctuation is a way of saying no, people cannot be neatly categorized, divided and labeled. That is an illusion.
AB: I immediately recognized the speaker’s response to the young homeless man in the poem “baltimore.” Tell me what inspired that poem.
GC: I’ve done a variety of unusual jobs in my life, and many of them showed me how vulnerable we are as humans. And I saw people begging on the street everywhere. They are humans who are suffering and need help. This particular interaction was difficult in part because he appeared young, maybe in his 20’s. And when he took the orange, he was so exhausted, worn out, he told me what he really wanted. His hands also alarmed me. They were swollen, cracked, dirty. Quite obviously painful and delicate. They were so cracked I thought they would bleed at any moment. The combination of his relative youth, the state of his skin, his directness and the thing he wanted, hot food, …I’ll always remember him. I started keeping snacks in my car to give away. It’s painful to see so many people begging for help on medians and at stop lights. This is supposedly the wealthiest country on the planet.
AB: In “thoughts on making soup and war,” you lead us through the dailyness of making soup and then muse about a homeless veteran and a neighbor whose son enlisted. Talk a little about how you chose your images to convey the tone and feeling in the poem. (onions, overflowing trash can, lined up empty boots)
GC: Great question, but it’s hard to answer. Somewhere my mind connected the common-ness of potatoes with the way soldiers are used by governments. We don’t usually think of potatoes individually – there are just so many of them, and they’re inexpensive. That seems to reflect our government’s opinion of sending soldiers into unnecessary conflict and wars. There are always more. And if there aren’t, we’ll demand your sons. Yes, we need to defend ourselves, but soldiers should be used only when absolutely necessary. Absolutely necessary. Not because someone wants to be re-elected or to maintain the surprisingly low cost of our oil and gas compared to other countries.
When I was in college one of my friends was terrified he’d be drafted for Desert Storm. It was scary and bizarre to think that he could be plucked from his life and commanded to fight for an unjust war. Decades later I saw a good friend at the installation of the boots on the Hopkins University campus. It was an art exhibit that travelled around the country. Her middle son really signed up and served several tours. He came back, but she says he’s never been himself since. It’s simply terrifying to know someone you love is going into that kind of danger and the terrifying things they may be asked to do. The contrast of my over-flowing trash can and the hungry veterans on the streets. It’s just horrific that we have a population called “hungry and homeless vets.” It’s shameful that they are not taken care of. They beg on the street while I have more than I can eat. To be honest, I’m not always consciously choosing images. I don’t necessarily think, I need an image that represents X. I can’t say how it happens. It just comes to me.
AB: I was deeply moved by the scenes you create in the poem “how to live. for alice herz sommers” The music in the poem seems to play a pivotal role. How did that piece all come together and who inspired it?
GC: Alice Herz Sommers. A real human and survivor of the Holocaust. It may have been a YouTube clip posted to Facebook. She spoke about her own experiences and how she survived. I watched it over and over, mesmerized by her and her courage. I also found a book her son wrote, but I’ve been too afraid to read it. The Garden of Eden in Hell. I’m delighted that you find the poem musical, but I don’t have an answer beyond this. I was moved by her and how she lived and wanted to honor her in some way.
AB: I appreciate your courage in writing “feared loss.” In tackling the often-ignored issue of grieving after miscarriage, you manage to make the reader feel what the speaker feels in these lines “then years of crying/imagined childless birthday parties/ useless concerns about school day care/ what your father would think” Have you gotten many responses to that poem?
GC: Yes and no. It was published in The Baltimore Review more than 20 years ago, and on a visit to Bill Jones’ high school class, he asked me to read it aloud three times in a row. That was very difficult emotionally. It touches people, but it’s also deeply personal. For each person. No, it’s usually not something people want to discuss. But it’s my experience, and I write about it.
AB: What was the most difficult poem for you to write? How did you overcome the challenges?
GC: Probably the title poem, and american mom, and travelling south. All of them are wide-ranging in terms of topics. All of them include fears I have about what my children might experience. All of them include historical and ongoing tragedies that I worry will not be corrected in their lifetimes. american mom is a 9/11 poem even though what inspired it takes place 20 years after 9/11. 9/11 and the threat of retaliation after the killing of Iranian General Soleimani are bookends of the poem. My daughter was 6 months old when 9/11 happened. This recent threat came at what is a very vulnerable place for me as a parent. My daughter, a young adult, visits friends in different cities on her own including New York. While I believe there will always be more people who want to help you rather than hurt you, there are those few looking for vulnerable young people. And there’s always the possibility of stupid bad luck.
So, there I was wondering if something like 9/11 might happen knowing my daughter was in New York near the 20th anniversary and unable to protect her. travelling south also presents troubling real-life situations, and even though my son was still with me, I had no idea how to talk about these horrific things. I could not make it better or fix any of these problems. They were happening, my son was aware, and I couldn’t make it better. When your child is young, you can often do things – they drop a lollipop, you give them a new one or at least wash it off. The poem shows that moment when your child becomes aware of injustices happening all around and realizes that Mommy can’t do anything about it. questions for water is my longest poem and includes many situations Mommy can’t fix. Sometimes she can’t even figure out how to start a conversation. The poem includes current and historical injustices. It was very hard to write, but I just made myself keep going. I wanted to get it to the point of sharing it with others. It was hard and it was work, but it was work I love doing so it wasn’t work at all.
One of my most important sources of support for my writing is my tiny writing group. It’s my husband (who’s also a poet), myself, and one mutual friend who is both an excellent writer and an excellent editor. She can look at something and see very quickly where a poem needs help or is working well. I’m a little in awe of that. She was also a tremendous help in arranging the order of the whole book. I had redone it multiple times thinking I was getting closer but still not feeling right (and not having any idea why), and she can see the whole thing and suggest – you do it like this. And I go – oh! That’s how it goes! It’s a skill she has. So my tiny writers’ group is extremely important to me. I trust both of the others and will ask for suggestions on this, that and everything. I don’t always take their advice, and sometimes they advise different things, but I know they will help me make the poems the best they can be.
AB: Thank you, Ginny, for taking the time to talk with me about your work. In addition to your teaching, what projects do you have underway currently?
GC: I’m feeling pretty unsettled to be honest. I’ve been tutoring children individually; it can be very rewarding and horrifying from one minute to the next. For example, I’m working with a 4th grader who can’t read or do math. A 4th grader! His parents love him, but the school system has completely failed him. He’s fallen into “the cracks” and no one is doing anything or even noticing. It’s heartbreaking. He’s lovely; his parents work long hours including night shifts, and they’ve hired me. But it’s impossible to supply 5 years worth of learning in a few months. So I’ve been juggling individual students and several other part-time jobs, and now it looks like I will soon have a full time teaching position, but then there’s the worry of omicron. I have more teaching jobs than I can do, and I’m trying to figure out which are the best (and safest) choices to keep. Fall has been quite a whirlwind of running from job to job, so I’m hoping to figure out how to focus on just a few of them. And still have some time and energy for poetry.
I recently became the host of the Maryland Writers’ Alliance First Friday series. That’s been great. In Jan we have Naomi Shihab Nye, in Feb Bruce Jacobs, and in March we get to hear from your new book. I’m looking forward to that and hearing about your experiences that inspired it.
Thanks for these questions. I’ve enjoyed them.
Purchase Ginny’s book here: https://bookshop.org/books/questions-for-water/9781627203258
Bio: Virginia Crawford is a long-time teaching artist with the Maryland State Arts Council. In April 2021, Apprentice House Press published her full-length collection of poetry, questions for water. One reviewer said, “her work mines the seam between the personal and the political. Crawford brings her lyrical voice and intimate perspective to the challenges faced by twenty-first century families, America, and the world.” Previously her chapbook Touch was published by Finishing Line Press. She has co-edited two anthologies: Poetry Baltimore, poems about a city, and Voices Fly, An Anthology of Exercises and Poems from the Maryland State Arts Council Artist-in-Residence Program. She has appeared at the CityLit Fest, the Baltimore Book Festival, The Gaithersburg Book Festival and others. She earned degrees in Creative Writing from Emerson College, Boston, and The University of St. Andrews, Scotland. She lives and writes in Baltimore, Maryland. You can find out more at www.virginiacrawford.com.