Feminist literature: Marisa Crawford, "Reversible" and Weird Sister

"Reversible" is about growing up as a female in the 90s in the USA. While many of the experiences contained in the book and the sense of nostalgia have a universal character, some others are very specific. How does "Reversible" speak to national and international audiences?

I think that feelings of nostalgia for and the poignancy/power of one’s youth are universal feelings to some extent - some people spend more time thinking about those feelings, but I think that everyone had them growing up. Everyone’s world changes when they're a teenager. So while the details of some of my writing are specific to my own upbringing as a white, vaguely middle class girl growing up in the U.S. in the 90s, I think that the feelings they convey are feelings that are experienced to some extent across these boundaries. My poems try to draw attention to social markers like race, gender, and class, and by placing the experiences in the poems in an embodied, socially constructed life I want to call attention to the fact that there is no such thing as truly universal experiences or universal literature, and the poems and stories that get called this most often are just the very specific experiences of white men.

Your book reclaims the value of popular culture, everyday language and commonplace childhood and teenage experiences lived by the middle-class in the 90s, with some echoes of the 70s. At the same time your depictions of the mundane also denounce implicit misogyny. What is the message conveyed by this juxtaposition? 

That juxtaposition is a representation of a very real lived experience of how people experience popular culture. Growing up, I loved certain songs and bands and clothes that I can now understand as misogynistic or promoting capitalistic or culturally appropriative messages, and I can be critical of that from a distance, but those songs and bands and clothes still shaped who I am. And I still love them because of a visceral and psychic and otherworldly connection to them that I can't separate myself from. I think that's a lot of women's experiences of popular culture--finding a sense of empowerment in aspects of culture that simultaneously aim to dis-empower you.

" Reversible",  by Marisa Crawford, Switchback Books, 2017

"Reversible", by Marisa Crawford, Switchback Books, 2017

Some of us at Hysteria are big fans of Haruki Murakami, who uses music intensively in his story telling. How does music help to construct the 90s universe so well crafted in your book?

Certain songs have the power to instantly transport me into a moment in the past. For me, loving a song is a gut reaction, and I want to listen to it over and over and over again. It feels like a teenage obsession no matter how old I am. The songs referenced in "Reversible" range from Pink Floyd to Ani Difranco to Arrested Development to Black Sabbath to Lightning Bolt to Avril Lavigne. The experience of listening to music is one of the only ways that I, a person with pretty intense anxiety, can get out of my head.

As a teenager in the 90s I think I had this same relationship with music, but I don’t think I had as much awareness of why music felt so much like a lifeline, and I was also experiencing music as a way to express my identity for the very first time really so it was even more powerful. I have a poem called "Dark Star" that's sort of an homage to what The Grateful Dead and other classic rock bands from the 60s and 70s meant to me and my high school BFF, but also how we loved Matchbox 20’s first radio single so much before knowing Matchbox 20 was uncool was even a thing. We discovered Ani Difranco when we drove to see Bob Dylan perform in Hartford, Connecticut and she was the opening act, and she made us feel physically as if the tops of our heads were taken off, Emily Dickinson style. We were trying to be cool 70s hippies but instead we turned into 90s baby feminists (who would never, ever have called ourselves feminists at the time). My second concert ever was seeing Alanis Morissette play and it perfectly coincided with my first ever boyfriend dumping me. And Radiohead opened for her. A boy in my Algebra class had the Internet, and he printed out all the words to Tool’s then-new album and gave them to me: I had never seen anything like it, it was like he gave me a sacred tome of ancient wisdom. I knew all the words to Black Sabbath’s "Paranoid" and Tori Amos’s "Little Earthquakes" and Sublime’s "40 Oz to Freedom" and Jethro Tull’s "Aqualung" and Jewel’s "Pieces of You". I don't know. Music creates a sense of time in my book because music coincides with other music to create one very specific, weird, imperfect and totally real experience of the world.

"Kozmic Blues" seems to pay a tribute to Janis Joplin. Why her?

 In her review of my book on The Rumpus, Olivia Cerrone calls Janis Joplin a matriarchal figure in these poems, and I think that’s so insightful. I listened to a lot of Janis Joplin growing up, and I think that she served as a model for a different kind of womanhood than the ones I saw in my own mother and my friend’s mothers — women who followed cultural norms for women, who got married (and then got their hearts broken), who struggled to get by and worked hard to care for their families at jobs that were totally un-romantic. Joplin on the other hand represented for me finding freedom in an artist’s life that unapologetically pushed against conventional lifestyles and traditional femininity I grew up with. But of course, as I’ve gotten older I realize things weren’t so black and white; Janis Joplin of course also struggled with substance abuse, and died at just 27 years old in 1970—the same year my mom worked hard to graduate high school and, against her own mother’s wishes, be the first person in her family to go to college. So I think that thinking about how these two models of life, of womanhood, of rebellion, of freedom, play against each other in my own life and in the world is a major theme of the book.

Throughout "Reversible", objects seem to be sources of (dis)comfort. In this way objects are transformed into mementos: the borrowed CD that was never returned, your mom's vintage blouses, etc. In your experience, when does an object become a memento/heirloom? 

Objects can become heirlooms after some time has passed since they served their purpose or held their power for the object’s keeper, or they can turn into heirlooms quickly, instantly. I never want to let go of my clothes, even years after I stop wearing them, and I try to write poems about them if I do, to keep some part of their essence or the memory they evoke. Objects are always windows into memories, into nonfictions. I have a poem about a shirt of my moms from the 70s that I have worn in so many iterations of different outfits throughout my life, but also I have the most un-remarkable, worn-out t-shirts that to the average viewer would appear to be totally faded, pit-stained outdated garbage but to me thinking about throwing them away feels like a dagger in my heart because they were my uniform at one moment or another in my life, and they were my sartorial armor for whatever pain I was in. So I guess objects become little sponges or talismans for the emotions of their era, and looking at them is like witnessing your own pain and your own triumph and your own history. But also they are just objects that probably came out of irresponsible labor practices and contribute to global warming and are tiny testaments to America’s deeply consumerist culture. So my poems are trying to navigate all of these ideas.

"Reversible" has been out for almost a year now. What are you working on at the moment? When can we expect a new book of yours to be published?

I'm lucky to be currently at a writing residency organized by This Will Take Time and Small Press Traffic in Northern California, where I'm working on a collection of essays about popular culture, feminist history, and nostalgia -- some of which will touch on Judy Blume, Sex and the City, and Our Bodies Ourselves, among other things. I have a new poetry manuscript called Diary that I'm finishing up and hoping to send out soon, and I’m also excited to be editing some work for Women’s History Month for Broadly.

In addition to authoring your own pieces, you are a major force behind Weird Sister. Could you tell us a bit more about your role in this project and the project itself?

I started Weird Sister -- a digital publication and organization that explores the intersections of feminism, literature, and pop culture — in 2014, because at the time I noticed that there were a lot of literary blogs, but none with explicitly feminist perspectives, and that there were tons of brilliant feminist publications, but many lacked in literary-focused content, and most published work that was traditionally journalistic. I wanted there to be a space for weird, experimental, lyrical, playful, yet incisive feminist cultural commentary about books, the arts, and pop culture seen through those lenses, so that's what Weird Sister has aimed to be. My role has been getting the blog up and running, and curating, soliciting and editing a team of brilliant writers and editors, and I also organize events that center the work of individuals, organizations, and communities bringing intersectional feminist perspectives to literary and art projects. Weird Sister is in a bit of a transitional place right now, but we are currently working on curating a panel on feminism and public spaces for the feminist art space SOHO20 Gallery in Brooklyn, and a few other projects.

Kozmic Blues, by Marisa Crawford

“Nothing’s gonna change my world” – Sylvia Plath
“I was feeling nearly as faded as my jeans.” – Janis Joplin

I would call the jeans Kozmic Blue.
I would call the jeans Janis Blue. Black Pearl.
I’d push at your wish a little harder.
The image of a woman in a wedding gown,
running straight toward the water.

To dress like Janis Joplin or to dress in a Janis Joplin shirt.
An Extra Large.
To keep drinking the Southern Comfort or to put it down.
How 90s girls’ clothes could never get big enough.
To stay in the black light. Watch the colors change.

She said my figure was swimming in the t-shirt.
He said my eyes were like a swimming pool. & he fell in.
Just kidding. He pushed me in.
It was summer. The dead of summer.

Laid on the beach like a corpse in the sunset.
All of my rings arranged in a ring catch.
The 33 brought me right to Haight & Ashbury
just like a magic carpet.

I had my mom’s shirt from the 70s that looked like Drew Barrymore’s in Mad Love.
I had the Janis Joplin shirt with the big daisy on it & a picture of Janis that was the same size as the daisy.
Carrie looked just like Janis when she put the dandelion behind her hair.
And the crazy pearls around her neck.
Violet crushed-velvet skirt like I was following a trail somewhere.

Janis Joplin had the kind of laugh
you could hear reverberating throughout the office.
The kind of laugh that set a room on fire.
That could never get big enough.
I would not say, “boyfriend style.”
I would not say, “wifebeater.”
My ball & chain.
The rhinestones. The rain.
I was swimming in it.