Interview with Lucas Crawford, Poet and 2015 CWILA Critic In Residence

Interview by 
Bonnie Nish

Poet Lucas Crawford (published in Room issue 37.2 Expanding The Voice) talks with Room editor Bonnie Nish about transgender literature, writing, and his recent appointment as CWILA's 2015 Critic In Residence.

ROOM: You have said in past interviews that you write to break things open and give life meaning. How do you see your position as Literary Critic breaking things open for the rest of us? What sorts of things do you plan on doing that will accomplish this?

LC: Did I really say that? If that were a sentence in a student paper, I’d say: be more specific! So I’m glad you’ve asked me to follow up on that. Something that I want to “break open” is the idea that transgender lit has now “made it” since there are a few well-known trans celebrities and authors. To accomplish this, I’ll be aiming to feature trans and genderqueer writers and texts that give us very unconventional and creative illustrations of how gender, and bodies more generally, could work. One initiative I’m really looking forward to is editing folios of trans lit for Canadian periodicals. (Certainly, any interested editors should give me a call!)

ROOM: Do you think that as Critic in Residence and having the CWILA letter behind you, you will be given more access for critical review than if you had pursued this on your own?

LC: I suspect that the CWILA name does add extra incentive to editors because CWILA has established itself as such a strong organization that is committed to gender justice (and counts many celebrated Canadian authors among its members).

ROOM: How do you think this will change your own writing?

LC: This is a great question, and honestly, one I’ve not considered yet. I am not certain how, or if, this role will affect my writing. One certainly wants to avoid thinking too much about reviews when writing, but it’s inevitable that one thinks of other books, and of audiences, even somewhere deep in the background of one’s mind. I suppose something I value about the process of writing is not, perhaps ever, knowing how life events or experiences manifest in the words. So, I must leave the answer open for this question perhaps!

ROOM: You have two new books coming out. Do you see your position as Critic in Residence changing the kind of reviews you may receive?

LC: This is an interesting question as well! Of course, were I to dole out mean-spirited reviews by the dozens, that karma would certainly come back tenfold – but I assure you that won’t be a problem. (I don’t think I’ve ever even produced a borderline nasty “peer review report” in academia, and those are anonymous!) I suppose there is always the possibility of a certain type of backlash when one is officially called a “critic,” but because I’m a writer too, I don’t anticipate that happening. Perhaps you are asking if the title will garner me more reviews. I’m not sure about this, but whatever attention the work receives, I’m grateful for it.

ROOM: You have also said you felt your work was better received outside Canada. Why do you think that is?  Do you still feel that way?

LC: I should underline that I have had exceptional experiences with publications and with writers in Canada. People that come to mind are PRISM International, Room (of course!), the team at the Banff Centre, mentors like Jeanette Lynes, audiences from Vancouver to Antigonish, etc. When I made that previous comment, I was talking specifically about a long poem I’d just had published in an extraordinarily choosy Los Angeles periodical called Rattle. I hadn’t been able to place it in Canada. Of course, I hadn’t sent it everywhere, and there are often many worthy reasons for rejection that remain imperceptible to authors, but the poem’s submission trajectory was curious to me. I sometimes wonder – and this is truly a wondering, not a stance – if our Canadian politesse can get in the way of appreciating writing that adopts a queer approach to bodies. Perhaps the questions could be: how do bodies act in Canadian Literature? What are bodies not allowed to do? What is it that we want our literature to make us feel (and, in turn, not feel)? I suspect that what is happening is that while very few publishers or editors would ever explicitly exclude trans lit, that our aesthetic tastes sometimes contain sexual tastes, and gendered tastes. How do our aesthetic sensibilities reflect and reproduce visceral attachments to conventional genders and sexualities? Finally, I said in another interview recently that I wonder – knowing that many of us publish with American presses – if there’s a bit of a transgender brain drain in Canadian lit, and if so, why?

ROOM: What has this appointment meant to you on a personal level?

LC: It has made me very happy to feel that not just transgender but also genderqueer literature and criticism is supported by such a great organization. It also comes at a time when I am unsure of my professional future, which means that I especially appreciate the vote of confidence from the CWILA board.

ROOM: You are always very much in the public eye and bringing awareness about many important issues. What has been the biggest obstacle for you in terms of getting things published and has this changed? What is different from when you started out in your academic and publishing career? Or have we really not come that far? 

LC: These are tough questions because on one hand, there’s what a writer perceives as the reasons for rejection, and on the other, there’s what a publisher perceives as reasons for rejections. I’m sure that the truth of why a piece gets rejected is somewhere in the middle of those two, or perhaps somewhere else entirely! I could say that I’ve been rejected for writing about weird bodily things, or writing about being fat, or writing ideas that challenge gender norms – but the editors might say, well, no, it’s really more to do with your use of clichéd metaphors! So, I truly cannot say for sure. I will say one thing that has changed for me over the years: I have gotten used to rejection! It used to discourage me; I thought it meant the poetry was “bad.” While I do think rejections sometimes indicate an aesthetic friction between writer and publication, a friction worth thinking about, I’ve learned that the more rejection you can take, the more you will likely get published. It sounds counterintuitive but I think it’s true. I think what you’re really asking about, however, is whether or not things have changed for trans and genderqueer authors. I would say that the biggest difference is that transgender has recently become something thought to be understood by many or even most readers out there. This has upsides and downsides.

ROOM: Will your writing about transgender issues as a Critic change these things and how?  What is the biggest drawback for a young transgender writer today and what is your advice to them?

LC: Yes, I hope my work as Critic-in-Residence will have an effect. I hope that trans writers out there will see my getting the gig as a sign of a more general shift towards trans and genderqueer writers being heard. I also hope that more genderqueer and trans people will apply to CWILA in the future! Lots of other trans writers and critics have been doing this work and making my younger self feel like I had an audience. Reading the literatures and criticism of Susan Stryker, Leslie Feinberg, and Judith Butler was important to me. In the Canadian context, poet and scholar Trish Salah has written lots about trans literature.As for advice to young transgender writers, I can only repeat the things that I try to tell myself as a young-ish transgender writer: rack up the rejections; keep submitting; write when you can, however works for you; know that if there isn’t an audience for your work, your work can create it. My most productive time as a writer was at the Banff Centre, so I would also encourage trans writers to pursue whatever opportunities they can in the way of residencies and workshops. I think a special challenge for us is to separate what we want to write from what we imagine non-trans audiences might want to hear or might find most relatable.

ROOM: As someone with a huge influence as a Professor, Writer and now Critic in Residence, what would you say was the biggest stumbling block in your career to getting to where you are now and how have these things changed? If not what do you think needs to change for that to happen? If yes what has changed? 

LC: I don’t know about “huge” influence, but I’ll take it! Honestly, I think I’m probably the least knowledgeable person on that question. I’m too invested in the answer. Ask my enemies perhaps? I’ll get you their numbers (ha ha). On the question of what has changed, I’d say again that the reading public now has a basic sense of what transgender is. The upsides of this are that people seem more interested in reading about transgender or hearing from trans folks. The downside is that an author must now contend with a reader’s larger set of received notions about transgender. I suppose I’m a person who would find it easier to connect with readers who know very little about transgender than with readers who have learned the conventional narratives of transgender (that it consists of tragedy, exclusively the “born in the wrong body” narrative, and that surgical interventions lead one to a happy binary gender in the end). The former feels like a process of learning, while engaging with the latter type of reading might entail a process of ‘un-learning’ ideas about transgender, in order to open up space for more radical versions of trans or genderqueer embodiment. 

ROOM: This is an exciting year for you. Do you plan long term? Do you see this as a jumping off point, a road in so to say, to get the dialogue going? Once you have pushed open the door what next? Or have you thought that far ahead yet? 

LC: I try to plan long-term, but the plans always end up being rough first drafts, if you know what I mean. Even when I make the plans, I know they might end up in the trash – but they generate ideas, just like drafting a poem. I do a lot of long-term imagining, which is perhaps different than planning. I’m imagining a life where I get to write a lot more of the time. I’m imagining a time when trans writers can write about anything, and when trans protagonists won’t be exceptional. 

ROOM: What can we expect to see from you this year? Is there anything different or are you keeping some surprises?

LC: I’ve got a few schemes percolating that I’ll keep under my hat for now, but I’ll say that I’m really looking forward to editing folios of trans lit for Canadian periodicals, of reviewing performances/readings (because so much queer and trans lit happens outside of conventional publishing), and of keeping up with my own trans writing. 

ROOM: Congratulations!!!!

LC: Thanks so much for your interest in CWILA and my role as Critic-in-Residence!

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