“Form, for me, is thinking”: An Interview with Caroline Crew

When I first read Caroline Crew’s essay collection Other Girls to Burn, just out from  University of Georgia Press, I was amazed by her ability to reach back into the depths of a collective past and grab hold of moments that illuminate our present-day relationship between women and violence. Crew serves as this wielder of light throughout the entire collection, guiding the reader through a series of lyrical essays that change the way we view not only violence, but how it came to be. Throughout, Crew’s prose style reminds us that the word is still worth noticing, that even when what is being noticed is full of sorrow and despair, there is a power in one’s ability “to consider the horror and continue.” In this way, Crew opens the door to a room where one is able to peer out of a circular window and to see our past and present for what is, a room so many have been afraid to enter. And yet she also asks you to sit in that room for a while. So you do. 

I know I did. And that’s only because I felt as though Crew was sitting there, too. 

Caroline Crew is a writer, teacher, and editor. Currently, she is a visiting professor of creative nonfiction at Warren Wilson College. Other Girls to Burn won the 2020 AWP Prize for Nonfiction, selected by Alexander Chee. She is the author of a full-length poetry collection, PinkMuseum, as well as several chapbooks. Her poetry and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Poetry, Kenyon Review, and Conjunctions, among others.

In this interview, conducted over a shared Google Doc, we discuss obsessions, grief, and women saints.  

I am a very big fan of your full-length poetry collection, Pink Museum, so when I found out that you had written an essay collection, I was very excited, to say the least. How did this collection of essays come to be? Was writing a book of essays always on the horizon?

I never feel more imposter syndrome than when I’m asked thoughtful questions about my own work! So much of my teaching career is dedicated to process, and yet my own often feels like a foggy memory I might be fudging. Truthfully, I never had designs on the essay collection as a goal. But the essays started, and kept on coming. It wasn’t until I was really stuck into the writing of the final essay “A Case Against Pathology” that I really conceived of the book. Connecting the motif of saints to true crime welled up in conclusion as well as thesis: women actively consuming violence. I suppose I am a very literal writer! Only getting to the end let me see the route in the rearview mirror. 

Your prose has a lyrical feel to it, which I quite enjoyed. “Materialism,” a poem from Molly Brodak’s The Cipher, opens up the collection. How did your background as a poet influence this project? What were the major differences between assembling a collection of essays versus a collection of poems?

Poetry pulled this book into being. The very first essays that ended up being the seeds Others Girls to Burn started life as marginalia in my research notes for a series of poems to and about female saints. The poems were fine… but the research notes and my notes to self within them were much more interesting! I see very little difference in the book shaping between poems and essay—they start on the floor, then get taped on the windows and woven together through the image echoes. Those tones get modulated by endurance, which can feel like Morse code! (Short short long short long.) But a book is so mysterious to me, still. It’s a heap of eggs and flour until: cake.

Another quality that stands out to me would be the different stylistic forms that can be found throughout the collection. In particular, I was struck by your choice to format “What I Should Consider before Weeping in Frustration at Airline Customer Service after a Six-Hour Delay on My Honeymoon” as a numbered list and “A Case Against Pathology,” which takes on the form of a series of crime scene reports. Were these works consciously configured to be “hermit crab” essays, or did this naturally happen as you were writing? 

Absolutely! Form, for me, is thinking. The hermit crab is especially attractive to me as it never allows us to forget the artifice of the page. They’re also a great way to figure out the connection and transition between thought when it feels out of reach. The sentence might not be able to bring together a and b, but perhaps the larger construction can. As much as hermit crab essays are a trojan horse of form, sneaky and surprising, they can also be a trojan horse of process to break the lethargy/fear/block! (I don’t have to write an essay, I have to write a list or a crime scene or a footnote.)

In “Reliquary,” you write:

“I don’t believe in Christ, but I do believe in history.

I don’t believe in the object, but I do believe in the body.”

In any history book I’ve ever picked up, no matter the time period or setting, violence towards women seems to be an underlying theme. In my own experience, my belief in history has often led to feelings of despair and hopelessness. But I so appreciated how your book, a book so deeply rooted in images of violence, ends by offering the reader a glimmer of promise that women “might press pause, consider the horror and continue.” What was the process like, arriving at this conclusion? Has your outlook on what the future holds for women changed since starting this collection? 

A failing of history is to believe we’re at the end, and that is, of course, a fundamentally human trait. I am comforted, though, by the consistency of human thinking and desire. During the darkest parts of the last few years, after losing an important person to COVID (Zoe, to whom this book is dedicated), I looked for comfort in The Great Mortality by John Kelly—an epic history of the black death. It was a great reminder that people in crisis, in trauma, in life, behave humanly whether in 1300 or 2021—resourceful, incredibly smart, resilient but also hate-filled, terror-filled, and lashing. Well, this is comforting to me! It feels, in 2021, that violence against women in America is a constituional amendment. The hope for me remains in meeting the gaze of it, consuming and continuing the work. 

One of my favorite qualities of this collection was the way you effortlessly intertwine both our present-day culture with commentary on the history of our past. In “I am a burning girl,” you write: 

“Previously known as melancholy, this phenomenon is now called media. Remake them more beautiful, moths to a flame. Destined. A tragic destiny. We neglect to look at our own hands, newsprint-stained and fingers on the tv remote, writing the narrative for these girls. I take a burning selfie of oven-gained scars. I make my hair a burning color: case study in victim performance.” 

And in “Divisions of the Body,” you write:

“One woman cannot be both daughter and wife, cannot marry Christ when already sold, must choose Beyoncé or Rihanna, waxed or natural, Taylor or Miley, sweet or sultry, prude or slut, full fat or diet, work or family, cherry or vanilla, grunge or preppy, clever girl or party girl.”

How did our age of social media influence your collection? Were there any particular ways you went about intermingling current Zeitgeists such as diet culture and selfies, with themes that have existed since practically the beginning of time, such as rape culture and male violence?  

I love that figuaration of dialogue! I think I experience that conversation between women’s lives in the past and iterations of the violence of women’s experience today more as a wall of noise. It is difficult, sometimes, for my ear to discern the difference.

The intermingling of current Zeitgeist and historical themes is certainly an undercurrent through much of my prose, but in this collection it became a conscious process by writing into my obsession with women saints. A somewhat odd obsession for a non-practicing Protestant, but we don’t choose our obsessions! Writing into our obsessions can be a method of discovery—I discovered that this obsession with Hildegaard and the Catherines and the Theresas, and of course, my cover star, St. Lucy was rooted in their ability to find voice, to find agency despite the strictures they were given. These women were punk as fuck. They DIY-ed. Getting to this root gave me a lens to start collecting and making those connections more explicit for myself, and, I hope for readers. 

Many of your essays reference myths and fairy tales. Were there any particular literary works that you find your collection to be in conversation with?

I ask because, lately, I’ve been thinking about the ways the stories and fairytales we are told, especially when we are younger, come to influence the way we come to perceive not only the world but ourselves. In “The Discomfort Index,” for example, you write:

“I learn to be wary of the stories of women in myths as much as in my daily life. Weary of Leda and Cassandra and Antiope, wearied of the rapes of Philomena and Callisto and Europa. Weary of these messengers. Weary enough to start muttering my own names and the women who have storied my life. Weariness can be a comfort, the security blanket numbly fondled, a dull safe place.”

How do you see us moving away from this feeling of “weariness” when it comes to reading the works that have “storied” so many of women’s lives? Is there hope that women might eventually seek a realm that lies beyond the “dull safe place” of apprehension? 

I have a certain tic for a classical reference as a first gen student. It is a lack of learning that used to bring me so much shame. Learning that there was a whole department called “classics” upon arriving at St Andrews as an undergrad was the first drop of acid rain that has left a chip in my shoulder. But much of the space that shame burned has been blanketed by weariness—the stories might not be the same but the shape is eerily repetitive. 

That shape is historiography: what gets to tell these stories and why. The acknowledgment of history as a made thing allows us to look at the maker’s hands, and gives me the hope of bringing more hands to the loom so that they might weave their own stories, create new shapes.

Since publishing Other Girls to Burn, what have you been up to? Are there any upcoming projects readers can look forward to? 

Currently I’m adjusting to mountain life in North Carolina! In terms of writing, I’ve been in a fallow period. (I abhor small-minded writing teachers who teach that the only valid creative process is to write every day—people need their voice and people need their silence.) As with us all, 2020 and 2021 have been immense periods of grief for me. After Molly Brodak died in February 2020, poetry was done. When Zoe Rana Mungin passed six weeks later, prose was out of the window, too. I carried a lot of resentment for months and months—knowing that if writing came again, I would have to write this grief. I carried Leslie Harrison’s The Book of Endings with me whenever I left the house for about a year, knowing that it was what I needed to read to begin again, but not being ready. 

The resentment of writing grief has slowly melted from the insurmountable glacier to the river running back into the world, and to writing. It is with a lot of joy and occasional laughter through tears that I’m working on a book-length essay in verse, Feast, about food and grief, and most importantly, the women who have fed me. 

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