Interview: Emily Peterson Crespo

jmww contributor Ashlie Kauffman interviews Baltimore poet Emily Peterson Crespo, co-founder (with husband Baltimore writer Joseph Crespo) of Follow the Buffalo writing workshop, about various influences on her writing process and her work, including her recent trip to Egypt, her ideas about performance, the children’s book series, The Littles, and college education, among other things. This interview will be featured in the Winter 2010 issue of jmww, out mid-December.


Ashlie Kauffman: We should talk about your Egypt poems because there are so many things I would see in them in terms of influences, and things you were doing, and surprises that were in them. Here’s “Reset My Soul”:

Reset My Soul

I rode the whole way out with the moon in July
a sliver of ipod in my hand enjoying lilting verbs of Arabic
t^tufni, T^lifni…wa t^ragahni alah Sah^ra
outside an endless cool midnight African beach became a childhood reverie
the verbs thumped the boy on the back
took him out to see Egypt’s history

Snuggled up with a water bottle, a snack pack &
a virginal angel-hearted Msry woman reading Twilight
While I read essays by Anis Mansour
Bussed across the brow of a continent
I couldn’t believe we’d make it to Moses
Until the Suez Canal, until the Sinai lifted clay boulders
and posed with big brown knuckles for tight mountains

I got psyched for being in the foothills of historical prophecy
just wanted to climb the mountain meaningfully
I bargained for sage, and burnt it in a circle
and stood in the moonlight for one snapshot
before i walked as fast away from the sounds of talking
as humanly possible

Grey and black, dusk dust and shadow and camels for hours.
I wanted to see the sunrise
We were all racing the earth’s spin to see the peeking light
A path of dust winding through boulders,
here and there the glow of a shop
and every Bedouin had a camel to sell you
This Babel had drawn masked Asians, Italian nuns
in the full moon i wanted nothing more than silence
i tripped over a rock and a scream echoed, “hello!”

I fumed against questions in the dark about nationality
expensive Snickers bars and tea
I wanted to climb Mt. Sinai meaningfully
Why am I lonely in my heart? Why is trust so hard?
Some guide played his phone like a radio, irritating like an
undesired sound on the metro red line
I kept running innundated
angry, flushed with sweat in the dark
phobic of the Arabs for they all spoke the same
broken English or French against my ascent

Until my toes cramped at the stairs
and the light ring of light blue began to lift
and I needed someone to help, to care
I needed a Snickers bar, someone to say
watch out, hello! my head was light, i almost fell
Once the cramp ceased and I continued

The holy pressure at the mountain top was diffuse
unlike a church, which suffocates
simply being there was a pagan dialect with earth
to be at the very top of things; physically to see
As though insight requires a visual line to sun
As though a beginning requires a new day’s first ray
We sat and watched: It was cold on the top of a rock
I saw a July moon hung in balance behind us

Under these two great bodies i left the cold peak
I repeated my questions, searched for commandment
“Why am I lonely in my heart?” “Why is trust so hard?
sweat beading my face, as nothing seemed to come to mind…
It takes time for answers,

a day later, in a boat on blue water
a black wetsuit fit loosely, strapped to tanks of oxygen, given Arabic instructions
my heart was pounding despite helpless attempts to control my breath
“If I want to die I will let the water in I think”
I didn’t know which I might do until I let myself sink
finger gestures between me and survival, thumbs up, o.k.
as I felt my body return to an anxious womb-like state
my brain ran a course between air intake, and beautiful visions
between peaceful living and air deprived terror,
this new circuit
reset my soul

AK: I love how you add in very American things even in the language, like, “I got psyched,” when you’re talking about wanting to climb the mountain, and “I needed a Snickers bar” in the middle of it. Just those things that bring you closer to a culture that you’re not in, as compared to a culture that you’re in. There was something about this poem that really reminded me of Adrienne Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck,” which is her quintessential…

Emily Peterson Crespo: I’ve never read it…

AK: There was something that was so…it’s such a feminist poem. And this line from it I think is, “I wanted to explore the wreck and not the story of the wreck” and there’s the idea of a woman going deeper and deeper and deeper and diving into something. And that was why your poem, “Reset My Soul'” I thought was particularly amazing, because there are all these images of going up and at the end there is the diving, and it comes out of nowhere and you don’t expect it and it’s a complete reversal.

EPC: Which people wanted me to edit out.

AK: Oh really?

EPC: Including Joe (Crespo). But I didn’t want to—I refused to, because the juxtaposition is essential.

AK: It feels essential. And that is the resetting my soul moment that it’s going for, because especially when you’re asking these existential questions, ‘Why am I lonely in my heart, why is trust so hard?” and that repeats, and then the line comes, “It takes time for answers.” And it takes time or it takes a complete shift, and suddenly this complete shift comes when I was expecting the resolution to just be along the lines of ‘It takes time, patience, living your life,’ that whole thing—and instead it conveys that no, you can totally go deeper and do the opposite. It’s almost like the descent into hell imagery in order to become a new person. It really has a lot going on in it that I think are all amazing things.

EPC: I felt like it couldn’t have been any other way. I really did climb the mountain and think, ‘I’m at the top, I’m seeing the sun.’ And it just equates to just receiving. Receive. Just observe and receive through sight something true. But I wanted to ask something that I needed to ask and have some sort of command of myself when I came down, and I did have a command of myself when I came down. But it didn’t really get answered for why I had to just trust until after I went to Sharm el Sheikh the next day, and it was a very physical response to what was around me. I believe I’m really tough. But when you do something where you can die—you can die if you don’t know what you’re doing when you go scuba diving.

AK: I was reading this feeling scared, thinking, ‘I can’t believe she did that.’

EPC: My heart was pounding. I was seriously under-instructed, and not thinking I was foolhardy, but trying to know the line between being foolish and being adventurous, and I’m sitting there and my heart is pounding against my will. And I was thinking, ‘Stop. Breathe. Just breathe.’ And I’m thinking, ‘What if I don’t? What if I breathe in water? What if I just forget?’ And I thought, ‘You have got to trust yourself.’ You physically have to trust that you can give your brain the right instructions. And I thought, ‘Okay, I’m going to will myself to live. I’m going to go into that water and I’m going to will myself to breathe in the air from that pipe that’s in my mouth and not let go of that.’ And it was scary at first, so in a way I overcame something that was really frightening to me. I didn’t know that I was actually scared of it; it was all about doing it. I didn’t know I was scared, and I’d do it again, but in a way I had to trust myself first, to desire life. It was cool. It was really fun to do, too.

AK: In terms of these poems, the approach of them, of being a foreigner in a place, and how that affected what you were writing and what you were processing, I wanted to just hear you talk about that. But then also because I really see this connection in your other work as that being something that you were already doing, using this idea of foreignness in general in how a person relates to another person, and what’s important in it, even in what I was saying about what you were just reading from your notebook, this idea of probing and probing and probing until you get to the thing, and how that connects to the idea of foreignness in your work. So whatever you want to say about that, I’m curious to hear.

EPC: I don’t consciously put foreignness in my work. It’s an unconscious thing. If anything, it’s unconscious. That’s pertinent to my existence. When I was a little kid, I definitely felt in my own little world, and it never really went away. To share it with someone else who is also very similar—someone else who stares off into space, somebody else who reads all the time and writes all the time and constantly envisions their own world—you can’t make that go away. You can create your own world together, but you both have your own worlds still. We spend so much time together. When we’re not at work, we’re together. And we do different things sometimes, but we spend a lot of time in the same space and we get along really, really well in that space, because we both like to focus and do things, and talk to each other. We really like to talk. Talk, talk, talk. Talk about teaching, talk about writing, talk about projects, and yes, we still have very different worlds inside our minds. There’s a feeling like no matter what you do you can never really…even if you create a whole list of axioms, you still have to, after the talk, stop talking and go off and live your own existence, go off and live your own thoughts. I’m really idealistic. There have been some hard truths in our relationship recently. We’re getting married in a week basically. I picked up my wedding dress today. But when I was in Egypt, and Mexico…writing is just a part of my process of my existence, so I thought I would do it, not more than usual, just because wherever I go I want to write. And the concept of foreignness was that it wasn’t chosen as a topic. I wanted to sit and observe people, just like I would normally, so to me it was the same process, and unfortunately I didn’t really try to break those habits into different kinds of writing, I just did the sitting, writing, thinking. In a lot of ways I think I remain unchanged. There were some things that changed in me. My perspective on love shifted a little. I think I learned a lot about love being apart from Joe for two months—that’s as long as we’ve ever been apart from each other. He went to Mexico last summer and I went to Oaxaca in 2008, early 2008 for a month. But I think my concept of foreignness, for example, writing in this poem, ‘I’m being psyched in the heart of prophecies…the heart of prophecies.’

AK: “I got psyched for being in the foothills of historical prophecy.”

EPC: It really was that you were on a bus for ten hours from Alexandria to Mount Catherine, so I didn’t realize it was real until Cairo passed by, and it was dark, and then we crossed the Suez canal, and I was like, ‘Okay, we’re really going to be on the Sinai peninsula.’ So I was just watching, like, ‘when am I going to see these mountains? What are they going to look like? Are we just going to just drive right up the mountain?’ I didn’t really comprehend until I realized we were going to actually stop and walk up the mountain. So I was getting psyched for it. It was really the only way to really fit it, in English we say, ‘you’re getting psyched,’ or, ‘you’re getting stoked’—this feeling of ‘I’m really effing excited’ because this is the mountain I heard about in Sunday school and this guy Moses, he was like the underdog prophet because he was saved in the basket, he was this baby, so you think of him as somebody who just—he pissed me off as a biblical character. He didn’t do too many I mean amazing things. I mean he had the whole snake thing—that number. He had the whole parting the red sea thing. He wasn’t too divine for me. I liked that he was a leader in an honest way.

AK: And I think in terms of the whole observing thing, like you were saying—observing the things around you and that being more what you were focusing on, some of these poems, like “Last Smokes,” I think that definitely comes across as one of those observation poems, and this last one, “At Full Gallop.” This is an amazing image—”a woman in the delta at full gallop/on a horse with a child under her arm/heading toward us on a dusty road/next to the flooded green beds.” It’s written very understated because it is just that observation—but when you think about what the image is, and the kind of danger, and the confusion as to what’s going on and why that…

EPC: It just speaks for itself in my mind. That image can evoke without having to say what I felt about it. Because if you think about the words, you’re going to have to think about this woman, who is with this child who is just…I wanted to transmit the images just as they were, as much as I could, because I don’t know when you’re going to Egypt. I don’t know when other people are going to Egypt. I wanted to just write the things that touched me. You know, I couldn’t obviously see everything, but I wanted to see what I saw, see it purely, and write it purely, as much as I could. And that was just a really neat thing; you can drive for hours without seeing anything that fascinates you so much. You’re overwhelmed from seeing difference, difference, difference, and all of a sudden you see something that just evokes. And it probably could feel the same way here in the United States. Strip mall, strip mall, strip mall, and then you see something that’s amazing.

AK: That’s so true. I can definitely see how you can do that in this poem, where it’s almost as if you said anything more about it, it could maybe take away from the significance of it, whereas in the other poem about the juice stand vendor (“Blue Eyes”), the poem is so much about your feeling and your wanting to connect:

Blue Eyes

The blue-eyed juice shop clerk in Ibrahimia
in a futbol jersey working the cane
a trill in his voice colored by a Czech strain
looked deep into my blue for just one moment
until the liquid joy of blue
had drank its fill and was simply the
first eyes like mine i had seen in the
Muslim-scarved turbulent markets

I turned and sipped my first asab juice
sweet green froth, eying the match
listening to the banter between he and the old cashier
with the olive and maroon tokens in his wooden desk

I put down my mug onto the ceramic counter
and headed back into the mercantile tide
like a blustering snow of people

Yet I was warmed by the presence of a pub bartender
vending sugar cane instead of beer
welcoming transience instead of bored permanence
He mopped his counter and rinsed his glasses
and adjusted the telly—
and yet his cracked and tempered Arabic
spoke of decades I could only fathom if there were time to stare
time to ask
–but his language was hooved and whipped to a trot
His ice eyes sublimated into jamming the rods of cane into the Goliath of a juicer, pouring the ice-cooled drink from a metal tureen, and he shaved the the cane
and mopped the counters
a ferocious sensuality chained behind his simplicity,
His little space seemed too cramped
I was a little fly on a horse’s buttock,
irritating him in his stall, so i blew out of there
carrying his blue eyes like a refreshing

AK: And I love this one, because, one, I have blue eyes also, and I could really imagine being in a place where you’re really different from other people, and that connecting opportunity is something that in itself is so beautiful and necessary and important to write about.

EPC: I can see the place. I can get on the train and ride it and get off of it. And walk down there in my mind and drink the juice. I can imagine the whole walk….I like to be in love. I like to feel intensely. Almost to a fault. And I think in my writing—you bring up when I was connecting, looking for something. It took me a couple of weeks before I had to let go of here and just be there, and I finally had to fall into a rhythm and I started connecting with people, and they have—Nebi Daniel street is one of the oldest streets. It’s a North/South street. It used to be the Street of the Sun, the sun and the moon, I guess, the northern axis or south axis, and they have booksellers there and I made friends with a bookseller and you would tell this guy, Hamdi, tell him what you want, a book that you want and he’ll find it and a week later he’ll have it for you waiting for you. And I thought that was really cool. And I made friends with the people selling newspapers, and I made friends with this coffee shop—a couple of coffee shop people—this Italian coffee shop. It was really weird because there were these two coffee shops. It was a roastery, so it was really the best coffee in the whole city, I swear to you. There are two shops in the shop—two brothers. Literally, they use the same coffee, but they run two shops, and there are no doors in between, and they are both ornate and beautiful. Somebody told me that they had a fight. So, these two places. I would go there and I would sit in the one—and I didn’t smoke for a week while I was there. And I went to one of them and would just sort of sit there and have a cigarette and drink coffee and I would think to myself, you are so bad, just drinking and smoking a cigarette. It wasn’t hard to quit at all. You get this feeling in a foreign country—’I’m going to get some coffee and smoke a cigarette and write,’ and it just feels good, just to be sitting, observing, and just interacting. And they all smoke—the whole country smokes.

AK: Just to feel alive.

EPC: And like, why not? People want to talk to you. ‘Have coffee, have a cigarette, sit down and tell me a story.’ Because you’re foreign, people want to talk to you, so you sit there and talk with them. Interesting people.

AK: These poems made me want to go to Egypt. I definitely had the experience reading them of, ‘Oh wow. I want to see what she’s writing about.’

EPC: I recommend it. It’s beautiful. A different terrain, being on the Mediterranean, going into the big city, going out to the desert. It’s just different landscapes. The mountains, the water—the diving that you can do out there is some of the best in the world. It’s so beautiful. I never thought in all the world that when I went to Egypt I would dive. I just didn’t think about it. And then I heard about it and was like, ‘Of course, of course, of course—I want to do it. I want to see it. The coral reefs—of course.’ I’ve never seen anything so beautiful in my entire life, ever. The water was so beautiful and perfect, and then the coral—just amazing. Things coming out every little nook, little beautiful coral fish, and that’s there, and you’re thinking, ‘All around me is this mountain,’ and my mind is just mountain, and desert, and dry, dusty streets, and the perfect sunshine, and you just think of this baked area above you—baked, encrusted with concrete, and just poverty, and then when you’re underneath it, it just feels like there’s this crevice of beauty that you can go into and look around. And you come up, and you’re like, ‘Oh, wow, city. City dust. Contrast between the two, in spirit. I would go. Alexandria, too—Alexandria can be boring a little bit, but you have to take time, seek out little places and make your own connections. That’s what I did. But Cairo is so grand. If I went back I would have to go to Cairo and just investigate, keep going to places I want to go back to. Markets. Like Khan el-Khalili is a famous market-bazaar, but then beyond that, the City of the Dead where people live among these tombs. Millions of people living in a City of the Dead. It’s not just that there are graves there, but that people live next to graves. They’ve built their lives around these graves, but it’s like New Orleans-style graves, so they’re above ground. And then there’s a trash city, too, where people live among the trash. And those people were the people who actually had those pigs that were killed. Right after the swine flu outbreak, which happened right after I arrived to Egypt, which I was so sickened about. I literally thought I brought the swine flu there, because I got sick in D.C. before I even got there, and I was running a fever when I got there, and I was like, ‘Oh God, I’m never going to make it through customs.’ In Alexandria you get there to the airport and the system was you had to get something stamped, and everybody had to bumrush this one guy and get him to stamp a paper. That was the system. And we were all laughing, ‘Oh, that’s the Egyptian system.’ There is no system. That’s the system. And I thought, ‘Oh no, they’re going to scan me’ or something. Take my temperature. But I brought my fever down. But anyway they killed a bunch of pigs—they killed thousands of pigs. And the pigs were what the garbage collectors used to clean the trash up. The pigs would eat the garbage, a lot of it. And when they killed all the pigs, it wasn’t sensible because the people who eat the pigs aren’t Muslims, and so the government, I guess they weren’t really considerate of these poor, non-Muslim, minority people. I mean, I didn’t see the trash city, but I heard about it. It was really very close inside Cairo.

Want to read more? Check out Ashlie Kauffman’s interview with Baltimore poet Emily Peterson in the winter issue of jmww

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