A Conversation with Marisa Crawford
Kate Partridge: Big Brown Bag takes its title from the iconic Bloomingdale’s shopping bags, which have those words printed on the side. Why begin with that image as a title?
Marisa Crawford: Hmmmmmm. The poems in this chapbook are in large part about, and/or written in response to, the difficulties and weirdnesses and tensions that come out of having a day job at a corporation, which I do, and have for the past nearly ten years. I think the image of the shopping bag and the phrase “Big Brown Bag” evoke a lot of things for me—of course the insane “life sucks let’s go shopping” consumerism ethos; a giant brown shopping bag with a brand name on it, filled with designer items. But it’s also just a giant brown paper bag to fill with things—groceries, memories, artifacts, sadnesses, day-to-day accumulations of life. It also reminds me of a barf bag that you might find in the back seat compartment of a plane.
KP: These poems often map the speaker’s shift to adulthood onto life in post-9/11 New York. The poems are tinged with loss, but also develop a greater sense of location because of these intersections. What is the relationship you see between the personal and the political in these poems?
MC: Wow. Such a great question. On one level, I think I see the personal as political in all of my poems in that they’re about walking around in the world as a woman, and a girl, and that writing about those experiences honestly is in a way inherently political because of how mainstream culture depicts women and women’s lives. But also, I turned 19 in 2001, so 9/11 did coincide with me becoming an adult in a way. And my dad was an NYC firefighter and 9/11 first responder, so it was an event that really affected my life on a personal level, as it also of course really changed the world on a huge political/global scale. In a sense the poems are about having grown up in New York, having moved away and then moved back in 2010, and living in the city for the first time, and also working for a company that is so iconically New York, and that has so much family history attached to it--I have a poem that talks about how my dad was an FDNY firefighter, and my grandpa was the mayor’s driver, and my great-grandpa worked in the Flatiron Building. I also learned recently that my great-uncle used to work in the restaurant at the Bloomingdale’s flagship store, that another great-grandfather died while working on the construction of the New York City Public Library. New York City holds so much family history for me, and 9/11 is part of that family history now, and so am I, working as a copywriter for this iconic NYC department store. Being in New York and having certain accesses to money and power and prestige and also being able to tell that story -- it’s all so tied up in class, and gender, and race, and war… I try to explore all of these connections and ideas in these poems.
KP: I love the opening lines of this chap, with a dress that “leads to nowhere” and Goodie’s appearing “a mirage” and “a temple.” Clothing seems both a measurement of and a catalyst for the speaker’s development—such as the sweater circulated among her 8th grade friends, traveling pants style. What’s the role of clothing in these poems, and does it change?
MC: You know, as I was thinking about how to answer this question I clicked on an email from Modcloth and started looking longingly at a bunch of polka-dotted dresses and red strappy shoes online. I’m really interested in how clothing makes me, and other people, feel, and I think the role of clothing does shift throughout these poems. Clothes let you tell a story, and then in retrospect they become a story. I am super sentimental about clothing—clothes I wore during specific times in my life, clothes I bought because of a certain feeling, even clothes I wanted to buy so badly but couldn’t afford or was talked out of buying. I think clothing has so much wrapped up in it, emotionally--clothes conjure different time periods and different cultures, and they convey our personal histories and the many, many versions of ourselves we want to put out into the world. So in that way I think clothes in these poems do get tied up in memories, losses, everyday disappointments. I never want to throw out any of my old clothes, and when I do I miss them. I think about them and I feel actually very sad. And I wish I could wear insane beautiful outfits to work every day, I wish I had the energy to put the creativity and bliss into my outfits each day that I used to, but I don’t, and even if I could only certain kinds of outfits are welcomed in certain work environments, so that’s just one aspect of how people compromise and shape their identities every day, especially women, as we become adults in the world. Lastly, the speaker in these poems works for a huge corporate retailer/department store, where fashion is often synonymous with brand names, designer logos, status symbols, clothing as cultural capital, clothing as capitalist consumption. So the poems I think are interested in looking at all of these roles that clothing and fashion and style play in everyday life and putting them all up against each other.
KP: One of my favorite self-characterizations of the speaker in Big Brown Bag is that she’s a “medium.” In the syntax, it’s easy to read this as the clothing size, but it’s also lovely to think of the speaker as supernaturally connected, an impulse that’s reinforced throughout the poems with references to hovering and antennae. What is the disconnect between this speaker and her surroundings? Is she in touch with something else?
MC: I hope so. I hope she’s in touch with a lot of things and places and people and universes. I think that poetry for me is a way to stay in touch with the magical weird aspects of life and the world that often get lost or overshadowed in the mad dash of everyday adult life, especially when you're working all the time, and especially in a really fast-paced place like New York. So I think the speaker’s experiences and claims in these poems mirrors that. Poems let you time-travel and conjure other worlds while you're walking around in Midtown wearing business-casual clothes, waiting in line to eat a gross salad, sitting in a cubicle for 40 hours of your life each week. Thank goddess they do.
KP: Another theme that interests me in Big Brown Bag is visibility—who sees who, and why. For instance, the speaker comments that a cockroach “didn’t register [her]” and insistently makes reference to the potential to be hit by cars. How are exposure and visibility important to these poems?
MC: I think there is a longing for connection and communication in these poems, and a general feeling of reaching out but not quite reaching anyone. I would say that the poems in this chapbook are in large part about just kind of accepting many of the sad realities and compromises of adult life--oh right, I have to have a job and make money--and when you're a feminist, and when you're a poet, or an artist in general, most of the things you care most about aren't really valued in that way. For me, that reality has lent itself to not feeling seen and recognized for who I really am on a day-to-day basis; being a feminist poet who works in a corporate setting seems to necessitate having a kind of secret identity, an alter-ego who is you and is not you and sort of slips in and out of existence. This all seems very connected to this idea of who sees you, and why, and how you get registered by different people based on the various day-to-day contexts. It's exhausting to be so many different people, but we all have to do it. It reminds me of the Emily Dickinson poem, “I'm Nobody--who are you?” It's a real privilege, getting to be yourself, to be recognized as that, all the time.
KP: This book is embedded in commercialism in interesting ways, from its definitions of space by store names to the speaker’s occupations (and, of course, the title). What that pragmatically means is quite varied, from “clothes that look severely expensive” to the speaker’s joking about having “a toy register with toy money.” What does it mean, then, that this setting is “plastic and colorful,” as she says, and fundamentally “make believe”?
MC: I guess that when you're a kid, you play grown-up--I remember making believe that I worked at a desk, filled with foreign and fascinating office supplies, or, yeah, pretending to work at a cash register. And you just sort of imagine that life is gonna be so awesome. And as you grow up you're learning about the world through marketing and media and capitalism-fueled branding of every single thing in your life, and you don't even realize that; all these various marketed elements just feel like the natural pieces that go into joyously forming your own identity. Like, for me as a teenager, the mall was like this sacred amazing fun place for me to go with my friends and hang out and feel safe. I first really learned about consumerism in women’s studies in college, in learning about how consumer-based marketing and media is so rooted in making people, women in particular, but also everyone else, feel like shit about themselves and their lives so that they will spend money on things they don't need. I try to be a conscious consumer, and to not buy things as entertainment too much, but I also do love objects and fashion and everything else. And on top of that, I work as a marketing copywriter, so even though my job is just writing pretty descriptions of stuff it is also literally my job to kind of trick people into wanting to buy things they don't need. It feels kind of unreal on a certain level--the ridiculous things we have to do to make money, the fact that we need money, the fact that this is what it's like to be an adult and it's not really novel and fun and filled with colorful office supplies, even though it is, the fact that it is. Commercialism makes life feel totally make-believe, and like so much is possible, but really it's so exhaustingly inescapable and all-encompassing and unforgiving. I'm thinking of the Dolly Parton lines from “9 to 5”: “They just use your mind/and never give you credit./ It's enough to drive you crazy if you let it.” She's talking about working every day within a total consumerist culture, but it also relates to just surviving and not feeling like total shit all the time within that culture.
KP: How do you conceive of this project as feminist, and why were you interested in publishing these poems with a feminist press?
MC: Feminism is so important to me, and feels central to every project I do. I think of this project as feminist because it's perhaps most centrally about being a woman walking around in the world and trying to navigate that. These poems try to navigate a lot of things -- work, money, consumerism, family, fashion, memory, war, money, pop culture -- and it's all from the perspective of a youngish woman speaker who was taught certain things about herself and the world and her place in it, and is constantly revising and re-envisioning that. I'm interested in the poetics of writing as a woman with a job and a life and a memory and a lot going on--which for me means writing in short bursts when I have time, on the train, on my lunch break, at my desk at work, and not shying away from the mundane and monotonous details of everyday life. Historically, women's stories haven't been told in this way. In mainstream media and in much canonical literature, women's stories are told by men, through a male gaze, if they are told at all. So I think that writing as honestly as I can about day-to-day life as a woman walking around in the world is inherently a feminist project. I was interested in publishing these poems with a feminist press because I just trust feminist media in a way that I don't always trust other forms of media --largely in part because of what I said above. And I love feminist media--it has basically saved my life and made me who I am-- I don't really know where I would be without it. And I believe that editors running a feminist press will share many of my core feminist values, and my belief that it's urgently important to center and promote the voices and stories of historically marginalized groups of people. I want to support and collaborate with organizations that have those values as much as possible.
Marisa Crawford is the winner of the 2015 Gazing Grain Press Poetry/Hybrid Chapbook Contest. You can purchase her chapbook, Big Brown Bag, here.