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A conversation with C.R. Grimmer: Writing against inherited master narratives

This is part three of a five-part micro-interview series Gasher is conducting with authors of the first Gasher chapbooks. Alex Moni-Sauri is the author of the chapbook From the Shore, available on Reviews/Interviews Editor Rushi Vyas conducted this interview with Moni-Sauri via email.

C.R. Grimmer is not only a poet, not only a scholar, not only a teacher, not only an interviewer, not only a multimedia artist. They are all these things and more. In this conversation, C.R. talks about breaking through and re-writing the “master narratives” that limit our ever-shifting expressions of selfhood and identity. Whether those master narratives revolve around gender, binaries of right and wrong, or imperial narratives justified through narrow interpretations of religious texts, Grimmer turns to poetry to elude imposed strictures of sense. In their work as a scholar, teacher, and founder/curator of The Poetry Vlog, Grimmer bridges their poet “spaghetti brain” with a more pragmatic form of building coalitions around social justice through conversations on art and activism. We started this conversation with focusing on how Grimmer’s chapbook with GASHER O— Ezekiel’s Wife, and their Walt McDonald First Book Award-winning full-length collection The Lyme Letters, draw from and speak back to narratives they inherited from a religious upbringing. From there, the conversation rippled outward from the interior, to think about bridges between poetic work and coalition building through different forms of media.

C.R. and I chatted over Zoom and the conversational tone is a byproduct of lightly editing a transcription of our winding discussion.

Rushi Vyas: First, your chapbook O— Ezekiel’s Wife and the accompanying audiobook are so textured and moving. In both this chapbook and your book The Lyme Letters, biblical texts and narratives are central. What drew you to go through these biblical texts and give voice to the women and the non-binary voices within the Bible that are silenced or erased? What tensions or creative openings emerged as you were engaging with these texts?

C.R. Grimmer: First, a little biographical information. I was raised initially Pentecostal, in a highly conservative small church in Michigan. For those that don’t know, Pentecostalism is the strain of Christianity where people speak in tongues and it can be very prone to fundamentalism now (although, I would recommend the book Black Pentecostal Breath by Ashon Crawley, which revisits the roots of Pentecostalism as a kind of radical social tradition). But in the time in which I was being raised, the community’s practice was certainly conservative and insular. We weren't given a lot of access to culture, outside of biblical contexts. The denomination is based more on the Old Testament and how that informs the New Testament, how the New Testament would revise the Old from a Christian perspective. I was immersed in these stories. My mom was the piano player at the church. My dad was music director, choir director, and guitar player. They were always practicing for Wednesdays and Sundays. Our extended family had grown up in the Church, including my grandparents. Through the age of 10, I was raised in the stories as told by that church.

My parents were considered rebellious by some in the church because when the church changed pastors, my parents left for a Baptist church that was perceived as more liberal. From there, that Baptist Church eventually became non-denominational. I was sent to a Christian school for my middle school years and then back to public school for high school. At the time, religious texts were the lens through which I was taught to view the world. As someone who didn't quite fit the gender norms of those religious traditions as they had developed by the 2000s and the 90s, that also meant feeling like there wasn't really a space for me to be in those realities. When you're taught that these master narratives are static, and that there are different roles that can be “good,” and other roles that get you “damned,” it leaves a narrow window loaded with gender expectations. You learn that the ideas of what it takes to be a “good Christian woman” and a “good Christian man” are based on these master narratives in the Bible.

But when you actually look at the texts themselves, these binaries fall apart pretty quickly. Especially when you look into older pre-Christian traditions, how the texts were written through different interpretive lenses. I, ironically, found a lot of liberation by reading these texts on my own. It was popular Christian theology, believe it or not, that started opening up alternate readings of biblical texts to me. I started to read in ways that showed me God isn't always gendered. The original principle of “church” was supposed to signify people gathered together to offer up different interpretations and debate them. There were so many different understandings both historically and interpretively. That made me start to think, “maybe there's not something wrong with me.”

As a queer person who's a little bit indeterminate at times on how they want to identify with gender, I realized that dominant interpretations of these texts make it seem like other identities are closed off. I certainly spent a period of time, where I stepped away from religious texts. I spent some time looking more into Judaism through a romantic relationship and found a way back into reading practices and studying. In the process of going back to those stories from the Old Testament or Torah, it became clear that there are ways to apply the kind of cultural studies work I had done in academia around gender and race, and retroactively read the stories through a different lens. I saw that the practice could be like Toni Morrison's Playing in the Dark, where she talks about reading as a practice to see what's present because of the denial that it's there.

In these projects I was thinking about how I could use marginalia and commentary, and lean into different permutations of the text to build out other possible worlds rather than submitting to what I was being taught about them. So this process of reading and writing was really important for me. It became the process of reconciling my own identity with the identity I had been given growing up. I had to revisit these stories to reclaim them.

Rushi: What is it about Ezekiel’s story that drew you? And how did you engage with biblical stories differently in O— Ezekiel’s Wife and The Lyme Letters?

C.R.: The Ezekiel story is just fascinating to me. He starves himself for 430 days. As part of a prophecy he raises bones up in the desert. He sees the Chariot come down and it's all a kind of sci-fi on steroids. And in the process of revisiting Ezekiel’s story for the chapbook, I found out that a lot of Zionism uses the latter half of the story as justification for Israel. I saw, again, a dangerous world being built from this story. I wanted to rework the narrative.

The Lyme Letters is much looser in that it's very much like ripping Bible verses and stories and mixing them together. For example, take the story of Esau and Jacob. There, you have the promised son in Jacob that will continue a Patrilineal line of property. But for the book, I thought, what if that got mashed up with like Ruth and Naomi? This reclaiming of stories is partially just messing with what the stories are supposed to be and intentionally mixing them around to see what different patterns emerge. So the books are different in that way.

O— Ezekiel’s Wife is very direct in its thinking about this unnamed unbelievable wife figure who, not only in Ezekiel, but in other books as well, does not get named. In both books, I am searching for ways to reintegrate different parts of myself that I had walled off in the past. I am trying to rework these narratives in poetry as a protective measure to ensure I do not have to slip back into places and times where I wasn’t my full self.

Rushi: I’m noticing your use of the term “master narratives.” What you’re doing here reminds me of Julietta Singh’s book Unthinking Mastery, in which she challenges notions of mastery that exist in anti-colonial rhetoric today. She advocates a movement away from modes of thinking and learning tied up with the concept of mastery. It’s almost like what you're doing here is you're unmastering those Biblical narratives and remixing them to challenge that notion of a singular, correct interpretation.

C. R.: Exactly, in fact, the text I drew from for the style of The Lyme Letters is The Master Letters by Lucie Brock-Broido. Those are letters written to a master in which the speaker speaks back against master narratives, the notion of “mastery,” and how it's gendered. This emphasis of mastery feels super colonial, which also has implications for Israel and Palestine. So, yes, 100%.

Rushi: There's a lot we can talk about in the poetry from your chapbook O— Ezekiel’s Wife. In addition to anti-Zionist readings of biblical texts, through this book, we get to know the “I” of these poems as polyvocal, these non-binary or female voices within the Bible that have been silenced, like Ezekiel’s unnamed wife.

To complement the imagistic and sonically rich poetry, I want to talk about the accompanying audiobook and the visual art project woven throughout the text. That art is a project called “Hewn Fruit” by the artist Colleen Burner. And in conversation with the poetry, I read these images a little differently than the description at the back of the book. Moving through the book, the curves resembled heads and I saw huddles of undefined, “invisible” figures that are pushed to the margin, miming what's happening throughout the book with the “I.” What was your creative process with writing alongside “Hewn Fruit” and the polyvocal audiobook? Were you envisioning your poems in conversation with this art, or did the collaborations come after the fact?

C.R.: The art came after in a sense, but Colleen Burner (they/them) and I are good friends. They live in Portland where we were in the MFA program together. We've maintained our friendship and still exchange work. They would send me different visual art they've done and they're one of my favorite all-time fiction writers—really gorgeous writing. So I think our work informs each other because we're fascinated by similar themes, especially around gender, mastery, colonization, and so on. So I guess it would be a lie to say the art came after because I think our relationship is such that it's impossible to separate my work from that person's influence.

For “Hewn Fruit” in the chapbook, I just loved the first piece in the series when they sent me a picture of it. I was obsessed with the work. So when Gasher offered to publish the chapbook I asked if we could get that one as the cover. But Gasher does design for the covers, so I asked Colleen if they would be willing to include their art in the book. Then they offered to do a series, and Colleen picked their order in the chapbook. They named the project “Hewn Fruit,” partly because of the “Hewn” series of poems in O—. We talked a lot about similar dilemmas around our upbringing and who we are now, and so I think the collaboration was just natural.

The audiobook was a totally different scenario. I asked Gasher if they’d be ok with doing an audiobook, but I can't stand it if it's just my voice reading these poems ad nauseum. I was presenting about The Poetry Vlog (more on this below) at the Simpson Center at the University of Washington and Judy Twedt, a sound designer and composer, was presenting on her work. She creates soundscapes of climate change by using the data of ice melting and the stories of different local tribes in those areas as material for composition. The goal of her work is to help people understand climate change in a non-visual and different temporal scale.

I asked if she would be interested in collaborating. When she said yes, I thought she would just create one soundscape playing in the background. Instead, she manipulated the sound in conversation with each poem. We would go back and forth until we hit the right sound and mix with the other voices reading parts of the poems. So that was a little bit more collaborative in-process, but I was stunned at the generosity of Judy, just as I was with Colleen. They went beyond what I ever could have dreamed.

Rushi: This audiobook creates a full experience since it is not just someone reading the poems. Even though that would be wonderful on its own, the soundscapes involved proved haunting particularly early on in the book where we encounter this chorus of “O’s” that establishes both the polyvocality and the reconjuring of these biblical stories throughout the work.

C.R.: Yes, I should mention my writing group, including writers Woogee Bae, Katelyn Oppegard, and Abi Pollokoff. I don't remember how it started, but I was telling them I wanted more voices in the audiobook. I asked if they would be willing to record different parts. I felt uncomfortable asking anyone for anything more to be honest, but they were enthusiastic. Each of them recorded parts for Judy to weave into the sound. Judy remixed them throughout the tracks, particularly for the chorus of “O's” since “O” is not supposed to be one voice. Beyond signifying multiple voices from biblical stories, it is also meant to represent the idea that you can become different people throughout your life, that you're not a static person. Identity isn’t necessarily only something that you move through the world with. Maybe, the world moves through you as you form different identities.

Rushi: That’s so beautiful. And the musicality of the audiobook mimes the musicality in your poetry itself which is so sonically textured, as well. Along with the soundscape, we encounter many musical passages like “wing upon wing upon wax until the sheen / lays down with the seagulls sing it you say” on p. 36. This book in tandem with the audiobook is so well-made for re-reads or re-listens where the music reveals some new arrangement of meaning each time.

Shifting gears to The Lyme Letters—your larger award-winning debut collection (available through Open Books, Texas Tech University Press, Powell’s, and elsewhere) also has an audiobook on the way. As you mentioned earlier, The Lyme Letters, is a collection built on the epistolary form. How do you see that form and mode of address as serving what you were writing through—gender, queerness, disability, the impacts of colonialism, healing, etc.?

C.R.: O— Ezekiel’s Wife is kind of like a bridge between my current in-progress work and The Lyme Letters. And there is some overlap between the two. The Lyme Letters is more of a thru-narrative. It is a collection of all these letters that slowly build a three-part, nonlinear story around the person named “R” that's writing these letters. There are around eight or nine different entities that received the letters.

I'm hesitant about saying this publicly in an interview, but the letters are definitely addressed to people I’ve encountered in the world. There are letters written to my doctors and actual letters from my doctors that they wrote to support recommendations and other such things. Some of the letters are adapted and some of them are real, verbatim letters themselves. And then there are the people written to who are pretty obviously ex-lovers, ex-husband, family members, funding institutions, etc.

So the letters are trying to sort out different ways of becoming someone who is navigating different disabilities, thinking about gender and sexuality, and living in a very colonial world. O— is very different in that it takes on the voice of a character that I read in-between the lines in scriptures, and those letters in the voice of O are written to other characters within that world like Ezekiel. The chapbook finds voice through cultural artifacts. The Lyme Letters is more contemporary, certainly more playful, and, yeah, includes very bad gay jokes and Bible jokes throughout.

You can track how the way R speaks to different people depends entirely on the addressee. If there are three letters to one person, those three letters speak to each other more than to letters addressed to a different person. This slowly allows the reader to pull different themes through. Then R writes some letters to themselves at the end, but recycles different languages from the other letters in order to do it.

I think all of our relationships with people are loaded down with these other master narratives that we've absorbed over time. The letter form becomes a way to speak to both of those things at once—the relationship and the master narratives that cloud us from encountering each other fully. The epistolary is weirdly an opportunity to approach another and say, “the things you never asked me to tell you I’m now going to tell you.” It's also a little bit of a power move because they aren't writing back. And again when who you are in the world doesn't make sense in the cultural context that you're placed in, such as my gender identity and the community in which I was raised, it can be really healing to get to reach out to someone and not have to worry about them getting it. I have a spaghetti brain, so I’m always loaded down with everything else in the world that I know.

Rushi: I’m thinking about what you were saying earlier about the multiplicity of our identities and how our sense of self shifts. I’m connecting that to what you said about how the language changes in each letter, based on who the addressee is. That mirrors the concept of us being different sorts of people in different contexts, let alone at different times.

C.R.: The idea is that it’s a myth to think of healing as an end state with relationships.

Rushi: I think that elusiveness, that refusal to be pinned down to a specific containable identity connects to the power you alluded to that comes from not needing to ‘make sense’ in this world. That’s one of the gifts I’m receiving from engaging with your work. I’m excited to read The Lyme Letters, but I think that work is also happening in O—, a poetry that refuses to surrender to the limits of ‘understandability.’

This makes me think of your other work, critical and otherwise. For example, your amazing work on The Poetry Vlog where viewers can hear from a huge variety of artists from Jericho Brown to your own students. Not only do you allow for a multiplicity of selves and voices in your own creative work, through TPV you are really creating this space where all of these different voices come together in community, poetry and different modes of activism through the arts and outside of the arts. Could you talk a little bit about your work with The Poetry Vlog?

C. R: The Poetry Vlog, or TPV as I call it, is something I created in order to get better at making sense. If poetry is a genre where you explore experiences, relations, and the effect of different ideas on bodily experience in forms and language that escape the structures (co-extensive with colonialism and imperialism) that insist on legibility, I think that the YouTube teaching video form is the opposite. It sort of mandates a certain amount of legibility in order to help different folks join the conversation and feel welcomed into it. I come from Metro Detroit, and now I am in Seattle. Politically, the two places couldn't be more different. The types of education are wildly different and the way those in the literary world speak to one another is different. I became tired of feeling that I had to bounce between these seemingly opposite worlds and lexicons. Also, I struggled to find video materials to use in my classroom. I kind of joined both of those problems into one solution, creating The Poetry Vlog

At first, it was just me talking about different topics. But who wants to listen to a tirade for 20 minutes about something like a music video? So I started inviting guests whom I knew. Also, it’s better decolonial teaching practice to decenter the instructor and actually bring in different voices of expertise. This is backed by a lot of cultural studies theory and pedagogy, like Barbara Christian’s work in the 80s in “The Race for Theory.” Or one of the contemporary folks on TPV, Camea Davis’s work, too. There's a lot that's been written about how other media genres and forms offer a critical scholarly and creative value, but because they're not print-based publications they aren't given the same credit. My driving question was, “how can I as a scholar, teacher, and poet contribute to unmasking the veils that cover scholarly and text-based forms, but also decenter the idea of the teacher as this singular knower transmitting knowledge?”

With that ethos, I’m working on a critical edition of TPV where we offer specific lesson plans that people could adopt to complement videos like this, alongside some citations and references. Hopefully, the poets and activists themselves gain more visibility as the experts that they are rather than needing to be validated by the text-based scholarly platforms.

I'm co-authoring the lesson plans with a colleague, Rebecca Taylor. The intro framing video features a couple of other projects where other departments at the University of Washington are using videos in their courses this year. One was on Art at the Borders and how art mobilizes different political movements. Another was a Mellon Sawyer Seminar on Humanitarianisms, which talks about how to decolonize the concept of humanitarianism work on a global scale. In summary, I'm interested in finding ways to connect with what I don't already know and then create something with others in a medium appropriate for a given audience. The gift of poetry is that I can play and it's not as much about educating an audience. The gift of TPV is that it allows me to strategically explore more tangible, societal issues alongside various experts inside and outside of the arts.

Rushi: And what's next with your creative work? You've mentioned a little bit with O— Ezekiel’s Wife as a bridge to what you're working on now, but what's next for your own personal work, too?

C.R.: I’m trying to figure out other ways that knowledge can happen out of these collisions between different mediums, disciplines, and styles of knowing. I was recently editing a forthcoming video for TPV with Tommy Pico, and he says his last book might have been his last book of poetry. I think my face showed my shock, but then I realized the possibilities that might arise with a declaration like that. It got me thinking about other genres. I've been fascinated by multimedia installations. When I dream of what's next, maybe it would be to start creating social distance isolation two-minute poetry experience rooms. I won't go into much more detail on that, but I'd like to work in other mediums. Maybe play around with virtual reality, play around with other ways to get your body in the work.


O—Ezekiel’s Wife is available in print and audiobook through GASHER. You can purchase The Lyme Letters through several independent outlets including here.

C. R. Grimmer, who also goes by Chelsea Grimmer and uses she/her and they/them pronouns interchangeably is the author of The Lyme Letters (#thelymeletters). They are also the author of O–(ezekiel's wife), a chapbook and audiobook collaboration from GASHER Journal and Press. Recently, C. R. completed their Ph.D. in Literature and Cultural Studies with support from fellowships such as The Simpson Center for the Humanities' Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Public Humanities Fellowship. In Winter 2021, C. R. began a new position as Communications Manager for The Simpson Center for the Humanities at the UW. They are also currently a Public Scholarship Project Director in the UW Department of English, where they are the Series Editor for "Literature, Language, Culture: A Dialogue Series." C. R. created and hosts The Poetry Vlog, has poems in journals such as Poetry Magazine, FENCE Magazine, and [PANK], and has published articles in journals such as The Comparatist. Their current scholarly book project, Poetry as Public Scholarship: Activist Poetics in the Time of Social Media, combines research analysis and practitioner discourses through text, audio, and video to examine the relationships between racial capitalism, popularized poetry, digital humanities' social engagement, and public scholarship methods.


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