The Chat with Lucas Crawford

Crawford Headshot_ July 2018 (002)
TREVOR-CORKUM-cropped_small

This week, we’re in conversation with Lucas Crawford, author of The High Line Scavenger Hunt (University of Calgary Press), an innovative and playful collection exploring the history and cultural geography of a vibrant corner of Manhattan.

Poet Shannon Webb-Campbell says, “These poems re-visit, re-imagine and re-story a neighbourhood once home to drag kings and queens, AIDS activists, kink and leather clubs. The High Line Scavenger Hunt retraces urbanization and unwritten queer histories through modes of autobiography, metaphor and architecture. A must read for any urban misfit, intellectual outlier, and every queered heart.”

Lucas Crawford is a poet and an associate professor of English Literature at the University of New Brunswick. Crawford is the author of Sideshow Concessions, winner of the Robert Kroetsch Award for innovative poetry, and of Transgender Architectonics, which helped spark ongoing interest in the High Line park, its designers, and its histories. The High Line Scavenger Hunt is their most recent collection.

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THE CHAT WITH LUCAS CRAWFORD

Trevor Corkum: The High Line Scavenger Hunt is a brilliant title. Can you tell us more about how the collection come together?

Lucas Crawford: I’d been fixated on the work of Diller Scofidio + Renfro (the architects who redesigned the High Line), so I remember studying the plans for the High Line several years before the first phase of the new park opened. At the time, I was fascinated by its design. I loved that it was so jarring: a tiny strip of green cutting the grey city-body like a scar. But what was the injury?

In the years to follow I asked that question a lot. I started an intensive “Introduction to Architecture” studio course at Columbia University in the summer of 2009, and was disgusted by what felt like its shared approach to bodies, histories, and justice. As the first two poems of the book relay, I dropped the program. But the High Line had been our focus, and I now had a long list of how would-be architects thought about this park—as magical, as a saviour, as a miracle of urban renewal, and, crucially, as unencumbered by history. I knew I had to write about what I heard and saw, and provide the alternative narrative, however limited, that a critic of architecture and trans studies scholar could feasibly write.

I drafted the manuscript at the Banff Centre Writing Studio in 2012. I set it aside and came back to it in the summer of 2017 while going through lots of changes in my life. I had missed it and reconnected with its purpose. The people at U of Calgary Press have been fantastic.

TC: The poems form a love letter to a neighbourhood in New York that has since experienced gentrification—though its grittier, complex history lives on in your work. Why does gentrification have such a hold on your imagination?

LC: Thank you for hearing love in the poems. I want to underline that this love is a weird one—one that mixes distance with proximity, nostalgia with presence, and aspiration with detestation. I have lived in rural locales for the majority of my life—these are places where gentrification happens differently, or doesn’t happen, and for which many queer people cannot imagine desire. In the 90s, becoming a queer person for me meant feeling insufficiently urban, with all the connotations of class, shame, (im)mobility, “coolness,” cosmopolitanism, “being in the know,” etc. that comes with the word “urban.” This is all to say that I approach the High Line with the love of a country boy coerced culturally into urban modes of queerness, with the appreciation of someone who didn’t live near the High Line in its earlier incarnations, and with all the many limits of myself as a person.

In the 90s, becoming a queer person for me meant feeling insufficiently urban, with all the connotations of class, shame, (im)mobility, “coolness,” cosmopolitanism, “being in the know,” etc. that comes with the word “urban.”

I love your diction there—the “grittier” history of the space. I am thinking a lot about gender and texture these days. What is grit? Lack of smoothness? Roughness? That which would sand our surfaces down to bareness? Smoothness is literally homogeneity-when-rubbed. Perhaps we could say that some spaces are too smooth. I’d love to reread urban “grit” further (and undo its association simply with “dirt”) but I’ll save that for later perhaps.

Smoothness is literally homogeneity-when-rubbed. Perhaps we could say that some spaces are too smooth.

Why gentrification? For a long time, I have been interested in the ways in which spatial arrangements exercise power. That can materialize via a number of names and methods: incarceration, colonization, segregation, surveillance, gentrification, and I think subtler ways we have not yet noticed. We all live spatially (and have learned to experience our bodies as sacred interiors of which we are the sovereign rulers—an interesting model to say the least) so I think it befits us all to think about space when we can. Of course some people are forced to think about it constantly, whether due to constant displacement or living with the intergenerational aftermath of territorial violence.

TC: You also reclaim an erased, or hidden, transgender history in the neighbourhood. Can you speak more to the ways in which ideas and experiences of gender and geography co-exist in your work as a writer?

If only I were powerful enough to reclaim such a history! It’s not mine to reclaim anyhow. But I can gesture towards questions, I can commemorate some events, I can try to get us to think through our relations to spaces and to urbanism in general, and I can fantasize different ways things could have gone and could still go. I can hopefully show us how to notice spatial-power dynamics in our lives, far beyond the High Line. But I leave it to others to reclaim.

I turn gently towards an approach of reclaiming in the work I’m researching now: a poetic study of the Ripples Internment Camp in New Brunswick (which housed 711 Jewish POWs in 1940–1941, and then political dissidents and other POWs until 1945) interwoven with my own belated queer maritime Jewishness.

Gender and geography are both about form, the question of how things take shape or are given shape. Maybe it’s a skill, or maybe it’s an incapacity, but I’ve never been able to see them as separate. And I suppose my research and poetry have largely been about that.

Gender and geography are both about form, the question of how things take shape or are given shape. Maybe it’s a skill, or maybe it’s an incapacity, but I’ve never been able to see them as separate.

TC: One of my favourite poems in the collection is “Feel it for Yourself.” In the poem, the speaker states “The High Line’s body says: I’ve already been dead, dude, and now/I’M THIS”—one of many examples in your poems where the High Line is embodied, alive, wounded, scarred. Do you remember the first time you visited the High Line? What were your first impressions, then? What’s your relationship with the High Line now?

LC: Yes, I visited the first phase of the park in June 2009, the week that it opened. It was packed to the extent that it was difficult to experience. I went back many times that week, with a disposable Kodak camera. I ended up with shitty photos that nonetheless captured something: the surveillance cameras, bathrooms signs indicating that they closed long before the park itself did, narrow chairs that didn’t fit half of my ass, zealous crowds. I also loved the design. I knew I’d struggle to reconcile the park’s imbrications in urban history with its design. So my impression was mixed: I loved it, and didn’t. And I hope that ambivalence (not non-caring, but being of many minds) comes across in the book.

I’m working currently with the arts curators at the High Line and with my friend and artist Ted Kerr to put together an audio guide to the park—a kind of poetic guided tour of the space that visitors will be able to download and listen to as they like, either in the park or elsewhere. It is very exciting to take the work back to the park! And the book was reviewed by a Columbia journal. So I may be finding some peace now that my words are out there and are circling back to where they started. (Of course, I don’t find peace with the underlying dynamics critiqued in the book, and their presence in cities and communities all over the place.)

TC: You grew up in rural Nova Scotia, and currently work as a professor at UNB. In what ways does the Maritimes inform your work, and how would you say your work is in conversation (at all) with other Maritime writers and artists?

LC: I have spent two-thirds of my life in the Maritimes, so it informs my work in that robust way meant by the old saying, “you can take the girl out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy” (I added some gender flavour there!). It’s where I’m from, and where I am currently.

I am uninterested in representations of the Maritimes as quaint, as straightforwardly xenophobic, as desperately seeking Torontonian approval, or as nostalgically “simpler” or “slower.”
I’m excited about new queer work coming from maritime authors. Matthew Walsh’s These Are Not the Potatoes of My Youth (Icehouse 2019) is an excellent rewriting of Maritime queerness that uncoils the religiosity of the place and then makes queer bodies into a new kind of sacred flesh. I recommend it highly. Not that I’m biased at all, but the newest works by my partner Triny Finlay broach mental illness and sexuality with concurrent ferocity and calm in a way that motivates the reader to think differently, but without being prescriptive or presumptive. Finally, I work creative writing assignments into my courses when I can, and both the creative and critical work of my students show me important hopes for Maritime lit and life.

Matthew Walsh’s These Are Not the Potatoes of My Youth (Icehouse 2019) is an excellent rewriting of Maritime queerness that uncoils the religiosity of the place and then makes queer bodies into a new kind of sacred flesh. I recommend it highly.

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Feel it for Yourself

Walk the High Line:
trace your toe along
every dotted scissor-cut line
every piece of scrubbed-up
collaged piece of the Hudson Line.
Put your ear to shallow turf to hear
the ocean or a conductor’s ghost.

The High Line’s body says:
I’ve already been dead, dude, and now
I’M THIS. I don’t know for how long.
Visit the High Line after hours.
Scale the side like punks used to—
cricket-quick—
to lie on your back in the thicket.

With your right hand,
rub every mark of time on your body
thumbing through your archive.

With your left, stroke the old tracks
they’ve inserted into the sidewalk.
Stroke the old tracks that cut
across the High Line’s chest

        like the scars
        I don’t have.

Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

April 3, 2019
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