Interview with queer poet Louie Crew
1. When did you start writing poetry and why?
A teacher in the 7th grade in Anniston, Alabama, picked up on my wide-eyes of wonder when she read poetry to us. She often asked me to write a poem, and she read each to the class. Actually, I did not like her twangy country accent, but I liked her enthusiasm. It was awkward, because some of my classmates were ahead of me in picking up on my being queer, and they did not like poetry or teachers’ pets. As a sissy-boy, I used snobbery as a defense to explain my isolation to myself. My teacher seemed not to notice. She liked talent wherever she found it. She was my redneck muse, I suppose. She’s long dead, but likely she knew I would someday grow to appreciate her. She nurtured my soul in the dark places. I honor her. She also influenced a few of the poems I have written to say holy things with redneck diction. My favorite is guy speaking to his boyfriend:
Man, ain't no call to go readin pomes.
Pomes jist bottle us up,
like that ship on the shifferobe,
no air there. People be wood.
Come to me, baby.
Pomes writ onliest on paper.
-- Hear my reading of "Preserved" on Youtube at
2. What is your writing process?
Poems usually find me before I find them. Even in high school, when taking notes for classes, not just literature classes, alternative subjects would bombard me. I had to find ways to put them on hold so that I could pay close attention to the class. “R.T.” I would write in the margins, and then interrupt my class notes with snatches of the intruding ideas, writing as fast as I could. “R.T.” was my short hand for “Running Thoughts.”
Days, weeks, sometimes months later I would go back to my R.T.s and mine them – for a poem, for a paper, for a letter, for a conversation with God....
I had lots of conversations with God, but She’s lousy as a talker. The Psalms taught me that it is alright to yell at God, at least in private.
One day during a Greek class at Baylor, I stopped believing in the Baptist god. All of a sudden, I vividly realized that I had not really decided to believe freely, as I claimed, but had been programmed to reach all the religious conclusions of my family and our Baptist congregation. I realized how wrong so many of those conclusions were, particularly about race, and gender and sex.
But I loved scripture, especially the parts not talked about in churches--the holy candor, even about the major characters in the narrative. And because I had a minor in Greek and a minor in Religion, for 44 years as a teacher I have been assigned courses in The Bible as Literature. What a treat!
3. Which poets throughout time have influenced your writing?
I cut my teeth on the canonical poets that I taught (especially those in the ubiquitous Norton’s anthologies). For years I tried to memorize a new poem each week when I did my ironing. I also worked out a scheme to give extra credit to students who could recite 50+ lines in any one sitting. They chose lots of short ones of course, so I learned with them many by Emily Dickinson, Ogden Nash, Robinson Jeffers.....
For my first seven years out of graduate school, I taught in secondary schools – two prep schools in the U.S. and one secondary modern school in the slums of London. Lads in the prep schools loved to choose bawdy passages from Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth and recite them while in the shower with the windows open just as faculty wives were on their way to the dining hall. Imagine Lady Macbeth speaking through the loud voice of a naked boy in the shower:
54 I have given suck, and know
55 How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me:
56 I would, while it was smiling in my face,
57 Have pluck'd my nipple from his boneless gums,
58 And dash'd the brains out, had I so sworn as you
59 Have done to this.
“So you’re teaching Shakespeare again, huh,” the wives would chuckle when they joined me at the same table.
I loved the canonical poets, but increasingly I devoted my private reading to the uncanonical ones. Gil Scott-Heron, Langston Hughes, Margaret Walker, Nikki Giovanni.....all spoke for freedom, a freedom I wanted for them long before I could name my own desire for freedom as a queer.
Once riding in old Baltimore,
Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,
I saw a Baltimorean
Keep looking straight at me.
Now I was eight and very small,
And he was no whit bigger,
And so I smiled, but he poked out
His tongue, and called me, "Nigger."
I saw the whole of Baltimore
From May until December;
Of all the things that happened there
That's all that I remember.
-- Countee Cullen
You don’t have to work hard to imagine the parallels that a closeted sissy boy turning princess saw in that poem.
I met Ernest on Labor Day weekend 1973 just at the start of my new job at Fort Valley. We courted for five months and then married. The wedding pages of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution would not have noticed us, but local citizens in Fort Valley did when we took out a joint checking account.
"Would one expect God to keep silent when homosexuals are tolerated?" a bishop asked through a national John Birch Society newspaper when a devastating tornado struck Fort Valley 13 months later. (See the article at http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~lcrew/tornado.html)
In a spate of hate calls one familiar voice rang: "Louie, you and Ernest get yourselves on over here and kiss in my backyard so my greens will grow!" An administrator at the college also called to suggest that I apply for head of Agriculture: power to control the wind and the rain is queer power indeed.
With Rictor Norton I co-edited College English for a special issue on “The Homosexual Imagination” (November 1974), and through that experience met poets Paul Mariah and Robert Peters. Peters visited Ernest and me in Georgia when I got him an invitation to do a reading at Fort Valley State College, and our paths intersected many times through the decades. What a giant of a man; what a superb poet.
4. What do you consider your poetic style to be?
I’m an actor at heart. Many sissies growing up in my generation (born in 1936) had to work hard not to be exposed, and we tried on lots of roles, since many of them did not seem to fit well. For the summers of 1968 and 1969 I played the roles of William Henry Harrison, Sequoiah, and Sam Houston in Unto These Hills on the Cherokee reservation in North Carolina. Some said I could make hair grow on a young man’s chest when before 2,500 people seated on the mountainside, I came on saying, “My name is Sam Houston.” I was equally convincing as a pink powder puff.
I won ‘Best Actor’ in 1968 at the University of Alabama for my performance as Shylock. The head of the theater, Doc Galloway, who, rumor had it, lost her husband to Tennessee Williams when they were studying Theater together, asked me during a break in the rehearsal, “Louie, in what part of England did you grow up?” All the other players were stunned into silence, because they already knew. And she was a national expert on accents of English.
Many of my poems are satirical. I like to take the voice of someone who is my enemy and pull out all the stops with it.
I like narratives. I loved Vachel Lindsay when I was a child. I love him still. Even at 75 one of my favorite fantasies is to take to the road and write poems in exchange for bread. Lindsay took poetry on the road the way a circus takes gymanastics out of the gymansium.
I also like sonnets, villanelles, blank verse, ballads, and a bunch of other forms, as well as my major mode, free verse.
5. What topics do you tend to write about?
I have written probably one-fourth of my poems as occasion poems, especially from the 70s through the 90s -- gigs that were part of a women’s march to “Take back the night” or lbgtq pride marches or civil rights protests.
6. There is a large community of poets on the internet these days. Which "internet" poets are your favorites?
I love searching on Youtube for “Queer Poetry", “Feminist Poets” “Caribbean Poets,” “Ugandan...Poets”.... I listen for hours. I was educated to discern for myself the best, not to repeat the lists that others had made of the best (those in the Norton’s canons). The internet lets listeners judge for ourselves what we like. Some of it is terrible, and much of it is not to my taste. But it’s easy to stop the video and go to the next. My own work is not to everyone’s taste. Nor should it be. I am amazed that many editors have chosen to publish it. It was on the internet that I discovered Andrea Gibson, Alix Olson, Rakeem OneVoice Person, Slampoetress and many other favorites. It’s a treat to find old favorites there too -- Minnie Bruce Pratt, Mark Doty, Achy Obejas, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, Susan Griffin....There are even lots of straight poets that I like there too.
7. What do you enjoy most about being an editor for an online publication?
I maintain a website called “Poetry Publishers Willing to Receive Submissions Electronically” at http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~lcrew/pbonline.html . I now list nearly 900, with links to their websites plus their email addresses or web forms for submissions.
I began the project in 1996 because I wanted to cut down on my postage costs. “Since I am gathering this information for my use, why not put in the extra work and share my findings on the web,” I reasoned. I also wanted to save paper and printing costs. I especially wanted to free up more time to read and write.
I identify the publishers whom I list from every possible source, but confirm in advance of a listing that each is currently publishing and that each welcomes electronic submissions. I also do not knowingly list any publisher who requires a reader fee or any who refuses to give at least one contributor copy to each person if the publication is available only in print. I explain my choices on the site: Publishers should publish, not require the writers to provide the fees. Fees greatly reduce a publishers' incentive to be real publishers, i.e., to find readers for what the writers write. Vanity is vanity. Anyone who requires reading fees, entry fees, or author purchases is running a vanity press. I realize that those who do, have some distinguished company, but it is vanity nevertheless.
Many were slow to welcome electronic submissions for 2-3 years. Some sent nasty replies to my queries; yet some of the same ones now thank me profusely for listing them. I visit each site once a month (through an automated but clunky process) and query each publisher by email at least twice a year to keep my listings as current as possible. Dozens write me to thank me for helping them connect – both editors and writers. As a data quean I get so much pleasure out of maintaining the site that I often forget that some people actually find it helpful.
8. What are some of your favorite poetry journals in print or on the internet?
A second major treat of my site, for me and for many others who have discovered it, is to use it to visit random samples of current issues of say 5-10 journals in a sitting. Sometimes I even record my reading of sample poems, to discipline myself to shut out the world around and experience the power of the poem on the tongue. Some poets would write better poems if they read them aloud before circulating them for publication.
9. What advice would you give to a novice poet?
Read as much contemporary poetry as you can, even those poets you don’t like. Some will grow on you, and you will grow as you discern why you do or do not like them. The way people talked and wrote in 19th and 20th centuries was okay for those who lived then, but you live in the 21st century. Write in a voice that is authentically yours and at the same time authentically in our time and place.
I love my Anglo-Catholic parish, except for one thing. We use the contemporary versions of scripture and the Book of Common Prayer, but when we come to “The Lord’s Prayer,” we shift to the King James version. I fantasize that God redirects those prayers to a recording angel and shifts to take prayers in modern Korean, modern Farsi, modern Inuit......God is contemporary or God is not God at all. She can understand the way real people talk. Thee, thine, thou, thy.... might make Her wonder what else you are hiding.
The same goes for real people reading poetry today. Discover your own voice and use the language of today to make your point. Try your poems out on people without telling them you are sharing a poem. Drop them into conversations. Learn from their reactions, and from their non-reactions.
10. What advice would you offer to someone who is frustrated because his/her work is constantly being rejected by journals he/she submits to?
Always assume rejection. Let acceptance surprise you. Have an email address ready to send out rejected material the same day that you receive it. You do not write for your dresser drawer or Drive C: on your computer. Take the time to rewrite some of the work. Look hard for ways to improve it. Never look to editors to validate you. You must do that yourself. As of this writing, editors have published 2,182 of my poems and essays.
If I worry about rejection, I might be tempted to wait until I get over a rejection before I submit the material elsewhere, increasing the delay before my manuscript can find a fit. Rejections are often not related to the editors’ assessment of the quality of our writing. The editor may have already exhausted her interest in the subject or slant we chose, or the editor may have a special focus in mind for the next issue for which our manuscript does not relate, or......
Be very professional and hard-nosed in reacting to rejection. I grieve that many whom I know to be much better poets than I am have very few publications because they experience too much emotional interference with the business (and it is business) of circulation and rejection.
Also, set aside definite periods during which you will manage your circulations. Make those occasions distinctly different from the times that you reserve for writing. The surgeon does not confuse her surgery on your eye with the business of collecting the insurance data and paying the bills.
11. What is your ultimate goal as a poet? Are there any specific awards or prizes you strive for?
I write poetry in part because composing remystifies the world for me. As a teacher, a theologian, and an activist, I spend much of my time and energy trying to explain things, trying to demystify them. That’s important work, and I enjoy doing it; but it the task requires immense arrogance. Life and mind and body are wondrous quite beyond our explanations of them. Poetry celebrates that wonder.
Poetry keeps me awake. Keeps my eyes and ears open. I do not write for the future. I write to provide oxygen to my spirit while I live:
poetry with a Small p
I hope that the world I sing about
will not last,
that my verse soon will self-destruct,
requiring too much gloss
to be worth the reading,
that queer, lezzie,
bulldagger and homophile
will be buried in unabridged
that a homo will be
"a bottle of milk,"
that queanly will survive
only as "venerable,"
that faggot will mean simply
"anyone who demonstrates courage,"
that everyone will aspire
to be a dyke,
or "one who endures and prevails,"
that husbands kissing each other goodbye
will stand out only
because they block the traffic,
that pink triangles will occur
only randomly, and only in linoleum,
quilts, or Christmas paper,
that all these will pass as completely
as our smells at Dachau and Auschwitz.
I carefully remark current social dis-ease
only to destroy it,
not to memorialize it.
Bigotry needs no more monuments.