When I Was A Girl Like Me:
An Interview With Poet Margaret Bazzell-Crocker
By Chase Dimock
When Margaret Bazzell-Crocker told me she would be publishing her first collection of poetry in 20 years, I expected her to be revelation to anyone who picked up her book. As a good friend of hers, I knew readers would be equal parts charmed and provoked by her perspective. Her personality certainly radiates from the pages: funny, empathetic, authentic, unrepentantly unorthodox, and insightful.
What I didn’t expect was for the book to be a revelation to me. When you’ve known someone for a while, you tend to think you’ve got them figured out, even when your base assumption is that they are amazing and capable of anything. I learned a lot about Margaret: about her relationship with anger and disillusionment, how these feelings came from her upbringing and her dissatisfaction with the status of women in the world of her youth, and how the Margaret I met in her 40s is a product of decades of harnessing and channeling this into an energy that can create and nurture.
After finishing the book, I wondered if I had been daft and dense to have missed some of this in my friend. But, what I realized while interviewing Margaret is that it is through the language of poetry that so much of this experience can be expressed and heard. When I Was a Girl Like Me is the annotated guide to the life of Margaret Bazzell-Crocker. The following interview is just as much about wanting to better understand a friend as it is about wanting to share her with the world.
Chase Dimock: Your book contains a short introduction in which you address your anger. You write, “People are afraid of anger and especially women are afraid to be angry” and that you are now “comfortable” with your anger because you can “aim it with laser precision.” Why did you decide to begin by addressing your history of dealing with anger and what role does this anger play in your poetry?
Margaret Bazzell-Crocker: I think I wrote first about anger because it’s the emotion I’ve wrestled with most, and I’ve been fascinated with the idea that it seems to be especially shocking when a woman is angry. I remember feeling the same way when I got old enough for my mother to make me start wearing shirts. Why did I have to go around in shirts? None of the boys or men in our neighborhood did! Our household wasn’t really great when I was growing up and anger seemed to be the go-to feeling for all of us, although we always expressed it in gender-specific ways. The girls were allowed to sulk and the boys were allowed to hit.
I think a big, powerful moment growing up for me was when I discovered I had the power to express my anger in more definite ways, and I’m sad to say that I wasn’t, at first, very responsible with this power. I hit, I threw things, I did things I was sorry for afterwards, and I wouldn’t go through that experience again if I could help it. However, I think the message I got when I was younger, and that women continue to get now, was that a girl or woman could feel things in a corner, but they’d better not sit at the table with it. I’m not completely comfortable sitting at the table today, but I’ll do it, by God. As far as how anger affects my poetry, I think it affects some of it, of course. I hope readers will see that this collection begins with anger, but then talks about all kinds of emotions and situations. The collection gets past my anger, but still acknowledges it as a great source of power. Good and bad.
Chase Dimock: Let’s talk about where this anger and your attempt to harness and manage it surface in your poems. A few months ago, we published the second poem in the book, “The Art of Acquiescence,” in As It Ought to Be Magazine. In it you write:
To be a woman
in this world
is to bend and curve and slip around its corners
like a snake in the river.
You explain that a woman must “contort” herself. How do you feel this compulsory contortion and acquiescence feeds into the anger you feel? How does this connect your personal experience with the women of the world who you broadly address in the first two lines?
Margaret Bazzell-Crocker: First of all, I like the words you use about the anger in my poetry, because I think they are correct: “harness,” and, “manage.” That is what I tried so hard to do in the past whenever I felt angry. I would add another that’s in “The Art of Acquiescence” poem itself: “meet.” I did try to harness my anger because it went far into a dangerous field when I found I had the power to wield it, and as I’ve said, I regret that. But, then I found I over-corrected, because I was trying to be accommodating to everyone but me. There is still a tendency now to please everyone around me and be resentful of it. The more I matured and was around different women, the more I found their anger and resentment, even for the people they loved sometimes, matched my own. The more I still found this tendency in many of us, to turn the art of acquiescence into a line, drawn in battle. And the more determined I was to erase, or at least redefine, this line in myself. That’s why I would add the word “meet.” In the poem, the snake meets all obstacles. I love that little snake!
I hope, with this collection of poetry, readers see, not that I am finally at Hallmark Channel peace with my anger, but that I am working to remove the battle from it, to negotiate a peace-accord, maybe with myself. I have come of age, I guess, in my willingness to see it as a part of me, but no longer a defining part of me. I would never advise anyone else to do the same. My poem is my journey, and no one else’s. I wrote it because I feel my journey with anger and with other emotions that stand in the way of growth, change, or even just a happy, still life may resonate with others, too.
Chase Dimock: Last year, I interviewed your husband, Daniel Crocker for his book Leadwood, a collection of the last 20 years of his work. So many of his poems are about your marriage and raising children together, subjects you also engage in poems like “DÖSTÄDNING” (“We had bills we chose to pay, and bills that haunt us still. We ate things from a can that should never be canned”). I’ve been rereading Daniel’s work alongside your book because it’s fascinating to see both partners in a marriage engage with the same history together in poetry. You’re like a rural Missouri version of the Brownings. Like Elizabeth Barrett Browning, you’ve kept your maiden name, Margaret Bazzell-Crocker, which you address in the poem “GROWING UP CURRY-KELLY-BAZZELL-KINCAID-HASTY-CROCKER: A GUIDE FOR THE BEGINNER” How has writing this book allowed you to reflect on your personal history and all of these layers of identity that come with it? How does growing up in rural Missouri and going through all these life changes inform your poetry?
Margaret Bazzell-Crocker: Like a lot of things, this collection wasn’t a complete piece until suddenly it was. I’ve never stopped writing completely, although my last book came out over twenty years ago. For years, I wrote in spits and starts and I would publish when I felt like publishing (which wasn’t often), or I would put the poem or essay or whatever I was writing away for the future (this was more likely). I only recently sat and spent more time really allowing myself to write because I felt I had something big to say. I didn’t know what until I began to fit the pieces I already had together. Somehow, the act of fitting those pieces informed my latest writing and, as I said, it was suddenly a complete story. Some of the poems in this collection are really twenty years old: Two In The Smoking Section and The Nomad’s Romancing, for example. Some aren’t much younger than those: Moon and Elephant, both Mental Health Portraits and Dear Mary.
Once I saw the scope of the poetry over the years, the more I decided that this was a small picture of me. I’d finally found what I wanted to say. I’d been searching for a theme and it turned out the theme was me. As far as how being a Missourian affects my poetry, I would say that one of the things that attracts me about the Midwest is the low B.S. factor. Not that other regions are filled with bullshit, but there’s a tendency here to be very blunt and direct. A lot of my poems have that bluntness, which I didn’t used to think made for good poetry, until I met Dan Crocker, whose poems are as direct as anything I’ve ever read and still beautiful and true and right.
Chase Dimock: Along with the poems that look back at your upbringing and maturation, you also have a number of poems that look at where you are in your life at the moment. For example, poems like the brilliantly titled “We Live in a New Neighborhood Now. You Can’t Do That Shit Any More” and “My Joints Hurt and Other Fascinating Topics of Conversation” talk about ending up middle class and middle aged. Do you feel like you’re using poetry to get a sense of how you arrived where you are now from where you started? How is it different writing about this stage in your life than when you were younger?
Margaret Bazzell-Crocker: I do believe poetry is one of the best ways to get a sense of who you are, where you are and what’s important to you. It’s kind of like looking at layers of rock, really, if you’ve done it for any time at all. In looking back on my earlier poetry and compiling what I could for “When I Was a Girl Like Me,” I was surprised and pleased to find older things that stood the test of time-not only for someone reading the poetry for the first time, but also the test of whether it was still relevant to me. There are some of my poems that exist only in a time capsule, kind of like the ornament you made for mom that she still hangs on the Christmas tree even though you’re 46 years old. I’m not knocking those. I would never throw out all the old photos in the album. Just because they’re not me, now, doesn’t mean they aren’t valuable, or relevant for my future.
I think I mostly added older poems that outline my growth in this collection because the collection is a picture of me, and I didn’t think I could share a complete picture without some history. There was some rough rock in those layers, looking back, but I’m glad I’ve kept a lot of the old stuff in my personal collection, although much of it would be considered bad, at best. There are some old photos that wouldn’t make Time Life, but I wouldn’t want to lose them, either. Some people journal or scrapbook or, I don’t know, collect stamps to mark where they’ve been. I mark my spot with writing. It grounds me, reminds me and directs me to the next spot.
Chase Dimock: Along with your husband Daniel Crocker, you’re the co-host of Sanesplaining, a podcast about mental illness. This is a theme reflected in your poetry as well, most notably in pieces like “Mental Health Portraits” and “Me and the Hecate” (I could be wrong about that one). Why have you devoted so much consideration in looking at mental health? How do your book’s other themes of anger and the experience of women inform how you explore mental health?
Margaret Bazzell-Crocker: You are not wrong about Me and the Hecate. That is a poem I’m extremely proud of because it was one of those rare instances when I said exactly what I wanted to say and it came out in the same version as it is now. A miracle. It’s also a poem I’m very sad to have written at all because it’s about someone close to me who attempted suicide. The exploration of mental health is definitely a part of my soul, and I think I can really trace it back to my sister, Barb, who suffered a traumatic brain injury at a young age. I grew up with Barb, we were a year apart in age. I was always very protective and motherly towards Barb because of her brain injury (she hated that), but I also had an almost clinical fascination with it, as well. It seems odd and cold, but there it is. In my 20’s I fell into a job at a mental health facility for children, and I was suddenly home. This was my passion and I’ve kept at it for over twenty years.
Here’s a fun fact about me-I’ve been historically drawn to the jobs no one else wants to do, the impossible jobs, the jobs everyone responds to with, “Oh. Well, that’s important work,” or, “Dear, God. How did you get into that?” or just utter silence. I’ve worked at many mental health programs including a hospital housing some pretty serious sex offenders and I was a corrections officer for two years. I actually challenged myself to get a job at a prison when I turned forty, it wasn’t something I needed to do. Can you imagine? Why did I do that? I don’t know if I like really heavy challenges or if it’s my ego. There’s a mental health question for you. You asked about my experience with anger, womanhood and mental health, and they certainly all connect to form me and guide my writing. However, I can’t give you a clear path there. In my mind, it looks like one of those link charts you’d see in a police procedural and there are just strings going everywhere.
Chase Dimock: Like the “Me and the Hecate” poem, you have many other poems that directly address a specific person. You literally do this in “Dear Mary” and “For Carrie.” They read like letters you’ve never sent. What do you hope to achieve by writing a poem about a particular relationship? What do you feel that poetry can allow you to express to another person that you can’t in other forms of address? Do you hope these people read your poem or is it more about engaging with how they exist in your own head?
Margaret Bazzell-Crocker: In Winning The Mega Millions, I address God, so if you know where I can send that one, that would be great! I do address other people a lot in my poetry, and there’s a similarity between those poems and how I address myself and other people in my own head. Some of the poems I would never send or read to the people I’ve addressed. Dear Mary is one, because it knocks Mary’s faith as I question my own. Why would I knock someone else’s convictions aloud unless it was something harmful or hurtful to the general public? Others, I have sent or talked about. Me and The Hecate is one of those, because it was about these immense feelings I was having. I felt that I needed to share it. I would say that sometimes I address people in my poems for those very reasons, they’re either thoughts I would never speak out loud without the guise of poetry or they’re thoughts that are so intense that they must live in poetry. I do have a lot of internal monologues going on in my head.
Chase Dimock: Now that you’ve published this volume of poetry, what’s next for you? Are you working on a follow up collection?
Margaret Bazzell-Crocker: It’s funny you ask, because I’ve been wrestling with this a little lately. Not only what I’ll do as far as my creative life, but also in my personal life. I feel afloat right now, and I tend to be more comfortable at the rudder. Maybe it’s age or maybe it’s a “what next” attitude for me, which is usual. I think I’ve been on the move toward one goal or another since I was young. I do know that I’m on the lookout, but I don’t know what for. I think I’m just trying to be open to whatever comes.
When I Was a Girl Like Me is available via Stubborn Mule Press
About the Author: Chase Dimock is the Managing Editor of As It Ought To Be Magazine. He holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Illinois and his scholarship has appeared in College Literature, Western American Literature, and numerous edited anthologies. His works of literary criticism have appeared in Mayday Magazine, The Lambda Literary Review, Modern American Poetry, and Dissertation Reviews. His poetry has appeared in Waccamaw, Faultline, New Mexico Review, Hot Metal Bridge, Saw Palm, San Pedro River Review, and Trailer Park Quarterly. For more of his work, check out ChaseDimock.com.
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