Phillip Crymble’s poetry collection "Not Even Laughter" offers more questions than answers



Phillip Crymble and his book Not Even Laughter

The word “measured” would describe poet Phillip Crymble’s poetry collection Not Even Laughter well. This far-reaching collection embraces music, film, and places around the world, while also homing in on specific instants via careful wording. Crymble’s other interests make appearances in his poems, too: vinyl records, vintage audio equipment, travel, hockey, and others. It is the sort of collection in which you notice something new or pick up on something else each time you read.

Cyrmble is no stranger to Ann Arbor, where he lived from 2000 to 2010. He and his wife both studied at the University of Michigan, from which Cyrmble received his MFA and where he then taught. His son was born in Ann Arbor, too. Crymble now lives in Fredericton, New Brunswick with his family and is a doctoral candidate in English literature at the University of New Brunswick. Crymble serves as senior poetry editor for The Fiddlehead, a Canadian literary journal. 

He has lived around the world and studied literature extensively. Born in Belfast and raised in Northern Ireland until 7, he also lived in Zambia for two years. Then, with his father and brother, he moved to Canada and attended middle school and high school in Milton, Ontario. His first undergraduate degree in English came from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. After spending a gap year in Europe and Donaghadee in Northern Ireland, he studied creative writing at York University in Toronto, Ontario.

Recently, Crymble has started to write and speak about having a disability. He lost his arm in an industrial accident during high school. 

Crymble reads at Literati Bookstore on Tuesday, October 23, at 7 p.m. with Ann Arbor poet Sarah Messer. Here, he shares about his life, poetry, and memories of Ann Arbor. 

Q: You studied and taught at the University of Michigan, and you live in Canada now. What do you recall of your time in Ann Arbor? What do you miss here?
A: There was a tremendous sense of camaraderie and solidarity in my MFA cohort, and I miss the energy and intimacy of the conversations we would have at house parties, or at the Old Town Tavern after evening workshops. As Ann Arbor institutions go, Frank’s Diner, the Washtenaw Dairy, Encore Records, Amadeus, the Jefferson Market, Arcadian Antiques in the Nickels Arcade, the Michigan Theater, the Heidelberg, and Treasure Mart in Kerrytown are the ones I remember most fondly. The carnival atmosphere on football Saturdays, when we used to park cars in our yard on Hutchins Avenue, is also something I’ll never forget, and my memories of the attic-space study among the treetops where I wrote so many of the poems that appear in Not Even Laughter will stay with me always. I can still smell the cedar paneling.

Q: How does disability figure into your writing?
A: To this point, disability has barely figured into my poems analogically, never mind literally, but I’ve been at work on a manuscript project lately that self-consciously attempts to document experiential accounts from my own life. Now feels like the right time, both culturally and personally, and I look forward to the challenges of stepping out from behind the blind that has allowed me to remain camouflaged for all these years. My reading at Literati and radio appearance on WCBN’s Living Writers Show on October 24 represent the first leg of a tour that will conclude with my participation in a number of radio, reading, and panel events hosted by the AbleHamilton Collective in Toronto, Hamilton, and Guelph before I return home to Fredericton. The organizers are hopeful that the festival will promote a greater sense of disability awareness and visibility in both academia and the literary world, and I’m looking forward to doing my part to help make that happen.

Q: Through the lens of movies, history, and mundane aspects of life, poems in Not Even Laughter question meaning and how we make meaning. For example, the poem that shares its name with the book’s title concludes with the question, “I wonder what it is I’m after?” Yet, the poems make connections and suggest significance. Do you see the seeming arbitrariness or ultimate importance as winning out in your poems?
A: In William Carlos Williams’ late poem “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” he writes “What do I remember / that was shaped / as this thing is shaped?” As a poet, I’m always looking for things that answer one another, and the more occluded or tenuously relative the answer the better. This notion of what Marianne Boruch refers to as “remote sensing” in her essay “On Metaphor” is something I always try to remain receptive to during my writing process. And her conviction that we let the poem loose through metaphor, “tethered out on the thinnest line” is something else I believe in wholeheartedly.

The title poem of my collection is taken from a lyric in Leonard Cohen’s “Stranger Song,” one of several tracks from his 1967 debut LP Songs of Leonard Cohen that appear in the background of Robert Altman’s 1971 revisionist western McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Towards the end of the song, Cohen writes “Please understand, I never had a secret chart / To get me to the heart of this / Or any other matter / When he talks like this / You don't know what he's after.” The essence of Cohen’s gesture here is what I’ve tried to capture in the closing line of “Not Even Laughter” -- this idea that we simply keep searching in the direction our intuition leads us, knowing that whatever we discover, no matter how revelatory, will inevitably leave us with more questions than answers.

Q: I loved the poem “Nursery,” specifically the lines “… and I feel at once / how lovely and how lonesome life can be” and then, about a two pence piece, “Some things aren’t meant to keep. / Wish carefully, then drop it in the water. Watch it sink.” This poem, like many in the collection, illustrates contradictory emotions and tenuous feelings. How would you describe this balance?
A: Such is life. You can’t take anything for granted, other than the fact that you can’t take anything for granted. My wife and I both start to feel anxious when we’re on a lucky streak, or doing well, as we’ve had enough setbacks and comeuppances to know that all we’ll ever really be able to count on is one another. Almost all of my poems are driven by this dichotomy, this notion of the bitter-sweet. 

Q: Many of your poems divulge observations about music, films, and events. It’s clear that you listen to a lot of music and avidly watch movies. What prompts you to include a particular reference in a poem, in contrast to simply having watched a movie or heard about an event, for instance?
A: Unless I’m exploring a specific media text or artifact per se, cultural references, for me, need to be related to the temporal moment (or moments) in which a given poem takes place. Such references, I feel, help focus the poem by lending it a sense of authenticity and by locating it in a fixed space. I recently finished a poem titled “So Far Away” about the winter I spent as a graveyard-shift shelf-stocker at a discount department store. I was a high-school dropout at the time, and I wanted to capture a sense of what it felt like to be in that situation as a 17-year-old kid in the mid-'80s. The store manager, for instance, drives a Town & Country K-Car, the speaker has hockey hair and wears stone washed jeans and high-top leather Reeboks. And that he listens to a Dire Straits' Brothers in Arms CD over the PA system when he’s alone in the store also adds to the temporal specificity. What I also like about details like these is that they work on the level of story. Despite the fact that I write out of the lyric tradition, my poems are almost always story-driven, and if chosen carefully enough, I feel that, in this respect, highly particular cultural references can work as a shortcut, as they can communicate a great deal in a small textual space.

Q: A section of Not Even Laughter is called “Travelogue.” You were born in Belfast, Ireland, moved to North America as a child, and have studied and worked in the United States and Canada. Is writing about places a way of going back to them, a feeling of nostalgia?
A: In a recent review of Not Even Laughter, Lorraine York suggests that the strongest poems in the collection communicate a “complicated nostalgia, no easy perfumed remembrance.” Reading this was enormously gratifying, as her insight really captures the larger, overriding objective of my work. Richard Tillinghast was my thesis supervisor at Michigan, and the poem of his that I respond to more than any other is “In the Parking Lot of the Muffler Shop.” Aside from containing one of my hands down favorite similes (“Cool air smelling of tires and gear-box oil / exhales from the service bay of the muffler shop / as from a mountain cave”), it also has a speaker who, in searching for meaning in what he sees, listens to a muse-like voice that tells him to “Archeologize the ordinary” and “Chronicle the in-between.”


These directives continue to have a tremendous amount of agency in my poetics, as it’s often by being open to what’s seemingly insignificant that genuine discoveries are made. By attempting to “archeologize the ordinary,” I’m able to put pressure on the almost hyper-ordinariness of an object or event, and that process almost always coincides with uncovering some kind of inter-relational value that has to do with either my own life experience or with our shared cultural history. The poems from the “Travelogue” section of Not Even Laughter benefit from this aspect of my praxis in an entirely unique way. As Rhonda Batchelor, another of the book’s reviewers states, “It’s as if the author, visiting familiar terrain, is now once-removed and able to cast an objective eye on the scene.” This sense of objectivity and newness -- seeing things as if for the first time but with the luxury of a previous cultural imprint -- is something, I believe, that provides easier and more open access to the hidden resonances of certain rituals, behaviors, and attitudes.    

Q: I am so intrigued by your response about "hyper-ordinariness" because I think often about how taking interest in the mundane brings more awareness, insight, and (maybe) meaning. Then, I was considering the first poem, positioned on the left side of the page where poems do not usually start and outside any of the book's sections, in Not Even Laughter. The repeated lines of, "It doesn't mean that much to me ..." belie the speaker's sentiments in listing components of scenes. This poem gets at that balance, or "dichotomy," that we discussed earlier, and yet it discusses things having little meaning to the speaker at the start of the collection, so the reader is left to suspect that they have some meaning. Could you illuminate why this poem is placed where it is and how you see it in relation to the rest of the collection that follows?
A: "Luminology," the poem you refer to, is intended as a proem or textual frontispiece, and as such, my hope was that it would function as a window into the collection. I also like to think of it as an Ars Poetica as it encapsulates many of the ideas, beliefs, and obsessions that underpin my work. That the poem not only hinges on the notion of negation but strategically and rhetorically insists on that negation was something that felt right to me while I was composing it, as such insistence belies the speaker's obvious sense of wonder at the transcendent possibilities of the empirical world. It also pleases me that this gesture is affirmed and, in certain respects, complicated by both the title I selected for the book and by the title poem itself.

Q: Tell us about your work as a senior poetry editor for The Fiddlehead, which states that "the acceptance rate is around 1-2% (we are, however, famous for our rejection notes!)."
A: My primary responsibility as a senior poetry editor involves meeting and deliberating with the other editors once every few months to decide which of the submissions that have made it to the round of final cuts we want to publish. Submissions that make it to our meeting have already been vetted and pushed forward by at least two readers on the editorial board, so the work tends to be of exceptionally high quality, which makes it all the more difficult to decline. 

Our rejection notes are famous because we take the time to personalize our responses, and up until very recently, all of the notes were written by hand, or, in my case, typed. Submittable has changed this practice in some respects, but we remain committed to our ideals. Every writer who submits work to The Fiddlehead, regardless of whether that work is returned to them after a first read or after a lengthy deliberation process, can expect to receive a response that meaningfully engages with what they've sent. Another of my roles involves soliciting poets whose work I admire to see if they have any new poems they'd like to contribute to the magazine, and I was particularly pleased to get Thylias Moss and Simon Armitage (one of my poetry heroes) to send us work to publish. I also act as a representative and cultural liaison for the magazine when I make public appearances and am often called on to answer questions about our practices and policies after reading events.

Q: Are you working on a book now? What’s next?
A: The book I’m working on now is the dissertation manuscript for my doctoral degree. The journey this project has taken me on to date has been both eye-opening and exhilarating. Because of the generous financial support of both the English Department and the School of Graduate Studies at UNB I’ve been able to travel to the American Literature Association conference in San Francisco to present my research on two separate occasions. I was also provided funding to present a paper at the Ezra Pound International Conference in Dorf Tirol, Italy, to attend a Black Mountain College symposium at the University of Maine, and to photograph hundreds of currently unpublished letters in the Robert Lowell archive at Harvard. Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of my research so far, however, has been the lively and candid email conversations I’ve had with Rebecca Wolff, the founding editor of Fence Magazine. Rebecca has been very forthcoming about her experiences in the poetry world, and I’ve been able to use her responses to my questions to support the close readings I’ve been doing of the poems contained in her debut collection, Manderley.

Martha Stuit is a former reporter and current librarian.

Phillip Crymble reads from "Not Even Laughter" at Literati Bookstore on Tuesday, October 23, at 7 pm with Ann Arbor poet Sarah Messer.