Flapper Press Poetry Café: Maril Crabtree, The Memphis Poet Who "Danced with Elvis"

Updated: May 20

By Annie Newcomer:


The Flapper Press Poetry Café features the work of poets from all over the world. This week, we feature the work of Maril Crabtree.

Maril Crabtree, Photo by B.A. Saidel

Maril Crabtree grew up in Memphis and New Orleans but has called the Midwest “home” for many years. A former French teacher, lawyer, peace activist, environmentalist, energy healer, and yoga instructor, she is grateful for poetry (hers and others’) as the loom that weaves her life-threads together. She agrees with Ed Hirsch that poetry is a “way of knowing, of honoring our solitudes and recognizing our interdependencies” and believes that a poem’s apothecary of words, of sounds spoken and absorbed, can be a healing force in our culture.

Her full-length collection, Fireflies in the Gathering Dark (Kelsay Books), was published in 2017. She has also authored three chapbooks and edited four anthologies of poetry and essays published by Adams Media. Her poems, essays, and short stories have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including I-70 Review, Main Street Rag, Persimmon Tree, Third Wednesday, Literary Mama, and Poet's Market. She previously served as poetry editor for Kansas City Voices and contributing editor for Heartland! Poems of Love, Resistance & Solidarity. More of her work can be seen on her website.


Meet Maril Crabtree!

 

AN: Welcome to Flapper Press Poetry Café, Maril. Nearly 15 years ago, after a huge loss, I gravitated to poetry. Uncertain of how to proceed in this endeavor, I asked if you might meet me at a small café for breakfast. Relying on my sixth sense, I just "knew" that you might give me some guidance after observing the esteem in which the Kansas City literary community held you.

Indeed, you reminded me of Barbie Guth, a champion swimmer at my local childhood city swimming pool in Upstate New York. While only a single year older than I, and in a competitive sport, Barbie was willing to help me even though I could barely keep my head above water. But I loved swimming and wanted to learn. People like you and her demonstrate a special type of kindness in the way you share your skills with others.


Over the years when I've asked you to meet at coffeeshops so that I can introduce you to novice poets or poetic souls who I think need encouragement, you have always made yourself available. I so respect you, and it is an honor to interview you for this piece.


MC: Thanks so much, Annie. As you know, I appreciate any opportunity to share what I’ve learned and pass along my love of poetry, both reading and writing it. Whenever I do that, it feels like I’m “paying it forward,” since I received the same generous sharing from many others.

AN: I would like to start with one of my favorite poems, "Dancing With Elvis." This is a poem that I feel never ages. Each time I read it, I am filled with joy. When I turn the page in your chapbook of the same name and see the second stanza, this catapults me into the present. Even now, after so many readings and I know what is coming, I am delighted.


Also, my parents were extremely strict. None of what you describe in this poem existed in my childhood because it was taboo, so your poem gives me a chance to enter this experience vicariously. Therefore, while I never experienced what you did, I have a sense of what it might have been like, through your poem.

If I am not being too obscure, can you address this “creative intelligence” in a poet, where they are able to "bring" a reader along into their experience this way? Did you have this thought out before you wrote the poem?


Elvis & Maril Crabtree, Photo by Sandy Mitchell

MC: I grew up in Memphis but left at the beginning of seventh grade, just before Elvis became famous. That didn’t stop me, though, from daydreaming about what it would be like to “run into” him when I came back to visit relatives from time to time. What triggered the poem, though, was what I describe in Section 2: decades after his death, running into a giant cardboard Elvis on Beale Street. Of course, I had to have my picture taken with him!


What I hoped to accomplish with this poem was to show the role our memories play, over and over, and how our memories can not only trigger feelings of the past but can also be a catalyst for digging deeper into our emotions. Even a cardboard cutout of a famous figure we’ve never met can be a springboard for so much more. In this case, the sensual daydream language of Section 1 is the result. When I wrote those words, I actually pictured myself as a teenager and got in touch with how we used to spend a lot of time fantasizing with various romantic scenarios. That’s the part I think a lot of women might identify with.


AN: Maril, I think that this would be a perfect place to include your "Elvis" poem.

MC: Yes. I remember endlessly playing “Heartbreak Hotel” on my 45 rpm record player—a good song to daydream to! Not everyone is an Elvis fan, but I think a lot of us can relate to our famous heroes or heroines in a similar way.


Photo credit: Thomas Hawk on Visualhunt

Dancing With Elvis

1.

He rounds the curve on my suburban Memphis street.

Music blares from his gold Cadillac. He looks at me,

eyes misty but pouring into mine.

like they’ve found home. Stars drift from his mouth

when he says my name (how did he know my name?

But then I know his.) He says

HEY PRETTY WOMAN WOULD YOU LIKE A RIDE?

(he knows i'm a woman though i'm barely fourteen)

and i say sure, glad i've put on my new white shorts

and washed my hair so it flips up

instead of having to be dragged into a ponytail

(he sees so many women in ponytails

and i am different, i will save him).

i climb into that big rich leather front seat

and sit in the middle, not hugging the door,

sure of myself, sure that he'll see that i can give him

what nobody else can. He smiles that lazy smile

and his dimples come out and i get woozy

and want to fall right into his mouth, dive in and slide

into his insides, find the part of him that nobody sees

and pull it out, shining, the golden calf

truly worthy of worship. He takes my shoulders,

draws me close, curls his arm around me, can't he hear

my heart thumping louder and louder, my blood buzzing—

let me stay here driving with Elvis forever.

2.

I round the corner of Beale Street,

heart of the tourist section.

I see him, standing in the Visitors' Information store,

four-color smile with dimples pasted on, the man

whose legs twitched and made my teenage gut itch

every time they did — Here he is, a life-size cutout posed

under the sign saying "Welcome to Memphis," those

famous hips cocked and loaded, ready for action. He says

HEY PRETTY LADY WOULD YOU LIKE TO DANCE?

and he seems to remember our dream drive.

His cardboard heart comes alive as I put my arms around him,

give him the love I've had locked away all these forty-odd years.

We rock back and forth.

I am wearing those new white shorts again. This time

I know it's too late to save him but maybe I can save

myself. I can give myself this blessing,

anoint myself with the golden memory

of what never was, yet existed, whispered me

into the flesh-and-blood-real-woman years,

helped me sit in the middle of the seat,

not hugging the door, willing to take the ride,

dance the dance, open my mouth and let the stars come out.

AN: So when you write a personal poem, what is your intention for the reader? Do you imagine them in the back seat with you, or are you driving alone but willing to share when you arrive at a finished poem? How are they part of your writing vision when you create? Or are they?

MC: My first poem was published at the age of 17. Back then, and through my college years, I think I was always writing with an “audience” in mind, which is to say that I wanted to be seen, to be heard, to be understood—and loved, of course. Pretty typical of most human beings, I’d say. And of course, the more I wrote out of that motivation, the worse my poems became.


Now when I write, I want my poems to come from a place of authenticity. I write for the opposite reason: not to be understood, but to understand, and to try to communicate that to others in an authentic way. In other words, as a poet my goal is to be invisible, to “disappear,” and let the words communicate whatever they have to say to the world.


One of my favorite poets is Stanley Kunitz. I identify with his quote, “I want to write poems that get through to the other side, where we can hear the deep rhythms that connect us with the stars and the tides.” Those deep rhythms exist within all of us, and I think poetry is one way to allow them to come to the surface.

AN: How would you recommend a new poet approach writing if they have a heart to write but aren’t sure how to “jump in”?


MC: Find a local poetry critique group that’s friendly to beginning poets. If that’s not available, find out where local poets give readings and begin attending. Local libraries will usually have information about where and when readings are held. Read one or more “how to” poetry manuals such as The Poets Companion by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux.

Finally, go to the library and check out some poetry books by well-known poets. Read them and see what appeals to you. If you find a poet you really like—a living one!—look them up online and see if they offer workshops you can enroll in.


Above all, be patient and allow yourself the time and space to discover what you want to say and how you want to say it.


AN: Tell us how poetry “found” you and how this has shaped your life.


MC: In grade school I wrote fairy tales (one was actually published in the Memphis Commercial Appeal); in middle school I wrote two plays that were performed; not until high school did I discover poetry. I suspect Shakespeare and William Blake had something to do with it! And those wonderful long narratives of Longfellow, “The Song of Hiawatha” and “Evangeline.”


For a long time, I wrote poems as a way of finding or creating meaning, but more recently I’ve concluded that we humans are “addicted” to meaning. Rather than interpreting life to assign meaning, I’m experimenting with ways to allow something to “be” rather than “mean” anything. Somehow, for me, this approach opens more space. Mary Oliver said, “Keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable.” Poetry is all about putting into words “the unimaginable.”


Above all, reading and writing poetry are what fuel my spirit and give me hope, joy, and comfort, something we can all use more of these days.


AN: Thank you, Maril, for stopping by the Flapper Press Poetry Café. We welcome you back any time in the future. Until then, keep "dancing with Elvis.”


 


Cutting Trees

The pine beetle

having done its work,

what’s left is ours.


We chop down dozens

of lodgepole pines,

hack at thin trunks


until stumps remain.

Silence surrounds us.

No slim shafts


clack in the wind.

No branches

whisper green secrets.


I scan the mountainside.

Thousands of brown trees

lean against living green.


Plenty of pines left. Perhaps

we should save our grief

for what’s ahead.


First published in Earth’s Daughters

About This Poem:

Joy Harjo, current U.S. Poet Laureate, said that writing poetry “frees me to believe in myself, to be able to speak, to have voice, because I have to; it is my survival.” While that quote speaks to much of why I write poems, it is especially true of my environmental poems. “Cutting Trees” narrates an actual event that took place one summer in Grand Lake, Colorado, when climate change conditions left hundreds of thousands of trees dead. The beetles successfully attacked older trees with weaker immune systems—similar to the pandemic we’ve been living through, with older adults suffering more—and mountainsides still showed large patches of green where younger trees thrived. The last stanza, though, warns that there will be more battles for survival: “Perhaps/we should save our grief/for what’s ahead.” In the years since the pine beetle infestation, we’ve seen many more devastating environmental events. For me, writing poems about some of those is a way to connect with my grief without losing hope.

 

"Lotus"

Maybe forgetting is as fine an art as remembering.

Linda Hogan, The Woman Who Watches Over the World


Lotus

Certain wounds

bloom in the consciousness forever,

white petals floating in a dark sea,

nourished by decades of dreams,

darkness layered with darkness

and still

at the bottom clearly seen --

bright coins of transgressions


Into my dream he came,

young again

younger than I am now.

He knelt at my feet, told me

he wanted to give me something --

a ribbon, a jewel, a loaf of bread --

I knew he looked for a way

to make amends.

I wanted him to know I knew,

in that prescient way

dreams have of shaping us with truth.


I am older

than consciousness itself,

risen to my surface

full of days and nights-

full of thousands of moons

floating into my life since he first

came - full of darkening seeds

and inescapable wounds.

Taking his hand, I invite him

to travel once more


my body's terrain, break open

the seeds of offered grace,

as holy a way to redeem us

as I know. Bowing

to this lifetime's wounded weight,

we have waited long enough

for sorrow's flowering embrace,

for the wafer of regret

to reconstitute itself

as blessing.

first published in DMQ Review

About This Poem:

Every now and then, if a poet is lucky, the conscious and subconscious minds work together to produce a work of art that gives us “the seeds of offered grace.” I believe this poem does that. Its origins are mysterious and speak to the power of the subconscious and unconscious minds.


In the second and third stanzas, I describe, scene by scene, a dream I actually had. In the dream, I was both participant and observer—what’s known sometimes as lucid dreaming, where you are aware that you’re dreaming. I knew the dream had to do with a childhood incident of being sexually molested by a relative, an incident I had “buried” in my adult life.


But here’s the greater mystery: in the first stanza, I mention “white petals floating/in a dark sea . . . and “darkness layered with darkness.” When I was working on the poem and wondering what to title it, the word “Lotus” came to me immediately. On a conscious level, I knew nothing about what a lotus flower looked like or what its symbolism was. When I looked it up, I learned that it’s considered a sacred plant in Eastern religions, representing “purity, divine wisdom, and the individual’s progress from the lowest to the highest state of consciousness.” It grows in muddy water, and each spring rises above the mud to produce beautiful flowers. Some of the seeds can lie dormant for more than 400 years before blooming. The dream and poem allowed me to acknowledge the “wafer of regret” and deal with the childhood incident at a deeper level, even after all these years.

 


Tying the Light*

On the slopes of Machu Picchu,

on the longest night of the year,

they wait for certain signs of sky-shift.

Between mountains, in an instant,

deep shade of night curtains, splits –


pure light slices darkness.

Days grow longer

moment by moment. Dark

has done its darkest. Seeds

of light stir dawn’s first spark.


Quickly now! Lasso the light!

Tie it onto the stones,

let it bake earth’s cold bones,

vanquish dim shadows,

banish winter’s gloom.


*The Inti Raymi or Festival of the Sun is an Incan ceremony to mark the winter solstice with the tying of the sun. In Machu Picchu there is a large column of stone from ancient times called an Intihuatana, meaning “hitching post of the sun.” The ceremony to keep the sun from escaping is still celebrated in the Andes.


Published in “Tying the Light” (Finishing Line Press)


About This Poem:

As written in the asterisked paragraph at the bottom of the poem, I came across an explanation of an ancient Winter Solstice ritual performed “to keep the sun from escaping” and immediately wanted to write a poem that would pay tribute both to the ancient Incan ceremony and also to the miracle of light itself, and how it brings hope when “dark/has done its darkest.” This is in part a concrete poem, in which the middle stanza is deliberately fashioned so that each line is a little longer as it crawls across the page, in the same way that light gets longer each day after the Winter Solstice. The mystery of light and darkness—both inner and outer, literal and metaphoric—is a frequent theme in my poems.

 


Things to Do in the Belly of the Poem

after “Things to Do in the Belly of the Whale” by Dan Albergotti


Count the syllables. Test the meter. Decide

on line length and stanzas – couplets, triplets,

quatrains. Try free verse, blank verse, formal.

In the next draft, do it all over again.


Breathe. Bake some bread. Make soup.

Take a pair of scissors to the words, cut

them apart, throw them into the air

and watch them float down. If they survive


the flight, shuffle them, change tenses, hang them

inside out and upside down. Take a yoga break

and hang your body upside down. Let the fresh

blood rush into your head and hope all the words


rearrange themselves. Breathe. Listen to Bob Dylan

and Eric Clapton. Listen to the silence between words.

Quash the longing to watch “Breaking Bad”

for the third time. Breathe. Quell the impulse to call


your best friend, your old boyfriend, the contest judge

who gave your poem first place three years ago.

Take a walk in the park. Stare at the trees and try,

really try, not to describe them in your mind. Instead,


watch the children swinging and sliding, invisible

wings halo-ing their shoulders, laughter drowning

the air. Breathe. Remember what it was like

to drift up to the clouds and sink to the bottom of time.


First published in Persimmon Tree


About This Poem:

This poem was initially inspired by Dan Albergotti’s “Things to Do in the Belly of the Whale,” which, while staying true to the famous biblical story of Jonah, imagines what it would really be like to be inside a whale, waiting to be rescued, and conveying the truth that, in a way, all of us are inside the “whale” of our own lives.


My poem tries to convey what it’s like to write a poem when you’re trying to find just the right word, the right rhythm, and the right images to convey whatever truth you as the poet hope to communicate. The process reminds me of how Emily Dickinson wrote many of her poems on scraps of paper—not only the backs of letters but on bits of newspapers, envelope flaps, and the backs of chocolate wrappers!


Although the initial impetus for a poem may come instantly (from a dream or a phrase or any number of places), I usually go through several drafts before I’m satisfied that the poem is ready for anyone else to look at it. This poem describes that indescribable process of creating—in this case a poem, but it’s basically the same for any creative endeavor.


The last line makes a reference to time. Many of my poems deal with one aspect or another of time. I love to read books and essays on quantum physics (for laypeople, not scientists!) and learn about various qualitative and quantitative aspects of “spacetime,” as it’s often called.


 

Annie Newcomer teaches poetry classes at the University of Kansas Medical Center's Turning Pointa place for hope and healing for people suffering with chronic health problems. Her North Stars series shares interviews with poets and writers and Annie's own experiences through writing.


Annie is also helms the Flapper Press Poetry Café—dedicated to celebrating poets from around the world and to encouraging everyone to write poetry!


FlapperPress launches the Flapper Press Poetry Café.

Presenting a wide range of poetry with a mission to promote a love and understanding of poetry for all. We welcome submissions for compelling poetry and look forward to publishing and supporting your creative endeavors. Submissions may also be considered for the Pushcart Prize.


Submission Guidelines:

1. Share at least three (3) poems

2. Include a short bio of 50–100 words, written in the third person.

(Plus any website and links.)

3. Share a brief backstory on each submitted poem

4. Submit an Author's photo and any images you want to include with the poems

5. Send all submissions and questions to: info@flapperpress.com

122 views0 comments