Heather Christle returns to Charis Books & More on Wednesday to discuss The Crying Book with Kamilah Aisha Moon. Christle is an assistant professor of English and creative writing at Emory University and the author of four books of poetry. The Crying Book is her first foray into nonfiction.
Christle was born in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, and earned a B.A. from Tufts University and an M.F.A. from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
One of the themes explored in The Crying Book is how crying and feelings of suicide can be related. ArtsATL recently spoke to Christle about this difficult subject and how her fifth project fits within her larger body of work.
ArtsATL: One of the major threads of the book examines how crying is connected to suicide — that crying is a way to alleviate the temptation to ideate one’s own death, but is also at the same time a symptom indicating one is on the slippery slope. The crying can reinforce or resolve a suicidal impulse. You examine it with examples that include Sylvia Plath, your friend, Bill, and yourself. The end of the book includes a phone number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. So I want to begin by asking you that most fundamental of questions, and the same one I got asked pretty often right after I wrote an antisuicide book: are you okay?
Heather Christle: I don’t want to presume, but perhaps you felt — as I do — that this is an unanswerable question.
ArtsATL: You don’t spend too many pages of the kind of crying that involves tears of joy. Maybe there isn’t a lot of philosophical meat on that bone, or maybe happy crying is not overmuch a part of your personal experience with this phenomenon. Did you set out to consider crying in a comprehensive way and discover part way in that the focus should be somewhat narrower in scope, or were you drawn to the sadder side of tears right from the start?
Christle: Tears of sorrow, anger, overwhelmedness or other feelings that people tend to categorize as “negative” are just more frequent than those of joy. And certainly in my own experience they are more abundant; joy might make me tear up, but far more liquid comes out of me when I’m in despair. So I suppose it’s a question of math. If I separated my tears into beakers, those of joy would barely reach the first line.
ArtsATL: Another thing that runs throughout the text is what we might call classic “white lady” tropes. Certain kinds of tears are presumed to represent helplessness or fragility, and sometimes guilt or madness. White women make up a disproportionate amount of the scientific data on crying, and their crying is given a lot of cultural weight, even to the point of collective distraction from the root societal causes of their crying. The text is critical of these trends, and yet, The Crying Book at its most basic level is still a white lady processing her own crying. Did you find it difficult to negotiate these stereotypes as you were writing, and to what extent are you worried that such misogynist or racist presumptions will unfairly flatten out the interpretation of your work?
Christle: There’s nothing unfair about white writers being held accountable for their words, nor white women being held accountable for their tears. Any fears I have about my work meeting with criticism seem pretty insignificant when regarded in the context of the actual danger and violence that white supremacy daily produces. I’ve tried to recognize, in the book, the ways in which my subject position affects how my tears are read in the world, while also learning from — and explicitly engaging with the words of — people whose subject positions differ from mine, whose work around race, gender and tears form crucial points in the constellation I see when I look up and try to understand something bigger than myself. In particular, The Crying Book is shaped by thinking through work by Christina Sharpe, Lucille Clifton, bell hooks and Brittney Cooper.
ArtsATL: People think of you as a poet. I’ve always considered the content of your work to be nonfictional in nature, whether that falls under the form designation of confessional poetry or segmented essays or flash or whatever else you can label a type of text that operates in a micro mode of just a few lines at a time. And yet The Crying Book stands out as perhaps your most researched effort to date, with 198 endnotes and 32 reprint permissions. Was this research process a one-off for you, or is it a kind of evolutionary arc, and what do you think about the general categorization of your work as poetry?
Christle: If required, I would categorize my first two poetry collections (The Difficult Farm and The Trees The Trees) as fictional. What Is Amazing (my third poetry collection) moves from fictional to nonfictional but still mostly inhabits what feels like an imaginary zone. Heliopause (my most recent poetry book) has some heavy shifting into autobiography/nonfiction while still also engaging with imagination through play in theoretical language spaces.
There are similarities between the associative movement of The Crying Book (which I’m happiest calling prose) and that of my poetry collections. I think poetry teaches me how to notice correspondences between things, and I carry that into my research work. I’m now working on a new poetry collection and a new research-driven nonfiction project. I can’t say what will come after, but I don’t have a sense of my life as an artist as linear, or progressive. I’m in a place; I wander around. The place and I do things to and with each other.
ArtsATL: You no doubt cried a lot while working on this book; the text itself says as much. Do you expect to cry a lot when you give public readings from it, or do you think that the writing of the text has inoculated you to some extent from crying during the performance of it? Along the same lines, do you expect that readers or listeners will do a lot of crying when they engage with your book?
Christle: I don’t know, but I am going to try to remember to bring a handkerchief with me just in case. Maybe others could do the same?