Olivia Cronk’s Womonster is a psychedelic exploration of the “impossibility of a coherent self.” Via several poetical modes—imagistic, confessional, gothic, and surrealist—Cronk’s language transforms as it encounters genre tropes from campy horror and detective movies. Her vivid imagination is foregrounded but firmly rooted in the material realities of working and raising her child. The book is unlike anything I’ve read before.
Cronk is the author of Womonster (Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2020), Louise and Louise and Louise (The Lettered Streets Press, 2016), and Skin Horse (Action Books, 2012). With Philip Sorenson, she edits The Journal Petra. She lives in Chicago.
I had the great pleasure of corresponding with Cronk about Womonster, her writing process, and her relationship with theater and film via email throughout the fall last year. Enjoy our conversation.
Logan Berry: Womonster begins with a long poem called “Interro-Porn” that’s “(for a split voice) / (with a Françoise Hardy Album).” Do you have particular voices in mind performing your poems?
Olivia Cronk: Well, first, I’m sure my answer to this question is constantly in flux and evolving and shifting and unstable, etc. And I’m sure this is true for many people-who-are-thinking-about-their-various-selves, of course, but also: playing with/depicting the glitchy instability of my “voice” is in fact part of the task I set out for myself with this book. I wanted to make an argument about the slipperiness of the boundaries (which I think of as comparable to a meniscus or a ridge of skin—but especially in a way alienated from bodies in such a way that synesthesia or nausea is produced) between all the selves I perform, and the unknowable or ineffable or impossible or false “true self” at some kind of weird core. All of this is to say:
I was thinking of how a person can modulate tone, physically and metaphorically.
I was thinking of the voice inside—when humming, especially, but also when reading.
I was thinking of a campy/B-horror/Elizabeth Taylor/Vincent Price kind of sound of voice.
And I do have these kinds of voices in mind when performing—in the Old World, at readings, which I did (do?) enjoy for the possibility of flexing a muscle that I don’t regularly tend to: I like being a kind of actress when reading my work. I don’t mean to imply that I’m very good at that, just that it’s a kind of playing I enjoy. I like the sound of soap opera lines, especially with music playing, especially Twin Peaks and the original Dark Shadows. I like the kind of voice that is achingly old or inappropriately baby-ish. I like maudlin sounds. I like a voice that is like Twiggy’s and Diana Ross’ eyelashes. Or Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. Or, this clip of Mink Stole that (poet and husband and collaborator) Phil (Sorenson) plays every so often, because it is delightful:
When I perform my poems I have in mind the collaging all of these aesthetic interests together, and producing a kind of feeling in a listener/reader—not so much a meaning, of course. Much more like kids humming while also making dolls talk in a dollhouse. And I hope that when someone is reading the book alone they can have that same weirdness.
But, as you know, I have had the delightful and rare opportunity to hear someone else perform my words (not from this book, but words that I wrote straddling poetry and theater)—and now Sara Zalek’s voice is in my current working collage.
LB: I’m glad you brought up theater. Mise-en-scène feels important to your work on multiple levels: through the intriguing use of blank spaces in all of your books that create a kind of “stage picture” with your texts; through the braiding together of multiple voices, costumes, and settings that conjure weird, alluring textures & moods; and through overtly theatrical diction. “Get out of the goddamn theater-piece. Leave it behind” you write in “who’s chirping yer hand? (fashion reportage wallpaper theater),” the second section in “Interro-Porn.” And later:
Griselda, come to the very front of the stage for this part.
Giselle is behind, emerging from your mind.
Here, the curtains, the yellow satin, the stain of the falcon’s eye close at hand at
shoulder-level at the masking tape X of here here step here
And in Skin Horse (Action Books, 2012) you mention in the acknowledgements that portions of the book were performed in Rhino Fest, the Prop Thtr’s annual play festival. I’d love to know more about your relationship with theater. When did it become part of your poetics?
OC: Your observation of this is so generous (I haven’t really consciously thought through, before, how blank space/open space can be a “stage picture,” and your note is kinda blowing my mind/making me think about how to play with that!).
My interest in “theater” (broadly, uninformed-ly, literally, figuratively) is both intentional (I have a rather shallow writing trick, which I simply employ over and over: creating a “scene,” all meanings implied there) and accidental.
First the accidental: in my MFA program (a very long time ago), I worked with playwright Beau O’Reilly. I took his Playwrighting class, and his curriculum (which included keeping a dream journal and giving your dreams away to other people for their own writing process) left a lot of room for what turned out to be my default mode: I was a sort of (unknown to myself until later) practitioner of Fluxus, and an avowed collagist. I was always wanting to basically write the directions for staging Happenings, and then simply have costumes and scattered lines of my poems pop up. Very sloppy, but also very pre-curated.
Around the same time, I picked up a tiny bit of acting experience. I had never done any theater as a kid, but a friend in my program asked me to be in her play for Rhino Fest, and it was way more realism-heavy than anything I ever compose/did compose, but I really enjoyed that split from my own aesthetics, and I enjoyed the vibratory sensation of performing in a tiny theater for twenty people. Later on, Beau cast me in one of his plays, and I got to be friendly with a tiny slice of the little black box theater scene of Chicago’s North Side, 2005-ish.
Theater wasn’t like my true calling or anything (I wasn’t much of an “actress”), but it was another source of constraint-inspiration. So, when there was a call out for Beckett-themed shorts for the next Rhino Fest, I decided to just “pour” my current poetry manuscript into a script for submission (tinkering and adding directions along the way, thinking through what I knew about Beckett’s work and what I loved) … I’d also just read Lara Glenum’s first book in which she says that “Realism is the bordello of those who would have their perceptions affirmed rather than dilated. When the door of fascism is opened, Realism will be seen lounging like a whore in its inner sanctum,” and I was obsessed with her work and her whole shtick—and then Phil pointed out that Glenum, and Johannes Goransson and Joyelle McSweeney (whose ideas we were reading via blogs, back then) seemed really interested in Closet Drama, in sort of reviving the form, and this was an exciting idea to me, and then I don’t know if it was before or after, but I worked up a poetry manuscript around my poured-poems-cum-happenings-cum-closet-drama-fluxus thing … and, so, some of the poems that appear in Skin Horse existed first as scripts/as performance in the Rhino Fest: I can remember that the writer Kathryn Regina would sing a Gillian Welch line several times over as someone else, poet Liz Cross, I think (she had been one of my teachers) would begin a performance of a poem that included “got bells all my dead ones” and then, shortly after, there were performers wearing headbands with branches glued on like antlers and spray painted silver—and the one formally trained actress in the performance, the effervescent Kathleen Powers, blocked a scene wherein three women performed the Beckett crossed-hand-holding move from Come and Go. It was really, truly collaborative and though I entered the festival with loose/sloppy plans (my Fluxus & collage system), it was actually a pretty smooth little contraption. Theater really taught me about collaboration, and the process made me realize something I already knew intuitively: I enjoy letting the reader dominate the text. I’m not (most of time) trying to control the reader’s experience of meaning. I like things, even when pre-curated, ambiguous and juxtapositional.
But that was, as I say, pretty accidental. Things just fit together nicely.
But/and/also, I have almost always written in a lyric mode that really tries (I’m kind of a poser, sometimes) to be a SCENE. I like tone and mood much more than anything else. I love costumes and gestures and single decontextualized utterances. (I like, as I mentioned in our other correspondence, things like Camp and Bette Davis and Hammer films …)
And in “Interro-Porn,” which in so many ways comes out of my anxiety about how to perform the self after having a child, I just found the theatrical situation to be such a useful tool for metaphorizing my experience of being.
LB: Also starkly present in your (lyric-)SCENES are absences. What’s unsaid/unexplained accumulates alluring mystery:
The story is You can feel a snake two rooms away
a parlor away
at your neck
a teen’s necklace
with its serpentine cursive that spells
Murder & Romance
but I can’t help it
from two rooms away
I’m curious about your composition process. Where and when do you typically write? How much revision occurs? How intentional are the gaps & ghosts?
OC: I have many tricks and games I play, always in service of creating rubbed together language.
I like constraint and then the thrill of breaking constraint, usually for style, sometimes in service of some kind of ephemeral argument or pretending-at-narrative narrative.
I like ritual.
I like tinkering.
I will often tinker in a very miniature way for pleasure and maybe not always because of some belief in the poem becoming itself.
I think I am very Joseph Cornellian.
The most common practice I employ is collecting bits (in whatever notebook/journal I’m using at the time; while I’m not precious about the form that such a receptacle takes, I do absolutely need to handwrite my pre-writing material/ aka “notes towards”/ aka research, images, language-units), then, when I have time to sit down and work (which might be many days in a row in the summertime or might be once a week or month during teaching time), I first play in my notes. The notebook basically holds my collage supplies, which allow me to set to work on a larger unit (maybe a page/poem, maybe something bigger).
I move items from this collage space to more defined textual expression, first, usually, via constraints, but I never have regard for maintaining my own constraints, am not a very devout Oulipian.
The actual narcotizing effect/ fun/ imagining/ playing/ dollhouse/ dream stuff (I am sometimes a devout Surrealist) comes when I have to figure out the leap from one moment to the next, and then I start to be in the poem, become a mouth, figure out where I am headed and what the scene might be about. (Sometimes it feels like the clichéd interviews with actors wherein they describe digging deep inside personal experience to locate the face or tone for a scene; I discover, in the need to move between the bits, how this is my life or how I can “play” the voice.)
This process yields a draft that could then be tinkered with later, especially as I re-read whatever precedes it in my document (I find myself only able to work in the long-form, now, both a pleasure and an unchosen constraint). Sometimes I might change line breaks during tinkering, for breath, for the openness. I know myself to be a very cluttered, rococo kind of writer, and so I try to leave spaces for readers to breathe (with)in, just as much as the voice needs to. I read aloud to catch problems in sound, and I also read silently to catch problems with visual effects and their influence on the interior voice.
I suppose I’m saying things that all writers do!
Buuut: trying to share/describe our processes can be like an Oulipian kind of script for working/a collaborative wilderness of potential, and can be (for teaching, which I do) a thrilling pedagogical possibility (demystifying the labor of writing). Although I do obsessively and in solitude tinker-control my work, I love the multivalent ways we can de-center the author’s “genius” (but shout out to the race/gender problems of Conceptual Writing!), as a way to de-center a tired notion of the individual as solely producing their work, as if they work without an ever kaleidoscope-ing/time-travelling constellation of influences and information strands.
Lol: to keep addressing the question: sometimes I just write, like right into the document, via computer. I might feel like looking at or tinkering with a current project, and I might have just twenty minutes, and sometimes an information thread just enters my interiority, and I simply write it in. This always feels a bit dangerous to me. Not in a good way. It feels like, by not slipping into my constraint-ritual-trance, I’m somehow failing to exhaust a muscle that will somehow inf(l)ect the text with its nuance.
Mostly, for doing my rituals, I set up my notebook and a computer and various other books in a pile around me in our bed. It’s bad for my back, but I still like best to sit in bed and write, hunched over, sometimes playing music or looking at visual art in order to strike the aesthetic tone I desire (for the project or just for the chunk of work that day). I might listen to lyric-heavy music for mood, to get started, but while I actually write, I usually need drone-y sounds like Else Marie Pade and Eliane Radigue, or even our sleep machine. Right now (which means, this past summer and probably the next one—who the hell knows, though, what the next world is), I’m trying to write something a bit different, and my information for mood seems to be Alice Coltrane + Toulouse-Lautrec + stills from Fassbinder films (many of which I will likely re-watch—it’s been years and years—as “research” for mood).
But some other things re: your question about blank/open spaces:
My favorite way to consume, produce, and be inside of art is to be exactly in between the space where I know what’s going on and not. I feel like I often employ openness as a cheap way into this space, a way to create ambiguous gestures, like, if a page/poem is a kind of scene, then someone in that space is making a threatening move with their finger or lifting up their eyebrows over their glasses or lying down sexy or something. I don’t even mean it to be that literal. But those spaces are for finessing the scene into its projection, maybe?
I really like the “ghost” idea you have because that suits the in-between worlds/in-between comprehension and incomprehension thing.
I think of spaces as being, of course, as “weighted” as words.
And though I may only play at my skills, occasionally I do feel that I succeed in orchestrating multiple bits into an effect—like how a gesture in a scene can inf(l)ect the mood. I feel, though only occasionally, like I am somehow flicking my hand over a Theremin:
One last thought: I am often not even thinking about this when I do it, but I do rely on blank space to stand in for lost/missed/excised/swallowed words. Lately, because my hearing seems to be deteriorating a bit, I wonder about using this trick to mimic what happens in our apartment: I often catch the gist of what Phil or our daughter (Loulou) is saying, usually from another room, but I know I’m missing a few things. For someone absolutely obsessed with loss and preservation, this is menacing territory.
LB: Talk to me about Romero. According to your Twitter bio, it’s a “docu-soap-opera-fantasy/poem.” All the episodes are on YouTube. How does this series fit into and cross-pollinate with your various processes?
OC: So, the very first Romero episode I made was the result of:
a long-brewing desire to produce a poem of this sort (video: traditional-Surrealist, sartorially inclined)
my feeling that paying attention to women’s beauty rituals is interesting and can be radical
the fact that the American daytime soap opera form is disappearing
the notion that the soap opera is “women’s entertainment” & that this is related of course to domestic work and time/scales/scope & that such notions of time are related to both childcare itself and the memory-recall that takes place in childcare (I am constantly remembering what it was like to play, to be in what I think of as “my private doll time”)
the very presence/existence of my dear friend Emily Greenquist (a good and ever evolving human, a lady with extremely specific aesthetics, the Chicago aunt to my child, my euchre foe and partner, a former Milwaukee girl, someone who—when we were in college together—wore old lady skirts from the polyester 70s & men’s undershirts & tall shiny black boots, someone with whom I have casually passed through time/aging/pregnancy/childbirth, and the designer of the literary journal I co-edit with Phil).
That first episode was also kind of coming out of the end of my thinking for my second book, Louise and Louise and Louise (which contains two “soap opera” poems) and then the beginning of my thinking for the poem “Interro-Porn,” which is also my Twitter handle/the name of my tweets as a collective body … I want things, often, to be leaky/leaking into other things, “genre promiscuous” (as Action Books says); I was working to merge the Lyric and the Conceptual, and this form (video, so pleasing for its plasticity!) was a place to try things out (things like collapsed imagery, editing as writing, montage—how the fuck does montage please me so much and when oh when will I be able to “do” it on the page?). Early on, I pulled all the language (as material) from “Interro-Porn” (as in: the poetry manuscript), which contains kind of scripts/interrogations/fashion reports/soap opera mood.
Now, the project of Romero has evolved in that I keep learning things (the distinction I’m making here is odious, but: I’ve learned both hard skills, and—I take this up as a term of empowerment—soft skills) and that my influences keep expanding. It’s named, btw, after one of my most favorite directors, George Romero, RIP, because of horror and subtext and tension and my basically never-ending obsession with the original Night of the Living Dead (this semester, because of the online situation, is the first in probably eight years that I won’t be teaching that movie to my English 101 students).
I can make old written work mean new things, and, when dipping into current writing, I have ready-made language to provide shape to whatever video footage I have collected for an episode. And then I get new information about upcoming work, written or filmed, by doing this. I find new juxtapositions, images, entries, themes, problems, inquiries.
I like to fiddle with timeline in my own thinking, so this recursivity is totally psychedelic for me.
I like that the episodes are always “documentary” (this is especially true when watching the evolutions of Emily’s and our daughter Loulou’s bodies/faces/outfits); in fact, I can also track changes in our apartment and Emily’s, changes in Loulou’s hair and demeanor as she left little childhood and entered big-kid-times.
I like forcing the document into a fantasy space.
I like the gaudy junk drama of the “soap opera” mode.
The collaborative act is research and praxis all in one. Emily is like a silent film star in her ability to, with her body or face or costume, move her hand across the Theremin-field and make things weird. I am always learning from what she does, things I usually don’t fully “see” until they’re on the computer (uploaded from our almost fifteen year old camera).
I always feel fuller/smarter after making multiple iterations of the same thing.
I use YouTube because it’s free, our old computer wouldn’t interact properly with Vimeo, and because it’s close to the junk-TV-world of syndicated and local stations, which is an aesthetic that I like and how I see Romero. If there were a way in which I could cable-access this thing, that would be dreamy. But I’m happy to settle for the shitty adjust-the-antennae quality of the YouTube idiot box!
LB: Something that recurs throughout your responses in this interview, as well as in Womonster, is the idea of play. In one of my favorite moments of the book, you write, “Too late for it to be acceptable, I shit my pants out of an inability to leave my playing. I was addicted to the pretending, sitting in front of my dollhouse, fastened to it ….” And later: “I am constantly pretending something. I don’t mean in the obvious way we must all do–work, parenting, social occasions; I mean: I’m always in my own aesthetics, to a fault, I think, to.” What sorts of thoughts and projects keep you occupied in your “private doll time” these days?
OC: My private doll time is so constrained—in fact, even in the Other World, I felt the rage and incredulity of being a victim of constant robbery (of my private time). This is not at all fair to my friends and family. It’s just the way that I am. I was shocked into a clearer understanding of this feeling of play being interrupted when I read this book.
I need and desire a lot of time alone. I get so tired of being a face. I don’t need this solitude explicitly for my writing (though I must always get to somewhere alone to do writing): I need solitude in order to be a brain, to not be my face and my roles. I suppose I like best to simply be left alone all day to stare, do chores, read, wander around our apartment, and tinker. I once wrote, “I s’pose I like most a dolly chapter in this cold house,” and what I meant was: being alone to do laundry and read and stare.
I honestly really like staring. I like changing the tablecloth in our dining room and freshening up the surface. I like lighting incense. I like looking out the front windows with hot tea. I probably like these things as much as making art (writing, editing Romero, sewing, creating displays), or: this is part of my praxis. Or this is my art: staring. Haha! Maybe! That sounds a bit too obvious, I guess. I was—until recently—VERY into a project in which I was trying to outline a genre of Time. (I was able this summer to insert some of that into a collaborative project with Phil: our Z-Axial theory.) So, my doll time has been an actual subject I was asking after/writing into: I was/am trying to understand a genre that could include staring, reading, but then also certain texts/memories of texts/memories, the work of Bill Viola, the cinematic work of Maya Deren, letting one’s eyes go lazy while looking at a screen’s lattice in a window frame, pulling at a hangnail, this book … the act of pretending while alone, the feeling of half-reading a novel/half-staring. I don’t know. I don’t mean something merely Conceptual. I don’t mean not Conceptual, either. I “finished” my writing of this manuscript but still am not sure what I mean. After I’d composed much of it, I kept/I do keep encountering new texts that are doing this/getting at this information. So, that’s kind of lovely. And impossible.
When I was wrapping up the current draft, I wrote one smaller piece and used as a title this thing that Carolina Ebeid says because I feel like it enacts the sort of inflection of reality I’m after:
I’ve fallen for the idea of a whispering poetics, whose principle mode is the hushed voice, the one that makes the reader lean in to listen. A poetry of intimacy, one that invites both the reader and writer to meet within the zone of the poem to make meaning together. Perhaps all poetry can be described this way, a triangulation of poem/poet/reader, each one active. Ovid’s figures of Thisbe & Pyramus help me understand the poetry of whispers. They are a proto Romeo & Juliet, their families want to keep them apart, though they live right next to one another, and their houses share a common wall, a wall with a hardly noticeable cleft, but “lovers will discover every thing” writes Ovid. They meet nightly where the fracture is just wide enough for their whispers to pass back and forth. I’d like to write a poem with a cleft where you have to put your ear to the page to receive it. A whisper is barely audible unless you are up close. (I fear I’m becoming too ableist in describing this metaphor.)
What I used was “I’d like to write a poem with a cleft where you have to put your ear to the page to receive it.” It’s not that I want to steal her idea; it’s that I want to steal her way of thinking here. I don’t use “steal” in a malicious way, of course. I mean: I love it.
But anyway, I’ve put that aside, sort of, and am now trying to write poetry novel. It’s maybe called Milk. It’s kind of about this idea I had when I read (for the first time, and during shelter-in-place in Illinois) Wuthering Heights—an idea about literature as air filling up a garment (that’s maybe a Robert Frost thing, too, about sound?). But it’s more about trying to move novel tropes into condensed poetry space. It’s also sort of about opera, about which I must eventually learn more (have never until now been very interested—oh, and we just re-watched Dario Argento’s Opera) and maybe a little about the luscious aesthetics of the TV show Hannibal, and maybe it’s about the feeling of getting wasted with someone with whom you are entering into a (not-yet-known-to-you) long-term relationship, and sadness, and the tone of a certain mid-century instructive text (like an autobiographical sketch/manual by a ballerina), and, like I said earlier, Fassbinder & Toulouse-Lautrec (both of whom work in the gaudy-spectacle-art as prosthetic realm?), and I was thinking maybe it’s also about the epistolary mode and the “curse” as an art-wave to ride???
So, right now, my fleeting moments of thinking-freedom are given to that doll-space.
Teaching does give me a type of doll time, in terms of the intellectual pleasure of solving problems and arranging information—but there’s not much aesthetic luxury in it.
I like watching/experiencing Loulou animatedly describe things to me. I like when she is loose and motor-mouthing and in bright blurring colors (all the weird outfit ensembles for which online school leaves new space!).
I like the pictures and notes that my friends text/email me: their postcards.
I’ve been trying to sometimes use evening free time to tinker with friendship bracelet knots. I like the miniature space of the colors looping around another: the portals.
I was, maybe age fifteen to twenty, a very dedicated Tori Amos fan, and I recently returned to the song “Putting the Damage On.” It’s useful for my writing project. But I don’t yet know how.
Our enclosed back porch has been turned into our online classroom(s), and because we cleaned up to make it all work, it’s become a newly pleasant place to sit alone at night, listening to what I call “lady language” music (Josephine Foster a lot lately) and enjoying legal weed in my nightgown. This is one of my favorite performances right now. And being in it, with Tori’s “Damage,” and the eternal and exhausting anxiety of living Now, goes so beautifully with this book, which just just just came in the mail and I love it.
Womonster is available for purchase at Tarpaulin Sky Press.
Logan Berry is a Chicago-based writer and theater artist. He’s written essays for the Brooklyn Rail, the Poetry Foundation Website, Belt Magazine, and other venues.