In Dialog with Ghosts
Poet Crisosto Apache discusses how their poetry collection Ghostword emerged in conversation with the works of Japanese writer Ryūnosuke Akutagawa
It’s often said that poets are always in conversation with writers of the past. I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Crisosto Apache about their second collection, Ghostword. Crisosto shares how Ghostword emerged in close conversation with the works of Japanese writer Ryūnosuke Akutagawa over a number of years. Plus, they reflect on working thematically with a painter’s eye for color and emotion.
Their dialog with Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s work as the genesis for the book
How the poetry book took shape in three sections
Crisosto’s approach to imagery, color, and emotion in poems
Themes including loss, family, colonization, and decolonization in their work
Crisosto Apache is originally from Mescalero, New Mexico, on the Mescalero Apache reservation, and currently lives in the Denver area with their spouse. They are Mescalero Apache, Chiricahua Apache, and Diné (Navajo) of the Salt Clan born for the Towering House Clan. They hold an MFA from the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and are an Assistant Professor of English. Crisosto’s debut collection is GENESIS (Lost Alphabet). Their second collection is Ghostword (Gnashing Teeth Publications). They are also the Associate Editor of The Offing Magazine, and their profile can be seen on the Poetry Foundation's website.
Watch the video below, or keep scrolling to read the interview. To hear Crisosto read poems from Ghostword, check out the video (I recommend it).
In Dialog with Ghosts
[Interview has been lightly edited for flow.]
Radha: Ghostword is a collection that was generated in a unique way. You talk about the genesis of this particular book in the book’s preface. Would you mind describing that process for us?
Crisosto: This particular book took a very long time to conceive. It really came out of having one of my professors when I first entered college, Arthur Sze, introduce a writer [Ryūnosuke Akutagawa] to me. At the time, I didn't realize how this writer would impact me. I was really drawn to a carbon copy of his book A Fool’s Life.
Akutagawa was a modernist Japanese writer. Over the years, I took a lot of time with each of the entries [in this work]. There are 51 entries to this last manuscript of his. The life of Akutagawa intrigued me, but most specifically what this last manuscript meant, because there's a tragedy behind it. He wrote this last manuscript while he committed suicide, and I read that it took about three hours for him to die. He wrote this manuscript in those three hours. That drew me in.
Because I carried this manuscript for a number of years, in the back of my mind it felt like Akutagawa was following me, prodding my mind to look at this manuscript and maybe communicate with it.
When this idea started, it was back in 1993. But it really didn't kick in until 2009 or 2010. I was challenged by one of my professors because I was explaining this idea, and she basically told me, “Well, if you're going to do it, do it. You know, don't just talk about it.” So I put myself in a room, the sunroom, and gave myself three hours. I was already familiar with the manuscript, I gave myself three hours to, you know, spill my guts, basically.
That first attempt was not successful, nor was the second attempt. So I realized that if I was to give myself three hours to write my swan song, what would it be? It took me a much longer time to do that. But what came out of it was the skeletal structure of this book. At the time that I did this, I still wasn't sure what the book was going to be about.
And it wasn't later until I really spent some time rereading octagon was a full of life, and also going through my manuscript, and began to see the parallels that started coming out of that, which is really what we see in this collection. The collection is my book is broken up into three parts. The first two parts in the first section are the first attempt. The second section is a second attempt.
I grappled with the idea of chronologically putting these these poems in order. After a while of going back and forth—I did it once and I undid it, I did it again, and I undid it—I just finally said, you know, this is the way this process went. That is how the structure of the book should go. It shows a different scope of how the mind works when you put something together.
On my first attempt, I was just going through the poems. I was responding to the ones that really spoke to me. So they came in that order. And then, the second attempt was to finish off what wasn't finished. The third part was responding to some of Akutagawa’s short stories.
I wish more people would discover Akutagawa, because his stories are really phenomenal. And the fact that he wasn't so confident in his stories, but they survived years.
The poems came together through experimentation.
Radha: It’s so interesting to hear about that iterative process—the basis, which is this Japanese writer’s work that you lived with for many years, absorbing. And that what emerged through the series of iterations was, in fact, a whole book, not just a single response.
There are some strong themes that tie the book together, as Arthur Sze points out in his blurb. It’s a testament to “struggle and survival, and the mysterious light of existence.” Were you conscious of those themes, and the scope of what the manuscript might become, as you were writing the poems? Or did you become aware of those themes later on in the process?
Crisosto: When I started putting this manuscript together, it was awakening the psyche. It started to dig into what would then become a lot of what I focus on in my work. When we look at the book and the different sections, it's broken up into three sections. The first section I called “A Life,” which is dealing with the discovery of Akutagawa, the work that he did and then became that light, that spark.
The second section is called “Death,” which is again, kind of a hint toward that second attempt, which, you know, wasn't successful, but then at the end, I made it more palatable. But then finally, the third section is called “A Resurrection,” which is going back and rediscovering a lot of the work that he had done and sort of awakened this part of me that that made a connection. I think it wasn't until reading more of his work that it started to sort of jar, this idea of where the book was going to go directionally.
But a lot of the process was going back and looking at some of the themes I focused on and to start pulling information along those themes and to start making personal connections to them. When I started writing them, I began to think in terms of a persona that I thought would would connect with a lot of different people.
Once I had the structure of the book, I had to start going back and figuring out the substance of the book. Even though I had a content, I needed to pull out more from that.
Radha: The theme of family is prominent in the book.
Crisosto: Yes, in this poem in the first section, “Shí ma / My Mother” and with a lot of these poems, I tried to interweave my indigenous language into the book. I didn't want to be too heavy on on that, because I wanted the book to be accessible to a lot of people. At the same time, I wanted to make a connection to this historical, familial part in the book’s existence.
The term Shí ma is very close. It's not saying that it's your mother or their mother, but it's my mother, being individualized, being specific. And when you look at indigenous language, anything that you say “shí” to is very personal. So I tried to pair that with identity—shí ma / my mother—and then also pairing it with the same title as Akutagawa.
I had a lot of conversations with my mother over the years. Every time we concluded our conversations, she always ruminated on missing her mother, because she lost her mother at a young age. I'm not really sure why our conversations always ended with that.
But in some way, I think I was privileged to be in the presence of story, to be in that presence of emotion. She would tell this story all the time about her mother's funeral, which becomes this idea of of disconnection. Over the years after her mother's passing she was able to talk a lot about that. Those conversations with her were a kind of honoring moment. So when I started thinking about mother, the idea of loss is what I was looking at.
Radha: In the face of those situations—the losses throughout—do you think about the inability of language to meet that moment of loss, and also perhaps, as you mentioned, the slipperiness of identity? How does that play out in what you put on the page?
Crisosto: I’m a very visual person. I look at everything from a very visual perspective. As a young individual, I started off as an artist, a painter. That's what got me into college. Halfway through my first semester, it was Arthur Sze who convinced me to focus more on writing.
It was through this process of writing that I began to think about what identity meant, being the first person in my family to graduate high school and to get a formal education, to possess advanced degrees. It became a separation for me to acquire those. Every time I went home, I was forcefully reminded about who I was, and where I had come from.
When I start to write, I have to pay attention to the idea of persona, and I also pay attention to imagery, and how all of that can be made into something that can be passed on to the audience through emotion. I think I've learned that over time—that I can't just throw these images out there and hope somebody can grapple with them. But if you really take the time to nurture the writing, and begin to enthrall yourself in it, there is an emotion that you can trigger and get others to feel.
Each time I pick up these poems—and I think this is probably the most difficult part of it—it really takes me back to those moments. I'm really dealing with the idea of feeling as if, and then correlating that with imagery. I’m hoping that it places people in these very specific moments that they can, then, recollect. I mean, if you ever sat in a church, and you sat in pews, and you look around, and you see stained glass windows, and you've ever heard that organ. In these, there’s something more specific about that poem. It is personal. Some images anybody can grab, grapple with, and hold, and look at.
Radha: It sounds to me like the images may come first in the writing, and then you build around them. Is that true? Would you mind sharing a little bit about your process with individual poems?
Crisosto: Oh, yeah, I do think that imagery comes first. When I start to think about a concept, it's always the images that come first. Then I'll put them aside and I'll keep doing that because, you know, it’s always a work in progress. Right now I'm working on my third manuscript, and I'm almost done with that, but I’ve realized that emotion is a really huge part of that. I now have to start focusing on this idea of what do these images represent? And move away from just looking in that box and pulling out maybe color. Like if the museum color red, why am I specifically using that color red? And how am I using that, to perpetuate this, this emotion?
Going back to that idea of mixing color, as a painter … the more that you add a certain color, it dilutes the other color or becomes dominant. I try to figure out how I can take the metaphor and the imagery, and encapsulate emotion in it. In poem “34. Conquered,” I say: “each time I mix in more white/ and it dilutes the red even more/ and each time I blend in more white/—I lose a greater part of myself.”
A lot of that poem has to do with my personal journey, moving away from the reservation and this idea of becoming colonized, a term that a lot of people are using now. Anytime that I ever go back to my reservation, I can sense, you know, how urbanized I am, and how removed I am from the cultural identity that I grew up with, that of my family, because they still live there.
It’s sad for me to look at that and deal with that. Sometimes I put it on the back burner and say, “You know what, I don't have to deal with that now.” But I know that it's forced on me.
When I go back home, I see how far removed I am from the way I used to think from a cultural perspective. I have to present myself in a very westernized way. You can tell by the way I talk or the way I express myself back home. It’s only evident, so I try not to talk when I'm back there. A lot of that is based on cultural situations, or etiquette, but a lot of it, for me, is because I don't want people to only see that part of myself, right?
I've become educated and I’m very aware of that when I go back home, I'm entering this realm that I've been trying to bury for so long. In a lot of my conversations out here, I talk about this idea of colonization and decolonization, the historical myths of things that happen in what we're calling “America.”
I represent that in my own experience, but out here, it's all just talk. When I go back home, I'm going back in into that realm into what I would call a 21st century concentration camp.
Radha: I just want to pause here to say how much I appreciate how your poems bring people into the experience, into the emotion around these circumstances. I think that's what's so profound to me in this collection—the resonance that is available to readers.
I was curious if you might say a little bit about the title of the collection, and what that means to you?
Crisosto: The idea of a spirit is, in a lot of ways, taboo. From a cultural standpoint, from where I come from, there are a lot of taboos. This idea of the dead—we’re not supposed to be around them, or things that deal a lot with the dead. And I have a poem in here that is about the dead. But this idea of spirit, when somebody passes away, there's sort of a way that we handle ourselves so that we allow the person to transition into the next world. But I don't have anybody around me to practice that with me, with them.
So the title. Because I was dealing with a with a manuscript that was old, I don't say “book,” because the book was published after he died, I still call it a manuscript. That’s really where I think the spirit lies, and he hasn't finished speaking about what was contained in that collection. The manuscript is unfinished in that sense. So to me, the word “ghost” is implied in that.
What got me to think about this idea of work putting “ghost” and "word” together is a collection of poems by a Mexican poet, Pura López Colomé and her book, Watchword.
The title changed a lot of times. I finally settled on this concept because these words followed me for a number of years. I've interacted with them, and they’re ingrained on my spirit, my mind, my expression of creativeness, trying to make sense of the world.
The cover image is a picture I took myself, when I went back to the reservation a number of years ago. I call it “Unusual Specter.” I didn't realize how significant this image would be because of where the picture was taken. Where this picture was taken is where I lost my little brother. Everything that surrounded that event was tragic in its own sense. My mother's house is by one of the major roads that a lot of semis take to connect to Roswell, to El Paso, to Las Cruces. The tribe had the notion of building a truck stop right below my mother's house.
Well, my brother was coming to visit my mother one day and tragically got into a car accident with one of the semis right there at the bottom of her house. As part of the ritual, we had to take some of my brother's stuff and bury it beneath a tree and do some, you know, ceremonial things to those items. And it was in this area that that I took this picture. So again, there’s idea of ghosts and spirits. I didn't put that together until I realized where this this image was taken.
Radha: It’s fascinating to hear the background of the photo, knowing that place is a confluence of tragic experiences. I’m deeply sorry for the loss of your brother.
Crisosto: About the sepia—I just had a photographer in the back of my mind, his depictions of Native Americans. His photography shows, in sepia, a lot of the southwestern indigenous people. It made me think about some of the historical ways that a lot of indigenous people were depicted.
Radha: I don't know if this is true in your cultures, but some indigenous communities feel that to take one's picture is to take one’s spirit. So the choice of the covering over the person feels like a push back—like, no, you can't have my face. Was that in your mind?
Crisosto: Yeah, there’s a hint at the idea of erasure. Akutagawa struggled with mental illness. He worked at the universities, he taught writing, he was a writer, a publisher, but he never felt confident in anything that he had done. He felt like he failed as a son, as a husband, as a writer. He felt like he was slowly losing himself through mental illness. He felt like he was going into a void. In the manuscript A Fool’s Life, he talks about that in the note that he left for his publisher.
With Ghostword, with the 50 years that I've lived on this earth, what I've thought about is: Is everything deserving, is everything meant to be? Are we are just running around with no purpose, really—trying to make purpose? I think that everything is undetermined. I don't believe in destiny.
We would know exactly where we're supposed to be, or what we're supposed to do, and how we're supposed to end up. I believe that's just not the way it is, because if it was then we'd always be surrounded by our friends, our family, our loved ones. But they they go on, and some of us are meant to stay behind and continue.
Buy Ghostword from Gnashing Teeth Publishing or wherever you buy books. Learn more about Crisosto’s work at crisostoapache.com.
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