The Ghost Hour is upon us. From the hauntings of the past to the spectral aspect of cities, to the liminal spaces in the in-between of things, Laura Cronk’s second collection of poems, Ghost Hour (Persea Books), pieces together a narrative of ghosts, memory, ancestry, motherhood, and family. Perhaps these poems have risen from the dead, or are a hand reaching from the beyond the grave, as if to say, “here, look here.”
In the midst of this alterverse fall, Laura and I met over Zoom to discuss witchery, the word “poet,” ancestry, and hauntings. . .
Laura Cronk: I love knowing that you’re from Michigan! I’m from New Castle, which is an hour east of Indianapolis, but I had family in Laporte and more distantly in Ann Arbor and around Michigan. Michigan is really beautiful.
Kate Belew: I was born in Ann Arbor!
Oh wow. I wonder if you feel this way too, but the hard thing about leaving where you’re from and making a life somewhere else is feeling like you don’t have a true home. I can’t ever totally shake it.
And you’re in New York now?
I’ve been in the New York area for almost twenty years. I was in Brooklyn and then Jersey City for ten years, and now I’m in Radburn in Fair Lawn, which is a story for another time.
It was so perfect [reading the book] because I’ve driven through Jersey City so many times and it truly is that sort of moat feeling when you’re spiraling around all the bizarre highways that feel like they were just kind of made in a hurry.
Yeah. It seems like you might have had an idea of where you’re going, but Jersey City has other plans.
I guess we live in Zoom now. How do you think place plays into your work?
In this book, it was pretty present. The landscapes that we grow up with become such an important part of our psyches. They get lodged there. When we let ourselves sink into our unconscious minds to write, those landscapes rise up. I was also writing about another pivotal place, coming into adulthood in a city.
Living in Jersey City was a really beautiful time, but also a really hard time. I became a mother while living in Jersey City. It was a time of struggle and stress, but also, psychically, the energy of being in a city, any city, all the time takes a toll on me. I love it, but it also takes a toll.
Our apartment building was full of people who were all having babies, which was a stroke of luck. So many good people lived in our neighborhood. I miss the fullness and too-much-ness and randomness of Jersey City a lot.
I had a whole series of poems that I was thinking about as Jersey City poems that I thought I might never publish, but I ended up retitling and working them into the book in the last section.
Other people leaning into car windows is one of your images that stuck out for me from the Jersey City time. The things that are most magical are sometimes the most difficult to see. But when you get some space and look back, you’re like whoa, that had a glittery quality to it, you know?
When did you kind of know that you were a poet?
I’ve always felt a little strange calling myself that—it can really kill a conversation, depending on who you’re talking to. It might be that the word feels outside of our time somehow, a bit archaic or something. Or maybe it’s just that it’s such an anti-capitalist, unmarketable thing.
My great-grandmother, Mildred Dunaway (whose children are all psychic, although she was not), was a poet. I remember she gave me a book of poetic forms and would talk to me about poetry. In her generation, people didn’t leave where they were from to become artists; they made their art where they were. So she would publish poems in the local paper, or she would get invited to write something for Easter and read it somewhere.
My cousin, Julie Caponigro, collected all of our great-grandmother’s work in a book, which was such an incredible gift for all of us. My great-grandmother has a poem about her writing group. And I was reading it on the train on my way to go meet with my writing group. It was this wild moment of connection across space and time. So I feel there was always a seed of it there for me. And now my cousin Joe Levy is starting to write poems and I’m really excited that this is something that’s continuing.
You talk so much in the two ancestry poems about carrying those sorts of connections and kind of working with them and against them.
Did those poems come from feeling like her and also not like her?
That’s a good question. I do feel both like and unlike my great-grandmother. I’ve always felt very lucky that my family had an appreciation for artistic things. Besides our poet, there were painters and musicians and generally a lot of creative, sensitive souls. My mom is a singer and still performs. I grew up backstage watching her rehearse in community theater productions. I realize it was a stroke of luck to be born into a family that takes artistic pursuits seriously.
But then, when you’re sinking deeper into your own material, you realize all of the complexities that you’ve inherited. You have to reckon with those if you want to create something that has any meaning.
How does your family feel about poetry and the artistic pursuits that you take on?
You know, I think, like you, I got pretty lucky. I remember texting my dad right out of school, and I was like, I’m so sorry that your daughter’s a poet.
I was feeling really down that night and he was just like, I’m not.
You know, Diane Seuss took me under her wing (at Kalamazoo College). And I told her, “I’m going to be a lawyer.” And she spit out her coffee and was like, “sorry, no.”
If Diane Seuss spits out her coffee you just have to follow whatever comes next.
There were these amazing fish bones hanging around in her office. Yeah, I feel lucky.
And this has been similar in my identity as a witch. That could have been problematic for me. But my Polish grandmother called me the other day. And was just like—I am so I don’t know whether to be so proud of you or to be jealous.
She said, “I could not say the things that you say.” You know.
Wow. Yeah, what an amazing phone call to receive. Important.
Do you associate with the word “witch”?
I do, in a way. I don’t feel a need to identify myself, which is maybe a bit against the current we’re in now and is maybe a cop-out, but I prefer ambiguity. I feel akin to the word “witch” but I wouldn’t use it.
Some of my favorite poets are the witchiest—Lucille Clifton and Jean Valentine are two that come to mind.
When I was reading your book, I was thinking about the similarities between the words “poet” and “witch,” in alignment with haunting.
I think making a poem is like writing a spell. They’re so very similar. It’s like what you were saying about the “archaicness” of the word “poet,” like it has the same sort of fringe ancientness of “witch.” Because of this, I feel like I see the two together, kind of on the outskirts of things.
Absolutely. Yeah. I love that.
What’s your relationship to ghosts and hauntings? How did you come up with “Ghost Hour” as the title?
My father’s side of the family has a strong interest and capacity in these things, so I grew up thinking about them. About the title: I really struggled for a long time. And I came to that title after the deadline had passed. Nothing felt right. But I decided to read through the book one more time, hunting.
And there’s a poem about dusk and drinking that feels important to the book—it’s about the discomfort of being in a kind of threshold space, and it uses the phrase “ghost hour.” And I thought, “Oh, that could work!”
It’s a title that could be used for many books of poetry. We’re so often writing about what haunts us and what’s unresolved and what is circling around us. So it felt right for the poems about adolescence, but it also felt right for the poems that were grappling with adulthood
A lot of these poems felt very visited by ghosts.
Well, I’ll take that as a compliment!
There really is a conjuring in writing poems. You probably experienced this too, but when I realized I wanted to write about that relationship in the middle poem in the book, I had a ritual I would use to get there: I’d call my friend up, not call him on the phone, but call up those memories and that time.
CAConrad says that rituals are the act of being radically present. And I think that’s so beautiful. I feel the radical presence in your poems, even though they’re about the past.
That is an amazing power of writing: to get to travel like that instantly.
Yeah, and to connect with people, too, or imagined people. Where are you today on what makes a poem a poem?
I always want to feel some kind of intellectual searching and an emotional charge in a poem. My experience with poetry is a lot like my experience with movies. I just want to sit in the dark and think and feel. But I can also admire and be made better by poems I don’t connect with or understand. If someone writes something and calls it, with any sincerity, a “poem,” then I’m going to agree and say welcome to the party.
How did you order your manuscript?
I didn’t realize I had a manuscript for a long time. I had two separate projects going and realized it was going to take me a long time to generate enough content for either. So I had these two batches of poems that felt siloed. When I wrote the long middle coming-of-age poem, it felt like a bridge and I realized, “Oh, this could all work together.” And then I put them on the floor and looked at them visually.
So interesting how making them tactile and take up space really helps.
So much, right?
I really want to hear about the séance at the book party. Who did you conjure up? Anybody specifically?
We did the séance with Roberta Boyce, who is an energy activator. She doesn’t call herself a psychic. I was trying to think of a way to have a Zoom book party that would be interesting and enjoyable and not dreadful. Then the idea of a séance came up. And a friend suggested I get in touch with Roberta. When I was talking to her about the idea, she said, I don’t think we should really try to open too much up because it’s a party and we should be careful and try to keep things fairly positive for people. So we didn’t try to actually get in touch with the dead. She led a guided visualization and meditation for people to go into a pivotal memory. I led a writing prompt. And then we had cocktail-making demonstration and a musician and chatting.
This is the most rad Zoom party I think I’ve heard of yet.
I’m really proud of it.
Jolie Holland! She was the musician. She has this incredible song called “Ghost Waltz.” She Zoomed in and played from a little camper in California. It was pretty awesome.