Take Q&A: Crystal Williams—Writer, Advocate, Advisor

Lewiston resident Crystal Williams’ poetry is much like the author herself—passionate and purposeful. 

Her passion and purpose extend far beyond her poetry, though. Williams is also a Professor of English and the Associate Vice President for Strategic Initiatives at Bates College.

You’ve made quite an impact at Bates College in the 3 years you’ve been on staff. Can you tell us more about the programs you’ve implemented?

Programmatically, we have created a series of distinctive interventions that seek to support, inform, and energize the community. Some of them include:

The Dinner Table program, which focuses on prompt-based storytelling as a means by which students increase measures of empathy, broaden their perspectives on what constitutes diversity and why diversity is a mutually held source of power and effectiveness, among other outcomes. Just two weeks ago, this year’s final storytelling event featured ten Dinner Table storytellers, nominated by their peers, on the main stage at our Olin Arts Center. Listening to stories that reflected an enormous range of experience – a Black woman’s move to wearing natural hair, a student’s struggle with suicide ideation, a Black man’s journey to shrugging off the stereotypes that once bound him, and a young man who nearly burnt his house down making nachos – reminds us all of our commonalities and distinctions, and how much we learn from and rely on each other.

Bobcat First!, a First Year, cohort-based program focused on supporting students who are first in their families to attend a four-year college, which actively involves first generation to college alumni and faculty and staff.

Lingua Franca, a student-driven, college-wide open forum meant to spark conversations across differences. Bates community members identify topics for discussion, and call on faculty and staff experts as well as a unique community circle model of small group discussion.

SPARQ!, our new multi-platform program supporting LGBTQIA+ identified community members and allies.

We are still in the early days. Each of these programs is new to the College, but to-date, the data we’ve collected suggests that they are helping us accomplish some of our primary goals, which include providing students, staff, and faculty with opportunities to build stronger, more inclusive communities, networks, feel more empowered, and more successfully engage a fundamental part of our mission statement, to engage, “the transformative power of our differences.”

You were recently commissioned by MoMA to write poems as part of the Jacob Lawrence Migration Series exhibit. What was that like?

Well, certainly, being involved in anything related to MoMA is a great honor. And I was particularly honored that Elizabeth Alexander, who I so admire, invited me into the project. But I was also thrilled to have been able to substantively engage with Leah Dickerman, who catalyzed this multi-disciplinary project. To be surrounded by so much brilliance and excellence is always a privilege. In this way, my inclusion in this project has seeded so much new thinking—oh, about poems, new forms, partnerships and potential projects. From one endeavor, I hope, will emerge many! So it has meant a reinvigoration of sorts, for which I am profoundly grateful.

You have published four collections of poems, that’s impressive. Out of these collections, a line that intrigued me was “The heart is a beautiful monster, it nearly always survives its fate.” Break this down for us…

I love that this line struck you as being of interest. That is, I think, the beauty of poetry—it asks us to slow down, ponder, turn language and meaning over in our heads and hearts. For this reason, I’m loath to answer the question because, ultimately, the line must mean something to the reader and that meaning may be quite different from my own.

That said, I think our “hearts” or spirits are our most robust qualities. They are from whence emerge our kindnesses and our travesties. So they can be both monstrous and beautiful and are often both—at once. This duality is what makes human beings, at least to me, so very interesting and compelling. And, in the context of the poem, the heart/spirit in this regard, can and will survive its fate, which was deep sorrow.

Image courtesy of Crystal Williams

Image courtesy of Crystal Williams

Do you have anything new in the works right now?

In relation to my own writing, I have grown especially interested in work that employs multiple voices and multiple angles of vision that address the same topic and/or event. I am currently working on a book meant to be read as a memoir comprised of monologues interconnected by voice and topic and also performed as a play.

Having lived in Detroit, Madrid, Portland, and New York City—what’s most appealing to you about Lewiston?

What I most appreciate about Lewiston, and what reminds me most of my hometown, Detroit, is its working class nature, the people who live here who are making their way, their strong communities and traditions. These feel very familiar to me, even though I am not part of those communities and traditions. I appreciate its very “real” feeling, especially having lived for so long in Portland, Oregon, which could easily be characterized as a life-style city, resplendent with so many trappings of a world too few Americans experience and/or can afford. I like that Lewiston reflects and therefore reminds me of the millions of Americans living in cities and towns just like it—good people, hard-working people, people who want something more for their family and friends.

Image courtesy of Crystal Williams

Image courtesy of Crystal Williams


Jennifer HayesTake Q&A: Crystal Williams—Writer, Advocate, Advisor

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