Profile of Poet Crystal Williams

By James Bash | Tuesday, April 21, 2009
Profile of Poet Crystal Williams

I'm a condenser," said Crystal Williams, an award-winning African-American poet who has just published her third book of poems. "I write poetry, in part, because it offers a space in which I can investigate via metaphor what it means to be human."

Williams has been exploring the human condition through poetry ever since her high school years. A native of Detroit, Michigan, Williams, wrote her first poem, because one of her teachers made it a requirement for an English course.

"A little bit of encouragement can go a long way," remarked Williams with a laugh. "I'm still writing poems. I find it challenging and rewarding."

Williams teaches creative writing at Reed College and recently gave a poetry reading in Milwaukie, Oregon at the Pond House, which has an idyllic setting that overlooks a pond and the backside of the Ledding Library. Organizers of the Milwaukie Poetry Series had invited Williams and were almost overwhelmed by the large audience that turned out for her reading.

More than 40 people politely wedged themselves into the living room, hallway, and dining room of the Pond House to hear Williams read from her latest collection of poems, "Troubled Tongues," which received the 2009 Long Madgett Poetry Award and was short-listed for the Idaho Prize.

According to Williams, the poems in "Troubled Tongues" touch on a number of topics like beauty, the body, race, and spirit, as well as maxims, such as engaging life to the fullest every day. Many of the poems begin with an everyday event like sitting with friends on a porch or walking along a busy street, but Williams has a way of revealing more than what is on the surface.

During the poetry reading at the Pond House, Williams used a conversation style to draw the audience into her world. Her warm voice was very evocative, and the cadence of her speech seemed to convey each word perfectly.

Williams' ability to reach her listeners so well undoubtedly came, in part, from her acting background and her experience in poetry slam competitions. She was a member of the 1995 New York Slam team that competed nationally.

In response to questions after her poetry reading, Williams told the audience that her transition from the spoken word to the written word came about to a great degree because she wanted more introspection in her life. Yet she encouraged poets to read their poems aloud, because the sound of each word is extremely important.

"Each poet has a lens through which she or he views the world," said Williams "My gesture is ultimately hopeful. I think that it is incumbent upon us to acknowledge our failings so that we can find a way to be our better selves. You have to be honest when you write in order to get to some point of truth."

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