Tag Archives: motivation

Curtis Crisler: Migration of a Latchkey Boy

(PHOTO: William Bryant Rozier) Curtis Crisler

Curtis Crisler’s unnamed speaker is a griot of sorts. His distant kin, fleeing from Jim Crow and southern domestic terrorism, joins the 5 million African Americans who decide to roll out.

But they aren’t the first to do so. Others left before them during the first Great Migration (1910 to 1930), which swept two-thirds of 1.6 million Black folks traveling alone or in small family groups toward New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Indianapolis.

The griot’s people ran with the second wave of migrants who, between 1940 and 1970, swell the Black population of those eight cities, and, like the earlier travelers, they’re determined to hold the industrial 20th century to its promises of jobs and opportunities in the Northeast and Midwest. A large number of them also surge through West Coast cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, Seattle, and Portland.

Crisler calls this movement one about “Urban Midwestern Sensibility.” The poet, author and educator captures his griot’s journey and bends that history with the 1982 hit “Mama Used to Say” as the theme song in his forthcoming chapbook Soundtrack to Latchkey Boy that Finishing Line Press will release in December. (Preorder your copy here.)

The 18-poem collection’s garnered early praise through blurbs from two rising stars on the national literary scene. “True to its title, Soundtrack to Latchkey Boy bristles with music: an album in verse of coming up hard and finding a path to light,” writes Mitchell L. H. Douglas, author of Cooling Board: A Long-Playing Poem. “Curtis Crisler is both poet and DJ, spinning a playlist of parental wisdom in the guise of the prose poem. These are survival songs. Tune in and be moved.”

Ross Gay, author of Bringing the Shovel Down and Against Which, is just as moved. “Curtis Crisler’s Soundtrack to Latchkey Boy is magic in the way it makes heartbreak music,” Gay writes. “With its halting syntax and precise, twisting diction, with its conjuring of these exact voices…. What I mean is that my heart is jumping around like a kangaroo on account of how beautiful this book. Like I said—heartbreaking, yes. But music, even more.”

Soundtrack’s also half of a new collection Crisler’s currently writing. His other books include a mixed-genre novel (Dreamist), a children’s book (Tough Boy Sonatas), his debut poetry collection (Pulling Scabs, a Pushcart-nominated collection), and his chapbook (Spill, which won the 2008 Keyhole Chapbook Award from Keyhole Press).

(PHOTO: Finishing Line Press)

Soundtrack, his second chapbook, resulted from a two-year process of him watching his poems mature. Prior to that, Junior’s song “Mama Used to Say” kept looping in Crisler’s head. “It was intense,” he says. “I couldn’t shake it.”

That’s when he knew Soundtrack should be a book of prose poems. “I wanted a cadence to the poems that trailed off from the song….into the things that my mother actually would say,” says Crisler, who’s currently an assistant professor of English at Indiana University Purdue University Fort Wayne (IPFW). “That was the epiphany for me. So I played with it as much as I could and let the process dictate the progress of the poems…I then went back and added and subtracted various ‘layerings’ to the poems.”

The outcome? “Prose poems that address a sporadic rhythm, and gives way to the reflection of a man’s life by using Junior’s song to connect to his mother, community, and past, all while seeing himself become a man in the process, as well as getting insight to the mother’s character,” Crisler says.

The titles in the table of contents’ first two sections reads like a list of “mother-isms” (“…fat meat’s greasy,” “…a hard head makes a soft. behind,” “…don’t eat nobody’s. chittlins,” “…boy, you ain’t gone worry me,” etc.).

Each of Soundtrack‘s three sections opens  with a song line from Junior’s “Mama Used to Say”. By italicizing his mom’s sayings, Crisler weaves maternal wisdom throughout the unnamed speaker’s coming-of-age tale. Take the poem “…you won’t understand what I’m telling you now, but one day you will:

…you won’t understand what i’m telling you now, but one day you will “move mountains. stomp mole hills. righteous glory born to. you from stellar backs. steel workers, postal workers, and soldiers garnered you titles in this. united states of e pluribus unum.” booker t. and dubois ain’t helping with these bills, and you eat a hell of a lot. listen now and hear me then. you need to learn to motivate. push the pulse, inspire. either matriculate or get job. but be more than one buck.

“Curtis’ work evolves from project to project, and now readers will get to experience this poet in a very intimate way,” says Randall Horton, author of Lingua Franca of Ninth Street and Definition of Place. He and Crisler met six years ago at Cave Canem’s week-long summer poetry retreat for writers of African descent. “Curtis showed me the ropes around the campus my first year there,” he says.

Horton’s admired his friend’s work since. “I’m always excited to see what Curtis is doing next,” says the poet and editor, who worked with Willow Books to publish Crisler’s Pulling Scabs and Dreamist. Though he hasn’t read Soundtrack, Horton’s optimistic about the book and speculates it will echo. “I’m referring to a literary heritage of perhaps [Robert] Hayden or [Gwendolyn] Brooks, maybe [Sterling] Plumpp or [Lucille]  Clifton,” he says. “I expect to be left with an experience.”


Junior’s song is an irony that hits Crisler close to home. While “Mama Used to Say” encouraged kids against rushing to get older, Crisler’s childhood forced him into adulthood when his single-mom took night classes to earn her high school diploma.

Latchkey kid is a term that goes back to World War II, when stay-at-home moms took up odd jobs to make ends meet while their husbands fought in the armed forces. The practice of leaving kids home alone in the daytime is now common for working parents who can’t afford childcare.

At 5 years old, Crisler was the little man of the house. “I could cook a basic breakfast,” the Gary, IN-native says. “I walked to school on my own and had a key to the house in my sock.”

And while most latchkey kids suffer from depression, low self-esteem and are easily influenced by peers, that experience made Crisler independent and self-reliant at a young age. “I had obligations…one was to be home to watch my younger sister,” he says.

(PHOTO: William Bryant Rozier)

His then-basic culinary skills enabled him to fix his sister a sandwich when she was hungry. He even tucked her in and waited for his mom’s return before going to bed. “I know my mother believed in me, but I’m sure she worried until she got home as well,” Crisler recalls. “You had to contribute in a responsible way so that the family could function.” He held down the house until his aunt moved in with them.

That self-reliance and his mom made him a better husband and father. “She made sure I knew how to cook, shop, wash clothes, take care of my sisters, take care of our house, and take care of myself,” he says. “She was a bit of a handyman with certain home projects. I learned from her how to attend to family since my father wasn’t there.”

His mom, who raised three kids and her two sisters, gave him something else. “I was able to see a lot of my artistic self through her,” Crisler says, recalling that his mom modeled, acted, and did visual art.

She inspired him to write his first poem in 4th grade. “My mother would support us in anything we did, but she wanted us to show her that we were committed to our endeavors,” Crisler says. “When she saw that, she would be our biggest advocate.”

Her life also taught him that hard work earned respect. Crisler’s fellowships from Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Cave Canem, Soul Mountain, and a guest residency at Hamline University are testaments to his mom’s wisdom.

His work interested Allison Joseph, poetry editor at Crab Orchard Review and director of the MFA Program at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. “Congrats on the new chapbook!!!” she writes on Crisler’s Facebook wall. “Looking forward to reading it.”

Joseph’s still impressed with his earlier work. “Curtis Crisler’s poems are experimental but welcoming, funky intellectual rides that invite all to share in his scintillating view of our world,” according to her blurb for Pulling Scabs. “It’s always a delight and a surprise to see where a Curtis Crisler poem goes, and there is always gut-bucket substance beneath this poet’s flash and dazzle.”

(PHOTO: William Bryant Rozier)

His hard work also earned him many awards including the Sterling Plumpp First Voices Poetry Award, an Indiana Arts Commission Grant, the Eric Hoffer Award, and a nomination for the Eliot Rosewater Award. A playwright adapted his poetry to theatrical productions in New York and Chicago, and he’s published in a variety of magazines, journals, and anthologies.

What drives Crisler once pushed William Stafford. In an interview with Chicago Review’s Peter Ellsworth, the late-poet said: “The voice I hear in my poems is my mother’s voice.” Those words ring true with the young poet. “That voice pushes me to be more than I am, or at least all that I can be,” says Crisler, who shows this in the poem “now mama’s words ricochet/boomerang my skull”:

now mama’s words ricochet/boomerang my skull. my bones. fatherhood. i’ve stepped into some soupy resistance. mama’s words are all on the soul of my blues. blue muddiness. i can’t define.

The motherly voice assures Crisler it’s OK for Soundtrack’s poems to surprise him. “I’m still learning from them,” he says. “I believe these poems have taken me to a place I wasn’t prepared to go.” He started with two poems. “I hadn’t planned on writing them.” But those poems insisted on making their way into the world.

That’s how Soundtrack sprouted from the germ of an idea. “Man, the creative process is crazy cool,” Crisler says. “It frustrates and burns and keeps you on your toes, but when it comes through, it comes through big time, if only from this latchkey boy’s perspective.”


Posted by on October 19, 2012 in Article, Feature


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How Linette Got Her Scream Back


(PHOTO: Courtesy) Linette Marie Allen is a 10-year marketing professional.

Linette Marie Allen heard it first 20 years ago.

A freshman Business major in her first semester then at Howard University, she wasn’t aware yet of what she would later call her “inner scream.” The introduction came on the fall of 1990 in the basement of the university’s Blackburn Center.

That night, she was preoccupied with her thoughts in the “Punch Out,” a campus cafeteria that doubled as a lounge for open mic events.

That night, the place was packed. She’d memorized her own poem for the occasion. The lights were dimmed for effect. Halfway through her piece, Allen drew a blank, forgetting her lines.

That’s when she heard her inner scream. Whatever you do be a voice of encouragement to others, it told her. Use your gifts and talents to uplift others. She had no way of knowing then that her business ventures would make her a resource for the unemployed or those switching careers.

“I wanted to be a launching pad,” Allen, 38, recalled in a recent phone interview.  “I really wanted to get behind and inspire people.” Those gifts and talents would have her coaching clients to develop action plans for starting a new business or making adjustments in their personal lives. Those gifts and talents would eventually lead her to write a book inspiring others to tap into their inner scream.

But that night in the “Punch Out,” Allen looked into the crowd, reassured to see her friend and fellow student Yao Hoke Glover. “It was a charged time,” said Glover, a Bowie State University professor. He met Allen through a comparative black literature course that same year.


Though he can barely recall the details of that night 20 years ago, he said of that time, “It was a different type of poetry environment [then]. It was a whole activism bent that was connected to poetry.” Knowing her poem by heart that night, Glover mouthed the words of the next line to Allen. She got back on track and finished her performance. The crowd cheered.

The inner scream hasn’t left her alone since. In fact, that night was just the start of a journey that would later whisk her away from a good-paying job she landed after graduation. It pulled the native-Washingtonian from her hometown to grad school in the United Kingdom, and eventually to briefly live with her husband and teaching in Italy.

Perhaps that inner scream was the product of her birth to teenage parents in 1972 at DC General Hospital, the city’s first and only public hospital that operated for 200 years until it closed in May 2001 (the hospital was recently converted to a homeless shelter).

With a 15-year-old mom and 17-year-old dad, Allen’s grandparents, who had four children, helped raise her in their home. “My mother, in many ways, was like my older sister, although I addressed her properly,” Allen said, adding that her mother — who had Allen reading by age three — has been a motivator from the beginning.

The neighborhood’s boundaries included Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue SE, Fendall Street SE, and Maple View Place SE. The boundaries also ran along the eastern and southern sides of the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site to High Street SE.

Located east of the Anacostia River, according to various sources, the neighborhood remains a famous one in the Southeast quadrant of the city. Anacostia’s history goes back as far as the Nacochtank Native Americans who settled along the Anacostia River before Captain John Smith explored the area in 1608.

(PHOTO: Stock Image) A map of Anacostia and its boundaries.

The name, Anacostia, means “trading village,” according to sources. The Nacochtank villages at the river’s south side were busy trading sites for Native Americans in the region. War with and diseases from European explorers nearly wiped out the tribe, which ceased to exist as “a functional unit” during the last 25 years of the 17th century.

The first wave of European settlers came to the area in 1662. By 1791, the neighborhood became a part of DC. Allen’s grandparents bought their two-story brick home for $11,000 just after the Great Depression of 1929. Her grandparents were pioneers in a sense, moving into an area where Whites once comprised 87 percent of the population until the 1950s.

With public housing apartment complexes springing up throughout the neighborhood, and then the flight of middle class residents to suburbs, Anacostia’s demographics shifted to a predominantly Black neighborhood (the 2000 census showed African Americans made up 92 percent of residents).

(PHOTO: anacostianews.blogspot)

With the impact of deteriorated infrastructures and the drug trade, Anacostia’s crime rate peaked, according to sources, in the 1990s. But Allen has a different take on growing up during that era.

She grew up in “a little row house” in the 1300 block of Talbert Terrace SE, where her grandmother still lives to this day. “Growing up in Anacostia was actually the opposite of what the stereotypes might imply,” said Allen, who now lives in Gaithersburg, Md.

All the neighbors knew one another. She went to Savoy Elementary School on Shannon Place SE and Jefferson Junior High School on 7th Street SW. “It was probably insular in the sense that the neighborhood had a one-way street,” said Allen, who won the DC Miss Teen Beauty Pageant while a student in the Humanities program at Ballou High School in 1987.

She took on bohemian ways, hanging with DC’s poets, artists and musicians during her time at Howard. “She seemed to march to the beat of her own drum,” said Brian Gilmore, a clinical associate professor and director of the Housing Clinic at Michigan State University College of Law. Also a poet and writer, he met Allen through Glover in the DC arts scene around 1992.

He recalled reading an article by Eleanor W. Traylor, who at the time was professor of English and chair of the department of English at Howard University. In the article, Dr. Traylor cited Allen as a new emerging poet to watch out for.


“When I saw Linette and mentioned it, she was just so very humble about it, like she felt honored to even be mentioned,” Gilmore recalled, adding that he was impressed by Allen’s humility. “A lot of that is missing today because poetry, and poets, are a bit self-indulgent, and self promotional to an extreme almost.”

He added that as a result, “The work, the tradition, gets lost, but Linette back then… understood the tradition.”

Everything in her life up to that point might have been orchestrated by her inner scream before Allen knew what it was, before it introduced itself to her that night in the “Punch Out.” That same year she met Gilmore, Allen transferred to the University of the District of Columbia (UDC), where she got free tuition since her mother was an employee there. She landed a job at the former Pricewaterhouse (now Pricewaterhouse Coopers), after graduating from UDC in 1996.

With skills as an analytical thinker and dubbing herself “spreadsheet queen,” Allen’s inner scream told her the skies were the limit. At the career coaching firm, she worked in the managing consultant division. “It was a good job,” she said. But not where she would stay long.

A special encounter on a metro bus during her Howard days had set off a series of events that eventually had her studying organizational and social psychology at the London School of Economics (LSE). To hear Allen tell it, it started with a pair of shoes. She noticed them while riding the 70 bus on her way to Silver Spring after her classes.

(PHOTO: Stock Image)

The unusual pair of heels were thick, high-stacked and with “European”-styled buckles. They were unlike anything Allen, who thought they were cool, had seen before. They were worn by Lara Oyedele, who Allen thought was an eclectic-looking African woman. Oyedele sat at the back of the bus, looking out the window.

Prior to their conversation, Allen couldn’t have known the woman was Nigerian, that she spoke with a British accent, and that she was an exchange student from Bradford England studying Radio-TV-Broadcast at Howard University. “I happened to glance over and look at her shoes,” Allen recalled. The two became “fast and hard” friends who went everywhere together.

While at Pricewaterhouse, Allen remembered Oyedele had invited her to fly out for a week in London.  She made the trip in 1996, taking in the sights and meeting Oyedele’s grad school professors at LSE. Allen talked with one professor for an hour. “I talked about my background and my interests,” she said. “This one professor just poured into me.”

When she got back, she had a number of decisions to make. Initially, George Washington University was her first choice for grad school. But after an unpleasant encounter with a GW admissions counselor, Allen applied to LSE and the University of Edinburgh in Scotland—and got into both.

(PHOTO: Guardian News) London School of Economics

Then there was her job. “They had offered me another position,” she said. If she took the job, it meant she wouldn’t be able to do grad school the following year. Her inner scream told her to take a risk, and so she did by turning down the job and going to LSE.

That decision didn’t surprise Gilmore. “She is outgoing,” he recalled, “a bit of a chance taker in a lot of ways.” It’s a decision she doesn’t regret to this day. “When I arrived, I absolutely loved the city,” Allen said. “London was a good fit for me.” There, she found a similar bohemian scene she had back home.

Then there were the free lecture series, where she recalled catching a lecture at LSE by  former South African President Nelson Mandela, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993. “You had Pulitzer Prize winners and authors who had published work,” she recalled. “The culture was so rich.”

The diversity in the classrooms was just as rich. “I had students in my program who were from all over the world”—from places like Sweden, Italy, Scotland and South Africa, said Allen, who was one of three Black students. As the only African American there, she made an observation about the classroom dynamic.

(PHOTO: Stock Image) Long established as an entertainment district, according to sources, for much of the 20th century Soho was popular among those of the night life and film industry.

“They [her fellow grad students] would speak open with me about what they thought about Americans and America, in general,” she said. “European men and women didn’t treat me like I was an African American. They actually treated me as if I was just an American.”

Glover noted the significance of Allen’s experiences. “She’s well traveled. That’s what I admire about her,” he said. “She’s my hero in the sense of getting out of the city and seeing how big the world is.”

Back in America, Allen was aware that race was thoroughly woven into the social fabric. Unlike Europe, she noted, America seemed to be hung up on labels. For instance, if a Black person won an award or did something spectacular, according to Allen, that person would be celebrated in America as an African American receiving an award.

But in Europe, it was different. “If I won an award, I was the American student,” she said.

Things were also different overseas on the dating tip. “I found that European men approached me just as boldly and as regularly as Black guys [back in the U.S.],” she said. “It was a little shocking to my fabric.” She met her husband, a native Italian, while studying in London.

They married in 1999 and divorced in 2007. During the marriage, she moved to Italy where her husband was finishing the doctoral program in Linguistics. They lived there for two years, when she learned the language at the University of Perugia in Perugia, Italy. She then landed a job at the University of Macerata in Macerata, Italy, teaching business communication to undergraduates.

(PHOTO: Courtesy) On Jan. 15, the e-book version will be available for the Kindle.

Allen, a mother of three, described her marriage as “a desert period,” where her inner scream was dried to the point of her almost losing her passions. “I stopped writing for a period of eight years. I wasn’t driven really to fulfill the work that I was called to do,” she said. “By the time I finally climbed out of the pit I was in, I didn’t even recognize myself.”

She continued, “It was a process of coming back and being true to that original inner scream…[that] says to me, today, louder than ever, ‘you are a writer.’”

She got back her inner scream two years ago, when she started writing her book, Operating in the Dream Zone: How to Kick Your Dreams to the Sky and Thrive in Any Economy. It’s a book, according to the front flap, about dusting off the imagination and “counting yourself in and counting your excuses out.”

Glover saw Allen’s strength when she counted herself in and her excuses out. “She’s an interesting character,” he said. “She’s always got a lot on her plate.”

She got back her inner scream by starting two businesses. In 2006, a year before her divorce, she started The Resume Ring, a small business that specializes in transforming resumes into effective marketing tools.

“I wanted to do something that would allow me to express my gift of writing,” said Allen, recalling her inner scream advising her 20 years ago to uplift and inspire. “Because I have a business background, I wanted something where I could act as a coach.”

And when The Resume Ring became too small for her vision, she started DreamZu in 2010. With her personal development consultancy firm, Allen does a number of things that include her walking clients through a step by step process of discovering their strengths, weaknesses, talents, skills, interests, and personality type.

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Author and businesswoman, Linette Marie Allen said, “There is no word greater than possibility.

In addition to helping identify obstacles and determine ways to overcome them, she helps her clients as a resource to additional information and resources.

And for those still unsure about their inner scream?

“I would recommend they take inventory,” Allen said. “There are a couple of tools you can use.” They’re located in a section of her book called the “Dream Shop,” a map that will take readers through various stages of accessing what they see as limitations.

Don’t underestimate the mind, Allen will tell anyone. “Whatever it is, you can actually imagine your way out of a circle of impossibility.”

To keep up with Linette Marie Allen, visit her at DreamZu.



Posted by on December 20, 2010 in Feature


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