Q&A: Jessa Crispin embraces her inner mystical weirdo
In the beginning of the bookish Internet, Jessa Crispin made waves with her irreverent online literary magazine, “Bookslut.” She’s gone on to publish another magazine, “Spolia,” as well as the 2015 book “The Dead Ladies Project,” a collection of essays that weaves her time abroad with research about displaced writers and artists of the 20th century.
Many of Crispin’s “dead ladies” -- including writer William James and Margaret Anderson, who published James Joyce’s work in the “The Little Review” -- make cameo appearances in her new book “The Creative Tarot” (Touchstone: 327 pp., $22), out this week.
While “The Creative Tarot” is a guide to the fortune-telling cards and how to use them, the book is designed to spefically chart readings for working artists and writers. The tarot cards a person draws, Crispin suggests, can be source material, help guide a work in progress, or even indicate when it’s time to walk away from a project. We sat down to talk at Tianti Books, a specialty bookstore in Manhattan with titles on meditation lining its walls; the interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You open the book talking about a down-to-earth tarot reader. Could you talk about that?
I don’t think I would have gotten into the tarot if it hadn’t been for this woman. Because I’d had readings before, and they’d all been super mystical woo-woo, which I have a very limited amount of patience for. Apparently you can wear some really nice pants and a button-up shirt and some lipstick and read tarot cards, and that’s fine. That was the first time I realized, oh, this has a value outside of woo-woo land. The more I became a writer, the more my [tarot] readings became about my work.
How did you create tarot readings specifically for creative people?
Because of my job, because of “Bookslut” and “Spolia” and all the writers I know, all of my initial readings were about creativity. It was just kind of trial and error, [figuring out] what people wanted to know and what would be useful to them.
I think it’s really helpful to figure out who you are in the situation. Do you have any power? Are you wandering off into the weeds, or do you kind of know what you’re doing? I think that’s an interesting way to start.
What is it about tarot that helped you and your work, or has helped others’ work?
Well, for my own work, it was more about how integrated my life was going to be with my creativity. I’m trying to be thought of as an intellectual, and here I am reading tarot cards. I think the weirder you allow yourself to become and admit that you already are, then the more fun you have. But at the same time, public perception does change.
I’ve already gotten a lot of weird pushback about the tarot book, from mostly men, and when I wrote a piece about St. Theresa for “The New York Times,” I got weird email about how sorry people felt for her that she had this belief in God. And I was like, “It worked out fine for her! She did a lot with it.” Why not have critics writing about mystical topics? I’m fine with being known as a mystical weirdo.
There’s something really grounded about this book, though. It’s extensively researched, talking about historical artists and writers and the ups and downs of creativity.
I was 19 before I ever went to an art museum. It just was not valued in my family. The access you get then comes from biopics about artists, and always has this stupid narrative about genius, knowing from a very young age that you’re meant to be a great painter or composer. But if you actually read people [describing] their process, you realize that it’s mostly trying, failing, trying, failing. That it’s not so mysterious after all, that it’s just a person doing work. I actually loved reading those stories. It was very reassuring to me.
In the book, you explain that sometimes failure is necessary, because it gets you to another place.
Yeah. I mean, it still feels like failure. It still feels like [the card] the Ten of Swords looks, which is totally gruesome and dire and terrible. ... I think the way we talk about art and artists and genius and creativity is mostly wrong, that there had to be some way of deconstructing genius and art, and who’s allowed in and who’s not. Even David Bowie was on the dole for a long time.
What kind of support systems would you like to see artists have?
I lived in Germany for five years, and I was a member of a writers union; I had half of my health insurance paid for, I had a pension. There was a subsidized transit system, subsidized opera, free art museums half the time -- it was just access. What would you know, those were my most productive years.
What is the project that you’re working on now?
It’s a feminist manifesto for Melville House called “Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto.” [This became public when] I was so incredibly stuck on it. It was going to be an obvious failure if I didn’t finish.
Swords all over it.
Ten of Swords all over it. But maybe that’s good because that’s how I moved to Berlin. I sort of just told everyone I was moving to Berlin, and then it would be embarrassing if I didn’t move -- then I had to go.
Evans is a freelance writer who lives in Pennsylvania.
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