Creativity through a queer and transgender lens

Poet and scholar Lucas Crawford explores art, literature, pop culture and mental health

Anna Schmidt - 06 March 2023

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Photo by John Ulan

In a village in rural Nova Scotia, eight-year-old Lucas Crawford, ’12 PhD, wanted to be both a music teacher and a nun when he grew up. (Perhaps he was influenced by the movie Sister Act, which he’d watched and loved.) While he didn’t end up pursuing either a religious or musical career, his passion for the arts and a desire to disrupt gender norms remain strong. Today, Crawford is a poet, academic and Augustana’s Canada Research Chair in Transgender Creativity and Mental Health — the first CRC at the campus.

How do you describe your work in one or two sentences?

I study queer and transgender art, literature and popular culture, often with a focus on mental health and with a desire to value the arts!

What did you want to be when you were in Grade 3? 

I wanted to be a nun and a music teacher. I was very drawn to non-heterosexual gender camaraderie and queer refusals of mainstream fashion. Plus I loved the movie Sister Act, which is, of course, a drag-like caper about women and belonging — not to mention a romance.

When did you know you wanted to study English and gender studies?

I’ve always written poetry — since before I was a teenager, at least — and disrupted gendered expectations, unwittingly or not, much earlier than that. Studying these things has always been a way of seeking new understandings of how to make a life for myself, of how to imagine things differently, to create new ways. So the choices didn’t exactly feel like choices, but I suppose I had to be very decisive about not going to med school or military college. Both were options strongly suggested to me!

What’s one big problem you want to address or a goal you want to achieve?

A big problem is that we often validate transgender people by rejecting our identity’s historical connection to mental illness, which is both historically inaccurate and stigmatizing. To create an alternative way of thinking about this connection, I am undertaking an academic study of transgender artists and writers who I feel offer their own non-stigmatizing and non-medical wellness expertise. As a community-based corollary to this work, I am organizing a multidisciplinary team of poets who identify as mentally ill in order to offer free poetry workshops to survivors of psychiatric treatment and to in-patients of psychiatric wards. I am thrilled this project has received robust support from the Canada Council for the Arts, a sign that attitudes toward mental illness are shifting. 

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

About academia and poetry: don’t even try to get published — just aim to fill your rejection folder.

About poetry: write a draft, then make every line as good as your favourite line.

About mental health: if you can, make your bed.

What’s your favourite thing so far about Augustana?

The enthusiasm of the students!

How do you see the Augustana community playing a role in your work?

I have always valued rural and urban locales and see both as relevant to the development of queer and trans history and art. I like spending time in Camrose and at Augustana — it’s a bit smaller than my rural Maritime alma mater, St. FX [St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia], but not by a lot. I like to connect with other folks from rural backgrounds. We are generally underestimated. Although there are sometimes solid historical reasons behind some rural stereotypes, there are also loads of folks out there challenging racism, homophobia and transphobia in smaller towns and doing the massive personal work required to create a way of being themselves when it isn’t always obvious how to do so.

What’s the worst fashion or hair decision you’ve made?

No regrets! But lots of laughs at my fifth-grade half-french-braid, half-long-hair-down style. And guffaws at summer 2007’s retro-coloured shorts, golf shirt and ball cap, which led a taxi driver to drop me off at A&W and wish me a good shift instead of taking me to my actual destination nearby! 

What’s the last show you binge-watched and loved?

Right now, I am really into three standup comics: Sheng Wang, Maria Bamford and Atsuko Okatsuka. But, I mean, I can rip through a season or 10 of Law & Order: SVU, no problem.

What’s the best book you’ve ever read?

I cannot choose “best,” but the books I have enjoyed most are Gordon Korman’s early novels for teens and all of Paul Auster’s novels. But I can also say that when I first read Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues, before I had met many other queer people at all, something shifted.

Where did you grow up and what do you love about your hometown?

I was born in Halifax and grew up in rural Nova Scotia in a village called Kingston. I love my mom and her cats, who still live there. And I love that my high school now has a cafeteria and potable drinking water.

You can invite anyone — alive or dead, real or fictional — to dinner. Who would it be and why?

Céline Dion for the conversation, stories, questions and, of course, a duet. (She recently disclosed her bodily struggles to the public, so as I would say for all of us disabled folks, I would only want her to keep our dinner date if she felt up to it! I would also be thrilled to just bring a pizza to her house and watch a movie.)

If you had unlimited time and resources, what’s your dream project in your field?

I’d love to design and implement poetry workshops for psychiatric in-patients. It’s what my new job at Augustana has allowed me to pursue, so I’m very lucky!

What’s one thing you’re grateful for?

Being queer.

More about Lucas Crawford

Lucas Crawford is from rural Nova Scotia. He worked at McGill, Simon Fraser and the University of New Brunswick before joining Augustana as the Canada Research Chair in Transgender Creativity and Mental Health. Lucas is the author of four poetry books, including Muster Points, which comes out this June from University of Calgary Press. In 2007, when he was a student at the University of Alberta, he organized the Alberta Beef, a popular drag king troupe. Read more about Lucas here.