GM: As you know, concurrent with the success of your novels this last decade (my personal favourite being Galore), I’ve been goading you at parties and readings about when we’d see a new book of poetry. I kept thinking, “I hope we don’t lose Michael Crummey the Poet to Michael Crummey the Novelist,” as has happened to many others.
Furthermore, many of those who do return to poetry from fiction (with names I shall decline to mention), often return in a reduced capacity. Yet I think Under the Keel is not only your strongest poetic work to date, it may be one of your strongest books. You’ve always been a storyteller, though, whether in your poems or fiction. What’s different for you about writing poetry in the ’10s than it was in the ’90s?
MC: I honestly didn’t know if I would ever write another collection of poetry. Salvage came out in 2002, and that book felt like a bit of a cobble in retrospect. But I was happy to be writing poetry again at least. And things kind of dried up when it was done, hadn’t really written many poems at all after it was out until recently. It does feel like something that’s either there or not and I don’t have a lot of say about that. For some reason, about two years ago, I started picking away at poems in a way that felt purposeful again. And the flood gates opened up suddenly. I was writing poems constantly, forgetting the poem I’d been working on at the beginning of the week because I was taken up with the latest piece. A lot of that material was very bad, as you can imagine. But I worked away at the pieces that seemed to have a life to them. Ended up with close to a hundred poems that got whittled down to 60, then to a final 50.
The biggest difference between the 1990s and now, I think, has been my expectations of what I can do in a poem on a structural level. Almost everything in the new book has some kind of rhyme scheme to it. It’s often pretty loose, but its there. And in some ways I felt like I was building a physical object, a piece of furniture say. And it wasn’t enough for it to look more or less like a bookshelf or a dresser. I wanted it to be a solid thing that could bear some weight. I wanted the joints to be well put together. A lot of that stuff will be invisible to a reader, I know, but I think it makes the finished poem a stronger piece. The narrative drive I’ve always had is still there, but the focus for me as a writer was the craft of putting words together. I wanted economy and precision in the structure and I hope that means the poems are economic and precise in turn.
Maybe, thinking about it as we go here, precision was my main focus. In the physical act of placing words on the page, in creating a rhyming structure that pushed me past easy habits and made me bear down, required me to move beyond the first thought or words that came to my mind. And in constantly asking myself what precisely I was trying to say or describe or imply. And not being satisfied with an approximation of those things.
Jesus. That’s just question 1. Had enough yet?
GM: I totally get you. When I’m blocked I turn to form as a generative force. (Try explaining that to students, though, who feel hemmed in by the constraints!) But besides form, there is something different in the work you’ve created for Under the Keel. There’s an edge to it that I find appealing and, frankly, a little scary. It makes me look at you differently.
I jokingly call you the Michael J Fox of Canlit: you’re gregarious, talented, look perennially young, and no one has a bad word to say about you. Yet here you are writing poems like “Cock Tease” and “Getting the Marriage Into Bed,” which chronicle alternate ends (at least chronologically) of sexuality in an unflinching manner. A long time ago, someone described one of my books as “dangerous”. I’ve never really understood that, but I think I’m nearly there with Under The Keel.
Can poems be dangerous? I might switch out that word for “fearless”. Your poems here are without fear. They aren’t afraid to look at things, whether beautiful or ugly, in a plain manner, even through the humour and charm that comes naturally to you. Is this new? Why?
MC: I prefer the notion of “fearless” to “dangerous.” And it may be true that the poems in this book walk a little closer to the edge than things I’ve written in the past. But I think that comes back again to the notion of precision. I was really wanting to set down precisely what a particular experience was like and how it resonated, regardless of how that comes across to a reader (or, say, my mother). Made the mistake of reading Cock Tease and a number of other of the adolescent poems to an audience that included my mother and she was not happy with me. Only, I think, because a parent doesn’t want to know the precise truth of their children’s sexual history or thoughts.
I knew when I was writing some of these pieces that they could make readers uncomfortable. I think at another time in my life I might have drawn back from that a little, tried to soften the edges a bit. This time around it was all about the edges, and pushing to get to them. Something like “The Landing”, which was the last poem I wrote for the book, is something I might have backed away from in the past. But that dream was a harrowing thing for me, it felt like there were layers and layers to it that went somewhere deep. And I thought, fuck it, if I can get that experience down on paper in a way that felt precise and honest, I was going to do it.
Is that close to what you were after?
GM: How much do you worry about being misunderstood, especially when working on sensitive subject matters, as above. Further, what about when representing, as you do, the people and places of your home, Newfoundland? I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but people here aren’t shy about telling you when you got something wrong. You have a section of poems that was commissioned work riffing off a collection from the provincial archives that takes on several voices and characters. How was that, as a thing to write?
MC: I think I worry about it less than I used to. Partly that’s getting older and worrying less about what other people think about everything. But it’s always a consideration. Especially when I’m writing about Newfoundland—which as it turns out, is pretty much all the fecking time. As you say, people here have a custodial relationship with the history and culture of the place. They have an ownership stake and they don’t particularly like seeing anyone mess with it. I don’t mean Newfoundlanders can’t take a ribbing, or deal with someone taking the piss out of our sacred cows. We’ve both seen audiences lap that stuff up. But if you’re writing about the people and the place, you will hear about your mistakes. And I go out of my way to try and get it right.
Having said that, I am more and more comfortable with my own take on the place, on what makes Newfoundland tick, on how Newfoundlanders are likely to get on in particular circumstances. When I was working on the pieces at the archives, I was just poking through photos and waiting for someone to start talking. There was no research involved in that. But I felt pretty confident that the voices I was hearing in my head were authentic. That people would feel they were genuine.
GM: Your poem “Cock Tease”, from Under the Keel and published here on Lemon Hound, has caused quite a stir. A few readers have found offence in what they see as an inappropriate portrayal of a sexually aware 12-year-old girl. Would you like to address this?
MC: Well, the sensible part of my brain says, No, the poem has to stand or fall on its own merits and if someone’s offended by it then nothing I can say about it will (or maybe even should) change how they feel.
Having said that, I am a little surprised by some of the responses. The poem is clearly meant to be offensive on some level. I’m belatedly offended by elements of the world I grew up in and by my own participation in those elements. As a twelve year old boy, I was acting viscerally (and in some ways blindly) in response to my own sexuality, just as the girl was. And there is a horrible innocence to what happens between children in this situation because it’s a world beyond them on so many levels.The curiosity about sex, the desire to participate in something sexual, was mutual. She liked to be touched. Hell, so did I. The difference, of course, is that the girl was labelled because of her desire. And she was aware of the label she’d been given. It’s the name itself, the label, that makes her “reckless and surly by turns.” She would have known (how could she not in that world?) that “giving in” to sexual feelings would have led to an uglier name still. The label twists her natural sexual feelings into something ugly and unpredictable. The name creates the reality, not the other way around. And the name made that girl exploitable, as I knew then, even if I couldn’t have said how.
I wanted the poem to model or mirror misogyny in action. And clearly for some people that isn’t a useful or worthwhile project, or the poem doesn’t succeed in doing it satisfactorily. That’s fair enough. But the suggestion that the poem is actively “slut-shaming” the girl is mystifying to me. Because it acknowledges she has sexual feelings? Well, again, so did I. Because the title of the poem labels the child? From where I’m sitting, the poem is about the phrase “cock tease” and how it and all it implies damaged a child. The title of the poem refers to the label, not to the 12 year old girl who, as the poem says, is guilty only of liking to be touched.
It appears to me to be a confusion of the culture’s active shaming of the child with the intent of the poem. Which may very well be my fault. All I can say in my own defence is that the shaming I was aiming for was directed at myself, at the horny 12 year-old boy who saw a chance to turn a girl’s shame and vulnerability to his own advantage.
GM: Talking to someone who writes both fiction and poetry, I’m interested in what makes each “good” for you, versus what makes each “great”. In the fiction and poetry of others, how do you distinguish between the merely competent, decent, or good and the truly great work of art? In your own? I think, for instance, that Galore is an order of magnitude above most works of fiction. Same with Under the Keel and poetry. Can you talk about the moment you know the writing of another is like that: sublime? And what about the moment you know when you’ve hit it yourself?
MC: Well this question sounds like a set up to make me look like a pompous arsehole. You wouldn’t do that to me, would you George?
I haven’t spent a lot of time trying to parse these things out in my head, to be honest. I know when I’m reading something with an air of greatness about it, but have never bothered too much trying to figure out the source. It’s a bit like trying to say why you love someone. There’s a long list you can haul out, but it never quite covers that indefinable something which is the reason you’re in love.
I do have a theory about what makes something merely competent or decent though. This is in relation to fiction primarily, but it might apply to poetry as well. I’ve read a lot of books in the last number of years by people I admire, people who I think have written terrific novels or story collections. And their latest is well written and more or less interesting. But when I finish it I think, Why did they just spend years of their life writing this? It felt like there was absolutely nothing on the line for the writer. It was just time to write the next book and this was the most interesting idea on hand. And I think that’s a death knell, it means there was never more than idle curiosity at the heart of the project. Which makes a book completely forgettable.
I think that’s the thing I’m most afraid of as a writer, wasting my time and a reader’s time on something I didn’t really care about. I’ve written some bad books but the fault was in the execution (I think). It wasn’t for lack of desire or heart. I have never started a book without a sense that something about it terrifies me, that there’s something in it I don’t feel capable of pulling off. I want that stretch, even if I fail. I can’t think of anything else that will make me a better writer.
I definitely felt that way about Galore, that it was a book I was meant to write and that it might be beyond my capacity as a writer to make it work. And in some sense, I felt that way about Under the Keel as well. That I was pushing past what I knew how to do toward something I wanted to know how to do.
GM: Thanks for taking the time to do this, Michael. For the sake of standard interview clewing, please tell us what’s next for you, both in prose and poetry
MC: I’m currently in the middle of a novel set on the south coast of Newfoundland. A contemporary story for once (cell phones! the internet!), though in the end it’s the same old shit. I have to say, though, I am terrified. Which I take to be a good sign.
Also writing poetry still, though much less than I was a year ago. Generally when I’m writing fiction, the poetry disappears, but it’s hanging in there so far. Which makes me hopeful about the possibility of someday cobbling another collection together.
‘THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY
–from Under The Keel, Anansi 2013
Michael Crummey is the author of four books of poems, a book of stories, and three novels, most recently Galore. He lives in St. John’s, Newfoundland. Join Michael for the St. John’s launch June 7th at 7pm. Christina Parker Gallery
George Murray is the author of five books of poetry, the latest of which is Whiteout (ECW, 2012), one book of aphorisms, Glimpse (ECW, 2010), and a children’s book, forthcoming from Breakwater Books in 2014. He lives in St. John’s a Brady Bunch consisting of his partner, their combined four children, and a border collie with a voice designed for echoing off Welsh hills.