Michael Crummey’s much anticipated new book of poetry Under The Keel will be in stores this week. As someone who’s read all of Crummey’s work, I can promise that it will not disappoint. The poems are perfectly drawn, and the narratives are ones we will appreciate. I’ve always sung the praises of Hard Light, but this might be my new Crummey must-have as it aroused many Michael Crummey moans. What are MC moans, you ask? It’s a phrase I coined a few years ago after reading one of his books. You close the book or finish the chapter or the paragraph or the sentence and you moan with delight and pleasure because that image, that sentiment, that line resonated somewhere within you. It happens a lot in Crummey’s work. I’ve used it to descrbe other good books. “This is Michael Crummey moan material.” Have high expectations for UTK. It will live up to them.
Some of these poems are based on research that you did at the Archives in St. John’s. Can you talk a little bit about that, the process, how you choose the photographs, etc?
I was invited to be part of an exhibition at the Rooms which involved being let loose in their collections and writing new material in response to whatever I found there. I spent most of my time in the Archives looking at old photos. There was no rhyme or reason to the process, I just followed my nose to see what would turn up. For the most part I was looking for a picture in which somebody looked like they had a story to tell. Or a face that I could hear speaking in a particular voice. In which case, I just started writing down what they were saying.
It’s like readers have a part in this book, it’s so intimate. What kinds of feelings come with releasing something that’s somewhat personal?
It isn’t a new thing to feel like I’m exposing some part of myself in the writing. What I hope is that the poems translate the personal experience into something that has relevance to a reader’s life. In that sense, I feel almost as if the personal material is beside the point. If the poems work at all they are not about what happened to me, they’re about whatever is inside what happened to me. If that’s not too cute a way to think of it.
There are four poems in the book that you wrote for your wife on your wedding day. How would you feel if other couples used them in their marriage ceremonies?
Well the emotions in those poems might be applicable to someone else’s marriage, but the details are pretty specific to my particular situation and past. So I’d be kinda surprised if anyone saw a place for them in their own ceremonies or celebrations. Unless someone else’s father died of cancer before they met their fiance. Which is entirely possible, I guess.
Your wife, who is also a singer, turned one of your poems into a song. Can fans expect more collaboration from you two in the future? Why or why not?
Yeah, I hope so. Holly and her musical partner, Allan Byrne, have been writing songs together for the last little while, and I’ve written some lyrics for them. Holly and I don’t work together on lyrics as a rule, but we pass them back and forth for comments and advice. It’s a strange thing to see those things come together, and to watch Holly and Allan sing them in front of an audience. I’d love to do more of it.
You are one of Canada’s best and favourite writers. With River Theives, Galore, The Wreckage, Hard Light, Flesh and Blood, and a few other books besides, where do you put the pressure of expectation when you’re working on something new? How does the success affect you?
Jesus, I’ve never thought about that before. Thanks a lot, lady.
Seriously, though, whatever I working on at the moment is written in the shadow of everything I’ve done previously. That’s true for all writers I imagine. And for me there are at least two different levels to that “pressure.” One is the personal sense of wanting to do something different with each book, and for each successive book to be as good or better than the last one. And on that level I do feel a bit of panic before I start a new novel. The other kind of pressure has to do with how a book does once it’s out in the world, whether it gets well reviewed, nominated for prizes, sells some copies. That stuff I have no control over whatsoever and I try to ignore it as much as possible. As you can imagine, it’s easier said than done. But I’m getting a little better at it I think.
With the poetry, it’s a different thing altogether. I don’t feel any pressure at all, that I’m aware of. When I was writing the poems for Under the Keel, I did have a real sense that I had done all I had in me to do with the free verse lyric and I wanted to try working more with rhyme and meter. Most of the poems in the book have some kind of rhyme scheme. Although I wanted them to remain conversational in tone, so the rhymes are nearly invisible in many of them. It was mostly a way of forcing myself past old habits. But that was more of a goal for myself as a writer than feeling any kind of pressure to change.
What’s your average day like? Are you a diligent writer who has a strict schedule? Do you write in spurts?
When I was working on Under the Keel I had no strict schedule. It was whenever something struck me, or when I felt like it. Which was most of the time, actually, so I was working pretty intensely on those poems over a two year period. With the fiction, I have to be way more methodical about it, just because its such a huge undertaking and generally involves more slogging, so it’s easy to drift away from it. I try to sit at the desk after the kids leave for school and I set myself a 500 word daily minimum. Even on my worst days I can usually get that much done. It’s surprising just how far you can move a story along with a week or two of 500 word days.
Tell us a little about your next project.
Well I’m a bit superstitious about talking about what I’m doing before it’s done. I can say this much: I’m working on a novel set on the south coast of Newfoundland. Something a little more contemporary than the other novels (it has the internet! cell phones!). Although, in the end, it’s pretty much the same material I’ve always been interested in.
What are the last few books you read?
I’m currently re-reading Arctic Twilight which is a book of letters written by a guy named Len Budgell about his life growing up and working in northern Labrador and the Arctic. Covers a period from about 1910 to 1980. The letters weren’t meant for publication, but the guy is a fantastic writer, a natural. Best book about the north I’ve ever read.
I’ve also been spending a fair bit of time with Jack Gilbert’s Collected Poems. Gilbert died in November, which is what sent me back to him. I was a huge fan of his collections The Great Fires and Refusing Heaven. Reading the Collected, I was struck by the fact that he has a remarkably narrow palette for a lifetime of writing. More than almost anyone I’ve ever encountered, he seems to be writing the same two or three poems over and over again. But I’m amazed at how fresh and stinging he managed to make them, most of the time.