By Matthew Walsh
Under the Keel is Michael Crummey’s first book of poetry since 2002’s Salvage, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t been writing. Since 2002 he’s finished two novels—2005’s The Wreckage and 2009’s Galore, and his new novel Sweetland,which was just released earlier this month. Based in Newfoundland, Crummey has cast his net far in terms of writing across genres, beginning with a number of award and nominations for his poetry. Since 2000, he has produced an abundance of intriguing novels and has even added writing for film to his growing resume. I shot him some questions about his new poetry collection, what music he’s been listening to, buying Amelia Curran records, and what it’s like to be considered a multi-genre writer.
MW: A few of the poems that appear in this collection, like “Viewfinder”, have appeared in magazines like Riddle Fence and Arc. When you initially started writing these poems, were you thinking of them as stand-alone poems or a series of poems that would make their way into a collection? You spent the last few years writing prose. When this new collection came to you were you surprised? Did you know that it was going to be a work of poetry?
MC: I didn’t have a collection in mind when I started writing the poems in Under the Keel. I was suffering a pretty severe hangover from a novel called Galore and I didn’t really know what to do with myself besides lie in bed with the blankets over my head. The poems started arriving sporadically for a while and it was a real pleasure to be writing poetry again. It felt like a very private undertaking, something I was doing for myself alone. And at a certain point, the floodgates opened and I was writing new poems all the time. I was forgetting the poem I had written a draft of early in the week because it was crowded out by one or two new ones. It took a while before I thought I might have a book on my hands.
Do you think the poems that didn’t make it into this collection will appear in your next book?
I think some will show up somewhere. Some were cut because they sucked and will never see the light of day. But a few just didn’t fit the book, or weren’t quite ready to go. I haven’t stopped writing poetry altogether these days, but it has reverted to a pretty sporadic undertaking. So I imagine it will be a while before I have anything like a new collection on my hands.
The poem “Boys” I think is so successful at capturing these little moments in boyhood. The first line “not old enough to pay for our trouble” has two meanings. Not being old enough to get charged if you get caught doing something illegal, like trespassing (the boys in the poem break into an abandoned house), and not being able to pay to get into anywhere that would get you into trouble. I think it points to an interesting point in boyhood, or childhood for that matter where you are just wandering and figuring yourself out. Why were you interested in writing about these moments? What about the “boyhood” depicted in these poems fascinates you?
I guess it’s an in-between place, where you aren’t even consciously aware of what you want, although you are viscerally aware that you want something, and are willing to get into trouble looking for it. And it’s a strangely lonely time, despite the fact that it’s something we all went through together. We couldn’t have talked about it, probably, even if we could have found the words to say what we were going through. It was a communal urge we suffered alone.
Something I thought was interesting about this collection is how the poems are framed. In “Hope Chest” for instance, you use a variant of the traditional rhyme “Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue” to set the poem up. It’s usually used for luck, but each “something” gives a new meaning to the original rhyme which is interesting. Why did you choose to frame the poems in this way?
Honestly, I don’t have a good answer for this. “Hope Chest” is an example of happenstance in action. I was writing something for my wife before we got married. For some reason, that old rhyme came to mind. Maybe something in the piece I was writing suggested it. And from there it seemed a natural frame to work with. And I tried to tweak them a little bit, just to make it interesting for myself mostly. I thought, why not a kind of blues riff for the last piece? Why not call it “Something Blues”?
While I was reading, I was really interested in that poem. What a great tune! Were you listening to a lot of music while you were writing Under the Keel?
I always listen to music when I’m writing. I know a lot of writers can’t work with that kind of distraction, but it’s never bothered me. And on occasion I’m able to steal something from a song as it’s passing by. As far as what I listened to, though, that’s hard to recall. I tend to troll around on Youtube or CBC Music until I hit something and play the hell out of it for a while, then move on. Went on a bizarre Rush kick two winters ago, listening to albums like Caress of Steel and Hemispheres. Went through a pretty intense Tallest Man in the World phase. Amelia Curran has been a regular companion. Paul Buchanan and his former band The Blue Nile. Currently infatuated with Gramercy Riffs, a local band that recently moved on to Toronto. Favourite tracks: “Dreaming,” “Heartbreak,” “Silent Walls and Siren Calls.” I missed them completely while they were playing around town on a regular basis, which is my loss.
I should say here, I paid for almost none of this music (except Amelia’s! I bought all your records, Amelia! Honest!) Most of it I streamed online. Which is criminal. There should be some kind of levy on internet and phone packages, similar to the tax on blank tapes in the 80s, to get some cash into the pockets of the people making the music.
There is a lot about relationships and community in this collection, and you tackle the idea of community from various angles in your work. Under the Keel reminded me at points of kitchen parties as a child, and while the majority of the collection deals with grief and loss—the last poem in the collection had the effect of walking home under the stars after a really great night of music and conversation. Throughout the collection I heard gossiping, people playing music, talking about their travels, and reminiscing about the past. There is grief, but also points of humor in this collection. How did you go about weaving these two elements of the collection together? What advice would you give to young writers about incorporating these different tones and moments into their own writing?
Well, I don’t know. Those things recur in my writing because they are my own particular obsessions, because my antennae are attuned to those tones and moments. It certainly wasn’t a deliberate process, trying to weave those together. It’s just what the world seems to throw my way, what happens when I sit down to write, and when I piece individual poems into some kind of whole. It may be related in some way to coming from Newfoundland where there isn’t necessarily a strict line dividing one from the other, where people tend to use humour as a way of dealing with grief. It seems perfectly natural to me to weave those together.
I think a huge part of “learning to write” is that fumbling towards your own voice, towards the tones that feel like your own. And there’s no way to get there but trial and error. Heavy on the error.
Under the Keel covers a lot of geography— as readers we are taken to Dublin and India and it got me thinking. Aside from the obvious things, what do you miss about your home in Newfoundland when you are away?
Mostly the beautiful weather. Ha. I’ve always said Newfoundland is the best place in the world to live, as long as you can get out on a regular basis. Which is why I travel as much as I do.
It’s difficult to say what it is I miss when I’m away. I didn’t pine when I lived in Ontario for thirteen years. It was only after I moved home that I thought, What the hell was I doing up there all that time? I realised I’ll never belong anywhere else the way that I do here. So “Belonging” is what I miss I guess.
You are a writer who has proven himself as both a poet and novelist. You also wrote and did research for a short multimedia film called 54 hours this year based on the 1914 Newfoundland Sealing disaster. What else is next for you?
I’m trying to say yes to whatever comes my way these days, partly for financial reasons, but also to push myself a little. To try things out of my comfort zone. Currently working on a documentary about the Newfoundland Regiment during the first world war for the CBC. Writing an essay on falling in love with poetry for The New Quarterly. Doing some non-fiction pieces for a few publications. Writing the occasional poem. Just trying to keep busy.
Matthew Walsh is a writer from Nova Scotia whose work has recently appeared in The Found Poetry Review, Carousel, Matrix, Descant and The Steel Chisel. He co-hosts a radio show called Alphabet Soup and is currently a member of the PRISM international editorial board.