Michael Crummey has published ten books of poetry and fiction. His first novel, River Thieves, was a finalist for the Giller Prize and won the Winterset Award. Galore won the Canadian Authors' Association fiction prize and the Commonwealth Prize (Canada & Caribbean Region). Sweetland was a national bestseller and a finalist for the Governor-General's Award. Little Dogs: New and Selected Poems was published by House of Anansi in the spring of 2016. He lives in St. John's.
When did you first discover poetry? Is there a particular poem you remember well?
I discovered poetry in my first year English course at Memorial University. The outline for English 1000 stated we would be studying exclusively poetry that first semester, a fact that made me feel a little queasy. We had “done” poetry in high school, although my only memory of that involves mimeographed Simon and Garfunkel lyrics. I didn't know if poetry was fit to eat, to be honest, but I had a feeling it was the cod liver oil of the literary world — good for you, in a medicinal sense, and a challenge to get down without gagging. I didn't expect to like it. I certainly had no idea that my life was about to change.
We had a fat anthology of poetry that I spent hours picking through that term. I discovered favourites that I came back to regularly, Leonard Cohen and William Carlos Williams, e.e. cummings, Robert Creeley's “I Know a Man,” Sylvia Plath’s “Lady Lazurus,” D.H. Lawrence’s “The Ship of Death.” But I had no idea why the words affected me as they did.
And how did they affect me, you might well ask, though I couldn't say exactly. Oddly and pleasurably disconnected from the world I grew up in. Mystified and compelled. There was an unexpected edge to it all, a sense of standing at the lip of a cliff and leaning out into the wind. The words on the page, the images in the poems, seemed like doors I walked through into something beyond myself.
When did you first start writing poetry? And then when did you start thinking of yourself as a poet?
I started writing poetry a couple of months into my first year of university, around about the time I turned 17. I can still remember walking to the back of the library to hide in a carrel and write “a poem.” I’ve been at it ever since, although I still have trouble thinking of myself as a poet. I feel like that’s a title other people should be giving you, as opposed to something you announce to the world yourself.
What do you think a poet’s “job” is?
Talking about a poet’s “job” implies there is “money” involved in the process. And there isn’t. To me it’s always felt like a vocation, something I can’t help doing regardless of the fact there are very few obvious rewards. But what that vocation consists of — other than trying to put something of the strange, awful, beautiful, sorrowful, magnificent contradictions of being alive on paper — is a bit of a mystery to me.
Is what happens in “Newfoundland Sealing Disaster” a true story?
Sadly, this is a true story. Workers in the sealing industry in the early years of the 20th century were paid next to nothing and worked in conditions that were insanely dangerous. They were considered expendable by the owners of the sealing ships, who were more concerned with profit than with safety. Men were often injured or killed during the spring hunt. In 1914, 132 sealers from the SS Newfoundland were lost on the ice fields in a storm for two days and nights. Over the course of that ordeal, 78 men froze to death.
If you had to choose one poem to memorize from our anthology, which one would it be?
Man, that’s a tough one. It would be a toss up between “To An Athlete Dying Young” by A. E. Housman, a heart-breaking little gem of formal verse that feels just about perfect, and Karen Solie’s “Tractor,” which is funny, subversive, and includes the word “hellacious.”