In Conversation with Michael Crummey
What a gift is the new quarterly, the opportunity it provides to “converse” over cyberspace with one or another of my favourite authors. I love the candour of Michael’s responses to my questions—especially to the effects of the dream recounted in “Offstage.” He takes a wee poke at the teacher in me, at my river of questions following “Viewfinder.” I like too his explanation of Carter’s Genealogy (no relation!). His humility throughout is heart warming. Our conversation follows. —Barb Carter
Barb Carter: Both “Burn Barrel” and “Off-Stage” speak to the loss of a father. Is the voice in these poems your own? To what extent are these poems autobiographical? What prompted their writing?
Michael Crummey: As much as the voice in a poem is ever my own, yes, that’s me speaking. My father died in 2002. It’s something I’m still trying to come to terms with though I expect I’ll never come to terms with it completely. “Burn Barrel” is a piece I’ve been picking away at for the last five or six years and finally feel like I’m done with. “Off-Stage” is more recent, although it’s dealing with the dreams I had in the immediate aftermath of Dad’s death. I still have dreams like it on occasion but not nearly as often as I’d like.
BC: The poems are personal without being sentimental. I am wondering if it is the imagery that gives the reader, and perhaps the speaker, solace by putting words to deep feeling. The final lines of “Burn Barrel,” for example, leave the reader focused on the metaphor: the porosity of the burn barrel “eaten through by… something kin to its own blind appetite—time’s slow, smokeless fire.” Was it your intention to objectify the experience of grief and loss?
MC: Well that’s always the trick I’m after, to deal honestly with emotion without falling into schmaltz. I have no problem with sentiment—sentiment is always the starting point for me. The job, at least as far as I can guess, is to find images and metaphors that will allow a reader to experience something similar, rather than simply taking a bath in your own emotional sty. It’s a delicate balance and sometimes I fall on the wrong side of the line.
BC: In “Off-Stage,” the extended metaphor tempers the speaker’s candour about the relationship he had with his father. The relationship is particularly poignant when viewed through the lens of a dream—the speaker is “the unexpected apparition in his [father’s] solitary afterlife.” The only explanation his “murderous alter ego [can] muster” is “I guess I miss you.” The closing lines of the poem confess that even off-stage “there was never an instance in those encounters / when …father and [son] touched, impossible to say/ if that reticence was his or [the son’s] alone.” Are there truths that can only surface in dream?
MC: I think dreams are just one place that complex emotions can surface. And I don’t think there’s anything necessarily profound about what comes up in a dream either. For a short stretch years ago I wrote down my dreams as soon as I woke up because I’d heard it would help me recall them in more detail. And that was absolutely true, I was able to remember longer and longer sequences over time. But I gave it up because the dreams were completely nonsensical and ultimately not particularly interesting. It was like watching bad French surrealist films dubbed into English. Jesus Murphy.
The dreams about Dad are among the few that have made any kind of impact on my waking life. And it was only as I was writing “Off-Stage” that the detail about us never touching one another struck me. As if “Dad” or my own subconscious was saying, He’s not really present, this isn’t reality. That was the most heartbreaking thing about those experiences, to realize, as I was dreaming, that I was only dreaming. And not wanting to wake up because it meant letting him go again.
BC: Rather like in the final line in “Viewfinder,” I suspect you wanted him to “hold still.” I think many of us who have lost someone have had a similar experience. In that poem, the speaker turns to a photograph to summon the past. I confess I once owned a Brownie. How well you captured the art of taking a photograph with that camera: “The photographer framing [the family] in the viewfinder, head bowed as if waiting for the minister’s benediction at the end of a church service. As if he was looking into a well, telling the people staring up at him to hold still before the shutter clicked.” I see myself holding my camera, praying, as we all do when we take a snapshot, to stop time. Hold still. So much story lies within and between the lines of this prose poem and is hinted at by the apt title: “Viewfinder.” What is found in the field of vision of the lens? What isn’t? And by whom? Who is the wiser—the subjects, the photographer, the viewer of the photograph, the listener of the poem?
MC: Whoa! Barbara! You’re making my brain hurt! This was written for a documentary film my friend Justin Simms recently made through the NFB, and he was asking me to think about exactly those kinds of things when I wrote it. It made my brain hurt then too.
BC: Sorry Michael. Suffice to say “Viewfinder” makes my heart hurt and I think that’s a good thing. As a teacher of English for many years, I winced with recognition at the images of the teacher in your poems: “Uncle Clyde in his hand-me-down jacket…two sizes too small [has] the pinched look of a school-teacher about him even then.” In “Burn Barrel,” “the teacher…scarred/ my father’s youth/ with math and grammar/and Alfred Lord Tennyson.” And yet in that same poem, “Dad could still recite/ those Victorian verses/ in his last months.” The speaker realizes there is a lesson in that, “a lesson whose little light/ blooms and dies back each season/ and can’t be seen entire…” Are there teachers—good or bad—who have influenced your writing?
MC: Not that I’m aware of. The writing is something I carried on in secret for a long, long time. But it is true that I started writing in response to the material I was studying in university. So I suppose all the profs who had a hand in opening up that world to me deserve some of the credit. Or blame, depending on your perspective.
read the rest of the interview in Issue 122