Poet gambled on prose and won

The Crummey story fell my way. So, I read some Crummey poetry. And I did the Crummey interview. Ha, ha, ha … ha……

The Crummey story fell my way.

So, I read some Crummey poetry.

And I did the Crummey interview.

Ha, ha, ha … ha… ha……

Newfoundland poet and novelist Michael Crummey isn’t amused.

He’s sick of those crummy puns.

“There are certain places in Newfoundland where there are lots of Crummeys — and nobody bats an eye,” he said in a phone interview from St. Johns.

“But everywhere else in the world it is usually the first thing people comment on when we’re introduced.”

He gets, “That’s a crummy name,” a lot, he said.

But the established writer just laughs it off.

“After all, that’s my name.”

Crummey is coming to Whitehorse for the Live Words Yukon Writer’s Festival that kicks off Wednesday.

“Whitehorse is a place I’ve been hearing about all my life as somewhere that something special is happening,” he said.

“People talk about Whitehorse in the same way I hear people talk about St. John’s. So that makes me really curious to get up there and spend a little bit of time and see the place.”

Crummey grew up in the tiny town of Buchans, Newfoundland, but when the mining industry petered out, he and his family moved north to Wabush, Labrador, where he attended high school.

“I’ve always loved the North,” he said.

“There’s a certain kind of person that is attracted to it.”

Several years ago, Crummey travelled to Yellowknife to give a reading and met people who had moved north for six months and were still there 25 years later.

It’s a common northern narrative.

After coming of age in Labrador, Crummey returned to Newfoundland to study literature at Memorial University in St. John’s.

“I really had no sense of wanting to write in high school and English was definitely not my favourite subject,” he said.

But a first year poetry class changed everything.

“I was really hit by it; I loved reading it, and I decided that’s what I wanted to do,” he said.

So, at 17, he started writing in private.

“I was really shy about it,” he said. “There was something presumptuous about a boy from Buchans writing poetry, and I was sure I sucked.

“I didn’t want to have anybody confirm that, so the safest thing was just to keep it to myself.”

But, after winning a student writing contest at Memorial, Crummey was forced out of the literary closet, if only temporarily.

When he headed to Kingston, Ontario, for grad school, he went back into hiding.

Though Crummey soon realized that if he was going to write professionally, his poems needed an audience.

So, at 27, he gave his first public reading.

After publishing three books of poetry, between ’96 and 2001, Crummey decided to try writing a novel.

“No doubt one of the motivations for writing a novel, is that there’s no money in poetry,” he said.

“Although it was pretty presumptuous to think I could write a novel and change my financial future — but I got lucky.”

Shortlisted for a Amazon.com/Books In Canada first novel award, River Thieves tell the story of the Newfoundland Beothuck’s gradual extinction after the indigenous tribe made contact with early settlers at the turn of the 19th century.

“Novels are completely different animals,” said Crummey, comparing the writing process to that of poetry.

“And, with the first novel, I thought I was losing my mind because it’s such a huge project and such an unnatural undertaking to devote so much of your time to creating this made-up world.”

The second novel was easier.

“At least, I didn’t feel as crazy,” he said.

Also set in Newfoundland, the national bestseller The Wreckage explores love and loss during the Second World War.

Crummey moved back to St. John’s six years ago, but wrote poetry about The Rock through his years in Kingston.

“I was writing that stuff as a way of maintaining some kind of connection to where I came from,” he explained.

“And now I’m still writing that stuff.

“My joke, when I moved back here, was that I would probably start writing a novel that was based in Ontario or something, but I haven’t.”

After finishing his second novel, Crummey was asked if he’d ever consider writing a novel set elsewhere.

“I thought about it a lot and thought, I could happily, but I’m not sure why I would, this is the place that really interests me, and this is the place that made me, so this is where I start usually.”

Since becoming a novelist, Crummey found poetry has drifted away from him.

If he has a good idea, he can easily sit down and write a story, but poetry is more elusive.

“With poetry, if it’s not there, it doesn’t happen,” he said.

“I can’t wake up and decide it’s been too long and it’s time to write a poem; it’s a waste of time to even sit down.

“And poems don’t come knocking like they used too, maybe because I decided to write a novel and now that is where most of my creative energy is going.”

Writing novels has given Crummey financial security, but it’s also changed his approach to writing.

“When I started out, I just wrote because I couldn’t not write,” he said.

“There was something in me that made me want to sit down everyday. And that’s still there, just not all the time.

“It’s a job now and that’s a good thing in some ways and a not so good thing in other ways. It means that I’m writing a lot of days because it has to get done.”

Although it’s become a job, Crummey still counts himself lucky — “Everyday I wake up and my life is my own.”

Crummey hopes to make it a lasting career, but, as with any job in the arts, his profession remains somewhat tenuous.

“If my writing doesn’t work out, I could end up working at a corner store,” he said.

“But I hope not. Right now things are great.”

Crummey will be at the festival’s opening reception in Whitehorse this Wednesday.

The reading and festivities begins at 7 p.m. at the Beringia Centre.

He will also be participating in the Young Authors Conference April 20th and 21st at FH Collins.

Next week, Crummey will be reading at the Watson Lake Library on April 24th at 7:30 p.m., at the Teslin Library April 25th at 7 p.m. and at the Tagish Library on the 26th at 7 p.m.

All readings are free.