Take Me to the "River": Former AADL staffer Shutta Crum discusses her latest book of poetry and her path from librarian to author

WRITTEN WORD PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Shutta Crum and her new book of poetry, The Way to the River

Shutta Crum worked for 24 years surrounded by books.

Now the former librarian at Ann Arbor District Library is adding to the stacks she used to stock, writing both children’s books and poetry.

When asked how librarianship connects with writing, Crum talked about how the job motivated her to become an author. “I knew I wanted a book of mine on those library shelves,” she said.

Crum's latest collection of poems, The Way to the River, navigates real and metaphorical waters, from looking for osprey where “Rainwater pelts river water” to recalling tumultuous moments when the poet asks someone terrorizing her, “what door you jimmied / to escape and machete through my memory.” The ever-present passage of time surges through these lines as Crum looks back and ahead. 

The Way to the River begins with the reflection “Why Poetry,” which shares a preface by Crum and her poems, “Aboutness” and “How Poetry Reframes the Moment.” Her depiction of poetry tells us, “Poems are mini stories, fleeting images, quick gestures of recognition and a lilt of music for the soul,” a statement that also aptly describes her poetry. The following poems in the book form the “colorful collage” that Crum sees in poetry. 

The river grounds these poems and is never far away, similar to how people who are near the water's edge “will breathe in the river damp, / knowing he is out there / where the dark wild closes in,” as the poem, “The Canoeist,” depicts. The poems take us to look at other poetry, such as that of Joseph Brodsky whose “poems are hearty. / Thickened by root and want.” Relationships with other people appear, too, both positive and negative, as “I turn and you are here, beside me, navigating this life. / Mid-current we gaze toward an oil slick. It does not break apart, / sink, / or dissolve.” Hope and delight become apparent in the poems alongside wonder at having “a life woven of such strong silk.” 

Life’s impermanence is also not far away in The Way to the River. In “Paleontology in Such a Land:”

I, too, am a future fossil
of former lives
   of fern damp
   of croakings
   of mindless nights
      clinging
      to the evolutionary tree

Crum brings us to and along and on and around the river where it is “rough going.” She discovers also that “All my loves are entwined,” and then eventually leads us to a poem on swimming in heaven. The temporary nature of life does not limit the depth of experience that the poems reveal, such as in “How to Properly Read a Paper Map,” which instructs, “When you go, dress warmly. / Drive Slowly. / Wave often.” The message to be in the present moment feels clear and important even amidst the ephemeral nature of life.

Crum will read at the Crazy Wisdom Poetry Circle virtually on June 22 and at Nicola’s Books in person on June 28. You can find out more about her and other events at shutta.com. I interviewed Crum about her new book, participation in the Crazy Wisdom Poetry Circle, writing life, and experience as a librarian.  

Q: Tell us about being a librarian at AADL for 24 years.
A: Working at AADL was the best job ever—especially being a youth librarian! Meeting friendly people, interacting with excited kids, helping older kids and seniors. I loved it. There’s a lot of variety in each day. I was in the Outreach Department for about four years traveling all around the city doing storytimes and helping with outreach to underprivileged communities and senior housing. I also drove the Bookmobile when needed. At another point in my career, I was head of the Northeast Branch for almost 15 years, and Head of Youth Services for a couple. I really loved working at the branches. You got to know your patrons and their families so well.

Q: How did your career of being a librarian intersect with being a writer and writing? 
A: If I hadn’t worked as a librarian, I’m not sure how long it might have taken me to get serious about my writing career. In the Outreach Department, I did about 30 storytimes a month! Some for very special groups in somewhat difficult circumstances, such as at the Children’s Psychiatric area of University Hospital, and at Safehouse (home for abused women and children). Doing so many storytimes was a real education in what works in a picture book, how page turns should come naturally in the text, and what subjects kids adore. I knew I wanted a book of mine on those library shelves. That didn’t happen until about my 18th year as a professional librarian. But it did happen, and now a lot of my books are on the shelves of the AADL!

Q: Do you write children’s books and poetry at the same time, or do you focus on one or the other for the duration of a project or book? 
A: I’ve always written poetry, since about sixth grade. I can even remember vaguely that first poem—my parents, so proud, made me recite it to anyone who visited. HAH! So, I am always writing poetry. However, when I’m concentrating on a book for a younger reader, that tends to take up most of the real estate in my brain. While writing a book I may write the occasional poem, but I’m usually too busy thinking about the book.

Q: You are a member of the Crazy Wisdom Poetry Circle. How does this group support your writing?
A: Crazy Wisdom Poetry Circle is great. During the worst of the covid outbreak, I was looking for groups where I could zoom and get feedback. The Crazy Wisdom folks are a very erudite group and really know their stuff. The feedback I get is extremely valuable. And simply hearing the poems read by the others is inspirational. If a new form is used, it may prompt me to try it. Crazy Wisdom is a well from which to replenish my creative juices. Also, I might mention that I am a member of a couple of other writing groups: the St. Augustine Poets, the Gathering of Poets in Ponte Vedra, and the North Florida Poetry Hub all of which are near Jacksonville, Florida, where I spend my winters. And there is the long-time unnamed group I have been a part of here in Ann Arbor since the early 1970s. More than 45 years of friendship and studying poetry! This group is where I met my husband who has written many fine poems.

Q: The Way to the River brings together earlier poems and new poems. How did this book come into being? 
A: Well, my first book, When You Get Here, won a gold Royal Palm Literary Award, and I thought I had enough good poems to try a second collection. So, The Way to the River evolved. Really, what else am I going to do with all these poems? I’ve had over 130 poems published by small presses in journals and magazines, and internationally, too. I want to keep some of those together for my family and friends. They are all scattered so wide that no one would be able to track them down. Chapbooks and longer collections are the way to go.

Q: The Way to the River begins with a section titled “Why Poetry.” I loved the comparison of poetry to collage as well as the suggestion that “Poetry should be experienced with pie.” Why start your book this way?
A: I was a little nervous about that and wondered if the editor at Kelsay Books would think it weird to include at the beginning of the book. But I wanted folks to understand how the author thinks about a collection coming together. In collage, the individual pieces are interesting, or exciting. However, there is a different level of enjoyment when standing back and viewing the whole work. In this case, water is what keeps each poem afloat and allows them to bob together—in a way, it’s the glue of a collage. It’s also a symbol. Each of us has a personal symbology. That is, symbols in our lives. These are what comes up repeatedly in dreams, how we interpret the world, etc. For me, water is a powerful emotional symbol. And pie? Well, that’s not a symbol—it’s just tasty.

Q: The poems do not shy away from trials, and one states that “we will plan a mutiny,” while another covers “that pittance” remaining after the death of a mother in childbirth. How do you approach writing about these experiences?
A: Difficult experiences can take a long while to gestate. Writing the poem “We Meet at a Crowded Café”—for which I was nominated for a Pushcart Prize by Typehouse Magazine—took a long time. I’d wanted to write about the subject of spousal abuse ever since some experiences I had with a very close friend. After about 30 years, I could. “The Pittance” was an ekphrastic poem written while thinking about a photo I have of my dad by his 1941 Mercury. I tried to imagine someone other than my dad and what his story might be. So that one really did not take too long. I do have a new poem coming out later this year in CALYX magazine called “What They Wore” about trying to identify the people in mass graves in Srebrenica, which took place in 1995. It’s taken me 27 years to write about that. Some things you just can’t hurry. They’ll come to you in a way that makes sense if you’re patient and stubborn about not letting the idea go. The writer’s job is to acknowledge that and do something with it.

Q: Nature figures strongly in these poems, of course, with the river and in other ways. “Above the Strandline,” which is after Rachel Carson, follows the poet along the shore and looks at tidal pools where “The assault of tides—the battering, / the stretching, has made me rounder.” Do you look to nature to inspire your writing, or does being in nature inspire your poems?
A: I think any writer would tell you that nature inspires. And when your mind is blocked, it’s good to take a walk—sometimes answers just seem to come from the cosmos. But I do, also, like reading good nature writers. Just the sound of their words can be like poetry even though they are writing nonfiction. Writers like Loren Eiseley and Rachel Carson as well as a host of others. Also listening to podcasts about the natural world. It’s all so fascinating if we only open our senses to what’s around us. That being said, a writer still has to do something with that inspiration. Our job is not just "butt in chair to write description" or "create pretty images," but to personalize nature so that a reader can extract something greater from the words on the page. In other words, a poet needs to take those inspirational moments from the natural world and make metaphors from them. What else can they also mean? This leaves the door open for a reader to walk in with his or her own history and experience the written piece on more than one level.

For example, here’s the last stanza of “Above the Strandline":

For me, a tidal pool above the strandline
is an estrangement to which I go willingly—
one I might slip my foot into.

When I wrote that, I was thinking of the long migration of sea creatures to land creatures that Carson talks about in her many books. Note: it is the single (and only) foot of a crustacean character being slipped into a pool. And it will be forever separated from those like it “who carry close / saltwater in their limpid shells.” In other words, this one has chosen to evolve. Now, will all my readers get that? Probably not. But it’s OK because it can be read on other levels, as well. Such as the tough persona of the poem who is well-rounded from the pounding of the tides and who can now go willingly into the future. My point being that a writer has to do more than simply note what the senses tell him or her. A writer must take sensory information and shape it until it becomes a malleable metaphor that others can understand through their own experiences and expectations.

Q: What are you reading and recommending these days?
A: Well, I always read nature writers. I’m rereading Diane Ackerman’s book A Natural History of the Senses. I’m reading the Heroine With 1,001 Faces by Maria Tatar. For a writing craft book, I’m halfway through The Art of Syntax: Rhythm of Thought, Rhythm of Song by Ellen Bryant Voigt—dense, but helpful. And for my book club, I’m reading Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo. Of course, I continue to read the poetry of members of my various writing groups as well as poems in journals, online, etc. 

Q: What is next for you? 
A: I have two picture books under contract that are dear to my heart. They should be out sometime in late 2023 or early 2024. They are coming out together—a pair: Grandma Heaven and Grandpa Heaven. Think: a fun-filled heaven where grandparents can hang-glide, tell knock-knock jokes, have pets, and play hockey if they want. Best of all, it’s being illustrated by a dear friend and another Michiganian, Ruth McNally Barshaw!

I continue to send poems out for publication to well-known journals. Eventually, I will be putting together a third collection. In addition, I write on a regular basis for the Florida Writers Association blog and for OPAP—Of Poets & Poetry magazine, the monthly publication of the Florida State Poets Association. And as if I didn’t have enough to keep me busy, I also write and publish a monthly newsletter the Wordsmith’s Playground, which is mostly aimed at poetry and writing for young readers and to which people may subscribe. So, I’m writing a lot of nonfiction articles these days. 


Martha Stuit is a former reporter and current librarian.


Shutta Crum will read at the Crazy Wisdom Poetry Circle virtually on June 22 and at Nicola’s Books in person on June 28. You can find out more about her and other events at shutta.com.

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