James Crews: The Poetry of Connection and Joy, A conversation with Michael Simms

James Crews: The Poetry of Connection and Joy, A conversation with Michael Simms
March 23, 2024 Simms Michael

James Crews: The Poetry of Connection and Joy
A conversation with Michael Simms



Michael Simms: James, you’ve been tremendously prolific in recent years. You’ve published four full-length collections and four anthologies. You also publish a weekly poem and you host a monthly writing session with a guest poet. You visit classrooms, offer workshops and do readings. Can you tell us about the daily routine that’s allowed you to be so productive?


James Crews: I begin each day with writing. After years of working in offices and classrooms, once I was finally able to devote myself to my own practice and set my own hours, the writing seemed to come more naturally. My husband is a farmer, so we often wake up before first light, and I go off on my own with a big cup of coffee to scribble in my notebook for a few hours. I do a loose version of Julia Cameron’s practice of “morning pages,” made famous in The Artist’s Way, but I also leave room for the emergence of short essays, poems, and whatever else wants to come through during that time. I like to start the morning too by reading something that stretches my mind toward sacrament and mystery. I’ve found that Mark Nepo, Mary Oliver, Ross Gay, Ted Kooser, and Naomi Shihab Nye all help with this tremendously. Something about their writing opens up my mind and seems to make it more elastic and receptive at the same time.

I’d say that most of the ideas for my books and anthologies have come from this morning routine, which I’ve done for probably five years or more very seriously at this point. I make it a practice never to turn on my phone or check email or read news before these few hours I take to myself. If I open up my laptop and turn on the wifi, then the inspiration seems to fade away into the many tasks and responses demanded of me that day. It’s a difficult balance to strike, and even more so for my friends with children. But even a short amount of time that we know is just for us can help so much with creative practice.

Probably the other most helpful ritual for me is simply walking, either without my phone or with airplane mode turned on. I can’t tell you how many times the motion of putting one foot in front of the other in the woods around our house has either led to a new poem, or has helped me to work out one that arrived earlier in the morning. I always start writing by hand, then rewrite and rewrite a poem until it feels right to me. This can sometimes take days, weeks, or even longer. If the poem is short enough, it will often come back to me on a walk, and I’ll be able to say it out loud until all the lines kind of fall into the right place. Repetition seems a huge part of writing for me, and perhaps like prayer or saying the rosary, it allows the logical and critical mind to fall away so that something truer and deeper might surface. I try not to worry too much that my neighbors might see me out on the forest trails and dirt roads talking to myself, but it’s happened more than once!


M.S: I first became aware of your work when I read your collection Telling My Father in which you explore the grief of losing your father at an early age. I’ve heard you say that when you were writing these poems, you worried that no one would want to read them. As it turned out, Telling My Father won the Cowles Poetry Prize and helped establish your reputation as a poet. However, in your anthologies, you publish for the most part poems about wonder and kindness, and you seem to prefer poems which are hopeful. Is it fair to say that you have a preference to lean toward the light although you are not afraid to explore darkness when you need to?


J.C: Telling My Father represented a real turning point for me in my development as a writer. Most of the poems in that collection came to me, or were revised significantly, during my time living in Nebraska and working with Ted Kooser during my PhD program there. Ted taught me how to write truthfully and accessibly, and not simply to follow the fashions of the day, trying to write in a certain way just to get published. I also helped him for several years, choosing poems for his American Life in Poetry newspaper column that reached millions of readers each week when it was still running. I suppose all of this experience showed me what was possible in poetry, and gave me permission to tell the story of losing my father, to explore that difficult time in a tender way that still turned toward the light and love that we shared. It was also during this time that I began to get sober (though it would take years for me to fully embrace sobriety), and so I feel that my poetry took on greater clarity.

You’re absolutely right—I do prefer to publish poems in my anthologies that are more uplifting, and which keep a certain hopefulness at their core. But I wonder if this isn’t a product of the times in which we have been living. I began to work on and published my first anthology, Healing the Divide: Poems of Kindness & Connection, during the early years of the Trump presidency, and I believe that collection leans so much toward the light because our days were filled with so much darkness and uncertainty already. I still write, and trust that we deeply need, poems which dwell in the shadow side of life, which help us to feel less alone during times of despair and pain. But when the pandemic came around, once again, I saw a certain “empathy fatigue” in people that I knew, and decided that my anthologies would be a source of light and comfort. Each one would be the kind of book one could pick up and trust that they would not be led into further darkness, further pain. I have heard from so many readers, especially about my book, How to Love the World, who say they keep the anthology on their nightstand, and read it when they wake up, worried about the state of the world. Or they share poems from it at the dinner table, at church, in yoga classes. For a long time, there has been a dearth of uplifting and accessible poetry in the world, and I love to seek out poems that fill this need for us.


M.S: You live with your husband Brad Peacock, an organic farmer, on forty rocky acres in Southern Vermont. How has living in a rural landscape influenced your writing? Has living with a farmer influenced the way you look at nature?


J.C: Living so close to the natural world has utterly reshaped my writing and my life. Though he does most of the physical labor—because he loves it—my husband Brad and I are in the process of creating an oasis for pollinators, using only species that would be native to Vermont. Brad’s drawing on his two decades as a farmer to transform this land that was once mercilessly logged decades ago into a paradise for wildlife. He began by planting a lot of shrubs and bushes for birds, and slowly has added in more native grasses, flowers like black-eyed Susans and tithonia (Mexican sunflowers), and the result in just a few years has been astounding: we are surrounded by more birds, bees, butterflies, frogs, toads, and who knows what else than we ever expected. There is such delight in naming all the plants and animals we come across. Just the other day, Brad and I spent a good hour looking up the frogs we’ve been noticing in the garden, and realized that they were not leopard frogs, as we’d thought, but pickerel frogs, which are slightly different. I’m sure my enthusiasm is shining through here.

I’m sharing all of this lightly, yet as a writer of poems and essays that engage with the natural world, this is terribly important to me. As a society, and because of the very real climate crisis we face, we are not only losing species, but we are also losing the ability to name the beings that still dwell here with us. And if you know the name of something, it becomes much harder to ignore or destroy it. I never expected to fall in love with a farmer, but his way of experiencing the natural world—with amazement, awe, and reverence—has given me a whole new language. This reminds me of one of the first poems I ever wrote about Brad called “Down to Earth,” in which I describe watching him put his hand out of a car window to feel the falling rain touch his skin. I had just seen him earlier that day kneeling in a field of sprouting beans and telling me how much we needed that moisture. Having been a city dweller for most of my life, the people I knew would barely pay attention to the weather, unless it inconvenienced them. But the weather is life; it determines what crops survive, and which ones don’t. The erratic climate, which recently led to flooding here in Vermont, and catastrophes elsewhere, has underscored how much we need farmers, and how much we need writing that engages in a deeper, more embodied way with the earth.


M.S: You and Brad offer workshops on a variety of topics, including community, LGBTQ issues, and preserving our planet, but I don’t remember seeing any poems of yours about politics. Would you mind giving us a sense of where you stand on a few issues and how you arrived at those positions? And why do you keep these issues out of your poetry, if indeed you do?


J.C: I have to admit, this question throws me off a little. People don’t usually ask me about politics, though I’m more than happy to discuss it. A few years ago, my husband ran for the U.S. Senate in Vermont, attempting to highlight the importance of civility, kindness, and attention to LGBTQIA+ issues. I wrote a lot of op-eds in support of his candidacy, and did a lot of listening to the speeches and posts that he shared with his supporters. He didn’t ultimately win, but I have to say that his campaign taught me the power of bringing intention to what you do, especially activism. I began to see that poetry itself could be a form of activism.

I have addressed more political issues in my past work, especially LGBTQIA+ issues and the AIDS Crisis, and I have written some about the ongoing climate crisis, and especially how it affects farmers. But you are right: I don’t write politics into my own poetry very often, or tend to anthologize poems that are overtly political in nature. I lean more toward the belief that we are already inundated by politics as a global culture, and it most certainly dominates our larger conversations. In my poems, and the poems I love reading, I am drawn more to what John Updike called “the human news,” which I would define as a deeper spiritual connection and aliveness to the world around us. I’m more interested in the story of a single moment, and how that shaped my life or someone else’s, and not so much in the story of the moment—who said or did what in the White House, in celebrity culture, and so on. I think we need all kinds of poetry, but I also feel that people are drawn to the work that I do because it provides a respite from the divisions of politics and the despair of current events. It’s not a matter of pretending these issues aren’t pressing or don’t exist, but instead arguing for the importance of smaller moments and acts of kindness, too. Even my latest anthology, whimsically titled, The Wonder of Small Things, feels very political to me. The poems gathered there, and in my other recent books, all argue that in order to save the world, we must first learn how to love it.

I recently came across this quote from Krista Tippett, host of the On Being podcast: “We are fluent in the story of our time marked by catastrophe and dysfunction. That is real — but it’s not the whole story of us. There is also an ordinary and abundant unfolding of dignity and care and generosity, of social creativity and evolution and breakthrough. How to make that more vibrant, more visible, and more defining?” I feel that my newer work is asking this same question. How can I lift up the ordinary goodness and beauty that’s also here alongside the brokenness? I will share that my next few anthologies will definitely have a more political and activist slant. I’m not able to divulge much more than that, since the projects are very much in-progress.


M.S: Recently, you published Kindness Will Save the World, a collection of your own prose vignettes. In the Introduction you say that “Mindfulness has two wings. One is being in the moment and the other is kindness. Using both of these practices at once can help us steady our lives and minds, and can keep us out of the fear and despair that threaten to overtake us so often these days.” Can you talk about the practice of mindfulness?


J.C: I suppose that mindfulness and meditation are the other practices I have to credit with making me the writer and poet that I am. By far and away, mindfulness is the subject I have most often been asked to speak and teach about, and I’m pleased that people often read my work in that context. But the truth is, even though I’ve used the word quite often myself, “mindfulness” seems like a faulty way of describing the deep presence it’s meant to convey. For me, mindfulness means cultivating non-judgmental and focused attention on both our bodies and our minds, and practicing a way of being in the world not mitigated by distraction or the stories we often tell ourselves. It involves opening our senses and welcoming the world around us, as much as we can. In the past, I’ve often taught workshops in mindfulness and writing because the two go hand in hand, and poetry for me is about holding and preserving small moments in time. Simply put, writing is a practice of mindfulness for me each morning. I watched both of my parents die very young—my father at 43 from Hepatitis C, and my mother at 64 from heart failure. Seeing that the so-called micro-moments of warmth were most important to them at the end of their lives has shown me what I want to carry for the rest of my life, what is most essential in my writing. This is some of what mindfulness is trying to get at—helping us to pay attention now, so that we don’t regret missing out on whole swaths of our life later on.

I often go back to what the Benedictine monk, Brother David Steindl-Rast, has said about this: “Think of mindful people: They are rooted in their bodies. They are alive in their bodies. And it’s significant we don’t have a word for that, that we just call it mindful . . . when a word is lacking in a language, there is some insight lacking—the insight that full aliveness is mindfulness.” In a culture that’s growing ever more secular, we are constantly trying to find ways to put into language this sensation of full aliveness that Brother David talked about. Kindness is one aspect of presence, but so are gratitude, hope, wonder, awe, and joy. Some of the best writers and scientists of our generation are at work (and play) in all of these areas; we have Dacher Keltner exploring everyday awe, Ross Gay helping us to name delight and incite more joy, and Katherine May prescribing enchantment and wonder in order to heal from several years of a global pandemic. In my latest anthology, The Wonder of Small Things, I include poems that show us over and over how to be present, how to appreciate the so-called “small things” all around us. I think of Derek Sheffield’s poem, “For Those Who Would See,” in which he describes a sprinkler filling a bowl left out in the yard with water, or Li-young Lee’s “To Hold,” in which a husband and wife swap last night’s dreams as they make the bed. Poets have been practicing mindfulness for as long as there’s been poetry, and it’s only recently that we’ve felt a need to name something in our culture that we have all begun to lack.


M.S: You often acknowledge being influenced by former Poet Laureate Ted Kooser. What qualities of his poetry and character have affected  your work as a poet, editor and teacher?


J.C: Ted Kooser has probably been the most profound influence on me as a writer than any other teachers with whom I’ve had the privilege of working. He was the reason I even applied to the doctoral program at University of Nebraska, and when I learned that he not only still taught, but met with graduate students in one-on-one “poetry tutorials” for a single semester each year, I knew that UNL would be the only program I would apply to. To say I was nervous before our first poetry tutorial would be an understatement. I remember sweaty palms and a queasy yet excited feeling at the pit of my stomach. Ted’s kindness and welcoming presence are legendary in the literary community, far beyond Nebraska, but I couldn’t shake the notion that I would be handing my very unfinished poems over to a Pulitzer Prize-winner and former U.S. Poet Laureate, sitting for several silent minutes in his office while he read them to himself. Wouldn’t that feel like torture? What if my poems never measured up to his standards? Of course, I had no reason to feel anxious. Ted’s honest, gentle manner made sure of that, and I heard later that other students found their time with him so calming, they sometimes lovingly called his tutorials “Therapy with Ted.”

I realize now, looking back, that the qualities I admired in Ted Kooser the poet came through completely in Ted Kooser the person as well. I’m not sure I’ve ever met someone who lives so clearly and sincerely, never losing his humility or his tether to the real world. I suppose that’s another quality I admire about his poems, too—their groundedness in the physical world, which is something my first poetry teacher, the late David Clewell, often hammered home as well. He used to say, “This poem had better be about the actual world.” You could say that Ted’s poems are the epitome of mindfulness, but I doubt he would welcome that or any label. If you flip through his books, you’ll see that his titles reflect this kind of presence to the ordinary, everyday world that he transforms through his close attention. “Zinc Lid” is one of my favorites, but Ted is still writing and publishing poems like this in his eighties, still somehow working at the height of his powers. It’s staggering for me to consider how many lives Ted’s poems and teaching have affected, and I think of what Maya Angelou once said about the mark we might leave behind: “Your legacy is what you do every day. Your legacy is every life you’ve touched.” With his down-to-earth wisdom and humor, Ted taught us to be ourselves, to be true to our own lived experience—joy and sorrow, love and fear alike—so that we might make the most of our limited time on earth. I carry those lessons every day I sit down at my own desk and open up my notebook.




Three poems by James Crews

Evening Light

There is this place on the table
next to the couch where light
always rests at sunset, reaching
through the leaves of the cherry tree
to touch the keychain and calendar,
the wallet and change, one last time
before night falls. That would make
a great photo, I think, ready to reach
for my phone, move the vase of cut
sunflowers closer, so they too might
blaze up and burn. Instead, I stay
right where I am, deciding to leave
the moment intact, tinged orange
with smoke from wildfires up north,
the whole house now held in the
amber of that dying light.



Like a Small Animal
I don’t know how the heart goes
cold as an unpicked apple clinging
to the branch, encased in layers
of ice. Yet even the slightest gesture
can warm it, as if some hand were
reaching out to hold the hard skin,
melt off the months of bitterness.
Maybe a friend hugs you longer
than she needs to, just a few more
seconds of pressing you closer until
you want to live inside that gesture,
inhaling her perfume for the rest
of your life. Or a lover makes you
a turkey sandwich one day for lunch
with buttercrunch lettuce, pickles
and extra mayo, and eating it at work
later, relishing every bite, you feel
that stirring in your chest, like a small
animal coming out of a long sleep,
blinking its tender eyes awake.



Praise Song
And when the world refuses,
you must sing your own praises,
must let that music rise up
from the deepest places in you
and pour out its shameless hymn.
Listen to water as it seeps
between gaps in rocks, how
the Rottweiler next door looses
a string of barks and snarls, warning
anyone who passes by to think
twice before entering his yard.
Hear the hum of the fridge chilling
the milk, the butter, the sweating
pitcher of lemonade, how everything
sings of itself, even the coffeemaker
flipped on with a careless touch
this morning, puffing and croaking
its own wisdom like the chorus
of peepers who have come again
to the creek this spring, who spend
all day and night praising
the mud they slip deeper into,
singing of the warmth that fills them.

Michael Simms is the founding editor of Autumn House Press (1998-2016) and Vox Populi (2014-present). He is the co-author of The Longman Handbook and Dictionary of Poetry (Addison Wesley, 1985). His recent books include the poetry collections American Ash, Nightjar and Strange Meadowlark (Ragged Sky, 2020, 2021, 2023) and the novels Bicycles of the Gods: A Divine Comedy and The Green Mage: Volume One of the Talon Trilogy (Madville, 2022, 2023). In 2011, the State Legislature of Pennsylvania awarded Simms a Certificate of Recognition for service to the arts.