James Crews is the author of three collections of poetry: The Book of What Stays, Telling My Father, Bluebird, and Every Waking Moment. He is also the editor of the popular Healing the Divide: Poems of Kindness and Connection. His poems have appeared in Ploughshares, The New Republic, The Christian Century, and have been reprinted in former U.S. poet laureate Ted Kooser’s weekly newspaper column, American Life in Poetry, and featured on Tracy K. Smith’s podcast, “The Slowdown.” Crews holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Wisconsin–Madison and a Ph.D. in writing and literature from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. He worked with Ted Kooser on American Life in Poetry, which reaches millions of readers across the world. He teaches poetry at the University at Albany and lives with his husband on an organic farm in Shaftsbury, Vermont.
In this post, Crews discusses the events that led him to edit the anthology How to Love the World: Poems of Gratitude and Hope, why people need hope more than ever, and more!
Name: James Crews
Title: How to Love the World: Poems of Gratitude and Hope
Publisher: Storey Publishing
Release date: March 23, 2021
Elevator pitch for the book: More and more people are turning to poetry as an antidote to divisiveness, negativity, anxiety, and the frenetic pace of life. How to Love the World: Poems of Gratitude and Hope offers readers uplifting, deeply felt, and relatable poems by well-known poets from all walks of life and all parts of the U.S., including inaugural poet Amanda Gorman, Joy Harjo, Naomi Shihab Nye, Ross Gay, Tracy K. Smith, and many others.
Previous titles by the author: Bluebird, Telling My Father, Every Waking Moment, The Book of What Stays, and Healing the Divide: Poems of Kindness and Connection.
What prompted you to write this book?
I started this book as a response to all the negative news out there. It seemed that so many of my friends and I were feeling drained, overwhelmed, and disconnected from any sense of joy in life with everything that was going on. I’ve always been moved by Brother David Steindl-Rast’s teachings on gratefulness and his view that it’s not happiness that makes us grateful, but gratefulness that makes us happy. More recently, I was inspired by Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights to put together an anthology of poems that delighted me, brought me joy, and showcased gratefulness for the little things as a way of life. I feel so lucky too that Ross Gay was kind enough to write a foreword for How to Love the World.
I actually began gathering the poems when my husband and I were traveling in Argentina in January of 2020, and I’ll never forget walking through customs at the end of that month and seeing the sign: If you have traveled to Wuhan, China, please alert a customs agent. I remember saying out loud, “Oh, no. What now?” as we stood in line. I had no idea, of course, this was the first sign we were about to enter a global pandemic. It never occurred to me either that the poems I’d continue to seek out over the next few months would feel more necessary and timely than ever.
How long did it take to go from idea to publication?
It took about a year and a half from my first inkling of a new anthology of gratitude poems until publication happened. Initially, I thought I’d edit an anthology of poems about gratitude and joy, but once the pandemic officially hit in March of 2020, hope became a basic need for all of us, and I decided that needed to be one of the main themes for How to Love the World. Without hope, joy is just not possible. On a personal level, I also felt my own lifelong anxiety coming up again. I needed all of the poems in this book to ground me again in gratitude for the world as it is, and still can be. I needed these poems to remind me that hope lay in our everyday relationships with the people in our lives, and even the strangers that we meet. Each of these poems, telling its own story of a moment, became like medicine to me at a time when nothing else was working to keep me present and calm.
Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title?
So far, the most surprising thing about this book has been how much attention it’s already received. Friends keep emailing me to tell me about the places that How to Love the World is now popping up—the New York Public Library gift shop, the Harvard Bookstore, Buzzfeed, and so many local independent bookstores. I’ve had numerous requests to visit reading groups that have adopted the book, as well as libraries and museums. I knew that we all needed more gratitude and hope, but I could never have imagined just how much the positive message of these poems seems to be landing with readers right now. Another big surprise, of course, was when one of the contributors—Amanda Gorman—was named as Inaugural Poet for President Biden. I had no idea her career would explode in such an amazing way when I chose her poem. I just knew I loved the poem, and it needed to be in the book.
Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book?
Editing a book is very different from writing one entirely on your own, of course, but there are some surprising similarities. Editing is still very much a creative process, and I’ve found, from having edited two anthologies now, that at a certain point, you have to just surrender to and trust the synchronicity that happens when you’re deeply engrossed in a project. Many people ask me how I chose the poems in the book, but the truth is that most of them seemed to choose me. I started with a stack of my favorite poems, and then just start adding in other poems that matched the intention of hope and gratitude for the book. I found many of the poems in How to Love the World on social media first, including Kim Stafford’s “Shelter in Place,” and Jane Hirshfield’s “When I Can Do Nothing Else Today,” both composed during the early months of the pandemic. When you become known as an editor, people also begin sending you poems and books you didn’t even ask for, which is frankly one of the real pleasures. I’ve gotten so many free books! And I love flipping through the book of a poet I might never have known before, and finding a poem that I feel is just right and fits exactly with the flow of an anthology.
What do you hope readers will get out of your book?
In his TED Talk on gratefulness (which I highly recommend!), Brother David Steindl-Rast says that we can’t be grateful for everything, but we can be grateful for what it teaches us. My father passed away suddenly at the age of 43, and I was only twenty years old at the time. His death came as a shock, and soon after that, I began writing poetry. I’ve found that my poems, and the poems by others that I love, are each a gateway into the so-called small moments in life. If nothing else, I hope that people take this away from How to Love the World: those quieter moments of deep presence are the ones we will always remember the most. We often post on social media about the big accomplishments, but it’s the small, everyday stuff that matters at the end of a life. I have a mantra that I say to myself when I’m feeling distracted, about to blow up at my husband or someone else I care about: “Only moments matter.” I can’t help but feel that each of the poems in How to Love the World reinforces this universal truth. If we focus too much on the big stuff, and only on what’s wrong with the world, we can easily lose sight of what’s going right, and what we can still appreciate. For me, the only way to love the world is through relishing the daily moments that make up our lives.
If you could share one piece of advice with other authors, what would it be?
It’s the same advice I give to my students: Be persistent, and be patient. We live in a very distracted world, so it can often take people a long time to pay attention to what you’re doing. But if you love what you’re creating, and believe in it absolutely, you just have to keep doing it and (most importantly, perhaps) keep finding ways to share it with the world, no matter what that looks like. I never expected to be editing anthologies of poems that people would actually read, but I just kept gathering poems that moved me and storing them in files on my computer, sharing them with students and friends on social media. Very slowly, it dawned on me: these could be a book. I always think that when we share what we create with the world, we complete the circle in a way. We just have to remember that writing is a long game, but the effort you put into it will always pay off.