In many ways asking me how I became a poet is like asking a caterpillar how it walks, suddenly I can’t write about it. I tried to remember when I first called myself a poet. I mean, I know that I am one. It says so on my business card. It says so in my CV. You can’t ask for better verification than being the 7th Poet Laureate of San Francisco. At the same time I’ve never needed that kind of affirmation for anything else, it makes me a bit uncomfortable if I’m honest. Do I pretend that it was all ordained? Shall I tell my story with a cheeky wink of self-satisfaction because we now know how it worked out? Should I admit that I think it’s all a big misunderstanding?
Trying to make sense:
Baby hands on the sink in grandma’s house, having a bath. Pretending I was driving an old fashioned roadster made of bubbles. Mistaking the word ‘spoon’ for the word ‘school’. There were Grandpa’s fancy European handwriting and the stories about the ghost in the upstairs room. Not knowing which words were in what language.
In nursery school I stood at the top of the outside stairs in a Victorian broad brimmed hat, a string of pearls and a lace mini dress, and black leather button up shoes. Watching the boys play, naked in a mud puddle. No girls. I strip to the pearls and wade in.
I call mom, ask her when I started writing:
“Wow” But she gives it a try. “You loved books and most children’s books are poems, or at least they rhyme. I don’t know. I imagine you started in first grade.” She reminds me of a poem I wrote about a woman dying in her herb garden. I find out that she (read this for everyone in the family) thought that this poem was about grandma. It was actually about an Edwardian woman we’d now call a botanist, but I leave it. “You used to make tiny books all of the time.”
Remembering a great hippy toy store from the late 60s. It sold tiny books in sets and I wanted them so I made little books. Now I make books. Maybe this is the balloon string I was looking for
Crawling all over the playground in Golden Gate Park
The two person swings
Crawling all over the trains at the SF Zoo
Were they at the zoo or the playground?
The little child sized houses
I’m sure that those were in the zoo
I still have my blue zoo key
Cotton candy in my hair
It was the 60s
Dad had a drawing and what he thought was my first poem pinned up next to his tool bench in the basement. I don’t know that I wrote that piece. I may have copied it, some school thing.
Under the table with crayons listening to poets with Carol Lee
Poem at the Mission Cultural Center
Poem somewhere in North Beach
Poem at the smaller version of Modern Times Bookstore
Poem at City Lights Bookstore
I knew poets early
All of that is real. There were obviously other things going on. I have no idea how often we went to the park or the zoo. My grandma taught me to crochet. Ok, let’s be clearer about that: my grandmother was a “no idle hands” kind of woman. She crocheted, knitted to a lesser degree, made handmade lace, went through a quilting phase, made jam, planted things like carrots. She and grandpa were seriously frugal and therefore creative. I have a memory of cookies flavored with old Halloween candy. Creativity also has a fail rate. I had homemade toys because she preferred not to throw anything away. I learned those things because they were happening near me and I wanted to know how everything worked.
Mom says, “You were always very verbal.”
Dad took me to see a piece of jade that was much larger than me. It was at a gem and mineral show in Golden Gate Park and he also gave me thirty cents to buy something. I got three things: a section of crinoid, a tiny trilobite and a piece of rose quartz. That last was because every woman in my mom’s family is somehow named rose or a variation of rose.
How is everyone not just curious about everything? Is that the part in me that’s broken in a way that makes me poet?
Should I talk about the math? The physics? I don’t remember when I started thinking about the nature of things.
One night it sounded as if the back yard was on fire, there was this crackling and popping. Dad went outside to see, then called us all out. The tree in our neighbor’s yard was making the noise, all of its seedpods cracking open and throwing tiny black seeds everywhere. For the next few weeks I collected seeds and kept them in a walnut shell. Was that collecting the same as making a poem?
There was a war on. I think I should mention that. My dad had been on the Ticonderoga, an aircraft carrier, during the Gulf of Tonkin incident. I was aware of the war but not as aware of it as I was of the mica in the soil on our hill, the giant blackberry bramble in the corner of the yard and watching the blackberries get ripe. There was also a toad I remember as gigantic. He wasn’t a pet, just lived in the yard.
I used to think that it should be possible to read a book by the energy of all of the little cloud formations of atoms. I think someone explained matter to me as a bunch of tiny clocks packed very close together. Maybe they said that things went round and round like clocks, or clocks that went around in all directions at once. I don’t remember when I realized that color and matter were mostly imagination. Now all of this makes me seem like a fairly joyful child or maybe a wise child, at the time I think I was just understood as strange. You try telling other first graders, or worse yet the adults, that since there was less stuff in matter than we thought, we should be able to move through it somehow. Yep, I was strange. Not in an ultimately useful way either, I was just endlessly and obsessively curious about most things.
There was a time when I’d read everything in the children’s sections of three local libraries. Then I started on the books for grown ups.
The Noe Valley Library had a display of a grouping of Ruth Asawa’s knotless netted structures. Ruth was someone we knew, working in a technique my little handwork capable self understood, the work displayed in a place I loved. That bit is probably important. Art is a possibility.
Let’s get real it was San Francisco
I haven’t yet mentioned that my father is Indigenous. At the time he was an Indian (sorry, that’s a joke with a very small hit zone but I’m leaving it there). Dad is Cherokee. In the 60s and 70s my father was one of the most beautiful men you’d ever see. I am very light skinned so the vibe of the time was less striking for me. For my father it must have been like attending your own funeral day after day. Rumor was that we were all dead. Then AIM. Dad, as I mentioned, was in the Navy. He’s a genius in a world where that word is overused.
retired as a scientist for IBM
I could not be more proud of my dad. He’s got flaws but I’m going to leave them out.
Does watching family members suffer being misunderstood help one find a poetic voice? I’m sure that there’s a school of thought where that is a big yes. It does normalize being incomprehensible. Anyway, most women I met for at least two decades had a crush on my dad, it was, at one point, a recognized lifestyle.
Among all of those books I was reading there were Berlitz language courses. I have not mastered all of the languages I studied, but I was interested in the links and disconnects between the puzzle of words. My grandparents spoke an archaic form of Polish. My great gran on the other side spoke Cherokee. The dominant form of Chinese in San Francisco was Cantonese. Many of our friends spoke Spanish, including our friend Betty (in another world my godmother) who was from San Salvador and therefore spoke a very particular kind of Spanish. One of grandma’s friends was Swiss. I was surrounded by a maze of words and wordlings. People forget that San Francisco was like that. People ignore that San Francisco is like that now.
Struck by a memory of a High School teacher newly arrived from Boston who assured me that there was no evidence of Spanish colonialism in San Francisco.
Shaking my head
People see what they want to
This table I’m sitting at is made up of clouds of particles and the supposed surface is an agreement we make with reality.
What is the effect of being required to memorize nonsense about your own home cultures for the purpose of passing grades in school? It was the cold war and the Polish had mostly vanished from schoolbooks. Indigenous people were, reportedly, all gone. Then I’d go home and eat Polish food and talk to my Cherokee dad. I suppose you either learn that you don’t exist, or that you are an exception and take a step sideways.
Pow Wow friendship dances are all sidesteps. This is my agreement with reality.
Buying one piece of very fancy chocolate in Carmel
Playing at being roadie for a friend’s mom
Pulling off of the freeway to swim in the American River
Fantasy role-playing games: dice, paper, pencils, charts, cookies
School jerks, many of them the teachers
Heart friend who has fallen away, that still hurts too much, moving on
High school poetry teacher told me my writing was too self-referential to ever really work
My dad’s mom didn’t like that my poems don’t rhyme
Then Carol Lee Sanchez, the famous Laguna poet, my heroine, said, “Kim has a poem. Read your poem, Kim.” Is that when I became a poet?
Having children gave me permission to make furniture forts and tea parties and the four of us reading to one another every night. If I’m a poet I was already a poet by then.
This may not be true of everyone but I think that I become a poet every day. The thing that makes me curious, the thing that snags my attention, the meditation the idée fixe, the tool that will pull words out of ideas. Maybe I just write myself every day, make myself real. It is an act of audacity, writing a poem, standing to read the poem, being filmed reading the poem. It doesn’t always work. I aim for about a 25% success rate, which is probably an indication of arrogance. The way that I write, I couldn’t have learned it in school. I’m not even sure that I could teach it. I have sat for hours reading books in trees. One of my favorite trees is a bay laurel that lives in my parents’ yard. Out here they call them pepperwood trees, maybe she taught me to be a poet.
Kim Shuck embraces the fool and jester qualities of being a modern poet and artist. She is a devotee of San Francisco, whose hills she wanders nearly always on foot. Her maternal grandparents met at the Polish Hall on Shotwell and she spent many hours with her mother and grandmother wandering the Mission St. Miracle Mile, taking books out of the Mission Branch library and watching aquarium fish on the ground floor of what used to be Hale’s. She firmly believes in carrying a bubble wand, keys, pen and notebook, and cat’s cradle string at all times.
Shuck is widely published in journals, anthologies and a couple of solo books. This summer should see the release of her next two titles: Murdered and Missing a chapbook, and Deer Trails a full-length collection.