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Kim Shuck: California Poets Part 2, Three Poems

Kim Shuck

February 23rd, 2021

California Poets: Part II

Kim Shuck

Three Poems

Sunset at the Pacific

Out here we're made of cyclone fence and

Boxes where we store folded sunsets they could

Break your will the

Dance of being hauled away for sitting for

Not taking the invitation to leave

Not for now and the ritual movements will make you

Keen old songs you should know

Will drag from your tongue the language of the gods of

Pavement and accusation the doors and

Windows in this place don't open we

Don't remember how to build them that way and the

Ships come and go to a different schedule


In the ceremony of belonging we

Decorate each other with spirals of

Razor wire and

Dance ourselves unbalanced

Unfixable we burn the family house down

We will cut each other to watch the wounds heal

Admire the strength we stress

Measure ourselves against and know that

We can't win the

Fight we don't start

We know the ceremony


Poultice and still we

Pick at one another like a scab

We choose the scar


These are the buildings marked for death

Community of angles

Relic shapes

Cast from life when vital

Not fallen but

Leaning into an unlucky



Marked and marking

Accidental tracks


Unintended letters

We used to call it community

Interview II

December 14th, 2023

California Poets Interview Series:

Kim Shuck, SF Poet Laureate Emerita

interviewed by David Garyan

DG: Many interesting things have happened since our last interview. Your newest collection, Pick a Garnet to Sleep In will be published very soon and you’re scheduled to give a publication reading at the SF Public Library on December 14th. What can readers expect from the collection in terms of length and subject matter? The title seems to empower the reader.

KS: I hope that this collection empowers the reader. These are poems that were written during the Covid lockdown. Some of them are almost poemfetti. I know I’m not the only one who had trouble settling and focusing. The title is a line from one of the poems. I was trying to find/make space that didn’t require being out in the world. What size is your interest in things? How small? How large? It’s up to the individual and their energy levels. This is a bigger book than I’ve done, there are around 80 poems in the collection. I let the editor change some things that I wouldn’t have before. Part of that is trust and part of it is curiosity. I was talked out of some of my quirky line breaks so it may be friendlier to read, less work to read.

DG: Would you like to share a poem from the collection?

KS: I'd be happy to.

The City Forest isn’t a Sculpture


It is a


Self-assembling and

Falling apart and

Taken apart and

Sold at a distance and

Used as symbol a machine

A meat grinder

A sidewalk household

Facades that tell stories from other times and the

New stories that carry no weight of symbol at all


But not all

Are neighbors and

The sculpture is unquiet

The clicking and

Quiet singing runs all the way through all hours

And visionaries have developed a way of telling the future

By reading the lights in the windows on this hillside

Sing to me louder

I will love you forever like the

Strange whimsy that wanders these hills with the

Model train sets and the

Secret belief in genocide hand in hand with


The threat the

Threat of an untied rope

A rope made of braids cut from mocked men and

Women stolen from themselves

Stolen from the hills

With the gold and that

Comforting smell of sun warmed wildflowers

And hidden water and

Hiding water and

Objects resentfully renamed

The city isn’t a sculpture

It’s a sculpture

The only perpetual motion machine that works

Heartbroken and smug and

Struggling in

Joy and

Knowing that it’s important to pick a side

A face of the polyhedron

Perched on toes by the


Say the names of the villages that were

The lakes that are and the lakes that

Curl wishing under the schools and

Old churches

Along with the salamanders and the

Bunch grass

Say the names of the toes of the shoeless

Who lick this peninsula into a mammal

A sculpture

The misdrawn and

Misunderstood coastal sage and the

Quiet overlooked bats

This city isn’t a sculpture

The walls rebarred with bones

Bones of stickleback and

Hopeful invasion

The city is self-aware the city is a

Sculpture the city

Is afraid of inconsequence of

Ghost ships that soak in a memory of the bay

Of hillsides that seep in the wet months

Of stands of trees and the latest

Import plants

The city crawls with intention and

Coyotes and

Coydogs and

Lapdogs and

Rats that feed on excellent garbage

The city isn’t a sculpture

DG: You’ve been working on small regional anthologies of California poetry. How are these projects different from the anthologies you’ve edited over the years?

KS: Yes. The goal with This Wandering State is to showcase regional poetry accents. These are not greatest hits albums, they are a slice of each area. I am an open mic host. I became an open mic host to make space for my own work. I continued doing it in order to hold space for a variety of voices. The online open mic I started with Brett Benson during 2020 is a gathering place that attracts a number of other open mic hosts, but also people they’ve invited. It’s a joy because every two weeks I get to hear more work that I wouldn’t have heard if it were all by invitation. I wanted to bring that kind of energy to these small anthologies. So I’m working with people local to each area. I ask them who is putting in the work, who is thinking around corners, what surprises are there? More to the point, who is writing work that is essentially from your area. At the moment I’m working on Fresno/Madeira/Merced, The Desert, San Mateo/Santa Cruz and Del Norte/Humboldt.

DG: You’re in the midst of a fascinating project called Manifest Differently, a collective of 19 poets and 19 visual artists that “seek to interrogate the history and legacies of Manifest Destiny.” This is a multi-site exhibition, running from the fall of this year to next summer, and will be presented at seven locations. Along with Megan Wilson, you’re the only one contributing both poetry and art. Can you talk about the decision-making behind the pieces you chose? In fact, you’re still writing for the project. Do you feel that one medium influenced your choices of the other a bit more, or are they more or less on equal terms?

KS: In terms of the greater project, we picked contributors more than pieces. We picked people whose work asked chewy questions. So far that choice looks like a good one. The new murals on Clarion Alley are all great work. People took different angles on the subject matter. The poetry has been striking.

Kim Shuck Mural/Poem Collaboration

DG: Let’s stay with Manifest Differently. One of the key features of the website is that the home page functions with built-in glitches which force the viewer to reorient their perceptions related to the navigation of the traditional website paradigm. In this sense, the platform is as much a part of the artistic endeavor as the art and poetry itself. Along with having contributed poetry and art, you’re also a curator for the project, can you talk about this role, along with the other behind-the-scenes work that went into the enterprise?

KS: Well, I love our website designer, RJ Ramey. I’ve worked with him before and his vision always makes me see the work differently. We did Crossing Waterways/Crossing Time together with Barbara Berglund Sokalov and it made me see both my beading and my writing in different ways. So it was exciting to collaborate on the website. I’ve been curating small things and poetry readings for nearly fifteen years now, so the challenge here was to co-curate. It’s still a challenge. Megan and I have different expectations and that’s been interesting to navigate. We’re also working with Trisha Lagaso Goldberg. We’re all experts in our own areas, and it’s good to have to explain a bit to someone else. I work very instinctually and it’s been good for me to have to explain.

DG: Visual art has been a big cornerstone of your creative pursuits. Along with Manifest Differently, you’ve also produced 32 pieces of visual art and collaborated on a mural on Clarion Alley. The subject matter here is highly personal. Could you share more about that?

KS: For my own work I’m making a map of my family travels across the continent in endangered and extinct animals. The beadwork and the poems are both informed by research and family stories. People weren’t the only ones impacted by colonization and that’s what I’m weaving with for this project. I didn’t want to play all of the familiar notes: piles of bison bones for example. So I’m beading and writing on small individual biota. I’m working with beetles and frogs and birds, more pocket-sized critters and some plants whose loss might not hit everyone right away. I’ve also been writing a poem every day that starts from trying to connect colonization with things that are happening right now as a jump off point. I have about half a month of work left on that part of the project.

Night Heron by Kim Shuck (the artwork is a part of the family migrations map)

DG: I’d like to speak again about the SF Library. In addition to your reading, you have an interesting project coming up next year with the Main Library. What makes not only the institution but SF in general such a special place for writers, and what are the details of this specific collaboration?

KS: During the lock down I did a year of posting poems every day on the SFPL website. Michelle Jeffers and I imagined that project. It felt like people needed something. For the poets it was a bit of a call and response: we’re here, you’re here. I think that it helped. Obviously the Bay Area has many more than 365 working poets, so not everyone got a nose in, but many did. I think that the stress now is comparable if not worse. I think that people are having a really hard time. I think that it is good to get people looking at the library site who might not. It’s good to get poems out there. It’s a good release. I’m not sure, at the moment, when the poems will start going up. We thought it would be in January, but we have to push that back a little. It’s worth the wait, there are some fantastic poets who have sent me work.

DG: Let’s speak more generally. Each language has its unique elements, often untranslatable. Cherokee, in this respect, isn’t an exception. Some may know the tradition of idigawesdi/igawesdi. What are things that fascinate you most about the culture, tradition, and language?

KS: There are plenty of thought shapes that English does not make space for. I think I’m more interested in the constrictions of English than I am in the untranslatable aspects of Cherokee. Languages are maps of thought. English is very noun centered. What are the things and who owns them? It’s more of a puzzle to write around the voids in English. It’s easier to challenge English because it’s got unexpectedly rigid bits. I find that pretty interesting.

DG: Translation from Cherokee to English is probably more widespread than English into Cherokee. Two questions: Given the vast difference between both languages, what are your thoughts on either matter and what are texts you think should be translated from Cherokee to English and which ones from English to Cherokee?

KS: Right now I think that Cherokee may need to be alone with its thoughts. I’m of a mind not to translate. There certainly need to be more children’s books in Cherokee, more intermediate reader books in Cherokee. I think they’re coming.

DG: Though Cherokee does have a writing system, other cultures do not—meaning you can be a poet, but not a poet who writes, you can be a storyteller but not a writer, you can communicate but not publish. What are your thoughts on the state of American poetry? Do you think our achievement-obsessed, goal-oriented society has perhaps ruined poetry by over-emphasizing publishing—at any and all costs—over authentic communication? Have we become too interested in simply pinning the label “writer” for ourselves as opposed to cultivating the life of genuine storytellers? In short, do you think American poetry is in a state of crisis and could the solution to it perhaps be less publishing?

KS: Everyone needs to find the amount and form of recognition that helps them continue. I think that writing is one way to carry a poem. There are others: voice, short videos online, graffiti, there are all kinds of ways to package words. Someone asked me in a Q and A once if I thought that poetry is damaged by being posted on social media. I think that story has been declared in crisis every time the culture of carrying story has changed. Writing, printing, typing, recording- there are still live poets yelling poems on a street corner or leaning them into microphones. What I will say is that anyone who poets should do so in more than one format, just to keep the possibility window wide. I think that the format eventually starts dictating aspects of style. As far as publishing, and as published as I am this may be a suspect opinion, I don’t think it should be the goal. I’ve had younger poets ask me to read their manuscript so that I can make suggestions for changes that would make it more publishable. Well, I am the wrong eye for that. Publishing was never a goal for me. It’s happened but it’s never been on a to do list. I always thought that my work was a bit too immediate and unedited for publication. Publishers have disagreed so there are books. There is a danger that the desire to please will change the work. I believe that that’s the point of crisis.

DG: What are you reading at the moment?

KS: Morning Breaks in the Elevator by Lemn Sissay

Mary Norbert Korte, more a who than a what, but … that’s where I am.

Qwo-li Driskill’s Walking With Ghosts.

Submissions for my little anthologies.

My current purse books are Han Raschka’s Splinters and KR Morrison’s Cauldrons.

My bedside books are a really cheesy mystery novel and Carol Lee Sanchez’ From Spirit to Matter. I may never be done with that book.

Interview I

September 25th, 2021

California Poets Interview Series:

Kim Shuck, SF Poet Laureate Emerita

interviewed by David Garyan

DG: As a poet with Indigenous (Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma) and European roots, your work deals frequently with themes of nature, the growing isolation between humanity and the natural world, but also the intersection between the West and Native experience, specifically in your book Deer Trails, but also elsewhere. Along with a discussion of the book, can you touch a little bit upon the tensions, contradictions, and perhaps even harmonies of living in a city like San Francisco, so modern and innovative, yet, at the same time, inseparable from its past Indigenous history?

KS: As long as people think of themselves as not embodying the natural world, the divisions between some people and Nature will persist. The settler/colonizer mindset can’t be aligned with Indigenous perspectives, but if people think of each other as a community, it could do some good for everyone. I think the way that people are cut off from one another and one another’s perspectives is a deeper wound than just Indigenous/Non-Indigenous communication. I’m Goral Polish and CNO, that’s a pretty modern identity. My children are also Hawaiian and Mongolian, that combination seems very modern to me. My Cherokee dad was a telecom engineer. Tradition isn’t a foil for innovation. I think that the answers already exist, but that the historical and contemporary tensions need to be understood, taught and discussed.

Deer Trails was my love letter to San Francisco. My San Francisco—the city I was born in, the city my mom was born in—may or may not always resemble the city as other people see her. My most recent collection Exile Heart is a bit more focused on Indigenous issues, but the poems from both volumes are of similar vintage.

DG: You were elected by San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee to serve as the city’s seventh poet laureate. Can you describe some of the projects, initiatives, and campaigns you organized during this time that helped bring not only poetry but also Indigenous issues to the foreground?

KS: I was nominated for the laureateship by my poetic peers and vetted by a group of former laureates, poetry activists, publishers, and librarians. Ed Lee picked me from a short list of three. My suspicion is that he thought I was mostly harmless. In my role as SF Poet Laureate, I organized roughly five readings a month. I was part of a team, along with Thea Matthews and Denise Sullivan, who put together four poetry chapthologies that drew from readings in the Mission District of San Francisco. I gathered poems from SF poets that will eventually become a poetic map of the city, a project that has proven more psychological than I’d anticipated. With much help, I curated a poem a day for a year. The poems are archived on the San Francisco Public Library site. I got up to a lot of good trouble as SF Poet Laureate. I was contacted recently by a South Asian poetry and art publication who told me that I’d put over 1000 women on microphones over the last five years. That may be true—I haven’t counted that, but there have certainly been over 1000 poets. I supported poetry activities that needed support. I’ve worked with food equity people, housing equity people, health equity people, along with poets and activists who align with the politics I agree with. It may be that my most important activism in terms of the Indigenous part of my heritage has been just working with people of all backgrounds while also being Cherokee, so that the stereotypes could evaporate without too much comment. My personal politics show up in my poetry, but as laureate my responsibility was to support poetry and poets. Now, I certainly know more Indigenous poets than many people do. I’ve tried to center more Indigenous Californian voices than I’ve seen done before. I try to mention and support things of local Indigenous concern like the potential destruction of the West Berkeley Shellmound and the story of Felix Cove in West Marin. Strong and important stories feed good poetry. Truth feeds good poetry.

DG: Along with the written word, you’re also a visual artists, working in the traditional Indigenous crafts of weaving and beadwork. How do these arts influence your poetry, and, conversely, how does your poetry influence your artistic activities?

KS: Some stories are told in words and some stories are told in beads or fibers. I’m not sure that there’s much difference between one and the other. I hold an MFA in fine arts /textiles from San Francisco State University. I also tat, loom weave, fold origami and do string figures. The story finds the medium.

DG: When did you decide that poetry would be more than just a hobby, but a way of life? Do you believe you learned the craft from libraries and books or from life experiences—to some extent it’s always both, but which one do you gravitate more towards?

KS: My poetry mom/hero was Carol Lee Sanchez. She organized poetry readings at the Coffee Gallery in North Beach, co-founded the Bay Area Poetry Coalition, helped to midwife California Poets in the Schools and exposed me to live readings from the time that her son and I became friends in second grade. I’m not sure that I ever knew poetry could be a hobby and not a life.

DG: One of your works I always enjoy reading is 21st-Century Meditation, where you write the following: “Memory spirits give me days full of / Words I’ve forgotten or / Never been taught the / Language in my cells that won’t come out.” Indeed, the spoken word is a major cornerstone of culture and it’s unfortunate that Indigenous languages are dying out at an alarming rate. Efforts to digitize them, such as recording oral traditions and conversations have reversed this phenomenon to some extent, but it isn’t enough. Can you think of other ways to address these issues and is there, perhaps, something that poetry can do to preserve the languages and traditions of Indigenous peoples?

KS: I’m glad that you like that poem. My niece, Dr. Jenny Davis, would probably answer this question with more grace, as she is, among other things, a linguistics professor. I can give it a whack though. All over the world we are losing diversity of all kinds: biodiversity, linguistic diversity, cultural diversity. Think of the result of monoculture planting in fields—one successful infection, insect, rogue beast of any description, can take the whole thing out. If language nourishes thought, like a food crop nourishes body, it’s probably better to have more than one available. I’m old enough to remember when schools discouraged bilingual parents speaking a second language at home. We now understand that being bilingual or even multilingual is good for cognition. Probably not punishing or beating Indigenous children for speaking their languages has been a good thing for language retention. The best way to foster language retention is to use the language. If you go to Talequah, OK, you will see the CNO does precisely that—signs in Cherokee, opportunities to use the language. It’s not about preservation, but about use, and it’s important to have the kinds of unique thought tools that each language provides. It’s important for everyone that we retain those tools. I don’t know what poetry has to add to that, unless it’s more poems in more languages. More poems … always a good idea.

One of your most powerful works is Murdered Missing, a collection of fifty poems dealing with “murdered Indigenous women in the western hemisphere,” as you write in the introduction. Poetry, as you’ve stated, can make us aware of the issue, but what else can be done to perhaps reverse this alarming trend?

Smart murderers kill people they think will not be missed. Smart kidnappers take people who have been marginalized. The people who take and kill Indigenous women understand that we are not considered of particular value. If these crimes were investigated the way that other murders and kidnappings are investigated, we might see a change.

Author Bio:

Kim Shuck is a poet, educator and visual artist from San Francisco, CA. She holds dual citizenship from the United States and the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. Shuck is author of seven books of poetry the latest being Deer Trails from City Lights Publishing and the chapbook Whose Water? from Mammoth Publishing. She is San Francisco’s Poet Laureate Emerita.


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