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‘The mission is joy’ for editor of new all-star poetry collection

Editor James Crews, top center, wants to help readers love their lives as they are. Poets include Amanda Gorman, Ted Kooser, Ross Gay, and Joy Harjo.
Editor James Crews, top center, wants to help readers love their lives as they are. Poets include Amanda Gorman, Ted Kooser, Ross Gay, and Joy Harjo.Getty,AP, Library of Congress

“How to Love the World: Poems of Gratitude and Hope,” edited by the poet James Crews, includes 118 poems on joy, gratitude, and hope. The anthology also includes reflective pauses intended to encourage readers to think more deeply about specific poems, to write in reaction to the work, and generally be more mindful and aware of opportunities for joy.

The anthology represents a wide range of poetic voices revealing gratitude as an essential emotion that is simple and complex, all around us but also elusive. In “From Blossoms,” the poet Li-Young Lee, describing a roadside stop for peaches, defines joy as “…days we live / as if death were nowhere / in the background…”

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Such days may seem impossible as we mark nearly 400 days battling a pandemic, but Crews and the poets anthologized in “How to Love the World” argue otherwise. “We forget about the spaciousness / above the clouds,” Naomi Shihab Nye suggests in “Over the Weather.” In “Wedding Poem,” Ross Gay observes a goldfinch “kissing a sunflower,” prompting the poet to “…just barely purse my lips / with what I realize now / was being, simply glad…”

In other words, moments grand and small inspire gratitude. Joy Harjo watches an eagle circle above her and advises the reader to “…pray to open your whole self / To sky, to earth, to sun, to moon…” Amanda Gorman offers an ode to girls of color.

We visited with Crews last month via Zoom at his home in Vermont to talk about gratitude, hope, and what inspired him to put together this anthology.

Q. I feel I have a sense of it through the poems you’ve assembled, but I’m curious, how do you define joy?

A. I think of joy as a deeper version of happiness that isn’t dependent on what’s going on in the outer world or the circumstances in life. Joy seems to come out of nowhere, this emotion that kind of springs up. Often for me, it comes on the other side of sorrow or difficulty. It’s the clearing away and springing forth that happens.

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Q. Why are themes like joy, kindness, and connection important to you?

A. The original title was gratitude and joy. ...It’s harder to be deeply kind if you’re not able to access gratefulness and gratitude. These are huge values in my life, but I don’t want you or anyone to think it’s easy for me to be grateful, especially during the past year. It was a real struggle. Part of my gratitude practice was finding these poems, sharing them with others.

Q. In your introduction you talk about “soul time,” which feels like an intentional practice for you. That suggests there’s some thoughtfulness behind your gratitude practices and your steady state isn’t joy.

"How to Love the World: Poems of Gratitude and Hope" features works by Amanda Gorman, Joy Harjo, and Ross Gay.
"How to Love the World: Poems of Gratitude and Hope" features works by Amanda Gorman, Joy Harjo, and Ross Gay.Courtesy Storey Publishing

A. I wish. I was listening to a podcast hosted by Poetry Magazine with Naomi Shihab Nye and Danusha Laméris, and they were talking about how we’ve all come to realize that moments are all we ever have. They’re these fleeting things, and because poetry tends to be this smaller container, where it attempts to contain the mystery of our lives, it’s the perfect vehicle for capturing a moment, holding it close to yourself, then sharing it with other people. Moments are so important. Soul time allows us to slip more deeply into our lives as they are.

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Q. You have a broad range of poets in the anthology. How did you curate and build it?

A. It’s a very mysterious process. But there were certain poets I knew needed to be in here. Danusha Laméris was one poet I reached out to, Ellen Bass, Ted Kooser. You mentioned Amanda Gorman. She was very well known when I chose her poem, but she wasn’t quite a household name yet. I don’t know what happened when I heard her poem, but I knew I needed that poem in the book. I knew exactly where it was going to go.

Q. If the mission is joy, there’s a real value in clarity.

A. The mission is joy. I put this book together because it felt like between the pandemic and the uprising over the summer and the fight for racial justice it just felt like all of these things are essential. They need our attention. We need to read the news. We need to know what’s going on, but it just felt like people were not giving themselves permission to also feel joy and to also recharge from some of the deep work we are all doing as a society and as a culture right now. That joy piece felt really important.

Q. What do you hope readers will take away from the book?

A. I hope people will find a way to fall in love with their lives as they are — as they are right now. I think poetry is ideal for training us in how to do that. I also hope that people just fall in love with poetry and feel much more hopeful about where our society is and where we’re going as a country, a culture, a world.

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HOW TO LOVE THE WORLD: POEMS OF GRATITUDE AND HOPE

Edited by James Crews. 208 pages Storey Publishing, $14.95

Michael Kleber-Diggs is a poet, essayist, and book critic. His debut poetry collection, “Worldly Things,” will be published in June.