Kim Shuck, the seventh poet laureate of San Francisco, is a fifth-generation resident of the city. She’s also a community activist, an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, and an accomplished visual artist whose beadwork has been exhibited across the U.S. The author of seven collections of poems, including 2019’s Deer Trails, Shuck is known for spare, accessible lines that reference nature and, often, San Francisco’s indigenous roots. As National Poetry Month drew to a close, Mechanics’ Institute put in a call to Shuck to find out what being poet laureate is all about.
Q: Okay . . . so what does a poet laureate actually do?
A: Some people view it as a compliment but I’ve viewed it as a job. One of the first things was, I gave free classes in every library branch in the city. I’ve been supporting the work of poets, encouraging young poets, continuing to support the reputation of San Francisco’s poetry scene in the nation and in the world. I do about twenty shows a month.
Q: Are there perks?
A: I may never have to argue to get something published again. People call to ask me questions about stuff if there is a need for a poetic opinion. And there are things I’ve learned to accept. I’m [now] completely indifferent as to whether someone takes my photo as long as it’s not straight up my nose.
Q: Last year, you were one of just thirteen city and state poet laureates to receive a grant from the Academy of American Poets and the Andrew Mellon foundation to support a community poetry project. Can you say something about the result, Fire Thieves?
A: Fire Thieves is a monthly reading series at different locations in the city, with two established poets, two mid-career poets, and two younger poets. It’s caused a lot of cross-generational communication, which is important. Everyone’s got a perspective.
Q: How long does the laureateship last?
A: It’s supposed to be two years at the outside, but June will mark my third year. And I have a prediction: I don’t think the poet laureate is going to be a [city] priority for a while. I love this gig. But the way we keep real diversity going in the arts is that people in positions like this switch out regularly.
Q: How does your identity as a visual artist dovetail, or not, with your identity as a poet?
A: Words, beads, assemblies of things that make a bigger image; it’s all related. Growing up in Noe Valley, I was one of Ruth Asawa’s students. I have a memory—I’m not sure if it’s true—but I have a memory of shaking Benny Bufano’s hand. I helped work on some of the [public art] around the city. There’s a perspective that comes from having been part of the early wave of hippie children: that art is really a possibility.
Q: What would people be surprised to know about you?
A: I’m really a big, big nerd. The hardest thing about this sheltering in place is that my sons have my video game machine where they live and I haven’t been able to go there.
Q: You have said that all the things you do are just different ways of telling a story. What is the story that you hope we will tell about this terrible and amazing moment in history?
A: Oh, wow. I hope that it ends up being a story about the value of human life, and the value of community, the importance of working together. We’ve been offered a really horrifying opportunity, but still an opportunity, to see what is possible. What does it look like when most people are seriously considering the well-being of one another?
Q: With all your responsibilities, do you even have time to write poems?
A: I write one a day. Though for a while I was managing one too many things. Effectively, I really need a nap.
Excerpt from Quarantine Poem 36
Shelter in place where the place is
A stone in the river
Not a bridge
Not a refuge
And the city calls out
Where are we in that death of a thousand cuts
Held together with running stitches and
Tossed as a wish into water
In the rapids
—Kim Shuck (Facebook, April 21, 2020)
Photo by Douglas A. Salin