Note: Giles Hoyt is Emeritus Professor of German, former Associate Dean of International Affairs, and was the first Director of the The Max Kade German American Center at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis. His review of Somewhere in Southern Indiana appeared in Yearbook of German-American Studies; 28 (1993), 4-6. His extended essay on the Indiana Germans is included in Taylor and McBirney, Peopling Indiana: The Ethnic Experience (Indiana Historical Society, 1996), 146-181, and is being expanded into a book in a series published by the Indiana Historical Society Press. The following excerpts are from an interview-in-progress being conducted by e-mail.
H: Place seems extremely important to you. Your poetry often reflects on your childhood in Southern Indiana. What sort of poetry would you be writing if you had stayed in the Southern Indiana homeland?
K: This is a complex question, a very theoretical one. The question in my mind is whether I would be writing poetry. When I was an undergrad English major at St. Joseph's College in Rennselaer, I tried to write a few poems, but nothing much came of the attempt. I remember telling an English major friend of mine that I bet I'd start writing if I moved to the East Coast, thinking I'd have something sophisticated to write about. By coincidence, after finishing my Ph.D. in English at Notre Dame with a concentration in American poetry, I did move to the East Coast, and I did start to write poetry. I "found my voice," as we say in the trade that is not a trade, rather quickly. What did I write about, what was the material that moved me to write poems? My southern Indiana background, my German-American roots. I talk about this in a prose manuscript I finished not long ago, Where It All Began: A Search for Origins. After moving to metropolitan New York, I began to study German, which I could not take at Jasper High School because it was not offered 1917-1973, I began to trace my family history, and I began to write poetry. All these activities and obsessions were inseparable and have yielded a series of four German-roots books published between 1988 and 1997 that form an organic whole: Beneath the Cherry Sapling: Legends from Franconia (1988); Somewhere in Southern Indiana: Poems of Midwestern Origins (1993); Finding the Grain: Pioneer German Journals and Letters from Southern Indiana (1996); and Blue-Eyed Grass: Poems of Germany (1997). Perhaps I should add a fifth book, Shadows on the Sundial: Selected Early Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke (1990). The first four books are, in effect, the expansion of my slim 1977 volume Finding the Grain: Pioneer German Journals Franconian Folktales, Ancestral Poems.
As you suggest, place has been extremely important to me as a poet, and southern Indiana has been the most inspirational place for me. Maybe I should say the richest and deepest source of material for me. No doubt, my separation from this rich source has been a large part of the impulse or need to write poems. A friend from my years at Notre Dame, Mike Yetman of the Purdue English Dept., once told me after a reading there that I am "a poet of recovery." My uprooting from southern Indiana, my move to this very different metropolitan area, had a lot to do with my beginning to write poems, and the distance has provided a perspective, an angle of vision, very important to the poems I have written. I see poetry primarily as vision, as angle of vision, as seeing something, often ordinary and commonplace, as though for the first time. I think if I had stayed in southern Indiana, I would have written poems, but the perspective or angle of vision would have been different. I think the movement back and forth between Long Island and southern Indiana has been beneficial to me as a poet. I've written many journal entries but hardly ever any poems while in southern Indiana--I'm always so busy doing research, collecting materials, seeing people--but almost every time I return from southern Indiana to Long Island, I'm moved to write poems.
Distance provides a welcome perspective, a balance. I think I'm both insider and outsider, because of the direction my life has taken, and the tension, if you will, between seeing things from the "inside" and also from the "outside" has been good for my poetry and for my work as editor of pioneer German letters and journals from Dubois County. In his Schatzkammer (1997) review of the expanded Finding the Grain, Heiko Muehr observes that for some twenty-five years I have "Maintained an emotionally charged relationship with Dubois County." So true!
Of course my ancestral Germany and Long Island, where I've lived since 1970, have moved me to write many poems. Southern Indiana, Southern Germany, and Long Island are my spiritual centers, as I've said in the prose manuscript recently completed. Sometimes all three places figure important in a single poem, as in "Flax: A Prolog" in Blue-Eyed Grass: Poems of Germany.
H: What strikes me about your use of place, whether it is Long Island, Southern Indiana, or Franconia, is a desire to find universals and state them in an understated way. I would like for us to spend some time thinking about that, if you agree, and a second, related issue is the nature of poetic language used to formulate these understated universals.
K: Yes, I'm conscious of trying to connect with my three places or "centers" in such a way that each or any of them stands for all places. This is what works best for me, trying to get at the universal through the particular. I want to draw on the richness and complexities of all three of these places, burrow down into the present and the past, to get at the richness and complexity of the natural world and human experience. I would like to become a conduit to express the depth that is part of these three places, but also of any place, if approached in the right way. I do not see myself as a promoter of any particular place, but as more of an explorer. I want to discover what is down there, whether darkness or light or, most probably, a combination of light and dark. My love affair with the Franconia of my ancestral past led me into a painful confrontation with the Holocaust, through the Jewish woman named Klara Krapf. My poems of southern Indiana have included more than one confrontation with suicide, and the same is true of my Long Island poems. I want to honor my trinity of places, but not oversimplify or just glorify them.
Everson wrote some magnificent California Coast poems, as did Robinson Jeffers. I love these poems, as well as Wordsworth's recollections of childhood in The Prelude, John Clare's Midlands poems, Thomas Hardy's Dorset poems, Walt Whitman's and William Heyen's Long Island poems, Robert Frost's New England poems, David Ignatow's New York City poems, Robert Bly's Minnesota poems, James Wright's Ohio poems, Robert Morgan's North Carolina poems, William Stafford's Kansas and Oregon poems, and many others. These are by no means the only poems that I love, I certainly don't like only "poems of place"; but they are the kind of poems that have moved me, repeatedly, to write poems. As I said in an essay published in ELF, Lucien Stryk's Heartland: Poets of the Midwest was an important influence--a liberation, really--when I moved East and began to write poems about my Midwestern origins. William Stafford's poetry continually stirs me to the depths, makes me want to write poems. He was and is a great model and inspiration. He was a friend, as was David Ignatow, and I dearly miss their presence. They both admired one another's poetry, came from different backgrounds and regions of the country, and both encouraged me, independently of one another, to explore my Midwestern German roots.
There is a principle here, that we write best when we explore what is most important to us. We must work with what we have been given. Maybe I should say that I think I write best when I write about the places that, for me, hold the deepest connections. I am not denying that craft and technique or important. They certainly are, but they are not what is most important. For me, craft and technique must be at the service of vision, and vision arises out of making a connection with what is deepest, in my personal and collective past and present. I'm capable of writing poems in which the craft comes to the fore, but I don't think they are my best. I would prefer that a reader not notice the craft, the technique at work, until after repeated readings. No poet could ignore craft, deliberately not say things as best they can be said, with the help of rhythm, other aspects of sound, structure, image, etc., all those wonderful, magical elements that make poetry so unforgettable.
I have quite a number of poems that have no connection with any particular place, poems that I like, and just recently I put them together as a manuscript titled Night Walk. But most often a poem, for me, arises out of a particular landscape, or starts with an event or episode tied to a specific landscape. Sometimes the smell of leaves after rain, or herbs or weeds in the heat of the sun, or the touch of a breeze blowing up out of the South, or the sound of a bird, say the song of a turtle dove at dusk, will trigger associations that pull me back and make me reach for pen and paper. This may sound like a formula, but the process is anything but formulaic. It's all instinct, exploration, discovery. I've been writing poems for just about twenty-eight years now, and I'm sure I have not "plumbed" the three places in question. They still have a hold on me; I am still delighted to respond. You must listen to your own individual Muse, and most often my Muse speaks out of a place, speaks the language of the place. I have a poem titled "The Language of Place," in a recently finished manuscript of Indiana poems, The Country I Come From. Not to listen to your Muse is to deprive yourself of what is most life-giving and render yourself mute.
I suppose that leads us to what you call "understated language" or "style." When I began to write poems in early 1971, I did not sit down and try to decide what style would be appropriate for me to have. Style is organic, grows out of the self, out of the personality, out of one's personal and collective history, is a product of place and maybe hundreds of other small but important influences. I just started to talk in poems, in a language that seemed simple. Rather, my goal was to get beyond the influence of the styles I had been exposed to as a student of literature. I was driven to express myself in poems and used the language that was available to me, that worked best for me. Style is not simply a product of the reading we do, as scholars would often have it. William Stafford once made a brilliant remark that I found stunning in the profundity of its simplicity. He said that his mother had much more influence on his style than T. S. Eliot ever did. Yes, I think you're right that I'm given to understatement. So was my father, the dryness of whose backwoods wit could slap you on the back of the head, minutes after he had walked out of the room. So was my mother, whose letters were almost unbelievably full of local details. Every day she had to listen to "The News at Noon," the local news on the local radio station, and you had better be quiet while she tuned in and grabbed at every detail. After the local news, you were free to listen to the national and international news, if you wished, but to her it was not quite so significant. She is coming to represent for me the spirit of my native place.
Although I've said that reading is not the most important influence on style, or wasn't for me, I should admit that Walt Whitman helped me find the style that felt right for me. Again, this wasn't a conscious choice or process at the time, but looking back, almost thirty years later, I think I can reconstruct what happened. When I read Whitman for the first time, other than "Captain, My Captain," a poem I have never liked, I was at St. Joseph's College, and I'll never forget the sensation of reading "Song of Myself" for the first time. I talk about this in "One Voice from Many," the narrative and meditative sequence I composed for the College's 100th commencement. We know of course that Whitman labored hard to sound "natural," that literally it would be impossible to "permit to speak at every hazard / Nature without check with original energy," but when I read Whitman, read his poems that were crafted so naturally that the craft seemed to have disappeared, I was tremendously moved and excited. It was also a revelation to discover a poet so committed to speaking for those who had not been spoken for in poems: "through me many voices long dumb." Later, when I moved to Long Island after finishing my Ph.D. in English, with a concentration in American poetry, and began to scratch out the first drafts of some poems, the voice of Whitman was still in my ear as I discovered on the shelves of our apartment in Port Washington the Lucien Stryk anthology of Heartland poetry that helped me find my subject matter and my Midwestern voice. I should point out that the Walt Whitman Birthplace, a special site, is less than a thirty-minute drive from where I have lived since 1970. I've been there many times, was honored to read in the kitchen of the house Walt's father built.
Now, to leap ahead, I would say that I am conscious of writing in the low style, the plain style, want to write in a kind of seemingly simple language that is not really so simple, that is concrete and clear but that takes a reader, gradually, into emotional and maybe even intellectual depths, into the complexity of the human situation that we were talking about. I often write a narrative poem, sometimes mixed with the lyric and the dramatic, I write what has been called the "descriptive narrative," and for decades, as a result of the Modernist movement, narrative poetry has been scorned. That has changed in the past decade or so, with the emergence of the so-called "New Formalists," but I have been working this vein for almost thirty years. Not because I decided that's what I should do, but because it's what comes natural to me, because it comes from a deep impulse, from instincts I must have inherited. I'll never believe that readers are no longer interested in "story." I feel a responsibility to tell the stories of people whose stories have been left largely untold, the kind of stories I tell in Somewhere in Southern Indiana and Blue-Eyed Grass. The purity of the spoken language, refined and lifted to the level of poetry, is what I aim for. How could anybody write an effective narrative in a deliberately complex, fractured, allusive, highly learned, self-conscious style and accomplish the goal I just spoke of? My father had eight and a half years of schooling, my mother graduated from high school and took a few courses at a secretarial school in Louisville, my Franconian ancestors arrived in southern Indiana in the 1840s, yet I was the first person on either side of the family to graduate from college. I don't see how I could have written in any other style than the style that has been mine almost since I started writing those poems in 1971. I've probably become more aware of what I'm doing, over the years, of what my goals as a poet are, but instinct was there in operation before the capacity to explain arrived.
H: You state that you are writing poetry that can have a broader readership, assuming lesser educated people or even non-literary minded educated people looked at poetry. What constitutes "accessibility"? Is it based in the kind of prose-like language you use, or in the attempt to include a narrative as distinct from mood or association-evoking metaphoric language?
K: First of all, I think you are responding to something I said in accepting a Trustees Award for Lifetime Achievement in Scholarship (TASA) from Long Island in the spring of 2000. For the sake of our readers, I think I should therefore quote those remarks before I begin to answer your question. Here is what I said:
"I'd like to accept this award in honor of my parents, Dorothy and Clarence Krapf, who did not have a chance to attend college. After I came to the C.W. Post Campus of Long Island University in 1970, I learned that both sides of my family came to this country in 1840 and 1846. I was the first on either side to graduate from college. My mother did graduate from high school, one year early; but her father died when she was 6 and the oldest of the 6 children on the Indiana farm was 12. My father, born in 1904, never made it to high school. Many times he told the story, which I have repeated in a poem and a memoir, that he dearly wanted to go to high school, but there were 10 children in the family, the nearest high school was too far to walk to, they could not afford to buy a horse, and he wept when my grandfather told him the bad news. You can bet, however, that my two brothers and my sister and I graduated from college; we four share two M.A.'s and one Ph.D.
"Because of this background, I have felt an obligation to speak to and for those who could not make it through the system. That is why I, an English teacher and poet, spent 25 years doing the job a historian should have done, editing and annotating German immigrant journals and letters, even though I haven't had a course in American history since high school. That is why I tr anslated a book of legends from my ancestral region and a collection of German poems, even though German was not taught in my German-Catholic hometown 1917-1972 and I did not really learn the language until after I finished my Ph.D. and began my education. And that is why I write the kind of poem that is accessible to a wide audience even though not many people read poetry in this huge country."
I would have to say that I don't believe in the term "prose-like language," which would imply that there is a "poetry-like language." That is, I don't believe that the language of prose and the language of poetry are completely different. There are, of course, differences between poetry and prose, and I think the main one is rhythm, music. Now there are some rhythms that are more often found in prose than in poetry, but poetry lives in and of its rhythms. I would prefer to say that my poetry comes out of the oral tradition, is written in the sound of a voice, a real human voice, speaking, in American English. Walt Whitman is the great model here, the great liberator.
Another way of putting it is that I write my poetry in the "plain or low style," not the "high style,"as I said in response to your previous question. I come from the Midwest, where my family has lived since 1840 and 1846, and we are not given to rhetorical flights, florid language, flashy imagery, language that calls attention to itself as language and how clever we are for having used it. We do not flash our credentials. William Carlos Williams was another important influence on me when I started writing in the early 1970s. He was dedicated to writing about everyday twentieth-century reality and ordinary people in a very plain style, in modern American English. He insisted on remaining a family doctor while maintaining a career as a poet. He stressed "localism," writing out of the soil and region that you know, are connected to. I like the story, which may be a legend, that Williams was once reading and speaking at a university, and in the discussion that followed a young man who spoke with a very British accent stood up and asked, in a very patronizing tone, "And from where does this 'American English' come?" I love Williams' ready answer, "From the mouths of Polish mothers!" My American English comes from the mouth of someone whose ancestors came to this country from the provinces of Lower Franconia in the middle of the nineteenth century and became farmers in the wilderness before arriving, after several generations, as part of the great American middle class! If you will, we spoke prose before we learned how to transform it into the kind of poetry I write. We have not been a bookish people, though my grandfather, Benno Krapf, loved to read Karl May in the German during the winter, when he could not operate his steam-engine sawmill.
Now as to narrative, I don't "try to include it" in my poetry, it is a deep and natural impulse in me to tell, develop, explore a story, and it just comes out when I write a poem, as I said before. There is no willed choice at work here, no strategy devised to reach readers. When I begin to write about an experience, a memory, an association triggered by something I have seen, smelled, tasted, touched, or heard, the way it usually comes out is in narrative. In one sense, narrative is a structuring device, a way of ordering material or experience. And, absolutely, yes, people love a story. The Modernist poets said the "story is dead," they fractured and fragmented the narrative, which they scoffed at, they broke it up, they tore it down, stomped on it and spat on it, and then they tried to put it back together like a Humpty-Dumpty egg, but what they were saying in effect was that people are dead! It's true that as long as people live, the story lives, the need to hear and tell story remains vitally important; the story is dead only when no people are alive!
There are many ways to tell a story. I don't believe that narrative precludes the use of metaphoric language based on association and the evocation of mood. In fact, narrative often includes the lyric and dramatic, as I see it, and metaphor and its associations and moods (feeling) can walk hand in hand as good friends of the narrative. A German reader, a professor of American poetry, Heinz Link at the University of Freiburg, once told me that I write "descriptive narrative," a term I've quoted before. That's true. Another professor of American literature, my friend Helmbrecht Breinig at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, once told me that I write "the personal narrative." That's true. But it's also true that I write an "impersonal narrative," as in the poem cycle "Lines Drawn from Dürer." There are many kinds of narrative, many ways to make a narrative do its work, its job; there are many tools available to make the narrative move forward; and narrative can be a wonderful train to ride!
So what does all this have to do with "accessibility?" A plainness of style, an openness to subject matter from everyday life and the lives of ordinary people, the kind I don't find written about enough in our literature (Robert Frost and E. A. Robinson are outstanding exceptions), and a love of telling a story are, in my view, what can make my poetry accessible to a wider audience than you find in just the halls and towers of academe. I am not saying I reach that audience beyond those halls as often or as fully as I would like, but I'm aware of it and sensitive to it. I am moved that non-academics and "general readers" read my books, come to hear me read, and sometimes write me letters or send E-mails in response to my Website or a book they have read.
Look, to sell a thousand copies of a volume of poems is quite an accomplishment in this great country of ours, a sad fact to contemplate. What is our population? Two hundred seventy-five million? Don't even tell me what percentage that is! I'm under no illusions about reaching a mass audience, the kind that Walt Whitman desperately wanted to have and reach. I don't want to think about the percentages, however; I just want to keep writing the poems as well as I can, as they come to me. Numbers won't stop me, but they also won't save my soul as poet.
H: Your work strives to obtain a continuity, a progression in life and in the generations of lives. Your focus is on the order people make of their lives, especially the ethnic background can provide a way, certainly not an easy way, but a way of seeing this order, explaining how lives can be organized. Yet, occasionally a spark of chaos, disorder appears. It seems to be on the edge of life, but is present. Quite frankly, I am also intrigued by your reference to your father's bouts of depression. Are you going to work up this theme, that is the theme of chaos and disorder more intensely at some point, or is it something you have dealt with adequately to your own satisfaction?
K: Yes, I'm conscious of the theme of my father's depression in some of my poems ("My Father Young Again" comes first to mind). In fact there is one chapter about this and at least mention of it in other chapters, particularly those dealing with the woods and squirrel hunting, in my childhood memoir-in-progress, The Ripest Moments. Five or six chapters of this memoir have appeared in print in Traces, Southern Indiana Review, Newsletter of the Indiana German Heritage Society, and Confrontation. Not long after my mother died in late 1997, while I was on sabbatical, I wrote two dozen short chapters on my childhood and young adulthood.
I have thought about writing a young adult novel on the subject of adult depression and the effect(s) of that depression on a teenage character. As you are aware, there are two poems on the subject of suicide in Somewhere in Southern Indiana, "For an Old Friend" and "To Obscure Men." As I recall, you mention this aspect of my work in your review of the book. There is a whole cycle of poems about the Holocaust in the last section of my Germany collection, Blue-Eyed Grass, a book and a subject which we have not yet discussed, but must, in this interview. In the poem "Franconian Flames" in that last section, I say that "poetry that does not enter / into the darkness and give off / heat and light is not worth reading." The subject of depression in my work must be seen in the context of the subject of darkness in general. Jason Bolte, a native of Ferdinand who has done graduate work at Ball State University, recently set to electronic music and voice "Darkness Comes to the Woods." In his prefatory remarks (I recently received the CD) he talks about the "menacing" quality of the darkness in that poem.
It occurs to me that I should perhaps also mention here a "young adult" novel I have been working on for several years, off and on. The Bells of St. Michael's is about an old German immigrant from Franconia who lives in southern Indiana, on a farm in "Wald County." He is ill, probably with Alzheimer's, his care is a problem, a bone of contention, and his defender is his granddaughter, who in the process of spending time with him becomes interested in his childhood in Germany, his trip across the Atlantic, and the German heritage in general, which she had been discouraged from exploring because World War I is still so close to the family. I don't want to give away details, especially since I'm still working on this novel, but your question about depression is relevant because the old immigrant suffers from a state related to depression. And this is a darkness that his family-his children and their families-must confront. The care of the aged is a serious problem in this country, a form of darkness that we as a people have not adequately addressed, and this darkness will haunt us until we face it and work our way through it. In my novel, the immigrant's son-in-law, the girl's father, cannot deal with this situation, this darkness, and, in effect, tries to banish it. Of course that does not work!
To put this another way: sometimes there is more or extra resistance to achieving the kind of order and continuity that you mention. Sometimes more effort is involved to overcome the disorder and move in the direction of the order and continuity and the sense of community we crave. No, I'm never satisfied that I have dealt adequately with any subject or theme or "problem." That is why writing is such a great challenge and stimulation at the same time. To write is to be involved in the process of exploring and seeking and growing and developing. To become altogether satisfied is to lose the edge that makes it necessary to write. I don't mean that I'm dissatisfied with what I have done, but I am aware that when this chaos or disorder or darkness manifests itself, the writing must cut deeper to succeed. If one is equal to the challenge, the resistance can have a positive effect, in the end.
The last section of Blue-Eyed Grass, "Stones for the Dead," the Klara Krapf poems in particular, has been cited as an example of what I am talking about. These were impossibly difficult poems to write, searingly painful, and some readers and reviewers have found them to be my best work. That material, that darkness, that chaos, that level of inhumanity, pushed me beyond myself. I would not like to write those poems again, but I am eternally grateful that I did write them. I am aware that some readers-including an academic who stood up at a conference and announced that it would have been better if I had not written these Holocaust poems, but instead had continued to write about my Indiana German roots-wish I had not written them. I knew full well that if I avoided the subject, however, I would be avoiding my responsibility, my calling, as a poet. I love the late George Harrison's "Here Comes the Sun," but one reason the song is so uplifting is that it arose out of an intense awareness of the darkness.
Are the subjects of chaos, depression, and disorder, including the large and difficult subject of the Holocaust, related in my work? I don't feel that I am the person to give the final answer to this question. I can tell you what I think about whether these subjects are related, but I don't believe that I am the person best situated or qualified to say whether in the poems I have published-rather, in the books of poems I have so far published-there is a linkage. But my personal opinion is that there is indeed a linkage between the darkness within the self and the darkness supposedly outside or beyond the self. I agree that this darkness we speak of is present in the world of a number of my poems, sometimes on the side or perhaps hovering around the edge of the world of the poems. I believe it is always present, but sometimes only by implication.
In the Klara Krapf poems in Blue-Eyed Grass, however, that darkness comes to the fore; the darkness in those poems is central. In talking about the Klara Krapf poems for a statement that was included on the dust jacket of the hardcover edition, critic, editor, and translator Martin Greenberg, who brings a poet's sensibility to the writing of criticism, says, "In quiet poems of mourning, meditation and imagined relations between his ancestral people and Klara Krapf's, he passionately embraces her, too, as part of himself and himself as part of her…" This is the kind of linkage I would see, that the darkness outside the self is really in effect a part of the self. It took many years before I could write any poems about a subject so monumental and difficult as the Holocaust, and the only way I could do it, I discovered, was by trying to relate to one individual human being. When I discovered that there was a Jewish woman named Klara Krapf from my ancestral region who died in Theresienstadt, I devoted three years to finding out what I could about her, her family, and Theresienstadt. With the help of a German friend, the journalist and historian Roland Flade, I visited, with my family, the house in the village of Wonfurt where Klara and her family had lived, the nursing home in Würzburg from which she was deported, and the concentration camp where she died. At one point, I thought she might be a blood relative. That did not prove to be the case. But there is, as I say in more than one of the poems about her, a kinship. "One thing I know: / relationships run deeper than blood."
Am I going to work up this theme of darkness more in my work? I cannot say, because I believe that our subjects choose us, we do not choose them. This is not a rational process, something that can be willed, planned, prefabricated. It is simply not that easy. In a marvelous interview with Bill Moyers in his PBS series "The Power of the Word," Poet Laureate Stanley Kunitz, a magnificent poet now in his 90s, insists that to write good poems we must allow what is deepest in our psyches to rise up into our poems. No easy process! I believe he is right. I could not will the Klara Krapf poems into existence. I had to earn the right to write them. I had to prepare myself spiritually to write about her, and you cannot follow a formula in making yourself ready spiritually, as I see it. To put it another way, a poet must grow into difficult material. Am I ready to confront more darkness, chaos, and disorder now? I don't know. If I'm not ready now, when will I be ready? All I can say is that I want to fulfill my obligations as a poet, but I cannot know or say how successful I will be. I can only try to make and keep myself ready and be prepared to do the best I can with what I have been given, both in terms of talent and subject matter.
Was it Theodore Roethke who said that to write great poems you must stand out in the lightning? And be hit?
It may instead have been James Dickey that I'm thinking of. As my friend the
poet William Heyen reminds me, Dickey said that a poet is someone lucky enough to
be hit by lightning half a dozen times in his lifetime. I do know that in
the Straw for the Fire selection of writings from his notebooks, Roethke
does say, "It is well to keep in touch with chaos." I certainly do not
believe in avoiding the darkness, but whether my poems tie together various
forms, types, and levels of darkness, chaos, and disorder is not for me to
H: One of my favorite works by you is your prose collection, the childhood memoir. Indeed, it may be my favorite altogether. Has that volume been popular? I see you’re doing another prose work of an introspective nature. What is its relationship to The Ripest Moments?
K: The Ripest Moments has received a warm response. I know of one woman in my hometown, a cousin by marriage, who bought a dozen copies, to give to people. I received a number of responses from people who insisted that I got everything right and told their story in telling mine. That was my intention, to tell the story of a community, a rather unique one, by telling the childhood story of one individual, myself. I think the reason the response has been so positive is that it’s a communal story that captures the details of a time, a place, and a people. In so doing, it also tells the story of other people in other places. Ironically, though it is a prose book, it has not sold as well as Bloodroot: Indiana Poems, which also came out in 2008, less than half a year later. That may have to do with distribution and promotion. It would have been better to have more time between the release of the two books, so that I could promote the memoir more, give it more attention, but I soon found that I could easily read from both books at the same reading, because the two are so interconnected. I love doing that, moving back and forth between prose and poetry. Readers can find an effective documentation of people’s affection for the memoir in the Reader Response section of my Web site. It was gratifying that both the prose memoir and the large retrospective poetry collection were finalists, in different categories, for the Best Book of Indiana 2009. I was told this was the first time an author has been a finalist in two categories in one year.
Yes, I’m working now on another prose book tentatively titled, Going Home: Finding the Way Back. These are essays written over the years, but a third of them are recent. They are of a piece in that they tell my story of becoming a poet after moving to the New York area, finding my voice, discovering my Midwestern German subject matter and style, tracing family history and exploring German history and heritage, connecting with Long Island history and culture, and moving back to Indiana, to the Heimat, as Germans love to call the place where they are deeply connected. Chronologically, it is a sequel to The Ripest Moments, but it is more introspective, as you say, more individual, more of a poet’s book. I consciously avoided writing a Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man kind of memoir, a writer or poet’s book, in The Ripest Moments because in my childhood and adolescence I had no sense that I would become a poet. Yet the memoir documents my origins, my earliest years, the world and place out of which so many of my poems come. As you know, I am a poet of origins, of recovering origins.
H: You have been remarkably prolific since your return to the Hoosier soil. You mentioned in a talk you gave to the Indiana German Heritage Society that your muse was fired up by the Mid-Western environment. You have been with some exceptions very much appreciated by the Hoosier audience. Yet, you did choose an urban vs. small town locus here. How do your Eastern years where you made your career now play out in your work?
K: I don’t see any contradiction in moving from Long Island to Indianapolis. Yes, we decided to move back to the Midwest, but the Midwest is urban as well as rural. I grew up in a small town, but I lived in a great metropolis, I’ve lived in the country, I’ve lived in the suburbs, and I’ve lived in a medieval town in England and cities in Germany. It’s true that we did not move back to my hometown, where I haven’t lived since 1961, but we are close enough to get there often and are in touch with many relatives and friends there. Having enjoyed the countless cultural amenities of metropolitan New York and seen through repeated visits the renewal and rebirth of downtown Indianapolis, we saw how attractive living here could be. But to us, after the New York experience, Indianapolis is delightfully small town as well as urban. That’s an appealing combination. There is a great music tradition here as well as quite a good literary tradition. Fine museums, good restaurants, theatre, concerts, more than we could have in my beloved Jasper, where I grew up. But this is no rejection of Jasper or Midwestern small towns. Is it any wonder I love the poetry of Walt Whitman and keep writing so many poems about him? He embraces it all, the city, the country, the natural world, the world of human beings. What a model, even though it would be foolhardy to try to write like him and emulate his voice.
It’s too early to say how my Eastern years play out in my writing. I have some strong Long Island poems that I want to work into a collection, as well as some poems set in Germany, but I have to find the right context for them. I would say this, my Eastern experience, which I carried back here, continues to influence how I see the Midwest. Ironically, living on the East Coast helped me appreciate the Midwest that I left behind and decades later returned to. Maybe the Eastern years play out in my current perspective, the point of view that I now bring to my Indiana material.
H: The relationship of poetry and music is always close and you have been combining spoken word with music. Does the music affect your writing consciously? Have you had any of your poems put to music? Does that idea appeal to you?
K: I’ve always been conscious of the music of the poetry, the music the words make in my poems, but music affects my poetry all the time, more and more as I work with musicians like jazz pianist and composer Monika Herzig, folksinger-songwriters like Greg Ziesemer and his wife Kriss Luckett-Ziesemer, and bluesman Gordon Bonham, with whom I’ve started to collaborate through Tim Grimm’s Hoosier Dylan show. I played trombone for ten years starting at about the age of six, played violin for a year and a half in my forties when our two children participated in a Suzuki violin program at Long Island University, and have been taking guitar lessons for the past nineteen months or so, largely so that I can work better with musicians by speaking their language, but also to learn more about song structure so that I can write song lyrics. I’ve always been influenced by song and songwriters and have never understood why the academy and poetry critics separate poetry and song so rigidly and are so uptight about allowing them to cohabitate in the same room.
In the late sixties into the early seventies, I listened for four years mostly to rural blues before I started to write poetry after the move to New York. The Mississippi Delta blues singer Robert Johnson had a major influence on the kind of poem I write, clear, concrete, simple language on the surface that takes the reader or listener below the surface of everyday reality to something deeper and says many things at the same time, but in a natural way. His richly metaphorical “Come on in My Kitchen” continues to resonate for me. Son House, a kind of mentor to RJ, Lighting Hopkins, Mississippi Fred MacDowell, Sonnie Terry and Brownie McGee, and other blues masters had a big impact on me and this influence will be clearer in the poems I publish in the future. I’m actually writing poems in the blues rhymed format these days. Blind Willie McTell and Charlie Patton became important to me later through the influence of Bob Dylan, who is a model of an artist who combines poetry and music and breathes new life into traditional song just as he derives inspiration and nourishment from that tradition. Interestingly, the words usually come to him first and then he finds music for them. I have surprised audiences sometimes by telling them that I learned as much about writing poetry from the blues masters as I have from Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. I learn from them all! And I love classical music and learn from it. Ted Gioia’s well researched and eloquent The Delta Blues was an enjoyable and informative recent read.
My poem “Darkness Comes to the Woods” was set to electronic music by a native of Ferdinand, in Dubois County, Jason Bolte, but no others. I’m all for having my poems set to music. In fact, I love the idea. A few musicians have enquired about possibilities, but so far nothing else has come of this. Maybe that will change. If I had stayed with playing a musical instrument longer or had started the guitar sooner, maybe I would have set some poems to music myself. Since moving to Indianapolis, I have had opportunities to work with excellent musicians. Nothing like that ever happened in our thirty-four years of living in the New York area, which everyone talks about as being so culturally sophisticated. Good things can happen anywhere, and sometimes more easily in a place like Indianapolis, where there is less fierce competition and the perceived need to cover one’s backside. Here it’s easier to get together with people, there is more openness and willingness to work together, to collaborate. As you know, I’ve made collaboration a hallmark of my laureateship and have made it one of my missions to reunite poetry and music, which have indeed always been one. Except in some academic minds.
H: I recently saw, for the first time actually, some negative reviews of your presentations. How do you view or utilize reviews, positive and negative?
K: A soon as I was given the title of Indiana Poet Laureate, I knew there would be pot shots. How I take reviews and criticism depends on the kind of criticism made, what is said, how it is said, and what sort of agenda manifests itself. Is it constructive and helpful, or is it an angry rant masquerading as legitimate criticism? Does it spring from jealousy, insecurity, perhaps an unease with poetry, or an informed and balanced understanding of the art. Does the critic ever attend poetry readings and review poetry books? Is the critic well read and informed on the subject of poetry? Talk about it naturally, convincingly, or grasp for the most insulting term to do the maximum damage? Of course it’s necessary to listen to what people say about what you’re doing and how you might do it better. If you close your eyes and ears, you set yourself up for stasis, for staying in the same place, for never moving forward and growing, but if you listen to the wrong kind of criticism, take it seriously, you can become paralyzed. This is in effect the same question as, How do you take criticism offered in a workshop? If you trust the source and realize the criticism can help make you become a better poet or performer—serve the poem better by how you present it—it would be foolish not to utilize it in a constructive way.
I believe I know where this question came from, a review of a larger show I was but a small part of. Yet the completely negative paragraph about my participation was more than twice as long as any other paragraph in the whole piece (no other performer got a whole paragraph), even though there were seven or eight other performers, singers, who were on stage much longer than I was. Is this in proportion? What kind of agenda would motivate such excess? What was said? Almost every sentence was calculated to undercut, to belittle, yet there was not one specific piece of evidence cited from any poem. Is that good criticism? What does it spring from? This strikes me as an East Coast impulse to attack, to prove oneself superior to “Midwestern mediocrity,” a point of view I have heard expressed before as a generalization in the same patronizing tone and dismissive voice. Certainly I listen to others, always request feedback from the musicians I work with, and consider their responses. The producer of the show thought I did “great work,” my guitarist collaborator on two of the poems expressed the same opinion, uninvited, as did another revered singer who was quite outspoken in talking about the advance my presentation that night represented. Can a poem written in the intricate, interlocking terza rima that Dante used in “The Inferno” be intelligently and justly described as teen “ramblings”? I make a habit of watching video of my spoken word performances whenever possible, and in this case I learned more from watching the video than I did from the review. Watching that video helped me adjust and improve my performance in the next show. Someone who read the review independent of me but knows my work observed, “This review tells me nothing of Norbert but everything about the person who wrote it.” A well respected commentator on the arts said of the protracted paragraph, “Damn, that’s harsh. For no good reason.”
By the same token, a
review or response that is nothing but gooey praise does not help one grow
better. Positive feedback from individuals whose judgment you trust and respect
can encourage you to continue in what you’re doing and even try something new.
In the end, though, you must decide what criticism is valid and helpful, weigh
everything in balance, and decide yourself what is best for your art. As Basho,
one of my favorites, said, “The journey is home.” Good criticism (not always
positive) stays in the ear, settles within, and can contribute to progress, but
bad or irrelevant criticism soon drops and rolls to the side of the road as we
To be continued.
© 1999, 2010 Norbert Krapf