Tips Picked Up at a Poetry Reading

ocean

I fought Boston traffic (without even broaching the city limits) to reach Salem for a reason. I wanted to learn. Learn by listening to a poetry reading. And learn I did.

In Ocean Vuoung, Sandra Beasley, and Martha Collins, I got three distinct readers and styles for the price of one. This at the 8th annual Massachusetts Poetry Festival. Here’s what I picked up:

Listeners:

  • Sit in front if you can. As you know from the movies, human heads can be distracting as all get-out.
  • Don’t sit too far to either side unless you want a neck ache.
  • Put your program on the floor, lest it noisily slip off your lap mid-reading as mine did (oops).

Speakers:

  • Ask your introducing host to remind audience members about putting away their binkies (read: cellphones). As in off. In their pockets and out of sight. For the entire reading. (Remember: You’re the good cop. You just get up and read.)
  • Thank everybody, just like the Academy Awards. And don’t forget your fellow speakers (if you have any). You are not worthy (even if you are).
  • Beware oversensitive mics that pick up every dry-mouth lip lick and mouth sound.
  • Speak slowly. This is not the Indy 500. Poetry and checkered flags are a bad mix.
  • Dress relaxed. Feel relaxed. Look relaxed. (And if at all possible, be relaxed.)
  • It’s OK to draw out words a bit in the name of enunciation. Just don’t overdo it. That’s not drawing out in the name of enunciation. That’s drawing out in the name of the rack, a Medieval torture device.
  • Be yourself, even if no one knows who you are. Like dogs sensing fear, listeners sense naturalness (or lack thereof).
  • Keep the context for each poem brief and to the point. Make it interesting.
  • Good humor is always welcome. (Plus the sound of ice cream truck bells sends listeners back.)
  • Don’t be overly dramatic with your gestures, your mouth, your bulging eyes. If listeners start to focus more on your body than your body of work, you’re as cooked as the Cratchit family’s goose.
  • Be sure listeners know when your poem is finished. Without some signal (voice, head bow, looking up while slightly closing book), some endings can be awkward in an “Is That All There Is?” kind of way. Like Wiley Coyote, they just fall off a cliff.
  • Look at the audience now and again. And, hey. There are people to the right and to the left (just like the Do-Nothing Congress), too.

Listeners:

  • Buy a book. Get it signed. Say something nice to the poet. This is a small tribe we live in. We need each other’s support.

Going to a Poetry Reading in the Witch City

mass poetry

OK, I’ll admit it. Not only have I never been to a poetry reading, I have never even considered it. The very idea of it is rife with clichés, for one thing. You know, some hippie-type who forgot time wearing an Existentialist, black turtleneck and beret while muttering navel-gazing notions into a malfunctioning mic.

Whoo-we! Sounds like fun!

Seriously, though, I wondered about the listening challenges as an audience member, too. I like to read as I hear, and poetry readings are one-trick ponies where you listen and make do with only one of your senses. No following the bouncing ball. No sing-along-with-Mitch screen behind the poet, showing each line as it comes up. Just me and my two ears. On our own like grown-up eustacian tubes.

But I’m told that I will have to do readings myself now. Me. A guy who speaks for a living but is afraid of speaking before groups.

Impossible, you say? Hardly. I know plenty of experienced teachers like myself who have no problem performing for students (on an Academy-Award-winning scale, too) but pale at the very thought of addressing a group of adults. (Perhaps it would help, then, to consider any group of adults as overgrown children?)

In any event, with my wife by my side, I will be attending the Massachusetts Poetry Festival in Salem tonight where I will hear not one, not two, but THREE poets read. They are Jennifer Beasley, Martha Collins, and Ocean Vuong. Three styles, three approaches, three mentors. Surely I will gain SOMEthing from the experience. I even own Vuong’s latest book, Night Sky with Exit Wounds (meaning I can get it signed either before or after the reading). No doubt I will also have an opportunity to buy Beasley’s or Collins’ work.

With this initiation, the thinking is, I will be able to go boldly where many poets (especially the hams) have gone before: to a reading where I will have to be the sage on stage reading poems from my own book.

But first things first–attending this first.

Ekphrastic Poetry (of a Sort)

november

“Ekphrasis” is a Greek word meaning “description.” In poetry, it conjures a poem describing a painting or sculpture. Using the adjective form, we get “ekphrastic poetry,” and although I have not written about a painting or a sculpture, I have written about a photograph.

Is this “ekphrastic poetry”? Durned if I know. I suppose strict interpretation sorts will say, “Sorry, but no,” but strict interpretation sorts aren’t allowed on my lawn, so I’ll take credit for one ekphrastic poem even though it’s shy about announcing itself as such.

It is “Provide, Provide” (thank you, Robert Frost), and what I love about the photograph (besides its inspirational value) is its symbolism. It shows an old Maine farmhouse in November. The perimeter of the concrete foundations are skirted with rectangular bales of hay. Nearby is a wood shed filled neatly with cut wood. Photograph or no, you can almost smell the scent of the wood, the shavings, the cold November air.

And the old man who has authored it? Been doing it all his life. Taught by his father, no doubt. All business. Old New England. Taciturn, but seemingly saying, “Bring it on, Old Man Winter!” (And Old Man Winter never disappoints.)

Here’s what became of the photograph when it took on an alter ego in words:

Provide, Provide

Clem buttresses that old house
with bales of hay against the foundation,
rivets metal roofing over buckled
tar paper, and feeds his splitter, revealing
the striated blond bellies of halved maple
logs and spewing the fine dust of sweet
wood into his khaki-confettied hair.
As if he sat at Job’s knee as a child,
that old man stacks his wood into a cord,
builds a square meal for his winter stove,
and doesn’t glance up once at the leaden
bottoms of November’s indifferent clouds.

— Ken Craft, The Indifferent World (Future Cycle Press, 2016)

Like Frost, I’m a fan of the fall. Summer heat and humidity are OK in small doses, but the cool-to-damned-cold autumn? I never tire of it. Stark realism, thank you. The world without pretensions or make-up (I’m talking after the leaf show, folks). A season custom designed for the Protestant work ethic if ever there was one. No room for old slackers.

And then there is Clem and his splitter. The wonderful look and texture of cut wood. The stacking into a new design (order as beauty). The concomitant feeling of satisfaction and fatigue.

Oh, yes. And the ant ascendant. Grasshoppers and their cellphones are long vanquished from the scene.

Providence (sans Rhode Island) at its best!

 

Playing Favorites with Your Own Poems

weathercock

As any parent knows, you don’t play favorites among your kids. You can HAVE a favorite, of course, but you take that scandalous secret to your grave. If you have a toothpick of common sense, that is.

For your children, circumspection is clearly called for, but what about your poems? Publish a book and people will inevitably ask, “So, which one is your favorite poem in the entire collection?” Sharing this knowledge will lead people to flip to that page and read that poem, so you hedge. What if they don’t like what you have crowned “the best” and think it’s so-so? They will assume the rest of the book is so much poetically-licensed garbage (see Jersey Turnpike, Exit 157), that’s what.

OK. Maybe I exaggerate. Slightly. In fact, although I’d rather know what my readers’ favorite poems are (which I don’t ask because it presumes they’ve read the book cover-to-cover–a healthy presumption), I will admit here that I do have favorites (plural, thank you). Having more than one is safer (the old “safety in numbers” adage). One of them is the second poem in the collection, “Barnstorming the Universe,” which first appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of Off the Coast, that estimable poetry journal from Maine.

Why do I like this poem so much? It’s playful. And it harbors a story (but then, most poems do, kind of like the “surprise inside” you expect from a box of Cracker Jacks). Here’s the poem. Ostensibly it’s about an old leaning barn in Maine. Ostensibly.

 

“Barnstorming the Universe”

The big barn must have landed
overnight, the jolt of its descent
crippling one side so the whole
structure leans south. The white
paint, curly from reentry, looks
foolish as a washed cat.
The roof, too, shows evidence
of atmospheric stress, the mottled
landscape of its green top—tar
paper from missing shingles
probably scattered from Pittsburgh
to Poughkeepsie—having the look
of some moody old bass lurking
in the shallows, scales flaked and
grated at the speed of light.
Incredibly, atop the cupola, a rusted
and outraged weathercock still claws
the ridge. His wattle and comb hang
sideways, one eye searching for
intergalactic beetles, black-backed
fugitives from Andromeda or the
Crab Nebula. A sliding door is ajar,
exhaling the stench of stardust,
of Saturnine ring particulate, of dead
Martians matted on rotted hay.
In the side window, a single shard
of glass clings to the sash. If only
the barn could speak of the yawning
silences, of the teeming nothingness
that peered inside as it hurtled
its way home to this Maine field.

–Ken Craft, The Indifferent World (Future Cycle Press, 2016)

 

In the summer, I run 5-8 miles most every morning, and when I do, I pass this barn on the top of Mayberry Hill. It is, in fact, nowhere near as bad as this poem says it is, but the roof! The roof was the image that inspired this poem. Some shingles are there and others are missing, giving it a mottled green and black look and reminding me of the scales on an old fish that has been through the wars. Atop that roof is a tilting weathercock which no longer abides by orders, the wind’s or God’s.

From those two visuals, I imagined a leaning, disheveled barn that landed overnight in the middle of a Maine field–a barn that had witnessed things that NASA’s astronauts had not even seen.

Barns with a history like that belong on the endangered structures list. I don’t care what condition they’re in. Thus we get the shingles “scattered from Pittsburgh/to Poughkeepsie,” the “rusted/and outraged weathercock” clawing the ridge, and–my favorite–the “stench of stardust,/of Saturnine ring particulate, of dead/Martians matted on rotted hay.”

If you’ve ever wondered how runners pass the time as they jog along country roads, wonder no more! Their bodies may be on automatic pilot, but their minds? God only knows. Some planet the Starship Enterprise sailed past, maybe. All the poet has to do is make his entry in the Captain’s log when he gets home and downs his chocolate milk. Sometimes that leads to favorite poems, even.

Just don’t tell anyone. Because it’s only one of them. Honest.

The Eagle Has Landed!

ken with book

“One small step for the world; one giant leap for indifferent kinds.”

After traveling the highways and byways, Amish country and Shaker country, the past and the present, my shipload of The Indifferent World has finally landed. Here’s a picture of Dad with baby in hands.

Already established authors are vaguely amused by the fact that I am shushing them as they walk past the resting box of books. This is a first child, after all, bound (in colorful paper) to be spoiled and entitled over the course of time.

Whatever. As Shakespeare once wrote: “Alas, poor Yorick, you only live once. Hey nonny nonny and damn auto-correct anyway.”

I hope to place all of these in good homes over time. If that means donning a black beret and stepping behind a mic (or is it “mike”), so be it.

Who Gets to Determine a Poem’s Meaning?

deer

In a 2005 press release upon the death of one of their own former professors, Louise Rosenblatt, New York University published an obituary that included these words about Rosenblatt’s pioneering work on reading theory:

“While teaching literature to college students, [Rosenblatt] developed an approach that broke with the dominant academic model (the New Criticism), which elevated ‘the text,’ declaring it accessible only to those trained in unlocking its code. By contrast, Rosenblatt stressed that every act of reading involved a ‘transaction’ of reader and text in which both were essential. In her view, any text–Toni Morrison’s Beloved, a car owner’s manual, a poem–was lifeless without a reader who is active: active readers create multiple readings of the same text; no reading is uniquely ‘correct.’ At the same time, Rosenblatt argued against the purely personal and subjective approaches more popular in recent years. She noted that some readings were more defensible than others and worked for a community of readers who sought to refine their reading and test their responses against the text. Rosenblatt maintained that this approach–respectful of the individual’s response while dedicated to serious communication and debate–is essential to fostering citizens equipped for democratic life.”

The lead-off batter in my new book, a poem called “Trigger,” could be the poster boy for Rosenblatt’s transactional theory. The 18-line work, first published in Gray’s Sporting Journal in the fall of 2014, is split into two stanzas, the first focused on the speaker, a hunter, and the second on the white-tail deer that is his quarry.

Before I comment on the poem and the assumptions that weigh it (and any poem) down, read it yourself and draw your own conclusions:

Trigger 

This is where I held
my breath—
a stand of red pine,
needles and snowdust
scribed about my boot,
cold crescent
resisting a swollen
finger itchy-numb
with November.

This is where a buck
held its breath—
mouth mid-meal
amid the mast,
a single line
of berry drool
spiking the fur
of his white and
wild-cherried chin.

Ken Craft, The Indifferent World (Future Cycle Press, 2016)

Seems rather straightforward, no? Most readers would interpret this to be the moment before a hunter pulls the trigger on the deer he has in his sights. And that is a legitimate interpretation, perhaps even the most sensible one.

In truth, however, casting myself as the hunter (I hunted with my father, brother, and family friends when I was a young man), it reads differently. It works instead as a poem about the moment before a hunter decides not to pull the trigger.

Note, for instance, the word “resisting” in L7 of the first stanza. A trigger does not resist without an accomplice, namely the man holding his finger to it. Note also the anthropomorphic portrayal of the buck. It “held its breath–/mouth mid-meal/amid the mast.”

Would a buck, even alerted to danger (and he seems too preoccupied with dinner for that), really hold its breath?

I propose, then, that the poem can work either way, as a frozen moment in time before action or inaction. As the writer-reader, I hold with the latter, but realize that I do not get the last say, given that all poems are subject to a fair negotiation between their readers and writers.

Still, there’s the problem of assumptions. When the poem was first published, a few readers–people I knew, mind you–questioned how I could write about such a cruel act. Why kill such a beautiful creature? they asked (as if words in a poem could serve as hunters themselves).

Let’s play along with that line of thinking, then: Even if these readers’ interpretations are correct, are we to assume that said speaker/hunter did not treat the animal with the same dignity as, say, Native American Indians, who would honor it before cleaning it and using every part of its body for the good of family and tribe? Who can read that deeply into a poem and know that much about the speaker’s character and intentions?

Suddenly, I’m led to conclude, a poem becomes as much a reflection on the reader and his/her background, prejudices, and fairness as a reflection of a poet whose actual intentions remain cryptic.

That said, say and write what I will, my poem about not shooting a deer will remain, for most readers, a poem about a hunter preparing to shoot one. Some will shrug it off as the first of many examples of the world’s indifference, little different from hyenas pack-hunting a gazelle. Others will outright wonder why such topics rate a poem.

Me? In my mind, it’s a simple moment of truth, one where seeing a deer as a personality leads to its salvation–justified or not.

In that case, the poem ends but the deer does not.

_______________________________________________________________

Ken Craft’s new collection of poetry, The Indifferent World (Future Cycle Press 2016) is available at futurecycle.org or by requesting one from me here at kencraftpoetry.org.

 

 

Reading Your Book Like Mom Would

50s family

Is publishing poetry with references to family hazardous to your health? In a weak moment, I decided to test the theory by reading the proof of my poetry collection (I still remain bookless–where’s Dan-O when you need him?) with my mom’s possible reactions in mind.

Bad, meet move!

Like most of us, I know my mother all too well. Of course I hope she responds to the book positively, but reading from her vantage point changed everything. I noticed stuff I never noticed before, using her eyes, and I can already hear her reaction: “Oh, Kenny!” (for only Mom still calls me “Kenny”). “Why are all these poems about death?”

“Uh, they are? Not all. Just some,” I might argue. But mothers get to define “some” in their own ways.

“Some?” she’ll ask with the patented incredulous look. “Where’s my cheerful little boy?”

“Ma, death is one of literature’s great muses. Don’t you ever wonder where you’re going to go? It’s the stuff of so many myths in so many cultures!”

“Have you been skipping Mass again?”

“Think of Orpheus. Persephone. All those trip to Hades to figure out what happens. And what about the Divine Comedy? Nine circle of Hell, Ma. Nine!”

“That would be Irene’s book group get-togethers, but I don’t see…”

“Don’t you realize that guys like Homer and Faulkner and Joyce wrote about it? It even came for the archbishop in that Willa Cather novel!”

“Willa who?”

Death Comes for the Archbishop, Ma.”

She’ll grimace, I know. “That’s fine and for the church to settle, but we don’t have time for death, and I told my friends about this book because I was so proud. Now what are they going to think? They’re going to think, ‘What a depressing boy she raised!’ Where’s your sense of humor. Can’t you write something cheerful? A poem about jelly beans or something.”

“There are cheerful poems in there, Ma. Honest. And I don’t write for the Easter bunny. Here. Let me show you some pages with upbeat poems.”

“It’s OK, dear. I browsed through already.”

“What? You didn’t read them all?”

“Most all,” she’ll say. Mothers get to define “most” and “all” too, you see.

And so it goes. And so I am amazed. Deep analysis sometimes reveals new layers of poetry, but who knew reading with the eyes of a mother does, too? And how did the New Critics miss this?

Weekend Update: I have no clue how my alleged books are arriving: United Parcel? Fed Ex? Good ole United States Postal Service? The latter was the last hope of the weekend, however, as the noonish mailman has come and gone leaving only bills and other clichés in the box.

So there’s a downside to weekends after all. Maybe Monday? Stay tuned!

Tracking My Book Frontiersman-Like

davy crockett

Today I bumped into an excited colleague. “Hey, I got your book yesterday. So exciting! I’m just bummed I forgot to bring it in for you to sign!”

“My book? You held a copy of my book? In your hands?”

Her smile shifted a little. “Ye-e-es,” she said slowly. “You know: The Indifferent World? Some 80 poems or so?”

I had to shake my head to clear it. “Uh, no. Not to worry. It’s just… I haven’t seen my book. Er. Other than pretty online pictures, I mean.”

“What? How?” She reached out and touched my sleeve. My sleeve appreciated it.

“You see, my wife got carried away and ordered a gross of the things. Maybe she thinks our families are bigger than they are. Maybe she thinks we’re Mormon or good Catholics or something. So I’m afraid the size of this delivery is slowing it down. You know how delivery services are allergic to bulk.”

She laughed. “Ah, well, maybe this weekend.” The bell rang. Kids streamed into the hallway. “Gotta go!” she said. “Maybe I’ll read a few this weekend!”

So cool and casual. So happy. So has-my-book-harbored-in-her-house-and-shows-it.

I decided then and there. I’m going Natty Bumppo. Or Dan’l Boone, maybe. I put on my coonskin hat (wait… Davy Crockett, is it?) and decided to track this baby down, frontiersman-like. It’s unfair, after all, that people are holding my book before I get to. It’s like having a baby, seeing it whisked away, then hearing stories of nurses passing it around to coo at. Surely this is against the Geneva Convention or something! The Articles of Confederation? How about the Federalist Papers? I was against them when I was in school.

I got to work: On the computer, I saw that my book delivery had cleared Amish Country. As you’ll recall from yesterday, it was last seen there with a big GODOT stamp on it. Some twisted Amish-type thought it’d be funny to give it the horse and buggy treatment or something.

But now it was in Knickerbocker, NY. That’s one state away from Massachusetts! I had half a mind to drive the Mass Pike myself, Boston to Stockbridge (a reverse James Taylor). But no… deep breaths…stay calm. I already know what’s in this book. Every blessed poem. So what’s the big deal? What’s the rush?

Bottom line: I’m distracting myself. And as UPS hasn’t swung by yet, wondering maybe if Big Brown will put me out of my misery. This is Friday, after all! Genesis of the weekend! Give me reason to celebrate, people! Stop being so… INDIFFERENT!

(Stay tuned.)

 

 

Waiting for Godot

amish

The first days of being a published author have been, as you might expect, strange and wonderful yet mundane. Strangest has been my decision to share news about the book before I even had it in my hands. Many ordered it ipso fasto and, thanks to the Amazonian Gods, got it, too.

This creates the unusual situation where readers have a physical copy of the book before author does. Mine? They’re en route. Wending their way through Amish country, maybe. Stopping to smell the roses (poems do that, damn them). So I’m waiting. Waiting for a box stamped Godot.

The wonderful part? How kind and generous people have been with their congratulations and offers to read the book. Which is more than a little nerve racking. Yes, many poems are autobiographical and thus personal. But many others are designed to be read through the medium of a “speaker”–even a fictional first-person speaker sometimes. So it will be interesting to see what people think.

One friend said she really didn’t “get” poetry. I said welcome to the club. I don’t “get” all the poems I read, either. And one thing I’ve learned from my students over the years is that sometimes readers “get” things that writers never intend, which is great! Once I wrote a poem for a lesson in class and kids dug up symbolism I never even planted. Still, I enjoyed the harvest. It’s what I love best about poetry.

So, yes. Everyday life goes on. The “woke up, got out of bed, dragged a comb across my head…” thing. But it’s both the same and not the same. Same me, just more trips to the mailbox….

“April Is the Coolest Month.”

Front CoverT.S. Eliot? No. Me, actually.

Just in time for National Poetry Month, the publication date for my first collection of poems, The Indifferent World, has arrived. Expect reviews in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe (who will try to claim me as “their own”) soon. Just don’t get too curious about the definition of “soon.”

Here’s a link to my publisher, Future Cycle Press, for details: The Indifferent World. And in truth, it’s still in the abstract for me. The actual book is still not in my hands. But soon (that word again!).

While writing this book, I came across some interesting thoughts on the word “indifferent.” For most of us, it has a decidedly negative connotation. This is how Pope Francis uses it, for instance, when he laments human indifference to our fellow humans’ suffering.

But Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, saw it differently. To him indifference could be a positive. It could be a type of acceptance to whatever life deals us. A calmness in the face of life’s well-known track record for randomness. That, my friends, is a tougher breed of indifference, almost reminiscent of the Stoics.

In this book, I’m not as deep as these two theological giants. I simply look at it as the world’s shrug. It goes on. Its indifference is not so much malicious or intentional as natural. “Nothing personal,” it seems to be saying. “I’m just spinning along like I did before you and will after you.” And that’s reflected in many ways in these poems–a fun project all around!

If you are interested in a signed copy directly from me, that can be done. Simply click ABOUT and email me for details! In the mean time, I’ll be enjoying the coolness of my 15 seconds (or whatever it is that Andy Warhol allotted me way back when)…