An Interview with Michael Earl Craig
Here are some things to know about Michael Earl Craig: he has an MFA from the University of Massachusetts; before that, he went to the University of Montana; and now he is a Certified Journeyman Farrier, which means he shoes horses for a living, and he is good at it. He is the author of two previous poetry collections -- Can You Relax in My House (Fence Books, 2002) and Yes, Master (Fence Books, 2006). His new book is called Thin Kimono (Wave, 2010), and in it he writes, "the poems were written for me, or for readers who were exactly the same person I was. I said I couldn’t imagine any other person. I said I could see how that probably sounded disingenuous, or solipsistic, or both. And just then a small dinner roll fell from the table, rolled across the living room steadily, not slowing at all, or wobbling. It rolled across the room and passed through the doorway into the bedroom and the door slammed shut behind it." He is easily one of my favorite poets. This interview was conducted over the course of one month in 2010, via email.
Earl, thank you for agreeing to do this. I want to start with something I've been curious about for a long time: in your book Yes, Master, there is a diagram attributed to Wallace Stevens that details the unsuccessful pursuit of a goat. Is this diagram real? Where did you find it?
The diagram is from the “Journals and Letters” section of The Collected Poetry and Prose of Wallace Stevens (Library of America). The date is September 3, 1903. Stevens would have been 24 years old. These early letters are fascinating. Stevens the goat hunter.
That's funny ... I actually have that Library of America edition. I’m looking at that journal entry now. This is a really good sentence: "Further up along the trail I shot a partridge, & near the first trap, beyond the dead-fall, pumped a bullet into a porcupine's belly (stupid beast)."
Are you a person who is interested in the letters/journals/collected prose of authors? Have you read a lot of this type of literature? Can you remember anything else funny/interesting that you have come across in letters/journals/collected prose?
I guess I don’t read a lot of letters, but I have read some of Bishop’s One Art, and I remember finding some great and funny comments/observations in there. I also have Letters of Wallace Stevens, which is huge and daunting but fun to poke around in. And a book of drawings and letters of Bruno Schulz. My favorite letters are the ones where the poet/painter/artist/whatever has dropped their stance of poet/painter/artist/whatever. I’ll have to find it, but there is a Bishop letter about the maid, or about some china or silverware or something, that I loved.
OK, I think I should mention the new book now. Thin Kimono. First, I want to say that I thoroughly enjoyed it, am still enjoying it, and don't really foresee a time when I won't enjoy it. Having been a big fan of your previous books -- Can You Relax In My House and Yes, Master -- Thin Kimono strikes me as different in that you seem to explore linear narrative in this book more than you did in your previous books. My favorite example of this is "Night Visit":
I'm awakened at 3 a.m. to the sound of an owl.
It takes me a minute to find my glasses.
I press my face to the window.
A silver flash crosses the yard.
It settles into an owl shape on a nearby post.
My nose and eyes are stinging.
A stinging behind my face.
Like some kind of problem behind a billboard.
Why would a man look at an owl and start to cry?
My body is trying to reject something.
I have no idea what that is.
The owl is sitting in the moonlight.
The yard is completely still.
I don't want to call this "prose poetry" because I am hesitant to categorize/classify things, and, to me, what you're doing here doesn't really feel like what is normally referred to as "prose poetry." The way I see it, it's Michael Earl Craig poetry with less non-sequitur. The funny thing is, though, when I initially read through the book, based on your previous books, I was expecting non-sequitur. So when I read poems like "Night Visit" or "He Quickly Told His Life Story" or "The Sorensen Effect" for the first time, these poems felt totally surprising in their rejection of non-sequitur and the poem's ending often left me with a serene sense of amazement and an overwhelming feeling of calm. My question, then, is: were there specific influences that led you to this more narrative/linear style of poetry? Did it just "feel right" for the book/in general? At the risk of asking you to "explain" your poetry, do you think you could talk about the decision to write poems in this style?
I remember sitting in workshops as an undergraduate in Missoula listening to people debate about lyric vs. narrative (“narrative” was often frowned upon, as I remember), and I remember the word “prosy” being used, which was also a little slap in the face. And prose poems were tough for some people too, which was funny because they’d all happily swallowed the free verse pill. Anyway...
The “free verse pill,” Pfizer should work on that.
When people (say a cousin, or the manager of a kennel) ask what a poem is, I tell them to think of it as a little story, or a picture, or a mood even, delivered in a small space. That’s it. Little nuggets of information.
I can’t think of any specific influences that led me to these above-mentioned poems (“Night Visit,” “He Quickly Told His Life Story,” “The Sorensen Effect”). I think of influences as an accumulation of all reading I’ve done over the years, and films I’ve watched, etc., but I can’t point to anything specific. And no, I can’t say it just “felt right,” either -- there was no feeling I remember having, no “decision” made to do this, to go in this direction.
I know that after writing a poem like “The Sorensen Effect” it’s like I just intuitively want to do something different. I seldom turn around and write a second one like that. A longer, more narrative poem is almost always followed by something else, something that feels totally different, but I don’t really stop to think about it, it just happens. I like to think of a book of poems as a terrain that the reader will be navigating, and I want that terrain to be varied. As a driver you don’t want to have to be in four-wheel drive all day long, busting through mud holes, and yet you don’t want to be out on the freeway all day long either, with the cruise control on, maybe listening to Barbra Streisand. I want the terrain to change, and to offer the reader various footholds, places to breathe. At least that’s the kind of book I would want to read.
I think the idea of a book as terrain to be navigated is a really apt metaphor for the way this book works. To me, Thin Kimono seems, in many ways, like your most "book-like" book. By that I mean the book feels like it's meant to be taken as a whole and it reveals itself as such. There is the recurring acupuncturist. There are recurring scenes/settings/animals. It feels like death is looming in many of the poems. Do you think you could talk about how the book came together? Were all of these poems written independent of each other and combined after the fact or were poems written with other poems in mind? Or was it some combination of those two?
The poems were all written independent of each other. The acupuncturist poems were written after three separate acupuncture visits, and in the order in which they appear in the book.
Side note: After my first visit to the acupuncturist I came home, sat at the kitchen table, and wrote “The Bad Clown” very quickly, just about exactly as it appears in the book. This normally is not how things go for me. The other two acupuncture poems went very similarly. I don’t know why this was the case. The actual acupuncture visits I had were nothing like those that surfaced in the poems. Well, I might have been golden brown at one point.
But back to the question … no, I did not think of this as a book while I was writing the poems. I just wrote poems, dumped them into a file, and waited. Later I started to see some recurring motifs but they were not something I was conscious of while writing the poems.
Do you think you could talk about your writing habits a little bit? Do you always write at the kitchen table? Do you always write after visiting the acupuncturist? Do you think acupuncture is good for writing? Would you recommend it to MFA students?
No I don’t always write at the kitchen table. I write wherever it’s warm (or cool) and the light is good. Sometimes at my desk, sometimes at the kitchen table, sometimes out on the back porch.
I used to write everything on my typewriter (manual Underwood). After a while I’d move the poems onto the computer -- we got our first computer in 2005. Last fall, though, I wrote 4 of the short poems from section 2 (Kimono) on a computer while traveling, which I’d never done before, so maybe I’ve turned some sort of corner...
I don’t know whether acupuncture is good for writing or not. It did seem to knock from me those three basically automatic bursts. I was seeing the acupuncturist for health reasons, which eventually cleared up. I have not been back to the acupuncturist since.
Earlier, you mentioned films as part of the collective influence that informs your poetic sensibility. Do you think you could talk about the role of film in your poetry? Some of your poems, both in the new book and in the previous books, mention Werner Herzog, his films, and/or Klaus Kinski by name -- is Herzog your favorite director? What is your favorite Herzog film?
I do love Herzog. I’m not sure I’d say he’s my favorite director, I’ve not really thought about it that way, but many of his films are amazing and I love his books Of Walking in Ice and Conquest of the Useless.
The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser is a favorite Herzog film. I also loved Even Dwarfs Started Small and Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Parts of Fata Morgana still surface in my mind. And Where the Green Ants Dream has a couple scenes that are stamped permanently in my mind. Oh, and My Best Fiend, about Kinski, is very, very funny.
Herzog’s use of music is often amazing, and he employs the imagery of a poet, as well as the bravery. Poets are typically brave, I think, because we don’t make any money writing poems. We can be brave because no one is watching. Rob Reiner can’t be brave. He has to toss lassoes around the waistband of America. Which isn’t a terrible job, it’s just not very interesting to me. Herzog films are full of bizarre, haunting scenes/images that don’t “go anywhere,” whatever that means. This is one of the things I love about him.
I have a specific question about The Enigma of Kasper Hauser, if you're willing to entertain it... as I recall, the final scene is: Kasper Hauser dead on an operating table. Two doctors standing over him, discussing something. One of the doctors reaches into Kasper's head, grabs his brain, and tosses it lightly from one hand to the other. He gets tired of this and puts the brain back on the table and leaves the hospital. The camera pulls back to show the doctor walking down a tree-lined street.
Then the movie ends.
To the best of your memory, is this how the movie actually ends? I've been unsure whether to accept this ending as an example of Herzog's weirdness or to blame it on my own faulty memory (I had been drinking). I know I could easily just re-watch the movie, but this is something I like to ask people who've seen it...
Okay okay, you might want to revisit the film’s ending. (Although I like your ending also.)
The scene involves 3 doctors in top hats, and the little old town scribe, who is forever taking notes, also in top hat.
Kaspar is dead on the table. The doctors are discovering abnormalities in his liver and brain.
The brain is very carefully looked at by all three doctors. They discuss overdevelopment of one part, and underdevelopment of another, and then one of the doctors -- again, very carefully -- slices the brain up into quarters so as to have a closer look.
Then we cut to the street, and the scribe is walking out, very excited about these findings. He calls the coachman, gives him his hat, and asks him to take it home for him, for he wants to walk hatless back to his house, all the while babbling about how “Finally we have got an explanation for this strange man ... and no one would never find nothing like this.”
The music begins, as the man walks off down the road, growing smaller and smaller...
So you are a farrier -- "one who shoes horses" (this is how Matthew Rohrer would always introduce your work in class and elsewhere... "Have you read Michael Earl Craig?" ... "a farrier" ... "one who shoes horses") and your poems often deal with your chosen profession in a pretty direct way. Do you think you could put your decision (again, that word "decision") to shoe horses for a living in context with your progression as a poet? Did you always want to be a farrier? Did you become certified as a farrier before or after you obtained your MFA? Did you ever consider/attempt life in academia?
No, I didn’t always dream of shoeing horses. I found myself at the end of a 3-year MFA program and could see where I would soon be needing a job. I didn’t want to work at a university. I didn’t want to work for anyone else. I knew I wanted to move back to Montana, and I thought learning a trade would help me do this. Horseshoeing sounded interesting so I looked into it, and although I was concerned it might bring on the death of my writing life I decided to do it anyway. I really had no writing life outside of academic life, and that seemed strange to me. My plan then was to see what happened. Maybe I’d teach later, I remember thinking -- and who knows, maybe some day I will.
I went to shoeing school in 1998, apprenticed for two years under a journeyman farrier, earned my Certified certificate in 2000 and my Certified Journeyman certificate in 2006. So all this has been happening gradually all along, as I’ve been working on poems. If I were you I’d become an electrician. I’d move to L.A. and apprentice under ex-Devo drummer Alan Myers.
In much of your poetry, both in the new book and in the previous books, you mention aspects of Eastern philosophy and religion -- monks, Buddha, enlightenment, etc. -- is this representative of your own personal belief system or does it merely reflect an interest in these things? Do you think you could talk about the way Eastern philosophy informs or contributes to your work?
I’m not a practicing Buddhist. I guess I’m interested in Eastern philosophy and religion -- well, I can say that it’s something I’ve never been stumped by. I’ve always felt intuitively on board. But I bring the monk into the poem the same way that I bring the mezzosoprano, or the barber. Do I?
Now I have thought some more about this (your question), and yes, I think it’s the focus, the silence, the white space, the absence, that attracts me. The antidotes. All of my barbers are caught either in the act of meditating or canoeing.