The Indifferent World by Ken Craft

6 posts

Take the Free Book (and the Long Odds)!

TIW

I’ve written about Goodreads’ Book Giveaways before. To say the least, I have ambivalent feelings. On the one hand, they’re good publicity for the little guy (read: humble author) who’s lost in a big jungle (read: the published world). On the other hand, the odds of winning (meaning you) are longer than a certain island off the Connecticut coast, and the odds of garnering a review (meaning me) are wider than a certain mouth in the White House.

In any event, for the third go-round, The Indifferent World, is now available as a Goodreads Giveaway until June 9th. Yes, you could win a signed first (and no-doubt last) edition for free, and yes, you could get hit by lightning (unsigned, I’m guessing), but that’s why Hope waited til last to slip out of Pandora’s box. It’s also why you might just enter your name.

I’m rooting for you, trust me. The fact that you’re reading this post tells me you’re a fan of poetry’s, or at the very least, a fan of writing’s. That means you’ll probably actually read the book if you win. It also means you’ll be kind enough to write a review.

If I could fix the damn giveaway, I would. This is the Age of Authoritarians, after all, so one can dream about silver linings that work in one’s favor, no? The past three GR Giveaway books I’ve mailed into the world, suitcases packed with destination stickers, have disappeared into a void. Nothing but nothing in response! Just Simon & Garfunkel’s dreaded “Sound of Silence” (cue melancholy disc jockey).

Those books, I fear, were snapped up by the Freebie Junkies, the professional Goodreads Giveaway people who have 398,875,193 books on their “To-Read” shelves and 0 books on their “Reviews” shelf.

But, no. This time–perhaps the last time–I have faith. And, as the New York Times has failed to publish this version of the “Tell Us 5 Things About Your Book” series, I’ll slip it in here in case free things intrigue you:

When did you first get the idea to write this book?

The idea lies in the first of the book’s four sections, titled “Woods & Lake.” This suite of poems was inspired by my years on a Maine lake where time seems to have stopped because not much has changed there since the Eisenhower Administration. Were he alive, even Thoreau would be at home there. (Thoreau gets a cameo in one of the poems, by the way).

What’s the most surprising thing you learned while writing it?

By God, I can write poetry! Originally, the plan was to write short stories with a long-term plan for working up to novels. In fact, I actually completed a young adult novel in the 90s. The feedback from one New York editor was something to the effect of “wonderful descriptions… it’s the plot that needs attention!” Like my lake surroundings, my prose often took leisurely turns toward lyricism and imagery. Poetry in prose’s clothing, in other words! Coupling that realization with a full-tilt teaching schedule, my shift to the more compact (and challenging) genre was complete.

In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?

Some writers start with a master plan, an endgame in sight before the first word is writ. This would not be that book. The Indifferent World evolved as I wrote and rewrote it. Eventually I noticed common themes and grouped the poems accordingly. The four parts are entitled Woods & Lake, Homebodies, Mysteries, and The Indifferent World.

Who is a creative person (not a writer) who has influenced you and your work?

The Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. Most of the book was written to his music. It fit the mood I was trying to create. I wanted the poems to be simple yet thoughtful, something readers could relate to. Like Pärt’s music.

Persuade someone to read “The Indifferent World” in less than 50 words.

The poetry is approachable. It’s also not afraid to break “rules” because, frankly, I was not up on the “rules” when I was writing it. I did not avoid certain words, like (gasp!) “darkness.” I did not avoid certain topics, like dog poems. Instead, I wrote what inspired me, figuring that would inspire readers, too.

Do Licensed Deer Look Up?

deer

As if there’s not enough to think about while writing a poem — word choice, figurative language, sound devices, etc. — you also have to consider logic.

Logic, you ask? And poetry?

Sure. Science and art are not cleanly divided like church and state (supposedly) are. A poem containing an anachronism would be an obvious example. Can you imagine a rendition of Browning’s last duchess which depicts her checking a cellphone for texts? (Like most modern-day people, her neck would be permanently pitched downward.)

I came up against this cold wall of logic when writing and revising my poem “Deer Stand” for The Indifferent World. Years and years ago, as a “deer hunter” who secretly preferred the outdoors to shooting any unsuspecting deer (which I never did), I knew a thing or two about eastern whitetails just by listening to my fellow hunters around the dinner table each night.

One thing I learned? Deer don’t look up. Thus, the venerable deer stand — an often simple wooden structure built in a tree. During deer hunting forays, I spent many an hour in one of these stands freezing my hey-nonny-nonnies off (as Shakespeare would say when writing about November in Maine).

The problem was, in the first drafts of “Deer Stand,” it appeared the deer in question had detected my hideout by sight, a trick veteran hunters would chuckle over– and we all know how much hunters enjoy laughing at poet errors when they gather at fish and game clubs for “Poetry Night.”

The fix took some subtle word maneuvering. To justify the words in the last line “watch me shiver from an indifferent distance” (referring to the deer), I embedded language earlier in the poem for the sake of logic:

I sit twenty feet above forest undergrowth
eyeing a deer path crossed only by dead
leaves and old scat. Down-to-earth it climbs
a hill even with my view…

With that topography, I now had deer whose eyes were on an equal plane with mine. Would they really see me, though? Grizzled Nimrods would say that deer are more about scent and sound than sight, but some scientific pieces online (yes, they exist) state that deer see at greater distances than most think.

And how, you ask, does poetic license come into play here? Some feel that the license can and should trump logic. Who cares if deer look up, they would argue. After all, is the license worth nothing anymore? Think of those poor souls spending bushels of bucks for MFAs in poetry! For their sakes, let’s not give up the fight for licensed immunity for  logic, of all things! Let’s not worry how well Dudley the Deer spies us from afar.

But let’s not leave the realm of reason, either. Or at least that was my final decision in revising this poem. Here is the final version, as it appeared in the book:

 

Deer Stand by Ken Craft

Here I hold a soft silver something
in the rapidly draining dark, my thermos
weakly phosphorescent in the slow-breaking
November dawn. Like the Buddha of Frostbite,
I sit twenty feet above forest undergrowth
eyeing a deer path crossed only by dead
leaves and old scat. Down-to-earth, it climbs
a hill even with my view, mocking
such stratagems as wooden stands
creaking between the crotches of oak
and maple. So pour hour-old camp coffee,
inhale its ghostly tendrils, invoke
the absent-minded god of hearth and home,
imagine black-iron omelets and sourdough
toasts, buttered suns setting into scratchy centers.
At my side, colder fare—camera, Moleskine,
chewed Ticonderoga, and that Chekhovian
prop, the rifle. I mention this because it
does not go off by the end of the poem, not
while bedding bucks and does, compressed pine
needles under blood-warm bellies in the fur-white
wind, watch me shiver from an indifferent distance.

The No-No of Playing Favorites

tolstoy

Je regrette, but it’s true. I play favorites among my children. No, not those children. My poetry children.

What’s weird is, often a published author’s favorite poems are not ones that ever saw the light of poetry-published day in a journal or magazine. You will not find them on the book’s acknowledgment page, in other words. Like good soldiers, these poems enlisted, went out over the transoms to the publish-me wars, but fell in battle, struck by blind editorial eyes.

It could be coincidence, in my case. Not all of the poems in The Indifferent World were treated to equal doses of marketing. Some were written closer to deadline, and therefore did not become staples at Submittable. Others may have just gone to the wrong editors at the wrong time.

“Wrong editor” can be defined a few ways. He or she could be a.) the editor of a journal whose style and subject tastes are not an exact fit with your work, b.) the editor of a journal who never even saw your work because a front-line reader slap-dashed it into the rejection pile through a hasty reading or none at all, or c.) the editor of a “reach” journal like The New Yorker or Poetry, where the air is fine and thin and fully invested in the safe, the established, and the well-known. If you send to the latter, especially those with reading fees, you’re suffering trickle-down financial losses over time. (Note, however, that the two magazines I just cited do not charge reading fees, bless them.)

Or maybe, just maybe, playing favorites means you like a poem that speaks to your own unique sensibilities more than others’. Is that a bad thing? Does that violate the writer-reader contract, wherein the two parties are invested with equal powers? I like to think not. I like to think that a poem that resonates in a special way with its author will always appeal equally to a certain reading demographic of poetry lovers out there, too.

Here, for instance, is one of my favorites from TIW. It’s about Tolstoy, for one, and I’m the number one fan of the man not from Tennessee (try Yasnaya Polyana). It was a late entry, too, so I’m not sure how much marketing it got, but it was one of a set of narrative poems in the book that I was partial to.

In case you’re one of the three dozen or so people in the world who do NOT own a copy of my book, here it is: the death of Tolstoy reimagined:

 

Astapova Station by Ken Craft

I think of Tolstoy, November of his life,
steel wool beard caught
on the sheepskin of his collar. He’s stealing into night,
steam from the engine of his lungs
twisting gaunt and ghostly
through the air, rising, dwindling, clinging
to sky: the breaths of a lifetime.

The old writer still shows an instinct
for drama, abandoning wife, estate, every past chapter
for a train, an iron deus ex machina
that sways his body til dizziness forces him to the refuge
of Astapova. Here he can restore order, touch paper schedules,
see the starch of a station master’s uniform.
But first, he lies down—a moment
like all others, he thinks—on an oak bench burnished
smooth by passengers.

Tonight their spirits
mingle, restless, eyeing the great
clock like suspicious policemen. Tolstoy lifts his feet, hears the clunk
of his self-made shoes echo from the rafters. There’s dried mud on his soles,
caked pieces of Russia falling
on guttered slats of wood. The weight of fever
begins to climbs his chest. It stretches its claws to his temples,
rests on him, rapid heartbeat blanketing heartbeats
through the night.

He starts, thinks he hears Sofya’s voice. Did he sleep? To board
the train! Is it still here, then? Is that it—black and abandoned,
frozen to cold tracks? Is it this—oblong, silver
car blinking in snow, readying to open its doors?

Tolstoy’s mouth opens, breaking
mucus, a milky thread between the lips. His tongue is a fullness,
but he must know: arrival or departure?
The window! The red and black sign reading “Astapova”!
The stationmaster’s warm hand closing his eyelids.

 

If Music Be the Food of Poetry, Play On!

arvo part

Rumor has it that Estonian composer Arvo Pärt is an acquired taste, like salmon, Brussels sprouts, and all those other things you steer clear of as a kid. Repetition. Tintinnabulation. Waves of mesmerizing music (much of it religious in nature) washing over you.

I love writing poetry to classical music, but none more than Pärt’s. Whether his minimalist style shows up in my writing, I don’t know. In some cases, a definitive maybe. Can music genes long-jump to writing ones? And what is the sound of one note writing, anyway?

Koan-like questions, but some say ours is not to ask why, it’s to accept when inspiration strikes (with help or without), which is why I steal a page from the Bard and say,  If music be the food of poetry, play on.  (Yes, I snuck “poetry” in for “love,” but, in the final analysis and after checking the nutritional facts, what’s the difference?) The preceding link is to all instrumental pieces by Pärt, but you can find plenty of choral works, too, such as this meditative collection or this old favorite.

If your Muse is not inspired, it may sneak away for an Estonian nap. And yes, dozing mid-poem can be refreshing, too. To coin the well-minted Shakespeare once more: “to sleep, perchance to dream the next line.”

For an example of a minimalist poem from The Indifferent World written under the influence of Pärt, here’s a poem that’s so simple and so given over to mood that it may seem like empty calories to some, but it’s all a matter of taste, of course. Strawberry shortcakes and hot fudge sundaes with whipped cream are empty calories, too. It doesn’t mean you always scowl and put your nose up when they’re offered.

 

“Sitting in the Dark” by Ken Craft

In the dark
before dawn,

in the kitchen
before the lake,

when the windows
are rain-runneled

and the room
is still shadow,

I like to sit
and stare at black

glass glaring back,
beady with reflection,

runny with rumination
and the slip of sadness.

 

Though I don’t think ole Arvo has read any of my poems, I think he would approve of that little guy. Nothing fancy. Simple words. And not the best poem I ever wrote, but it does mirror a contemplative mood–one created while writing to Pärt’s Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten, as I recall.

How about you? Do you write to music? And does it sometimes infuse the blood of your poems-in-progress?

My Book Finds Precious Real Estate

So your book is listed on amazon. Ho-hum. The same is true for 4,609,398,623,211 other books. Where the rubber really hits the road is when your book sits on a bookstore shelf. We’re talking prime real estate, many dots beyond com, between Barnes and his distinguished brother, Noble, say, or between some Mom and some Pop in an independent bookstore, maybe.

Such was my treat Wednesday night when I ran into the University of Connecticut’s Barnes & Noble bookstore before taking in the basketball game at Gampel Pavilion. There it was, into the blue and on the poetry section shelves, standing between Billy Collins (nice to meet you, William) and Rita Dove (peace out, sister)–The Indifferent World, looking anything but indifferent with its gaudy red “Local Author” sticker.

I had one-quarter a mind to autograph it on the spot, but no. Probably out of line without management’s blessing. So I just said hello, because you know what? This particular copy of the now-familiar book looked different. A prince among the paupers waiting to be adopted at amazon. An august leader among the plebes sitting in my to-be-signed-at-readings bag at home.

Despite the watery cover, it had definite airs. And why not? I say. Seize the moment, kid. Carpe your diem while the sun shines, because the sun also sets, as Hemingway almost told us.

In parting, I whispered these words to it: “I hope you find a good home–but maybe not just yet. Maybe after a few weeks, enjoying the view.”

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What? I Can’t Write About This?

dogfood

One of the most enjoyable aspects of publishing a first book of poetry is–what else?–readers, but less obviously, it’s readers’ reactions to poems.

Here’s irony. Reading a lot about poetry, I often come across comments from experts, critics, and even other poets, spreading rumors like, “When writing poetry, you should never write about nature because it’s hackneyed. And certainly not love. Too Hallmark. And dogs? You must be crazy. Death? Only if you want to send your readers running while waving their arms over how depressing a poet you are.”

Yeah. Something to that effect. And then, just when I begin to second guess my work, readers of my book will tell me some of their favorite poems from are ones about nature, love, death, and DOGS.

The moral of this story is clear. As a poet, you write what you want to write. If it moves you or warms up your Muse’s harp strings, play it loud and proud! The naysayers apparently haven’t read Ecclesiastes about nothing being new under the sun. The secret is taking what’s always been there and finding personal magic in it. If it’s how the sun rays hit the boulders and cast their shadows, so be it.

Here’s a poem with strange inspiration, a combination of quotidian and quirky. It notes the way my dog always leaves a single nugget of dog food in his bowl each morning. It’s from my book, The Indifferent World, and it breaks the experts’ rules. So don’t tell the poetry police, will you?

“Dog Religion”
by Ken Craft

Each morning he rises and bows
before me–parable of humility,
maw yawning, paws splaying.

The hollow rattle of dry meal
raining on his aluminum bowl
pops his ears. Every day,
novelty in the ritual of repetition;
every day, the Pavlovian ear perk.
Like heartbeats and bad breath,
autonomous tail and tongue.
Just so.

Waiting for me
to move, he approaches the orb
demurely, noses in, crunches the bland
and the brown. That lovable greed.
Those stained, pacifist teeth.

He feeds, license and rabies tag
keeping time at bowl’s edge. And always,
in the end, one dry kibble
is left in a bowl cirrus-streaked
with spit: his offering
to the food gods, his prayer
answered each miraculous day.

— from The Indifferent World by Ken Craft, copyright 2016, Future Cycle Press