Roger Craik on Crafting a Collage of Poetic Memories for “In Other Days” [INTERVIEW]

Roger Craik, Professor Emeritus of English at Kent State University, Ohio, has written four collections of poetry: I Simply Stared (2002), Rhinoceros in Clumber Park (2003), The Darkening Green (2004), and Down Stranger Roads (2014), along with two chapbooks, Those Years (2007), (translated into Bulgarian in 2009), and Of England Still (2009). His poetry has appeared in several national poetry journals, such as The Formalist, Fulcrum, The Literary Review, The Atlanta Review, The London Grip and The London Magazine. English by birth and educated at the universities of Reading and Southampton, he has worked as a journalist, TV critic, and chess columnist. Before coming to the USA in 1991, he worked in Turkish universities and was awarded a Beinecke Fellowship to Yale in 1990. He is widely traveled, having visited North Yemen, Egypt, South Africa, Tibet, Nepal, Japan, Bulgaria (where he taught during spring 2007 on a Fulbright Scholarship), the United Arab Emirates, Austria, Croatia and Romania, (where from 2013-14 he was a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Oradea). He is glad every day that he is living in the USA. He watches the birds throughout the year, with joy.

Below are excerpts from the interview with James Morehead on the Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast.

James Morehead: Before we talk about your latest book “In Other Days”, could you share who first inspired you to write poetry? Also, are there any poets you are reading today that excite and surprise you?

Roger Craik: “I don’t think there were any specific poets who inspired me to write poetry, As I recall, in my school years, which we call primary and secondary school in England and Scotland, we occasionally wrote poetry. However, English, to my disappointment, eventually became about writing on other people’s books, and I never really gave poetry much thought again.

“I did read for pleasure. I’ve read the standard canon, and I read poetry when I was studying English at university. I found some appeal in the works of certain British poets, but they never made me want to write poetry. Certain phrases may have lodged in my mind, but truth be told, I tend to enjoy individual poems rather than specific poets. It’s akin to liking certain songs by various artists rather than being a fan of their entire body of work.

“The idea of writing poetry first occurred to me while reading Graham Greene’s ‘Brighton Rock’. I found certain passages so exciting and poetic, especially his lists of things. I thought if you cut these into lines, they might resemble poetry. So, I started experimenting with that style in my own work.”

James: Your collection “In Other Days” draws, in part, from your experiences in multiple countries. How has immersion in different cultures influenced the language you use in crafting poems?

Roger: “That’s a difficult question. Believe it or not, I haven’t really given it much thought. I lived in Turkey and something about the Turkish language has echoed in my ear. Living in a different country, like Turkey or Romania, or even working in Bulgaria for a lesser amount of time, some phrase or sound or word tends to linger with you. 

“For instance, when I was in Amsterdam last year, someone shared a phrase which I’ll likely mispronounce – ‘nattevingerwerk’. It translates to ‘moist finger work’, and it refers to the act of wetting your finger and holding it up in the air to catch the wind. You do it when you’re unsure about what to do next, so you hazard a guess. That’s a crude example, James, but it gives you an idea.”

James: That’s actually a great example. “Moist finger work” is such a wonderfully strange phrase. When you translate things literally from other languages, you can end up with poetic phrases that you probably wouldn’t ever think of in English.

“Home (1956-1965)” starts the collection with such a delicate line, “The rainy fields // of sheep and cows in Leicestershire” and continues with a short two-part poem, despite covering a nine year span. How did you revise this poem into something so slight and effective, and why was this the poem chosen to lead the collection?

Roger: “To answer the last part first, the volume as a whole follows a chronological order, although there are some haphazard detours in the middle where things don’t align chronologically. As for that particular piece, I can’t speak to its effectiveness. Once I’ve finished writing something, it’s up to others to interpret and own it. 

“The poem recalls my early days in Leicester. I imagine it’s the same for anyone living in a place where your world is primarily that place – the streets around which you live and the occasional small excursions. I hoped to convey a certain tenderness for my parents in that piece.”

James: Absolutely, it served as a comforting start to the collection. Poetry can, with so few words, convey such profound emotion. It was just a beautiful way to start the collection, and it made me want to keep reading, which I believe is the role of the first poem.

Roger: “Thank you. It’s interesting that while I rarely remember the process of writing any of the pieces or the effort that goes into them, that one, I believe, came fairly easily. However, I don’t truly recall.”

James: In contrast, “Foxton Locks” employs prose poetry, closing with “He wondered what would happen to the tadpole in its life; and in due course no longer wondered what made the clouds English clouds, or why the Grand Union Canal was Union or why it was Grand.” How do you approach decisions of form, and in this case the choice to use prose poetry as the form for this poem? When I spoke with A.E. Stallings, she surprised me by saying that the form is a decision she makes up front. I’m the opposite, I write images and phrases and don’t worry at all about the form at first, and then figure out the form later. 

Roger: “I agree with your approach. I believe you start with an idea, and the form is dictated by the direction the thought and language take you. I can’t imagine deciding to write on a certain subject in a specific form, unless there’s something about the subject that demands a certain type of form. As for that particular poem, I rarely write in prose, but it seemed necessary for this one. The way it evolved, I think it’s one of the few pieces I’ve written that others might categorize as a prose poem.”

James: I also hadn’t written prose poetry until my book from last year. There was a poem that I think I couldn’t have composed in any other way. It seemed to say, “Well, here’s my first prose poem.” I believe had I decided upfront that it was going to be a prose poem, it would have messed it up. I just needed to start writing.

Roger: “Yes, I think you somehow just know that the form chosen is the right one. You don’t consciously consider it as a form, it simply assumes the shape it needs to. When it comes to my work, I’ve observed that there’s a risk when you start something and a form starts taking shape, you can end up forcing the subsequent lines into that form, potentially at their own cost.”

James: Absolutely. I spoke to Carmine Di Biase who crafted three remarkable Shakespeare-inspired sestinas. They’re so well done, you wouldn’t recognize them as sestinas unless you read them a few times. I’m determined to write one someday, but I haven’t yet found a subject that fits this challenging form.

Roger: “Now that you mention it, there have been times when I’ve read something and only later realized there was a rhyme scheme, so naturally integrated was it. Isn’t that what good art does – conceal itself rather than making a show of itself?”

James: The long poem “To A.A. Milne” is a wonderful tapestry of your experiences with A.A. Milne through his writing, someone who, as you wrote, was “Born the year you died”. How did you approach interleaving your personal experience with A.A. Milne’s work and its effect on you, and weaving in references to A.A. Milne’s history?

Roger: “As a young boy, I was deeply influenced not by the Winnie-the-Pooh books, but by ‘When We Were Very Young’ and ‘Now We Are Six’, if I remember correctly. My mother had a copy of ‘When We Were Very Young’ which she read to me when I was a little boy. Not just the poems, but also E.H. Shepard’s illustrations must have left a deep imprint on me. I didn’t do much research into Milne’s life, but I knew he died in 1956, the year I was born. The rest just unfolded naturally.

“There’s also a section in the poem about London and the anti-aircraft guns. I must have been thinking about Milne’s later years, which coincided with the war years. These were years my parents and grandparents lived through, but being a young man, I didn’t experience them firsthand.”

James: In recent episodes I’ve asked poets about the shortest poems in their collections, because writing short poems is a skill I’m still developing. In “Control” you write, and I’ll read the entire poem:

“The earthenware
runnel of milk in Vermeer.
Control. Those invisible
lakes in the pitcher and the bowl
becoming one lake:
even, tideless, cool.”

How did you make the difficult revision and editing choices to end up with such a short poem that describes so compactly, at least in my assessment, Vermeer’s painting “The Milkmaid”

Roger: “The poem was never any longer. Like my previous responses, I don’t recall much about writing it, but I do remember the painting. I believe I’ve seen it in Holland. The intriguing element of the painting, besides the milkmaid, is the slender stream of milk that emerges when she pours. That poem was never any longer than it appears in print.”

James: It’s interesting. In another interview, a poet revealed that their short poem started as multiple pages and was gradually whittled down to a tiny piece in the end.

Roger: “I once wrote something about anthologies in a previous book. Have you ever noticed, James, that when you read an anthology of literature, those hefty volumes that can prop open doors, they’re just selections? An editor selects them, but also leaves others out. I’ve always wondered about the pieces left out. For instance, in a book of 20th-century verse edited by Philip Larkin, there was a fantastic poem by William Plomer that he didn’t include. Why on earth didn’t he include it? We’ll never know. But to get back to your question, I once wrote a long piece and sent it to my father, a professor of English. He advised me to keep only the first eight lines. So there you have it.”

James: I’ve given similar advice to a poet who asked for my opinion. The first part was wonderful, but the latter part diluted its impact. I recommended keeping only the first part.

Roger: “You know, there’s something called literary criticism, which typically refers to writing about literature. But I think it could also mean being critical of literature. For instance, D.H. Lawrence’s poem ‘Snake’ could have benefited from some editing. A number of esteemed artists, I believe, had their work bloat in their later years because people were too intimidated to critique them.”

James: That’s probably the case with many highly esteemed artists, both past and present.

Roger: “Indeed. Both Auden and Yeats revised their earlier poems. The former improved his work through revision, while the latter arguably worsened his.”

James: “Widow of Cain, In Age” is rich with Biblical references. How do you approach the tricky balance of infusing references and research into a poem, while not entirely requiring the reader to fully grasp all of the references?

Roger: “I agree with your point, and perhaps it’s a characteristic of good or even great literature, slippery as those terms may be. Each time you read it, there is a new resonance that sometimes intersects with or amplifies earlier resonances. This particular piece of mine has a very unusual subject matter, and I can’t quite pinpoint how it occurred to me. Perhaps it’s because some characters in works are mentioned so fleetingly that they spark curiosity. There’s a character in Thomas Hardy’s ‘Tess of the d’Urbervilles’ who dances with Angel Clare, and she’s not Tess Durbeyfield. Hardy refers to her as the ‘eclipsing girl’ and then she fades away. It makes one wonder what life the ‘eclipsing girl’ leads. 

“I also remember having a book about animals and birds in the Bible as a child, and it mentioned creatures like the Rock Hyrax and the Lammergeier, or bone-breaking vulture. For some reason, these also made their way into my work. But like many other pieces, this one seemed to write itself.”

James: That’s a fascinating approach, allowing a character on the periphery to take center stage. It reminds me of the play “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead”, which creatively refocuses “Hamlet” through the lens of two minor characters. I think that’s a wonderful way to reimagine a story from an unconventional perspective. It’s something I hope to incorporate into one of my future projects.

Roger: “Indeed, there’s even a book published in England about the private life of the gerund, as if a part of speech like the gerund had a life of its own. Someone’s imagination must have been captivated by the word ‘gerund’, visualizing it doing something distinct from people or characters in literature.”

James: The six part poem that closes the collection, “In Memory of Wendy Ann Craik (February 7, 1934 – May 15, 2015)” is a wonderful tribute to your mother. I’ve written two poems In Memoriam in recent years and it’s an extraordinary challenge. The approach you took in this poem is distinct: six parts, each related but with different lengths and styles. How did you approach capturing the essence of a life that spanned 81 years, and all of the very personal and emotional connections to you? 

Roger: “That particular poem simply is what it is. I found myself writing pieces without any intention of gathering them together. In fact, I stumbled upon them in my notes. It’s more of a collection of pieces about the circumstances surrounding my late mother’s life, including the funeral and the individuals involved, like the taxi driver and funeral director. If it does convey something about the life my mother lived, I’m pleased. But the focus, I think, was centered on the local circumstances.”

James: I found the structure of your piece to be fascinating. The typical “In Memoriam” poem is usually a single poem, not broken into parts. I thought it was a lovely deviation. On another note, how did you approach structuring this book and creating a narrative arc from a collection of poems written individually over a period of years? You mentioned that there’s a chronology in your book, but I assume the poems were written in isolation and then compiled when you had a substantial number for a book. Did the chronology simplify this task? Could you share your thought process on how you ordered the book?

Roger: “The chronology helps, but not significantly. It’s a starting point. There are books written about how to order books, which I can’t quite imagine. I reached a point where I felt I had enough decent pieces to make a book. As Philip Larkin once said, if a reader doesn’t like a particular poem, they’ll dislike the next one less. My approach was quite hands-on. I printed everything out and spread them over my sitting room floor. I stared at them and moved them around a bit. I made no deliberate attempt to make one piece speak to the next, that’s beyond my abilities, and it’s not something I’d want to do. However, if there were two on a similar subject, I probably wouldn’t place them together unless there was a compelling reason to do so. It’s more complex than one might think, and honestly, it wasn’t particularly enjoyable.”

James: Yes, it sounds incredibly labor-intensive. I’ve heard from other poets about a similar process of printing everything out and covering their living room floors with papers while telling their family not to interfere. Despite our advanced digital tools, they can’t replace the physical act of seeing and moving things around. It’s almost nerve-wracking because once the book is bound, it’s much harder to make changes. It’s a series of tough decisions.

Roger: “Yes, it certainly is.”

James: What is your assessment of poetry?

Roger: “What troubles me is the sole focus on theme. What truly matters in poetry, as many have echoed, is the way the theme is voiced and expressed in the specific words and the unique melodies those words create. The theme alone doesn’t ensure the quality of a poem. My father used to say of drama, ‘an ounce of drama is worth a pound of theme.’”

Listen to the full interview on the Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast to hear Roger recite selections from In Other Days.

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