Interview by Tiffany Troy
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. In Other Days is his latest collection.
Tiffany Troy: Can you introduce yourself to your readers?
Roger Craik: I’m English and born in Leicester in the Midlands and am the only child of academic parents. My father taught on a hastily-arranged Fulbright Scholarship from 1958-1959 at Queens College, New York, where enjoyed himself and taught someone called Carole Klein who later turned out to be Carole King.
I was brought up in in England and then in Scotland, and had a fairly unhappy childhood up in Aberdeen. Then I studied English at Reading University, worked as a journalist, a chess columnist, a television critic, and because I liked English literature, I went back to college and did a Ph.D. at the University of Southampton, on a subject that hardly anyone will have heard of: Sir Thomas Urquhart of Cromarty, translator of Rabelais. I never thought I’d get an academic job, but I did. I went to Turkey for four years, first in Bursa and then in Izmir, on the Aegean Sea.
I never thought of doing any kind of creative writing. When I was in what Americans call high school and English people call secondary school, English consisted of what’s called interpretation, answering questions on an unseen piece, and also writing your own stuff. But suddenly at the age of 14, all of that disappeared, to my sadness. And we started writing about other people, which I found not nearly as interesting. And I found it not nearly as interesting all the time I was in college both times. When I came to America after getting a Beineke Fellowship to Yale, then getting out of Turkey on a visitor’s visa and very luckily getting a job at Kent State where I worked and continued to work, I started doodling and fiddling away at things. What do I mean by things? I started slicing other people’s lines up and making “poetry” out of them. Notably Graham Greene. Then I started gradually writing my own things.
I’ve never felt much of an academic and I’m awfully glad that somehow poetry has found me or I found it. It’s the saving of me, and just an enormous joy to be doing the doing. That’s more important than the publishing, or with interviews like this (no offense!). It’s a question of making something, and whether or not it’s “good” (to use that slippery term) isn’t the point. It’s the making of something that’s yours and yours alone; and then there’s a great pleasure in having other people read it. And by the time other people are reading it, if indeed they are reading it, you’re onto something else.
Tiffany Troy: I enjoyed reading your collection, and especially “Faculty Meeting,” and in that poem I felt the joy of the making in your humor and your voice. Your poems seem process-oriented.
Roger Craik: Yes, absolutely it’s to do with the process of the making, as I mentioned, and also going where the poem takes you, when it starts speaking to you, often exuberantly (or sometimes too exuberantly for some tastes).
Tiffany Troy: Can you describe the process in discovering joy and writing this collection? It felt for me that imagination and memory run in tandem in your work.
Roger Craik: That in fact is a very large question because it covers a lot of things. The book’s pattern is vaguely chronological insofar as the early pieces are reminiscences of childhood, and then right at the end are some pieces about my mother’s illness—and then the rest go in between. I wouldn’t want the rest of the poems to be seen as a hodgepodge though. It’s always difficult to organize a collection, but many of the poems, of course, are autobiographical though I suppose everything’s autobiographical in the sense that one creates it and it comes out of oneself. The piece “Wedding Dream” has nothing really to do with my life at all. I did dream it and I wrote it down more or less as it happened and I’ve always have strange thoughts about what it would be like to get married, to one’s astonishment, and not really wanting to get married, but that’s all pure invention, or impure invention if you want to put it that way.
There’s a piece called “Exile,” which is about an imagined painter who grows up in a tiny town in Russia, goes to Paris, and then has to come unwillingly back four years later on a train to undergo an arranged marriage. I suppose that some of this — not the arranged marriage —came from what I remember reading about the life of Marc Chagall, but all the rest is imagination.
Sometimes a poem just come from a kind of wondering. I wondered, as someone who’s hopeless at mathematics and absolutely everything to do with science, what it would be like to make a huge scientific discovery. This is as ludicrously far from my own life as it possibly can be. I was thinking about one of the discoverers of DNA, Francis Crick, and I wondered what it would be like, having made such a discovery, to put your coat and hat on, go out of the office, lock the door, and go out into a world that’s just carrying on, and only you have got it in your head.
There are other pieces based on imaginary encounters or which have a bit of a real encounter in them. Then the writing takes you where it leads, often following the sound of the language of the previous line. A line will come into my head and then other lines will follow, often not to any preconceived plan or framework. Then I speak them into my pocket recorder, if I can stand the sound my own voice, and play it back, and by a kind of osmosis a next line will form itself due to the rhythm of the previous line. I don’t know if that makes any kind of sense. Does it?
There is danger for people like myself that a love of music can lead to musical-sounding but facile utterance. There’s a lot to be said for having a structure to keep one’s thoughts intact, but what one says has to feel, and be, genuine.
There are times the truth of the experience leads you to write in a bolder way than you generally would. In “33 Charleston House,” the speaker is thinking a lot about his ill mother, while living in her house while she is in a nursing home, and he finds himself thinking, “Oh, I wish I could go to Amsterdam again,” and having a nice cup of Dutch coffee. And then I as speaker started imagining the plane and the clouds, and found the words smearing all over the page just like the clouds themselves. Or so I hoped.
Then there’s “Foxton Locks,” that came out as prose and asked to be put in a prose form. It simply wouldn’t have worked in lines of “poetry,” or at least I didn’t see it doing so. There’s a painter in England named Frank Auerbach who is a refugee from Germany and a painter in heavy oil. He says there’s a comes a time when you’re painting a picture and your picture starts to speak to you. One of the most marvelous things about writing is that, after a while your piece takes on the kind of voice and tells you how it should continue. And then you listen.
One of the things that I find helpful is to doodle and make a hell of a mess on the paper. A large piece of graphite all over the paper to take the glare off. And then, with your left hand if you’re right-handed, you doodle away with it. Always with your left hand because then you’re not consciously drawing anything, and become “loose.”
I tend to write in the morning. Auden says “write before you wash,” which presumably means Auden was a dirty man when he was writing. But that’s when I get most of my things done. The rest of the day seems to be collecting and doing other things. Sometimes thoughts come later in the evening when one is tired. Isn’t it fascinating that poetry can be done when you’re tired as opposed to when you feel yourself sharp?
Tiffany Troy: Doodling to be loosened up and return to your childhood is such a interesting exercise. I love what you talked about structure as a means to keep one’s thoughts intact as a true container of the music.
Your poems come as thoughts followed by other thoughts. Could you tell us about the different forms the thoughts take? Does the form find the poem or vice versa?
Roger Craik: It’s always the words and then the form. I would find it rather strange to say “Now I’m going to write a short poem in two- or three-line stanzas.” I think it’s all to do with the writing and then the form comes back from that, to what is truest to the content.
But sometimes you look at something that you’ve written a good while ago, and think “I wouldn’t do it that way now—I’d do it this way.” And then you look at it in a different state of mind, and it takes you somewhere else, and then the form, very often a different form, comes from that.
Forms depend to a large extent on how much you write. There have been times when I’ve been frankly fairly satisfied—you are never completely satisfied—with a piece and then get the kind of great happiness by realizing that great chunks of it can be cut out for the piece’s betterment. That’s very liberating: it’s not a not a failure at all to find yourself cutting things out. They can hopefully be used be used for something else, but one thing to avoid is flaccidity. For instance there is a piece in my previous book called “Anthologist” where I had the idea about an anthologist as a person who creates a collection of poems with his or her own tastes. There are poems that the anthologists presumably read and also rejected and you never know why those poems were rejected, do you? So an anthology is a model of a particular taste, but it’s also a kind of value judgment as to why this one goes in and that one goes out. Anthologies tend to follow previous anthologies. So you’ll pretty much see the same poems by Yeats going in, but you’ll hardly ever see the poem “Meru” from Supernatural Songs which I think is one of the best, but you see the point. I mean “here are the poems by Auden, here are the poems by Yeats, and here are the ones by Sylvia Plath.” At any rate, I got off the point. I wrote a longish piece about an anthologist, and then one day thought that only the first few lines—five or so, aren’t there?—could stay, and all the rest go.
Tiffany Troy: You’re right that the canon has a way of reinforcing itself.
Roger Craik: It does.
Tiffany Troy: I love how you build characters in your collection, especially with the voice of the child, or like the childlike wondering in “Foxton Locks” where the child speaker “wondered what would happen to the tadpole in its life” or “why the Grand Union Canal was Union or why it was Grand.” I found it so funny and poignant.
Roger Craik: I’m very pleased to hear that. For what’s it’s worth, we did go to Foxton Locks and I do remember seeing a tadpole, but everything else just came wondering into my mind and wrote itself. I think Thomas Mann says somewhere that wonder is the strongest emotion there is.
Tiffany Troy: Many of the poems are addressed to someone else. What do those poems mean to you?
Roger Craik: A poet can start off by an addressing a real person, or a person with some imagined attribute, or a person you don’t know at all and is completely imagined.
The piece about Soviet gymnast Olga Korbut is just a piece of wondering. You often think, where are the people who’ve got a very brief and dazzling heyday are, and you end up looking up to see what they’re doing. But you might not want to concentrate on that. In the last part of Korbut poem, wishes and imaginings take over, and I have her walking down long tree-lined afternoons and not once thinking about her few years of fame.
Tiffany Troy: Do you have any closing thoughts for your readers?
Roger Craik: I hope readers will find enjoyment in the book, and, more largely, in all poetry they read.
About the interviewer: Tiffany Troy is a critic, translator, and poet.