Interview with Kevin Craft

Kevin Craft has been a strong supporter and unifier of poets throughout the northwest. In this interview we learn more about his own writing process and perspective on teaching. He believes, “we write poems for ourselves, to clarify and align our own hearts and minds.” Also, hear about his upcoming book, ten years in the making, and future publishing projects. -Jessica Gigot 

JG: You have been editor of Poetry Northwest since 2010 and are now stepping down to work on other projects. How would you describe your time as editor of this publication and how do you see it evolving in the future under new leadership?

KC: It’s been a great honor to serve as editor of Poetry Northwest. Doing so has deepened my sense of community, vertically and horizontally. That is to say, on the one hand I felt actively connected to voices of the past, those who worked on and published in the magazine—Roethke, Kizer, Hugo, Stafford, etc.—felt a direct responsibility to them to continue their foundational work. On the other I found myself in daily conversation with many poets all over the region and the country. I learned a lot, through daily practice on the work of others, about how poems can be read and effectively revised. I really enjoyed being in poetry in that way—as a helping hand, guiding the poem home.

My most important goal and achievement, I’d say (beyond updating the magazine for the digital age) was to re-inscribe the founding vision of Carolyn Kizer in the public mind. It was her magazine at the outset, and that was an important moment in American literature—to have, in the late 50s and early 60s, this bold and brassy figure at the head of a magazine—embodying in many ways what I like to call the Western feminist avant-garde.

I think Poetry Northwest will go on being the dependable backbone of regional poetry publishing—giving voice to the concerns of readers and writers in our neck of the woods. It’s an important gateway publication—a portal to a larger audience for many emerging writers. The new team sees it that way too.

JG: How would you describe the poetry and literary community in Seattle and throughout the northwest?

KC: I would describe it as dynamic and inclusive. The literary community, both in Seattle and the region at large, has never been more active—there’s literally something for everyone, at every level of engagement. When I first arrived in Seattle in the early 1990s, it certainly seemed like a city of readers and writers, though more fragmented and isolated, perhaps, primarily visible in bookstores, libraries, and universities. There were a few longstanding reading series that animated venues around town—like Red Sky Poetry Theatre, which had found its niche on Capitol Hill in the mid-90s—and Bumbershoot, of course, which had a vibrant Bookfair. Now, thanks to expansive organizations like Hugo House, Seattle Arts & Lectures, the Skagit River Poetry Festival, LitFUSE in Tieton, Get Lit in Spokane, etc., not to mention all the local organizations and small presses, there’s never been more ways to join a community and get involved in whatever way you see fit.

JG: As a mentor and director of poetry education, both at Everett Community College and University of Washington’s Summer Creative Writing in Rome program, what approach do you take to cultivating the strengths and talents of new/young writers?

KC: I encourage them to read, first and foremost. And not just a poem at a time, but whole collections, the accumulation of any one writer’s tones and themes. I encourage them to read widely, to experience a range of possible voices. I require them to attend live readings. I ask them what resonates in each poem or poetry book they read. We practice imitation—using the template of practiced form or the rhetorical engine in a given poem to alleviate the anxiety of starting from scratch. We practice observation—conjuring the physical world with lightness and exactitude. We practice invention: that which only language and imagination equips us to see. We practice improvisation: the poem as quick take, rough draft, catch as catch can, then on we go. I aim for facility and a certain levity in technique: the poem needn’t aim for lofty expression or heavy truth to make words matter. This is often the hardest lesson for beginning writers to learn. They want it all, and big, and full of prescriptive meaning, going out the door. In the beginning, it’s best to build muscle memory: just write and read and write. So we take our time and focus on that.

JG: It’s hard to get published. From your experience what is the best way new poets can share their work?

KC: Well, first of all, I think a poet should develop the confidence of self-sufficiency: we write poems for ourselves, to clarify and align our own hearts and minds. Much of what I write I never share, or haven’t yet. I like to let it sit awhile, age into eventual revision. There’s a lot of good stuff out there—too much for any one person to keep up with. I take this fact of glut as a kind of imperative to send out only the best work—not to rush something into print just for the sake of wanting to see my name in print. I enjoy sharing poems with close friends, writing groups and circles, students and fellow teachers—the small but substantial satisfactions of serious conversations around a table. I do think sharing is important—that publication, or making the work public in some form—completes the arc of expression, the imagined voice and audience that both grounds a poem and gives it lift. Once you’re ready to send to magazines, send wide and far and frequently, hit the local outlets routinely, and never take rejection to heart. There’s a flood of good poems coming at any editor all the time. What he or she ends up taking is always connected to the needs of the moment, and should not be taken as judgment of worth.

Book cover used with permission by University of Washington Press.

JG: Can you tell us about your new book of poetry coming out next year? How long have you been working on this project and how did it come together for you?

KC: It’s called Vagrants & Accidentals, and it will be published by the University of Washington Press in spring 2017. It took me ten years to write, including three or four years while I was actively sending out prior versions of the manuscript. In the end, I’m glad it wasn’t taken too soon—it became a better book with each rejection. UW Press does one poetry book a year in the Pacific Northwest Poetry Series. I submitted a sample and was delighted to be asked to submit the entire manuscript for press review. (As a university press, they follow a process of peer review of all manuscripts, including poetry.) It’s a book about origins, and offspring, and parenting, and estrangement—and it addresses these themes both personally and historically. I love the way that poetry can be intimate and objective at the same time, voicing the long view—history, archeology, geology, ornithology—in close and personal terms.

JG: What new projects will you be working on in the future related to poetry?

KC: Two interrelated projects: I’m developing an Editing & Publishing course for the Written Arts Program at Everett Community College. This will allow our students to be more involved in the production process for the magazine, website, and our most exciting new endeavor—Poetry Northwest Editions. We’re going to publish two or three books a year, focusing on writers who have published in the magazine and thus become an integral part of the Poetry NW community. At least one book a year will focus on writers from the Pacific Northwest, and others will be drawn from an open reading period. To be a publisher in this age is to produce and showcase work through multiple channels and platforms. Since 2010, we have expanded our activities in the digital realm—blog, social media, podcast, and video. Nevertheless, if we are to remain committed to print values—layout, design, margin, the slowness and artfulness of the printed page—then producing books is the next logical step for our organization, the book being the prime measure of significance in print.

JG: How many Skagit River Poetry Festivals have you attended?

KC: Four or five festivals, all told. I first attended, as audience member, in the early 2000s, driven by natural curiosity and excitement that this great new festival modeled on Dodge had landed in our backyard. As editor of Poetry Northwest and as a participating poet, I’ve been able to attend the last three festivals. In it I find such warmth and camaraderie among writers and audiences. It’s the highlight of the biennium for me!

JG: What role does this festival play in regional and national poetry communities?

KC: I think it’s the liveliest conference in the region. Drawing national talent, rooted in local community, it’s a model for how poetry brings people—writers and readers and citizens—together in meaningful conversation. More and more in our fractured politics and digital distraction, we’re going to need communities like SRPF to heal divides within ourselves and create both the bandwidth and the physical space for public discourse around a common cause. Strange that such community should seem endangered in our time. I think poetry, like the farmer’s market, like the music biz without the big money, is one of the things that will save us from our lesser natures, our silos and bubbles and divided souls. If we are to be saved. Poetry—compact story, preserver of language and conscience, articulation of the heart and mind—poetry is the necessary form of our time, once again.