Kevin Craft is the editor of Poetry Northwest. His books include Solar Prominence (Cloudbank Books, 2005) and five volumes of the anthology Mare Nostrum, an annual collection of Italian translation and Mediterranean-inspired writing. He lives in Seattle and directs both the Written Arts Program at Everett Community College and the University of Washington’s Creative Writing in Rome Program. His poem “The Changeling” appears in the Summer 2014 issue of The Kenyon Review.
Is there a story behind your KR poem “The Changeling”? What was the hardest part about writing it?
“The Changeling” begins with an image of transparency coming into focus. I live in Seattle, and do a lot of hiking in the mountains nearby. Around this time of year (early summer), the mountain meadows fill with the most dazzling flower displays on earth. Beargrass is one of my favorites. It grows tall—four to five feet, on average—the stalk upholding a bulb-shaped head full of soft white flowers. They nod and bob brilliantly in a breeze. There’s nothing quite like a meadow filled with beargrass. Among them, you feel as if you are in a field of observing intelligences. Once that image entered my head, I thought of my child, a daughter I hadn’t seen for many years, and imagined her about the same height. I couldn’t help but think of them as offspring of a sort, stand-ins for any lost child—Persephone included, who picked the flower that opened into hell.
Writing this poem presented only the usual difficulties for a short lyric: calibrating rhythm and image, balancing the several moving parts—subject, landscape, allusion—so that no one aspect predominates, so that each image layers, arising seamlessly from the momentary whole.
“The Changeling” makes deft and inventive use of two common stand-ins for the poet’s voice: the bird and the soul. To what extent do you see this piece as an ars poetica?
I wasn’t thinking about it in those terms as I wrote it, but I can see how it might be read that way. I think in this poem I’m trying to conjure a presence from an absence, some tangible stand-in for a story—beargrass for lost girl. Metaphor is a two-way street. In its nodding light, everything is changed. Still, there is the matter behind the fact. As a writer, I focus on finding the icy core of the comet as it peels out of the Oort cloud, long before it sprouts a portentous tail. In other words, I try to observe things as acutely as possible, let one thing lead to another, and look sidewise as the chips of significance fall where they may.
What have you learned about the writing process in the last five years?
This may sound strange, but I think I’ve learned to relax into the kind of intensity I seek from poetry. I’ve always admired the reverb in verse—the special density and concentration of poetic forms. Poetry is like isometric exercise. You push so hard against a wall a muscle-moving music forms. Or a tendon snaps. One can, indeed, push too hard. I tend to work on poems a very long time, chiseling away, shaping and reshaping. This process can be aggravating, but instills a patience in the cadence of a poem that I prize even more in this age of gush and glut. That said, a voice is capable of many shades, and a variety of tones appeal to me, even in a single poem. Conversational intensity (think Seamus Heaney; think A.E. Stallings; think Charles Wright)–where the sentence is fluent, all the pressure in the line—this is the kind of poetry I’ve always warmed to and aimed for, in turn. Now, though, instead of pushing against walls to pack it in, I’ve learned to rappel down the cliff face, to trust the rope and fall.
Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing?
Hiking, climbing, being in mountains. Or is it traveling, eating, being in cities? I can’t tell.
Could you tell us a little about one of your current or upcoming writing projects?
“The Changeling” comes from a new manuscript called Vagrants & Accidentals, a collection of poems that explores what you might call consequential randomness, the breaks and accidents out of which a life is made. In ornithology, a vagrant or accidental is a bird that appears out of its natural or normal range, blown off course by a storm, for instance, or inadvertently introduced into a new environment by human trade—as with the profusion of parakeets in cities around the globe. Of course, evolution is driven by such accidents, and the subsequent adaptations to new sets of circumstances—wolves in human settlements gradually becoming dogs, finches in the Galapagos fine-tuned to the their specific island domains, every other creature comfort we struggle to maintain. I’m interested in families—especially ancient and modern, eclectic definitions thereof—the vagaries of birth, the ruptures of blood and bond, the reiterations of adherence. I’m interested in what things become when taken out of context: Greek myths in the Pacific Northwest, Roman aqueducts in waterparks, the potsherd or megalith stranded in a museum, excess carbon in the atmosphere, American pop songs in French supermarkets, adoptions, estrangements, visions, hallucinations, wayward migrations, the constant shuffle of human beings from place to place. Poetry is what we make of disparity—an effort to bridge the gap between the raggedness of daily life and our deeper intuition of (or yearning for) coherence, if only with a flying leap. Life is accidental. A poem is a foothold, a stepping stone, a space probe. A whole is what we leave in our wake.