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The Rolls Should Be Warm: An Interview w/ Michael Earl Craig

Michael Earl Craig’s third book, Thin Kimono, was recently published by Wave Books. He is one of my favorite poets. I asked him some questions when he was traveling in Michigan, but normally he is in Montana. -ZS

ZS: What brings you to Michigan? And what do you think about Michigan’s fudge?

MEC: The Michigan trip is for my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary.  We’re in Leland, Michigan. In addition to my parents, my brother and his wife and their daughter are here, as well as my sister, her husband, and their three kids. Susan and I brought our Chia Pet, Nancy.  When we were kids we’d vacation for a week (sometimes two) in this part of Michigan, so we have a lot of family history here.

And the fudge is big time in Michigan.  My favorite is Murdick’s Fudge—the store in Traverse City, specifically.  There are a few other Murdick’s stores but the Traverse City one is the best.  I normally don’t eat fudge.  Fudge is usually gritty and makes me want to knock my front teeth out on a banister.  But this fudge is different.  It’s creamy.  It melts in your mouth (or wherever you put it).  My favorite flavor is Black Cherry.  Also Vanilla Chocolate Chip.  And the Maple is very good.  And the Chocolate/Peanut Butter.   I know I sound like some sort of candy hillbilly here but it’s all true.  When you eat this fudge it changes you.

ZS: What else do you eat that changes you?

MEC:  Fudge is the only thing.

ZS: Through Thin Kimono‘s opening poem, “Do Not Disturb,” you immediately establish a relationship for the book between Author and Reader. The Author is dead, but working on “something very important” and the Reader is inclined to participate in his work, but is assured that this would be “wholly unnecessary.” How so? What is this poem teaching us about how to read this book? Do you see your readers as participants in your creations?

MEC: In this poem it’s not really the reader who is inclined to participate, but rather the speaker/narrator who’s worried about what the reader might be inclined to do. There is a dead man posing as an author. But he’s just a character in the poem. Then there is the author of the poem, who’s hiding behind his speaker. But in the end I guess it’s the same thing, if you count the speaker as a kind of author-voice, I mean, shit, listen to me, it’s all a big puppet show, really. Is this poem somehow instructing readers on how best to proceed?  No, not really.  Not intentionally, anyway.  If I were the reader I would ignore it.

ZS: To me, these new poems feel less like a puppet show, like the author is the speaker here. You seem more laid out like a mummy on the table. In “Today, For Example” for example, you seem to be questioning your actual (the author’s) career choices. Inevitably, when your poems come up in my conversations, someone will bring up your career as a farrier, as if this were a way to talk about your poems, a way to put them in some magical context that is contrary to the rest of our poems’ contexts. What question is this particular poem answering? How important is that question to your poems, to your voice, to this book?

MEC: I think I sense skepticism in your words when you write, “as if this were a way to talk about your poems, a way to put them in some magical context…”  Because there isn’t a magical context (there have been no magical contexts since 1811). I’m looking at the poem, “Today, For Example,” again and yes, I agree with you, it has an overtly autobiographical feel to it. And yes I do have days where I wonder if I’m wasting my life, like maybe I should be more serious about my writing, etc. But I had those days of doubt when I was in school, too. I would catch myself wondering if I was wasting my life on college campuses. It’s silly, because I don’t really see any of it as wasting life. It’s just that sometimes I’m struck with a kind of fleeting panic.

What question is this poem answering?  I honestly don’t know. I think what you’re asking is this: Is there a stance against academia that recurs in the work and informs the voice, the poems, the book, etc. Although I mention academia in the poem, I don’t generally see myself at odds with academia, teaching, editing journals, and so on.  It’s just not a stance I’m interested in. (Is it?) Not a recurring stance, anyway (one that might inform my voice or this collection of poems). But it’s possible I’m the wrong person to ask, and I don’t say that facetiously. Trying to answer this question has been a little like stepping out into quicksand.

ZS: I know that you listen to music while you write poems. What do you listen to? Why that music? What does listening to music do to your poems?

MEC: I don’t always listen to music while writing, but I remember noticing, a long time ago, the habit of listening to music after a poem had been (for the most part) written, when I was pushing it through a series of revisions. It seemed strange to me at the time–like some sort of home stretch biscuit I would allow myself, similar to the cigarette that the cyclist would smoke back in the day on the final leg of the Tour de France.

Probably what’s happening is I am too engrossed and/or confused for music in the beginning stages of a poem. Then when I feel I have a handle, like maybe I can see the direction emerging (the tone or the mood), I can get up and do something else. There’s that feeling of relief, right? I mean the sense of having nothing, of being lost, has passed. And when I eventually return and drop back into the poem, music is not distracting but more like a breeze at my back.

One album I have listened to hundreds of times and just don’t seem to ever get tired of is the soundtrack to David Lynch’s Fire Walk With Me, which is interesting because I’ve never seen the film. I also love the soundtrack to Pedro Almodovar’s Talk To Her. Erik Satie washes the room nicely. And Ethiopiques Vol. 4. Those are just some cds that come to mind. Oh, and the Sigur Ros album that has no title–or the title is ().

The Fire Walk With Me soundtrack is something I don’t listen to in any other context.  I don’t put that on while driving, or chopping parsley.  The feel of that album just suits me perfectly. Poems should be dipped in it.

ZS: Do you use films in a similar way? What is your relationship with Werner Herzog and his films? I sense some sort of kinship in your voices and visions.

MEC: I love soundtracks from films. Quite often the music from a film goes on to be much more important to me than the film. Well, probably that’s just because I’m checking back in with the music more frequently than I am with the film. For example, Broken Flowers.  I loved the film, bought the soundtrack, and consequently discovered Dengue Fever and Mulatu Astatke. Some of David Lynch’s soundtracks I have are great. And the soundtrack to Il Divo is amazing. Also the soundtrack to Fatih Akin’s Head On—amazing.  (Help me with some new adjectives.) The music puts the mood of the film in the room, and after a while the music takes on a second life as a kind of den wash.  Do you know what I mean by den wash?

With Herzog, for whatever reason, I find myself watching, re-winding, watching, re-winding, certain scenes. This aggravates my wife. Even the dog dislikes it. Then I re-watch the whole film listening to his director’s commentaries. Usually this bores the shit out of me (director’s commentaries), but not with Herzog. I usually take notes while listening to his comments—he has great things to say about art and the creative process. Even when people point to things he’s said that are ridiculous or self-aggrandizing I love it. I don’t know why. I just know he is better than Ron Howard.

Sometimes I’ll take photos of the television with an interesting image frozen there–I’ll send you some from Where The Green Ants Dream I’m not saying Herzog can do no wrong, I’m just saying he typically puts blood in my veins. His use of sound and music is stunning, haunting, beautiful, mysterious and sometimes corny.  I don’t mind corny when it’s Werner Herzog corny. Like the 70s rock music used in Fata Morgana… I think it’s a waterfall scene.

On top of all this Herzog is a brilliant writer.  Of Walking In Ice and Conquest of the Useless are great books.  These prose passages are gorgeous and strange and sometimes hilarious.  It’s the poet in Herzog that I love.  He just happens to be a filmmaker.

ZS: What is a den wash?

MEC: It’s like that body spray that jocks spray all over themselves in the locker room, only it’s sprayed in your den.  A kind of audio den-spray for poets.

ZS: You’re the guest tweeter for the Harriet Blog during the month of September. What attracted you about that gig? How has it been so far? What have you learned?

MEC: Someone at the Poetry Foundation contacted me and asked if I’d be interested.  My first thought was NO.  I was actually a little afraid, to be honest.  I had never tweeted, the whole thing seemed completely silly to me, and when I tried looking at various “twitter feeds” (I pictured feed bags) they left me feeling a little hollow. But I didn’t like these feelings I was having.  I didn’t like being THE HAND (as in, speak to the hand…).  My reaction was making me feel old and tired. So I eventually decided to dive in. Plus there’s a nice chunk of cash involved, which never hurts.

What did I learn?  Well, I learned how to tweet, and it was fun.  This type of writing, of condensing, is something poets have always done, so it really wasn’t so strange after all.  Counting characters is like counting syllables or peanuts.  I never really cracked into the whole interaction thing, though.  I pretty much sent out little messages in bottles.  Only once did I post a link to a website—an online arts journal—but I have to say it was exciting to do this, to click on the link and drag it into the twittorifice.  Near the end there I was beginning to see more of the possibilities.

ZS: How much does writing your poems feel like sending bottled messages into the Twittorifice? In the poem, “The Neighbor,” the neighbor asks “But seriously, who is it that you’re writing these for?” The speaker says,”I couldn’t imagine any other person.” Can you speak about what you may or may not have in common with this speaker? And about how you like to eat your dinner rolls?

MEC: Well I’m definitely not the speaker from “The Neighbor”—a poet who can’t imagine “any other person.”   And no neighbor ever asked me that question—“but seriously, who are you writing these for?”  (The dinner roll thing though, that happens a lot around here.)  But I do think, as writers, we lose track of the reader during the act of writing.  It seems like it’s only later, during revisions maybe, that I begin to think of what I’m doing as “communication.”  It happens, yes, but later.

I heard an editor interviewed recently on the radio and he was talking about humor in writing (among other things) and he said something along the lines of, “there can be no humor without an audience.”  I was eating dinner when I heard this, and one of the dinner rolls started rocking back and forth a bit on its plate.  My first reaction to this statement was one of disagreement.  I think I just looked at the ceiling and said NO.  The editor went on to say he thought it would be absurd to imagine a writer sitting at his desk just cracking himself up, etc.  His point was that in order to have something taken as humor there had to be an audience, a recipient, at least one in mind—communication had to be happening.  Anyway, that was kind of how I took it. And I guess I do see his point.  Even though during the act of writing the audience may be way off in the background, and maybe not taken into consideration at all (at least consciously), they are always there. We’re writing. We’re using language. We are attempting to communicate. This is true whether we’re writing poems, sending messages out in bottles, or tweeting.

Some poems are written and I can immediately sense the role that the reader will/might take, whereas with other poems it’s more like working on math problems or something, and the connection to a reader isn’t felt. I guess it’s there—right?—but I’m just not aware of it yet.

For some reason tweeting felt more like sending messages out in little bottles than writing poems does.  I think this is because it’s so quick, so trashy (in a good way), and so, well, digital.  You click TWEET and the computer sort of burps and it’s over.  Then you turn computer off, stand up, go to work. But yes, the similarities probably do outweigh the differences—it’s language, it’s weeding out the non-essential, it’s putting your head into the duffle bag.  Deep into the duffle bag.

When it comes to dinner rolls I’m a traditionalist.  I like to take mine with a whipped, slightly salted butter.  The rolls should be warm.  And rolls in waiting should do so beneath a white cotton cloth.

ZS: Right, a white cotton cloth.

MEC: Right.

ZS: Yeah, right.

MEC: Yeah.

ZS: It’s true that any time we use language we are communicating. And in poems, that deliberate sense of communication is heightened, even manipulated. But sometimes I feel as though I’m just talking to myself, trying to reveal something to myself I wasn’t quite conscious of before. You said sometimes your poems can feel like math problems to you. Can you say more about that? I’m thinking of a comedian sweating over the structures and timing of jokes. Do you think your poems are funny? How important is humor in these equations?

MEC: Instead of “math problem,” maybe “wrestling match” is better. Sometimes a poem comes quickly, effortlessly, and other times it’s like a wrestling match—multiple drafts, various changes, removing something, adding something else, pushing language around, hating it, changing it, okay this is working now, and so on.  Sometimes the poems that are like wrestling matches end up in the trash, but not always.

Some of the poems are humorous I suppose, although I don’t think of them that way usually. The humor is sort of a surface tone maybe, and perhaps a direction I can’t help going in.  I think sometimes some readers stop there—they don’t see much beyond the surface of a poem that appears to be “wild” or “weird” or “jokey” or whatever.

I think humor in poetry can be alienating for some people.  I’ve met people who just don’t know how to talk about poets like Russell Edson or James Tate without calling them clowns or comedians.  It’s just too difficult and strange a terrain for them to navigate. Meanwhile they might just love a kind of poetry that sounds completely dead to me, that strives for profundities that are as predictable as wheat toast, and that makes me think of Hallmark cards or the cheesiness of wedding vows.

ZS: Sometimes I think humor in a poem allows readers to feel a purer weight of what’s not so funny. Edson and Tate, especially, are great at that. Do you know what I mean?

MEC: Yes.  The deeply funny things are always riding side-car.

ZS: What are you working on now? What seems so important?

MEC: I’m just working on more poems.  I wish I had something more exciting to report—some new project, or a novel or something.  I always have this anti-climactic feeling when a book is finally done and out.  A hollow feeling.  So I’m sort of fighting that. But not convincingly. Just a half-ass kind of fight. I always want to wake up and just write new poems—a new kind of poem—but the corner I envision turning is never a sharp and obvious one.  The corner that gets turned is… well, it’s probably not even a corner.

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[Thin Kimono is available now from Wave Books.]

[Zachary Schomburg is the author of Viking (McSweeney's, forthcoming 2012), Scary, No Scary (Black Ocean 2009), and The Man Suit (Black Ocean 2007). He co-edits Octopus Books and Octopus Magazine. He lives in Portland, Or.]

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