Thursday, May 01, 2008
Interview with Norbert Krapf
Norbert Krapf is a popular and respected Indiana poet and teacher. His work has received national attention and has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Here he answers questions about his new memoir, The Ripest Moments: A Southern Indiana Childhood, recently published by the Indiana Historical Society Press. (Author photo by Andreas Riedel)
What prompted you, after years of writing poetry, to tackle a memoir?
Before I began to write poetry in early 1971, after moving to teach in the New York area in 1970, I began a series of “sketches,” as I called them, as preparation for writing a short story cycle. That was in the fall of 1970, but in January of 1971 I began to write poems, at the age of 27, and good poems and publication came quickly. However, I have been primarily a narrative poet, which means I tell stories. I never lost my love of stories, of hearing and telling them.
I began The Ripest Moments about a month after my mother died in 1997. I had been commuting between Long Island and southern Indiana to help take care of her during her final illness (lymphoma) and spent a lot of time with my brother, who came back home to Jasper from Florida, for the time being, to take care of her. We talked a lot about our memories of childhood, and that was a stimulus. Also, our father had died in 1979, we knew the family house would be sold after our mother died, and I think it’s natural to want to preserve family memories and experiences at a time like that, to keep them alive and pass them on.
Some of those early “prose sketches” I mentioned above became part of the memoir. I fleshed them out some, tightened them, and they became part of the overall narrative of The Ripest Moments. I finished about half of the chapters after we moved to Indy in July of 2004.
What kind of ties do you still retain with the community of Jasper?
Deep and persistent ones! I have never lost touch with the Jasper and Dubois County community. I still have many cousins in and around Jasper and see them when we go down to visit. During the 34 years we lived in the New York area, on Long Island, we came back and forth regularly. In one sense, I never left, because in my poetry I was always going back, returning, discovering roots, finding more layers of origins and heritage. I’m still good friends with many of my high school classmates and friends, who come to my readings, buy my books, and write to me about them. John Fierst, my American history teacher, the driving force behind the Dubois County Historical Society and also the Dubois County Museum, a marvelous facility and repository, to which I gave my childhood, high school, and college papers, as well as family history materials, is still a good friend. I call him often. He helped me eliminate some factual errors in the memoir, even as late as the third page proof! My mentor Jack Leas, my senior English teacher, became a good friend of the family and when he died, I came back from New York to be his pall bearer. I dedicated my first full-length poetry collection to him and my parents, and you’ll find him and John Fierst mentioned in the acknowledgments of the memoir.
I should count up the names of local people I mentioned in the memoir. It could be at least a hundred! I believe in living locally, staying in touch, going down into your past so that you arrive at the ultimate source. That’s enough to keep any writer and any human being alive and motivated and nourished for at least one life time. My wife and our children spent so much time in southern Indiana during the summer and other vacations (holidays) that my children always considered Indiana a second home. Our daughter went to Butler on a violin scholarship and our son is now at IUPUI. I should mention that I spent over twenty years editing and annotating the pioneer German journals and letters in my Finding the Grain book, which came out in 1996. That book includes the letters of Croatian missionary Joseph Kundek, who colonized the area with German Catholics. I am rooted, deeply rooted. I know where I come from, I have friends in my ancestral region in Germany, Franconia, in northern Bavaria. My dialect writer (poet and playwright) friend Helmut Haberkamm, who has translated many of my poems into German, came to Indy in 2006 and asked me to take him to Jasper, so he could see the place and the people that I write about. He loved it there. He heard me read from the then new collection Looking for God’s Country, which includes some 25 poems inspired by the work of his photographer friend Andreas Riedel, with whom he, too, has collaborated.
Finally, I should say that I have read my poetry many times in Jasper, most often at the Dubois County Museum, in its most recent location, a former plant of The Jasper Corporation/Kimball, but also when it was located on Main Street in the Gutzweiler-Gramelspacher House, across from the library, where I also read a number of times. My readings in Jasper, I have been told by people who’ve seen me read elsewhere, are different from my readings elsewhere. My Jasper audience knows the subjects of my poems, where they come from, they understand my humor, which only encourages me to use it more. Almost every time I read in my hometown, a bunch of us go out for beer and food and conversation. Now that is community: poetry, beer (or wine), food, and conversation.
Memoirs have been in the news recently because of some authors’ seeming willingness to stretch the truth about their lives. Did you consider this when writing your memoir?
Yes I did. Norbert tolerates no stretchers! I have too much respect for historical accuracy to play with the facts. Admittedly, memory can play tricks on us, memory and imagination are kissing kin, I say in my Preface, but I went to great lengths to minimize factual errors. I probably made some errors, but that’s part of going back fifty years or more into the past. We had a good discussion on this issue at the first reading I gave from the memoir, sponsored by the Writers’ Center of Indiana. I said that it’s true that some portraits are composites based on more than one experience, such as the description of shooting my first squirrel. My writer friend Susan Neville made a good point. She said it’s not a problem if you based such a chapter on composite experiences, but it is a problem if you never shot a squirrel and try to convince the reader that you did. I agree that the writer has a kind of contract with the reader. If I want you to trust me as a narrator or teller of stories, I have to win you over, and I should not do that by trickery, because if you find me cheating, you won’t keep on reading. You’ll be justifiably upset and feel deceived. To use novelistic devices in writing a memoir, however, is not a deception, but a form of art and a respected and necessary device that deepens the lived experience you are trying to describe and make come alive and stay alive for the reader.
Was there a particular memory of your youth that remains vivid and unforgettable to you today?
To pick one is difficult if not impossible; but I can say that my deepest memories have to do with the hundreds if not thousands of hours I spent in the woods of Dubois County. It was going squirrel hunting with my father and other relatives that started that, which became a process that turned into a metaphor. In “The Woods Behind the House,” one of the memoir chapters, I quote both Robert Frost and Henry David Thoreau. I often told my students at Long Island University and the people who came to hear me read in the New York area that for me the woods was what the ocean is to them. The southern Indiana woods “gave me pasture enough for my imagination,” to borrow from Thoreau. I stopped hunting squirrels fairly early, but I never stopped going into woods and looking, listening, and recording impressions. I must have written more woods, tree, and squirrel poems than any other American poet!
Have you received any reaction as of yet from your family about the book?
Nobody in my family has yet had a chance to read the entire memoir, but my sister Mary, who is the subject of the chapter “Baby Sisters,” is a very loyal and enthusiastic reader of my writing, always buys one copy of each of my books for herself and two for her children, and loved that chapter when I e-mailed it to her earlier, will certainly give me her reaction. I am the oldest and she is the youngest of four; my brothers, we could say, are not great readers of my work. This is not, however, all that unusual for poets. We poets talk to one another about this kind of stuff, you know!
Do you maintain a regular writing schedule, or wait for inspiration to strike?
Well, anybody who is a good friend of mine knows that I was a maniac for writing letters (sigh, that day is gone) and now e-mails, I have also kept a journal since 1970 (almost four big boxes full in the closet here in my study, in downtown Indy), and so I am writing all the time. More and more, I write poems early in the morning, before anybody else in the family is awake. But I can write almost anywhere, at any time, if I’m on a roll. I tend to write poems in groups, clusters, cycles, which is perhaps related to the fact that I am so often a narrative poet.
But my poems have become more and more meditative in recent years, perhaps one could say more and more spiritual. Contemporary poet William Stafford, a mentor who died in the early 1990s, had a practice of writing a poem every morning, early. After our daughter moved to Portland, Oregon, near where Stafford lived, wrote, and taught for over 30 years (he was a Kansas native), I got to visit the William Stafford Archive and was very moved to see all his drafts, how he organized and preserved them, put his books together, etc. When we got back home, low and behold, I started to write at least one poem early every morning. That went on for over 90 days, even when I went to Germany to visit my writer friend Helmut, in whose house I have written a number of poems. But I didn’t keep it up. When I’m really into it, I’ve been known to write almost all day long and in the middle of the night, but that’s really exhausting. When I was writing the poems that were published in Invisible Presence, my collaboration with Darryl Jones, I wrote so fast and furious and long, that my wife once looked at me and said, “You’ve got that faraway look in your eye again!” She’s pretty understanding. I guess she has to be!
Let me say something glorious: I am now retired and for the past four plus years, I’ve been able to give all my energies to writing. It’s been a great run, I’ve recorded a CD with the superb jazz pianist and composer Monika Herzig, I did a book, Invisible Presence>, with the excellent photographer Darryl Jones, and I have a book coming out in the fall, Bloodroot: Indiana Poems, with about 70 b/w photographs by David Pierini, who for ten years worked with The Herald in Jasper; this prose memoir, half of which I wrote here in downtown Indy, is just out, and next year I have another poetry collection coming out, Sweet Sister Moon, love poems and tributes to women. I must be doing something right, must have done the right thing to come back to Indiana, must be living in the right place.
I’ve been told that I’m a disciplined writer. I never say no to inspiration, however. Any time my Muse comes, I do not say no! Again, I want to come back to William Stafford, who saw the writing of poetry as a very natural and human activity. When people would ask him when he started writing, he would ask them when they stopped. Children love figurative language, think and speak in images and metaphors, without having to labor at it. They love nursery rhymes, the magical sounds of language, including rhyme, and rich fantasy! What happens when they grow up? Something in our culture tells them/us that an activity like writing poems is not an adult activity.
I’m therefore happy to be a retired child, to have people come to hear me read my poems, buy my books, and even write to me about them. I feel both lucky and blessed to be doing this and am about to knock-knock on my beautiful wooden desk for continued good luck!