Talking with Kevin Craft about finding substance and meaning in poetry when the world's gone mad

When our January Poet in Residence, Kevin Craft, left his post as editor of Poetry Northwest magazine in 2016 for an executive editor position, he tells me, “the first order of business was to take some time for myself and rediscover myself as a writer.”

Poetry Northwest has a long history of very fine direction from poets including Carolyn Kizer, Richard Hugo, and David Wagoner. Craft took his charge as editor seriously, guiding Poetry Northwest from some creative and financial doldrums back to its rightful place as the standard-bearer of the region’s literary traditions. But all that hard work meant he’d been neglecting his own writing. “I turned 50 last year,” Craft tells me, “and that’s a marker. I just needed to think a little bit, calmly, about what the next phase, the next half, of my writing life was going to be.”

The higher-level executive editorship allowed Craft the time and space to find his own voice again, even while he oversaw the creation of a new press of Poetry Northwest-branded collections — the first two of which will be published this year. Without the day-to-day work of assembling a magazine, he says he was able to get “back into a regular writing rhythm that wasn't interrupted by all the other things that [he] could or should be doing to push the magazine forward.”

Last year, Craft released his first book since finding his rhythm again, and at the time I said the collection, titled Vagrants & Accidentals, “feels like a book that’s been bottled up for a decade, just waiting to be introduced to an unsuspecting world.”

The release of Vagrants & Accidentals, with a reading world tour that included stops in New York City and Paris, felt like a significant moment in Craft’s evolution as an artist — a gateway between his earlier life and his present life. “I'm beginning to feel like the celebration of the release of that project is in the past,” he says, “and now it's time to move forward.” Wherever Craft’s poetry takes him, he’s well equipped with what he calls “a pretty good stockpile of poems.” “I think I have enough for another collection but I don't know yet what the shape of that collection is,” he tells me.

"When you hear shoddy language, abusive language, you want to push back with all your might."

Craft says the most important question he’s been dealing with as a writer is the “fused” connection between “personal prerogatives and public imperatives.” And poetry in the year 2018 exists in both of those spaces. “We live in a time,” he explains, “where speaking out is an act of sanity. I find myself saying to the radio every day, ‘No! That's a lie! Those are lies!’ And when you hear shoddy language, abusive language, you want to push back with all your might. I feel that as a teacher and I feel that as a writer. I feel it as a parent.”

Craft says that he’s always been interested in a poet’s role in public, but “I feel that end of things a little bit more keenly now, like many of us do.” He wants poems to be personal and honest and reflect everything that poems should — “the death of parents, travel, the state of world, beauty, natural wonder” — without feeling “miniscule or somehow beside the point” in a time of President Trump.

For Craft, the poems always start from deep inside. For him, writing begins as he’s “swimming in the sea of language and looking for that discovery — the thing that surprises me, that thing that I don't already know.” When he realizes he’s caught hold of something good, he feels a connection to “an opening in time that says you’re participating in something much bigger than you alone in this moment.”

In a quest to understand the current moment, Craft has spent a lot of time reading the roots of his poetic education. “I do keep up with people who are writing now,” he says. “But where I really go for comfort is backward, I'm afraid — Adrienne Rich and Elizabeth Bishop. Literature has our backs, really.”

“I think I've come to this understanding,” Craft says: “there is no utopian arrival. There is no permanent dystopia, for that matter, either. There is just a recombination of the same elements, and generation after generation has to pick up the struggle. I think that's what you see when you look backward in history: you see that we’re never going to get to some perfect place.” He says artists just have to learn to come to terms with that constant struggle “in ways that don't overwhelm us on a daily basis. And I think that's where poetry and art come in, really. Not in some fancy way but in a genuine way.”

Craft has been searching around for a way to explain what he’s getting at, and at the end of our conversation he’s finally found it. “You know, you’ve got to eat protein in order to have energy to get through the day,” he says. “I want the poetry of protein, not the poetry of carbohydrate.”