Norbert Krapf Interview, with Kaite Hillenbrand
I’m smitten with your poem “In the Spirit House.” It addresses a theme I notice in much of your work: spirits speaking to and through you and others. Those spirits take the form of other artists, gods, or ancestors. I love a beautiful cemetery, and I know other artists who love them, too. Why do you love cemeteries, as opposed to any other park or garden? What is your understanding of “spirits”? Will you share a good cemetery story?
Actually, I love all kinds of gardens and parks. The cemetery I wrote about for this poem was inspired by a burial custom of the Seminoles in Oklahoma pointed out to me and my wife by our good friend poet Jeanetta Calhoun Mish, who descends from the Lenape Chief Anderson after whom Anderson Indiana is named. She showed us this custom, of putting little house roofs over graves, when we were in her native state last July for the Woody Guthrie Festival, which gave me a third opportunity to combine poetry and music with David Amram, who collaborated with Jack Kerouac in New York City in the 50s. We got to work together before that when the Indianapolis Museum of Art had an exhibit of the scroll-manuscript of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, owned and displayed in various locations by Colts owner Jim Irsay. A group of writers recited passages from the novel with backing by David and two fine Indy jazz musicians, bassist Frank Smith and drummer Kenny Phelps. We did that two nights in a row, once at a private party at the IMA, the next night at the opening of the exhibit for the public.
I believe strongly in the spirit world, which includes the spirits of those we knew in this world. How to describe them? Non-material beings. You are right that I commune with the spirits of the past, serve as a kind of channel, but I feel they are alive within us as well as within that spirit world. Some of them are literal ancestors and others, the artists, musicians, writers, are figurative ancestors. As I say in one of the Klara Krapf-Holocaust poems, “Relationships run deeper than blood.” In one of the Klara poems, I say that we must adopt one another.
The particular cemetery in which my poem is set is the Roslyn Cemetery on Long Island, in which nature poet William Cullen Bryant is buried. There is a Bryant family burial plot in this beautiful cemetery laid out according to the principles of the Rural Park Movement of the 19th century. It’s a cemetery laid out and landscaped like a garden-park, so gorgeous in the spring with its rich plantings. Bryant knew Frederick Law Olmstead, who designed Central Park. Bryant was not only an important poet and journalist, but he was a great horticulturist. He had great gardens at his Cedarmere estate in Roslyn Harbor, brought in trees from many places in the world, about a mile from where we lived. I spent a lot of time wandering the grounds and wrote several poems set there, including a “Songs of Cedarmere” cycle in my Bittersweet Along the Expressway collection of Long Island poems.
Here’s a cemetery story: my father (1904-1979) went to grade school in a little school set in the cemetery in the village of St. Henry, Indiana, not far from where his father built a house early in the 20th century. Half the day his instruction was in English, half of it was in German, so he was bi-lingual, but he never got to go to high school because the nearest one was too far away to walk to, there were ten children in his family, and his father told him they couldn’t afford to buy a horse for him to ride to school.
Holidays seem to me to be intimately connected to the seasons and to spirits, which you write about. I also found a website with Christmas cards that include poems you’ve written. This makes me wonder: Do you have a favorite holiday, and if so, why is it your favorite (or, if you don’t have a favorite, can you put your finger on why not)?
My favorite holiday is Thanksgiving, largely because it is so uncommercial, but also because it is about stopping or at least slowing down our fast-paced life and giving thanks for what we have. Giving thanks for our blessings. This is a time to be grateful, and one way to give thanks for what we have is to write a poem about something that we discovered in our daily life that until then we did not recognize as a blessing. Many of my poems take the form (but not the conventional language) of prayers, of hymns of praise, of psalms. “Woods Hymn” is but one example.
As a poet, you’ve collaborated with musicians and you’ve published some of those recordings. How does the process of collaboration work for you? Will you share a story about your collaborative projects and/or performances?
I took an adult ed class in Jazz History and the Indianapolis Jazz Scene from jazz pianist and composer Monika Herzig, a native of Germany who teaches at Indiana Univ. I loved her teaching and her music, she was enthusiastic about the poems I shared with her, and mid-way through the class, she asked if I would like to make a jazz and poetry CD with her. I said, Of course! That was the beginning. The poem that spoke to her most deeply was the first poem I ever wrote about my stillborn sister Marilyn, “Sisters,” only eight short lines long. It moved her so much because she had lost a child through miscarriage. Poetry and music can bring people together and facilitate healing. There were nine poems about Marilyn in my recent Sweet Sister Moon, and since that book came out, the number has gone up to 42. She is one of those spirits who speaks to and through me, and there will be a book of poems about her one of these days. I want to add that a collaboration will not work if the collaborators do not have a spiritual kinship of some sort.
You wrote to me that you’re “moving in other directions” with your poetry. Will you continue to incorporate music? What directions are you headed in, and what sparked and inspired the change?
Yes, music will continue to play an important role in my poetry, as both an element and also as a subject of poems. My recent Sweet Sister Moon, poems about women, includes a section of a dozen poems about female singers and composers, including Monika Herzig, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Cassandra Wilson, Diana Krall, Lucinda Williams. My Songs in Sepia and Black and White, 99 poems with 50 photos by Richard Fields, forthcoming from Indiana Univ. Press, includes a section of 26 poems about music, 15 of them about Bob Dylan. I was recently awarded a Creative Renewal fellowship by the Arts Council of Indianapolis to continue to combine poetry and music, with an emphasis on the blues. At 64, I started guitar lessons three years ago, will add blues guitar lessons, go to some songwriting workshops, and take the Mississippi Blues Trail with my Cajun wife. I was influenced to start writing poetry 40 years ago after listening to the rural blues nonstop for about four years. This was in addition to reading, studying, and teaching the work of many great poets, including Walt Whitman. The most important blues influence was the great songwriter, singer, and guitarist Robert Johnson. Yes, music, especially the blues, is part of what I will be doing. I’ve been collaborating with bluesman Gordon Bonham, who backed me on some poems in the Hoosier Dylan show. Down the road I will be publishing a book of poems titled Catholic Boy Blues, but it’s too early to talk about that in detail.
You’ve spent a good deal of time in Germany, writing about Germany, and translating German work. What draws you to Germany and its literature?
Germany is my ancestral land, but we had lost, within a hundred years, any knowledge of where in Germany we came from, because of two world wars and the Holocaust and shame connected with the German heritage. We lost our essential connection. After I moved away from Indiana to the New York area, I wanted to know where we came from. That was 1970, and what I have found and learned has been so deep, and sometimes dark, that I am still exploring those depths. After I found out that my mother’s and father’s families came from towns and villages about twenty miles apart in Lower Franconia, in northern Bavaria, I discovered that a Jewish woman named Klara Krapf, whose family lived only a couple miles from where my Catholic day-laborer ancestors lived, died in Theresienstadt, in the city-concentration camp in what is now the Czech Republic. With the help of some Germans from the region, I found out details about Klara’s life and death, with my family visited those sites, including Theresienstadt, and wrote a cycle of a dozen poems about her included in the last section of my Germany collection, Blue-Eyed Grass.
I believe in exploring a place down to the bottom of its depths, something I’ve been doing with my native southern Indiana, my ancestral Germany, and the Long Island of my adult life, where we lived for thirty-four years and where my wife, a Louisiana Cajun, and I raised our two children, whom we adopted as infants from Bogotá, Colombia. One lifetime will no doubt not give me enough time to finish this project. If my ancestors had come not from Germany but Italy or Kenya or Colombia or Peru, I would be exploring the history and culture of one of those places. As I have said, my favorite route to the cosmos runs through the province. It’s the particular that, if explored well, yields the universal. A sense of place travels well.
You were Poet Laureate of Indiana. What did your position entail? What do you have planned now that this commitment is up? In what ways should we encourage the reading and writing of poetry in our communities? What successes have you seen and/or accomplished in this regard?
I was Indiana Poet Laureate 2008-2010. I declined a second two-year term because I could not continue to make 100 public appearances a year without doing damage to my health, and I needed to have more time for my family and more time for myself and my work as a poet. I continued to write poems early in the morning during those two years but didn’t have the time to put together books. This is an ambassadorial position, a great opportunity to serve poetry by going into the schools, encourage the writing and reading of poetry and other kinds of literature, promote the work of Indiana poets, and, my special emphasis, to reunite poetry and music, song in particular. Poetry and song have a common origin, though many academicians would like us to believe they are very different.
We should encourage the writing and reading of poetry in every way because when we become involved in these activities we come to understand and express ourselves better, learn to identify with other people, and discover something about our common humanity. Not to do this is a way of shrinking our sensitivity to others and the world we live in and diminishing our humanity. I loved being part of the Hoosier Dylan show that we performed seven times in central and southern Indiana. Six Indiana singer-songwriters and their bands, or the “house band,” performed songs by Bob Dylan. I got to recite my poems about Bob Dylan’s work, with backing by different combinations of musicians, at my insistence. I started out just reading the poems and knew that was inadequate. Our model was Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue of 1975-76, a troupe of musicians he took out on the road that included his friend Allen Ginsberg. Producer (folksinger-actor) Tim Grimm included me as Indiana Poet Laureate because Dylan has often consorted with poets and Tim was aware I had written poems about Dylan and knew his work well.
What sparked this change? Moving back to Indiana had a lot to do with it. For 34 years I lived, wrote, taught, gave readings, and went often to concerts, of many kinds of music, in the New York area; but all those years I never had a chance to work with any musicians, though I brought some musical groups to perform in our Poetry Center series at Long Island University. In one sense, combining poetry and music is yet another way that I have circled back to my origins. I played trombone for nine years starting at the age of six or seven. I played violin for a year and a half in my forties, when our daughter started the violin in a Suzuki program. There is a tradition of playing musical instruments on both sides of my family. Now another direction, which in a sense is part of the same direction, is seeing poetry as bringing about healing. That is part of my Holocaust poems, part of my stillborn sister poems, and part of other poems I am working on, including those in the blues format.
In the Spirit House
Even when I was young I did
not think of cemeteries as sad.
To me they were quiet and peaceful
and housed spirits of those I loved.
When I became a father I often
brought my children to a cemetery
landscaped like a rural park.
We brought along a picnic lunch
and ate it and drank juice on a stone bench.
Sometimes we saw a rabbit or a pheasant
between tombstones. Periodically a diesel
commuter train ran along the back of the plot.
We played games and read books and I
pronounced the names carved in stone.
That world was populated with spirits
who became our friends, not enemies.
We did not walk in fear or dread.
We enjoyed the privacy of our park.
Nobody told us to go away.
Nobody told us to be quiet.
Garip and the Clouds
for Helmut and Garip
In the back of his Erlangen grocery store behind
a screen at a table with a miniature Turkish
carpet and a dish of figs, dates, apricots and grapes
Garib reads, at our request, a poem. He tells how
he came into the world buck naked and so
he would not freeze, his mother reached
for a tattered blanket, found none, and wrapped
him in clouds. Ever since then, the clouds
have pulled him along and he is somewhere
between clouds and deep blue seas, between
Asia and Europe. “Don’t ask me about home.
Do the clouds or the deep blue sea claim me?
Do I belong here or there?” He brings us a bottle
of Turkish wine called Villa Doloca made of a grape
named The Eye of the Ox, and we drink until we float
between continents like clouds drifting in the wind.
Together we toast a life lived between continents
and countries where wine and poetry and music
and food bring people together and make time
stop at the intersection where human life begins.
Georgia O’Keefe’s Mountain
As I sat listening, eyes sometimes
closed, to young writers read songs
they heard wanting to be sung,
I suddenly looked up and saw,
through the window, the flat-
topped mountain called Pedernal
that Georgia O’Keefe loved to paint.
“If I painted it enough,” Georgia
said, “I thought God might give
it to me.” And She did.
The mountain became Georgia’s
because she gave herself to it
and recreated it for all of us.
Georgia’s eyes and brush
created a Pedernal that
became ours to behold.
As I gazed at that mountain
that God gave to Georgia
so she could give it to us,
I noticed close to the window
light-filled, heart-shaped leaves
on a cottonwood, rooted in winter
sunlight, ablaze as if in a vision
of medieval mystic Hildegaard
of Bingen, who gives us the power
to open our eyes to everyday
beauty waiting to be seen,
cherished, and shared.
Sancho Panza’s Beans
No Palm Sunday King,
I follow on my ass
wherever the master goes.
My saddle bags are full
of beans, garlic, and onion
which I boil on the fire
at night to feed his chimera.
I give him beans at night and he
makes poems during the day.
Him I serve, and his poem
that looks like a lance he
would stick into a windmill.
His poem is his salvation
which it is mine to serve.
We all have our means of expression.
I ride high on my ass with my bags
full of beans and say to myself,
“My kingdom for a bean or a poem.”
Letter to Yo-Yo Ma from Madrid
Seated at your table not far from where
the performance was to begin, did you
feel trapped in the celebrity that follows
wherever you go, when two Americans
in succession interrupted your meal?
My wife registered your politeness
and your companion’s frustration
as, in her firm words, you “just tried to
enjoy our meal.” I was preoccupied
with the camera and the last battery’s
drain of energy as I prepared to capture
the highlights of the dancers and guitarists
and singers as moments to savor while
your meal became someone else’s
opportunity to tell you who you are.
But I did see you turn and smile
when the music began and the oldest
señora clacked her black heels
on the hardwood stage. My eyes
followed hers, and her feet,
and the fingers of the guitarists
as they pressed and picked the strings
of their rhythmic instruments that
were percussive as well as melodic.
My arthritic hands and fingers
wanted to go where theirs went
with such grace. Did yours want to
touch your cello’s strings and turn
your lyrical instrument into a Flamenco
voice while looking at the dancer,
guitarists, and men in black clapping
in accompaniment and chanting words
to support the dancer’s hypnotic song?
In my mind’s eye, I saw you on stage,
eyes closed, bowing across strings
as your fingers touch the right
spot at the right time to sing, sing
so lyrically, with such purity, whatever
concerto you give yourself to as it
comes from deep within a source
we cannot see. I remember how,
with childlike joy, you communicated
in the workshop you gave to members
of the Children’s Orchestra Society
founded by your father. You were
also a child and brought what was
beautiful and singular in each to come
play with you. I watched your sister
grin as you cavorted up and down
the aisle, making everyone smile and relax.
You encouraged our daughter’s best friend,
a violist, to dance when I answered who
could do a jig to move the soloist deeper
into the spirit of the piece she played.
Not all of this came back at once during
the passionate but controlled Flamenco
performance shared by the troupe, whose
gifts and commitment to their heritage became
more and more palpable as we expressed
our admiration for what they gave to us.
But I did wonder if you might perhaps enter
into another collaboration that would turn
you into a Chinese American Flamenco
cellist whom our children would love to
follow like a Pied Piper and whose parents
might fantasize that they too have it
in their fingers and feet to allow their
spirits to come forth and express and share
a love of what makes us who and what
we are and brings us together in the kind
of communication that makes
all people and cultures one.
To a Valencia Orange
Thank you for waiting overnight
on the balcony in winter.
The curves of your rind
are delightful to the touch.
How willingly your skin
comes off when I pull.
How cool the feel of your
sections as I divide them
and lick your juice from
my fingertips. How delicious
the taste of your flesh
and the explosion of your
juice on my tongue.
Orange of Valencia,
I give thanks for the burst
of sun you bring to my day.