Guest Post, Robert Krut: Heroes Are Dead; Long Live Heroes

 

Robert Krut Bio PhotoI have a handwritten postcard from Allen Ginsberg. And not some random handwritten postcard I discovered in an antique desk drawer at a flea market, or bought online somewhere.  It is handwritten to me. It is, needless to say, one of my most prized possessionsAs you might imagine, it is framed and hanging within view of the computer I am typing on at this very moment.

Ginsberg was my first big literary hero—the person I read obsessively, rhapsodized about to others—I carried around my copy of his glorious red-covered Collected Poems everywhere I went.  I drove my high school English teacher crazy by insisting I share “America” with the class, “go fuck yourself” and all. I wanted to write like him, and if I am honest with myself, I wanted to be him—free, wild-bearded, hand to the sky and capturing the lightning of electric lines right to the page.

So, I wrote him a letter.  Certain I was the first teenager to ever write him and tell him how much his poems meant to me, and how my high school just “didn’t get it” (looking back now, my teacher was more than accommodating of my obsession), I told him how I was also from New Jersey and wanted to be a poet.  Much to my surprise, a few weeks later, a postcard was sitting on the kitchen table when I got home (my Mom was smiling when she said “well, you got a postcard today…”).  In a cruel twist of fate, he even suggested I come to a reading in the city and introduce myself—but the card arrived the day after the reading (cursed by slow mail over the December holidays).  But I had my postcard.  My handwritten postcard from my hero.  And that was more than enough.

Naturally, in the coming years, I discovered many literary heroes that led me to want to write, each one stepping into the hero role: Raymond Carver, Flannery O’Connor, Denis Johnson, Michael Burkard. . . they all became not only writers I admired, but those that lit fires, guided my own work (often leading to not-so-infrequent unintended homages).  With each new hero, the previous faded a bit into the background–needless to say, when my Carver obsession began, my attempts at poems were stripped-down affairs as opposed to the expansive, no-thought-should-be-discarded Ginsbergian approach.  Denis Johnson, of course, married those two approaches well, in a sort of tough visionary literature–his poem “The Veil” has remained on my office wall for twenty years.  I suppose this sort of admiration is human nature.

Ultimately, the sort of “hero worship” I had early on for Ginsberg was somewhat similar to that of other, earlier incarnations of fandom: my bedroom as a little kid was plastered with posters of Reggie Jackson and Catfish Hunter; my early teenage years saw U2 and REM on those same walls.  Ultimately, they made room for Bob Dylan memorabilia; Dylan directly pointed me to Ginsberg, who took up the hero mantle.

When you admire someone so completely, of course, it is only natural to see them not only replaced, but also drift a bit back.  At times, we even have to discard them to move past their (encouraging, sparkling) grip.  For me, by the end of my undergraduate years, I would say things like “I’ll always love Ginsberg, but…” completing that sentence with phrases like “his Collected Poems could have been half as long” (my precious red book!), or “I’m realizing I can go straight to the source–Whitman!”  As time went on though, I kept a place for my hero in my heart–I had my list of lingering poems that still knocked me out, taught him periodically over the years (a visionary literature class here, a political poetry unit there, etc.), even thrilled at going to City Lights Books in San Francisco.  But it was never truly quite the same as those first few years in the rush of discovering his work.

Now, though, after a recent event, I realized that my love for Ginsberg was never only about the cult of personality or some cartoon of his “character.”  There was–is–real magic in his work, so it was only a matter of time that I would revisit my full force love of his poetry, and role as a poet.  In going back to him after all these years, I can appreciate him on a deeper level–embracing what I love, acknowledging any limitations, and feeling the rush of connecting with poetry for the first time again.  It’s a great feeling–I encourage all readers to go back to their first heroes and see if it happens for them, too.

My renewed fervor grew out of the most common of occurrences for those of us who write poems–a simple conversation where someone asks “who is your favorite poet?” Or, similarly, but with a bit more breathing room: “who are your favorite poets?”  It’s always nice when someone asks this at a party–particularly when you’re the only one there who may write (or publicly acknowledge writing) poems, as you see someone taking an interest in poetry–so often I am pleased to see a real interest out in the “non-poetry” and/or “non-academic” worlds about poems.

That being said, I have also learned over the years that, in those moments, breaking out truly contemporary, or even slightly obscure older, poets leads to blank stares–I have killed many a conversation over the years extolling the virtues of names that didn’t register in the conversation partner.  So, typically now I mention someone relatively well-known that I do love, but that will bridge the discussion.  Typically a response of “well, it all starts with Whitman and Dickinson” is a solid one, and allows for an engaging conversation.  Other names that have worked well in these moments include Langston Hughes, William Carlos Williams, and Elizabeth Bishop (for reference, “One Art” and “The Moose” are very popular; “The Man-Moth” tends to unfortunately be a deal breaker).  It should be pointed out, though that mentioning these “classic names” provides a perfect chance to share newer ones, as common ground has been established. Last month I was at a bar where someone asked about poets and I followed up a Whitman reference by saying “and if you want to read some great contemporary work, go find Danez Smith.”  Later in the night, that same person came back to me and asked me to repeat the name so he could enter it into his phone for future reference.

But back to Ginsberg–at a recent party, sensing that my conversation partner might have loved the Beats back in the day, I mentioned my old hero.  To my shock, this was not met with a positive response–the person, laughing in a good natured way, let me know “Oh no!  I can’t stand Ginsberg!”  I was surprised at how quickly I snapped back into being that teenager again, with my Ginsberg love back front and center.  The good thing, though, as I now realize, is that my hero worship had been replaced with admiration–and in defending his legacy, I could feel myself reconnected with him, and what excites me about poetry, all over again.

I made my case.  In a world where everyone can be so cynical, isn’t it refreshing to have his poems out there, in all of their rambling, heart-on-sleeve glory?  In a time when it is so necessary, isn’t it exhilarating to read poems facing capital-A America straight on?  What lover of poetry didn’t want to break out “America” on November 9, 2016?  And have you read “Supermarket in California” recently?  It feels fresh and heartbreaking all over again–only now Ginsberg is the one we meet in the grocery store instead of Whitman.

And, if the poetry/politics intersection doesn’t do it for you, there is the personal and spiritual work.  The teenage version of me read “To Aunt Rose” and loved it.  But as we all get older, and lose people we love, good luck reading it, with its detailed and loving portrait, and not only marveling at its poetry but also tearing up at the emotions.  Additionally, the spirituality that runs through so much of the work, with its mix of Judaism and Buddhism, takes us out of the rough observations of the political work and places American life on a different plane–try listening to his reading of “Wichita Vortex Sutra” with Phillip Glass and not feeling like you are floating five feet above the ground.

All of this came out though that party conversation, and I was back in, full force.  In doing so, I reconnected with something I loved about poetry from when I first started writing.  That night I went home and wrote, and I did the next day, too.

We put our heroes away for a bit for a reason, and we certainly can’t sacrifice what is new in poetry to stay safe in our comfort zones–we would become boring if that happened.  At the right time, though, it is worth revisiting them once again, with the deeper understanding that comes from time as well as the larger world of literature. We see them with added depth, but lit by the spark that first excited us about writing.  In the end, it leaves us admiring them as writers, not heroes.  And I say that as I look up at Allen Ginsberg’s handwriting from 1990 on my wall.

Guest Blog Post, Robert Krut: Wherever, Whenever

Robert KrutWith the school year just starting up, I have new students asking about creating good writing schedules, patterns, and habits.  As always, I recommend having a solid daily (or at least “near daily”) routine to get work done, whether that work means starting something new, tinkering with an existing piece, or revising to a final draft.  That schedule is different for different people–when I was younger, it was always late at night.  Now, I do this sort of work first thing in the morning.  Of course, it all starts with a cup of coffee (importantly, though, I don’t allow myself a second cup until I’ve gotten some work done–I still hear Ron Carlson’s voice from graduate school saying that morning coffee can be a crutch to take you away from writing, so that second cup is reserved until after some work is done).  Having a schedule like this, even if you don’t always follow it exactly, is incredibly helpful.  I can always tell when I’ve been good about keeping to it, as opposed to slacking, based on the amount of pieces I’ve got done.

In addition to having that sort of daily schedule, though, I encourage them to write wherever the possibility arises, and (forgive me for using this phrase) whenever inspiration strikes.  I’m not talking about setting a laptop up in a coffee shop to write while spacing out to the pastries case–I mean taking a second, wherever you are, to jot down images, ideas, phrases, words that jump out–this may be because you’ve actually seen something worth remembering, or it may just be that a particular turn of phrase is stuck in your head for some unknown reason.  Get it down.  After many times of thinking to myself, “oh, I’ll remember that later”–and then, of course, not–I’ve tried to be much better about that.

This is an approach I’ve always known to be helpful, but really stepped up my use of it over the past few years.  At least half of the poems in my new book started “on the scene,” so to speak, and then were finished during my regular, home-based writing schedule.  Looking through the table of contents, I can easily point to the places where each started, even if it was just a one-line image: the corner of 6th and Broadway in Downtown LA, the shoreline in La Conchita, a gas station in Tarzana, awaiting jury duty in a municipal building, outside any number of music venues (Largo, El Cid, Silverlake Lounge all come to mind)–the list goes on.  One of my favorite of these memories, though, had me piecing together cryptic text messages on a very bright California morning.

The previous evening, I had gone with a group of friends to a glittery, velvet-rope-having, line-down-the-block dance club in Hollywood–not the sort of place I frequent, admittedly.  The Los Angeles I love and live in is much more Big Lebowski than TMZ, but I also enjoy trying just about anything, so I went along, strolling into a club bordered by a perimeter of paparazzi.  Needless to say, I felt a little out of place walking past the line of people dressed as if they were auditioning for a reboot of Club MTV (a reference that shows my age, but makes sense considering that, a week later, an MTV personality was DJing in this very club).  Thanks to some good planning, and what I suspect was string pulling, by my friends, though, we walked past the crowds and right to our table on the edge of the dance floor.

I am, to be honest, not exactly one to walk into a dance club and immediately break out killer moves (although, I do always fantasize about reenacting the classic dance scene from Airplane in this sort of setting), so after getting a drink and swaying tastefully around my friends for a while, I removed myself from the actual dance floor. Walking up to the rise, near the DJ, I watched the crowd for a while.  Then, moved back down and out to the smoking deck to get away from the crowd for a bit.  Then, back to our table to get another drink, then back to the rise, and so on and so forth.  As the night went on–and it went on a while–I got over myself and wound up back in the mass of people on the dance floor, and everything just moved on from there.  Importantly, during all of this, I sent myself two text messages.

In the midst of the evening, I had two of those “write this now” moments, and didn’t want to forget them.  They weren’t grand reveals of entire poems, but were just images/ideas that jumped out: one from standing on the second level looking at the crowd, and one from leaning on the outdoor patio and seeing people come in and out.  As unromantic as texting yourself poem ideas sounds, I didn’t want to lose the ideas.

The next morning, I turned on my phone to find the two texts.  The first simply said “medusa head dead snakes.”  The second, which read “stones sparking above,” was accompanied by a video.  I had tried to subtly get a picture–subtly because I didn’t want to seem like the creep staring down at the crowd taking photos of strangers, but did want to capture the scene.  I accidentally hit the video button, though, and wound up with an 8-second clip.  Here’s the video, for reference:  https://vimeo.com/76005684

Sitting at my desk with these two clues, I started my regular writing routine.  The “stones sparking above” quickly gave way to an entire poem, with Medusa appearing with a “ghost snake halo” near the end.  It was the first time I’ve ever invoked Greek mythology in a poem, and after revision and revision and revision, it became “The Gods Take Your Secrets, and the Gods Take You Down,” which appears in the new book.

I haven’t shared this story with those same students who asked about writing habits, as I don’t relish the thought of them picturing me dancing around in a strobe-light twitching Hollywood club (years ago, two students saw me dancing at an Outkast show in Atlanta, and they later admitted it was hard to look at me the same way in class after that).  All the same, it reminds me of the importance of writing wherever writing wants to arrive, whether it is at a desk with morning coffee, or in a club, hearing your friends call you back into a crowd of dancing bodies.

Robert Krut’s new book, This is the Ocean, will be released on October 11, but can be pre-ordered at http://www.bonafidebooks.com/this-is-the-ocean/