Poet in the Mirror: Robert Krut
We’re so proud to share some insight into the lives and hearts of today’s poets with our Poet In The Mirror series. This week, Robert Krut—author of the new The Now Dark Sky, Setting Us All on Fire (Codhill/SUNY Press, 2019)—graciously reveals the feelings of gutting his collection and rewriting, the moment he first felt truly invited into poetry, and the specific, singular, surprising joy of sharing poetry with just the right crowd.
On Rejection & Revision
Robert Krut: The very first version of the book was done (so I thought) in early 2016, and in the excitement of feeling like I was wrapped up on its work, I started sending it out. Right away, it made it relatively far in two competitions from presses I like quite a bit, so I felt like it was on the right track. Even though the previous two books took a while to get published, I naively thought this time it must be on a brisk pace. I even went so far as the say (in a Q&A after a reading at that time) that I was optimistic if would find a home within that year—I wanted to try “the power of positive thinking” for once, but the instant the words came out of my mouth, I knew I was jinxing it. A year went by with no bites whatsoever.
That gave me the spark, however, to look at the manuscript with tougher eyes, and realize it needed some serious editing and revision. So I did some heavy lifting, and started to send it out again. I got a little interest here and there, but nothing that really felt like progress. Finally, over the summer of 2018, I gave myself some tough love, and went through and cut a bunch of poems—and then had a burst of writing that replaced them. About a third of the book was gutted, and flushed out with new pieces. Of course, part of me thought why didn’t you do this earlier, but I suppose we’re not always ready to let particular pieces go, and even though I don’t think I’m sentimental, it’s hard to be ruthless sometimes. But that intense reworking of the manuscript finally put it in fighting shape, I think. A few months later, I heard from the great editor Pauline Uchmanowicz at Codhill Press, and everything moved quickly from there. So, in terms of a relationship with rejection, I suppose this book was a reminder that rejection is necessary sometimes to make me face what needs to be done on a manuscript. Instead of a spiral of neuroses, it can be a call to action.
On Becoming “Professional”
While I’m not sure how to define “professional endeavor” in terms of poetry, I can place the time where it seemed like I might be able to pursue it in the long term, even if it meant on a small scale. It’s a lesson about how we interact with younger writers, as well.
I knew pretty early on in college that I wanted to pursue writing, and that I would be applying to MFA programs, and hoping to teach writing. That didn’t mean I had made any real strides in that regard, other than writing a lot (of poems that would surely make me cringe now) and reading quite a bit. While home, in central New Jersey, over my sophomore summer break, I was on the lookout for any literary events I could find. It’s not like suburban Jersey was bursting with its own City Lights Books, but there were readings that popped up periodically—one of them being at a big Barnes and Noble superstore sort of place. I saw in the paper that there would be a featured reader, and then an open mic portion. I collected a few sheets of poem-covered paper and headed on my way. When I got to the reading, I was number 19 on the open mic list (this event has clearly not instituted a max reader limit, and it would top out at 26 people). It was going to be a long night.
The featured reader that night was Maria Maziotti Gillan, a wonderful poet and organizer from Paterson, NJ. After her reading, she sat right in front row, and listened intently to all of the open mic readers. At the end of the night, as I was getting ready to leave, she tapped me on the shoulder to say she liked what I read, and that I should send it into The Paterson Literary Review, which she edited. I was thrilled, of course, and the next morning I printed a fresh copy, wrote a little note, and stuck it in the mail. It was the first poem I had published in a national journal—probably the first time I felt “professional.” It would be a while before I started publishing regularly, but that journal (and the editor’s warmth and encouragement) was a spark.
It was such a nice gesture that she would have spoken with me—the 19th of 26th readers, no less—that night, and I always try to keep her thoughtfulness in mind as a member of the poetry community. Part of being a “professional,” I think, is keeping an eye out for each other, and offering that kind of support.
On The Surprising Moments of His Debut, The Spider Sermons
I had spent years sending out versions of that book, probably long before it was truly ready to go, sending it out dutifully for a long time before it was taken somewhere. It had been a quarter/semi/finalist more times than I could count, and I veered between thinking it must be close to but someone would take it if it were any good.
At a certain point, I had gotten caught in the pattern of send-and-pass, which became an almost zen-like process of submitting, almost without thought, over and over, to countless places (I know enough now to not recommend this process, that finding presses that actually suit the work is a much better option). The surprising thing, as you’ve asked, was that, when I did finally hear from someone that they wanted to publish it, the acceptance process was incredibly simple—and that was surprising. The sun didn’t break through the clouds, the final chord of “A Day in the Life” did not echo out, and I did not levitate off the ground. Instead, I received a simple, nice email about the collection. I read the note quickly, then carefully, then walked out to get a cup of coffee. After drinking it, I went back to the computer and checked my email one more time to make sure I wasn’t misreading it. It was real, and I exhaled, knowing finally this first book was coming out. And, importantly, it meant I could get to work on the next one.
Move around. Los Angeles has so many different neighborhoods, each with a distinct personality, and walking through them, open to ideas, is almost always a good remedy for feeling drained. An old street sign, the sound of the beach, a food truck down the road…I nearly never run out of spaces out here to spark writing if I just get out and look around. That’s not unique to LA, of course—every city, or town, or rural area, or wherever, has the same supply of inspiration.
In addition, the other arts are an important way of re-energizing, and re-generating, when needed. For this last book, I can point to particular poems that I know came from the paintings, from film, from TV, from music, from theater. Sometimes it is something specific, and sometimes it is the simple act of being around art and feeling that energy of creation that sets me on my way and back to writing.
On What a Poet’s Family Finds Surprising
The mundane nature of the process, most likely. Sitting at the desk and trying to write something every day…the obsessive changing, then changing back, then changing again, of particular words or images…the back and forth between line breaks…
It’s fun to talk with them about the more dramatic moments—when inspiration struck late at night in a club, or an idea revealed itself while walking on a beach—but the reality is that those experiences make up about a tenth of the process. I suspect it would be surprising how much is just done at the desk, a cup of coffee next to the computer, most likely in a mug one of them gave me.
On Bright Poet-Moments
This past summer, we had the book release reading here in Los Angeles, in a great old Hollywood sort of room in the back of a bar. There are a lot of fantastic bookstores in town, but this time I wanted to try something different—it was a room with red walls, chandeliers, antique mirrors framing the stage, and booths and tables. I tend to sort of black out to a degree during readings—I love doing it, but do get a bit nervous at first, which blurs my memory from start to finish.
Before I started, though, I looked at the crowd in this fantastic space and it was filled with friends—this was, of course, a nice feeling, as I’ve done readings for as little as two people. More important than the size of the crowd, though, was the fact that so many supportive friends came out. Importantly, there were so many artists in the crowd—writers, actors, painters, filmmakers, comedians, you name it. These people, whether they realized it or not, had made a real impact on the book I was about to share with them. Looking around, I could identify specific poems that related to a number of their faces. So, standing there, sharing the book with that particular crowd was a bright moment. As I move through the writing process, I have plenty of dimmer moments, or moments with no light at all, but for that night, it felt good to just have a chance to read for them all. I think I even remembered to say thank you.
Robert Krut is the author of three books: the recently released The Now Dark Sky, Setting Us All on Fire (Codhill/SUNY Press, 2019), which received the Codhill Poetry Award; This is the Ocean (Bona Fide Books, 2013), which won the Melissa Lanitis Gregory Poetry Prize; and The Spider Sermons (BlazeVox, 2009). His work has appeared widely in journals like Gulf Coast, The Cimarron Review, Blackbird, Passages North, Poetry Vinyl, The Mid-American Review, and many more. He lives in Los Angeles, and teaches in the Writing Program and College of Creative Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Last month, he was interviewed for Frontier Poetry’s “In Class” series about teaching poetry. More information can be found at http://www.robert-krut.com/.