INTERVIEW WITH PETER KROK
Write a bio.
I was born in West Berlin in 1947. I was the child of a German war bride
and an American GI. My dad was stationed in Berlin where he met my
mother. His name is Richard Krok and my mother's maiden name is
Ingeborg Pfingst. We came to the United States during the Berlin
airlift in 1948. In fact there is a picture of my father and mother and
little me on the front page of the Philadelphia Bulletin.
I attended Roman Catholic High School and graduated in 1965. In
1969 I graduated from LaSalle College where I majored in History and
studied under the noted historian, John Lukacs. I consider Lukacs, the
historian, my mentor. I attended Ohio University at Athens on a History
fellowship, which I did not complete. I was at Ohio University during
the Vietnam War and I was 42 in the Lottery. I was at Ohio University
during the Kent State killings and the Ohio National Guard came to my
campus too and the school year was abruptly terminated. The memory of
the loss of those innocent lives at Kent State and the calling of the
National Guard to the campus of Ohio University has left an indelible
impression on me. As a consequence, I needed to stay in school and I
attended Temple University where I studied in the journalism program.
Because of a knee injury I did not have to serve in the military. Later
I got a fellowship and studied in the Fels School of Government at the
University of Pennsylvania and I obtained a Master's Degree in
Government in 1995.
You might say that I was rather a lonely child who found a
retreat in books. Books were a place I went to much more so than
television. In some ways I think books are more participatory than
television. I suppose too that books were an escape. Books were a place
I always felt at home in. I was not interested in writing books but I
was interested in expressing myself and asking myself who I was.
Are you married? Children?
I am married now for 33 years. I have three children. Two years
ago I became a proud grandfather. And as I tell everyone, "Call me Opa."
And my grandson always knows me by my cap.
I have been editor of The Schuylkill Valley Journal since 2001 and am the
Humanities/Poetry Director of the Manayunk Art Center where I coordinated a
literary series since 1990. I grew up in Philly originally in Kensington
and later in Fairmount. Because of my identification with row house and red
brick Philadelphia, I am oftenreferred to as "the red brick poet." My poems
have appeared in numerous journals including the Yearbook of American
Poetry, Midwest Quarterly, Poet Lore, Mid-America Poetry Review, Potomac
Review, and Connecticut Review. Recently my poem, "10 PM at a Philadelphia
was selected for inclusion in Common Wealth: Contemporary Poets On
Pennsylvania to be published by the Penn State Press.
Where do you live/work?
I work in northeast Philadelphia at the Naval Supply Center or
what used to
be called the Defense Industrial Supply Center. I work for the Defense
Logistics Agency and I am a contract specialist in the subsistence
Describe the room you write in?
I have a room where I have my computer, but I can't call it the room I
write in. I always used to write in a basement and I've tried writing
in my computer room but I find that the computer is too distracting and
I prefer the solitariness of the basement without the windows. In fact
I've just recently gone back to the basement because there I can write
without the distraction of the computer. It is more of a reflective
place. I do best in places of solitude, but it is my own kind of
solitude (it is not the solitude of libraries but the solitude of trains
and subways and buses where I am among others but I am an observer not a
participant in the surroundings). Actually often I find a place like
McDonald's okay so long as I am alone. I find I get the urge for the
muse in many kinds of places. Often on the ride to work I find it a
convenient vehicle for the reflective mode, but it is something that
just happens. I really don't spur the poems; the poems just come as a
gnaw or a question or a refrain. A line that I like the sound of.. One
might even find me scribbling a note here or there while driving.
Driving in a car is a good way to get away and out of myself so that the
mind can just wonder. I am a rather disorganized person, so one would
never find me like a William Stafford getting up in the morning and
sitting at my desk and then writing a poem for the day. My poems take a
lot of brewing inside of me and on the page. I am rather slow about the
process, but there are times when Eureka. It just comes in a rush and
the words find a space on the page. As for me and the process, it
reminds me about what my father says about my painting and spackling
jobs around the house. My dad would say I do a good job but he wouldn't
want to pay me by the hour.
In many ways I see myself always balancing life and work because
above all I think it is life that is most important. There is something
I want to share that was told to me by my good friend, the Russian
writer Valentina Sinkevich. Valentina would always insist that life is
more important than art and she used this anecdote. The sculptor
Giacometti said that if your house is burning and if you have a choice
to either save your cat or a Rembrandt painting. Save the cat because
the cat has life. Frankly whether I would really do this I don't know
because I don't like cats, but if it were a dog that would be different.
Anyhow you get the point of the matter. By the way Pasternak made the
remark sometimes a fire among one's papers is sometimes good because it
makes one begin again. How we handle our responsibilities among the
living I think are first which is not to underestimate the importance of
the muse in our lives but to place it in the context of one's life. I
see myself always balancing the demands of my writing and the demands of
What writer's have influenced you?
As for influence, I really can't say what are my direct
influences but I can say what I respond to and what goes on around and
inside me. The poets I go back to time and again are Rilke, Yeats and
Eliot. I see these three supplying various impulses or perceptive modes
for me. I respond to these poets in this order too. Rilke who is
considered a poet's poet was my first poet (my first real influence) and
the poems of his that I respond first too were those from the Neue
Gedichte and Duino Elegies, but I soon found the Duino Elegies less
appealing and too flighty. But the Neue Gedichte has stayed with me as
did Rilke's Das Buch Bilder (The Book of Pictures). Rilke first
influenced me with the poems about the world around us -- the lonely
child (certainly loneliness has a persistent theme of mine), the swan,
the merry-go-round, falling leaves, seasons, sadness - Rilke got into
feelings and moods and scenes in a way unlike anyone else for me. The
book I truly enjoy too is Rilke's LETTERS TO A YOURNG POET, which I
would recommend to everyone and I have given quite often as a gift to
Yeats was my next major influence. Yeats appealed to my romantic
inclination - the romantic impulse. Yeats poems "A Prayer For My
Daughter," "Lapis Lazuli," "Sailing to Byzantium," "The Tower," "The
Second Coming" and so many other poems have so much symbolic resonance.
In that way Yeats came to grips with the age and he wrote about the age.
I feel attached to that impulse. Certainly Czeslaw Milosz, Osip
Mandelstam, Adam Zagajewski and other major European poets seem to do
that. I very much like Eugenio Montale's "Mosca" poems (they are just
gems). Yeats is illimitable and inspiring. He was a voice of the age
just as Bob Dylan was for the Sixties. The third major influence for me
is Eliot. Eliot gets into the spiritual aspect and Eliot's Four
Quartets are to me one of the finest pieces of poetry in the whole
history. I would have Eliot's four Quartets as my first choice of a
poetry book on my bookshelf. Eliot's criticism and words about writing
remain for me a hallmark of perception.
There are too many contemporary poets. I think I am more
affected by particular poems e.g., "The Woman at the Washington Zoo" (in
fact there is a book that has just been published with this title) or
"Nestus Gurley" by Randall Jarrell's; "Let the Evening Come" and
"Otherwise"; a number of Mary Oliver's poems including "When Death
Comes". At present I feel closest to the work of Mary Oliver, Jane
Kenyon and Stanley Kunitz..
What made you decide to become a public poet?
I never really decided to become a public poet; it was just a
process of attending readings and listening and then building up the
confidence to do my own readings. It took me a long time to develop the
confidence to read before an audience. People are often surprised when I
tell them that but it did take quite a while for me to read before the
public. As a child, I was always shy. In fact one of my school
counselors told my parents, "He's afraid of his own shadow." Insecurity
is something I always understood. For much of my formative growing and
formative adult years, I was very insecure. I am still adjusting to this
insecurity but it certainly is not the troublesome burden that it was.
That insecurity is much more filtered now. As I got older, I attended
many poetry readings and gatherings and it became natural to want to
participate. Ultimately the poet (the writer) wants to be heard. I
think one writes for one's self but not only one's self. I like to feel
that I can offer something of use within my experience and/or
imagination that can be evoked through a craft of language which in
words which can then be shared with others. This can be a very
What is your career in addition to poetry?
I am a federal employee and I am grateful for the stability that
comes with my job. I would not want to be dependent on my writing as a
career or a profession. For me the writing is an outlet for the creative
calories in my life. By pursuing my writing I am constantly challenging
myself to think more and to reflect more. The writing is a process that
gives an added meaning and richness to my life. The writing in a sense
is a constant challenge to improve my expression. I like the
challenging aspect of writing. In writing one can get a sense of
fulfillment but that fulfillment is not lasting because there is always
the new challenge to put down words that matter.
To what location in Pennsylvania do you feel closest? (and thus should
be placed there on the Map) If this location is in either Pittsburgh or
Philadelphia, please mention a specific neighborhood for more precise
I grew up in Fairmount, a neighborhood near the Philadelphia
Museum of Art and the Parkway. I used to take walks along the East
River Drive and I had many merry dalliances on Lemon Hill. It was my
place to take a girl and watch the Schuylkill River and the reflections
on the river. Lemon Hill was a place to dream. I have been called the
Red Brick Poet because of my roots and connection to red brick
Since 1970 I have had more than one hundred and seventy poems
published. My work has appeared in the following publications: America,
Blue Unicorn, The Christian Science Quarterly, Four Quarters, Hyperion,
Midwest Quarterly, Negative Capability, Poem, Poet Lore, The
Philadelphia Daily News, etc. The editors of The Philadelphia Drummer
singled out my poem, "The Misfit Generation - In Memory of the Kent
State Four" in the tenth anniversary issue of "The best Of The
Drummer." I helped organize and conduct a special commemorative
program dedicated to the 25th anniversary of Kent State at the Abington
Friends' School in May 1995.
I was also an invited speaker to the 20th anniversary of the
Overbrook Park Library in Philadelphia on March 20, 1993. At that event
I read some of my poems and offered a special tribute to the Overbrook
Park Library. In that piece I also wrote about how the library has
always been a central place in my life. That speech on libraries
appeared in the Philadelphia Daily News as a Guest Opinion feature with
the headline, "My love for Library isn't silent."
In 1980 three of my poems were included in An Anthology of Canadian
and American Poetry. My poem, "The Skater," was featured in the 1984
Yearbook of American Poetry and the following year my poem, "You're
Here, Walt" was selected. My poem, "What Is Of Consequence," was
translated into Russian by Valentina Sinkevich and appeared in the
Russian poetry journal, Encounters. Some of my poems have been
translated into Spanish and Greek.
I have written articles on Osip Mandelstam and Eugenio Montale and a
wide variety of other topics concerning literature and its
meaningfulness in life. With Emiliano Martin, I collaborated in writing
the script and performing in a conversational dramatic presentation on
the Spanish Poet, Federico Garcia Lorca. The presentation combines
English and Spanish and introduces a wide audience to Spanish culture,
the Spanish passion for poetry, and the heart of the writer.
What themes do you feel are present in your work?
Themes present in my work are: aloneness, solitariness, the joy
of love and memories of love, the city (images of the city), a kind of
religious or spiritual search, and the always quest to know the self.
In some ways I think of myself as a word painter because I like the
reader to see and feel vicariously what I see (for example the
Recreation Center in the evening).
I keep asking the question, what is important? How do I define myself?
Much of my life has been through the drama and uncertainty of my poems.
Let me explain I am in the process of completing a manuscript for
Foothills Publishing, the title of the book is either Looking for An Eye
or Searching For an Eye. I'm still not fixed on the title. Much of my
work has been focused around this inner search for a self-identity. I
do not think I was a happy child. I was very sensitive, insecure child
as a priest told my parents at a parent and teachers' evening at my high
school, "He's afraid of his own shadow." I would waver between what
could be construed as elation and depression and just coping. What might
be considered little incidents would drop me into a chasm of painful
uncertainty and self-anger - what we could call depression. It
certainly was a downward spiral. blues. Churchill used to call it 'the
black dog." Writing became a way of coping, a way of asking the
questions to find myself, a way or reconciling with myself, and a
reflection of the struggle within. A kind of palimpsest of my struggle
Hence the title of my first volume, LOOKING FOR AN EYE. I see the book
as combining facets of myself and in the process too a means of looking
at the world I grew up in order to evoke those scenes into something
worth remembering and sharing. This is the searching for an "I" which
could also be seen as looking for an "eye" -- a way of viewing the
world and coming to terms with that world. The search to know who I am.
The cornerstone for the Greeks is the advice. "Know thyself." That has
been my struggle. Hence the constant interplay of questions because in
many ways much of my work is a series of questions. I think it is
evident enough in my work and it will be in the volume of poems. As for
what it is I am ultimately looking for, I am reminded of Melville's
phrase in Moby Dick, "It's not down on any map. True places never are."
As the worn yet true expression goes, each day is a new beginning; today
is always the first day of the rest of one's life.
Sometimes in my writing I see myself as an observer where I like to film
or paint the scene or mood. I take my lens and draw a picture of a trash
picker or a girl waiting on the corner with her base fiddle. The three
qualities that I regard as most important are: a good listener, a desire
to change (for self-improvement, call it curiosity too - I think one
should always be curious about the world and the things around one) and
the third quality is a hunger for the truth. One always needs to look
and to examine one's self and in that way to ask questions. I see life
as a kind of evolution of Hegel's dialectic (thesis, antithesis and
synthesis -- an ever continuing struggle). Yeats made the point we
make rhetoric out of our arguments with others and poetry out of our
arguments with ourselves.
Above all I see myself like Antaeus who needs one foot on the earth
because I am always struggling for something in the air. The poetry
takes me soaring and I need to keep my life rooted, close to the earth,
I believe my wife and family, friendships and literary programs at the
MAC and the journal help to keep me rooted to the earth. Just see how
many malcontents and dissatisfied souls there are among the writers. It
is rather endemic among the writing sort but it doesn't have to be that
way. I need the world around me to keep me rooted and I need the
poetry because it is there that I find the challenge and the
intellectual fulfillment of my attempt to reach for a creativity and the
Wonderland where I can satisfy my curiosity. I am always reminded of
Keats idea of "negative capability" - the uncertainties, because that
has always been integral to my life.
If having a goal for readers' responses to your poetry is a legitimate
question, what is your goal?
The goal is that the reader feels or sees or experiences more
after having read my work.
What writing plans do you have for the future?
My own writing plans are to continue to work to develop my craft. I am
also the humanities director of the Manayunk Art Center where I have been
coordinating literary programs and readings since the fall of 1990. In 2001 after
the death of a good friend, Jim Marinell, I became the editor of the Schuylkill Valley Journal,
which has occupied quite a bit of my time and energy.
One might say I have three objectives: to write, to coordinate readings at the
Manayunk Art Center and to sustain and promote (which includes raising
funds) a journal worth reading.
What else do you think the public should know about you and/or your
I would like the guy on the street to say "Hey, I know what he
means. I've been there."