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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.

Early Life
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.

Editorial Bio:
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 Recreation Center," 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 directorate.

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 life.

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 younger poets.

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.

Contemporary:
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 sustaining motivation.

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 placement.

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 Philadelphia.

Publication History:

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 within.

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 poetry?

I would like the guy on the street to say "Hey, I know what he means. I've been there."

 


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