Poet Norbert Krapf talks about his Mississippi Blues trail, Amiri Baraka, David Amram and Bob Dylan

"We always attack what we fear. Reading good poems and listening to good songs can make us more gentle. Being gentle is a great strength."

Norbert Krapf: Catholic Boy Blues 

Norbert Krapf was born in 1943 in Jasper, Indiana, a German community. When Norbert Krapf moved from Indiana to metropolitan New York in 1970, he began to trace his family history, study German, and write poems. In 2004, he moved to Indianapolis to write full time. Since then he has published six collections of poetry, three with Indiana University Press, a prose memoir about childhood, and a jazz and poetry CD.

In June of 2008, he was appointed to a two-year term as Indiana Poet Laureate, in which capacity he continued his efforts to reunite poetry and music, brought Indiana poetry to TV and radio, give readings and talks in libraries and other venues, and visited schools to share with students his enthusiasm for reading and writing poetry and prose memoir.

He also emphasized collaborations between poets and artists. As IPL, he gave many different kinds of poetry presentations (poetry and jazz, poetry and blues, poetry and art/photography, poetry combined with passages from his childhood memoir in prose, straight poetry readings, and talks about writing poetry and prose) to as many different  types of audiences as he could find, as documented in his Poet Laureate’s Photo Gallery. On Aug. 13, 2012, Indiana Univ. Pr. released Norbert Krapf’s Songs in Sepia and Black and White, a collection of poems. Included is a section of 26 poems about music and musicians, “Practically with the Band.” Fifteen of the poems are about singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, a model for combining poetry and music. Other musicians to whom Krapf pays tribute are Woody and Arlo Guthrie, Leadbelly, John Lennon, and Yank Rachell.

Krapf received a Creative Renewal Fellowship from the Arts Council of Indianapolis to continue to combine poetry and music, with an emphasis on poetry and the blues. The manuscript of Krapf’s recently completed Catholic Boy Blues, appearing in March 2014 from Greystone Publishing, shows the influence of the blues on Krapf since he began to write poetry in 1971. Since the Hoosier Dylan shows of 2008-10, Krapf has been collaborating with bluesman Gordon Bonham and has also taken guitar lessons from him. At the beginning of 2006, Norbert Krapf became a board member of Etheridge Knight, Inc., which promotes the arts for youth, youth at risk, adults, seniors, disabled and incarcerated individuals, and residents traditionally underserved by the arts community. 

Interview by Michael Limnios

What experiences in your life have triggered your ideas most frequently?

It isn’t always experiences that trigger my poems. My poems aren’t usually about or driven by “ideas.” Places and their human histories, their flora and fauna, our relationship with our environment, memories, overheard remarks, a few bars of music, recalled lines or phrases from poems, the sound of someone’s voice, singing or speaking, a past relationship, birth of a child, the loss of someone close, a sense that something from the ethnic, national, or collective past is about to obtrude on the present, these are but some of my triggers. I should also add family history as a major source of inspiration. I believe  that the way to get to the universal is to go down deeply into the details and particulars of the local. As I have said, Shakespeare was a local writer in Stratford-upon-Avon. There is more than enough darkness and light to explore anywhere. I don’t understand the present unless I know where I have lived in the past.

How would you characterize the philosophy of Norbert Krapf’s poetry?

I don’t think of myself as primarily a philosophical poet. I don’t often think of myself as having a “philosophy” as a poet, but more as one who has a vision. Here’s a rough summary of what is more nuanced in the poems: the past, including cultural history, is alive and kicking in the present, there is no demarcation between time past, present, and future, all people, times, and places are one, though there are indeed cultural differences, and not to recognize and honor the oneness of all people is to create tragedy, racism and bigotry of various kinds and degrees that diminish not only the humanity of those discriminated against but also severely reduces the humanity of those who discriminate.  Cornelia Street Café, Greenwich Village, NYC. Photo © by Andreas Riedel

What have you learned about yourself from your writing of your poems?

That I crave constant growth and new development. Any wonder that I love the work of Bob Dylan? I love Basho’s statement that the journey is home.

What has been the relationship between music and poetry in your life and writing?

About the same as the relationship between earth, water, fire, and air. Music and poetry are part of the whole, they are one, they have a common origin, and it has been mainly academics, as part of turf warfare, who put up walls between them trying to show differences and also barriers between them. There are some structural differences, but in the end, they are not what matter most. Poetry is the music of words, and without that music, poetry falls flat and dies.  Poetry loves to cohabit with music and was meant to be its partner, in one way or another. As I have said, poetry and song are kissing cousins. Poetry is song and song is poetry, when all is working right. I have been as influenced by great songwriters as I have been by the great poets.

How important has music been in your life? How does music affect your mood and inspiration?

Music has always been important to me, as it is something I have always loved. I played the trombone in my early years for about nine years, the violin for a year and a half in my early forties, when our adopted children (from Bogotá) were in a Suzuki violin program, and for the past five years, starting at the age of 65, I started playing the guitar, mainly to learn better how to collaborate with musicians, but also to learn how to back my reciting of some of my poems on the guitar, when I am ready to. I have been taking guitar lessons for these past five years, the last two with Indiana bluesman Gordon Bonham, who earlier played with Yank Rachell of West Tennessee and Indianapolis, where I have lived the past nine years. I have collaborated with jazz pianist and composer Monika Herzig and released a jazz and poetry CD with her, Imagine: Indiana in Music and Words.

Norbert with Gordon Bonham in the Twain Room of Village Lights Bookstore, Madison, Indiana.

Gordon and I started working together as part of the Hoosier Dylan show in 1998 and then formed a duo for occasional shows by ourselves. The past two years, we have done a tribute to Dylan on or near his May 24 birthday, combining some of my  poems about or in response to Dylan’s work in Songs and Sepia and Black and White 2012), with backing by Gordon on acoustic and steel guitar, mandolin, and harmonica, and Gordon’s interpretations of Dylan songs. My 2013 prose poem cycle collection American Dreams: Reveries and Revisitation concludes with a section titled “The Minnesota Minstrel in Manahatta,” in the voice of my version of Dylan but at times with an overlay of my Midwestern voice, expressing our mutual concerns about the relationship between poetry and American song. He’s of course a great lover of poetry, as shown by his inclusions or echoing of lines and phrases from poets, in tribute to them. Those who consider this “plagiarism” do not know much about how poetry works, what an ancient tradition it is for poets to pay this kind of tribute to their predecessors. Dylan is a musician-poet.

I should add that I love many kinds of music, classical, including early music, German Lieder, jazz, especially blues, the rural blues, Chicago blues, classic rock, folk, country, especially alternative country, anything that would be considered “roots music” or “Americana.”  Ironically, the thirty-four years I lived and taught in the New York City area, I never collaborated with a single musician, though I went to many concerts of all types of music. But as soon as I took early retirement and moved back to Indiana, to Indianapolis, I started getting invitations to work with musicians.  You would think the chance for collaborations between poets and musicians would be much greater in New York, where there are so many talented poets and musicians, and of course there is the “Beat” (a word David  Amram hates) tradition there and in San Francisco, but I suspect that the keen sense of competition in New York in recent decades can make it hard for people to work together, depending on the situation, whereas in the Midwest, say Indianapolis, where there is a fine jazz tradition that ought to be better known, people are much more relaxed about working together, pooling their talents, and collaborating. People don’t have the same motivation to believe they better keep their backside covered here.

As I said, I have always been as influenced and inspired by songwriters as by poets in the American, English, and German traditions. I don’t need to be listening to music to write poetry, but sometimes a song or a composition will trigger a poem. But it has to be a rather quiet kind of song or composition. My poems come out of tranquility, even when they are not dealing with tranquility, but with tension and conflict instead.

There are audio and visual samples of my collaborations with Monika Herzig, Gordon Bonham, and others in the Hoosier Dylan show available on my website, especially on the bottom of the Sepia page.

"Poetry is the music of words, and without that music, poetry falls flat and dies." Photo: Norbert Krapf beneath Sonny Boy Williamson mural, Tutwiler, not far from the late bluesman’s tombstone.

What do you learn about yourself from the Jazz and Blues culture and what does Jazz / The Blues mean to you?

Both the jazz and blues traditions, which are of course interrelated, make me see how deeply American I am, how connected I am to this soil and its human history, which has sometimes been quite dark. After all, both the blues and jazz have African ties, important ties to slavery and the human suffering and tragedy it caused. But both blues and jazz are song that celebrate life and the ability to survive and endure and triumph, despite adversity. That is a great lesson for all of us to learn. When I started to write the poems in Catholic Boy Blues in 2007, forthcoming in March 2014, the blues arose from somewhere within me as a very powerful agent of healing from childhood sexual abuse by a Catholic priest. The poems came, organically, fifty years after the experience, in the voice of the boy I was, the man I became, Mr. Blues, an elderly, earthy, and kindly mentor figure who functions a bit like a chorus in Greek drama, whose lines are in the blues rhyming format, and The Priest, the latter the suggestion of a skilled therapist. I fell in love with the blues in the second half of the 1960s, while I was a graduate student at the University of Notre Dame, and have been a devotee ever since. I had no idea the blues would become such an integral part of these poems. It’s right at the center of the whole book, all the dialogues and colloquies between the several voices, all of which are of course part of myself. After I wrote these poems, I could see more clearly why I fell in love with the blues in the 1960s, when I was in my early to mid-twenties. There is a sense in which the blues saved my life.

What do you think was the relationship of Jazz/Blues to the poetry of Beats? What's the legacy of Blues in poetry?

Obviously very important, but I repeat that in his memoir and in his interviews, David Amram expresses contempt for the media penchant to categorize literature and music with such easy terms as “Beats.” As your David Amram tribute issue shows over and over, David is the kind of guy who loves to work with any artist of any kind. He is a great democrat, a great spirit, and what he did with Kerouac and others is marvelous. You can feel him having fun as he does it, feel the love, the excitement, the inspiration, the spirit he feels between himself and those with whom he collaborates. I can tell you he is great to work with. I had a chance to work with him, drummer Kenny Phelps, and bassist Frank Smith, who played on some of the tracks of my CD with Monika Herzig, at the Indianapolis Museum of Art in June 2008, just weeks after becoming Indiana Poet Laureate. I was assigned to read/recite “On Hearing Nearing’ from Kerouac’s On the Road with the backing of this superb trio. No rehearsal, they had never worked together, as far as I know. What fun! What spirit! This was part of a private party thrown by Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay, and then a public party the next night, in connection with the opening of an exhibit of the scroll manuscript of On the Road owned by Irsay. I had worked with both Kenny and Frank, marvelous musicians, before, but never David, yet I felt by the end of the piece I recited that I had known David forever. He’s that kind of guy, that kind of spirit. If that makes him sound “beatific,” who I am to argue?

Norbert Krapf & David Amram

In one sense, all American song comes out of the blues. Poets have a lot to learn from the primal simplicity of the lyrics of the blues songs which take us so deep, so far down, into human emotion and spirit. That is a lesson we all need to learn as poets, to say many things at the same time, while appearing to speak simply. It’s much easier to use complicated language and imagery to show off your learning and cleverness, but that kind of language does not go very deep. A good blues lyric goes way down real fast and comes back up. Blues lyrics are often highly compressed language that may seem simple on the surface but take us into the depths of human experience, bring us back toward the light, and can even make us laugh about our adversity, because they are so earthy and self-aware.

What was your experience of going on the Mississippi Blues Trail?

That was a powerful, moving, and inspirational experience, both times I went on the MBT, for two weeks at a time., with a third trip to Memphis. To stand where Robert Johnson and Son House and Charley Patton and Mississippi Fred MacDowell and Muddy Waters and Sam Chatmon and Bessie Smith and Memphis Minnie and Furry Lewis (some claim that Memphis is part of the Delta) and the Mississippi Sheiks lived and worked and wrote their songs and were buried was both an extremely earthy and transcendent experience at the same time. I should also mention Robert Balfour of the Mississippi Hill Country, whom I met outside the Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art Shop in Clarksdale, while he played and then talked to a group of us, and also Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, whom I met at his Blue Front Café Juke Joint in Bentonia and had the privilege of hearing him play several blues songs for just me and my brother on the front porch.  I also got to recite some of my new poems about the Delta experience during the second trip when I collaborated with Sean Apple in Clarksdale and King Edward Antoine at Hal’s and Mal’s in Jackson. I also found Sonny Boy Williamson’s tombstone in an overgrown field near a woods, surrounded by cotton fields, not far from Tutwiler, and have a tuft of cotton from the site on my writing desk. There is a wonderful circle of women in Tutwiler who make quilts, as well as place mats, handbags, and runners, some of them with blues motifs. This is the town where, around 1903, W.C. Handy said he heard a man playing slide guitar with a knife at the train station, repeating the line “Goin’ where the Southern cross’ the Yellow Dog.” Sonny Boy is depicted in some fading murals on the side of a building near the train track.

Norbert Krapf with Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, Blue Front Café, Bentonia, MS

I am in the process of writing a cycle of poems about these experiences and sites that will be a section of a future book. Some of them can be found online at The Dead Mule and the museum of Americana. More than once I have said that it was the lyrics of Robert Johnson and the poetry of Walt Whitman that inspired me to begin writing poetry in January 1971. During our 34 years on Long Island, we lived about a dozen or so miles from the Walt Whitman Birthplace, where I had the good fortune to read my poetry more than once. And to go into the heart of the Mississippi Delta where all these great bluesmen and blueswomen lived and sang was an experience I never thought I would be lucky enough to have. I am extremely grateful to the Arts Council of Indianapolis for the Creative Renewal Grant 2011-12 that made it possible to go on this great journey into the heart of the blues. Another highlight was going to the new and magnificent B.B. King Museum in Indianola on both MBT trips. After the first visit, I wrote “B.B. King on His Bicycle,” inspired by the exhibits, each section or room of which focuses on a separate phase or aspect of his life or career. This poem appeared in the first issue of the online magazine museum of Americana.

You have come to know great personalities. Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you?

Are you being literal here? Do you mean what well known writers I’ve met? We can meet people in different ways, on different levels. In a sense, I met the blues greats in the Mississippi Delta. I met the spirit of Walt Whitman in his Birthplace House, and William Cullen Bryant in his Cedarmere home in Roslyn Harbor, Long Island, near which we lived. I’ve been with Robert Bly several times and enjoyed talking and being with him, and David Ignatow became a dear friend during the last decade of our years on Long Island. William Stafford was a kind of mentor, as he was to many. We loved having such an easy guest twice in our house. I remember expressing my disappointment that it was taking me so long, some 17 years, to find a publisher for my first full-length collection of poems. “Oh you’ve published a lot, you young whippersnapper,” he pointed out, referring to a series of chapbooks I had sent to him. I was almost fifty when Somewhere in Southern Indiana appeared in 1993, and in the twenty years since I have published eleven such collections. Poet and translator of Japanese Zen poems Lucien Stryk was a friend, mentor, and supporter who stayed with me and my family two or three times in the New York area while reading and visiting classes at Long Island University, and with whom I visited in London on my way to a summer in Germany during the bicentennial year of 1976. Lucien’s first Heartland: Poets of the Midwest anthology had a huge influence on the first poems I wrote in the early 1970s. My first anthology appearance was in his Heartland II, a great honor for me. We corresponded for many years. More recently, my wife and I have enjoyed our friendship with Mari Evans, author of the influential and memorable I Am a Black Woman, other poetry collections, plays, children’s books, and the powerful essay collection Clarity of Concept. I am grateful to Mari, who is such a dedicated and passionate sayer of the truth in her work, for writing a strong blurb for Catholic Boy Blues. We sometimes meet Mari while shopping for groceries in downtown Indianapolis, which triggered “Meeting Mari Evans in Marsh,” a prose poem in American Dreams.

"Both blues and jazz are song that celebrate life and the ability to survive and endure and triumph, despite adversity."                          Photo: Norbert Krapf with poet William Stafford

What do you miss most nowadays from the past? Which has been the most interesting period in your life?

Someone once said in a review of one of my collections, The Country I Come From,  that I’m not nostalgic about the past, don’t feel a need to return to the past, because I feel and see it so much as a part of the present. But I do miss the sense of community that we seem to be losing. In one sense, the whole of my work as a poet could be seen as a search for community. My nine years of retirement have been in many ways the best years of my life. In nine years I have published seven books and one CD. I served as Indiana Poet Laureate 2008-10. I loved teaching, but it’s been a great pleasure to be able to devote almost all my psychic energy to writing poems, putting  together collections of them, three with photographs, a prose memoir about childhood, and poems for a jazz and poetry CD.

What is the best advice ever given you and what advice would you give to the new generation?

This isn’t advice, so much as it is an inspirational statement, but poet and novelist David Kherdian once said to me in a letter, “The imagination is a marvelous instrument!” Advice to the young: Read, read, read, don’t be too hard on yourself, be patient, understand that you may need to write some not so good poems to get to your good and better and best ones. Don’t give up on poems too quickly. Understand that it may take a long while for some poems to arrive at completion. Be patient with them. Read, and listen, listen, listen to what is around you. Keep your eyes and ears open. Be on call for the poem 7/24. Find that place in your psyche from which the poems best come.

What are your hopes and fears for the future of world?

I hope that we learn to listen better to one another and let go of this urge to attack, undercut, belittle. The better we listen to one another, the less we will have to fear, and the less we will feel this urge to cut others down or apart. The less we fear, the fewer wars we will fight.  We always attack what we fear. Reading good poems and listening to good songs can make us more gentle. Being gentle is a great strength.

Norbert Krapf with Robert Balfour, Clarksdale, MS

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you?

A previously unknown song on Bob Dylan’s “new old” Another Self Portrait album (2013), some 35 demos and stripped-down versions of songs left off the 1970 album Self Portrait, which was excoriated when it came out, makes me laugh. “Working on a Guru,” Dylan’s parody of himself and others seeking him out as a guru or prophet, with a couple great guitar solos by his buddy George Harrison, no stranger to the search for gurus, made both of them laugh during the recording of the song. Together with the tongue-in-cheek lyrics, the interplay between the two friends made me laugh. The ability to laugh at yourself is a godsend. One of the reasons I love working with musicians is that they have so much fun playing and singing together. We poets rarely have that much shared fun in the making of poems.  Recently I was visiting my poet and publisher friend Jeanetta Calhoun Mish and her husband in Albuquerque, New Mexico while giving readings there and in Santa Fe. In my bedroom I found a small collection of poems, Arrow III, by Native American youths, mostly high school age, published in 1971. I was amazed and touched by how quickly and deftly so many of them moved right into the interior of their spiritual lives and shared them with unknown readers. Absolutely beautiful!

Are there any memories from Amiri Baraka and David Amram which you’d like to share with us?

I mentioned working with David Amram at the On the Road exhibit here in Indy, but I also got the chance to work with him when he backed some of my poems on the piano at the Woody Guthrie Festival in Woody’s hometown of Okemah, OK in 2011. Without any rehearsal, he did improvised backing of poems by a number of poets for close to two and a half hours. At some point, he made a very memorable remark. He said that when young musicians ask him how he backs poets so well, he gave them this advice: “Just listen to the poem, and if you are not moved to play anything, then don’t play anything.” David is so deft and sure of what he does. As a musician, he has great respect for silence. I could almost hear him listening.

I met Amiri Baraka only once, at last year’s Etheridge Knight Festival here in Indianapolis, when he appeared with Sonia Sanchez, Mari Evans, and Haki Madhubuti. He gave an impassioned reading that upset some people because of his comments about politics. I was the first person to reach him at the signing table, where he was wonderfully gentle and soft-spoken with me. We spoke as former state poets laureate. I asked him to sign some books, including my old paperback copy of his Blues People (1963), which I read as a grad student (not for a class) at Notre Dame and told him what a strong and lasting impact the book has had on me. We talked about the poetry of the blues and I told him about my Mississippi Blues Trail trips. We agreed on what great poetry some of the Delta blues singers wrote. I was touched by his openness to me.

What from your memories and things (books, records, photos etc.) would you put in a "time capsule"?

Sitting on the stage in New York City near the great Octavio Paz of Mexico as he read his poetry. Listening to Bob Dylan give a concert in Madison Square Gardens in NYC, just two months or so after 9/11, and commenting that “I don’t have to tell most of you how much this city means to me. Most of the songs you heard me sing tonight I either wrote or recorded here.” He played his heart out. He later walked by himself to the back of the stage with his guitar and harmonica rack in place and played a song facing those who up till then had to be content watching and listening behind his back. I think the song was “I Want You.” I remember best hearing John Lee Hooker, whom I heard a few years later at Carnegie Hall with Canned Heat, Howlin’ Wolf, Roosevelt Sykes, Fred McDowell, Luther Allison, and others at the 1970 Ann Arbor Blues Festival, held at Otis Spann Memorial Field, shortly before we moved to the New York area. In fact, it grieves me to remember that we had to miss the great Son House, on the last night of the festival, Sunday, because we had to return to South Bend, Indiana, to move to Long Island. Just a few months after our wedding, my wife and I slept in our Rambler Ambassador the two nights we were at the festival. I treasure the mounted festival poster that I look at often, thinking about the significant list of immortal bluesman who are no longer with us, except in their great songs.                                 Photo © by Richard Fields 2011

How would you spend a day with Robert Johnson? What would you say to Jack Kerouac? What would you like to ask Leadbelly?

I would ask Robert to play some guitar and show me how he managed to create certain sounds and effects and then I would watch and listen to him play for money on a street corner in Greenwood, where he died.  I would tell him that he inspired me to write poetry, that “Come on in My Kitchen” is one of my favorite all-time songs, and that he and his work come up several times in the forthcoming Catholic Boy Blues.

I would tell Kerouac that I enjoy the simplicity and beauty of his prose and the innocence central to On the Road and ask him some questions about his life on Long Island. I would also ask him how he enjoyed collaborating with David Amram.  And I would ask Leadbelly how he liked performing with Woody Guthrie and being interviewed by him, tell him that my mother loved singing “Goodnight, Irene,” which I enjoy playing and singing today, and shyly mention that Gordon Bonham provides excellent backing for me when I recite my poem from Songs in Sepia and Black and White about hearing my mother sing that song when I was a boy. Maybe Leadbelly, my mother, and I could form a trio and sing “Goodnight, Irene” together. Maybe Robert and Jack would want to expand the trio to a quintet, and just maybe the young Bob Dylan would squeeze in too and create a sextet, with a gathering of poets singing along on the chorus. Maybe singing our lines together we could all bring down some of those academic walls that were built to separate poetry and song.

The Poetry of Norbert Krapf - Homepage 

Norbert Krapf & Gordon Bonham. Photo © by Indy Artsgarden

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