A Conversation with Andrew
Krivak, Poetry Chapbook
There is a lot in common between the intent of prayer and poetry. Each could be meant to be a transport to a living vessel; each a window into a world not entirely our own; each inviting those who choose to partake; to engage themselves fully, both physically and spiritually, until we find ourselves standing beside the poet, experiencing the world they chose to share with us, as they see and have seen it. Andrew Krivak is no stranger to this Composition of Place and, in his newest chapbook, Ghosts of the Monadnock Wolves, he invites you all to come along and share in the experience of the strange and mysterious wilderness he has come to call home.
I had the pleasure of meeting with Andrew via Zoom not very long ago. The goal, as always, was to do an interview for the Review. I figured we would have a pleasant exchange and dive into maybe thirty minutes of Q&A. What I got, instead, was a wonderful hour-plus conversation with a very down-to-Earth person. We talked candidly about life, family, the pronunciation of Coyote, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and what seemed like everything else but his winning chapbook.
After the internet started to slow down, and hungry children on both ends began to call, I walked away from our meeting feeling all the better for how it went. So often, writers will write what they know. It only seems fair we get to know them; and I feel that, in Andrew’s case, I learned more about his poems by learning about Andrew, the person, than I would have if we’d merely spent a half hour trading questions and answers. The conversation I had with Andrew was—to me—a gift. It’s only fair that I share it.
MB: So, let’s hear some about you. You mentioned you have a MFA. Where did you study?
AK: So, I have a BA from St. John’s College Annapolis. I was lucky to have parents who told me to study philosophy. As Eastern European Catholics, they believed that an education was really the best thing you could invest in. I read Philosophy and the classics at St, John’s for four years, and then I worked in a boat yard for two years. After all of that philosophy, I really wanted to just use my hands. I grew up in rural Pennsylvania so it was all about the work. There’s an Emerson quote I keep close: “Do your work and I shall know you. Do your work and you shall reinforce yourself.”
I have always been interested in poetry, and I had won an award for my poetry in my senior year at St. John’s. And so I was working in the boat yard in the day, writing poetry late at night, putting together poems so that I could apply to some graduate writing programs. I got into Columbia University and I went. That was 1988.
There were some great folks there: Dan Halpern, William Matthews, Paul Muldoon, Henri Cole, Deborah Digges, Anne Lauterbach, J.D. McClatchey.
MB: Oh, wow . . .
AK: Yeah, Henri Cole taught this class on George Herbert that still sticks with me today. He was a great teacher. He made us memorize a Herbert poem for every class. Great guy, too. I kept in touch with him for a while, but I haven’t lately.
Deborah Digges and Daniel Halpern were both my thesis advisors. And Bill Matthews was Bill Matthews. Just a master.
And then, I entered the Jesuits to study to be a Roman Catholic Priest, for eight years.
AK: Yeah. I had always had this idea of living a sort of monastic and prayerful life, and when I was in New York, I found the Jesuits. I worked for a summer with these four priests, in the South Bronx. This was 1989, and crack was king. These guys just tried to give kids a leg up on studies in math and sciences so they could get into Bronx Science, and just keep them away from all the nonsense. Just keep them in school. I was amazed at how hard these guys worked all day, and still lived a contemplative life. That’s what I wanted to do. So, I applied to join the Order and I got accepted. And from August of 1990 to July of 1998, I was a Jesuit. I studied Philosophy and Theology, and I taught Philosophy and English at LeMoyne College.
MB: So, what made you leave?
AK: Well, those idealistic reasons for why I entered were — I realized later — not going to keep me there. It was really a question of creativity, you know? I had vows of Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience as a Jesuit. Poverty was easy. I had nothing anyway. Chastity was pretty tough, but not impossible, if you remained focused on your work and you had good friendships. It was really the Obedience. When you have a superior say You’re going to do this and you feel like No, I really want to do that, it starts to chip away at your spirit. So I left, but I left really well. I’ve never regretted being in the Order or leaving the Order, and I still remain great friends with several Jesuits.
MB: Well, it seemed you did leave on good terms.
AK: It is all about discernment. The men who are your superiors in the Order really just want you to be happy.
MB: Really, you left so you could continue to live your life.
AK: I did, and they respected my decision. Since then, my Jesuit friends have been some of the biggest fans of my writing because I always talk about the composition of place. As a novelist, I have a bit of a reputation for writing about nature. And the Jesuits, in their prayer, talk about what’s called The Composition of Place: composing in your imagination where you would be in your prayer. So, if you’re reading a passage about Jesus in a storm on the Sea of Galilee, you have to put yourself on that boat, and feel the fear, see the waves, smell the sea, and touch the sky, as the song goes. After I left, I ended up teaching high school for a year.
MB: Oh God. I feel like it’s always just one year, like a trial. After that year, you’re either going to do it for the rest of your life, or you’re going to run like Hell.
AK: Oh yeah. My son goes to Boston College High School, and his teachers are just phenomenal, and I keep thinking how glad I am that they enjoy what they do, because I just couldn’t.
Coincidentally enough, in this time, I also taught a semester at Harvard with Robert Coles, who put me in touch with DoubleTake Magazine, where I ended up joining as an editor. Coles had teaching fellows writing breakout seminars for a class, so I would start my day at Harvard teaching Carver and the like, and end my day trying to deal with these 10th and 11th graders. It was really schizophrenic. That’s when I started applying to Grad School for my PhD. I really only applied to two places: Harvard and Rutgers. I applied to Rutgers because a friend of mine was teaching in their English department. I didn’t know how strong their program actually is. And that’s where I went.
I ended up finishing my PhD in five years, and four days after I finished my dissertation, my fiancée (now wife), and I moved to London so she could pursue an MBA at Cambridge. So I never really did the whole tenure track job search. But those years in London were when I let go of poetry and started writing prose.
MB: Why so?
AK: Well, I thought I would be writing more poetry and getting stuff out there. Robert Coles kept me on as an editor at Double-Take and, really, I think, editing was bad for my poetry. But it was so cool to be in that world. I would come home and have messages on my answering machine from Adrienne Rich, Billy Collins, and Phil Levine. I published one of Ed Pavlic’s first poems and, a year afterward, he started winning all sorts of awards. I just loved talking to poets.
So anyway, we moved to London, and I wrote a memoir about my time as a Jesuit. Then I wrote my first novel, The Sojourn, which I published with Bellevue Literary Press. 33 publishers had turned it down before Bellevue took it, and it went on to be a National Book Award finalist and won several other awards. Because of that, I was able to just keep writing. My next novel was The Signal Flame, and I just recently published The Bear, again with Bellevue. My fourth novel is due to come out from Bellevue, but not until 2023. The folks at Bellevue are very excited about Ghosts of the Monadnock Wolves because it really connects with The Bear, where I set out to portray nature as a protagonist.
MB: What is the title of the forthcoming novel?
AK: It’s called Like the Appearance of Horses. The other two novels of mine take place in the fictional town of Dardan, Pennsylvania, and it is the third in what I call “The Darden Series.” After this novel, though, I’ll be done with Pennsylvania.
MB: Very interesting, because I feel like in this collection of poems you are starting to sever that tie to Pennsylvania. Especially starting off with “Prelude.” You begin the poem deep in the mines, and seem to end it on your trail home. I was curious as to how much your background in prose and as a novelist has informed your poetry.
AK: I would say completely. My love for poetry, and my early formation of poetry, keeps my prose spare and sparse, but that desire for the narrative is still there. I try to write narrative poems. I’ve even been accused in the past of writing poetry that is too narrative; almost too tight or too closed-off. But to me, it’s always about the story, and maybe my moving to fiction helped me to open my poetry up a bit, because I could think about poetry from a distance.
MB: That’s very cool. I tend these days to see so much more poetry that is statement-making instead of storytelling. I call them “Button Poems,” only because they seem to have risen with the YouTube Channel. To me, they do not always transcend to the page as they should, and they tend to lose out on the importance of storytelling.
AK: William Matthews used to say to us (and, mind you, this was the eighties): “The problem is that everyone wants to write a poem where they are alone, standing in the woods, and feeling vaguely religious.” Maybe we’ve moved on from this false epiphany poem to the “Button Poem,” without having moved at all.
MB: Exactly my feeling. So, I was also kind of struck when I asked you for an acknowledgements page and you shot back that none of these poems was published anywhere, because you wrote them all to exist together. Might I ask why? Was this what you had originally planned to do?
AK: In a word, yes. And I did this because I really love my little plot of land out in Jaffrey, NH. We’ve owned it now for about eight years, and every time I go there I see something new and surprising; I find new things in nature that seem to me to have a kind of poetry or prosody to them. And so, I started writing poetry again, about this place, and started keeping them together in what I called my “Monadnock poems.” It was the only place where I really wanted to write poetry. I didn’t sit down over the course of a summer to make this, of course. The collection came together over the course of seven years and, when I saw your contest, it was almost serendipitous. I could have gone on another seven years and maybe had a book-length manuscript, but I stopped and asked myself Is this it? Are they ready to pull together now? 30 pages is such a good solid number. So, I put it together with some revisions, and I said Let’s see what happens. I love my little part of the world, and I wanted to share that.
MB: Well, it is a wonderful world to share, and we’re all glad you did. I really did feel like I was living on this plot of land alongside you. Now, do you feel like these poems channeled or gleaned anything from your Jesuit experiences?
AK: No, actually. Not at all.
MB: Nothing at all? Not from any of the teachings?
AK: Well, if there is anything at all, any hint of prayer, it is coming from the composition of place that I had talked with you about earlier, and not out of reverence. I didn’t lean so much on Jesuit teaching to create these poems so much poetry that I have read and loved. It’s something I tell students all the time when they ask how to become a writer. I tell them to read. Read as much and as often as you can. Read things you love and things you hate. And for the things you hate, find out why you hate it, and never go back. The more you read, the more you’ll find how you want to write. The more you’ll see how to get it done and make it work.
MB: I couldn’t agree more. Going back to your forthcoming novel, and things I have seen in this collection, do you think you will ever really be done with Pennsylvania?
AK: No, I don’t think I will ever be entirely done with Pennsylvania. I did love the nature and the natural beauty of the landscape there, but it can be a place that will knock you down for being creative or even curious. At least it was then. Like any small town, it was a bit suffocating. I’ll never be done with it, though, because the beauty of the nature I first found there is now like my door or window through which I get to look back and shape how I wanted it to be.
MB: And lastly, any word of advice or wisdom for newer writers; for those working on making their own imprint on the craft?
AK: Like I said earlier, and what I say to students often: Read as much as you possibly can. Writers write, but writers also need to read just as much. You will never really know what you are capable of until you know what the language is capable of. Read something every day. Write something every day. And be patient.
Praise for Ghosts of the Monadnock Wolves
Here in these powerful new poems that make up Ghosts of the Monadnock Wolves, Andrew Krivak presents those haunting, scintillant images he gave us earlier in The Signal Flame and The Bear: A wilderness drumming in the shadows of the Monadnock range, with its unforgiving ice, its Dantesque slopes, and the howl of those ghost wolves and coyotes. In the end, it’s a father’s hope to somehow protect one’s children against those nightmarish forces we know are beyond our control.
Paul Mariani, author of Crossing Cocytus and The Great Wheel
Andrew Krivak’s collection, Ghosts of the Monadnock Wolves, celebrates the history of a place in the only way that matters – by giving us the people of the place. In “Lake Ice,” there’s a passage that suggests his method of poetic exploration: The narrator and his children stand on a frozen lake and watch the “auger as it turns and searches, turns and searches through each frozen layer, until water so green and cold it looks oily gushes up and settles into slush around our boots.” Krivak’s close eye for the sensory detail grounds all of these poems, and the work reminds me of Harry Humes and the early poems of James Dickey. Reader, get ready to be immersed, get ready to learn what the auger can find.
Charles Rafferty, author of A Cluster of Noisy Planets