Tuesday, October 25, 2011

12 or 20 questions (second series) with Richard Krech

Richard Krech [photo credit: Stephen Loewinsohn] was born in 1946 and grew up in Berkeley, California. He became involved in civil rights activities in 1963 and started writing soon thereafter. Krech published a poetry magazine [the Avalanche] and organized a series of poetry readings at a bookstore on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley for several years.  He had a half dozen books and many periodical appearances before he stopped writing poetry in the mid-70’s.  In 1971 Krech traveled around the world [overland across Europe, north Africa and Asia] and subsequently has made frequent trips to Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe.

In 1976 Krech went to law school and has been practicing criminal defense in Oakland, California since 1980. His practice has included everything from murder to shoplifting as well as the pro bono representation of anti-war demonstrators and others similarly situated. He now has a primarily appellate practice.

After a 25-year line break, Krech began writing poetry again early this century. He has had about ten books and chapbooks and numerous periodical appearances since then as well as a volume of collected works, At the End of Time, culled from this second writing period and a bibliography of all his work came out in 2010.  He has three children, three grandchildren and lives with his wife Mary Holbrook in Albany, California. Today is his sixty-fifth birthday.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

My first book was published when I was 20 years old.  I grew up in Berkeley, California, and started writing around 17 years of age.  I had been corresponding with d.a. levy in Cleveland, Ohio, and sent him a bunch of poems in 1967.  Next thing I heard, he sent me 25 [out of 250] copies of a chap he turned one 6-page poem into, we are on the verge of ecstacy, under his 7 flowers press imprint.  It had hand painted covers by mara, was the size of a standard sheet of mimeo paper, stapled and had a very “assembled” look w/ brown paper wrappers, etc.

After this book, levy’s old friend, D.R. Wagner published two books of mine, How Easily Your Mind Can Slip Off and the Hashish Scarab, in rapid succession, and other book requests and periodical and anthology appearances followed.

My latest book, At the End of Time, is different in almost every way.  I stopped writing poetry in the early seventies, went to law school, and have practiced criminal defense in Oakland, California for over thirty years.  I started writing poetry again in 2001.  The full title to my latest book is At the End of Time, the Incomplete Works of Richard Krech, Volume II, poems 2001-2009, and, as the full title implies this is basically a collection of a decade of poems from my second period.  It comprises the work from about ten chapbooks.  Although I selected all of the poems and chose their sequencing, David McNamara of sunnyoutsidepress in Buffalo, New York, the publisher/editor, worked closely with me on editing.  Artistic and content decisions were mine but he offered much useful editorial assistance in clarifying what I wanted to say.  The book is perfect bound, with a limited edition of 26 hardbound copies lettered A to Z.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

When I first started writing I just did it in note books and I wrote about things that happened in my world.  Berkeley in the early sixties was quite interesting, the civil rights movement had repercussions in my high school and home town.  I first wrote about demonstrations and “sit ins” in which I participated. 

As a young person I had known and liked “The Raven” by Poe, but was not really acquainted with poetry until I read Ginsberg’s “Howl” in about 1963.  That did it for me.  I would go to City Lights Book Store in North Beach in San Francisco, just across the bridge from Berkeley.  I went to New York in 1965 and found the Bowery Poets Co-Op and read poetry with a bunch of anarchists drinking red wine in a seedy loft on 2nd Avenue in lower Manhattan.  Poetry was immediate.  It was now.  I was hooked.  I have written some prose, both fiction and non-fiction.  I have a piece of “flash fiction” coming out in September

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

I used to go w/ Ginsberg’s dictum “First thought, best thought” and felt rewriting was somehow cheating because it didn’t reflect “the moment.”  In fact, couldn’t reflect the  moment because it was written in at least two moments.  I soon abandoned that concept and do re-write, but I don’t really use notes or outlines for my poetry.

Sometimes, I will get up in the middle of the night and start writing because I “have to” right then, right now!  Sometimes, a vision or a phrase will sit in my head and just roll around in there for days or months, and then all of a sudden burst out full blown.  My poem “Approaching the City from the Ten Directions” was like that.  I had this image of a crack addict recycler pushing his tied-together shopping carts of bottles and cans down San Pablo Avenue to the recycling center, the twin towers of the Federal Building and other landmarks of Oakland’s skyline far away in the distance; and I saw this as a modern version of some medieval scene of poor people bringing goods to the City.  I had this visual image in my mind for several months time and then one summer night I just sat down and wrote the poem.
Approaching the City
from the Ten Directions

We stand on the shoulders of others.
Through generations

the City rising
out of the dust.

The porter in Istanbul
in 1963
carrying an armoire on his back;
the men pushing bullock carts of grain
outside the mud walls
of the medieval city state
a millennium ago;
the crack addict
pushing his shopping cart
full of bottles to the recycling
center.  The business district
gleaming in the distance.

A few years after the end of the century
when the town came to the city:
and we are all
trying to find our way
in a new place
w/ technological changes
not even yet contemplated
approaching the horizon.
Religious and ethnic intolerance
still holding us back.

standing on the shoulders of others
can only stand so
For we stand on our own

It is our choice to act or react,
or to refrain from acting.

We walk down the road
from the town towards the City.
the City always beckoning ahead;
pass thru the high gates
the outer perimeter,
some signs appear over establishments
pictures, then writing;
we drive down the avenue
past the recycler w/ his huge load
towards the office buildings,

towards the center of a City
which has no center.

and on out
to the other side.
[photo credit: Harold Adler; Richard Krech at Shakespeare & Co. Bookstore, 1966] 

4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

Mostly I just write poems.  I have a few books with themes, two examples are In Chambers: the Bodhisattva of the Public Defender’s Office which are poems with legal themes and Rumors of Electricity, travel poems.  I worked on In Chambers for several years.  My second period of writing started in 2001 and within a week or two I knew I had a series of poems concerning legal issues.  But I wrote poems on other topics, published books on other topics or simply collections of poems.  It wasn’t until 2007 when I wrote a particular poem that I suddenly knew when I wrote it that the book or series was finished.  My latest book, for example, is a collection of my writing, most of it previously published in periodicals or chaps, from my second period.  

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I greatly enjoyed my first exposure to poets reading their works in the loft on 2nd Avenue in lower Manhattan in 1965.  I started a series of open sign-up-sheet based poetry readings at Shakespeare & Company bookstore on Telegraph Avenue in 1966 which ran for the rest of the decade.  During that time I read almost every Sunday afternoon.  With such regular oration of my poems I got to know them very well so I could put more attention on delivery and less focus on “reading” the “words” because I knew them well and just skimmed the page to sort of keep my place.

No public reading, or not even reading out loud to myself, for about 35 years has changed things.  I have only given about a half dozen readings since I started writing again.  My first reading in 35 years or so was in 2005 at the Modern Times Bookstore in San Francisco for poets who had poems in the fourth issue of Van Gogh’s Ear, an English language poetry magazine from Paris.  I spent more energy “reading” than I liked and had difficulty flowing with the poem.

I have since had more experience giving readings this century and the last public reading I gave, about a week ago at Art House in Berkeley, was a benefit for the infamous underground cartoonist S. Clay Wilson who is facing some serious health challenges.  I feel some of that “groove” came back, that ability to be a conduit for the poem and let it flow out through me without “reading” the words letter by letter.  When the audience applauds you can tell they liked the poem.  When they figit and go towards the exits you can tell the poem didn’t make it.  Instant reaction.  I like doing readings.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

Most of my poems try to convey some type of message, some information beyond the words just sounding good together, or being funny or something pleasant to pass the time.  I have always tried to accomplish something that improved the human situation, at least for the last 50 years or so.  When I was involved in civil rights and anti-war and other political action back in the day, part of what I did was write.  Write an article for a newsletter or the newspaper, write a leaflet, etc.  In my legal work, I wrote more motions and took more writs than most criminal defense lawyers because I can write and I like to.  I use my writing to try to advance and better the human condition.  It’s the same whether its “poetry” or an essay or a legal motion or even a “letter to the editor.”  An attempt to improve things with the written word.

The “questions” remain the same, but the day-to-day “facts” and precise situations change.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

A writer writes about what she or he thinks is important or will be important.  In my poetry my goal [or role?] is to communicate truths to the reader.  In my legal writing my goal [and definitely my role] is to benefit my client.  If the truth helps in that regard, wonderful.  If truth hurts my goal in legal writing, it becomes an obstacle to surmount without lying. 

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

Not essential, as I still put out books where the publisher does little or no editing [other than proofing for misspellings, etc] and not too difficult.  I have been fortunate in that no editors have tried to overcome my stated preference after we really discuss an issue.  I had one editor who just tried to “change” things instead of discussing with me.  We soon abandoned that practice.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

“Sea Biscuit” in the sixth.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to legal writing)? What do you see as the appeal?

They are really two different activities.  Writing poetry is, for me, an attempt to explain some truths about what I perceive in the world.  Writing a legal brief or motion is an attempt to improve the legal situation of my client.  However, the form is the same: language.  I find that my ability to write well, to be interesting, to be able to explain complex concepts clearly, to be able to insinuate bias by subtle choice of words, etc. helps me in my legal work as it does in my poetry. 

They are two different activities, but I do use my writing skills to influence my representation of clients and, conversely, some of my poems benefit from my knowledge of the law and legal situations. 

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

No writing routine.  Sometimes I start writing before breakfast and even before getting dressed, sometimes I don’t write at all but then suddenly get the urge at 11 at night or 3 in the morning.  Legal writing is often influenced by the calendar.  No days are typical.  I am semi-retired and so my days are more under my control than they’ve been for over 30 years.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

I do something else for awhile or a few days, depending.  Or I go to sleep and hope I have a drive to write when I awake.  Often an image or concept will rattle around in my head for awhile before I know what I do with it or how to deal with it.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

The smell of some kind of bush that grew near my house when I was a little boy.  I don’t know its name or how to describe it.  Earthy.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

All of the above have influenced me.  I suppose in my younger days I was considered a “drug poet” by some [the Hashish Scarab was published by D.R. Wagner in 1968] but drugs are not really an influence in themself.  They just work on other things.  The first time I smoked pot the next morning I told my parents about the Indian music I had heard the night before played on a sitar which was very intricate and had seven levels; and at the Berkeley Poetry Conference Gary Snyder said if you put LSD in a cardboard box the box wouldn’t write any poetry.  Its not the drug that creates it’s the musician or the poet.  So I am influenced by all the things I write about: the beauty of the world, the terrors of it, everything.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

Albert Camus, Allen Ginsberg, Amiri Baraka, Bob Dylan, Ed Sanders, Elias Canetti, Franz Fanon, John Lennon, Mikhail Bakunin, Sun Tzu to name a very few

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

Travel on a boat around the world by coastline.  It used to be that the only pirates were in the Straits of Malacca and relatively easy to avoid, but now they are all over the north-western part of the Indian Ocean.  It is something that’s not going to happen in this lifetime.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

A less successful lawyer?  I suppose if I had any talent I would love to be a musician.  Both creating the “music” i.e. “the sounds” and also singing “the meaning.”

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

I can’t carry a tune or play a musical instrument.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I recently finished reading 40th Century Man by Andy Clausen.  It is a poetical autobiography, but in reverse chronological order from the recent poems in this century to the beginning in the mid-sixties.  I knew Andy back in the day and read it from back to front.  It is a 180-page book and I had a hard time not reading it all in one sitting it was so gripping - not usual for poetry.  I don’t know if it was a “great book” but I had a great time reading it and it was difficult to put down.  

20 - What are you currently working on?

Shelf Life.  It’s a collection of poems about my life where I have lived most of my time on the planet; on the eastern edge of the San Francisco Bay, west of the Berkeley-Oakland Hills on a “shelf” of land.  Hence the title.  Mostly newer poems, two or three previously appeared in periodicals.  Jason Davis of Verdant Press in San Francisco is going to letterpress it.  http://www.verdantpress.com/index.html

August 31, 2011
Albany, CA

12 or 20 questions (second series);

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