Michael Earl Craig
Montana Poet Laureate for 2015-2017
Michael Earl Craig, or "Earl," is a farrier who lives just outside of Livingston with his wife, Susan, a mule and a dog. Mr. Craig has an antiquated lifestyle, preferring to use non-electric tools - manual typewriters, old-fashioned bicycles, anvil and hammer, his hands. He personifies rural values in that he makes his living from working with horses, but oddly - and fortunately for us - he is also one of the preeminent poets of our day. Mr. Craig is an intellectual who has been recognized internationally for his impressive creative talents.
Published in the most contemporary and prestigious of presses (Wave Books, Fence and Knopf), Mr. Craig regularly gets requests for his work from journals like Poetry, The Believer, TriQuarterly Review and the journal of the Poetry Society of America. His poems have been translated into Dutch and Chinese, and he has been invited to read in cities all over the country as well as asked to serve as a visiting writer at various universities. M r. Craig was a panelist for the Elk River Writer's Workshop and has been a presenter at both the High Plains BookFest in Billings and Montana Festival of the Book in Missoula. He is widely respected in both the eastern and western parts of our state as a poet of outstanding merit. More importantly, Mr. Craig is considered by all who have had the pleasure of studying with him to be a kind, generous and inspiring teacher of poetry.
Mr. Craig’s first book, Can You Relax in My House, was published in 2002. Since that time he has published three more books (Yes, Master; Thin Kimono; Talkativeness), a chapbook (Jombang Jet) and had numerous poems published in anthologies and poetry journals. Comparing his work to that of Mark Twain and Will Rogers, Matthew Zapruder of University of California Riverside writes of Craig’s poems that they “bring something new to American literature. The landscape of his poetry is … the American West: it is full of mountains, giant weather, horse, farms, small town life, and so on. But these elements, so familiar to our imagination, are reconfigured and skewed (albeit lovingly) into odd, even at times absurdist and surreal, configurations.”
In Livingston Mr. Craig has volunteered at Park High since 2007, helping English teacher Kelly Dick with his creative writing classes. The many students Mr. Craig has mentored over the years stop him in the streets to show off their poetry notebooks. They want to share how poetry has become an active part of their lives.
“He represents a perfect combination of so many of the things poetry exists to do: honor humanity, honor place and time, honor the dead, console the living, entertain us, delight us, and lend us hopes and dreams.”
-Dara Wier, University of Massachusetts MFA for Poets and Writers; editor and publisher, Factory Hollow Press
Biography drawn from the nomination letter of Karin Schalm, the Creative Writing Program Coordinator at the University of Montana.
THIS IS HOW AN ANVIL COMES TO YOU
It was waiting for me when I returned,
sitting on the back porch in the rain,
an anvil with a shipping sticker
placed squarely on its face.
It’s a beauty let me tell you—only
one hundred pounds but with all the meat
where it counts, in the waist, and a sweet spot
like that of a coveted Kohlswa.
And what a curvaceous horn!
Perhaps because it’s the purest
possession a person can own
the anvil does not depreciate
the moment it lands on your doorstep.
Without a single moving part
not even the boxing glove is so simple,
because you have to swing the boxing glove.
The anvil is never swung.
A good anvil does not move, ever.
It just sits there—you go to it.
You stand before it, or you step around it.
It seems, at first, that it’s all up to you,
for you supply the labor. But the anvil
rewards you with impact, with rebound,
the inverse of your efforts.
Your old typewriters can get gummy.
Not so with the anvil.
Your favorite pipe could be smacked from your mouth.
This will never happen with the anvil.
From the anvil’s many surfaces and edges
come loaves of bread, sacks of coffee,
your poultry, your beef, your woolens;
for an anvil is a workbench
across which all your labor must pass,
humbly, despite the sweat
and sporadic bursts of hammer violence.
And from that labor: the paycheck.
The fruits, some say.
Boxing gloves produce no fruit.
Even an anchor... have I mentioned the anchor?
Even an anchor must be dropped
(they call it “lowering”)
and sometimes dragged.
How so totally sad is the anchor.
Let us take a minute to stop here and pray
for this pitiful object.
I’m awakened at 3 a.m. to the sound of an owl.
It takes me a minute to find my glasses.
I press my face to the window.
A silver flash crosses the yard.
It settles into an owl shape on a nearby post.
My nose and eyes are stinging.
A stinging behind my face.
Like some kind of problem behind a billboard.
Why would a man look at an owl and start to cry?
My body is trying to reject something.
I have no idea what that is.
The owl is sitting in the moonlight.
The yard is completely still.
IN THE ROAD
I had a dream last night, I dreamt
I was trying to shoe a horse in the road.
I’d get under him and swing my hammer
and he’d move his foot, just a little. Hitting
the nails was like trying to strike flies
from the air. My hammer flashed in the sun,
striking the shoe to the left or the right of the nail.
One miss-hit busted my thumb open.
Blood trickled like a wet glove over my hand.
I cursed as he hopped around on three legs,
a totally blank expression on his face.
Occasionally a car came down the road, slowly,
carving a wide arc around us, the passengers
with their windows rolled up, looking silently
out at me, sometimes shaking their heads.
I’d swing and miss. Then swing and hit my thumb.
Finally I swung, he shifted his foot, and my hammer
hit my kneecap with some amazing velocity.
I crumpled to the ground like a worn-out flag.
This horse just stood there, expressionless.
Another car passed by, very close to me.
A child in the backseat cracked her window a bit.
She held out a banana and pretended to shoot me
in the head. She silently mouthed the word pop
twice—pop, pop—and I felt myself twitch sharply
in my bed. I knew I could wake up if I wanted to,
but it just wasn’t my style.
WHEN IT’S TIME
When it’s time I’d like to be buried
in a simple wooden coffin.
A pine-board box.
Or even a thick, waxed cardboard box.
Hell, it doesn’t even need to be thick.
Or waxed. See what you think.
And drop me in there any old way,
in any man’s clothes,
but be sure to tip my head back
and prop my jaw wide open
and get my arms up in front of me
like I’m playing the piano.
Whether or not they sew my eyelids shut
doesn’t matter. But don’t comb my hair.
And don’t play the drums.
When it’s time I’d like to have everyone be quiet.
People can dance if they want
but I do ask for absolute silence.
I know I’ll be dead but
I don’t want there to be even the sound
of a pin dropping.
I’ll be in my box looking up.
My arms will suggest a gentle concerto.
Or maybe a ragtime number.
And it shouldn’t be seen as a look of horror on my face,
for I’ve had a good time in this body.
So when it’s time and people
have gathered around my cardboard box,
or whatever you’ve chosen,
to look down at me in silence,
their feet shuffling soundlessly in place,
the madhouse rhythms coursing through them,
their hair whipping in the gale-force wind,
their cheeks vibrating like Jell-O
as if the earth were about to explode,
and no pins are dropping—do you hear me?—
it is silent—
I will then be the charred center
of an enormous yellow flower,
which will be very confusing for some,
and somewhat embarrassing for me,
but I’ll be dead, and so won’t notice.
I spun the helmet on the ground and waited for it to stop. When it didn’t stop, and
probably two days had passed, I stood up and began snapping my fingers, just the
one hand, my right hand, and I was kind of squatting a little, just bending my knees a
bit, and tapping my right foot, and smiling I guess, like I was listening to something,
something catchy. And after two more days of this, this finger-snapping, and after
seeing that the helmet would continue to spin in the driveway, at this point I began
to dance backward toward town, down the long dirt road toward the pavement that
would take me to the highway that would eventually take me to town, always dancing
and snapping, always moving backward, mile after mile, smiling, really getting down,
never looking over my shoulder, falling and getting up, falling and getting up,
traveling backward toward town, snapping, smiling, really covering some ground.
He got tired of his body.
That’s what the papers said.
And that he jumped from a bridge.
And when you turn to page 4
that’s all it said again,
in the plainest typeface,
he got tired of his body.
Sometimes I put a taco in my body,
or I walk slowly through the dark bedroom
(I have to take a leak)
like a head with legs,
like a marionette with my arms out,
wondering where the dresser is, or,
where is the monster jade plant?
My feet shuffle slowly across
the rough pine floor like
the feet of a cross-eyed circus bear—
up! up! (he’s on his hind legs)—
who wants only his blue tambourine,
which raises some really good questions.
A fisherman looked up and saw the man jump.
He said, “I looked up and saw the man jump.”
He said that the man flapped his arms,
that the man had definitely changed his mind,
that it was a nice day, and that the man
was trying to fly over to a tree.
Now we’ve cloned a sheep. Her name is Dolly and she lives in Scotland. Another day
breaks and there she is, quietly munching in her stall. God’s probably fine with this.
Wittgenstein reminds us that “even the hugest telescope has an eyepiece no larger than
the human eye.” And: “It’s incredible how helpful a new drawer can be, suitably located
in our filing cabinet.”
I write to you from Nancy Jane’s, a sunny front-window table. Had scrambled eggs with
diced ham, some wheat toast and a cup of coffee. Now for dessert, the little gingerbread
man I spotted earlier in the bakery case. The waitress walks over to the counter and takes
him from the glass cabinet. She puts him on a plate and brings him to me. He seems
much larger up close; his head and legs overhang the plate. He has a little white smile
and buttons but no jacket. I snap one of his arms off and pop it in my mouth.
So sunny it hurts to look outside. I snap his other arm off.
I RATTLED OFF TO WORK TODAY
I rattled off to work today
in a pickup called Green Plunder,
to labor in the snow, boots squeaking,
on horses named Ricky and Taco,
Truman, Preacher, Peaches, and Ammo.
As I went from foot to anvil, anvil to foot,
time moved along like a turtle
licking the apostrophes out of a Dreiser novel.
I stopped working and stood up very straight,
letting the hammer drop from my hand
into the snow at my feet. A deep
orange glow was setting in the forge.
“Your little oven,” as Mrs. Nockleton says,
Later when I had finished
I packed up my tools carefully
and wrapped each hammer in a cloth,
and put the boxes of nails to bed in their drawer;
at which point I thought about the apostrophes,
how they must have tasted.
Now I’m rattling home again
in a pickup called Doctor Denouement.
And nothing escapes me.
There’s a very distinguished-looking older man sitting near me
at the diner. His hair is silver, neatly combed.
His gray suit looks immaculate, a crisp handkerchief
in his chest pocket. A grandfatherly kindness emanates
from him as he eats his eggs. He is from a bygone era,
I’m thinking, as he gets up and turns toward me,
and now I see a large grease stain on his shirt,
which is partially untucked, and his belt appears
to be unbuckled. He staggers a bit as he stands—
bumping his chair back with his legs
[some Billie Holiday, coming from the kitchen]
—and glances at me for a second, a few seconds.
A restrained burp slips from his mouth.
He picks up the most gorgeous briefcase I have ever seen
and wields it respectfully, like a sword he has known all his life.
I’m sitting in my brown chair.
I have dirt under each of my fingernails.
Except for the pinkies.
I remember hearing of
the gorgeous town blonde
who told reporters
she’d never date a man with
dirt under his nails.
It’s a poet’s job
to be dragged by an ankle
A poem shouldn’t require
a lot of book learning
to understand, I once wrote,
and Tina leaned
over my desk and said,
To understand what?
I didn’t say anything.
Trying again I wrote
in capital letters THE READER
CAN ALMOST BE DUMB REALLY
AND STILL GET MY POEMS.
Tina nodded her head.
The ankle caught up
in the stirrup of a galloping
I slump over in my chair.
It’s like I’m covered in bluebirds.
Little brilliant ones.
And when I say this,
“little brilliant ones,”
I lisp a little like a man
who’s been punched hard in the mouth
but still wants to talk bluebirds.