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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.




Poetry Samples




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.





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 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

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,

squinting, nodding.

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

through town.

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



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.







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