Dr. Roger Craik, Associate Professor of English at Kent State University, Ashtabula, visited Yerevan at the invitation of the American University of Armenia to give a series of lectures on the craft of writing poetry. English by birth and educated at the universities of Reading and Southampton, Dr. Craik has worked as a journalist, TV critic and chess columnist. Before coming to the U.S. in 1991, he worked in Turkish universities and was awarded a Beineke Fellowship to Yale in 1990. His poems have appeared in Romanian, and from 2013-14 he is a Fulbright Scholar at Oradea University in Romania.
When did you start writing poems and how did it happen?
I think I started when I was living in New Haven, the U.S. state of Connecticut, after I had left Turkey, where I worked at a university. It was at the time of the first Gulf war. I think I attempted something at that time, just writing thoughts down, and two years later I found myself writing every morning. Of course, I had to do some writing even at the age of 14, in school in Scotland, where my parents lived. We were writing short stories, occasionally poems and reading other people’s works, unseen. So, it was a very long gap between schoolboy efforts and adult efforts.
You are lecturing on poetry and creative writing. Do you think it’s possible to teach someone to become a poet?
I do not. I don’t think that’s possible at all. I believe that people teach themselves, and the only thing a tutor can do is to show the use of experimenting. The way to know how to write poetry is just doing it. It’s like you can’t teach someone to play table tennis. People do it and see how it goes. I think it’s very much the same with poetry. However, some students think it can be taught, and in class they are expecting to learn how to write poetry but what they really get is a little bit of experimentation.
Your biography says you write poems for at least an hour over coffee before breakfast. It is a kind of schedule? Aren’t the other parts of the day inspiring for creation?
That’s very largely correct. Sometimes it takes even longer than an hour and it’s the time for me to work best. The rest of the day is devoted to other people. I spend most of the time teaching, reading and doing other things. But I do think that if you are working on something, especially poetry, it can kick around in your head during the day, when you are just receptive. Sometimes in the evening when the mind loosens up a bit, thoughts occur, but the best time for creating is the morning.
You once said that you prefer to write about anything you find interesting or care about. Which are these topics?
Well I think I care about anything I am interested in. There are no particular topics. Anything that strikes in life or the things you have a view about. I was once given a book of poems by a woman who corresponds with me and the book was flooded with the word ‘we’. This annoyed me greatly and I wrote a poem about the pronoun ‘we’. That was a piece of annoyance. It was a long time ago but I polished it up recently.
So you can write about anything that shocks you…
Or strikes me pleasantly, sensationally…
And what about negative emotions?
Sometimes yes, but it’s risky to write something you are angry about, because it can end up as a kind of grumble most of the time and it’s not very illuminating.
This is your first visit to Yerevan. What places did you visit?
The first day we went to the Cascade and visited the glass museum, where I was impressed very much with some pieces. I also have to mention the bright blue penguin with its feet up and I want you to publish that because it gave me enormous pleasure. The cat was good too but the penguin is…
I have to tell you now that it’s not a penguin but a kiwi, actually…
Oh, really? Is it K-I-W-I? I liked it very much, anyway. It’s not high art but it probably makes people happier than most high art does.
Where else did you go?
I also visited Erebuni Fortress and saw a wonderful collection of books and manuscripts in Matenadaran. Unfortunately, I could not attend the Genocide Museum, which is something that can’t be imagined unless you see it. The museum was closed at the time we were passing by.
Is there anything you disliked here?
No, candidly no. I am stretching my mind for something and nothing occurs. I suppose people could get tired of the traffic but I am not one to get tired of it. I have been treated very well. Everything went very smoothly at the American University of Armenia, where I was lecturing. I really liked the students. They use their minds a lot and they are very engaging and enthusiastic.
Do you think of yourself as of a traditional, conservative or modern person?
I am modern, I believe. Actually, I have a kind of strange life style, as it involves a lot of traveling. So I suppose this makes a man cosmopolitan. I don’t think of myself as English any more but I can’t think of myself as American either, although I am a U.S. citizen.
In one of your e-mails you mentioned ‘awful Facebook’. Aren’t you fond of the internet and social networks?
I can’t stand them. I particularly dislike social networks, as they take so much of people’s time. People get addicted to it and a lot of time floats into nothing, keeping them rooted indoors. A man in Harvard put me on Facebook and now the whole world contacts me. However, I am trying to e-mail them instead, which is much better.
You traveled to a great number of countries, including Yemen, Egypt, Japan, Poland, Turkey and Bulgaria, and you are now working in Oradea, Romania. Is there a place in the world you are eager to visit?
I would like to visit India to see a completely different way of life. My mother went to give some lectures in India with the British Council and she was shocked by the poverty. Nevertheless, being an experienced traveler, I take places as they are.
You were born in England, now you are living in the United States. Would you like to settle in quite another country one day?
I have a romantic notion of somewhere in Holland. I was sent there by my parents when their marriage was fraying. I stayed in Haarlem with my godmother, whose husband was a Dutch sailor. I was very young at that time and didn’t like it at first, but later I understood that this was the most interesting holidays I had ever had. I had some Dutch money in my pocket, and there were people speaking another language, not to mention the flat landscape and the skies. All of this was a fascinating experience.
As a person with huge life experience, what is your main message to your students?
I think that students could try somehow to bear in mind that university's only three or four years, and that the rest of their lives is a lot more, hopefully, and that university training will enrich those years. Also, I often think of a poem by the Welsh poet R. S. Thomas, which ends:
What to do? Stay green.
Never mind the machine
Whose fuel is human souls.
Live large, man, and dream small.