Lei Lei Interviews Bruce Craven, Author of “Buena Suerte in Red Glitter”

LL:  Thank you Bruce, for the interview. We met when I was a doctoral candidate at Columbia University, and you brought me on board to help teach the course Leadership Through Fiction. I was impressed with the lyrical energy of your teaching. When I read Buena Suerte in Red Glitter, I was deeply moved by the emotive power of your words. How did you develop the talent to speak with such emotional potency?

BC:  When I was a college student in the 1980s, I had a lot of questions about my place in this world. Reading poetry, and writing poetry, allowed me to experience what it means to connect with other people and it was my form of artistic expression. I started writing poetry in about 9th grade. You see, poetry captures the deep complexity of humanity and, I think, our hopes and our confusion…and when we see beauty. For example, during my bartending and writing years when I was in my mid-thirties in the mid-Nineties, I read Jim Harrison, both his fiction and poetry. His work and perspective on life saved my soul many times. His way of seeing the world allowed me to focus on the beautiful potential of the world, rather than being overwhelmed by it. He helped me channel my anger away from self-destruction, into writing. More importantly, I learned that interacting with the medium of poetry gives me peace and serenity, which I deeply value. So, to answer your question, the emotional charge of my poetry comes from my desire to connect with others, helping them to see the light, just like what poetry has done for me at different times in my life.

LL:  I know you moved to New York to study poetry at Columbia in 1985. Can you tell us what was it like to be a poet in New York back then?

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BC:  Yes, I attended the poetry program at Columbia School of the Arts from 1985-1987. It was a fascinating time to be living in New York and America. I grew up in a beautiful part of Los Angeles and felt rebellious. I was too young to be sent to the Vietnam War, but watched the political turmoil. Then my college, UC Santa Cruz, was a very creative, rebellious place and then I arrived in New York City, and it was gritty and wild and fun. There was a lot in the air about rebellion. In both California and New York, many writers and poets were big rebelsthey were questioning the government and our nation’s moral leadership. I became fascinated by that rebellious spirit. Plus, when I was at Columbia, amazing poets and novelists were passing through, teaching. I would be in a class with poets I had idolized back in California.

LL:  Through working with you in your Leadership Through Fiction class, I know that you identify and see lessons from the lives of novelists and filmmakers. What do you see offered in the lives and working habits of poets?

BC:  Working as a business school professor, I am always thinking about how to help other people to grow. Learning about the lives of poets has contributed to my own personal growth because I get to ask the question: “How did they get to that place in life which allowed them to write such powerful verses?” For example, I met the famous Polish poet and writer Czeslaw Milosz, who gave a 2-3 day class at my graduate program at Columbia. His brave resistance to political oppression, expressed through his written words, impacted me on a personal level. Different times call for different heros. During the past couple of months, the stories of medical professionals who are fighting Covid-19 on the front line has been an inspiration to my own creative process.

LL:  Your poetry work weaves together personal history and the history of the country effortlessly. I know that you got a double major in literature and political science in college, which again straddles the highly personal form of expressionliterature, with the macro-structural analysis of human societies. In your poems, such as “1966,” you humanize the sociopolitical event of the Vietnam War with a heightened personal sensibility. Has it always been easy for you to do that? Why?

Bruce Craven

BC:  For me, poetry has always been about moving away from the moral absolutes. Exploring the personal dimension of large-scale political events allows me to achieve this goal. “1966”  is autobiographical, because I was literally that little boy who was reading a picture book about adventures in a miraculous jungle while my neighbour’s family had been torn apart when their son was deployed in Vietnam. During politically volatile times, the personal perspective keeps us anchored, regardless of the political mandate of the day.

LL:  How did you get connected with Red Dirt Press?

BC:  In 2018, I had just finished writing my leadership book, Win or Die: Leadership Secrets from Game of Thrones, and I received an email from a woman, Amy Wilson, who had studied in the Columbia School of the Arts MFA writing program with me back in the late Eighties. She asked if I had published any of my poetry in a book. I said I hadn’t and emailed her my manuscript. She had recently become the Publisher of the Red Dirt Press in Oklahoma. She accepted the manuscript and we worked together through 2019 on it. Her enthusiasm and commitment were wonderfully fortuitous. RDP published it in December of 2019. I was also helped on numerous occasions during the process by Brooklyn photographer Mark Shaw. He supplied the photographs and offered creative support, too. Between teaching, traveling and also doing press and readings for my leadership book, 2019 was a busy year!

LL:  How do you find poetry to read? Do you have publishers or platforms you turn to—journals, etc.?

BC:  Today’s young people have a lot of platforms that they can turn to, such as Twitter, Facebook, and various Apps and websites. Some of my favorite printing presses for poetry are Ecco at Harper-Collins and also Copper Canyon Press. I am also a fan of the poetry podcast hosted by The New Yorker’s poetry editor Kevin Young. And I love going into bookstores. That has been my favorite thing, along with thrift stores, for most of my life.

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LL:  You recently also published your leadership book Win or Die. Was the process of writing Buena Suerte in Red Glitter similar to when you were writing about leadership?

BC:  Win or Die: Leadership Secrets from Game of Thrones is a leadership book written from a fiction perspective. In my poetry writing, I also try to find ways to connect my poetry with leadership, and to give something practical to my readers. Specifically, I hope my poetry leads people into a world with greater empathy. My job is to write in a way that enables that processand also to help show people something magical and exciting.

LL:  We are having this discussion during the COVID-19 pandemic. What can poetry offer us now?

BC:  Poetry during this time of pandemic and quarantine offers us a chance to step back from storytelling. It slows everything down by focusing our attention on things that are subtle yet human. It’s like the magic of walking through a museum. We all need something magical, especially now.

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