I first meet Robert Krut (or, as he’s been signing off on his emails, Bob) over Zoom, on a sunny afternoon in Isla Vista, California.
Not that location, or weather, or time really matter over video call. But it’s hard not to notice the sounds of activity on the bustling college town streets —the chatter of passerby, the ringing of bike bells, the distant crashing of waves into the shore. Sound travels oddly here, even in the best of times; the buildings are only a few stories high and the walls tend to be thin, so it’s not uncommon to hear conversation (or, if it’s past sundown, hoots and hollers) of twenty-somethings from streets over. When the pandemic hit, the streets fell eerily quiet. But now the music of the small town sounds around UC Santa Barbara are louder than ever. Which makes it all the stranger that we meet trapped, once more, within the confines of a Zoom chatbox.
But strange has been, for the better part of two years, the operative term. Even as the world roars back into operation, vestiges of the pandemic continue to sneak their way into everyday life. Case in point: the loud, glitchy Zoom call we find ourselves in on a sunny coastal California afternoon.
We’re supposed to be here to talk about poetry. We’re here to talk about Krut’s fourth poetry collection, Watch Me Trick Ghosts, which was written over the course of the pandemic. But the eccentricities of technology, as ever, have decided otherwise. My colleague, Lila, is having technical issues. Her internet is bad and her laptop dying, which manifests itself in her audio cutting in with the loud crackling of surrounding conversations (she’s stationed at a campus Starbucks), or her dropping the call completely.
The first time she drops, it interrupts Krut mid-sentence. “Whoops,” he says, with only a bit of resignation in his voice. “Maybe that’s a sign I’ve been talking too long.”
He’s used to it. We all are by now. Strangeness has become a way of life. Perhaps even more so for Krut, who, besides his work as a poet, has taught as a continuing lecturer in UCSB’s Writing Program and College of Creative Studies for the better part of two decades. A student's glitching call, then, is nothing new. Strange is the operative term, yes, but how strange can a situation be if it’s happened time after time? How strange can a routine of strangeness truly be?
Indulge me, if you will, for a brief discussion of Russian formalism (it will be short, I promise). In 1917, literary critic Viktor Shloksvy coined the term “defamiliarization” (or, as some have called it, “estrangement”), in his essay “Art as Device," defining it the process of describing the world so that “its perception is impeded and the greatest possible effect is produced through the slowness of the perception.” In layman’s terms, it is the process of making the familiar unfamiliar through language, the transformation of the mundane into the sublime, the bizarre, the uncanny. Art removes us from time, unsticks us from habit, from the automation of daily routine. And it is, if we are to take Shloksvy at his word, the core labor of being an artist. But how does one perform this act of transmutation when there is no longer any kind of familiarity for one’s language to push off of — say, during the chaos and uncertainty of a pandemic? How can strangeness be expressed within art when strangeness itself is now routine?
Such is the problem that recent pandemic art has often found itself within. Over the last submission cycle, Spectrum received many Covid-centric submissions. Nearly all of them were rejected. The impulse to write on the pandemic is understandable —in its reshuffling of everyday life, the pandemic seems so fruitful for content, so ready to be mined for subject matter and theme and story. Yet in their attempt to recreate the feelings of the ordeal to those already experiencing it, there is some essential strangeness lost, and thus these submissions failed to capture either the authenticity or complexity of the ordeal. We see right through them —as the Atlantic writer Lily Meyer writes, pandemic art “relies on the ability to channel inner experience outward, and because no inner experience of the coronavirus pandemic could plausibly be described as complete, prose that renders it static and comprehensible rings false.”
Watch Me Trick Ghosts is not, at least on the surface, a collection about the pandemic in particular. There are hints of its origin sprinkled throughout: the first poem, “The Dinner Party," describes a cathartic gathering over Zoom; another, “The Branch” begins with the line, “There is too much death and rain this year.” We are taken on a journey through abandoned streets and office buildings and forests, seeing ghosts and lighting and bodies —so many bodies. Ribs and hearts and bones and blood. Yet the spirit of the pandemic remains ever-present. Grief appears and reappears, the way that grief does. The walls of a room “hold a grudge.” Krut wrote nearly the entire collection during quarantine, confined to his home —as he says, “We were in our house, and that’s what I was writing from. In general, this was about just sitting down and seeing what comes out of the subconscious.”
In this sense, Watch Me Trick Ghosts can almost feel like a journal, or a record-book of sorts: fifty-four pages of collected images and emotions that mark the journey of a mind through quarantine. For Robert Krut, poetry has always been about the process of observation. “It sounds corny,” he says, “but traditionally what happens for me is I see something or I’ll hear something and something about it jumps out and that will be the spark.” And almost always, Krut says, that spark finds a home in the ever-trusty Notes app, home not only to the drunken, to-be-deleted-in-the-morning ramblings of teenagers, but apparently also the observations of an accomplished and acclaimed poet.
And the 40-something poet and professor certainly has seen plenty to spark a poem, from his childhood in New Jersey to the multicolored and jumbled streets of his Los Angeles home to the beaches and bluffs of the Santa Barbara campus. So it makes sense, then, that during a global pandemic, when all the usual candidates for observation are gone, when shops are shuttered and the sidewalks deserted and our collective existence is defined by those ever-prevalent stay-at-home orders, that Krut’s answer was to turn towards the worlds of the interior: the cavernous interiors of abandoned buildings and the suffocating stillness inside of doors and windows and walls, but also in examining the strangeness and horror of the human body itself.
There is a certain vagueness (or, in another sense, universality) here —proper nouns are rare, and the scenes of Krut’s poems tend not to name specific places or people (though the images are nonetheless extremely precise). But such is the artist’s task —to, as Anais Nin writes in The Novel of the Future, “shake up the familiar scene, and as if by magic, we [are made to] see a new meaning in it.”
And so, like a magic trick, Krut makes it feel strange all over again. The image of a man walking his poodle in “Give Up” is a “walking corpse.” A vein in “Gravity of Numbers'' is “an unplugged wire with frayed ends.” Drops of rain soaking a leaf in “The Branch'' are “a hundred shocked eyelids.” Surrealism is the tool of choice here; a lifelong Angeleno might be able to spy hints of the city in the glow of street lamps in “Tourniquet Road," or “the city’s finest amblers'' in “The Blood of Human Kindness," but just as soon as we begin to recognize the familiar, the scenes twist in on themselves, revealing the darkness within. In Krut’s hands, the mundane becomes the surreal, the ominous, and the horrifying, not in spite of their mundanity but because of it. Reading this collection often feels like staring at your hand for long until it no longer resembles a hand, until it is something alien and distorted and terrifying and yet trapped with you all the same. It is, then, a rather perfect representation of the cognitive estrangement quarantine inflicts, leaving us with nothing but the body our brains are attached to and the existential dread of the next day’s coming disaster.
For his part, Robert Krut does not seem like the type of person who spends his days thinking about “the orange walls of the room that hold a grudge,” or “the implication that noise equals bloodshed.” Not that these qualities are easily observable from a Zoom box, anyway. Over the course of our conversation, he speaks with the personable nature, good humor, and infectious enthusiasm of someone who’s spent the majority of their adult life interacting with students. Indeed, it’s through his relationship with students where Krut finds much of his creative mojo: “I always wanted to be a teacher,” he says, “so my work as a teacher is both out of love of teaching -- but also, selfishly, it's invigorating.”
Krut tells me that his working with students plays a major role within his writing process. Over last year’s online-only academic year, Krut taught several “tutorial classes”, where a small cohort of students shared work and discussed the intricacies of poetry together. Such is the unique nature of working at UCSB’s College of Creative Studies, a small, graduate-like program that houses a few dozen of the university’s most dedicated and talented writers (and which, full disclosure, produces Spectrum Literary Journal). The lines between mentor and student are not so easily drawn here —which, at risk of the theme here becoming stale, is, compared to almost all undergraduate writing programs (or college programs in general), rather strange. Instead of the formality and bureaucracy of a traditional college major, the Writing and Literature major aims to foster a more collectivist atmosphere, with students often working alongside their professors rather than simply submitting work to them. Those that study in the CCS are not simply students —they’re considered artistic collaborators as well. As Krut says, “These past couple years really reminded me of the idea that we’re all working together —the idea that [they’re] sharing work with me but also I’m trying to share work with them as well.”
And for Krut, leveraging this relationship proved incredibly fruitful when developing this collection. “It made such a difference on the writing of this book because I would be working with other people who were all great writers —and yes, they were students, but they were also great writers. So we would talk for a couple of hours each week about poetry and I would end the Zoom and I would want to go write.” And this collaborative atmosphere that CCS provides, Krut says, is one in which even the most experienced writers feel more comfortable sharing and developing their most authentic and challenging work. The best poetry, he says, is the kind in which poets are “willing to go right to the edge” —to face the tension of, as he says, “tipping into the melodramatic or the cliche.” But, then again, “You have to go that far to do anything that’s worthwhile.”
It’s not hard to see this type of risk-taking within Watch Me Trick Ghosts Here. There is a striking directness to Krut’s use of metaphor in this collection. Take, for instance, the opening stanza of “Tourniquet Road”, where the speaker states, “You are a heart, which is different from saying you are my heart or you have my heart. It is saying that you are a heart,” collapsing the distance between the “you” of the poem and the beating physical organ that exists within us -- directness that, Krut, says, is very much by design.
“Something that interested me when working on this [collection],” Krut says, “was that if you use metaphors, it can become very heavy-handed —it can be overdone very easily. And instead of tiptoeing around it, I just wanted to say, here it is. Just put it all out there.” As “A Coffin is a Battery” says, “Subtlety is a gift for the privileged.” And in the time of the pandemic, it’s a gift that art cannot afford.
This frankness is part of the reason that Krut specializes in poetry. He has written —and taught—fiction and creative nonfiction in the past (he applied under both fiction and poetry for his MFA at Arizona State University), but the poetry’s ability to be more concentrated, more direct, makes it his preferred form. “What I want to provide is very concrete images.” Krut says. “Even if they’re surreal, there are these grounding elements, these kinds of pins in the poem that keep us focused. And then hopefully they’re the kind of images that people can see themselves within, so it’s more of an interactive experience.”
Such is the power of this collection —while the scenarios presented dip into the surreal and the horrifying, we can still find ourselves quite easily between the lines. While Krut’s words deconstruct the familiar and everyday into the otherworldly, there nonetheless remains a sense of tangibility, a touch and feel to ground us within the bizarre. There is quite a bit of physicality running through many of the poems in Watch Me Trick Ghosts (not surprising, considering its pronounced focus on bodies), from “ghosts who trace our bodies with a hundred fingertips”, to “a barked face comma wrapping your chest). But often the surreal scenarios are presented in a direct, almost matter-of-fact tone, which works to both tie us to each scenario, yet amplify the estrangement of the weird and wild imagery. The portraits of “marbled meat” turning to bone, or the skin’s “rope burn tattoo”, or one’s “convicted ghost twin” seem all the more peculiar when each narrator presents them to us in such a matter-of-fact manner, as if they might simply be a part of this new everyday. In a world as twisted and fractured as our own, what was once strange is now familiar.
Which, as Watch Me Trick Ghosts shows, makes it all the more bizarre.
The popup that covers the faces on our screens interrupts our interview again.
It’s an automated missive from the Zoom gods, telling us our allotted 45-minute call time is almost up. Just a reminder of the strange middle ground we now occupy, two years into the pandemic. One foot in the sunny SoCal streets and another in the isolated world of the interior. It’s cleared away without any fanfare: no acknowledgement of its oddity, only its existence.
Which means something, I suppose, to the poet’s eye, amongst the college town and classrooms in the shadow of the Santa Ynez mountains.
“Anyway,” Robert Krut says, clearing his throat. “I’ll just wrap this up.”
Watch Me Trick Ghosts can be purchased from Codhill Press.