Guest Post: Richard Krawiec

SHMTRazor_FinalApproaching Grace: Accessibility and Reflection in Poetry

Richard Krawiec, author of She Hands Me the Razor

There’s often a disjunct between what a writer believes is their best work, and what an audience thinks. For a poet, the difference can be one of appreciation for craft or subject matter, or connection on an emotional level. When my collection She Hands Me the Razor was published by Press 53, there were certain poems I knew would go over well in a reading. The title poem, with its exploration of the nature of love as revealed in the act of shaving a woman’s leg, I was certain would draw readers in, and it did: “it is always a matter of finding/another’s boundaries/one’s own limits…”

I was less prepared for the opening poem, “Young Love,” to be as well received as it has been. I like the poem, but didn’t consider it one of my most finely crafted. I placed it first because the structure of the book, a novelistic journey through love, loss and redemption, required I open with the “youngest” poem I had, a first chapter of sorts, so I could move forward chronologically. This was the most youthful poem I had on the theme of love, dealing with that experience of early passion when love was believed to be “a run/of rolled 7s/luck we never/thought/would run out.” I was unprepared for how many people connected with that, how accessible audiences would find the poem’s experiences. Accessible, and resonant.

Conversely, I was surprised at how silent the response whenever I read “There Will Always be a Father,” a poem that explored through the life trajectory of a narrator, how the absence of a father can spin a life out of control, can be a kind of execution: “the sharp, shining blade of a guillotine/a baggie full of rainbow pills/empty vodka bottles tipped across countless counters…” Nice rhythm, music, images – and silence.

I was determined to continue reading that poem, which I thought one of the strongest I’d written, until, at A Gathering of Poets, Press 53’s annual day of workshops, Betty Adcock told me afterwards, “That poem was good.”

I also noted she said nothing about the other, more accessible poems. Her praise allowed me to realize not all poems are equally accessible. That doesn’t mean you write down for an audience, although some do. I believe everything you write should be the best you can possibly do with that particular material. But some poems draw readers in by emotionally engaging them.  Other poems are more appreciated intellectually, for their craft.

What you hope is to write work that is both accessible and worthy of reflection, as, I believe, I was able to accomplish  in the closing poem, “Approaching Grace”: “I approach grace by watching/the feral curl of white froth/rising sun, chanting woman/the red infusion of morning light/on my lover’s already glowing face.”


RICHARD KRAWIEC has published two novels, a collection of stories, four plays, and a chapbook. He has won fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Pennsylvania Arts Council, and the North Carolina Arts Council (twice). His poems and stories appear in Sou’wester, many mountains moving, Shenandoah, Witness, West Branch, North Carolina Literary Review, Florida Review, Cream City Review, and dozens of other magazines. His feature articles have won national and regional awards. He teaches online at UNC Chapel Hill, where he won the 2009 Excellence in Teaching Award. He is the founder of Jacar Press, a Community Active Literary Publisher.

About the author


  1. As per our recent discussion of this topic, Richard, I have to add to your piece here that I don’t believe any poet writes “down” to an audience. Personally, I don’t consider how a poem will be received when writing it…only how to say what I want to say, the best way I know how to say it. It is only afterward, in trying to put together a collection that resonates with readers, that I consider which poems to include based on a number of factors. The word “accessible” is so misunderstood, anyway, in my opinion. It simply means that a reader is able to “be” with a poem without being intimidated out of it by the overuse of three-mile-long words or literary allusions that no one “gets” but academics. It doesn’t mean that the poem isn’t well crafted or sloppily written. But after three collections and a fourth coming out in the spring, I do know the kinds of poems that my most loyal readers enjoy, and I’d be a fool to ignore this knowledge when it comes time to choosing which poems to include in a manuscript, and which poems to leave out. (After all, it is nice to actually sell our books, as well as to win prizes for them!) While that knowledge doesn’t dictate all of my choices, it is definitely part of my formula for putting together what I hope is a well-crafted AND emotionally resonate book of poetry that might appeal to poets, poetry lovers, and people who are picking up a book of poetry for the first time. Anyway, I enjoyed what you had to say but as usual, don’t agree with every word! Your pal in poetry, Terri

  2. Accessibility and reflection certainly are core idioms in the transfer of knowledge and feeling of our project. I would add a third to that duet which I often think about when reading or writing — impact. I don’t mean the impact a work has on a single mind or an applauding audience. Rather the potency of a poem to initiate real-world action in others. Even works that don’t figure very high on the list of ‘great poems’ get good marks in that category. “Concord Hymn” certainly embedded a place, a history and the deeper regard for what ignited the American evolution of identity in the consciousness of every American. More than one Astronaut has read “The Road Less Traveled” in their childhood and was prompted in some way to take a course that actually put them on a road less traveled. I can’t think of a single, say, anti-war poem that has had similar impact (though I can think of many that impacted me personally). One that I think awaits general circulation and moves slowly in that direction is by Frances Kakugawa and might someday qualify:

    Under the Rising Sun
    the enemy came
    wearing my face.

    – certainly it layers itself deeply into the conscious and unconscious substrates of war, it’s causes and meanings.

    So, poetry that gets us down from our stages and off of our chairs, is something that I look for and use as measurable criteria for the success of a work, rather than a certification of quality or appreciation. Not to say my own work does any of that. Quite the opposite – popular audiences think it confusing and inaccessible, more knowledgeable ones seem to regard it as “not useful for us at this time”. I’m ok with that, and simply write them as notes to myself, things I like to put up on my wall for awhile because they are renderings of language and thought that I have never seen or heard before.

  3. Thanks all of you for taking the time to respond.
    Yes, Terri, we’ve spoken of this often. I know you don’t write down but I absolutely believe some people do – you see this in most coffee house open mics in NC. People concerned about audience first, poetry second. Got to get that punch line in even at the expense of the poem.

    I think the material dictates the treatment, at least it does for me. The reason why some poems are technically simpler than others might be because of what you have to say, and the best way to say it. Was it Stafford who said a poem is an attempt to say in writing what can’t be said in writing? In the examples I gave, , Young Love is pretty straightforward. There Will Always be a Father is far more complex and layered and needed a treatment to match. For me I wasn’t attempting to appeal to academics, but to honor the complexity of the material, to figure out what it wanted me to sayand how to say it best. It means a lot to me when a therapist comes up and says they love the accuracy of Young Love. It means a lot to me when a poet of Betty Adcock’s stature says she values the craft in the other poem. Now it’s a matter of putting them both together. Which I am attempting in some of my recent work, which is combining elements of narrative, prose poetry, and spoken word in fast-moving sequences that, I hope, also contain lyricism as well as energy. We’ll see. Some of the ones I’ve shared at readigns have gone over well, but Im not sure how they work on the page. As an editor of multiple anthologies, there is a difference. Some poems don’t work well in a book, but they do when read.

    Nonnie, the biggest mistake I see is people don’t try to recognize what poems work better on the page, and which ones work better read aloud. I make this mistake myself. Also, too few poets actually organize and structure a reading. I don’t think it should be a random pastiche, but a narrative the opens and closes for a reason, and moves between the two poles in a causal fashion.

    Red, I’ve written prose that had an impact – from essays against writing tests, to a feature article on the breakdown of the Juvenile Court system in Pittsburgh whi8ch sent a 5-year-old girl back to her abusive father. That resulted in a public outcry, donations of $50,000, a new building and revamped way of operating. I don’t see that happening with poetry.

    Although I think poetry can infiltrate individual souls and change people that way.

  4. Indeed you have, Richard, in your prose and other writings — even your comments on facebook carry the potential and potency for real-world impact. I’m not sure I agree with your exclusion of poetry from that affect, however.

    Other arts have found ways and new paradigms to engage the world as more than a cerebral-emotional exercise in accessibility and reflection (though those are always essential to transmission process). Goya did it in some of his paintings; Noguchi has done it in many of his works and monuments throughout the world. Some painters are coming out of their studios as muralists and transforming our cityscapes and their meanings even as they transform our consciousness about where we live and how we interpret those spaces. I think poetry can do the same; it just hasn’t found the ways to do it yet.

    Four times a day, the people in those monuments to capitalism (the surrounding office buildings) must cross Noguchi’s “California Scenario” to and from work and lunch. I can’t imagine that daily immersion hasn’t had impact over the years on their consciousness, even on the way they do their work. It’s tribute to diversity, human and natural, certainly must have worked some alterations in their conscious over the years.

    The poetry of slam, hip-hop and reggae and ska, in musical guise, has scouted some of the approaches to impact in advance of poetry, itself, embarking on that task. The phrase “I ‘n I” is a constant reminder to withdraw one’s racist, homophobic, misanthropic projections and regard others as messages about self-consciousness. A generation after Jimmy Cliff, the Wailers and others slipped it, meme-fashion, into our culture, it’s powerful self-other referencing seems to be taking root in the next generation.

    So, no, I’d say poetry stands poised on the edge of a very new and exciting appreciation of what it can and ought do in addition to traditional expectations. At least I’m hoping that is the case. If I think of real-world/real-time impact in your own work, I imagine some kind of fusion of your prose and poetry. Not that that’s what interests you, but because it interests me in that way.

  5. Nice post, Richard.
    I’m interested in the idea of impact, both as an immediate response and as a lingering feeling or presence. Many of the things (books, movies, music, art) that have had the strongest impact for me are things I did not know how to respond to initially, or my responses were so varied that they were impossible to immediately articulate.
    For me, there’s a certain amount of seepage that has to occur. The piece has to dissolve into me and return before I know my true response. Sometimes this only takes minutes, sometimes days or months. That’s the wonderful mystery of it all for me.
    Accessibility is a trickier thing. Art has a way of working itself into our bones whether our brain finds it accessible or not; it can change us in spite of ourselves. I guess, for me, the trick is for the artist to be accessible, not so much the art.
    When I read in public, I feel myself constantly driving toward that pristine moment of stillness just after the last word and before the first response. Now and then, that instant seems to last forever. And it’s glorious.

  6. Accessibility is always tricky Steve, unless a writer sets out to write for the express purpose of reaching a popular audience you just have to hope your work is true enough that it connects. I think if you’re trying to be accessible, you’re not striving for art, and maybe some will find that pretentious but I remember Ray Carver saying ‘If the writing can’t be as good as you can make it, then why do it? That’s the only thing you can take to the grave.’ You can’t fake accessibility, just like you can’t fake literary mastery, though people try both. I think your distinction between the artist and the art being accessible is a good one. That can bridge the two elements.

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