Howard Craft does his art every day. Last month, he taught high school and middle school writing workshops in a residency funded by United Arts of Raleigh and Wake County, interviewed Jaki Shelton Green, and taught a poetry and drama class for the N.C. Writers' Network fall conference in Asheville. And every spare minute, he's working on a collection of essays for his forthcoming book, False Advertising.
I met Craft for dinner at Elmo's in Durham and commented on his whirlwind schedule. He laughed and shook his head, saying, "Yeah, but by my age, Baraka and Mailer had already published their best work." Craft himself has had a share of "bests," though. In 2001, his first play, The House of George, won a new play competition at N.C. Central University. The university picked the play as its entry for the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival. Two more plays, The Wise Ones and Tunnels, debuted in spring of this year.
In 2002, Big Drum Press published Craft's first collection of poems, Across the Blue Chasm.
Independent: You've already found success in poetry, playwriting, screen writing and the essay. What's your favorite writing form?
Craft: For me, the idea dictates the form. Some things work better as poems, some as plays or essays. I think our society tries to force people into claiming one camp or another because it's easier to market someone and sell a product. Unfortunately, many artists have fallen into this trap. Some novelists believe they can't write a poem for no other reason than they have decided to identify as a novelist. People get too caught up in the form they're trying to say something in rather than what it is they're trying to say. The end game is to communicate. So for me, my favorite medium is whatever medium I happen to be working in at the time.
You started writing in your 20s. What's the best advice you could give to a young writer?
Read across genres and cultures. Read periodicals, comics--everything you can get your hands on. This is the fastest way to develop.
The other piece of advice I would give is to be consistent. A page a day in 365 days is 365 pages. A writer has to take his or her work seriously. If writing is just a hobby, then that's exactly what it will be--a hobby.
As in anything, the true key to success in writing is believing in yourself, regardless of how many rejection letters you may get. Don't get sad--get mad, and work harder on developing your skill. Eventually you'll break through. The hard part is staying with it long enough to break through.
Who are you reading right now?
Howard Zinn, Phillip Shabazz, Richard Clarke, Inazo Nitobe.
I've seen the Pied Piper effect you have on middle schoolers especially. You teach all ages, all over the Triangle. How do you get your gigs?
I get gigs sometimes through word of mouth, but mostly through United Arts of Raleigh and Wake County. I book schools through their artist-in-the-school program. I've been working with them for five years.
Fourth graders are my favorite. Their imaginations are boundless. If I ask a fourth grade class would they like to share the poem they just finished working on, I get 25-30 hands going up. The only drawback is the kid you don't call on may start crying on you.
The coolest thing is they always believe me when I tell them I'm a Jedi.
You took part in two very significant events of your generation. How have the Million Man March and the Gulf War affected you as a writer and a black man?
A lot of people didn't understand the significance of the march, on the left and right. People try to measure it by the state of black America after the march, with an attitude like, "So what's changed?" That's not the way to look at it. One march is not going to end 300-plus years of racism.
It was significant because it allowed black men to have agency over their own image, and have that image broadcast across the world. Unfortunately, one thing America never seems to run out of is fear of black males. I've been pulled over, had police throw guns in my face because they claimed I fit a profile. I've been jogging in my grandparents' neighborhood and asked by police to prove I lived in the area. The fact is that every black male I know has at least one story, usually more than one, that is like mine or worse.
There is this image of what black males are, that is purported by the media, and that image is sent throughout the world. Most of the so-called gangsters in videos are manufactured by record executives to appeal to disgruntled suburban white youth.
The first Million Man March was about debunking those images, for ourselves and our children. We needed to confront each other and look at one another face to face again, to confirm what we already knew in our heart of hearts. That we are men: fathers, sons, grandfathers, brothers, uncles and husbands, and not stereotypes based on certain people's fears and other people's need to use that fear to generate profit.
The Gulf War had a great impact on me. I missed going to Iraq by days. I was a tanker in the 2nd Armored Calvary regiment from 1988-1990. I went into the Army on the college program which allowed you to do two years active duty for so much money in college aid.
The trick is you stay in the system in what is called the "inactive reserves" for another six years. I had started Morehouse College when the war broke out. I got a letter saying I had to leave school and go back in the Army.
Being a vet, the thing that angers me most is when people say if you don't support the war, you don't support the troops. These people said the same thing during the Gulf War. The best way to support the troops is to be politically astute and aware of what the government sends them to do in our name. Writing about these issues is a way for me to try to make sense out of the madness and put it in perspective.
We were talking about the thriving art scene in the Triangle, but you were bemoaning the fact that black artists and white artists are rarely together sharing their work.
I think artists can benefit from knowing what other artists are doing. Some great art could come out of this. A lot of good art is missed because people don't venture outside their cultural comfort zones.
Contributing writer John Valentine can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Vet Who Lived Underground: Dispatches from Beneath the Map
This excerpt is from a full-length play that examines the struggles of a Gulf War veteran and his take on the current situation in Iraq. The main character, Our Hero, is reading a letter from one of his buddies who has recently died from Gulf War Syndrome.
Dear Little Brother,
You remember Buzzuto, that crazy Italian kid. You remember when he would take a lighter put it by his ass and fart, make a flame shoot half way cross the desert. Remember his stupid jokes that were only funny because they weren't funny at all. He was a good kid Little Brother, just like you. I've been trying very hard, but I can't picture his face. I remember damn near everything he did or said but I can't remember his face. All I can see is his Bradley getting hit. I've been trying to get in contact with some of the other guys from the unit, something got into me over there and I don't know what the hell it is. They say a lot of us are going through this. I mean everybody has nightmares, but sometimes I just burst into tears for no reason at all. I can't remember anything. I be shaking all the time. And the headaches, it's like a little man standing on the back of my neck punching me in the head with a brick.