Across his first five—and now six—collections of poetry, Michael Earl Craig has developed a poetry as whimsical as it is serious, diffusing the gravitas not by leaving it out, but by building out a surface—a texture in language—that feels disarming, direct, omnivorous in its references, and impishly playful. Parataxis is Craig’s friend, but more often he’s just describing the way he sees the world, and leaving out the boring parts. There’s as much Edward Abbey in this poetics as there is Nicanor Parra. Iggy Horse is his latest book, and though much of it was written while the poet had a life-changing six-week residency in an Italian castle, the work’s roots remain in the western United States, in a deeply felt but unpredictable experience of what it means to be rural, to live in the open spaces of Montana. But this is not the rural poetry of the pure pastoral or the didacticism of Wendell Berry, but rather the gallows-tinged idiom of Charles Simic, blended with the peculiarity of a Lorine Niedecker. One way to understand this sensibility is to remember that Craig grew up in the suburbs of Dayton, and chose a life in Montana—his day job is shoeing horses—and so his poetry has a miraculous and rare capacity for integrating a broader spectrum of experience: the land, but also the weirdnesses of contemporary American culture. Iggy Horse, which begins with an epigraph from Pedro Almódovar’s masterpiece Pain and Glory, emerges like all of Craig’s books from a poetics of surprise, a delight in surprise. Here are the opening lines, a poem called “The Train”:

I have a cheese sandwich in my briefcase.
No one here understands me.
The conductor makes his rounds,
wants my foot out of the aisle.
Taps foot twice with clipboard.
Then smacks foot pretty hard.

Craig is one of the best in American poetry at getting into a poem, at launching an impossible line like “I have a cheese sandwich in my briefcase” and daring us to follow, to see where art might lead. The rewards are great. The second poem in the book, for instance, takes that basic and beautiful form, the list, and embellishes it just enough to take our eye off of the deeper magic of the form’s accumulation of meaning:

I lie in the dark on my side
thinking about the different
sides that I’m aware of.
The side of a horse.
The side of a ship.
(Old Ironsides.)
A side of beef.
A side of slaw.
Big spoon of mac & cheese
and its subsequent ramekin.
Then ramekin production . . .
the glazing of ramekins . . .
the inspections and the bubble-wrap.

This is the voice of a poet who works every day with his hands. How many of those are there practicing the art at the top of their craft? Craig is in a league of his own, and not just because he’s a farrier who thinks about the sides of horses as much as he thinks about the sound of words. This poet, who in previous collections avoided many references to his other job, and who tended to shy from sustained meditation on “one thing” in favor of sketching and leaping around a thing—limning it, as Craig would never say—demonstrates in his newest collection that he can do portraiture just as well, and lace it with the potent mix of irony and play that keeps us returning to this well:

Some horses won’t drink if you’re watching—
you have to drop the rope and walk away.
But Jeepers is not like that.
She is too well-adjusted.
She lifts her head and lets water
dribble from her mouth, a glimpse
of tongue poking out the corner
like a herniated bit of bubble gum.
And while nobody likes flies crawling
on them, Jeepers does not mind.
If she weren’t quaffing like this
you’d think she were dead.
Only a dead horse allows a fly
to crawl all over them—Jeepers
has seven or eight on her face alone.
Is she okay? She isn’t even blinking
and looks deeply up into the mountains,
water dribbling from her muzzle.
One fly in particular walks all over
her eyebrow, if you can call it an eyebrow.
Her heavy rope is soaked—also dribbling—
and her tail hangs limply like a curtain.

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JESSE NATHAN: How do you think about the endings of poems? How do you get out of a poem?

MICHAEL EARL CRAIG: I guess one way I approach the endings of poems stems from some thoughts I have about poems in general: less is more, brevity is the soul of wit, and get in and get out, rather than leave no stone unturned or the show must go on! (Always yell this last one.)

Most of the time getting out of a poem involves backing away from the place at which I’ve arrived. I’ve written too much, it’s maybe going in an instructional direction, so I prune the hedges, remove the statue next to the fountain, and things begin to get interesting, to crackle. I don’t always worry when a poem feels like it’s ended too soon. But am I constantly thinking about this? No, at least it doesn’t feel like I am. It’s (most of the time) more intuition than calculation.

Regarding the beginnings of poems—do I know, at the beginning, where I want things to go?—I’d say I fall into the push-blindly-forward camp. I love mystery in poems. The unexpected. I think you can feel it when you’re reading a poem and are being led toward a destination. If you have an idea for an ending of a poem I’d say try starting there.

I like to start poems (not always, but a lot of the time) with some situation or image or bit of overheard dialogue, and often it’s something very ordinary, lacking resonance. This feels fresh to me, it’s a challenge, and it actually takes the pressure off. Just start writing a few lines and see what happens.

But back to endings… I have a close poet friend I’ve known for thirty years who typically urges me to keep going—my shorter poems feel like the beginnings of poems to him. So sometimes I take-up the challenge and write more, which then changes the feel (the balance) of what I had, but I keep at it, attempting to push deeper, and sometimes I’m able to—sometimes I drop through a hole in the floor and find myself in a completely new space, and it’s nice; it’s a process of exploration. But then with other poems I push on and end up breaking them. I try to more fully develop an image, or elaborate on a theme that I feel is trying to surface, only to knock what was there off-balance. The crackling has stopped. I end up with three or four more draft sequences but in the end, I discard them and limp back to the earlier draft and I know (or at least feel) that it’s finished.

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Jesse Nathan’s first book of poems is Eggtooth.