Former state Poet Laureate Norbert Krapf has long been drawn to the blues, a love that began when he was in grad school at Notre Dame in the 1960s. His poetry has discussed nature, his German background and family history, and jazz and blues. He's performed his work alongside musicians such as blues guitarist Gordon Bonham and jazz pianist Monika Herzig, leaning into the blues, he explains, "because it is so healing, so very basic and earthy." He continues, "The simple language of so many of the lyrics take us down into the human depths, just as the best poetry does."
Krapf - whose last name sounds like "crop-f" - has written prolifically since entering the world of poetry in 1971; he recently published his 26th book. An English teacher at Long Island University for more than 30 years, he and his wife returned to Indiana in 2004 after they retired, settling in Indianapolis, about three hours from Krapf's hometown of Jasper.
The poet's latest collection, Catholic Boy Blues: A Poet's Journal of Healing, took seven years to complete and includes sensitive subject matter -- some 130 poems in which Krapf confronts the sexual abuse he survived as an altar boy in his youth. Using the blues as a "healing agent," Krapf writes in four voices -- himself as a child, his adult self, the fictional Mr. Blues who serves as a kind of counselor, and the priest who abused him. "I published the book to help other survivors and to show the church the long-term effects of the book," Krapf says. "Writing the poems was healing, but I feel an obligation, even a sense of mission, about helping others to heal."
Krapf has been doing considerable work to recover from his experience. He's been in therapy, paid for by the Diocese of Evansville, for seven years and has spent the majority of that time discussing, in part, the issues associated with publishing Catholic Boy Blues. As one would hope, the response to Krapf coming forward has so far been overwhelmingly positive. He's received kind comments from friends in Jasper, has moved some audience members -- themselves survivors of abuse -- to tears, and received in November 2013 the Alpha & Omega Prize, which "celebrates art that influences religious dialogue within the United States." Krapf has only done two public readings since Catholic Boy Blues' release in April, but will soon add more appearances to his roster.
Inspired by poets such as Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens and Etheridge Knight, Krapf describes his taste in literature and music as eclectic. He paid tribute to singers Bessie Smith, Billie Holliday and Ma Rainey in his 2009 release, Sweet Sister Moon. Other notables include Cole Porter, Hoagy Carmichael, Arlo Guthrie, and a future subject, blues guitarist and singer Scrapper Blackwell. Of the performances Gordon Bonham has done with Krapf, he says, "I enjoy the way spoken word falls into the blues form that we pick for each piece; the rhythm of the words blends in nicely with the music." Krapf gives a lot of credit to bluesman Robert Johnson, whose work, along with Whitman's poetry, inspired him to start writing poems some four decades ago. Krapf pays homage to Johnson numerous times in Catholic Boy Blues.
Krapf and the Gordon Bonham Blues Band will team up for an hour-long performance on Friday, May 23, beginning at 12:15 p.m., at the Indianapolis Artsgarden (110 W. Washington St.). It will be a tribute to Bob Dylan prior to his 73rd birthday. The artists have celebrated the singer/songwriter before with 2010's Hoosier Dylan. Bonham describes their dynamic as "serious but at the same time playful," which should make for an entertaining performance that highlights Dylan's extensive catalog and Krapf's many contributions to the world of poetry.
Learn more about Krapf on Facebook and on his website, where you can read about his books and musical collaborations and hear recordings of some of his work. Keep an eye out as well for the release of an e-book Krapf and Bonham are working on, which includes a number of poems from Catholic Boy Blues, Bonham's acoustic guitar stylings and Krapf stepping into the role of singer.
Of the impetus that arose in Krapf when it came time to approach the writing of Catholic Boy Blues, the poet says, "It's amazing what great art can do, sometimes in a mysterious and surprising way. The blues rose up in me from decades of listening, and gave me a hand." Krapf clearly tapped into his muse at the right time. "It took me 50 years to make myself ready and it took 35 years of writing and publishing to make me equal to the difficult subject of these poems," he adds. "The blues helped save this white boy's life, and he is eternally grateful."