Richard Page Harris, Jr., was 10 and living in a Virginia housing project when he first heard a radio broadcast about the place where he would plant seed and verse: “Checkosowhatchamacallit sounded like a terrible place to live – worse even than public housing in Newport News. The word looked like a disease and being behind the ‘Iron Curtain’ had to resemble being in an iron lung.”
The oldest of five children of a “professional criminal” who was either “wanted in 47 states” or behind bars for theft and fraud throughout Richard’s childhood, the youth took his Greek grandmother’s maiden name of Katrovas after he was adopted at 13 by an uncle in the navy. Two years later, when he heard on Armed Forces Radio that the Red Army had invaded Checkosowhatchamacallit, “my stepfather was sweeping mines off the coast of Vietnam and I was a pain in the ass of Sasebo, Japan. Cherry blossoms littered my path to the bars downtown.”
These recollections appear in “A Brief History of Your Conception,” the only prose piece in Richard Katrovas’ fourth and best poetry collection, The Book of Complaints, published this year by Carnegie Mellon University Press in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The essay is addressed and the book is dedicated to his daughter Ema, who was indeed conceived “between the sheets of energy and artifice” in Prague during 1989’s Velvet Revolution. Cute blonde Ema adorns the striking front cover, where she stands amidst the stones of the Old Jewish Cemetery. Her brawny, bearded, muscular father appears on the back cover in an undershirt; it behooves any New Orleans poet to convey the image of Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando) in A Streetcar Named Desire if the shirt fits.
At 39, “Richard Katrovas is the best of the new poets,” says the poet-novelist (Angels) Denis Johnson. In The New York Times Book Review, Sherrod Santos wrote: “Tough, direct, gritty and full of wonder, Katrovas’ poems do not mince words…. [He] is a romantic poet, though his great strength is his ability to touch on other lives without seeming to appropriate them.”
Praise the cop who beats the kid who shot the kid
who sold the drugs that killed the kid who shot
the cop who kicked and beat the kid who sold
the drugs that killed the kid who shot the kid
who knifed the kid who broke his mother’s heart.
His adoption in his teens by his naval-officer uncle “transformed me from welfare class to middle class. Just to tell you one difference: I always liked to read. One Sunday when I was 11, I saw a bunch of used books sitting out on a Salvation Army stand in Norfolk. So I grabbed a handful of them and ran like hell. One of them was the collected poems of Robert Frost, which I read from cover to cover – and that was my introduction to poetry. A few years later, I got my second book of poetry – from my stepfather instead of by stealing. It was a pirated Taiwanese edition of A Treasury of Great Poems by Louis Untermeyer [Frost’s discoverer]. By the time I finished that, I knew I was going to be a poet, too, in the tradition of ‘confessional’ poetry.”
Teaching karate, which he’d mastered in Japan, paid his way through San Diego State University, where he majored in English literature under the tutelage of poets Glover Davis and Carolyn Forche, who produced her most notable verse, The Country Between Us, while living with Richard. In the summer preceding his senior year, Katrovas won a work scholarship to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference at Middlebury College in Vermont: “It was a wonderful place, except for the wretched cultural politicking that goes on there. But I was 22 and seeing all these famous people around me whose books I’d read left me overimpressed.”
Upon graduation in 1976, he hitchhiked from California to New Orleans – appropriately, after a farewell lunch with the beatnik bard, Gary Snyder, whose last words to Katrovas as he snapped on his backpack were: “Have a good road!” Richard stuck out his thumb and a jalopy “pulling a homemade trailer” screeched to a halt. It was driven by “a 78-year-old born-again Christian with Alzheimer’s disease who was running away from his wife to be an evangelical preacher. And he told me, ‘Get in, son. God has sent you to me because I wouldn’t be able to make this trip otherwise.'” Richard did most of the driving to Dallas and then caught an overnight truck ride to New Orleans. “In the morning, the driver said, ‘Wake up. Get out,’ and I was left standing in the French Quarter.”
He went to work as a cook at the Chart House restaurant in Jackson Square and it was there he found his future wife, Betty, serving as a cocktail waitress while studying at the University of New Orleans. He lived there on and off while doing graduate work at the University of Arkansas. In 1979, on a Hoyns fellowship for young writers at the University of Virginia, he began work on poems that won the Wesleyan University New Poets Series in 1982 and were published a year later under the collective title of Green Dragons.
When the Wesleyan prize was announced, he was studying at the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop, a very competitive program where one of his fellow students, upon hearing the news, looked him right in the eye and said, dead serious, “I hate you.”
But he came away from there with a Master of Fine Arts (M.F.A.) degree and a year of study with another of his heroes, the poet Gerald Stern, who wasn’t discovered until he was nearly 50.
Marrying Betty, who was embarking upon a ballet career in New Orleans, Richard landed the one academic job available to him there – instructor of freshman composition and sophomore literature at the University of New Orleans – and “clawed my way onto the tenure track and then into tenure” and his present professorship teaching poetry and literature courses in an M.F.A. program.
On the home front, however, the situation was deteriorating: “I was in a childless marriage with a very decent, wonderful human being. Betty’s a [ballet] dancer and she simply didn’t want to have kids. And while it’s certainly not appropriate for any man to insist that a woman have a child or to put any kind of pressure on her in that regard, I wanted one – and, besides, our lives were just growing apart. Our marriage had become a lie.”
In 1989, he won a Fulbright scholarship to what was then Yugoslavia and a separate grant for preliminary summer study at the Eastern European Language Institute in Pittsburgh: “They sent me there to study Serbo-Croatian, even though I was headed for the University of Ljubljana, where the language is Slovene. They had the right country for a while, but the wrong tongue. They actually gave me a grade of C+, but it was a gift.”
The comedy of errors, however, turned romantic when he met the program’s Czech instructor: Dr. Dominika Winterova, then 26 and teaching phonetics at Charles University’s Philosophical Faculty the rest of the year. Blonde, blue-eyed and more Nordic-looking than most Scandinavians, Dominika had brought along some books of Czech poetry she wanted to see translated into English and she and Richard made this their summer project. The poems, by Josef Simon (later a postrevolutionary deputy minister of culture), Pavel Srut and Svetlana Burianova, among others, were eventually published in Poetry East and the New England, New Orleans, and Indiana Reviews, but, by the end of summer, the co-translators were in love, he and Betty had separated and he was commuting from Ljubljana to Prague to be with Dominika.
The summer of ’89, I met your mother, he writes to Ema. She was beautiful and funny and very bright. So I contrived to go to the country whose name looked like a disease, to the city Russia had quieted. That autumn, I stood in crowds of people taking themselves just seriously enough.
He recalls that mood: “It was a time when nobody was sure what would happen next. Tension was in the air. Tienanmen Square was pretty recent and those images of repression were fresh in people’s minds. The students made it happen, but there wasn’t the self-righteousness and egotism you see in the States. They were sweeping up the streets after rallies. They were organizing to take care of children while their parents demonstrated. One of the most moving banners I saw at a rally said WE WHO WERE STUDENTS IN 1968 ARE PROUD OF OUR CHILDREN. And they should have been. I never saw kids so mature and resolute. Yet it was such a happy time
Katrovas left for New Orleans in late December and, three weeks into 1990, he received a transatlantic call from Dominika: “Richard, I’m pregnant.”
He remembers “being absolutely delighted and full of joy. I had no idea it was going to happen and when she said ‘What do you want me to do?’, I said ‘Obviously you’re going to keep the baby.'” He came back for the last three months of Dominika’s pregnancy and, when the baby was a little overdue, “took her for real long walks to hurry it along because I had to leave on Aug. 30 to teach the next day in New Orleans.” Ema was born Aug. 29, 1990, and “the next morning, I got to hold her before running for my plane.”
This November in New Orleans, around the time he’ll turn 40, his divorce will become final and he’ll marry Dominika. Ema will be there, too, as either maid of honor or flower girl. Where they will settle is still up in the air – in which they have spent many hours commuting to snatch time together. “I’ve managed to be around most of the time,” says Richard, “except for maybe six weeks here or two months there. But Dominika has said unequivocally that she’s made a good life here that she won’t give up.” His bride-to-be works as a translator of books, movies, and commercials as well as interpreter for U.S. Ambassador Adrian A. Basora and, on his private visit here last month, ex-President Jimmy Carter. And, if her fiance seems trapped by tenure in Louisiana, perhaps the outcome of his interior struggle is foreshadowed in his letter to Ema in The Book of Complaints:
My darling, my tiny Bohemian, some day we will toss gray Czech bread to the filthy swans of the Vltava, and you will laugh at my bad Czech grammar.
The Book of Complaints is on sale for 295 Kc at the International Bookstore, Parizska 25 mezzanine, Prague 1.