Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Interview with Karen Craigo

it be love that makes
the cardinal stand,
a fresh wound against the sky?
Could love make you
sing like that
desperate, terrible?  
 from “Ars Poetica,” Karen Craigo


Karen Craigo is the author of No More Milk (Sundress, 2016), and she has two forthcoming collections, due out this summer: Passing Through Humansville (Sundress) and Escaped Housewife Tries Hard to Blend In (Tolsun Books). She maintains the blog Better View of the Moon, which deals with writing and creativity, and she is also a freelance writer and editor. 

I've never met Karen Craigo in person. We're friends on Facebook, and she wrote a blurb for my prose poetry chapbook The Fire Circle (Blue Lyra Press, 2016). I believe I originally heard of Karen at least ten years ago, if not fifteen, when she was an editor for a literary journal I was dying to be published in. I so enjoyed her chapbook Escaped Housewife Tries Hard to Blend In (Hermeneutic Chaos, 2016), and I immediately ordered her poetry collection No More Milk. After reading the first poem, "Down Will Come," and finding myself in tears, I knew it was a book I wanted to review. (Read my review of No More Milk here.) —Karen L. George

(This interview was conducted via Facebook messaging.)

Interview with Karen Craigo

What inspired you to write poetry in the beginning, and have the reasons changed over the years?  

KC:  I think I’m like a lot of writers—I’ve always done this! It kicked in big time around fourth grade, when I became a more conscious human and simultaneously got a lot of encouragement from teachers. That’s about when you start messing around with tanka and cinquains and stuff like that, too! I think I was more into prose then. I distinctly remember my fourth-grade teacher reading my story “Gruesome Grizzly” to the class and feeling embarrassed and proud—the same way I feel when I give a poetry reading now!

I originally wrote poems because I had a knack for language and loved the way it felt to use words in a just-right way. I don’t think I’ve changed much in that regard. When I get it right, it’s very satisfying. These days I recognize a spiritual element in the act, too—something that was lost on me in the early going. Sometimes you write a poem and a poem writes back. Things show up you didn’t plan; sometimes you get insights that astonish you. Poetry’s a little like prayer for me, but unlike my experience with conventional prayer, poetry reliably answers, in real words—from time to time, anyway.

Which poets and/or particular books have been your poetry touchstones?

KC:  There are so many! As an editor of Mid-American Review for many years, I got into the habit of reading lots of poets all the time, both in the submission pile and in a dedicated effort to stay current with new releases. That makes it really hard to pinpoint books and touchstones.

The person who really opened my eyes to poetry is my mentor, Michelle Boisseau, who passed away recently. I’ve had her good poetic counsel in mind for decades. She was wise and funky and funny, and I’m just so sad she’s gone. Her poetry is important to me, too, although mine doesn’t strike me as very similar—she was so smart and so wise, and I wish I were more like that! I also love Louise Gl├╝ck, whose work has this controlled rawness, and Carl Phillips, who shares that quality in a totally different way. There’s a just-about-to-breakness in both of those poets, and the result is so honest and beautiful.

Do you write poetry with a specific reader in mind? What do you envision or hope will be a reader's reaction to your poetry?

KC:  I think of how my poems will be received, but I wouldn’t say I have a specific reader. Sometimes when I’m funny, I like to picture someone getting the joke and chortling a little—but maybe the person I picture is me? It’s not great composition advice (says the composition instructor), since audience awareness is the key to successful writing of any type, but I may just be writing for me and people like me. My poetry is kind of personal. The I is me. Karen Craigo is writing poems about Karen Craigo for, apparently, Karen Craigo. Everyone is invited to peek in, though. 

I've always been intrigued about how a poet's collection of poems takes form.  Whether they have in mind to write a book around a certain subject or idea, and begin writing poems with that idea in mind, or whether a poet discovers they've been writing poems that are connected in some way, and then begin to write more around that connection, or something completely different. Can you tell us about your process of writing "No More Milk?"

KC:  As the title sort of suggests, these are motherhood poems, inspired by all of the love I receive and all of the mistakes I make in the course of my life as a parent. I just naturally had a lot of those, so they worked nicely together and felt “bookish”—much more so than the scattered collection I’d submitted here and there over the years. Almost immediately after I put this manuscript together, I found the perfect home for it with Sundress Publications.

Once Sundress had it, my editor had a sense that something was missing—it was a little one-note—and I agreed. After a lot of thought, I removed about half of the existing poems and replaced them with a bunch of oddball poems I had about money. What I mean is that they were about, like, home economics—paying for a jug of milk by digging into your kid’s collectible state quarters, for instance. I was really happy to get those in there; they’re reflective of who I’d like to be as a poet. Someone has to be the poet of the gas bill, the poet of phone calls from bill collectors—that’s the stuff that has caused me the most angst in my life.

Do you have a favorite poem in your collection?  And if so, can you tell us why it resonates with you so much?

KC:  I’ll bet my favorites are obvious, because they hardly fit with the rest of the collection, but I just had to shoehorn them in—who ever knows if a second book will come? I have a set of poems about suicide, though, interspersed with some Old Testament material. They’re the four poems that begin with “Death by …” (“Bleeding,” “Bullet,” “Water,” “Fire”). My editor explained to me that those stuck out like a sore thumb, but I was really emphatic that I wanted to keep them in. Oh, spoiler alert: My editor was entirely correct. But I love those poems, for some reason. They get at something very authentic for me. I think I found the perfect vehicle to convey the specific pain I was writing about. I’m glad they’re in the book, even though they’re like showing up on a red carpet in torn and bloody jeans.

Do you have a poem in the collection that was the most difficult to write, and can share why?

KC:  I find almost all poems a little difficult in the sense that they’re trying to say something that’s hard to say. But that’s the job description, really—to express that thing that’s darned near inexpressible. A poem called “In Praise of the Body Broken in Two” posed an unusual challenge for me, because I was trying to precisely describe my relationship with pain from an injury I experienced. I labored to get it just right—that sense that pain makes you leave your body and stand beside yourself and just sort of hold it and honor its power. The poem probes the paradox that we so often try to be above our bodies—to transcend our blood and guts—but pain just makes you long to crawl back inside. I wasn’t sure how to say that. I’m still not sure if I did the idea justice, but it feels right.

I wanted to ask you about your poem “Rockabye," which I found to be an intriguing, haunting poem—one I read many times to discover connections and layers of meaning. It's the fourth poem in your collection, and it struck me as different from the preceding poems, which seemed to be about a more specific, intimate moment in time between a mother and her child, whereas "Rockabye" felt as if it addressed a world of moments that others might be living. It starts out as if the "someone" is the poem's narrator that is carrying a child within them, and the entire poem could be read that way. But it also felt like it could be read as speaking of all those who are experiencing similar circumstances. For example "someone tethered" I can also interpret as someone restrained in a variety of ways such as in a literal prison or imprisoned by some belief or disability. This interpretation also fits with the ending lines: "Someone's bough / can't bear his weight. / Someone makes ready to fall." The repetition of the "someone" rather than the "I" of the previous poems initially led me to these other interpretations.  Can you talk about why you chose to use that "someone"?

KC:  Thank you for your close attention to that poem! It’s one of those poems that I as the poet can come back to again and see it differently on different readings. The “someone” you mention probably gives me that permission to re-see my own poem. What I was trying to explore was that melding of mother and baby-to-be at the end of a pregnancy, where boundaries collapse and you can’t tell where one starts and the other ends. Who is tethered? Who is falling? Both, of course—beautifully, magnificently, terrifyingly. I wanted the rocking motion of the poem to help foster this back-and-forth of identity.  

What writing are you currently working on?

KC:  I just inked a contract for my third full-length poetry collection—both the second and third will come out this summer, and I’m over the moon. So I’m working on edits and revisions of the second book, Passing Through Humansville, also from Sundress, and I’m putting the finishing touches on a bunch of brand new poems for the third one, Escaped Housewife Tries Hard to Blend In, which had a brief life as a chapbook on a press that folded immediately. (I’d like to believe my poetry wasn’t what did it in!) I’m working with a press on a fourth collection, this one featuring American sentences, a quick, seventeen-syllable form, on the topic of gun violence. I’m also playing with an essay collection on body image, and I’m putting together a textbook for editing classrooms. I like to stay busy, although right now I may be a little too busy. My intention when the dust clears is to take a different approach with my work—to take time, to have singular focus, and to be more contemplative.

What advice would you give to a beginning poet about writing poetry?

KC:  Listen, this isn’t a fashionable viewpoint: I think poets should take more delight in creation. We focus too much on publishing too early in the game. I think publishing is very important, and work really isn’t done until it has an audience, but putting our poems in litmags shouldn’t be our main focus. We also focus too much on workshopping—everything’s a damned fix-it project. Poems may not be successful, but that doesn’t mean they’re broken, if you know what I mean. They’re imperfect artifacts of the spirit, and they always are exactly that—imperfect—even if they’re the very best poems they can be. I would have us listen to each other, and listen, too, to the voice that comes to us through the poem, whether that’s a deep personal intelligence, or a muse, or a god, or, as I believe, it’s the collective unconscious that we tap into from time to time, when we’re lucky. Partake in the mystery—then do all that busywork of workshopping, revising, and, finally, publishing. The mystery is what I’m here for.

* * *

You can read several of Karen Craigo's poems below, or visit her blogsite at:  http://betterviewofthemoon.blogspot.com/

Passing through Humansville in Terrain

Escaped Housewife Prefers the Term Cosmetologist in Poetry

Learning to Trace the Body in Atticus Review



 Karen George retired from computer programming to write full-time. She lives in Florence, Kentucky, and enjoys photography and traveling to historic river towns, mountains, and Europe. She is author of the poetry collection Swim Your Way Back (Dos Madres Press, 2014) , A Map and One Year, forthcoming from Dos Madres Press, and five chapbooks, most recently The Fire Circle  (Blue Lyra Press, 2016) and the collaborative  Frame and Mount the Sky  (Finishing Line Press, 2017). You can find her work in The Ekphrastic Review, Sliver of Stone, Heron Tree, and America. She holds an MFA from Spalding University, and is co-founder and fiction editor of the journal, Waypoints. Visit her website: http://karenlgeorge.snack.ws/. 


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