Author Q&A: Karen Craigo

Karen Craigo is the author of two forthcoming poetry collections, No More Milk (Sundress, 2016) and Passing Through Humansville (ELJ, 2017), and she maintains Better View of the Moon, a daily blog on writing, editing, and creativity. She teaches writing in Springfield, Missouri.

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TBL Author Q&A Series: Karen Craigo

This is one in a series of brief interviews with a diverse array of writers, editors, and other industry professionals. Check back over the coming months for more!

How would you say your writing career began? Was there a certain event, person, or creative impulse that guided you to forge your own literary path?

I’m pretty sure my writing career began in fourth grade, when I handed my teacher an original story that I’d written at home. To my astonishment, the very next day, she broke from routine and had the whole class sit on carpet squares to hear her offer a dramatic reading, with voices, of all eight pages of “Greusome Grizzly.” (That’s how I spelled “gruesome,” by the way. Fourth grade, right?)

In seriousness, one person had a direct and profound influence on my becoming a poet, and that was Michelle Boisseau, my first creative writing professor at my undergrad school, Morehead State University. She taught me to size up my own work – to laugh at the dumb moves I made and to pull out the good stuff and make it better. Michelle remains the most important figure in my development as a poet, even now, twenty years later.

What can you tell us about your creative process? Is there a daily routine that you follow?

I try to have the kind of life where I can write a poem every day. I’d like the possibility of several hours of uninterrupted time each day, and with discipline – staying on top of my paper grading and my editing projects – I can usually pull that off. But lately I’ve been questioning the value of that goal, a poem a day. The poems are actually more interesting when I have adventure days, or woolgathering days, or snuggle days. Some variety in the mix leads to more varied thinking and better writing. But the key is that word “potential.”

Last semester I was teaching nine classes, and I had so little time for my writing and publishing activities. This semester, I’m living a life in balance – teaching a little, writing and reading a little, being with friends, loving my family, having some fun. My routine, as it turns out, is not to force myself into routine, but to configure my life in such a way that there is time for both thinking and writing, if I need it.

Another note on process: I tend to try to demystify it when I can. If I feel I can write only in the morning (my preference), I make myself write at night. If I think I can write only with a blue pen on a long legal pad (also my preference), I force myself to draft on my laptop. Since I’m a working mom with very little free time, I don’t have the luxury of being the princess with the proverbial pea. When I have an opportunity to write, I have to make it work.

In your poem, “Ten Items You’re Too Old to Wear,” you address certain constraints that society places upon women. What do you think are the biggest challenges that female writers face today?

Poetry seems like a very welcoming and accepting sphere for women. Men always have an easier time being taken seriously – that’s in any genre and any field at all, no matter the status of the position. But in poetry, some of our greatest voices are women’s voices, and they have essential things to say. Oh, I’m sure the men get higher honoraria for readings; that’s just America. And sometimes I totally do wear my nightgown in the car line at school, as do a dozen other women in front of me and behind me, and countless women all over town. Those are my sisters. Someone has to write their poetry.

What would you say is the most important element for crafting a poem?

Of course, every element of a poem has to be scrutinized for effectiveness. Still, for my money, lineation is crucial. I can look at the shape of a poem without reading a word and get a sense of how much control the writer has. I’m not looking for regularity of line length, mind you; I’m looking at the landscape of the poem. When I read it, I expect the words and shape to be exactly right for each other, whether it’s a poem that takes up a lot of horizontal space on the page, or it has irregular lines with spaces in the middle, or it has, say, metrical tercets. If I see a lack of control in form, I either expect a poem that addresses a loss of control to justify that decision, or I figure it’s not going to be very polished. Lineation is the footprint of the poem, and it should reflect the same level of care that, say, word choice received.

You’ve published two poetry chapbooks and your full-length poetry collection, No More Milk, is due out later this year. How would you evaluate your own experience with getting your work published? How has that shifted over time?

I’m almost embarrassed to tell you this, but someone was mean to me in 2003. Actually, it was two someones – loved ones – and they took me to task in a very personal way, convincing me that my commitment to art made me pretentious and ridiculous, out of synch with normal people. I was devastated. At the time I was immersed in the most exciting creative period of my life. I experienced this awful self-doubt for almost a decade after that, and instead of writing, I focused my attention on editing the literary journal Mid-American Review. My publication history reflects that very low decade. I put out the chapbook that was already in the works at the time, but then I suspended nearly all efforts to publish my work, and I couldn’t write a word. In 2012, I left my editorial position, moved across the country, and took a new job. I just started again – simple as that – and a new chapbook was the immediate result. My contract for the full-length collection came shortly after that.

In other words, due to a long delay, I may be the oldest new writer you know. Something happens in your forties, though. “Fuck it” becomes your default setting. I’m rather enjoying the unreserved freedom I feel when I approach the page. Maybe I’m ridiculous; maybe the work fails; maybe I appear to be putting on airs. The thing is, I. Just. Don’t. Care. It’s me and the page, and I’ve found that to be the best way to make good writing happen.

Can you discuss the themes and topics that interest and inspire you most? In what ways has your writing evolved throughout your career?

These days I’m writing a whole lot of mom poems. Kids just say the most inspiring things – like when my son, just learning to speak, brought me his fingernail that had torn off and announced in a voice of pure wonder, “Look! Hand-moon.” He saw that little white crescent and made the kind of connection I’m always trying to make on the page. In the past, I wrote restless poems—poems about exile and escape. Now I’m still escaping in poems, but I’m escaping diapers and math homework.

What/who are some of your greatest literary influences?

I’m quite a fan of the Romantics – how they embraced nature and humanity and magic and dreams. One of my very favorite living poets is Carl Phillips – such beauty and gravitas in poems that take some bold chances with form. I love Louise Glück for her willingness to be personal and to put her struggle on the page. Mostly, I like to read ALL THE THINGS. I always have a poetry book at hand, and I love discovering new voices. There’s just an astonishing array of voices out there, and I want to hear them all.

Is there a particular achievement or experience that has presented the most opportunity for your writing?

I continue to get a lot of mileage out of those adventures I had in my young adulthood – the risks I took, the places I went, the odd dangers I faced. I’m a staid, sober mom these days, and I certainly do write about that stuff, the quiet pleasures, but so many times I find myself remembering a more exciting time of life and writing about it. It’s a good idea for writers – and humans! – to take some risks when they’re young. That stuff sustains us later on.

What advice might you give to writers who are just starting their careers?

What I did in those days, after my undergrad years and before settling down with a job, was to meet as many writers as I could. I’d drive up to three hours in any direction to hear a writer read and speak. I tried to glean as much as I could about the writer’s life from what he/she said and wrote about, but honestly, it was most edifying just to see that he/she was a normal person who met a challenge that I, myself, was equal to. I would hang on their every word. Who they read, I would read. What they thought, I considered. Their writing habits helped me to solidify my own writing habits. So beginning writers should educate themselves in any way they can. Reading books is a no-brainer, but I say get out of the house and see real, live writers. Sneak into receptions. See what your favorite poet looks like after one too many glasses of some iffy Shiraz.

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