Karen Craigo is one of those members of the literary community who is an incredible advocate for others’ work. It only seemed right to tip off the interview series by talking to her about her own work, her first book of poems, No More Milk, which is out from Sundress Publications.
Molly: Karen, thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me about your book, No More Milk. I always like to ask this question of poets and writers because it often gives beginning writers some kind of hope—there are so many journeys, after all—and each book, as with any child, has its own Great Story. What’s the story of No More Milk’s coming into the world?
Karen: Hi, Molly! So nice to have a chance to visit with you.
As a collection, No More Milk is just so me. My poems are unabashedly personal, and there’s not a sniff of cool in them. They’re the poems of a woman in the elementary school car line—someone who is hoping against hope that the teacher doesn’t come out for a parking lot conference, because there she is, braless, arms folded over her chest, her nightgown stuffed into her yoga pants. The poems are like that—caught off guard, unable to be anything but honest.
The reason this matters is that I struggled some to let my true self be seen in writing. I went to grad school late, worked a low-level faculty job for entirely too long, had kids late in life, and now I’m 48 with a preschooler. Everyone around me has always seemed younger and more lively and interesting than me. I write personal poems, and mom poems at that. This stuff isn’t a big hit in a workshop. The S-word gets flung around in settings like that, and I don’t mean some sort of intriguing S-word. I don’t qualify for “slutty,” but I am a shoo-in for “sentimental.” No More Milk happened when I decided I was OK—the stuff of my life was fine for poetry. When I embraced who I was, the book just magically happened. (I suppose I was in denial until my second kid came along.)
By the way, and I know I’m going long with this, there’s a bit more to the story of the book’s incarnation. At the end of 2014, I learned that my three-year contract as a full-time instructor would not be renewed. I made a resolution going into 2015 that that year would be “the year of the book.” I just told the universe that I would have a book in 2015, so the cosmos would just have to do whatever it was they needed to do to make that happen.
That spring, my book was contracted with Sundress Publications, and it came out the next year. (Tardy universe!) But I learned a valuable lesson that way. Sometimes our reality is what we summon into being. Or maybe this is true all the time. Maybe we have powers we barely understand.
M: Sundress is a wonderful home for a book—they champion their authors so well, and I admire that. Erin (Elizabeth Smith, at the helm) was so generous to me when I started Tinderbox Editions, and I won’t ever forget that.
Your story of your work in an MFA workshop reminds me a lot of my own experiences–I was hugely pregnant in thesis seminar and felt like such an oddball, that word confessional my sentimental. I even wrote a little piece about it in So to Speak called “Death of the Little Self.” And at AWP-Los Angeles, I was on a panel about motherhood and poetry; I spoke on the ethics of using one’s family in one’s art.
There is so much beauty in the domestic, in the observance of the everyday. I especially love lines like, “I’ve seen you / fuck up dinner, perplexed / by your still-uncooked potatoes, / checking your watch as if / they’ve missed an appointment.” There’s immense tenderness towards the you, as in “I have my doubts, but it’s not me / out there on my knees.” Your poems are rooted right there in the thick of family—what are your thoughts on using one’s family as subject or object? How does your thinking figure in to decisions you make about your poems—either privately or publicly?
K: I’m pretty careful when I write about family. I certainly wouldn’t wish to embarrass anyone—and with kiddos, it’s hard to predict what “embarrassing” looks like. (That nightgown in the car line is the only universal.) And some things fall into the realm of the sacred private, so they aren’t for public consumption. I try to handle the domestic via the personal. I may not have a right to other people’s experiences, but I do have a right to my reactions to other people, related or not. It’s like that great quote by Anne Lamott: “If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”
We shouldn’t be too eager to tell secrets, if our purpose is just spilling the beans. If we have something important to say and we can best convey it through a personal story, then our loved ones should be on notice that this is our right; our stories belong to us. Where we can protect their privacy, we should. Where the poem is better served by sharing a secret, we need to be considerate.
With that said, there are plenty of stories I won’t tell because the cost to myself or other people would be dear. As long as they stay alive and on my good side, mum’s the word.
M: A good way of looking at it. I loved my friend’s perspective on writing essays on her time teaching in a prison writing workshop: these are their stories and they will tell them if they want. For me, I feel like the poems I write are about motherhood as opposed to about my family, so there’s a lens, a gaze, something that separates.
I love the universal in your poems. I’m thinking about the “Poem on My Coffee Break,” which opens: “Today I’m fitting in a poem / on the back of an envelope, / something folded in my purse.” We’ve all done this—poem-snippets on the backs of receipts, in the margins of oil change coupons. It also harkens to Dickinson, whose envelope poems fascinate me. This question is endlessly asked, but I don’t tire of the answers: what is your process? What are your writerly quirks? What do you need to write, what do you find you don’t need (any more)?
K: Thank you for those kind words! Isn’t it funny, how we poets will be out in the car line or at the store and a snippet—a phrase, an image—will hit us and we’ll write it down? And then we’re left with a whole purse full of nonsense. When I’m not in a position to receive poetic insight and do something with it on the spot, there’s really no sense in saving it for later. That has never worked for me—not even once.
I love the questions about process, too. I have my preferences, of course, and things go better when I honor them. (For the record, I like writing in the morning on a corner of my couch with a cheap blue Paper-Mate pen—I love that particular thick, royal blue—and a yellow legal pad.) But I’ve spent most of my writing career trying to demystify that process. While I believe I like the mind-body connection of writing longhand, I’ve consciously drafted on the computer to remind myself that the poetry lives in me—not in a notepad. I’ve tried different colored pens. I’ve written at night. Whatever my mind tells me I absolutely require to write well, I try to shift and change.
I don’t know that this has been a good decision on my part. What’s wrong with easing into writing in the familiar way? Why shouldn’t I be comfortable when I write? I think, though, that writing the personal poems that I favor is an inherently uncomfortable activity. My favorite notebook is sort of akin to a pillow atop a bed of nails.
M: Oh my, yes, I think so many of us have those conflicting desires within us as writers: we want to set up some kind of perfect space that never settles. I’m always preening my own nest, tidying before sitting down for purposeful writing, when that never works for me.
I also noticed, in your book, you write mostly left-justified, natural-line-break poems, ones that do come out of observation and comfort. There are a few poems in you collection that follow form–the villanelle in “Self-Portrait as Woman Driving 80 mph” and your string in “Haiku, Late Summer (A Prayer).” There’s also “Guided Meditation: Inventory” in which you methodically work through the parts of the body, both in celebration and in realistic terms (making it, in many ways, a celebration of the realistic, a reckoning of the real) of the general parts of us. When you write these poems, which comes first? Which is your chicken and which is your egg: the form or the content? Do you ever try exercises where you change the form around—let’s see if this works as couplets, let’s try a sestina here—to see what might happen? I always found that was a big recommendation of mine in early writing workshops because form, even when not kept, would crack something open the writer might have blocked otherwise.
K: I think one of my faults as a poet is that I don’t explore the whole range of form. I love to read sprawling poems that claim ownership of the full page, but then I write poems that are compact—tight lines, frequently all in one big stanza. And that’s my thinking, often—twisted in on itself, tightly focused. Form reflects content in that regard, although I would suggest not in a bad way.
Still, in my current work, I’m stretching out a little and claiming space—in the realm of ideas and on the page. My new poems are more fractured and less certain. My poetic evolution is slow, but I’m thankful for the impetus and the ability to change.
M: And so much of that, for me, is a result of reading better, reading wider—I want to do that, too. You’ve done it so well. Now I want to sit down and see how my poems might hang on a form.
I’m thinking a lot about poetic obsessions as it comes to this book. You write about money in ways that are both clever and honest. In a poem called “Special Money,” you write of giving up the last old bills to pay a bill, and you wrap the poem up where you reflect on the folio of state quarters, ending on the line: “I wonder if he’d miss Alaska.” You wrote of your son’s piggybank, of the food bank, a poem titled “One Hundred Grand,” another called “Time is Money”—all of these elements are another thread through the domestic and the everyday. What did you want your reader to conclude about these pieces? I kept thinking the way we track things, like time, how the countable because a measure of our lives in so many ways. But there’s also the socio-economic urgency behind these poems as well. I can do this, but money.
K: Thanks for saying that! I am trying to read more poetry, and with more variety—different presses, authors, styles, and always with an eye toward diversity. This year I’ve been much more disciplined in my approach to reading, and I’ve learned a lot from turning up the heat on myself a little.
Obsession drives my own poetry. In fact, it’s kind of a problem. I work in projects—I’ll write a series of Advent poems, a series of persona poems, a series of meditations on a specific topic, a series of money poems … the list goes on and on. A problem with that creative approach is that it’s hard to get a full manuscript out of it. I end up with a dozen chapbooks instead of one full-length collection.
The nice thing about No More Milk is that it’s about home economics, sort of—a lot of parenting stuff that dovetailed very nicely with the money poems. What I’m calling money poems are poems about that ebb and flow of money energy through our lives. And money is energy; dollars are symbols of that. In acknowledging that money will always flow through us, I think I give myself permission to think of it poetically—to let money itself be lyrical. I want to be a poet of the everyday—in fact, I sometimes call myself the poet of the gas bill. I’ll accept the niche. I think it’s kind of an important one. Nothing causes more pleasure or anguish in our lives than money.
M: Oh, I think it’s a wonderful place to be, the poet of the gas bill. We certainly shouldn’t eschew the beauty of the everyday. Long ago, when I was still trying to find my place in the world, I remember my favorite social media site was Flickr and there was a “pool” called “My Everyday Life.” It was my favorite thing to do, to go there and see how beautifully rendered our environments and landscapes could be made. This was art. These are the lenses through which we see the world, interact with it, live it. You do it with an incredible sense of image and humor.
Some of my favorite lines in your collection are these, which are startling: “You’ve thought of it, but no: / the wrist is a narrow, helpless thing, / and you have traced its rivers / through the skin. All morning / you’ve been flexing your hand / and you’ve seen in those cords / a dear throat, clearing.” These lines are so stunning, so fraught, so exactly right, I had to call attention to them, because I am both jealous that I did not write them and grateful that you did. I don’t have a question to call up in relation to these lines: I just wanted to make sure others could read them, know that the collection is full of this kind of detail in which you know the poet can really see the world, both in minute intimacy and great broad experience.
And this seems to be another ubiquitous interview question, but it is also one I always love to have an answer for, as we wrap up: What’s next for Karen Craigo? Do you have a chapbook-of-poems, meditations, that will sprout into a full-length? Or perhaps a journey you are anticipating going on as an artist?
K: I just love chatting with you, Molly! You say the nicest things, and you have such interesting questions! Thanks so much for this interview—I hate to see it come to an end!
I am always, always writing—always working on something, in one genre or another—and it feels like a lot is happening. Some things are UNhappening, though; I recently pulled my second book, which was slated to come out right about now. I really love the back-and-forth I had with the editors of my first book, and I decided to sit with my poems some more and hold out for a situation that would allow more of that kind of collaboration. I’m a little bummed, though, since I could be holding a gorgeous book in my hands right this minute. I have that manuscript and another in circulation, though.
Beyond poetry, I write a lot of nonfiction, and I’m finishing up an essay collection called World’s Fattest Animals. It’s all about body image, and I’m certainly a zaftig sort, so that topic interests me. I think the manuscript is notable because it approaches body mass in a way that’s funny but not really self-mocking. I’m funny, I’m told, but I’m far from ridiculous. I feel like I’m introducing a whole new perspective in this group of essays.
In addition to all of this, I’m also writing a publishing textbook—something suitable for the classroom (because there are precious few resources of this kind) and for anyone who is interested in the ins and outs of literary publishing. It’s born of my blog, Better View of the Moon, which deals mostly in writing, publishing, and creativity issues.
I like having a lot of projects—even if it can be confusing for all of them to coalesce at the same moment!
M: Thank you, Karen. And thank you for all of the work that you do as a literary citizen—your words, your editorial work, your blog. You are a champion of the poet and the writer, a deep and wise resource, and we’re incredibly lucky to have you in our community.
No More Milk is available from the publisher (and aside from buying straight from the author herself, is the best way to buy the book).