Missouri’s new Poet Laureate and Sundress Publications author Karen Craigo took out some time to talk with Sundress Editorial Intern, Jacquelyn Scott about the meaning of literary citizenship, the next steps for literacy, and the value of aiming high.
Jacquelyn Scott: What does it mean to you to be the Poet Laureate of Missouri?
Karen Craigo: I am over-the-moon delighted to be named to this position. A poet laureate is sort of a cheerleader, or maybe even an evangelist, for poetry, and that’s something I’ve always done anyway as a writer, teacher, and editor. This recognition, though? It’s big. I’ve been unabashedly telling everybody. The bank teller may not be excited that I’m a poet, but when I explain that I’m sort of the official poet of Missouri, well … OK, she’s not excited about that, either, but it feels good to crow about it.
JS: What aspect of being the Poet Laureate are you most looking forward to and why?
KC: In order to be selected as Poet Laureate, I submitted a batch of poems, but I also described a project I would pursue during my two years in office — a period that overlaps the start of our bicentennial year in the state, as it turns out! My project is called “The News From Poetry,” and it comes from those famous lines from the William Carlos Williams poem, “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”:
It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
of what is found there.
I’m a newsperson — specifically, I’m the editor and general manager of a small Missouri weekly newspaper, The Marshfield Mail, and this verse has always meant a great deal to me. At any rate, my plan is to get the news from every section of Missouri — all 114 counties, plus St. Louis, which is its own thing, so 115 entities — and publish them weekly on a blog. Some counties are no-brainers — I’m in the mid-sized city of Springfield, in Greene County, Missouri, and we have a lot of poets, as does Jackson County, where Kansas City, Missouri, is located, or Boone County, which is home to Columbia and the University of Missouri. But what’s the scene like in, say Daviess or Grundy County? I have no idea … yet. My plan is to find the poets, and if I can’t find them, I’ll go there myself and train them up. This is going to be the best adventure.
JS: You once said that even though it’s important, writing sucks at a person’s energy, spirit, and happiness. What keeps you writing?
KC: You’re referring to writing, which completely sucks eggs. But what keeps me in the game is having written. There is absolutely no finer feeling than looking at a poem that says exactly what you wanted to express, or that says something you didn’t have the good sense to want to express, but that the process of writing just offered up as a gift, as it does sometimes.
Writing is a spiritual activity for me. It’s meditation. It clarifies and fulfills me. Cranking out the words can really hurt sometimes, though.
JS: Do you think someone should have to work to “solve” a poem?
KC: That’s a fascinating question, and I don’t quite know what to think about it. I’ve had writing challenges that required solutions — how to link one idea to another, how to get the lineation or the sonics where I want them to be. I’m going to say no, though — poems are not problems, and even when you’re puzzling over a compositional matter — say, how to get a repetition to fit in the third line of the fourth stanza of a sestina, I wouldn’t say we’re solving the poem.
Now, with that being said, I think all poems are arguments, and arguments are similar to problems — if we don’t solve them, we at least try to resolve them. But poetry itself is a solution for me. It helps me to work things out; it gives me comfort when I need it. I often find that poems communicate with me in a very intimate way, and a very literal one, too. If I come to the page with trouble, I leave with a kind of peace. You could say that my difficulty (or pain, or muddled thinking) dissolves, so maybe there’s that kind of solution — what I’m puzzling over is taken in, dissolved into the hot soup of the larger world.
JS: Do you want each of your publications to stand alone, or do you want to build a bigger opus for your work that yields connections between books?
KC: I’m not quite that calculated in my work — or I’m not entirely conscious of how I feel about this. I would be happy if people knew that each book was from the same consciousness, but it’s good when we allow ourselves to change and grow, too. As for an exact link, where one book leads into another — wouldn’t that be a fascinating way to work? But I don’t think I have the right kind of attention span for that.
JS: In an interview for Passing Through Humansville (Sundress Publications, 2018), you mentioned this idea of authors “serving the reader.” Could you speak to that a little more? Is this connection of service related to your new position as Poet Laureate?
KC: Although all of my answers so far have revealed that writing is very personal for me, the fact is, I don’t think a piece of writing is fully done until it has an audience. Along those lines, I don’t think that as the poet I’m the sole authority on the work I make. It’s a circuit that isn’t complete until a connection is made. Maybe poetry keeps me grounded (if we’re to continue the electrical metaphor), but these utterances sort of ask for an audience. In connecting with readers, we offer our way of looking at things, and we have a chance of expanding their view or helping them to see that they’re not alone in feeling as they do. This connection is how we serve.
The laureate position is about service. I’m most interested in reaching those people who don’t have a relationship with poetry at all (or don’t realize that they do). I would like to demonstrate to people how reading and writing poetry can make for a more empathetic and loving citizen. We can use that no matter where we are — Missouri, Tennessee, the moon ….
JS: How has your writing changed since your first publication?
KC: I think it’s getting tighter. Poetry used to happen for me at the revision stage; I would recopy a poem over and over, and each time I did, it would improve, until it didn’t — and that’s when I would stop revising. So much of that happens during the initial draft now. I work things out as I go now. My poems tend to be small, so sometimes they need very little revision at all. (I don’t mean every reader will automatically love them, of course — I mean that they say what I want them to say in the best way I can say it.)
I used to worry that I covered repetitive themes — motherhood, money, the spirit, these were kind of my beat — but then I realized that it was OK to have small obsessions, and that the change in my thinking over the years will result in different sorts of poems. Honestly, I’m just easier on myself these days. I like who I am, and that includes who I am as a poet. I continue to write what comes and do my best with it, and that’s all anyone can ask me to do.
JS: How has your literary citizenship shaped who you are as a writer?
KC: Hmm. Again, it’s such a great question. These are drinks-at-the-bar-with-friends questions, though — the kind you debate all through the evening and change positions on four times as your appreciation for the whole writing world deepens. As an interview for publication, I’m mindful that the answer I give right now might be different on a different day, but I’m going to take a stab at it.
Citizenship implies a nation of some sort, doesn’t it? I picture a whole hidden country for writers — like Wakanda, but with the Starbucks Okoye envisioned. Citizenship — coming together with civility and common purpose — has benefits. It builds community, it reminds us to be civil, it sparks friendly competition. But writing happens alone. Even if we go to a coffee shop, we’re really not in the coffee shop if we’re deep in our own mind. That’s an untouchable space.
But for some reason, I’ve always been drawn to the community of writers, and as I’ve advanced in my craft, I’ve felt even more like reaching out — being a sounding board or even a mentor to those who want one, encouraging emerging voices, holding publishers to accountability standards.
I don’t think community has shaped my writing much, but I do think it has shaped me in my humanness. It’s nice not to be in this alone, and it’s especially nice to introduce newcomers to the writing I love so much.
JS: Once the US has reached the ideal of 100% literacy, do we redefine what we’re reaching for? Do we (or should we) redefine literacy to something more than just the ability to read?
KC: I do think literacy encompasses more than reading. There’s the idea of cultural literacy, of course; when we stare stupidly at the mention of some musician we’ve never heard of — Lil Tjay or Filmore (rising stars I’ve never heard of, in rap and country, respectively, but TOTALLY just Googled) — we’re failing in that area, aren’t we? There’s something missing from our education. We can’t know everything but knowing a little helps us to relate to one another.
The U.S. won’t reach 100 percent literacy, because some people can’t learn to read — babies, for instance. People with dementia. People with severe processing disorders. Or, hell, people who don’t want to learn to read. For me, literacy is important; books are a source of joy. But I’m much more interested in human connection, and that requires a broader literacy than just sounding out letters.
JS: What advice do you have for poets who are looking to publish for the first time?
KC: I think it’s really great to start close to home — your campus literary journal, a local micropress, that kind of thing. This builds that community we were talking about before. I also think it’s important not to publish before you have a body of work you can be permanently proud of. If you’re going to look at today’s work in 10 years and want to change your name to distance yourself from it, that’s probably an indication that publishing is premature. (The thing is, we don’t know what’s going to trigger our gag reflex IN THE YEAR 2030 … so, that’s a tough call.)
Some nuts-and-bolts suggestions: Aim high, even aim above your head a few times, just to get the lay of the land. You can start at prestigious journals and then adjust downward after some rejections, but don’t start at the bottom. If you know they’ll accept your work, where’s the fun in that?
Also, when you’re starting out, simultaneously submit a lot (taking care to aim for similar publications and to go with the first acceptance to reach you, while swiftly withdrawing work that finds a home). As you being to find homes for your work, continue to simultaneously submit, but send poems to three journals, maybe, instead of a dozen. Once you do really well, you won’t want to simultaneously submit any longer, I’ll bet — it’s good incentive to write more, which is where your energy should be anyway.
Most importantly? Don’t let publishing break you. The writing is the important part. I work on publishing activities when I’m feeling a little stuck.
JS: What advice do you have for poets who are struggling with complicated or difficult-to-write images?
KC: Maybe just to plug on through? Sometimes I remind myself that no one else ever has to see the things I’m writing, so it gives me permission to be really honest and raw. Spoiler alert: Once I like a poem, I’m sharing, even if it contains my Gmail password, my debit card PIN, my Social Security number, my secret meatloaf recipe, a confession of that thing I did ….
JS: What books or authors have you read that you think are important?
KC: Everything you read has value. This is a foundational belief that everyone in my family shares. It doesn’t matter what you pick up — shampoo bottle, pornographic magazine, children’s picture book, Moby-Dick; that text is going to teach you something. This is something my parents always said, and stuck to, no matter how much I challenged them.
I love the poetry collection The Wild Iris by Louise Glück. If you read it, it has a narrative arc delivered in the voices of flowers interspersed with prayers. I aspire to such vision, but it seems a ways off. I could name a lot of other influential poetry books, but one of my habits is to go on reading jags where I finish a poetry book a day (and often blog about it or review it somewhere). That’s important — exposing yourself to a lot of different voices. What I’m reading right now (any right now) exerts the most influence on me, like a magnet.
JS: What are you working on right now?
KC: I recently lost my ex-husband to suicide. We were extremely close friends, though he lived in Maine; we talked every day, and he just delighted me. I miss him so much, and I’m working through that with poetry a little bit. It’s odd work for me. It sort of lacks artifice, and the lineation is very chaotic and different. Incidentally, I had written the saddest, loneliest portraits of him a couple of months before he died. I think I’ve stumbled into a collection, or I’m stumbling still.
by Karen Craigo
Don’t worry—I still move
through the world. At first
I doubted I could stir,
could raise myself up
on an elbow to sip
a bit of broth.
But I’m fine. I go
to the store, read the back
of the cereal box, notice
each time the furnace kicks on.
What I mean is
I take things in. Just today
I saw where some species of bat
hibernate through the cold,
but others migrate. That’s right.
You figure you’re looking
at birds in flight,
but they’re so much darker,
so much more upside-down.
Karen Craigo is the author of two Sundress Publications titles, No More Milk (2016) and Passing Through Humansville (2018). She is also the author of Escaped Housewife Tries Hard to Blend In (forthcoming from Tolson Books, 2018), and three chapbooks. She is the editor of a weekly newspaper, The Marshfield (Missouri) Mail, and she maintains Better View of the Moon, a blog on writing and creativity. She lives in Springfield, Missouri.
Jacquelyn Scott is a current MFA candidate at The University of Tennessee. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Blue Mountain Review, december mag, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, and The Write Launch. Find her on a hiking trail or on Twitter @JacquelynLScott.