Vintage Sundress: An Interview with Karen Craigo

Since publishing Passing Through Humansville (Sundress Publications, 2018), poet Karen Craigo has been reflecting on writing, grief, and everyday beauty, and served a two-year term as Missouri’s Poet Laureate. Editorial Intern Saoirse sat down with Karen to chat about her writing process and projects in the past three years.

Saoirse: Thinking back on the publication process from Passing Through Humansville, what was the experience like?

Karen Craigo: Passing Through Humansville was my second Sundress book, and what I found was that the process was every bit as careful and meticulous as it was the first time around. Erin Elizabeth Smith is one of the best editors in the business, and she gave my poems (already thoroughly worked out) a thorough workout! What I mean is that I submitted a collection of finished work that I was happy with, but Erin showed me how to absolutely maximize the potential of each poem. She was also good about trusting me when I was committed to something—a line, an image, a poem—that I felt strongly about. It’s funny; when I look back on my first book, there were three favorite poems of mine that I wanted to keep in there over her suggestion to the contrary, and with the benefit of time, I totally see where she was coming from and would not include those poems today. Isn’t that a heck of a note? But honestly, I trust Erin completely, and I would recommend her to anyone.

S: What would you say surprised you the most about putting Passing Through Humansville and No More Milk out in the world?

KC: I always heard poets talk about how tired they were of their poems almost the moment a book comes out, and I thought that would never happen to me. Just having a book would be such a recharge, I figured! But it did happen, and instantly. Having a beautiful book in hand made me want to make another. Old poems are nice if you’re dead. New poems are what fires me up

S: What has changed for you since Passing Through Humansville was published?

KC: I was tapped for a two-year term as Missouri’s fifth Poet Laureate in 2019, which shocked the hell out of me. Don’t tell the governor, but I’m such an Ohioan at heart! Of course, COVID-19 happened at the same time as my term of office, so nothing worked out as it was supposed to; my projects couldn’t happen, and I didn’t get to enjoy the usual school visits and other public events, since everything was online. I have to say, though, it was an amazing shot in the arm, at least for my self-image. The poetry gets a lot harder to write when there’s a laurel crown on your head, I can tell you.

S: Has the publishing of your books altered your perspective on the literary community? If yes, in what way?

KC: A book makes you feel legitimate—like you have a valid voice in the conversation. I remember that individual poem publications served the same function way back when, but a book kind of takes that feeling to the next level. It’s all nonsense, though. Everyone who loves poetry has something valuable to say on the subject, and there’s no club or society where a book is the price of entry—not one that has anything to do with actually making art, anyway. Writing is such a solitary pursuit, and those feelings, either of inadequacy, adequacy, or super-adequacy, are nonsense.

S: Have you published other full-length works or chapbooks since being published at Sundress?

KC: No, but I have a collection that I’m ready to circulate, and I feel really strongly about it. Fingers crossed!

I recently lost my ex-husband, who was also my best friend, to suicide, and I’ve put together a fat set of poems on grief. It’s a weird grief when it’s an ex; I felt it (and still feel it) so acutely, but I didn’t feel like I had a right to it. I lost my mother shortly afterwards, and that’s certainly a grief I can own, but it made the other stand in such sharp relief that I found myself making a study of sorrow and loss. The result is Ex and What Comes After—and of course what comes after (e)X is Y, or why. The poems ask why over and over.

S: How do they build on the themes you explored in Passing Through Humansville and No More Milk?

KC: Both of those books are really about motherhood—new motherhood and mature motherhood. In this new bunch of poems, I’m focusing very closely on myself and my desires and sources of hurt and glee. It’s liberating.

S: Who are your inspirations right now? Which books are you reading? Which writers stand out to you the most?

KC: I feel most inspired by my contemplative life right now. Every day, I give over as much time as I can to meditation, rumination, and chant. I’m also working these days as a business reporter, and I’m finding so much inspiration there as well. It never really occurred to me before, but a business is a powerful manifestation of what began as a vision. There is a lot about that I’d like to emulate. As far as reading goes, I love literary journals, with a bit of this and a bit of that. It energizes me to read many voices.

S: What are you currently working on?

KC: I’m writing poems about dailiness—what’s ordinary. I should note that by “ordinary,” I’m thinking of the root of the word, “order,” as in “first this happens, then that happens.” I’m writing about my life and trying to come to grips with how holy it is, in other words. Your life is too, by the way.

S: What is one thing you want to try in your current work that you haven’t tried before?

KC: I’d love to play more with form. So many of my poems are skinny, sonnet-length clumps without much use of horizontal space or caesurae or stanzas. I have a feeling that aiming for different shapes of poems will result in different ways of thinking. When I tinker that way, it tends to feel a little contrived for me, but I’d like to get to where I can organically create broad, airy poems.

S: What are you most excited about for the future?

KC: I don’t think a lot about the future. I focus quite a bit on trying to make each day count. Maybe it’s because my older son is 15, and I know I won’t have him home much longer, but I just want to live in the now with the people I love.

S: And finally, what advice/insight would you give to emerging writers?

KC: Sounds either silly or flippant, but I wish writers would write more. We spend a lot of time talking about and participating in community, usually in the virtual sense, and we focus a lot on publishing (necessary—our work deserves an audience). But I feel most fulfilled when I’m centered on poetry and take a break from the community. Our community isn’t always very … communal? We very seldom talk about art and our lives as artists, even though that’s the real stuff. What’s more, I know very few people who live their lives as artists. I know we all need jobs and things, and I’m as busy as anyone I know, but I have to say, when I put poetry at the center and fit everything else in (rather than the opposite, capturing lines on scraps of paper during fleeting breaks from work and family), that’s when things work best. My whole life falls into line in service to the word.

Passing Through Humansville is available at the Sundress store.


Karen Craigo is a reporter for The Springfield Business Journal in Springfield, Missouri, where she lives with her husband, the fiction writer Michael Czyzniejewski, and their two sons. She is the author of two full-length collections from Sundress PublicationsPassing Through Humansville (2018) and No More Milk (2016), plus three chapbooks. She recently ended her term as Missouri’s fifth Poet Laureate.

a brown femme person sits at a table. They have a drink in their hand and a tattoo on their wrist. They are wearing spectacles. They have shoulder length black hair.

Saoirse‘s name and passion are the same: freedom. As an exophonic writer, their academic interests revolve around linguistic power dynamics, especially in connection to the land. They are always trying to write, and find, poetry that breaks the English language into articulating its own colonial violence. They are a freelance editor and serve as the Guest Editor for Emerging Voices in Poetry at Oyster River Pages. They are a 2021 Brooklyn Poets Fellow and a finalist for the Sophie Kerr Prize. They find excitement in travel, comfort in a good cup of coffee and love in their newly adopted puppy, Malaika. Find them at saoirseedits.com or on Twitter @saoirseedits.

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