On Poetry, Motherhood, and Bad TV: An Interview with Karen Craigo

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Montreux Rotholtz: Could you tell me a little bit about your process? Is there a guideline or a series of rules you impose upon yourself or use to edit your poems? And finally, what kind of generative exercises do you use to create new work?

Karen Craigo: When you’re really busy, it’s best not to be too married to process. The only thing I’m consistent about is writing every day. Sometimes it’s first thing in the morning; sometimes it’s in bed by the light of my phone. But I always write, and by this I mean that I write something with a purely creative purpose—neither my blog nor my journalism counts, although that writing, too, is a creative act. I try every day to try to express something essential in writing.

Of course, I do have to feel like writing when the occasion strikes. Because all of that writing has kept me in condition, so to speak, I tend to just jump right in. It hasn’t always been like this. In those periods when I’ve been away from the page for a long time, I’ve found it incredibly difficult to start anything. That’s where prompts come into play. I make a word bank from a failed poem, or I use something my son has said as a first line. (Lately his thing is to ask me to take him to imaginary places—“Let’s go to the egg house!” or “Take me to the place where they keep the bells.”) I make a mental note of these things, and when I have time to write, they provide an interesting germ of an idea—a starting point.

Incidentally, I’m not big on revision. I labor like crazy over small poems, and I tend to wrestle them to the ground in one sitting. I may make small changes after that, but for the most part, the poems are completed in a single occasion. I credit the fact that I’ve been quietly prewriting between writing sessions. I’ve been composing without pen or keyboard since the last time I sat down to do that.

MR: Reading No More Milk gives us some clues about your obsessions, the things you are grappling with and working around. Could you talk more about the themes you return to again and again; the topics you find your poetry reaching toward; the objects, people, or places that haunt your work? What are you obsessed with right now?

KC: I’m so transparent! Motherhood is magical to me, and I like to approach it mindfully. It’s perfectly fair to characterize that as an obsession. I’m also obsessed with spirituality and the body, and also with working life, and these themes dovetail throughout No More Milk. I consider myself the poet laureate of the electric bill. Someone needs to sing those ordinary songs—or at least that’s what I tell myself.

Right now, I’m all about television. I’m very excited about a manuscript-in-progress of poems based on characters from classic TV—Bewitched, The Addams Family, The Munsters, Happy Days, Sanford and Son. Whether it’s a love poem to the Professor from Gilligan’s Island or a paean to the Gooch from Diff’rent Strokes, I’ve been inspired by this project, and I even get to honor some important figures from my youth. The fact that Fonzie is fictional is no reason not to thank him for being magical.

MR: What are you reading at the moment? 

KC: I recently bit off a bit more than I could chew with a National Poetry Month book review project. I solicited books, intending to read one a day and then offer an appreciation (not a review—just an expression of where I found the most enjoyment in each collection). But I had sort of a tough April in some respects, and the job loomed very large—so I’m taking a more leisurely approach, reading any new collection I can get my hands on and reviewing them as I go. This project may stretch through the summer, and maybe I’ll never stop. But what I’m reading now is, quite simply, all the things. It’s been a great education for me.

MR: Do you find that what you’re reading changes or informs your work, or do you seek out specific reading material because your work is tending in a certain direction already? 

KC: I put a lot of stock in the value of randomness, both in my poems and in my reading. The best poems happen when you approach them in an uncalculated way, and I think reading whatever my gaze lands on helps with that. The trick is to buy lots of stuff and keep it around, near at hand. I guess you could say that I plan for serendipity to happen; there are poetry collections near every chair in my house, including the porcelain ones.

MR: Which poets do you see as formative for your work, and why? In particular, are there any underrepresented or rarely discussed authors who’ve really informed your poetry or perspective?

KC: This answer may be surprising, but I most enjoy poets who are very intuitive about form and content. Carl Phillips is one favorite. Larissa Szporluk is another. I don’t write like either of them; maybe I’m not bold enough to lean on intuition the way they do. I aspire to that, though—to trusting myself and trusting my readers enough to let us co-create a bit more than I do now.

MR: What, besides other poetry, influences your writing? Do you find yourself drawing inspiration from film, television, music, dance, or other art forms? What are your secret influences?

KC: You know what I love? Mystery novels and bad TV. I’m very lowbrow—like, astonishingly so. I sometimes turn on an NCIS or Bones marathon as background noise while I write. I was a newspaper reporter for a lot of years, and I do really well with a low hum of noise in the background. A movie or TV show I’ve seen a hundred times can be just the ticket.

I have another set of habits, though, that may seem a little contradictory. I like to keep a dream journal, and I’m very invested in meditation and breathwork. I can’t exactly call my dreams a secret influence, since they’re probably the product of too many television detectives themselves. But I do like to dig deep within sometimes, and to turn away from overt outside influences. I have this idea of God as a force we can immerse ourselves in if we pay the right sort of attention, and I guess I think it’s good practice to tap her on the shoulder every now and then. Or maybe, more accurately, to curl up in her lap. I like the writing that follows this, and I guess I kind of like going back and forth between the spirit and the world. It would probably be a mistake to dwell permanently in either sphere.

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MR: Tell us a little about No More Milk’s creation. Would you say that these poems were written to be together, to flesh out a story or theme, or did you write each one individually and see the connections between them later? How do you approach the process of creating a whole and complete book?

KC: No More Milk can probably be described as a true first book, in the old mode. These days people seem to write collections from the start, but I feel like there was a time when first books were more like a designer’s lookbook, offering lots of different styles, from day to evening to cocktail to red carpet. My obsessions (which you mentioned earlier) sort of unify the work—there’s a lot about parenting, a lot about money, a lot about the body—but I think I approached them somewhat individually. I guess I’m lucky, in a sense, that I get a little stuck—a little fixated—and also that I write a lot. I had plenty of poems to choose from, and they hung together pretty well, sort of by accident.

MR: What about the titles? How do you see them working together, opening the way for a reader or closing it off? How do you go about writing titles for your poems? 

KC: Titles are really hard for me, and I admire poets and other writers who excel at them. Sometimes I begin with a label title—“Milk” or “Money” or “Happiness”—and then obviously I have to revisit it and try again. It’s agonizing for me. A title sort of delineates a poem, and if you’re not careful, a careless one or a too-specific one can shut the windows on a poem, taking away a possible vantage point.

I’ve become much more loose with titles recently. I used to drag the lake of the poem, looking for a phrase that I could stick on top. These days I let myself be more inventive when titling—I just generate an appealing phrase—and I’m finding that much more satisfying.

MR: Can you reveal a secret to our readers? It can be about anything you’d like.

KC: I have three unusual phobias: revolving restaurants, the state of Wisconsin, and those old-timey desk spikes people once used to collect receipts and stuff. One of these days, I’m nearly certain I’ll be found dead with a desk spike in my eye.

MR: What is the best advice you’ve ever received (writing-related or otherwise)?

KC: So much advice turns out to be worthless—not even harmful, just baseless and dumb. You can swim after eating; the weight of a corndog is not going to pull you down. You should have sex before marriage, and with lots of different kinds of people—you’ve got to check yourself before you wreck yourself. Eggs are bad for you, eggs are good for you—we go back and forth, but we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that they’re yummy in a McMuffin, so I’m eating those sonsabitches.

I’ve received some good advice, though. My dad told me to read a lot so I wouldn’t be dumb. And my mom told me to always make sure I had some money in my pocket and an alternate way home. My best friend in college convinced me to stop what I’m doing and get down in the grass to check out the bugs. One of my favorite professors instilled in me the importance of not judging people’s utterances by their grammar and conventions. 

Writing-wise, the best advice I ever received was to do it—write, I mean. All real writers say it. They’ll swear by one method or another for themselves, but particulars aside, the spirit of the advice comes down to this: Sit your butt down and be a conduit for the words. That’s the best writing strategy, and it works for all of us, regardless of skill level or genre or anything else. Sit and write and see what appears. That advice has always paid off for me, whether spiritually or artistically.

You can pre-order No More Milk today at the Sundress store!

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Karen Craigo is the author of two poetry chapbooks, Someone Could Build Something Here (Winged City, 2013) and Stone for an Eye (Kent State/Wick, 2004), and her poems and essays have appeared in numerous journals. She is a three-time recipient of an Individual Artist Fellowship from the Ohio Arts Council, and she is a former summer fellow with the Fine Arts Work Center. A freelance writer and editor, she also teaches writing in Springfield, Missouri. She maintains the blog Better View of the Moon. Her debut full-length poetry collection, No More Milk, will be released from Sundress Publications in 2016.

Montreux Rotholtz is a poet and an editorial intern with Sundress Publications. Her poetry collection, Unmark, was selected by Mary Szybist as the winner of the 2015 Burnside Review Press book award. Her poems appear in Prelude, jubilat, The Iowa Review, the PEN Poetry Series, Fence, and elsewhere. 

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