Ahead of the release of Passing Through Humansville, her new collection of poems, Karen Craigo spoke with Sundress Editorial Intern, Nikki A. Sambitsky to discuss the collection’s running themes, subject matter, imagery, motherhood, spirituality, and how God is a compelling subject throughout the poems.
Nikki Sambitsky: There appear to be some strong themes that run through your poems in this collection. Can you speak a little bit about them and why it was important for you to address them within this particular collection? What do you want your readers to take away from reading Passing Through Humansville?
Craigo: The title attempts to convey it, but I’m writing about my personal journey through “humansville,” really—what it means for me to be human right now. And it really is that personal. These poems are about my life, simply. There is the motherhood material that readers of my first book will recognize, and I also write about my spiritual life and my work life. As I get older, I’m really beginning to internalize the fact that we’re only passing through, and that dailiness is a privilege we should embrace while we inhabit our human forms. We should pay attention to it.
Sambitsky: What formatting/layout considerations were important to you in Passing Through Humansville? Did you use formatting/layout as a tool to bring certain ideas to the forefront within the body of the work along with the subject matter of the poems?
Craigo: My most important tool is the line, which I try to wield like a switchblade. I want the last word of a line to be a sharp turn, maybe one that casts an extra layer of meaning on a sentence. The poems are mostly solid blocks—short, without breaks—and that’s because my attention is really directed to the little independent poem contained within a line.
Sambitsky: What types of imagery did you craft while writing these poems? In what ways were you able to make those images tangible and vibrant to the reader?
Craigo: As I grow in my writing, I think I’m learning to lean into imagery a little bit more—to trust the images I receive when I’m working, even if they don’t make a lot of sense. The poems I’m writing now really exhibit that trust, but these are the poems that helped me get where I am. A lot of what I’m getting at is the permeability of boundaries, especially between people who love each other, or between me and source energy.
Sambitsky: How did you use your craft in this collection to make the un-relatable relatable to readers who may not have had the same experiences, but may have gone through something that felt similar or something that actually may have been similar? I am thinking about why and how your work successfully reaches so many different audiences, which is so important in the current state of the times.
Craigo: You phrase this as a craft question, and that’s an interesting angle—how does craft help me to relate to readers with my poems? I don’t know how to answer the question, though I’m intrigued by it. I try to be very honest, though honesty isn’t exactly craft. What I think might accomplish this connection is the precision I try to use to get at the feelings behind a poem, because even if we’ve not had the same IEP meetings or firings or parent fails, we’ve all felt confusion, defensiveness, loss, and all the rest.
Sambitsky: As a poet, what sort of subjects in general do you feel strongly drawn to that you cannot help but regularly address within your poetry? Which of your poems and on what subjects/themes have you gotten the strongest reactions to from readers?
Craigo: God. That’s not an interjection, by the way; that’s my compelling subject. I was raised in conventional churches, so that’s in my background, but I completely reject old-man-in-the-sky theology, and I refuse to sing any song that forces me to say the phrase “a wretch like me.” I find that I am interested in the idea of God or source energy as a stream of everything that links us and that lasts. This theology shows up in unexpected places—actually, I see this connective force in all of my poems. This stream of everything (that’s a phrase I can’t shake, by the way) is what causes the perfect word or image to bob to the surface sometimes so a poet can haul it in. I believe some readers recognize this stream as one they are part of and that they tap into, too. It’s just how we know.
Sambitsky: How did you come up with the title for this poetry collection? Does the title have a special meaning or significance that ties into your own life experiences?
Craigo: I was actually driving one morning from Springfield to Kansas City, and the highway had these blankets of fog layered over it. It was right at the exit for Humansville, Missouri, a city of a little over 1,000 that is named for a guy named Human. (I had to look it up. What a name!) It seemed really significant that I was “passing through Humansville,” as I’m often conscious of being in transit through my human experience.
Sambitsky: Family, life experiences, and nature play an important role in these poems. Did you have a difficult time writing about subjects that can sometimes be too difficult emotionally to write about? What were some stumbling blocks for you and how did you overcome them? I’m thinking in particular of “a student meeting the eligibility criteria for emotional disturbance.” Can you speak specifically to the formatting of that poem and why it looks the way it does, since it visually stands apart from the rest of the poems in the collection?
Craigo: I really do have a hard time approaching some subjects. The poem you mention shows one way of going at such a topic diagonally, sort of; it’s a found poem, and the title and each line is taken from an individual education plan (IEP) document. When you see your dearest person discussed coldly in several pages of clinicalese, it’s hard to take in. I saw the person in the pages, but that young boy was clearly just the subject of a report. By isolating lines, I try to make a portrait of him. You really did pinpoint the hardest poem in the book for me, emotionally speaking.
Sambitsky: Can you explain the significance of each section of poems? Why and how did you end up dividing the poems into the three sections that you did?
Craigo: Well, as a practical matter, breaks are useful to readers. My dense little poems can be a lot to take in, and everyone needs a breather. These breaks aren’t strictly necessary; the book would be very similar without them. But each section has a different feeling to me. The first section is largely about motherhood; the second deals with the spirit, largely. And I think the third is about other connections—work life, larger family, friendship. If you see these groupings as a little arbitrary, maybe they are. I feel like every poem I’ve ever written can fill a single section. It’s just that books don’t work like that, at least not if you want to serve the reader.
Sambitsky: What type of work do you do outside of writing poetry? Can you please also explain the impact that that work has on your life and on your writing?
Craigo: I do two things: I’m the editor and general manager of a small weekly newspaper in Marshfield, Missouri—The Marshfield Mail—and I also teach writing and editing online. I’m surrounded by words all day, so it keeps me limber as a writer. The newspaper work provides inspiration—even in a small town, there is so much to see and to experience—and the teaching lets me practice new ways of connecting, of getting through. I work pretty constantly, and family also requires energy. Heck, I’m even the PTA president. Sometimes I suspect that with my busyness, I’m actually trying to place a barrier between me and the page. Writing is hard, and it makes me feel so exposed. I’ve given up judging myself and my practices, though. How I live is who I am, and that’s the person who wrote these poems. No one else could have.
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.
Nikki Sambitsky earned her MFA in creative writing, specifically focusing on the lyric/fragment essay, from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast MFA program. She holds a BA in journalism and is currently working on a collection of essays, which center on mental illness, her family, and two autistic children. Her journalism work and creative nonfiction have appeared in publications such as The Helix, Gravel Magazine, West Hartford Magazine, and Longridge Review, where her essay was just nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She lives with her husband, two children, and way too many animals in a peaceful, rural, area of Connecticut.