Hi, Karen. Thanks for taking time to talk to TNB today.
My Pleasure. This is way more fun than what I usually do while my kids are at school.
What do you usually do while your kids are at school?
I wish I could say that I read War and Peace or ride a city bus around LA all day with a notebook recording tender, gritty images and then come home and sit diligently at my computer until I’ve produced an evocative poem-a-day, but I don’t do that. I feel like I spend a little too much time mucking around in domestic detritus–planning meals, buying groceries, wiping up spills, ordering stuff we need, getting rid of stuff we don’t, sweeping up glitter. I’m hoping to set up some regular office hours now that both of my daughters are in school full-time.
Sweeping up glitter?
Yes, raising creative young people comes with a surprising amount of glitter. It gets everywhere. And it doesn’t break down easily.
How old are your daughters?
They’re 9 and 4. Hufflepuff and Gryffindor with Slytherin rising, respectively.
What would you like your children to believe about poetry?
That it’s not a dying art, but rather an ever-expanding medium. That it should be for everyone. That a good poem is worth reading several times but it shouldn’t make you feel dumb or left out and that it’s okay if you feel dumb or left out every once in a while. That if they look hard enough they can find poetry that speaks to them, and it’s worth it to look that hard. That the best poems are so quietly true they make you cry. There’s a lot more.
I sense that. Maybe we should move on. Your book Auto Mechanic’s Daughter is nine years old. What have you been doing in those nine years besides sweeping up glitter?
I’ve written about fifty poems–some better than others, a handful of micro-fiction, and one draft of a young adult novel while my kids napped, and I got a lot of stuff sorted out in therapy. I think I have just about grown into a fully functioning, self-actualized adult. Plus, I read a few good books and enjoyed being part of a loving, respectful relationship with my husband Kirker Butler who makes me laugh really hard every day. Oh, and I gave birth twice, once at home in my guest room, and raised those babies to their current ages without too many bumps–one broken tooth and one eyebrow scar to date. Plus, they’re beautiful, smart, sensitive, inquisitive girls who play in the dirt, play basketball, paint and write and sing and read and don’t completely hate math and I feel like that was all a pretty good use of my time.
I’m going to skip over that birth in your guest room comment and ask you what your favorite books are.
Yes, I’m glad you asked. I consider that birth, the highest physical and emotional achievement of my life. I feel honored and lucky that I experienced it exactly as I did but I definitely understand home birth is not for everyone. Long story short: Due to my “advanced maternal age” before my second child, my doctor, my midwife, and I agreed that I would go to the hospital and deliver there with the help of the midwife but when I started laboring at home in the middle of the night, I could tell things were progressing as they should and I just let it happen and it was perfect, even the IV bag hanging from the curtain rod. Also, The Color Purple, Anna Karenina, The Complete Stories of Bernard Malamud, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, The Life of Emily Dickinson and there’s a whole slew of graphic novels that I’ve loved recently.
Where are the poets?
So many poets. I was still teaching high school English when I decided I wanted to write so my first loves in poetry were the anthologized poets we teach to high school students: Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Rita Dove. Later, I found Anne Sexton, Phil Levine and Dorianne Laux. And I keep finding poets I’ve never heard of or never read before. There are so many poets writing interesting work today. I read something I admire every week. Right now, I’m loving the latest books by Ross Gay and Ada Limón. They’re both simultaneously accessible and masterful, but I had to stop reading the Ross Gay book in public because I would be out with my kids like at their gymnastics class reading it and the poems are so genuine I would start crying spontaneously there in the bleachers with the other parents. I was getting looks. I wish more people–people who didn’t even want to write poetry–sought out poetry to read. I think it would make the world nicer.
Where would you send people to find poetry?
Well, any of those poets I named above or start with NewPages.com’s Big List of Litmags. Find an online magazine with an interesting slant and look for poetry that resonates with you.
What about a favorite poem?
Easy. “Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden.
Is that the one where the narrator speaks so poignantly about being a child who didn’t recognize his father’s sacrifices until he himself was a grown man?
Yes, stop talking about it. I’m crying. Actually, forget what I said about online magazines. Start with “Those Winter Sundays.”
Like many first books, Auto Mechanic’s Daughter is largely autobiographical. Do you have a father fixation?
I have a parenting fixation I think, but Occupational Therapist’s Daughter didn’t have the same ring to it. My parents raised my sister and me in a loving, stimulating home with meager financial resources. We faced some real challenges and hardships but we had resilience. My mother and I started taking college courses the same year. She got her degree in her 40s and pulled our family out of poverty. And when she embarked on that, my father learned to cook and do laundry in the 80s when it wasn’t that common for men to support women in that way. I’m grateful to my parents and I want to do a really good job myself at parenting.
What about your career as a writer? What do you want to accomplish?
Even though I’ve been writing steadily for over fifteen years, I feel like I’m just getting started. I’d like to publish a few more of the poems for this second book. I went seven years when the kids were little when I just wrote and read when I could and didn’t send anything out to publications. I feel like I have some work that’s ready now and I’ve been getting some good responses in the past year. I’d like to finish the poetry book I’m working on and I really want to get back to the young adult novel. I think it has a strong female protagonist and I’m always drawn to those, so it would feel really good to do that project justice. And I want to write a graphic novel. Plus, from being a teacher, I still have that itch to help people express themselves through writing. I’d love to host workshops for kids or adults eventually.
What do you say when people ask you what kind of poetry you write?
I tell them I write narrative poetry mostly. I like to tell a story. I like character and setting too. I’m really excited about the current trend to blur genres, but I haven’t experimented much with that. I’ve written some very short, short stories, fewer than three hundred words, some fewer than a hundred words. I love it. You’re trying to establish character, setting, and suggest a plot in what amounts to two or three short paragraphs. It’s the same thing that appeals to me about writing poetry, the challenge of saying something meaningful in just a few words.
Yes, but a young adult novel?
It seems like a leap, but poets create moments so well and a novel is just a series of moments that add up to a larger story and I have tremendous respect for the young adult readership from teaching high school students so many years. I think they’re some of the most critical readers out there. If the moment doesn’t ring true, they see it immediately. One of my mentors Chris Abani writes across all genres. He’s prolific and amazing and he set a good example for me–showed me that writers are writers and you don’t have to do just one thing, that writing poetry can inform your fiction in compelling ways and vice versa.
Anything else we should know about you?
I always have at least a quart of genuine Kentucky moonshine in my fridge and almost every day the lyrics to Montell Jordan’s “This is How We Do It” run through my head at least once.