Karen Skolfield’s manuscript, Frost in the Low Areas, won the First Book Award for Poetry from Zone 3 Press and will be published fall 2013. She is a contributing editor at the literary magazine Stirring and her poems have appeared in 2011 Best of the Net Anthology, Cave Wall, Memorious, Rattle, Tar River Poetry, Verse Daily, West Branch, and others. She earned her MFA in writing from the University of Massachusetts in the year (mumble mumble mumble) and remains in Massachusetts with her husband and two small children who would take umbrage at learning she calls them small. When not concocting her next set of New Year’s resolutions, she teaches travel writing and technical writing at UMass Amherst. Visit her online at http://www.karenskolfield.blogspot.com/
One of Karen Skolfield’s 2012 New Year’s resolutions included having four literary guys come up with an idea for a new lit journal, find funding for it, wrangle over the details and design, write mission statements and an “about” page, give it a cool name, commit some unfathomable number of future years to it, lose sleep over it, and then, when the first wave of hard work is done, ask her to be included in their inaugural issue, thus passing a gigantic chunk of the glory on to her. Her other New Year’s resolution was to go to the gym twice a week, every week. Guess which one got done.
Brandon: Are there any unique rituals that accompany your writing process, or conditions in your surroundings that you like to keep a certain way to help you write (I’m thinking an album/artist you listen to ad nauseam, or writing in a certain corner of the house facing a certain direction, maybe wearing a lucky hat)?
Karen: Brandon, you saw me wearing my giant sombrero? Have you been peeking in my window?
Sadly, I’m kidding. There’s no sombrero or chupalla, no pith helmet, no toque (but thank you for prompting me to Google “types of hats”). In fact, there’s little that’s magical or informative about my writing process. I do love writing on the computer, though I sometimes start poems by hand: think little notes crammed onto little dog ears of paper. Once I’m deeper into the writing, I need either absolute quiet – no music, ever – or lots of white noise, like at a café. Preferably a café without music. I’m amazed when I hear that other writers write with earbuds in. They are probably smarter than I am. I need all of my brain cells focused on the words.
When I’m home, I do have a favorite place to write – at my dining room table, with a dog at my feet. Bonus: there’s coffee in the coffee pot.
B: You served seven years in the Army. Not counting subject material, how has your military experience affected the way you write or approach writing?
K: It’s probably worthwhile mentioning that right out of high school I was an Army photojournalist, so this was the first writing with adult meaning and adult power for me. I was sent to a photojournalism school in Fort Benjamin Harrison (DINFOS for all you military folk) where we worked extensively on journalism writing and PR writing. I got to blow things up in basic training. Not your average teenager job, but I really, honestly loved it. I was a good soldier and I loved carving a path that took me away from my family.
I think the Army continues to inform and affect a lot of what I do, even though I’ve been out for almost 20 years (that was hard to write!). I have a disciplined head and disciplined habits. If I’m not writing, I’m pretty good about accepting the responsibility for it, which I think is another trait gifted to me by the military.
B: You’ve said that you “thrive on humor.” I think it would be difficult to refute that humor has an important place in life, but across the literary landscape there appears to be varied levels of enthusiasm as to its prevalence in poetry. In some places it appears celebrated and encouraged while in others it’s conspicuously absent or muted. What do you feel is the role of humor in poetry—yours, or in general?
K: Well, isn’t it great the range of poetry out in the world? I have a list of journals where I will never publish because my work doesn’t fit – I’m not experimental enough, I’m too narrative, my poems are too long, etc. But there’s a much longer list of journals that either have liked or might like my writing, and I try to be aware of the leanings of a journal and whether they’d be receptive to the more humorous pieces or the more serious pieces.
Like so many people, I’ll admit that humor occasionally serves to approach topics that I couldn’t otherwise approach because they’re painful or otherwise emotional – all that messy stuff. Humor in my life and in my writing gives me distance, which sometimes works and sometimes does not. That’s when someone else’s opinion – for me, it’s my writing group – is especially helpful.
B: Family is a common theme or subject in your work. “Rumors of Her Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated” immediately comes to mind as a very powerful example of family’s importance in your poetry. Certainly moments like that one are focused on the subject from the start when you’re writing, but in other instances do you actively look to tackle moments and experiences of family life in your writing, or do they find their way in when you’re trying to write about other topics?
K: I try not to write about my family constantly, which I realize isn’t obvious when you look at a body of my work. But I’m always thinking who in the world wants to read about my kids, my family life, my… yawn… what were we talking about? They’re not boring to me, but I do try to write about a range of things and hopefully appeal to a wider reading audience. That said, my family is constantly handing me good lines, some of which turn into poems about them and many that do not. Recently my daughter left a plastic, bloodied finger on the counter – a Halloween trinket, filled with bubbles – how weird and wonderful. She’s not in that poem at all, but the finger! The poem would not exist except for my daughter.
Occasionally my husband Dennis or my kids weasel their ways into poems when I’m not expecting it, but rarely. It seems that once a poem has its trajectory, it’s either about my immediate family or not. I’m a pretty linear thinker and writer, so that makes sense.
Dennis and I have an oft-repeated comedy routine. Whenever I get a poem accepted for publication, he says “Send it to me! Am I in it?” If I tell him he’s not in it, he says “Never mind, don’t bother sending it.” He’s kidding. Well, I think he’s kidding. Hold on, let me ask. [Checks] He wants to know if he’s in this interview.
B: On a similar note, when you’re writing (about your family or not), does the thought ever pop into your head about how your husband or your children will view the work in the future? In other words, is there a family-concerned filter in your writing process somewhere, or does what serves the art best win out in the end? (Largely I’m thinking of “Rumors,” but also “Frost in the Low Areas.” Both feel highly intimate, like the reader is being given a very personal glimpse into those moments.)
K: This is a question every writer has to grapple with, often many times and in many different ways. You’ll find in some of my writing – about my father, for instance – that I am brutally clear about his behavior. It is his shame, not mine. About my husband and kids, though, it’s important that I don’t publish anything that might overly hurt or embarrass them. I have a poem about trying to catch a plane to Hawaii and my husband running on ahead to hold the plane for us, with me lagging with our two small kids – and the tension in that poem is that husbands do sometimes leave, fathers do sometimes abandon their children. He eventually teased me enough about this that I pulled it from the publishing rounds and the manuscript. I mean, I get it, he is über-fabulous and I think that one hurt his über a little. So now, instead of publishing that poem, I get to dissect it in an interview.
You raise a good point that art is not always served with this type of filter, to which I must say, art seems to be doing just fine. These are the three people that matter most to me, and it’s hard to imagine I have some stunning set of poems out there about hard-core subjects on my three that I’m suppressing. There’s so much great writing in the world; it would be the height of ego to think that a few poems that are hurtful to Dennis and my kids could ever add much to the world of writing. On balance, my devotion is to my immediate family.
About poems written before they were around – you know, those old boyfriend/girlfriend poems – well, that’s the past. Adults have histories, and my husband has his own history even if it’s not embodied in poetry.
B: When not occupied with things related to poetry (copious amounts of writing, reading, editing, &c.), what other interests do you indulge in?
K: Ice skating. And we’re talking hockey style, not some graceful figure skating. I’m not graceful. But I am fast and aggressive on the ice. If only I could find the over-40 women’s hockey league that doesn’t mind that I have no stick skills… well, that would be sweet.
Backpacking, hiking, cooking and canning. Gardening. Cross country skiing (let it snow!). Lots of time with my husband and kids and all of their activities. We’re a fabulous traveling family and try to spend about a month in a tent per year.
B: What are some of the biggest influences on your writing?
K: Last night I woke up thinking: I’m a crow. As a writer I’m interested in the next shiny thing, the bit of tin foil or soda tab, the ripe strawberry or the unripe, the dead squirrel in the road, and I can’t help it, I even enjoy the sound of my own raucous voice. I puzzle over things, I set my beady eye there. I sit in the slenderest of treetops and feel darkly royal.
To wit: the biggest influences are the smallest things that transport me elsewhere. Thus, the homunculus.
B: Quick—The Beatles or The Stones?
K: Hahaha – The Stones, but I have at least one friend who will be horrified at this answer. I’ve tried hard, and I’m just not a Beatles fan. Hey, you’re not putting this on the Internet or anything, are you?
B: Whitman or Frost?
K: Whitman. He’s definitely one of my dead-guy crushes. Now, I hope your next question isn’t about hot chocolate versus apple cider.
B: Hot chocolate or apple cider?
K: What did I just say? *sigh* But since you asked, and I’m a reborn New Englander, I will have to go with apple cider from a local orchard – I’m lucky to be surrounded by great orchards. If you ever come to my house, Brandon, we’re going to offer you the choice of homemade blueberry pie or strawberry rhubarb crisp and watch you squirm. Take that.
Karen’s poem, “Homunculus,” will appear in Swarm’s Winter 2013 inaugural issue.