Karen Skolfield writes funny, joyful, incredibly poignant (yet far from melodramatic) poems; each softness is tempered by starkness, every sweetness balanced by the bitter. I am ashamed to admit that the first of Karen’s poems I read were from her debut collection Frost in the Low Areas, an admittance that is shameful only because I should have been reading her work far before it was collected. The winner of the 2014 PEN New England Award in Poetry, a finalist for the 2014 Massachusetts Book Award, and the winner of the 2012 Zone 3 First Book Award for Poetry, Frost in the Low Areas is a product not just of Karen’s life as a poet, but as a mother, a soldier, a peeler-of-bananas, a chauffeur, a photographer, a thousand different people and embodiments of herself. What unites this collection, though, is Karen’s voice—while she is all these things, she is above all else a keen observer. Her poems have been featured in numerous magazines and journals including the eighteenth issue of Memorious; this summer Karen was kind enough to talk with me about first books, “sticky lines,” and making people squirm.
This is your first book and I think first books are fascinating. Can you speak about your process writing Frost in the Low Areas and how you found its home at Zone 3?
My writing process will sound very familiar to parents. Sometime after my second child was born, I desperately needed to do something for myself, for my brain, and so I took on one of those 30 poems in 30 days challenges with four of my writing gal pals. It was exhilarating. I wrote whenever my kids had the grace to nap, and I wrote at night when I was too tired to think, and I wrote. I just did it. I did not miss a day, and when the month ended, my friend Robyn said “Let’s go to 100.”
We were a little gentler with that timeline, so those 100 poems took me just over a year. Several of us assembled manuscripts and started sending them out.
I wish I could tell you that I was awesome and researched all the presses and judges and contests I sent things to. If I were doing it all over again, I would be more diligent in this regard. Instead, I narrowed submissions mostly to university presses with first book contests, with only a few exceptions for presses I knew well. Then I wrote checks, affixed stamps, sealed envelopes (or the electronic version of these things), and waited.
It took six months of submitting for judge Nancy Eimers to choose my manuscript for the Zone 3 Press contest. I know the field well enough to know that I was incredibly lucky, getting the right sequence of readers at Zone 3 in my very first year of submitting. There’s so much good writing out there. I’ve read for contests before – I know what’s out there. Great stuff, manuscripts that go years and years without finding a home. Six months – I should’ve been buying lottery tickets with that kind of luck.
I should mention, too, why I primarily submitted to universities. A lot of my journal publications are online, and though the reputation of online journals continues to improve, I know that there are die-hards who see online journals as weaker cousins to print. I wanted the rigor of a first book contest at a university press to help balance that perception.
I love that you say that first books are fascinating. At the awards ceremony for the PEN New England awards, poetry judge Richard Blanco told me that he’d been nervous about choosing my book – I have no track record in publishing books, nothing to prove myself by slower degrees over multiple titles – but then he said, well, who cares, a first book is often the writer’s best work but more often it goes unrecognized. I immediately panicked and thought “Oh great, that means it’s all downhill from here.”
Note that it took me all of one question to work in both Richard Blanco and the PEN award. *pats self on back*
You’re a funny writer and your book finds a very nice balance between the humorous and the serious—there are moments where I’m laughing and feeling like I shouldn’t. When you speak about dinosaurs, for example, in “Lazarus Species,” you balance language like “this thing is gigantic” with the larger idea of “missing” what has never been personally experienced (the Pleistocene era, in this case). There’s a level of delightful absurdity happening here. How do achieve this balance between heaviness and light?
I think this is my nature – laughter is my way of coping, of covering sometimes, of diversion, of giving myself permission and a way to approach difficult topics. Parenting, for instance – I found that having an infant was one of the loneliest things I’ve ever done, even though I have a fabulous husband who did everything but nurse the babies (he volunteered, but I won that arm-wrestling match). But that’s a big, messy topic, the mixed blessings of having very small children, and the poems that worked best tended to be the ones that are at least briefly funny.
I know this can make people squirm– it’s not often that writers expect the audience to laugh in a poem that, say, deals with thoughts about a spouse’s demise. When I give readings, I’ve learned I have to tell people it’s okay to laugh. Sometimes people think they can’t, and there I am, reading a funny poem about a dead mother.
Your writing leaps from botox, to war, to the quotidian peeling of a banana—in explaining death to your children you manage to include claymore mines, the weather, and the very red stoplight. What inspires your writing and where do you begin a poem?
Weird headlines. Funny things my kids say. Goofy little events, like trying to peel a banana and accidentally tossing the stem across a crowded café. Big, serious events, like a 17-year-old girl learning to be a soldier. Something unexpected, like a café sign advertising $99 walk-in Botox treatments. Your list is all over the place, which means my brain is, too.
Poems begin for me either as concepts – “write about Civil War, 250K soldiers KIA never identified” – or with a sticky line I manage to get on paper.
Can you speak about landscape in this book? Even the cover—a microscopic blade of grass—and the title invokes the natural. How do you see these elements in your poems?
I love learning things and knowing things, and I’ll often follow some weird little science or nature fact down the rabbit hole and find, at the bottom, a line for a poem. “Lazarus Species,” the poem that you mentioned earlier, is one of those. The title is a phrase used for species once thought extinct but then re-discovered. I still get excited by that idea, and then all the human things related to something lost and then recovered follows that initial idea, and isn’t the meeting of science and language fantastic?
I’m also a gardener, which puts me in tune and in touch with the seasons and the outdoors in a very meaningful way. I can tell you which plants withstand light frosts, which have to be planted when the soil warms to 60 degrees. When there are bare branches on a tomato plant, I can find the hornworm in 15 seconds. I know what healthy soil smells like. Every spring, when my raspberries send out runners, I email my friends and offer up the offspring. In this way, my garden lives all over town.
I backpack, too, a completely different way to satisfy my outdoorsy.
Thanks to these things, the natural runs through my writing. Though I worship Mary Oliver, we are tonally very different – my landscapes are either darker or less reverent – but I love interacting with the outdoors through writing.
Looking through my writing notebook, here are some recent “nature” ideas that I haven’t yet fleshed out:
gypsy moth caterpillars: when there’s enough of them, their frass sounds like hail (disgusting and true)
glyptodon, my forever love
the rooster across the street hates me
Headline: “Old London Air Raid Shelter Becomes Vegetable Farm”
…and two potential titles:
In Which I Promise Never, Ever to Say a Murder of Crows
Because Peaches Look Like Breasts and Cantaloupe Looks Like Breasts and Apples Look Like Breasts and Here I Am Holding a Cucumber
I think that last one’s meant to be my only attempt ever at erotic poetry, so it’s no surprise that it’s sitting all forlorn in my notebook.
Which poets make you pause and which make you hurry?
I’ve realized I tend to read narrative-based poems faster, or at least digest them faster. For instance, Cornelius Eady’s book Brutal Imagination: when I read the book I was so invested in the story line and invention of the narrator in the first half of the book that I remember reading it almost without breathing, quicker, quickly. Then I went back and read it more slowly just for the pleasure of watching him develop these linked poems, open up new avenues of thought and sadness and despair.
Language poets such as Gertrude Stein, John Ashbery, Rae Armantrout, I tend to read more slowly. When there’s no obvious narrative, it’s easier for my brain to go fizzy and lose some of the glorious language threads that are being woven for me. I still can’t read Gertrude Stein quickly, even her poems that are really familiar to me.
My last question, because I really want to know, what are you working on right now?
Locally: one of the last poems I wrote is a funny military one called “Saltpeter,” and I immediately sent it to a friend and told him he had to read it. How arrogant is that, that I sometimes love my work so much that I throw it at friends and give myself incurable giggles?
I’m also organizing two readings for the Amherst Poetry Festival (one is erotica – I’m definitely not one of the readers!), reading for Stirring, reading for the Amherst Live poetry prize… the usual poetry service work.
The bigger picture: I’m working toward two manuscripts. One is a collection of poems in response to the culture of the military – I’m an Army veteran, and I feel like this collection has been brewing for my entire adult life. The second manuscript is all those other poems that I write when I don’t feel like writing about the military or when some wild newspaper headline or odd conversation comes up, or when I accidentally throw a piece of a banana across the room. If that ever happens again, I wonder if I could get another poem out of it? Does anyone have two banana peel poems in them?
-Andrea Spofford is the author of two chapbooks, Everything Combustible (Dancing Girl Press) and Kikiktagruk: Almost an Island (Red Bird Chapbooks).
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