Bloom: How did you come to writing poetry?
Karen Skolfield: Through the back door, I must admit. I thought I was going to be a prose writer—I love prose, love a good story, but I’m a better poet than I am a prose writer. When I was younger, this infuriated me. Why wasn’t I good at doing this thing I loved so much? I felt the same way about photography. I was a photojournalist for the military, and I realized very quickly that I didn’t have the eye for it, so I focused on writing and editing instead. I rarely lose myself in the writing of prose—that moment when you can’t write or type fast enough to get it all down, when one line feeds into another. Or maybe I’m lazy, and poetry is my path of least resistance.
I’ve always written poetry, ever since I could write a few words on a page, but I didn’t devote myself to it until creative writing classes in college, when poet Christopher Buckley gently steered me toward verse. He didn’t tell me I shouldn’t write prose, but he made it clear that my talents were in poetry. He was right. SIGH.
Bloom: What writers have most influenced your writing?
KS: Oh, this list changes every time I’m asked! And I have to admit that I can’t tell the difference between writers I like and writers who have influenced me—is there a difference? Writers who are very different—Rae Armantrout and Jane Hirschfield, for instance—always challenge my expectations of language, of movement in their poems. It doesn’t mean I could write like they do even if I devoted my life to trying, but their differing styles continuously challenge what I do.
Can I cheat a little and tell you who I’ve been reading lately? Because really, everything I read influences me, even if it just spurs me to keep at it, or for the beauty of a line, for reminding me how grateful I am to have poetry in my life as a reader and as a writer. So, lately, I’ve been wowed by poems by Amanda Auchter, Richard Blanco, Natalie Diaz, Stephen Dobyns, Cornelius Eady, Patricia Lockwood, Matthew Rasmussen, Ocean Vuong, Rachel Zucker… I actually cringe when I compile these lists because they are so incomplete. I’m continuously flattened by good poetry and feel like I walk in an arboretum, admiring both the subtlety and flash of these beautiful, breathing things.
Bloom: Tell us about winning the PEN New England award.
KS: I got the news when I was heading into a backpacking trip in New Mexico. The cell phone reception was dreadful and I couldn’t call very many people to tell them, so I spent the next three days backpacking with my husband and kids, hanging out in the desert and getting cholla cactus branches stuck to our shoes (side note: never pick a fight with a cholla). Every morning I’d wake and think “PEN NEW ENGLAND,” this huge and welcome wake-up call, self-generated. It was a great way to digest big news. If I ever get news of this magnitude again, I am immediately organizing my backpacking gear and going away.
The recognition has been amazing. Writers, poets… we work a long time, we work hard, and until I won the PEN New England, I hadn’t quite realized how my confidence had been chipped away. Even having my book published—it was published by Zone 3 Press out of Austin Peay State University in Tennessee, and when I told local writers about it, some asked who was publishing it and then said “Who? Never heard of them.” Boom, the little door in your heart slams shut, even if they didn’t mean anything by it.
I know I’m supposed to be thick-skinned, inured to rejection and criticism by now, but I think this is as good as it gets. I try to remember that there is a beyond; that the peaks are scarce, yes, but they’re breathtaking.
Bloom: What has surprised you since winning it?
KS: I still have to wash the dishes. The new poems don’t write themselves. The dogs obviously do not give a whit—thankfully, they loved me a lot before the PEN, so I can live with this.
Bloom: What are the challenges of raising children and writing?
KS: There are only so many hours in the day. Worse, I know how easy it is NOT to write, then say I’m spending more time with the kids, even when that may not be true. The good part of publishing a first book later in life is that I’ve only become more disciplined in my writing habits after the kids were born, when I realized I had to do something personally meaningful and intellectually challenging or go batty. The first book was written largely during their naptimes—so really, I understand now that my kids are not an excuse. I may write more slowly than those without kids, but I can still keep at it. And honestly, I think I’m not the fastest writer anyway.
There are, of course, many benefits to being a parent and a writer—my kids connect me to a world I might not otherwise access. Yesterday, I went to my son Walker’s school and taught ekphrastic poetry to the third graders. I started out the class by saying “Walker asked me to come in and read all the embarrassing poems I’ve written about him.” The class cheered. Walker said, “Oh, MOM,” but he had this pleased grin on his face. Then we read and wrote our own ekphrastic poems, and the kids were amazing! I realize that non-parents can go teach classes like this, but it was so easy for me to get in touch with the elementary schools and make it happen as a parent. Next week, I’m taking the show on the road and visiting another school, then hopefully a homeschooling set.
My kids definitely help me be more outgoing and fight the introspective cast of the writer. They help me toggle back and forth between introvert and extrovert. Also, they are fantastic backpackers, so really, I have no complaints.
I also have a ton of support from my husband Dennis. He makes my writing retreats possible, he takes over a lot of my home responsibilities when I’m writing a lot, he takes the lead on many areas of parenting, such as the kids’ sports calendar. He cheers me on, always. I think he was even giddier than I was, after the PEN award, and the bragging he did? I did not have to tell a single person about the PEN! He’s got my back and he makes me laugh every day. Also, he makes a fantastic zucchini lasagna. What else could a writer want?
Bloom: In a number of poems you name your husband and your children. It seems to me that this is a decision poets who write about their children often have to make. Robert Hass has named his children in his poems, whereas Sharon Olds has not. Why did you make this decision?
KS: I began writing about my kids before I was fully aware that I would publish those poems. Once I began to publish them, their names were the music of those poems, and it never occurred to me to change them. I probably should have thought about that more, but did not.
I can tell you that my kids, now 7 & 9, love having their names in my book. They’ll probably hate it later, but not now.
The poems I’m writing now do contain references to children, but I find myself rarely using their names—in part because I’m fictionalizing—conversations we’ve never had, events that never took place. One of these I read to Walker, and though it only says “my son,” he seriously objected to the idea of him in a completely made up poem and asked me never to publish it. We’ll see how this evolves. At his age, he doesn’t mind me using what’s real, but something fictionalized embarrasses him for some reason.
Bloom: You joined the Army just out of high school. Besides material, what, as a poet, did you gain from your time in the military?
KS: I loved being a photojournalist and I loved all the weird things I got to do that I knew civilians would never do. How many of my contemporaries have popped off the faceplate of a claymore mine or loaded a grenade launcher or watched their line of tracer bullets disappear into the dark? I also appreciated serving my country in a meaningful way, even if I didn’t agree with all the military rules. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was instituted while I was in the service, and it really is the rule that broke me and made me decide to leave when my second enlistment ended. So in addition to discipline and training in photojournalism, the Army taught me how to leave the thing I loved best.
Also, I find it nearly impossible to be late to things. If a party starts at 8, I have to remind myself that New Englanders really mean 8:20—though I have been known to sit in the car, outside the party, and wait until I am officially late, just so I don’t look weird. Which makes me look even weirder. I’m usually still the first person there.
Bloom: You received your MFA from UMass-Amherst. How did that program most influence your writing or your writing process?
KS: There was so much exposure to different types of writing, different ways of writing poems, and I was surrounded by classmates who took their work seriously and were disciplined. My teachers—Dara Wier, James Tate, Agha Shahid Ali—were gods to us, but they spent time and energy on us, they cheered us on, sometimes they broke us down. Dara Wier told me, in the first workshop that I took with her, that I should work toward more military poems. And here I am, years later, still taking her advice.
Probably the most important thing that UMass gave me was a writing community. I have friends from grad school who will be my friends for life. Some of us still swap poems, some of us had our kids around the same time. I feel like they’re part of my DNA, something essential and good and deep inside me.
I’m asked sometimes about MFAs, and I acknowledge that an MFA is not a requirement, and not everyone will benefit by one. But I saw that time as very privileged, very sacred—mostly, it was about proving to myself that I was good enough.
Bloom: Now you teach there. How does teaching help—or hinder—your writing?
KS: I teach writing to engineering students, which you might imagine is a far cry from creative writing. Passive tense—thumbs up! Circuitous logic and wordplay—thumbs down! But I love teaching the engineers. They’re smart, funny, terrified of writing, and willing to do whatever it takes to prepare themselves for writing on the job. For a teacher, this is a pretty great starting point.
Of course, teaching takes a lot of time—well, grading takes a lot of time. But I’m grateful to have a class and student interactions. I need time with people. I wish there was less grading, but that’s part of the job.
Bloom: The theme of loss is present throughout your book, loss of species, loss of a mattress, loss of your mother. What have you lost that you’re glad to have lost? What have you lost that you wish you could recover?
KS: Elizabeth Bishop must have written that poem for me. I’ve left purses in restaurants and movie theaters, laptops in hotel rooms, about 800 pairs of sunglasses around the world, a breadbox full of jewelry, hiking poles, jackets, watches, and, once, a boyfriend’s high school class ring. I’ve lost my mom to cancer, two dear friends to a more natural, but no less hurtful, parting of ways. I’ve lost some of the crippling introversion of my youth, which I hid with humor and a standoffish intelligence. There was this mole: don’t miss that. My pre-pregnancy belly button: O vanity, I do miss that, but I got two great kids in the deal.
Some of those things have come back to me: purses with the cash intact, the laptop, some of the jewelry. It makes me love humanity. I could weep whenever a waitress chases me down the street, yelling that I’ve left my purse. This has happened… more than once.
Bloom: If you had to give advice to writers starting out, what would it be?
KS: Read a lot. If you feel unsure what to read, start with contemporary books that have won a major literary award—the Pulitzer, a National Book Award, one of the PEN awards, the Paterson Prize, the Kingsley or Kate Tufts poetry awards, the Walt Whitman award, etc.—then branch out.
Write a lot. Write on a regular basis—every day if you can, or twice a week, or whatever—and then don’t let yourself off the hook. Even if it’s just a few lines, an idea, a sentence.
Revise. Put pressure on all the words you’ve chosen, and give yourself revision exercises—cut the draft of a poem in half. Write a brand-new ending, even if you like your first one. Find flat language and consider how you can improve it.
Support writing. Go to readings, buy books, read journals. Send a little note to a poet whose poem was so amazing it blew the top of your head off. Never send a note to tell a writer you don’t like his or her work. That’s not your job. You won’t like everything, and hallelujah for a variety of styles and approaches in the world of writing. Imagine how many people would have emailed Emily Dickinson.
Be prepared for a lot of rejection—it will feel terrible. Take it with grace, work on your craft, and keep submitting. Don’t hate the editors. Remember, there are a ton of great writers out there, which is wonderful, but it makes publishing very difficult. If you begin getting encouraging rejections, then you’re on to something. Keep at it.
And finally: publishing does not have to be your goal. Write because you love it, because nothing else makes your frontal lobe glimmer in the same way.
Click here to read Athena Kildegaard’s feature piece on Karen Skolfield.