In November 2019, Missouri’s governor announced the selection of Springfield, Missouri, poet Karen Craigo as Missouri’s poet laureate for 2019-2021. Among her credentials, Karen has worked as a journalist and a college teacher. Currently she’s the editor of a small-town newspaper, the Marshfield Mail. She also edits the poetry series for Moon City Press. In addition to three chapbooks, Karen has published two poetry collections, starting in her midforties, both with Sundress Publications, No More Milk (2016) and Passing Through Humansville (2018). She also maintains a blog, Better View of the Moon. Most importantly, she’s a writer with an abundance of curiosity and enthusiasm for good projects–of which her latest is being the state’s poet laureate.
The literary publishing world is still fairly small, and I’ve known of Karen since before she and her husband, the fiction writer Michael Czyzniejewski, moved from Ohio to Missouri about a decade ago and Mike began editing Moon City Review. We’ve been connected on social media, and I’ve appreciated her sometimes outspoken, sometimes passionate, frequently funny posts about writing and family and spiritual curiosity—things that sounded a lot like my own life. We’ve even had sort of a Springfield connection, as my parents retired there. However, we’d never met in person until this interview a few weeks ago.
In puffs and reviews of her two collections, certain words crop up repeatedly: “generosity”; “real”; “holy”; “wise.” I’ve found these things all to be true of Karen’s poetry. Many of the best poems in No More Milk are about motherhood and nurturing young children. Others are about acceptance of the imperfections and the value of the body; and a surprising number of them address money—having it, not having it. Midway through one of my favorites, “Time is Money,” she employs this wonderful simile of time as a kitchen staple:
If I won’t relinquish time?
And anyway, I’m not convinced
it’s what we think it is—
some thread we roll up
in a skein until we reach
the frazzled end of it.
Time is more like that time
I dropped cornstarch in
The Amish store. The stuff
went everywhere, no matter
more resistant to gathering
in a pile . . .
Karen’s story about how her first collection was published through her optimistic decision that she was simply going to have a first book accepted in 2015 ought to give hope to any aspiring later-life writer (see the interview that follows). The poems in her second book, Passing Through Humansville are stronger and smarter–less emotional and more philosophical, but just as genuine. In our conversation, shetalked a number of times about the importance of discipline—discipline applied to her art, and to her life and attitude and perspective. In retrospect, perhaps what I’ve appreciated most about her work is that the poems bear the stamp of a centered, disciplined maker. She says they’re about her self and her life, and undoubtedly they are—but they are poems about a self and life that seem focused on opening outward.
Evelyn Somers: Tell me how you got started. Were you a poet at the beginning?
Karen Craigo: Like most writers I kind of always did it. I realized I was a writer around third or fourth grade. I didn’t really get serious until college, though. Before that, I thought I was serious, but I wasn’t. My mentor was Michelle Boisseau, who became one of our Missouri poets eventually. I worked with her at Morehead State University in Kentucky. Probably the most formative thing was that I showed her my first poem for workshop because I’d offered to go first. It was full of rainbows—literally rainbows and things like that—and she had me laughing within five minutes at this poem I’d thought was so good. She had that ability to make you take yourself less seriously but take poetry very seriously. The next week, I turned in a really good poem, one I still think is kind of a good poem, and that started me on my way: just being mocked a little for the kind of thing that in fourth grade the teacher read to the class and you felt like a superstar. I was pretty serious for the rest of my life after that. I went and worked as a newspaper reporter for about a decade in Canton, Ohio, and then went to Bowling Green State University for my MFA. I taught for about twenty years and then moved to Springfield, Missouri, and went back to newspaper work.
ES: Did you ever at any point think about prose?
KC: I do write prose, fiction and nonfiction. I think they’re very different. My husband writes fiction—it’s all about “What kind of trouble can my characters get into?” and it’s fun doing it. There’s nothing all that fun about writing my poems. Sometimes they’re funny, but it’s kind of awful to write a poem. Having written a poem is a wonderful feeling, but writing a poem most of the time feels like pure crap. I can’t stand to write poems, but it’s what I’m drawn to.
ES: If it feels awful when you’re writing a poem, what gets the engine going?
KC: I like to puzzle through things, to make sense of things. The poems are clearly about me and my life and my kids and my job, the things that interest me. They’re unabashedly personal. I write them to sort things out, to figure out how I feel and what I think, what my philosophy is, what I value. It’s a contemplative process, not unlike meditation. Meditation is about clearing, and poetry’s about tying knots, but for some reason after I’ve written a poem and I understand that thought or event, it’s very clarifying—like a burst of pure oxygen.
ES: You worked as a journalist for ten years before going back for your MFA. What made you decide to do graduate work in poetry?
KC: I went for the MFA to have time to focus on my art. I think I was smart in this regard because I didn’t look at the MFA as a launch pad to a new career. It’s a terrible choice if you want a career. I was on the tail end of the group that was able to get a decent job with an MFA. That’s almost out the window at this point. I had the purely artistic motive of wanting two years to focus on my art and talk to artists. I found that a little bit, and I found time to write. I used my MFA period to build good habits, to become a writer. I’d always just done it sporadically, and I wanted to do it seriously.
ES: Did you intend to teach writing after that? You said you didn’t go into it thinking of it as a career move.
KC: This is kind of strange. I’ve had two really low-paying vocations, journalism and poetry. Journalism paid so poorly, but I’d intended to go back to it after I finished. I was a good teacher, though, and I was making a little more as an instructor at the university level. I had good benefits and some job security. And it was enjoyable. I love students—their energy, and the whole university vibe So I stayed, always intending to go back to being a journalist But then it became impossible, for a while, at those wages, to do it.
ES: You started putting collections together at some point. I remember following a narrative on social media for a while where you were trying to publish a book. You’d had some chapbooks published and were struggling to publish your first collection.
KC: I have to tell you about that—it’s the most interesting part of my story. I published a chapbook in 2004 that was a long meditation about a rock that I carried with me everywhere for a hundred days. Every day I wrote a poem about this rock; I carried it in a little bag around my neck. That was my very first chapbook, called Stone for an Eye. It has the line “Does God have a stone for an eye,”—is he stony, and not looking? Is he in my pouch? That was followed by two other chapbooks, Someone Could Build Something Here and Escaped Housewife Tries Hard to Blend In. These were personal poems. But I decided in 2015, on New Year’s Day, that I wanted to have a book, so I just declared it the Year of the Book. I think I attracted it to me, because I mentioned it everywhere, that I wanted to have a book. My editor at the press I’m with said, “Send us your book.” I didn’t have to enter contests. I sent it off, and within three months I had a book contract. It was a powerful lesson that what you put out there energetically, you reap. You can make your own magic, a little bit. In fact, that press became interested in a textbook I proposed, and I soon had another book after that. Things just sort of caught fire, so that more than what I even asked for came to me. I have the two full-length collections now—lots of good luck in lots of ways.
ES: One thing that struck me about the poems in No More Milk and Passing Through Humansville is that they don’t really acknowledge malice. They’re not Pollyanna poems—it’s not that they don’t recognize that there’s harm or injustice in the world–but they give it a nod and say, “Yes, that’s there.” And then they seem to leap right over the bad things and move on.
KC: The books are relatively new, and all those poems date from about the last decade. I’ve been pretty diligent about embracing the good and not giving any room to the opposite. It’s the notion that there are two ends to any topic. There’s what’s wanted, and the absence of what’s wanted. I don’t think about the dirty end of the stick. I spent a lot of time trying to envision what’s good. That’s where I want to be.
ES: Is that your innate personality? It seems a little unusual for a writer. I’ve observed that quite a few writers are pessimists.
KC: I think it is my natural tendency. It’s also the product of some discipline for the past decade or so. I had some difficult times in my past. I tried to redefine myself and see it as, I was going somewhere, and the things in my past, even the terrible things in my past, were propelling me in a forward direction. I became kind of obsessed—not with positive thinking but with hope and possibility. When you talk about an absence of bad things, of the negative in my work, it’s because I don’t want to give time to malice. I want to give time to hope, and give energy—give all my energy—to hope. I fail at that a lot, but I try every day.
ES: Tell me about the effect of your journalism on your poetry.
KC: Well, I certainly see a lot more of the world than when I was grading papers nonstop at a desk. Now I drive out to a car accident and take a picture of it, or I go to a commissioners’ meeting. I see so much that I was missing before, because when I was teaching I was in a more closed environment. When I was a medical records clerk, I’d get a stack of things to file, and when I finished, the stack would be gone. I’d be done. But when you teach, you may get through the stack of papers, but the students still need more. No matter how advanced the class is, the student has more needs, more that you can give them. There’s all this focus on other people when you’re teaching. When you’re a journalist, you cover this story and then you’re done with that story for the week. When you’re a weekly journalist, sometimes you can go days without thinking about the next story. You don’t have that pressing all-the-time concern of needing to take care of somebody. You do answer to your readers. You want to make sure they’re fully informed and can be the good citizens they need to be; you’re helping them do that, but you leave it at the office—you can’t do that with teaching. I see more now, and I have more time to think about it.
ES: Has it changed what you write about?
KC: I’m not so sure. I think about my recent work, and it’s a little more journalistic in how it looks at others. I have a new series of poems about my ex-husband, who died recently. We were best friends and talked on the phone every single day. Before he died, I wrote some poems about him, just thinking of him alone with his dog on the Maine coast. There’s something of the journalist’s eye in them: observing him and trying to make sense of his life. I think I presaged things a little bit—he killed himself. My poems think of him as a sad and lonely figure on the coast of Maine. I’m looking outward in those poems. The poems we talked about earlier are all about me, and my kids. In this last batch, I was really trying to get at him.
ES: Your earlier poems don’t feel self-centered though. In all of them, the I voice, the speaker, is speaking with a degree of observance or objectivity that isn’t saying, “Look at me.” The reader feels more that an insight is being offered. They’re open in a very appealing way, rather than turning back in or being self-focused.
KC: Thank you.
ES: So tell me about being selected as Missouri’s Poet Laureate last year.
KC: It’s an application process; and I’m in the habit of just throwing my hat in the ring for anything that sounds like a high adventure. I thought it would be fun. I actually identify more as an Ohio poet. I spent most of my life in Ohio, and that’s where I’m from. I understand the people. When thinking about the people of Missouri, sometimes I’m flummoxed and I don’t understand the mindset. I love them, but they’re very different than the people I grew up with. That’s the beauty of traveling through the world.
But I decided to go for it, to turn in my application. I just spoke to a group. I actually bought myself a little crown for that event—a laurel wreath crown. It’s gold, and I put it on as a visual. I mention a “crowning achievement,” and that a laureate is someone who’s at the very pinnacle of their field, and I say, “Two books of poetry on a small press. I’m not at the pinnacle of Missouri’s poets—not in a state where Carl Phillips lives. I can’t claim to be all that. But I did have a good project. You become the poet laureate by submitting poems and by describing a project you’d like to do. I’m compiling an anthology for the state bicentennial next year of Missouri place-based poems. I’m also collecting poems. There are 114 counties in this state, plus St. Louis—115 entities. I’m collecting a poem from each of them, or trying to.
I’m also doing something called Camp Mo-Po: Missouri Poetry. We’re going to have tent camping in several locations around the state. We’re going to bring writers in, and we’re going to write about nature, write about place. We’ll have naturalists talk to us. Those are my projects—they’re celebrating the Show-Me state. There’s a lot to see here . . . .
Passing Through Humansville
Twice today, I’ll slip into and out
Of Humansville, both coming and going,
But now tendrils of fog span the road,
The layer of white like an old lady’s hair
Spread out behind her in rapture. Why not?
The oldest vessel can still hold
a drink, or else we’d call it a shard.
From his potter’s wheel, my friend
Can see sometimes a woman, old,
Who bikes in looping circles
In the empty funeral lot,
Insisting on the cursive of her name.
And maybe I’ve stepped on the ground
Where my ashes will light.
Maybe, unknowing, I’ve danced.
by Karen Craigo
from Passing Through Humansville, Sundress Publications, 2018
Evelyn Somers is the longtime associate editor of the Missouri Review. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared widely in journals. Her two concurrent writing projects are a supernatural novel-in-stories about two dueling female divinities and a comedy about a single-mom empty-nester and her unusual pet.