Karen Skolfield

Interviewed by Christopher Linforth

You recently won the 2014 PEN New England award for your book. Tell us about the award and what it means for your poetry.

PEN American Center administers a range of literary awards, some of which will be more familiar to readers, others that may not: PEN Faulkner, PEN Hemingway, PEN O’Hare, poetry in translation awards, regional awards, and more. I live in Massachusetts and won the 2014 PEN New England in poetry, alongside Jennifer Haigh for her fiction and Douglas Bauer for his nonfiction. They’re from Massachusetts, too – it was a sweep for our state this year. Past winners of the PEN New England in poetry include such luminaries as Mary Oliver, Louise Glück, Nancy Pearson, Donald Hall, Stanley Kunitz… eep! The idea that I’ve been invited to that party is staggering.

Oh, something I did not know – a quick Google taught me that PEN stands for “Poets, Essayists, and Novelists.” I love that – look at the poets coming first for once! I guess NEP didn’t sound quite as polished.

I got the call from Karen Wulf at PEN New England on my spring break while I was with my family in Arizona – the call came as we were leaving Saguaro National Park and driving to our backpacking trip in Dog Canyon, New Mexico. My first thought, after I got over the idea that my friends were pranking me, was “Will I still get the award if I am not, at this moment, physically in New England?” Turns out that vacations to other places are still okay. Since I was backpacking, and cell phone service is sketchy even along some of the roads, I didn’t get to tell very many people until almost a week later. That’s a really nice way to get used to good news – a week of being outdoors and checking your boots for scorpions every morning, followed by a flurry of emails and phone calls to friends. Sweet.

My husband asked me “Will you still have to submit your work places, or will presses solicit your next manuscript?” He looked a little crestfallen when I told him it was more likely that I’d be doing the usual rounds of submissions.

So in this way, the PEN award doesn’t change my work. As far as writing goes, it won’t hand me the perfect endings. It won’t make me write better poems – I wish! It won’t help me rhyme something with orange.

But the PEN award does give me an enormous amount of validation. I think any writer, but especially women writers, can psyche themselves out of accepting praise. What if that poem getting into a good journal was a fluke? What if getting a book published was some weird aberration? What if I never write another good poem? There’s always the next poem to work on, and the next set of rejections with an acceptance (hopefully) nestled in, and that takes its toll even on the most confident of us.

There’s an awards ceremony coming up for the PEN New England and Hemingway awards. I hope they give me a gigantic trophy. Something ridiculous, seven feet high, that will sit on my lawn and that I will fill with bird seed. Then maybe, maybe, I won’t feel doubt creep back quite so often.

I’m going to send an email to Karen Wulf right now about this. No doubt she will think it a grand idea.

Frost in the Low Areas 9-5

Talk, if you would, about the creation and assembling of your manuscript. What was your process? Who were your influences?

These poems were written over a relatively short time period – under a year for the bulk of them, with a few coming later and maybe a half-dozen from before that year. I’d finished my MFA ten years earlier and I’d let writing slow way, way down. I really think I’d lost track of the joy of it.

Then a group of writing friends, all women, started a 30 poems in 30 days project. We had a blast, writing, giving support and feedback to each other, and really just celebrating. We were writing! It felt great, and I was no longer writing in some awful vacuum that seemed to go nowhere. At the end of that block, one of my friends suggested we go to 100. And boom, a manuscript.

Like all manuscripts, mine went through many rounds of editing. I shuffled poems, swapped some out, added others in. The first draft was weighted more heavily toward science – evolution and the idea of species – subjects that I find endlessly fascinating, but those poems were pared back in favor of poems about family and the military.

I got some excellent feedback from friends, and within that first year of contest/open book period rounds, my manuscript found its home at Zone 3 Press. I feel very lucky for this, very grateful. Would I have had the heart to keep at it a second year, a third, more? I don’t know. I’m glad I don’t have to answer that question, at least not with this book. Endurance in writing is one thing. Endurance in accepting rejection, year after year, is quite another.

My influences are diverse and nearly uncountable. I read poetry every day, online and in print. It’s so eclectic, poetry, and isn’t that fabulous? Even poems I’m not especially drawn to I’ll read, because invariably I’m taught something about language, narrative, a poem’s connective tissue, endings, surprises.

How has it been working with Zone 3 Press?

Zone 3 has completely spoiled me. They spoil all of their authors – and since they only produce one book per year, that’s saying quite a bit. Every minute of Zone 3’s book production schedule was about my book, and these are folks who work on books both out of love AND pay.

After my manuscript won the first book award, I worked with the amazing, talented, and kindhearted poet Nancy Eimers, the final judge for the contest, to massage my manuscript into the book it is now. It’s so helpful having a practiced eye look at your work and make suggestions. Editing, design and layout, and printing took about a year.

Then, Zone 3 flew me and Eimers to Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, home of the press and home to Tennessee’s Center of Excellence for the Creative Arts. We met with a creative writing class and gave a joint reading. Eimers wrote an introduction for me that made me teary and that I will hold onto forever for future moments of artistic insecurity. (Note to Karen Wulf at PEN: Still expecting the 7-foot-tall trophy!)

The Zone 3 staff and faculty at APSU have been amazing. Blas Falconer, Susan Wallace, Barry Kitterman, Andrea Spofford, and more – they’ve been so generous with their time and energy and enthusiasm.

So I guess you can say it’s been okay. I’m kidding. Zone 3 has been wonderful, way beyond my expectations of what publishing would be like. My hope is that the PEN award will reflect well on the press, too, when it comes time for budget justification and continued operations, the usual pressures faced by university presses.

If you’re not familiar with Zone 3, check out their biannual print journal and some of their past poetry and nonfiction titles. They’re gems. Oh, and Zone 3 has free shipping on any order.

While we’re on the subject of small presses, I like to remind folks to purchase books either from the press directly or through Small Press Distribution. When you purchase off Amazon, only about 20 percent of the cost goes back to the small press.

Every week there seems to be another article suggesting there are too many poets. Do you agree with this standpoint? How do you view the contemporary landscape? And, as a corollary, what is the role of a poet and poetry in America? 

Oh, I know – and when I see these articles, I inevitably roll my eyes toward the ceiling, but I also can’t stop myself from reading them. The proliferation of MFA and now, PhD programs. The flattening of the American writer’s voice. Poetry is dying/dead/ irrelevant, etc.

Honestly, I think we are at an enormously exciting time for poetry. More people are working to get more poetry into the hands of non-poets than ever before. There’s poetry on busses and subways in many major cities and smaller towns. Poetry of all shapes and sizes lives and breathes and has a huge readership on the internet. Even Apple made that wonderful ad for the iPad that speaks to poetry and quotes Whitman. Poetry selling iPads! Why not? There are poetry slams, story slams, and more towns are celebrating poetry than ever before. I’ve been included in the conversation on the next poetry festival in my little town of Amherst, MA, and the enthusiasm from non-poets has been wonderful. I do think that poets, published or not, have the responsibility to make poetry larger than themselves – to read and share other poets’ work, to find ways to bring poetry to a larger crowd. There are lots of ideas for spreading poetry for National Poetry Month in April – check them out on poets.org. It’s good for poets to connect with non-poets on the thing they love. The more poets and readers talk about poetry without that sheepish, hangdog look on their faces, the more credibility and value we give our craft.

There was another round of these poetry-is-dead, too-many-poets articles, kicked off by Alexandra Petri in The Washington Post, after Richard Blanco’s inaugural poem. A single poem by one poet. I suspect that Petri et al have never read anything else by him (his body of work is wonderful), or much of anything written by anyone since Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” which she references. Definitely, many poems written after “Howl” do not live up to that level. How could it be otherwise? I think Petri and the others simply have not acquainted themselves with living poets like Natalie Diaz, Naomi Shihab Nye, Martin Espada, Sonia Sanchez, Yusef Komunyakaa, and more, and groups like Split This Rock that helps gather and spotlight “poems of provocation and witness.”

It’s strange – no one complains that there are too many engineers, even though there are plenty of weak engineers in the world. So why are we, as poets and readers of poetry, so dismissive? Are there weak MFA programs, or weak poets being produced by MFA programs? – no doubt, just as there are weak poets not taking a single creative writing class. It’s good to rethink and demand the most out of MFA programs, out of published poetry, out of every line we write, but to generalize all of it to too many poets or the death of poetry turns what should be a meaningful conversation into easily ignored hyperbole. And why doesn’t anyone say “film is dead” or “too many actors” every time a bad movie is produced?

I say, bring on the poets. We need more poetry, not less – and I mean we need to help create a bigger world of readers. More poetry in elementary schools, prisons, literacy programs, veterans organizations. I think of all the things that reading or writing poetry has taught me – moments where I’ve learned something about myself or others – and I am so grateful. Petri posed the question “Can a poem still change anything?” and the best answer I can give, the most honest answer, is that poetry changed me. It changed me, and it changes me, and it moves me in a way that very little else in the world can move me, and that is enough.


Heavy question aside (!), are you doing any upcoming readings?

(*wipes brow*) Thanks for lobbing me an easy question. I’m still riled up from the “too many poets” one.

I do have some upcoming readings.

April 8, Greenfield Community College, MA

April 9, Western New England University, MA

May 22, Slam Free or Die, Milly’s Tavern, Manchester NH

PEN New England has hinted at some other readings, too.

What project are you working on next?

A month ago, I would have been certain what this was – I’m working on a manuscript of poems in response to military culture. I’ve got basic soldier’s manuals from WWII and later, and handbooks for Initial Entry Training, Survival in Cold-Weather Areas, and Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Warfare. Not the lightest of books, but they’re fascinating to read and respond to.

So this cluster of poems is growing. But at the same time, I’m writing the other poems – the poems that come when you trip on a line and have to write about it, or something amazing happens on a plane, or you notice a saguaro giving you the finger (I haven’t written that last poem yet, but it’s rolling around in my head). Which set of poems will reach critical mass first? Hard to say. It’s more important that I write the poems than worry about the next manuscript. Of course, I write that, and then I think maybe I need to be more disciplined now and work toward a manuscript’s shape. Hm.

[Check out our review Karen’s book.]

Karen’s webpages and links:

My book Frost in the Low Areas, with free shipping through Zone 3 Press:

My website: http://www.karenskolfield.blogspot.com

Academy of American Poets & National Poetry Month – click on the link for “30 ways to celebrate.”

Zone 3 journal and press.

Small Press Distribution.

Amazon: No link given, because you’re supposed to get your books at the press or SPD. DO IT FOR THE SMALL PRESSES!


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