An Interview with Missouri State Poet Laureate, Karen Craigo
By Molly Bess Rector
The following interview was conducted via Slack on May 26, 2020
MBR: Hi Karen! How are you today?
KC: I’m great! How are you?
MBR: I’m doing well. It’s gorgeous weather here—one of those porch-sitting days.
KC: It’s nice here, too, in a cloudy way. Perfect temps!
MBR: I know people say talking about the weather is boring, but I’m honestly always really taken by beautiful weather. I think it’s worth commenting on!
KC: It’s something we all have in common—so I agree!
MBR: Well, thank you for agreeing to chat with me. I’ve never conducted an interview on this platform before, so I’ll be curious to see how it goes. Mind if I ask you a first question?
KC: Jump right on in! My first time, too!
MBR: We’ll be patient with ourselves, then.
MBR: So, let me ask you about civil service/community and the role of the Poet Laureate. It may be strange for people outside (or inside!) the literary world to think about how poetry can be seen as service. How do you approach this idea?
KC: Poetry seems like such an extra thing to most people, but from the inside, I see it as a powerful tool for personal growth, as well as one for change in the world. Every poem is sort of a little argument for a better way to think and be, isn’t it? Maybe I’m just writing about myself, but I’m writing about my best self with my clearest vision, and the value of that is so evident to me. My chief job as poet laureate is to promote poetry in the State of Missouri, and I’m given a lot of free rein as to how I do that. With everything I do, I’m trying to share with people the clarity and understanding that poetry provides. It’s so healthy to write it, and it’s absolutely eye-opening and illuminating to read it.
MBR: I couldn’t agree more. Every so often, someone will ask me whether it’s possible for a poem to be “bad” and I like to say that poetry is just like any other art form in that way—some are better than others, but even if no one else would want to read the poem, it’s still valuable to write it, precisely because of that clarity.
That reminds me of something that seems to come up a lot in your discussions of your work: that writing is unpleasant but having written feels wonderful. Aarick Danielsen in the Columbia Tribune quotes you saying, “Every act of writing is an act of clarity.”
KC: I actually had a professor who said something like that, and it was a saying he had heard from one of his own professors: “There are two kinds of poetry: Good poetry and great poetry.” There are no bad poems, since the act of writing a poem is, itself, ennobling. Now, that’s not to say that you and I wouldn’t be able to sit down right now and collaborate to write history’s worst poem, and that would be a lot of fun, but a sincere attempt at poetic expression? That’s always good, in my opinion.
It’s true that writing is clarifying. I like to meditate, and I have a daily habit that I’m pretty proud of keeping up with, but writing gives me some of the same lucidity and relief that meditation does. The difference is that meditating is pretty relaxing and enjoyable, and writing poetry is frequently awful. Shh! That’s not something a poet laureate should probably say. . . .
MBR: Hah! I can’t say I feel exactly the same way—in fact I may feel the inverse regarding meditation and writing poems—but I think I understand the feeling. You’re sort of hovering there around the idea of catharsis, of breaking through the painful, uncomfortable thing to reach the clarity and relief on the other side. And I guess that bad/good/great idea sort of hints at the line (is there a line?) between what’s catharsis and what’s art.
KC: Yes! That’s exactly right. You’re probably right about the catharsis/art line, too—I’ve never thought of it in quite that way! I would note, though, that I think we’ve made a problem for ourselves in poetry by depersonalizing it so much. Most of my poems are about me, and though I consider myself an artist, I find writing to be cathartic and healing, too, no matter how much eye-rolling some workshop might do about that idea.
MBR: Yes. The critical workshop has a tendency to be prescriptive in what subjects poets are allowed to take, and those subjects tend to be viewed as smaller or less universal when they focus on the personal, or the domestic—both themes in your work. I think domestic (like confessional) tends to be a bit of a marginalized term in poetry; the realm of women and therefore not “universal,” but I can’t think of anything more universal than, say, cooking dinner.
KC: That’s true! And some people may sneeringly deride the hired help as “domestics,” I guess—that’s not something I encounter a lot in my social group—but the word just means that the material is related to home life, and I don’t know why that seems ridiculous to the same workshoppers who tell you to “write what you know.” I’m not an astronaut, for heaven’s sake.
MBR: Hah! Imagine if NASA sent a poet to the moon!
KC: Maybe the Space Force will beat them to it.
MBR: So, speaking of home life, I’m curious to know what this pandemic has been like for you. How has it impacted your poem-collecting project? And your writing itself?
KC: Oh, goodness, writing is so hard during a stay-at-home order, and even in the period afterwards. We’re all on top of each other in my house—that’s me, my husband, and my two sons, who are 13 and 7. Poetry requires a little head space, not to mention space-space, and I can’t seem to get away from anyone. Even the cats want a little piece of me! I will say this: I have loved getting closer to my family during the stay-at-home order, and that is going to reap poetic benefits in the future. The myriad worries a pandemic brings make writing extra challenging. As for the poem-collecting project, I’m really just starting with that. Maybe people will welcome the diversion. I hope so!
MBR: I hadn’t thought of it that way, but I think you’re so right to think about how what’s happening now is laying framework for new poems later. I’m a poet who goes long periods without writing, and I think it’s really useful for me to remember that I don’t have to be writing all the time in order to be a poet. Though, after fallow periods, I do think the writing becomes more uncomfortable for a while.
KC: It can be awfully hard to return to writing after a long absence from it, and I know—I have had years-long absences from writing in the past, usually following some sort of trauma. But writing will always take you back, and it really is as simple as sitting down and moving your hands to see what emerges. You’re not guaranteed that this writing will be GOOD, but it will happen, and if it stinks, you can fix it. Having taught composition for a couple of decades, I have put a lot of thought into the writing process, and prewriting—a key part of the process—can include thinking about the topic. These times when we can’t lift a pen or tap a key with a non-work-related thought are really just gathering times. If we want to come back to poetry, its arms are open.
MBR: I love that way of thinking about it. That reminds me of something you said in an interview with Karen George for Poetry Matters: you called poems “imperfect artifacts of the spirit.”
KC: It’s true. It’s probably true that we can offer only imperfect artifacts of the spirit, which, in my view, is perfect. And it’s possible that writing poetry consistently is a way to try to reach a little closer to that original perfection. We probably won’t get there, but the closer we get, the more amazing it feels.
I love hearing myself quoted, like I’m Rilke or something. This poet laureate business has a lot to recommend it!
Thanks, too, for your obvious preparation for our conversation. I’m touched by the care.
MBR: It was honestly a delight to prepare for. Your voice so clearly translates from your poems to your interviews—your humor and your candor and that personal quality. It’s fun to read interviews that make you feel the poet is authentically present with you. And to conduct them.
KC: Thank you so much!
MBR: On that note, would it be okay for me to ask you one more question?
KC: Of course! You may ask as many as you’d like. This is fun.
MBR: I’m curious what you have to say about frankness, candor, authenticity. I think there’s a tendency to see these things as in opposition to generosity, but to me your work reads as both candid and generous. There’s something there about the generosity of allowing ourselves to be honest, and how that extends to the reader. What do you think about the value of candor in poetry—both in your work and in poetry more broadly?
KC: That’s a really complicated poetic issue, I think. Poems are artifacts, as I called them earlier—and that suggests that they are artificial. I specifically called them artifacts of the spirit, and the spirit is our authentic self; the best we can do is make a flawed artifact of that. Can an artifact—artificial by its nature—be authentic? That’s probably the really hard thing about writing a poem, negotiating this inherent and unavoidable tension. Candor strikes me as the route to authenticity, although my cynical self sees it as a rhetorical tool in service to the artifact. You can see a politician in an apparent moment of candor on a TV news show, but that person has an angle, an end game. With every utterance, there’s always something unsaid, since we can’t possibly say it all. We’re always editing, always sifting, even if only because of the limitations of language itself (Ferdinand de Saussure warned us about the huge chasm between sign and signified). I’ve resigned myself to the understanding that the most important thing I can do is strive to be my best self (not poet: self). I want to be honest and generous and transparent, and I try to bring that self to the page. But I often fail in the attempt to be this kind of human, and I even more often fail at bringing this effort to the page. There’s an inevitable gap between spirit and artifact, and closing the gap is my lifelong project as a poet. I’ll never succeed fully, so I’m generous first with myself. When I’m trying—when I’m doing the poetic work—I am at my very best.
MBR: A wise project for all of us, I think. And I think a good place to wrap up. I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me, and for your thoughtfulness (and generosity) in answering these questions.
Karen Craigo is the Poet Laureate of the State of Missouri. She is also the editor of The Marshfield Mail newspaper in Marshfield, Missouri, as well as the author of the poetry collections Passing Through Humansville (Sundress Publications, 2018) and No More Milk (Sundress Publications, 2016).
Molly Bess Rector lives in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where she co-curates the Open Mouth Reading Series—a community-based poetry series that hosts monthly readings by visiting writers, as well as workshops and retreats. She earned her MFA in poetry from the University of Arkansas, and she is the recipient of residencies from the Edward F. Albee Foundation and the Vermont Studio Center, as well as a grant from the Artists 360 program to pursue her interest in the intersection of the human emotional landscape with physical landscapes impacted by nuclear science. Molly served as the inaugural poetry editor for The Arkansas International, for whom she still occasionally writes reviews. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Collagist, Ninth Letter, and The Boiler, among others.