The Colorado Poet, #22, Spring 2013

Interview: Karen Glenn

Night Shift  (Raven and Crow Press, 2012)

Bob King: Karen, one of your striking phrases I’ve studied comes early in your book in the poem “Loneliness.” “If you try to escape it,” you write, “it just follows along / like a poet / who is cobbling a language / from what’s left of the human heart.” The verb “cobbling” and “from what’s left” really struck me because one could substitute a number of words for “cobbling” and leave out “from what’s left of” and the idea would be substantially changed. Do these two phrases come from some understanding you have of poetry and life?

Poets are always cobbling a language out of disparate materials and whatever is at hand. And, to be meaningful, one of these materials has to be the human heart.

Karen GlennKaren Glenn: Poets are always cobbling a language out of disparate materials and whatever is at hand.  And, to be meaningful, one of these materials has to be the human heart or, more accurately, what is left of it, as all of our hearts are fractured, patched, and jerry-rigged, yet still full of lots of volatile elements.  Our hearts and our lives are the same kind of mish-mash as the sheep with human livers and human hearts in my poem “Chimera.”  The two poems have a lot in common as they are both getting at our loneliness and our “wanting, wanting/ the un-nameable, the impossible, yearning in the dark.”

BK: Some of your material comes from myths, fairy tales, and creatures like vampires, but you don’t take the conventional approach—you subvert or twist it somehow, like the poem where a vampire has dinner with his girlfriend’s parents. How do you make familiar material your own poem?

KG: I love fairy tales and myths and fantastical creatures in general.  They more or less inhabit me and have since childhood. I read all the Andrew Lang fairy books, and I’ve always been a teller
of that sort of tale as well. As a child I used to give my cousins nightmares with the stories I made up. As an adult, I’ve been inspired by Anne Sexton’s transformations of fairy tales.

As for specifics, I wrote “The Vampire Takes His Girlfriend’s Family to Dinner” after I saw a group of people at a restaurant who seemed to fit that description. The “vampire” probably looked like a pale dark-haired human to everybody else, but to me . . . not so much. I found the idea for “Call Me Circe”, believe it or not, when Barbara Walters started asking, “If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?”  Somehow I knew exactly how Circe would manifest herself. 

“Lost,” my Hansel and Gretel poem, began when I was writing a praise poem for people who get lost.  But I got fascinated thinking about Hansel and Gretel and what probably happened to them after they found their way back home, and I ended up concentrating solely on that.  So I seem to start with real life situations and then apply them to fairy tale or mythological characters, rather than simply try to tell the stories as written.

The exception is “My True Story,” told in Medusa’s voice.  I had no idea about Medusa’s whole story until I researched it, and most people have been shocked to learn it as well. Of course, my Medusa has an attitude and a bit of a tabloid feel.  There’s so much more to her than her stint as a gorgon. Who knew?

BK: Other poems feature material about other people (“Zoe at 15” and “Ellen,” for example) as well as the world of work (e. g. “At the Cannery”). And there are some autobiographical, I presume, memories and incidents. How do these ideas or incidents come to occupy a poem for you?

KG: Poems about other people often arise when something happens that doesn’t fit with my understanding of them or of life in general.  Then I try to inhabit the situation.  “At the Cannery” is in first person, but it tells the story of a good friend of mine.  I couldn’t reconcile this particular sexual relationship with the “good girl” I knew her to be, so I took on her persona to try to figure it out.  “Ellen” was from a newspaper story about a suburban housewife who killed her family.  It is a bit twisted in that Ellen is reading that newspaper story, while she could be in danger of acting in a similar way herself.  The character, Ellen, is a layer in-between myself and the actual killer; I couldn’t bring myself to go in all the way in that poem.

The poems about my relationship with my parents are all autobiographical and, yes, some other poems are as well.  Again, they usually manifest because of something that is nagging at me.  And sometimes they veer off from the truth.  In “Berkeley, 1971”, I fielded a lot of questions from someone close to that situation after he read the poem.  “Why did you say that this took place in Berkeley?  That wasn’t quite the correct year, was it? Why did you say we didn’t take the dog home?”  Why?  Because the poem worked better that way, and the main point was to identify the white face of the girl on the soiled mattress with the white face of the dog in the cage, both of which still haunted me after all these years.

And sometimes, I get to have fun with imagery.  I wrote the poem about my grandfather because someone asked me to.  The dramatic incident in the poem is true, but my grandfather was such a larger than life character.  Although he wasn’t really a “streak of gristle in the teeth of God,” he seemed like one. And no one can prove to me that he didn’t really have a map of the piney woods and a few marbles locked inside his heart.

 BK: Sometimes the diction of a poem is simple and plain, often without metaphorical turns. I’m thinking of passages like “She ditched her MFA, hitchhiked / to North Dakota, and got a job / pumping gas out there on the plains. / Her poem had lots of dust imagery…” And in other poems there are surprising metaphors (“”Days go by, / a trainload of marshmallows. / You have no problems; / the sky is clear as vodka.”) or sound-effects (“the throb and squabble of the everyday” or “this hangout / neck-deep in bimbos and flappers, / hoofers and Romeos carting drizzly ice sculptures”).  How does the diction of a poem arrive for you?

I try to make the diction match the subject and mood whenever I can.

KG:  I try to make the diction match the subject and mood whenever I can. For example, in the first passage you mention, the language is as straightforward and as unadorned as the North Dakota plains themselves.  Another poem, “Zoe at 15”, concerns a teenager who is having trouble admitting to herself that she is pregnant.  To underline her situation, I have described her feelings in the language of childhood—tree houses, water balloons, kites, skates, chewing gum—which, in contrast to her adult situation, makes the poem more chilling. The poem about the “hangout/ neck-deep in bimbos and flappers” is unusual for me—denser in language than most of my poems. It was inspired by going to a party sponsored by Playboy Magazine.  The party seemed so retro in its attempt to be hip.
It reminded me of what people in the 1950s thought the space-age future would be like—hence my reaching for language like “titanium zippers/ and hems that flash uranium flares.”

 BK: You write that you studied with Collins, Hoagland, Laux, and Hirshfield, I assume at workshops. What’s been your experience with workshops and conferences regarding your own work?

On the whole, I haven’t found workshops where people criticize your existing poems that useful, but I love generative workshops where you write new work each day.

KG: The workshops I’ve had with these wonderful poets have varied enormously.  On the whole, I haven’t found workshops where people criticize your existing poems that useful, but I love generative workshops where you write new work each day. In their workshops, Dorianne Laux and Jane Hirshfield explain a concept and give examples before sending you off to write something new.  It really helps to get a nudge in a different direction from time to time. It opens up the mind. “Night Fishing”, one of my favorite poems, is a result of Dorianne’s assignment to write a “circular poem.” She’s also responsible for “Loneliness” – from an assignment to write a poem about an abstract concept.  I had secretly vowed never to write a poem about having had breast cancer, but when Jane Hirshfield gave us an assignment to write about death, “The Club” appeared almost magically, in close to its final form. 

BK: What’s your composition/ revision process?

KG: I usually hand-write the first draft of a poem in one or two sittings.  Then I let it rest for a couple of days.  Then I’ll type it up and revise it. Then I’ll let it rest again.  This cycle can go on for a while.  Then I have a couple of poet friends whom I trust (most notably Diane Gage in San Diego and Jonathan Wells in New York) who will take a look and give me feedback. Then I’ll go back to the revising and sitting formula until it feels done. Then I’ll put it in a drawer for a while until I feel I can look at it fresh. If it still seems done, I’ll stop.

BK: What are you working on now?

KG: As you’ve probably noticed, my poems are full of stories.  I love stories. So right now I am working on a novel—well, to tell the truth, on revising a couple of novels. They’ve been resting for a while. Wish me luck!