Thursday, December 20, 2012

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Karen Garthe

Karen Garthe's poetry has been appeared in Lana Turner, Colorado Review, New American Writing, Fence, Chicago Review, Aufgabe, Court Green, Omnidawn blogspot, American Letters & Commentary, Zoland Poetry, etc., and online at:

Her first book Frayed escort won the 2005 Colorado Prize published by the Center for Literary Publishing, Fort Collins, Colorado, and The Banjo Clock was published in June, 2012, by the University of California Press.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

1) My manuscript had been submitted to contests for 10 years. It was a finalist eight times, so by the time “Frayed escort” was published, very few of the original poems remained. My writing had changed somewhat, and the challenge was to sustain coherence along the way. However, I don’t think that that’s so terribly difficult, since while a style may change, subjects and concerns tend to stay the same. Cal Bedient chose Frayed escort for the 2005 Colorado Prize. 

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

2) Poetry is my net both to read and to write.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

3&4) The poem I’m currently working on is my project. For many years I’ve gotten up early, long before I even have to think about getting ready for work.  That morning time which is mine, alone, is everything. On weekends I mostly stay home and work for the duration.

Some poems leap fully formed and some take years to write. Occasionally, there’s a palette of verbiage like a chunk of marble from which the poem’s carved, sometimes it darts forth a precise, finished thing.

I read in many texts at a time, pick up and put down numerous books in a week. If one book refers to another, I often get that one, too. I decide quickly if something is worth my time, but I can miss things that way, so I do try to be careful. Not everything can be assessed in a blink. I’m not a note taker. If something is very boring (like a long, dreary lecture) I may take notes then appropriate them into a poem. “The Studio School” in Frayed escort is an example of this.  The art lecture from which that poem emerged was so boring I took notes to keep from falling asleep. I may write things down now and then, but almost never look at them again.  I just try to pay attention.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
5) I love to read my work. People have said “oh, now that you’ve read that, I get it” On paper poems may seem to be theoretical statements on materiality, but they’re not. They’re scored for the voice. 

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

6) No theoretical concerns. As for questions to answer, simply preposterously large ones like “why are we here, etc.?”  The Unanswerables.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

7) The writer has a role in culture, but is no longer a rock star. No head shots on the cover of TIME. Writers aren’t diminished or gone, at least not yet. Language is only as good as the thinking it serves to express. If language devolves to OMG LOL, I can only imagine that quality of thought will have devolved, as well. Writers, especially poets, do indeed seem to write for their own constituencies in ever shrinking units of particularity and concern.  

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

8) I’ve been an editor, but never worked with one editor on my own behalf until Cal Bedient.  Poetry doesn’t edit like prose. Most, not all, prose or narrative writing  is better or worse, muddy or clear.  Poetry is dicey to touch. You can suggest, but you better have a terrifically trusting relationship with the poet you’re working with if you plan to take up the scalpel.

By the time “Frayed escort” won the Colorado Prize, it was as realized as it was ever going to be and there were virtually no changes from manuscript to book. The Banjo Clock is a different story. It’s a different kind of poetry book because it has a palpable trajectory that Cal created. He took poems from a manuscript-in-progress and sequenced The Banjo Clock. He also edited some of the poems. At first, I was shocked by what he’d done, and very upset by some of the edits, but I waited a few days until I got over myself. Then, I sat in my kitchen and read the whole manuscript out loud from page one. The flow was incredible. Cal’s edits were masterful and everything he’d done focused and furthered the whole. In the past, I’ve rejected many editorial suggestions because I didn’t feel the people who made them had an affinity for my work. But Cal liked, even loved its bones.    

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

9) I’ve gotten plenty of advice of all kinds, but for some reason I keep remembering something a friend told me when I lived on MacDougal Street in the Village many years ago. (While not a musician, I was very much a player in the Bleecker Street music scene of the ‘70s.) Anyway, at the time I was always broke. I didn’t pay attention to practical things so my lights were always being turned off and my landlord was always threatening eviction and at the 11th hour, a friend would always bail me out. One day, Neal Shulman (from the group Aztec Two-Step) was kind enough to help me pay my electric bill. Standing in line at Con Ed he said “Listen, Karen, I don’t mind doing this for you, but let me give you some advice: this is the small stuff, take my word for it. If you always have to worry about keeping the lights on and paying the rent, if you always have to deal with the small stuff, you’ll never really get to the big stuff, know what I mean?” Now, little did he realize that I was probably too preoccupied with gigantic imponderables like “why are we here?” to think about whether or not the lights would go out.  But the advice was not lost on me. At all. Besides, who wants to be a helpless, dependent kind of idiot like that, anyway?

10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

10) (I already answer in 3 & 4, I think)

11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

11) Stopping writing is part of writing, but it’s tricky, because it’s a spooky cycle that isn’t easy to second guess. If no pen to paper continues for too long I will hit the skids inside because poetry really is my net. The wolf will start howling and if that goes on for too long, I won’t be able to write my way in or out of despair. And I make a great distinction between despair and depression which is just a response to circumstances you can mostly ride out.  Despair is paralyzing. The older I get the more afraid I am of despair which is the loss of even the idea of hope. Even if hope, itself, is a fiction, we need it.

12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

12) I grew up in a paradise of flowers and trees but my favorite thing is snow. My favorite smell is the Fall and kicking down a sidewalk covered with the leaves of  hundreds of trees, the smell of the decaying leaves and the musty ground with sharp sniffs of snow in complex air.

13 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

13) I studied ballet and piano as a child, like lots of young girls, but instead of it affecting me as some of more graceful enhancement, it became my life. I was exposed to great music of all kinds at a very young age and received what I now know was a totally inspired music education. (I received inspired education, period.) At 15, I somehow acquired the complete Robert Craft recordings of Arnold Schönberg. If you think playing rock n’ roll annoyed parents, try Pierrot Lunaire.  I was in love with Vladimir Horowitz and still am. Nobody has ever played the piano like Horowitz. I wrote him gushing fan letters begging him to please come play in Baltimore.

Music made a dancer of me and I came to New York after high school to study at the American Ballet Theatre School, then on 58th Street. I took classes with legendary teachers like Valentina. Pereyaslavec, a tiny plump Ukranian woman in character shoes who carried a baton and used it. I also studied ballet with Igor Youskevitch, jazz with Phil Black, etc.

In a perfect world I’d go to ballet/dance performances during the week and on weekends I’d go to concerts. I try to see the Vienna Philharmonic whenever they’re in town, and the Berlin and the Cleveland orchestras. I even like/dislike certain conductors. Musicians making music in concert really appeals to me. I would like to have been Harry Carney or Cootie Williams playing trumpet in Duke Ellington’s orchestra band. Someone thought it was interesting that

I seem most possessed by things without words.

14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

14) I am an unrepentant Faulknerian. Faulkner is my Ur Text Go-To-Guy and has been for 35 years. Once in restaurant in Knoxville, someone said “how come you like Faulkner so much, you’re not from the South...” (this was an accusation). I remarked on noted Faulkner’s universality. Now, though, I’d answer more personally because I can see that so many of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha characters and kin resonate my own (and they must resonate everyone’s, really, else how else account for that universality?). It took me a long time to see this. His so-called gothic regional South bubbles the rest of us with speed and ease.  You do not have to eat grits for breakfast, share spit with Ike McCaslin or trade rage with Rosa Coldfield to bring Faulkner authentically and immediately to heart.

This late summer I re-read Light in August which is, I think, Faulkner’s most bluntly, didactically brutal book. When I finished that, I read an essay by Styron on writing “Nat Turner” and on his friendship with James Baldwin.  Then I read Baldwin. I do remember Baldwin as a living breathing Figure in America. I was very young, but I do remember.  I have a recording of Baldwin debating Malcolm X, which is hard to imagine now in the sense that it’s hard to imagine two powerfully intelligent divergent points of view getting together in the same room to converse or debate in a civil manner. At this point, it’s even difficult to imagine that much public intelligence, period. In an essay titled “Faulkner and Desegregation” Baldwin takes Faulkner to the mat for “go slow” remarks on desegregation.  He also respects him.  Baldwin’s nature seems essentially elegant even while he suffers the two great social wounds of race and homosexuality – at a point in time that tolerated neither. I went to Light/Styron/Baldwin, because of Obama’s Presidency and the upcoming election. I feel that racism -- not jobs/health care/taxes, etc. -- are probably the real truth of the bizarre and extreme hysterics against him.

15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

15) Sing and play the piano in a piano bar and night after night after night make it new.

16 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

16) I’d like to have a garden but know perfectly well that if I did, I’d never see anybody again and I’m not ready for that. I’m mostly content in the sense that I am who I wanted to be when I grew up.  I figure that if you can say that about yourself, you’re ok.

17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

17) Writing is language, language is thought and sound and these are the best things I know.

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same;
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves – goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is me: for that I came.

18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

18) The last great book I read was Aerial by Bin Ramke. The last great film I saw was Beasts of the Southern Wild.

19 - What are you currently working on?

19) Poems. 

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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