Karen Skolfield Interview, with Kaite Hillenbrand
Welcome, Karen! I’m so happy to have these poems of yours in the column – they are all so openly honest. But what I noticed and loved first about your poetry came from “Waypoint”: I take from that poem that it’s the way something feels that’s most important. The details can come and go, can be technically accurate or not; a lot, maybe most, of what they do is provide context for the feeling – a way for readers to understand the feeling. That’s interesting and important to me because I often find that I can’t remember details, but I remember the way something felt really strongly. Is “Waypoint” an ars poetica, a lesson on truth?
I think how often I start out expecting events, or a poem, to unfold in a certain way, only to have something change, for good or bad. I’m uncertain if what happens to the speaker in “Waypoint” is good or bad. Maybe it’s some of both, the letting go of expectations, the surprising happiness when the world is righted again.
And I’m with you! – details of actual events fade, and I’m so grateful to write poetry and make up whatever events or emotional content or details I’d like. Was the cow a belted galloway or a guernsey? – no matter! Poet gets to pick.
I like your idea, Kaite, that “Waypoint” is an ars poetica, even if it’s not explicitly so in the way that, say, Archibald MacLeish would write of the poem that “should palpable and mute / As a globed fruit.” Certainly there’s a directive in this poem about being mindful, aware in the moment; about seizing something good out of what’s turned fearful.
In these poems, there’s often something lingering almost behind the scenes – children and custody arrangements; a touch or a drawing away from touch; memories of people once known. It seems to me the things lingering are actually the heart of the poem, surrounded by other details – beautiful details, details of things to be grateful for, but perhaps less significant or of more common, daily experiences. The way these poems work, at least in that regard, is a lot how life works, which makes the poems powerful – even surprisingly powerful. Do you write poems, or have you written poems, including some of these, in an attempt to mimic life itself – the way the heart of each day “lingers” while the day-to-day progresses? If so, could you tell us about how you went about it?
The great thing about time is how it strips away the pettiness and repetition of our days. What we remember first is not the 25,000 bowls of Cheerios we ate for breakfast, but the people sitting at the table across from us. Later, in our writing, we can add in those 25,000 bowls, or at least one of them, and give it meaning that didn’t exist at the breakfast table. By themselves, objects are just objects, but all people, and especially writers, get to infuse them with something like life: think of Gertrude Stein’s “Objects” in Tender Buttons or Muriel Rukeyser’s “Ballad of Orange and Grape.” We watch carefully where the poet’s eye lingers, what the ear hears. I was ridiculously happy to have that little microwave in the poem “Wellspring.” I mean, it’s just a microwave, a rectangle for making cold things hot, who cares? – but the bell of it, drawing the speaker back to the present from her reverie, does a great service.
Those objects also serve as anchors, to ground, as you say, what lingers: people gone from our lives, old lovers, nebulous emotions, larger concepts and loaded words like death and freedom and equality.
My professor and great poet/editor Chris Buckley once said (I hope I’m quoting him accurately) that there aren’t enough angry poems. I agree; it’s great to see an intelligent poet blister and scourge. I love the tone in your poem “After Learning What It Is to Hydroplane”, which seems frustrated if not angry. (Also, I recently got a flat tire in cold rain at dusk. Fortunately, Ken saved me.) What do you find you have to pay attention to in an angry or frustrated poem that you might not in a poem with a different tone? And what tone would you like to see more of in poetry?
Here’s where I have a “squeeee!” moment – Chris Buckley was my professor as well, probably before he was yours, when I was an undergraduate at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He’s the one who set me on this writing path and why you and I are completing this interview. And now that you’ve told me he doesn’t believe there are enough angry poems, I’m going to have to set to work on one.
But, yes, the emotion in “Hydroplane” is certainly a minor chord, and I think “frustration” fits. The title comes from a line from my colleague and friend Daniel Hales and his band the frost heaves. Hales asked a bunch of his writing friends to come up with poems inspired by the song tracks on his CD You Make a Better Door Than a Window, and what I loved about the song I was assigned was that it was a bunch of fairly minor problems that added up to a crummy day. Nothing earth shattering, nothing that would ruin you, but a day that should end with a couple of beers and a bubble bath and a dose of self pity. And isn’t that most of our below-average days? And don’t they deserve an occasional song or poem, too?
Playing with that feeling, I made a conscious decision to make the rain in the poem warm, make the road darkening but not dangerous, and give the speaker a mostly healed wrist and a skunk under the house instead of a recent divorce and, oh, a three-step mamba in the living room. I tried to be lighthearted enough about it – I couldn’t let the speaker moan on and on about the skunk, for instance. This speaker doesn’t wallow, which is good, but possibly s/he sugarcoats things or has gotten good at deflecting real emotion, which is not.
You ask what tone I’d like to see more of in poetry – that’s a tough one. I love the range that exists now. I feel like my heart was stomped flat at least three times today by some great poems I came across. Does emotional investment count as tone? More of that, then. I’m definitely drawn to poems that have something at risk.
After reading “Tattoo Tony’s Tattoo Shop, Newport, Delaware,” I wonder: Do you have any tattoos you don’t mind describing for us? If so, have they brought you any interesting experiences? If not, would you ever get one – and if so, what? What experience(s) do you hope a tattoo would bring?
On my hip is a bird in flight that was inked on when I was barely an adult. I remember thinking a lot about the significance of the bird, where on the body it should fly, which side it would go on – slightly older readers may remember getting your right ear pierced twice back then meant you were some flavor of queer, and the right side of the body was favored as the feminine side. So my right ear is pierced twice and my tattoo rides the right side of my body. The Karen Skolfield now looks back on that very young woman with an “Awww, you were so cute then!” And so serious. I was so serious about some things. Really, I want to pinch the cheeks of that young Karen Skolfield and tell her to lighten up a little.
I wish I had an awesome tattoo-related experience to tell you – something akin to going to Sicily, drinking too much grappa, and waking with a sunflower tattoo on my ankle, but, uhm... oh, wait, there is a sunflower tattoo on my ankle. I wonder how long that’s been there?
There’s a lot of weather in this batch of poems, particularly snow, ice, and rain. What’s your favorite weather-related story (yours or someone else’s)?
I tease my mother-in-law about how she tracks the weather, so she will be particularly pleased by my difficulty in choosing just one story. I could give you some serious column inches on weather, I realize – so let’s make sure we have a coffee at AWP one of these years, and we’ll swap stories.
But here’s my favorite: two years ago, a huge snowstorm blew through New England right before Halloween; until then it had been a warm fall and most trees still had leaves. It was wet, heavy, unrelenting snow, and the additional surface area of the leaves made the weight unbearable. My kids were asleep, but my husband and I stayed up and listened to branch after branch cracking, some falling onto our house; the groan of timbers in the attic, trees snapping in half. It sounded like the bones of the forest breaking. It sounded like the ending of the world.
Our street, and many of the towns around us, lost power for a week or more. Our well pump stopped functioning. We have tons of camping gear and a creek out back, so we were fine. We had neighbors and friends over. We made easy meals on the campstove and ate with our friends by headlamps. Schools were cancelled. On Halloween night, we took the kids trick-or-treating – you could tell who had candy because they put jack-o-lanterns out and we walked from one glowing pumpkin to another. Someone threw a block party and everyone brought what they had. After a few days, we stopped touching the lightswitches, that muscle memory of how to erase the darkness. Our lives became simpler and quieter. The laptop stayed closed. We carried armloads of wood, the whole family pitching in for our basic needs. We played games and read and cleaned up the yard and road. There were no distractions.
A day after the lights came back, I went to a cafe to work and overheard a woman talking. She was college age, young, a person I assumed would dislike the power outage the most. “My roommates and I decided to leave the lights off for another day,” she told her friend. “The storm brought us closer together, and we didn’t want that to end.” I had that catch in my throat. I think all my Octobers will carry the memory of the Halloween without any power save our own, the trips to the creek for water, the lighted pumpkins letting us know someone was home and would welcome us in.
Around every turn there could be a barn.
Near every barn, a horse black
and rising up against the snow.
The potential of fencelines, of wild
turkeys strung like beads along the road.
Or this: a rental car
slaloming through roads mucked
and torn. Mud so deep it kisses axles.
A woman’s voice beside you,
directing you calmly into the lake.
Then tell me what you know of beauty.
What makes it past the fearsome veil.
There were barns and horses, I’m sure.
A river of fog above the snow.
Images that should stay with me
through the years, into the darkness.
I tell you they mean nothing. The car
unfamiliar, my hands pale and bloodless
around the wheel, willing it up
and over the hill’s slop.
What’s mine to keep: the car jockeying,
the back end sliding to the ditch,
the white world closed down.
The lift in my heart when the tires
found pavement, found purchase, took hold.
Facing the Curve
The roads iced black and when to brake?
Not in the curve, no, the drivers knew
but watch the cars soft and circle wide.
Just up the hill I sat with Dan
whose front window faced the curve.
We’d turn the loveseat around to watch
and sit, not holding hands.
Dan with the phone. Waiting, he’d tell
about the Guardian ad Litem visits,
the new custody arrangements
for his kids. Then headlights off the wires.
We’d make quick bets on drivers cresting.
This one knows how to turn. This one –
oh, not in that car. Rear-wheel drive
in New England, really. Two tires
on pavement and Dan might push,
but mostly call his buddy with the tow.
Families he let into the kitchen,
gave them cocoa. Guys he brought
the cocoa to them, and a jacket,
but always figured out he knew them
or a brother, went to school with someone’s
cousin, and in to the kitchen they’d come.
Chunk the dog would muzzle a hand,
make the stranger pet him. Always,
the drivers warmed up but shivering.
Past the ditch, all those trees.
The teenagers worried how
the banged rear end. Dan, telling them
to take a mallet to the thing,
telling them that curve was a bitch.
I’ve seen bigger guys than you
put their car in – he’d say this even
to the biggest. The teenagers grinning and glad
he’d cursed around them. Dan took care
of everything, told me to sit or go back to bed,
it was his house, I didn’t have to help.
Waited for the tow. Gave the men hot cocoa.
Waited for those men to drink it down.
After Learning What It Is To Hydroplane
for Daniel Hales, and the frost heaves
for Daniel Hales, and the frost heaves
Day of skunk under the house,
the old wrist injury and now the tire,
now knees to the pavement, now rain.
Because of course there’s rain, though
it’s warm rain, it’s rain. Your wrist knew
the rain was coming, the little pain snaking
its way through a door in the ribcage,
right between too bad and it could’ve been worse.
And you began saying it could always be worse,
as if we could live in this state of gratitude,
thankful only half the house fell in,
thankful for the other wrist. You said it
so often it lost its bitter taste.
Water finds its own course and there you are
staring into what’s left of the evening,
the pavement sleek and also warm, a dark rain,
a little tune scratching at your throat,
a wrench warming in your hand.
It could always be worse. Say it to the flat tire
and all its rain-droplet friends, falling
in such heaps. See if you believe it.
The discontented you lumbers around.
The coffee’s chilled, and you heat it
in the little microwave that dings.
It’s a pleasant sound, not insistent.
You carry the mug around some more
and walk window to window.
The snow’s finished sliding from the roof.
Blue spruces in the wind.
This time, when you reheat the coffee
you don’t hear the little ding.
You were thinking things so long
in the past that even lukewarm coffee
should be higher up in priority.
Still, the past with its edges,
how you bump on it like a table
in the dark. How you gnaw away
this morning, or the past gnaws away
at you, and why not let it? Come again,
lover, from the time it seemed a sin
to use that word. Then the friend
who killed himself two weeks
before spring. DeeDee, who got away.
Soon enough your life will tuck
them back into its keepsake box.
When the microwave dings again,
curl your hands around the mug.
Take it for the warm gift that it is.
Tattoo Tony’s Tattoo Shop, Newport, Delaware
In the window, the knife-pierced heart,
the mortal wound. A whole spine in blue runes.
A mermaid inked in sea-green, beckoning.
Nearby, our broken-down Chevette.
The tattoo guy opened early.
Nineteen, Newport, a car on the lift.
A beautiful woman beside me
who would take my hand
in broad daylight, damn them all.
Jen chose a battleaxe, a spot above
the breast’s taper and to the clavicle.
The needle’s buzz and whine
and Tattoo Tony’s chatter.
It’s the men that can’t take it,
he said to Jen, her whitened face.
I’ve had guys walk out in the middle.
Jen determined to beat them,
even as the needle browned a rib.
She said Don’t touch me.
I took my hand away.
She wanted that axe to come out swinging.