A Conversation with Karen Craigo
Karen Craigo is an editor known in the literary world for her sense of community and her generosity to writers. As editor-in-chief of Mid-American Review, her smiley-face rejection slips kept writers writing and submitting their work, and she has been teaching university students for two decades. She is the author of two poetry chapbooks: Stone for an Eye, the winner of Kent State’s Wick Chapbook Contest in 2004, and Someone Could Build Something Here (2013). Her third chapbook, Escaped Housewife Tries to Blend In, is forthcoming this winter. In 2016, she published her first full-length poetry collection, No More Milk, and her second, Welcome to Humansville, will be out later this year. Currently, Craigo writes a blog and serves as non-fiction editor at Mid-American Review and interviews editor at SmokeLong Quarterly. In a conversation with Literary Mama Reviews Editor Camille-Yvette Welsch, Craigo spoke about motherhood, finances, and literary citizenship.
Camille-Yvette Welsch: You are famous as a kind editor, one who is open to new writers and who has a smiley face system of rejection. You have also spent time on your blog, Better View of the Moon, talking about the intricacies of publishing in literary magazines. What do you think is unique about your perspective and why did you begin blogging?
Karen Craigo: I remain strangely famous for my rejection smileys, which people actually seemed to appreciate, against all expectation! I just wanted to show empathy, give people a fighting chance. A lot of times you read something and you know you can’t use it, but I always tried to give something back to them, something so they knew that I appreciated what they had given me a glimpse of. I suppose that caring about how people feel could be seen as maternal; it’s a very big part of being a mom. It’s also just part of what kindness requires.
After serving for many years as editor-in-chief of Mid-American Review, I moved from Bowling Green, Ohio, to Missouri, and I suddenly wasn’t anything. It felt like I had built up a lot of capital from my editing, and I definitely knew I had something to say, but I also thought the daily practice of blogging would be a good writerly practice and a good way to stay connected. Springfield, Missouri, is a good city with a lot of visual arts culture, but there’s not a lot of literary culture here—no regular reading series, not a lot happening. I’m used to a very lively literary culture, with weekly readings and lots of pop-up opportunities for fun. The blog has filled a void for me. It has been a bit of a lifesaver, actually.
CW: In a blog post from June 25, 2016, you wrote, “For poetry to work, and for meditation to work, it’s first necessary to pinpoint the love and to feel connection.” Has that sense been strengthened by motherhood? How has it changed?
KC: Since I have become a mother, I have felt like everyone’s mother. On the first day of classes, I was on an elevator with a brand new student from China. I asked how it was going, and she said she was sad and homesick and overwhelmed. I’ve worked with a lot of international students, so I had a sense of how she was feeling. By the time we reached the fourth floor, I had reassured her that the first day is hard for everyone, and that pretty soon she might start thinking in English so it wouldn’t be a constant process of translating. I actually left her with a list of five strategies to help her through.
Even when I’m teaching, I allow myself to use my mom self, although I know a lot of people try to shy away from that. I show compassion for the whole person; I try to figure out how things are going and how they might go better. This is before we ever turn to the subject I teach, writing. Being a mother is one of my strengths, and I have found that it is even one of my teaching strengths. In a sense, I sort of mom everyone I see.
I remember after I had my son, he was readmitted immediately for jaundice, and I had to sleep in a chair (despite my very recent C-section) while he slept under the lamp they used to treat him. All around me on that pediatric unit, children were crying in pain and fear, and it was a harrowing experience for me. I was crying, too, and lactating and desperately feeling like the mother of every suffering person. The love I felt as a mother connected me to everyone I encountered—baby or otherwise. I think I bring that to my poetry.
CW: In your essay, “Next Stop: Montana,” you talk about your mother’s desire to leave, to have adventure, and then your own desire to do the same. Why do you write about this desire and its counter-force, the strength in staying and ministering?
KC: I have a chapbook forthcoming called Escaped Housewife Tries Hard to Blend In. The Escaped Housewife is a persona I made up to send on lots of random adventures—picking up hitchhikers, working on a salmon boat, trying out for Jeopardy! The thing is, that housewife really is me, trying out all kinds of different things. I love adventure, and I guess I come by it naturally.
I was surprised at a situation that I recount in the essay—my mother was literally in tears but not because I was leaving and going two thousand miles away. Nope—she was crying because I had the opportunity to leave and she didn’t. This moment really showed me the depth of a mother’s experience. Sometimes the bravest thing you can do is stick around and just not leave.
My husband and I give each other writing retreats, where we take solo trips to a hotel or cabin and spend time writing and creating. This sounds so odd to some people, but we love having our time alone, and we come back better, in every possible way.
CW: You share your life with Michael Czyzniejewski, who is a fiction writer, assistant professor at Missouri State University, and Moon City Review editor. With a partner who writes, how else do you balance your creative needs and your relationship?
KC: Actually, I was just telling my students this, but, frequently, I get up at four o’clock in the morning to write, and I pass Mike on the stairs because he writes at night. We meet at the time when one of us is starting the day and the other is ending it. Being a writer means we have different sleep shifts, and, of course, we share kid duties.
CW: Money moves through your debut full-length poetry collection, No More Milk. It represents longing, scarcity, and, conversely, richness and grace, as is the case with the poem about your son Ernie’s bank. Motherhood, itself, does similar work. Why these central themes?
KC: I always fancied myself the poet of the gas bill. Nobody else fills that void in exactly the way I do. I guess it’s nice to have a niche! Grace is found in so many places in our lives, but, then, too, people contact us through the mailbox and require a small piece of us. Seeing the grace in that—the privilege of heat and cable and a roof—is tough sometimes. Right now, I am teaching as an adjunct, and it is kind of a bum deal. The university where I had a full-time gig cut all kinds of people. I moved here from a nice, constant position, but now I am teaching a handful of classes at three or four universities, with small pay and no benefits. Overall, I am doing much worse, and money means much more. I don’t go to the mall and buy stuff, but I have arrived at the point where I don’t care. Maybe I have only three pairs of pants. Some people don’t have any pants. I used to be someone who flipped through catalogs and thought I would like that Panini maker, that mixer attachment, or that candle holder, but now I don’t want anything and I don’t need anything. The whole money thing—there is just so much to say about it.
CW: Passing Through Humansville, your second full-length volume, is coming out soon. Can you tell us a bit about that book and what it is like having two books come out so close together?
KC: So many people I know have had their first books come out in their 30s, but my first came out when I was 47. That was the blessing of this situation I was bemoaning before. That crucial friend-making time, that community of writers, just didn’t happen in my new city, so I decided to grab hold of the writing thing and see where it could take me. I found out I lost my job just before the holidays in 2014, and so I decided to be bold and declare 2015 to be the Year of the Book. It’s funny how the universe works for you when you put your desires out there and say them aloud. I signed a book contract in spring of 2015, and then the second contract came shortly after that. I also have two new chapbooks and a textbook forthcoming. I’ve noticed that when you tell your desires to other people, they hear the request and they want to make it so, so listen up out there: I have a third manuscript circulating, and it needs a home.
Passing Through Humansville gets its name from a small Missouri town near me. Strangely, the town is named after a person with the unlikely name of “Human,” but when I was driving by it on the highway, I was very taken with the idea of life as a process of passing through the state of being human. The poems in that book explore many of the same themes as my first book—motherhood, money—but they also explore the thin scrim between this world and another. I think it’s a more spiritual collection, but I still try to be grounded. It’s really great to have a book out and another on the way. Without another book forthcoming, I could grow too fixated on the idea that I met my goal and published a full-length collection. I don’t see myself as done; it’s more like I’m arriving again and again in waves.
CW: After the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, you note in your blog that you were unable to pursue other projects because you felt this tragedy so deeply. So, you began the meditative practice of writing a poem a day to commemorate at least one shooting victim per day. Why did you choose to engage this topic and to do it daily when it is clearly a sobering way to start each day?
KC: It is certainly very grim. Just today I wrote about a young man who died at a party because some other kids wanted his backpack. It’s so crazy that we might value backpacks over life. I started this project after the Pulse shooting on June 12. The form is Ginsberg’s American sentence (a 17-syllable sentence riff on traditional haiku), and I see them as a kind of alternative headline—maybe a spiritual headline. I take a killing—a gun death, specifically—and I write the alternate headline to mourn the person lost to gun violence. I was surprised when I started at how many murders there were to choose from. I bypass some, but there are others I am unavoidably drawn to, such as the ones that involve children. At the outset, I didn’t realize the importance that this project would have. I started to write some of these entries the night before since the project takes such a toll on my mornings and on the day that follows. Sometimes I read the news stories and I just sob. I post these daily, by the way, and anyone who wants to read or follow can find the project on Twitter, @AmrcnSentences.
CW: You often use projects to jump start your writing. How do they serve your writing and how do you know when they have served their purpose for you?
KC: Working in projects is very energizing for me. I have a series of Advent poems that I wrote one year before Christmas. (I titled them all “Advent,” incidentally. Some free advice: Don’t ever give 25 poems the same title, if you can help it—and you assuredly can.) I have my American Sentences project, and I gave it an entire summer, but I needed a break from that—it was traumatic to wake every day and look up gun deaths. And the blog is still happening; I’m starting it up again on January 1 after a break.
I give myself projects and I give myself breaks, basically. Good to be self-employed, I reckon! The projects have such focus and energy, and the breaks let me regroup, sometimes recover, sometimes recalibrate. That’s my process, and if I’ve learned anything over a very herky-jerky writing career, it’s that I should trust my process, or at least listen to what it’s trying to teach me.
CW: In your June 26, 2016, blog post, you wrote that “New moms are expected to be radiant. Strangely, it usually does work that way. Creation makes us glow.” In your blog, you explicitly link motherhood and creation. Have you always felt that way?
KC: I’ll be honest: Being a mother made me appreciate motherhood more than anything else—more than observing mothers, more than having a mother of my own. I understand the overwhelming love a mother feels (and I know a father feels something similar to this, too, although my gut tells me that the feeling in me is very much centered in a feminine consciousness). Even the thought of my child experiencing pain can just about break me in two. I feel as though my children are the very pinnacle of my creative achievement; I can do no better. Loving them has changed me forever. You can’t love like that without having it show—without glowing in the dark.