Karen Schubert’s most recent chapbooks are Black Sand Beach (Kattywompus Press) and I Left My Wings on a Chair (Kent State Press), selected by Kathleen Flenniken for a Wick Poetry Center Chapbook Prize. Her poems appear or are forthcoming in Aeolian Harp, The National Poetry Review; Apple Valley Review; Ella @ 100, an Ella Fitzgerald tribute anthology; and Tree Life. She was a 2017 artist-in-residence at the Vermont Studio Center and is a founding director of Lit Youngstown.
What sorts of challenges have you experienced as a teacher of poetry?
Let me begin by saying that I enjoy teaching poetry. I have taught in both academic and community settings, and they are both great in their way. I think a poetry class is a venue for fostering really interesting interactions, connections and creativity.
To answer the question, maybe I’d use the word “emphasis” rather than “challenge.” I use three guiding principles. The first is that I’m a minimalist. Unless the poem has taken up some kind of swaggering persona, like Mae West shooting from the hip, I tend to wonder, what if this word or that word were cut: does it change the meaning? Is that metaphor carrying its own weight? Does this adjective delay the pleasure of the idea? Can this phrase be reduced to one adjective?
I also like imagery, so I’d be inclined to rout out a non-visual description like “beautiful day” and see if the sky is the color of something startling, maybe that pair of jeans you wore for 39 days straight that summer you worked at Guido’s, or maybe the sky is the color of a river that has a piece of sky in it. Give me something for my mind’s eye. I love that.
And I also like to read contemporary poetry and bring those influences into the workshop. I find it common that poetry writers are not poetry readers, and I think that’s just because there is so much poetry out there, it’s hard to know where to start. I also think some poets worry about being somehow corrupted by other poets, that it’s a kind of purity mission to plug the ears and la la la to avoid losing one’s own original voice. But I find the opposite is true: reading excellent poetry gives a poet a myriad of influences and inspirations. It allows our poems to be in conversation with the other poetry out there.
Right now I am reading Matthew Minicucci’s collection Translation, a Wick Poetry Prize winner. Matthew teaches at the University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign and read for Lit Youngstown last year, and his poems are just so good. This is an excerpt from “Moth”:
Once there were no moths,
and one day god set about creating a beast
with paper wings; I was born, 4:30 a.m. Saturday
in blood sheets and butcher’s wrap, swaddled
before I could even try to fly, named
for a man who became a saint but worked
as a tax collector.
I love how Matthew uses line breaks to interrupt the thoughts and to misdirect our expectations of what happens next. Here he is seeing his own birth from above, naming himself as animal, watching himself being swaddled out of any celestial intent. Just gravity down, named for a saint/tax collector.
How has your focus as a poet changed and how do you see it changing in the future?
When I first started writing seriously, I was in my 40s, in a major life change, and so I was thinking constantly about the trajectory of my life, identity questions, things like that. So my poems were very narrative and autobiographical, and some made their way into The Geography of Lost Houses.
At some point, I wanted to step out of my own experiences. I met photojournalist Larry Towell who exhibited at the McDonough Museum of Art, spare and powerful photographs from distressed places around the world. My comrade, local metals sculptor Tony Armeni, suggested I also look into the work of the sculptor James Turrell, whose media are light, space, perception. The second chapbook Bring Down the Sky is written after these artists, including Tony.
After a while I realized I was writing prose poem vignettes, creating little worlds, like a camp that lets you try out obsolete jobs like whaling, or the life of the wire man I saw on Etsy. Prose poems are a kick to write, more story-like, and many of these are in I Left My Wings on a Chair. There is a lot more humor and levity in this chapbook, although there are some serious poems, as well.
At the moment I’m working on a series of poems centered around a few years my family lived in a subdivision of duplexes in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s. My family was in transition, and all the families there were unhinged from their social context—living there temporarily—and in the background, the whole country was heaving through these plate tectonics—the civil rights, anti-war, and women’s movements, the pushing back against the conformity-loving ‘50s. I remember these few years even more vividly than high school, and it’s been enjoyable going back in deep for those details.
What role has nature played in your poetry, and how has that concern evolved in recent years, particularly as challenges that face the earth and environment continue to multiply?
Black Sand Beach, my most recent chapbook, is one long poem I wrote at a residency at Headlands Center for the Arts, about all of the liminal edges there on the San Francisco Bay: urban/wild, land/sea, sea/sky, salt/fresh, and also the way humans act and are acted on in this place.
(Photo by Howard Romero)