Open Alphabet welcomes Karen Skolfield and her new book Frost in the Low Areas,
published by Zone 3 Press (ISBN 978-0-97846127-8-8).

Karen Skolfield

Karen Skolfield's poems have appeared in magazines, both print and on-line, including Rattle, 2011 Best of the Net Anthology, Cave Wall, Tar River Poetry, West Branch, and The Adirondack Review. Two poems in her book, "Homunculus" and "Sturm und Drang," were nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and Frost in the Low Areas was a top ten Small Press Distribution best seller.

Karen received her MFA at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she currently teaches. She is contributing editor at the literary journals Tupelo Quarterly and Stirring. She and her family live in western Massachusetts.

That's how the world works: A little mirror
tells you more than you want to know.
-- from CHECKING THAT THE MATTRESS IS STILL STRAPPED TO THE CAR

Open Alphabet: What initiated this project? How was the poem "Frost In The Low Areas" selected as the title for the book? Frost in the Low Areas

Karen Skolfield: I got a nice jumpstart on the book by doing one of those “30 poems in 30 days” challenges with a bunch of awesome writer-girlfriends. At the end of it, one friend (hi, Robyn!) said “Let’s go to 100.” It seemed insane at the time: of our group, four out of five worked full-time, all of us were mothers of small children, all of us were stretched thin. And we gulped, and we did it. The bulk of the book comes from those 100 poems, with a smaller portion from before or after those 100.

So I didn’t start out with a project such as writing about a place or situation or huge event. Still, themes do emerge, and quickly: family, the surprising challenges of having small children, the military, an abusive father. My fascination with science takes up some bandwidth.

From the very first compilation of the manuscript, the poem “Frost in the Low Areas” was the last poem of the book, but it wasn’t always the title poem. The old title was Lazarus Species,” which means a species once thought extinct that is rediscovered. I love that concept, that phrase, but it only lasted while the manuscript was more science-y (the poem “Lazarus Species,” however, remains in the book). As the manuscript evolved, the title had to change; my friend, poet and musician Daniel Hales, acted as my chief reader and suggested the new title.

The words themselves come from autumn freeze alerts: “frost warning, low-lying areas” strikes fear into the hearts of farmers whose fields are in dells. There’s such a thin line between life and death for some crops: 33 degrees, okay. One degree less, not okay. By extrapolation, that life/death line exists for every living thing.

OA: With respect to some of the very personal poems, did publishing this book change you?

KS: Certainly writing some of the more personal poems felt life changing – I remember writing “Ode to the Fan” and literally laughing out loud while I was writing. It’s about a sexually abusive father – not really ha-ha material – but the tone is one of mischief and triumph. It’s a redistribution of power, and writing it felt very freeing.

Then came the first time I discussed that poem in a class at a nearby college when I was a guest speaker. I looked around that room of strangers in their early 20s and thought “What have I done?” I had to take a breath and talk about the writing, but also about the subject of family gone wrong, and I hadn’t quite mentally prepared myself for that moment. The phrase that’s allowed me to write and publish poems about this issue, and later talk about it, is that it is his shame, not mine.

There are other poems in the book that feel deeply personal – “Rumors of Her Death” is one. It’s about a mom discussing death with her two small children, and the conversation goes terribly awry even as she tries to distract her children from asking more questions. This was based on multiple conversations I’ve had with my son about death, all of which I was very matter-of-fact about while trying to be empathetic and a good listener, but when I read this one in front of an audience the first time I actually got choked up, and this was more than a year after I’d written it. I was so surprised, and more than a little embarrassed, and I hope I covered it well enough to look like I was coughing.

I get many questions from family and friends about the subject matter, and it’s hard explaining that some of the situations may be real, but some may not; details I’ve changed to suit the poems’ needs; some poems may not be real at all but help advance the narrative threads. All I was concerned with was staying true to the world of the poems and the experiences those words set in motion; I did not adhere to real life even though there are real moments represented.

OA: What is your creative process? Did it change with the publishing of Frost In The Low Areas?

KS: Ugh – I hate to admit this, but doing the back-end work – readings, publicity peddling, researching published book contests, mailing review copies, doing interviews, etc. – has been a shocking amount of work and has really eaten into my time for writing new poems. I want to give this first book its due, and even though I’d like to move on to fluffy, fun, new poems, there’s a giant chunk of time that has to go to the old ones.

Not that the publicity, readings, interviews aren’t fun, but it’s not the same type of fun as latching onto a pleasurable line. I doubt many people start writing with the hopes that they’ll spend scads of time at the post office, mailing their books. Ah well. The fluffy new poems will have to be patient. I have a writing retreat coming up, and I am ridiculously excited for it.

OA: You teach technical writing, presumably to engineers. Does your creative aesthetic enter your teaching? In what way?

KS: Yes, I teach writing to engineers. The engineering students are fabulous folks, smart and sweet and very earnest. And very insecure about writing. Writing terrifies them. Rather than back off from that terror, I instill in them how much writing they’ll have in their careers.

Oddly, this seems to relax them – writing becomes just one more thing they have to do, rather than the one thing they fear and avoid. I try to keep class lighthearted : we play with Legos, we reverse engineer paper airplanes, we dissect instructions for tying a tie, we pick apart Fox News graphs and charts, we read hilarious McSweeney’s articles and summarize them. So my class planning strives to be creative, even if the writing assignments are more basic with instructions, process descriptions, ethical issues in engineering, and the like.

And it’s funny – you’d think that reviewing the basics of grammar and punctuation would be dull, that it would hollow out any love I had for writing, but it does the opposite. My students tease me about how much I love the semicolon, and they’re right. Teaching has helped me fall in love with that sexy little piece of punctuation all over again.

OA: What surprises and challenges did you encounter in putting the book together? Is there anything that you know now that you wish you had known then?

KS: The big surprise was that I’ve always considered myself a writer of many voices and styles that don’t fit well together – sometimes funny, sometimes very serious. When the manuscript began coming together, I understood that wasn’t exactly true. Yes, some poems are more serious, some rely on humor, but there’s more interleaving, better balance, than I’d realized. I also found that major themes in the manuscript often appeared as minor mentions in poems not overtly about that major theme. So a poem about family might include a military mention. A poem about the military includes a reference to abuse. I hadn’t thought about all of this while writing, of course. I just wrote. Things I wish I’d known or done:

I wish I’d been more proactive about getting feedback from writing friends. I got some, but I shouldn’t have been so timid to ask others. I even had an offer from one friend, an excellent editor, and I was “no, no, I’m good, you’re probably busy.”

I wish I’d asked for more advice during the entire process, from assembling to choosing places to submit. I’m better about asking for help now – I got tons of it while the book was being designed – but why did I isolate myself? I don’t even know. It just felt like something I had to slog through on my own.

I wish I’d known how vulnerable publishing would make me feel. It’s one thing to put out a few poems in journals, and everyone says “yay;” it’s quite another to put out a whole collection of just your stuff and no one else’s poems to prop it up. There are no ringers in my book, no solicited super-famous poets. Me. All me. I’m not the type of person that generally feels vulnerable; I’ve got backbone from my skull down to my heels. But publishing a book… it’s all out there, and it’s taking all my reservoirs of brave.

I wish I’d known I wanted to work on a whole collection of military/war inspired poems (my current project); I’d have left out the military poems in Frost.

I wish I didn’t already have two tattoos; I’d take that snaking cover image of frost on a blade of grass, courtesy of a scanning electron microscope, and have it tattooed around one of my calves. Oh yes, I would.

OA: Who are your inspirations among living poets? Among past poets, who would you like to meet for coffee?

KS: Living: I will give a quick ten. Christopher Buckley, Nancy Eimers, Martin Espada, Jane Hirschfield, Yusef Komunyakaa, Philip Levine, Mary Ruefle, James Tate, Natasha Trethewey, Dara Wier. For their poems, yes, but some of these are folks I know or have met and have deep admiration for how they handle words, poems, people, and life in general. I’m leaving out at least 200 more. This is always the hardest question – you’re asking me to sort and rank my version of baseball cards.

Deceased, for coffee: Anne Sexton. Sappho. Sylvia Plath. Hart Crane. Shakespeare. Wallace Stevens. Agha Shahid Ali. Walt Whitman. Emily Dickinson. Another list that must remain incomplete and barely brushed. But then I think, who could I tell? I mean, let’s say I did just have coffee with William Shakespeare. Oh, and he told me EVERYTHING. You wouldn’t believe me. My husband wouldn’t believe me. I would check myself in somewhere, but still, I would know I had this conversation, and all these answers to giant literary mysteries, and those answers would still die with me. Walt Whitman, I wouldn’t be able to help myself, I’d lean across the table and give him one big, sloppy kiss. Probably Sappho, too. Guess I’m not above the need for bragging rights. But again, who could I tell?

OA: What is on your desk? Who are you reading right now, and why?

KS: My desk is the dining room table, and it’s a hand-me-down from someone’s college apartment that we’ve never cared enough to upgrade. The surface is flaking. My kids have sat here for meals ever since they could hold themselves upright. We’ve made at least a dozen baking soda, vinegar, and red food coloring volcanoes on it. It’s not pretty.

Dennis and I say we’ll replace it when the kids go to college, but I’d bet 20 years from now we’ll still have the same table. Hopefully I’ll still be sitting at it, writing poems.

Mmmm, who am I reading now? I just got books of poetry by Rafael Campo, Tracy K. Smith, and Patricia Fargnoli, so I’ve been pecking at those. I’m also working on Ann Aguirre’s Sirantha Jax sci-fi series. It’s good to take breaks from poetry and read sci-fi, and it’s good to take breaks from sci-fi and read poetry.

OA: What is the role of your military time in your work?

KS: Large. It’s not that the military enters all of my poems, but it does enter my work ethic and work stamina, and somehow it’s one of those things always tickling my brain. I don’t talk about it much, but on some deep level it’s part of me. I’m someone who loved being a soldier, absolutely loved it – the discipline it required, the pride it gave me, the sense of being part of my country in a very meaningful way. At the same time, the military is too large an organization with too difficult a mission to be anything but flawed, sometimes deeply. When we say “defending our country,” we sometimes mean “killing people,” and that’s a lot to reconcile even when it is ultimately good and justified, and especially when it is not. I freely admit that I can’t always wrap my mind around it, so some of my work is about my inability to come to terms with what a military must do.

OA: Many of your poems are grounded in space and time, but the times and places vary. Are you connected to a particular place?

KS: I love where I live: Amherst, Massachusetts. I drive by Emily Dickinson’s house every day. Western Massachusetts is gorgeous with many outdoors opportunities – my favorite things. The people here tend to be liberal, thoughtful, and engaged. Diversity and education are valued here. We do have our small-town squabbles, but then another issue comes along and people who were opposed are on the same side again. It’s a good reminder that some issues do not have to be divisive.

I also love traveling. I go to a desert – usually the Sonoran – every year or two for backpacking and feel very connected to that environment. Sleeping next to the prickly pear and cholla cactus, under the spin of stars, is an amazing way to reconnect to the world and to my family. My kids are excellent backpackers, excellent travelers. I am so grateful.

OA: Your book is divided into numbered sections. What is the significance of the sections?

KS: I took the advice of many writers who’ve mentioned such things, plus my own sense of my book, to use the numbered sections as rest space, a sort of pat on the back to readers: “Look! You made it through the first section! Take a break, have a cup of coffee.” That, and in my mind I felt the tone of the sections changing, from somewhat bleak to increasingly hopeful and tender. Now that I’ve said that, I guarantee an excellent reviewer will read it differently and I’ll say “Oh, I never realized that!” That’s been one of the joys of having people read and respond to my work – first, they think I’m way, way smarter than I am and give me tons of credit I probably don’t deserve. Second, they have a reader’s insights which, as the writer, it is unlikely I will have. Readers don’t carry around all the baggage I have connected to these poems – for instance, there’s one poem, “Skeleton Key,” that’s received a good amount of attention.

What I remember is the frustration of trying to write “Skeleton Key” while my kids were home and awake. They were toddlers and needed things, probably survival things like food, and who can blame them? I don’t usually write in this situation, but I had these lines I just had to get down. When I read the poem, I can still feel the veil of that frustration, that clouding.

“Skeleton Key” almost didn’t make the manuscript, and I’ve never chosen it at a reading. I should probably forgive that poem for whatever lingers within.

OA: Was there anything left behind that we can expect to emerge in your future work?

KS: Certainly more military poems – it’s exciting to have a project that’s thematic. But I’m not writing military poems continuously, so who knows what else will come? I would love to be so bold as to delve into forms. I’ve learned how to let my lines go, and forms would be a useful way to try reigning them back in.

I say that now, but watch: In a month it’ll be “Ugh, SESTINA, you are killing me!”