Thursday, August 7, 2014

Writers on the Writing Process: An Interview with Poet Karen Paul Holmes

poet Karen Paul Holmes
Karen Paul Holmes is the author of the poetry collection Untying the Knot (Kelsay Books, 2014). Credits include Poetry East, Atlanta Review, POEM, The Sow’s Ear Poetry Review, and the Southern Poetry Anthology Vol 5: Georgia (Texas Review Press). In 2012, she received an Elizabeth George Foundation grant.

Laura Davis: Where do you write? Paint us a word picture. Put us there. And that other place you like. Or just send a real picture.

Karen Holmes: I write the best at my cottage on Lake Chatuge on the border of Georgia and North Carolina in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The place practically hangs over the lake, so the almost-floor-to-ceiling windows make me feel a bit like I’m on a cruise ship (but without the mojitos and Macarena). Just lake and sky and mountains forever.

LD: What is your favorite exercise that gets the words flowing? 

KH: I like it when a workshop leader provides a bank of words that must be used in a poem (such as “son, ripple, candle, wound, stitch, peach”). For me, one or more of the words almost always sets up a whole series of images and memories, and the poem begins to flow. I’ve written some of my best poems this way. I often delete many of the “required” words in the editing process, but they were important in inspiring the poem.

LD: Describe the process of making a recent poem or story. Lightning? Slow-dripping faucet? How long did you work on it?

KH: Lately, lightning strikes but I haven’t been jotting down the ideas, so they leave me as quickly as they came, unfortunately. The last time I tried to write new poems, I was at the beach for a writing retreat, which normally inspires me. Knowing I had to break my inertia, I went to my old idea file and started eeking out a few poems I’d been meaning to write for a while. I’d describe that process as trying to wring water out of a slightly damp washcloth. But (thank goodness there’s a but), the very last poem I wrote did pour put of me like a fireman’s hose. My sister had called to tell me she had breast cancer, and that night I wrote a short, intense prose poem about it. When I took the poem to my critique group, they loved it and had few editing suggestions. I wish I had not had that particular reason to be inspired, but I am happy with the poem and think it will speak to others. I really do believe the creative spark comes from somewhere other than ourselves. I’ve often looked at old notes I've written (usually lines for a poem or metaphor ideas) and do not even remember writing them.

LD: What writing implement do you wield and why?

view from Karen's cottage at Lake Chatuge
KH: Computer! (Laptop, specifically). Although sometimes, like when sitting on the dock, I write with pen in a notebook. But as soon as possible, I dash to the keyboard to start moving things around and experimenting with line breaks, alternate word choices, order, etc. Also, the Internet helps with research to add detail to poems. For example, I learned a lot about knots (there’s one called a “monkey’s fist!”) to help with my book’s titular poem, “Untying the Knot.”

I’m basically a lazy person. Without a computer as a tool, my poems would probably languish unfinished. I also just have to see my poems printed out, pretty early in the composition process—to really read them more carefully and see what they look like on the page. When a poem seems complete, I often use the laptop’s recording feature to record myself reading it, because that also helps me edit.

LD: How do you decide that you are finished working on a story, essay, or poem?

KH: Finished? Is that a word that applies to a poem? I do consider some poems finished, but never are they exempt from tweaking a word or comma or line break if I haven’t looked at them in a while and something suddenly jumps out at me. When a poem doesn't feel finished and I’m stuck, I do one of a few things: 1. Bring it to my critique group, 2. Put it in a folder called “needs work” and forget about it for a while, 3. Go back to the stanza or line that’s bothering me and work on it until I have that “ah, that’s the solution” feeling. It’s a sort of feeling more than an intellectual thing. I recently pulled one out that seemed hopelessly sucky and had been sitting unlooked at for a year. But I liked the topic (an anonymous young couple had paid my 86-year-old mother’s check at a restaurant), so I edited the heck out of it and took it to critique. They loved the idea but suggested a reordering of stanzas. I did that, submitted it, and got it accepted into an anthology on aging (while many of my favorite “finished” poems continue to get rejected!). Time and fresh eyes can revitalize a stuck poem.


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