Karen Skolfield’s book Frost in the Low Areas (2013) won the 2014 PEN New England Award in poetry and the First Book Award from Zone 3 Press, and is a Massachusetts “Must Read” selection for 2014. She is a 2014 Massachusetts Cultural Council fellow and winner of the 2014 Split This Rock poetry prize and the 2012 Oboh Prize from Boxcar Poetry Review. Skolfield is the poetry editor for Amherst Live, a twice-yearly production of poetry, politics, and more, and she’s a contributing editor at the literary magazines Tupelo Quarterly and Stirring. She teaches writing to engineers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she earned her Master of Fine Arts.
Tell us about your relationship to your art.
I’d wanted to be a writer since before I was a reader – I used to dictate stories to my mom during my baths. There were a lot of dinosaurs and they played baseball. I came to poetry much later, in college, with some reluctance: I thought I’d be a fiction writer. I did an MFA in poetry, then I let my writing slow way, way down, and then I had kids and realized that, for sanity’s sake, I had to do something for my brain. Poetry ramped way, way up, and I now feel poetry’s a part of me in ways it was not before I had my kids.
Poetry and I, we’re taking it slow, but I think we might go steady soon.
What's a project that has been exciting you lately?
I feel like I’m working on two poetry manuscripts at once: one is a series of poems in response to the culture of the military – I’m an Army veteran. The second is all the “other” poems that won’t go away while I’m trying to focus on the military. We’ll see if those threads of military and “other” end up getting woven together, or if they’ll stay separate.
Tell us a little of your motherhood journey.
I didn’t think I’d have kids for the longest time, until my 30s. I was the baby of the family and didn’t have a lot of kid experience, and it was hard to imagine actually wanting and enjoying children.
My friend Nathaniel told me that I’d want kids when I met the right person. He was wrong – first, I became friends with some families, and their kids were fabulous. I began to realize that I wanted to be a mom. After that came the right person.
Wait – when I put it like that, it doesn’t sound romantic at all, when it really was.
What are some crucial elements of your process? How has that changed since having children?
I have to say that simply being aware of a good line/idea as it enters my head is the difference between writing a poem or not on any given day. When that line goes through my brain, I have a very, very short amount of time to write it down. It’s incredibly frustrating when I had an opportunity, earlier in the day, and I didn’t get it on paper and now can’t remember what it was. My kids are my primary obligation, and thankfully they’re of the age – 8 & 10 – that I really can go “Hold on, kids, gotta write this note to myself” without worrying about them wandering into traffic or sticking rocks up their noses. At the same time, I don’t have the ability to drop their needs and go write the entire poem. I’ve learned to make peace with putting that one line on paper. My kids always seem to be hungry. Well, it’s snack time somewhere in the world, I guess.
What are some of the ways your family and your art interact?
I’ve had the absolute pleasure of taking poetry into several 3rd and 4th grade classrooms over the past two years and talking about craft, and also discussing and writing ekphrastic poetry. I had a blast, and the kids – my son was in one of the classes – were so enthusiastic. For one class, the teacher gave me an hour, so we looked at some famous works of art and read some ekphrastic poetry and talked about the artwork and poems, and then we wrote two ekphrastic poems using prompts such as “Pretend the sculpture can’t see itself. Talk to the sculpture and tell it what it looks like.” Then we’d build more of the poem using the description as a starting point. The kids had so much fun that after I left, the teacher used a copy of my PowerPoint slides of other works of art and they wrote yet another poem! I was so pleased!
Thanks to my son and daughter, when I came in the first time the kids and teachers all knew about my PEN New England award. I’ve had parents of their friends emailing to congratulate me. My kids are the best PR team a poet could want.
Do you find your attitude towards your art might be different because of your parenting / has it changed since you became a parent?
It’s hard to separate how my attitude has changed simply by aging and trying to take poetry more seriously versus how it’s changed because of being a parent. I like that my attitude toward poetry became more serious as I became a parent. I didn’t give up my art for my kids – if anything, that need for having an intellectual, just-for-me drive in my life in addition to parenting seems a very wonderful, natural thing, and I’m so grateful for both the poetry AND the kids.
Are your children ever subjects in your art?
I think it would be hard to keep my kids out of my poems, though there are certainly many poets who sharply partition their private lives from their art. I don’t want to write exclusively about my kids – I don’t want to write exclusively about anything – but neither do I want to exclude something fertile. I’ve written about the military, gardening, teaching, my family. I’ve written about my childhood, travel, news articles that caught my eye. I’ve written about my dogs. I’ve made up a lot of things. Hey, I just realized I’ve never written about my cat. That is so wrong.
I love it when something’s at risk in a poem, and that can happen with personal, autobiographical poetry. It can also happen with non-biographical poetry – I think of my teacher, James Tate, who can pull off the craziest things in poems and make them meaningful and essential without a scrap of his personal life showing.
Aside from the obvious need of more time, what has been one of the most difficult obstacles you’ve had in regards to parenting and your art?
Certainly, there are decisions I make about what to write in regards to my kids – things that are too close to the bone – and I know I’ll have to make those decisions many times in my life. I don’t want to embarrass them. Well, I can embarrass them a little, but I don’t ever want my words to hurt them.
In turn, what are some of the saving graces?
It’s so, so good for me to have other things to do besides write. I love my family life. I love teaching, too: I teach writing to engineers, which as you can imagine, does not involve poetry. All that human interaction keeps me from mildewing in front of a computer or fighting the whirlpool of self-doubt.
How do you escape?
Writing retreats. I’ve done four at Wellspring House in Massachusetts, one at Ucross in Wyoming, one at Vermont Studio Center, and I have one coming up this summer at Hedgebrook. My husband Dennis is wonderfully supportive of my writing and encourages me to go away whenever I can.
At the end of my retreats, I’m always a little burnt out and more than ready to escape, back to my home life. I like both the coming and the going.
What advice do you have for expectant mothers in your field?
Cut yourself a lot of slack when you have a baby and have a plan to do something good for yourself – exercise, writing, meditation, some combination of those things – once the baby arrives. Schedule it into the day with your partner or a caregiver that’s in your life. Even if it’s just 20 minutes – 10 minutes of fast walking or abdominal crunches, 10 minutes of writing – your brain and body will thank you.
The better you take care of yourself, the better you’ll be as a caretaker.
Also: Netflix is your friend. My son nursed constantly. I could probably teach a foreign film class at this point.
Also: babies are awesome. Enjoy!