Conversation with Karen Head

On Negotiating Time and Place: A Conversation with Karen Head on her forthcoming fifth book of poetry, Lost on Purpose, Iris Press, 2019

Karen Head’s new collection of poems, Lost on Purpose, is both a powerful meditation on the poetics of memory and travel–and an unforgettable sequence of love lyrics. The poems are playful, memorable, and very moving.

Head is the author of Disrupt This!: MOOCs and the Promises of Technology (a nonfiction book about issues in contemporary higher education), as well as four books of poetry (Sassing, My Paris Year, Shadow Boxes and On Occasion: Four Poets, One Year). She also co-edited the poetry anthology Teaching as a Human Experience: An Anthology of Poetry, and has exhibited several acclaimed digital poetry projects, including her project “Monumental” (part of Antony Gormley’s One and Other Project) which was detailed in a TIME online mini-documentary. Her poetry appears in a number of national and international journals and anthologies. In 2010 she won the Oxford International Women’s Festival Poetry Prize.

Head has held residencies at the Hambidge Center for the Creative Arts and Sciences and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts-France.She has also taught in study abroad programs in Barcelona, Spain and Oxford, England.

She serves as Editor of the international poetry journal Atlanta Review, and as secretary for the Poetry Atlanta Board of Directors. On a more unusual note, she is currently the Poet Laureate of Waffle House—a title that reflects an outreach program to bring arts awareness to rural high schools in Georgia, which has been generously sponsored by the Waffle House Foundation. She is an Associate Professor in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at the Georgia Institute of Technology, where she also serves as the Executive Director of the Naugle Communication Center. For fifteen years, Head has been a visiting artist and scholar at the Institute for American Studies at Technische Universität Dortmund in Germany.

Head grew up as an Army Brat—one reason she loves to travel so much, and has family in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. She is a native of Atlanta, Georgia, where she lives with her very English husband, and fellow traveler, Colin Potts.

The collection opens with “Residency” – a prologue poem that is a reflection on solitude and observation – and closes on the epilogue “What We Missed,” which is a poem of companionship. What was your thought process behind these choices? How do you feel these poems are in conversation with one another and with the larger manuscript as a whole?

“Residency” is a about a kind of solitude, but there are several people present in the poem: the speaker, the painter, the photographer, and the man playing the accordion. In many ways, I think the book moves from the collective to a more intimate place at the end. “What We Missed” is about narrowing the experience of being a couple, but even there it is a poem that implicates other. “The things that would have destroyed us” is as much a reference about other people as it is about events and things that would have passed between the couple in the poem. So much of the book is influenced by my personal life changing drastically a decade ago—finding a life partner who happens to be English. I began then, and continue, to read more closely English poets like Betjeman and Larkin. In the collection there are direct tributes to both poets, but I think this is also something more. “What We Missed” has the color (or should I say colour) of English sentiment rather than American earnestness. Rereading it now, I cannot help be think of Larkin’s lines from “An Arundel Tomb”:

Time has transfigured them into

Untruth. The stone fidelity

They hardly meant has come to be

Their final blazon, and to prove

Our almost-instinct almost true:

What will survive of us is love.

The “conversations” throughout the book are very much my American (and Southern) self at work negotiating the complications of other places and cultures.

There is such a sense of joy in the rebelliousness in this collection. Specifically I am thinking of lines like “because where I’m from/will not dictate where I am going” from ‘Time Passages” or “The Secret Garden.” Can you speak more to this?

Joy, yes. In my mind, I think what reads as rebelliousness is actually confidence—the kind of self-assurance that comes with age and experience. The poems often balance reflection with a recognition of what’s happening in the present and future. It is important to “know where you came from,” but it is equally important not to make that a single frame for yourself.

Your poem “Time Passages” has a section called Time Lordwhere you write “as subtle as the line between look and leap,/ between what we know and what we believe.” What do you make of this title?

We only master time in so much as what we leave to time. Poetry is something that will survive me, but it will also engage future readers in ways I cannot anticipate. What I believe will never change between poets and their readers is that poetry will continue to challenge notions of what we think we know.

Years ago, I attended a reading where a few poets identified as being Grady babies—meaning one is Atlanta born and bred. As a former northerner I learned the importance (and rarity!) of this—a point of pride for Atlanta natives—and seem to recall you also sharing that you are a Grady baby.Can you elaborate on what being an Atlanta poet looks like for you?

I’m a Crawford Long baby, which is to say, I was born on Peachtree Street. As a Southern writer, I’m always in conversation with place. Or, as Welty argued more eloquently in her essay “Place in Fiction,”

It is our describable outside that defines us, willy-nilly, to others, that may save us, or destroy us, in the world; it may be our shield against chaos, our mask against exposure; but whatever it is, the move we make in the place we live has to signify our intent and meaning.

As I said earlier, this group of poems is always about negotiating place(s): where I am from, where I am, where I will go.

How do you find that your work at Atlanta Review informs your writing?

Being an editor means making choices about what your readers will have access to in your journal. We publish less than one percent of the poems submitted, so there are definitely great poems that don’t get included in our journal. As a writer, it can be easy to take rejections personally, or to assume that your work is not meeting some standard. Again, this is merely an experience of place and time. If you submitted the same work a few months later, it would resonate (or not) with readers in different ways. That’s why is it is critical for a writer to stay true to their own poetic mission and style. You should never compromise the way you make art merely to get published in a certain place. Finding the right home for a poem is as important as writing it.

Personal and universal transformation through geography is a common thread in most of your collections. In your book, My Paris Year, you explore the evolution of self and your relationship to Paris through poetry. How would you compare and contrast that experience in relation to Lost on Purpose?  Do you consider yourself somewhat divided between your UK and US experiences or do they resonate with one another?

“My Paris Year” is a very solitary book. It is a book about loneliness. It is a book about being lost, but not on purpose, and the struggle to find a way to overcome that sense of loss. After nearly a decade, I feel entirely bi-cultural where the U.K. is concerned. My husband often says I am more English that he is. I find the cultural differences fascinating, but I slip in and out being in the UK in the same way I slip in and out of being in the US. The register changes, but I am equally comfortable in both places.

You mentioned Larkin and Betjeman earlier. What other English poets are you reading these days? Which English writers do you wish had a larger American or global audience and why?

 Interestingly, I think even the Romantics aren’t as familiar to many American readers. From a contemporary standpoint, however, I really enjoy Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry, but I think her work is more widely known because she is the current laureate. As for poets Americans might not know, I absolutely adore the poetry of Agnes Meadows, who is the host of the long running Loose Muse Poetry Reading Series at the Poetry Café in London. Not only is her work amazing, but I am so impressed by her commitment to the broader poetry community. She is constantly promoting other writers and their work—and that is something I would like to see more writers do for each other.

The title poem “Lost on Purpose,” gives the reader an intimate view into the ephemera at the Lost Property office on Baker Street—yellowed false teeth, garden gnomes, a red enamel saucepan—as well as the personal losses the speaker imagines asking after there: granny’s shamrock brooch, an amber ring, a tiny silver key. What series of events inspired both the title of the collection and the title poem with all of its descriptive curiosities?

Many of my American friends think that the Lost Property office is a fictional place. It isn’t. It feels like part curiosity shop, part thrift store, part museum, and part movie set prop room. There is no way to visit there and not wonder about how much we lose in our lives, and how much we chooseto lose. How could you possibly lose an urn, for example? For me the poem is about the losses we cannot control and the ones we can.

When one considers the title poem it is hard not to wonder if Bishop’s “One Art” was a bit of an influence. What poets and writers would you say have informed this book? Also, as there are a number of poems after artists and photographers—Henri Cartier Bresson, Mina Loy, Caillebotte, Louise Dahl-Wolfe to name a few—what artists would you say have also inspired you and how?

There is no way that “One Art” wouldn’t spring to the minds of readers who know the poem, but it wasn’t a direct influence when I wrote the title poem. When I stumbled upon the Lost Property Office, I knew I had to write about it.

Visual work (and by extension, ekphrasis) is very influential for me. As I mentioned, I think that the British writers like Larkin are definitely “present” in the collection, especially in the UK section. The Continental poems are inspired more directly from the sense of place. Perhaps this is because there is a language barrier—my relationship to Paris and Barcelona, as examples, is more visceral and less intellectual.

There is a wise reassurance present throughout this collection; even when the poem may set up the reader to prepare for the sinister, there is usually a subsequent confirmation of the benign.  I am thinking of poems like “Whitby” or “But for the Grace” that begin with a warning and end with a grounding in the senses. Can you explore this with us?

 Both of those poems are the result of sangfroid, I think. Again, age and experience reframe what once would have been situations filled with insurmountable anxiety/fear. The speaker in both poems has learned to be more open, more “in the moment,” and, consequently more content and comfortable.

You have such a deft sense of humor in your powers of observation. Specific moments that come to mind are in “Encountering Mary Outside Lourdes” where you reveal that there is a Discothèque named My Sweet Lord, or the line from “When the Dog Bites…”: “this angry bit of French white fluff…/that attacked me like I was a Norman/intent on invading the village.” And of course, “The Other Side of the Tracks.” Who are your comedic influences?  What makes you laugh?

 Here I think my Southern roots show. Despite not having been well-educated, I often hear my maternal grandmother’s voice in my head. She always had a way of finding the humor in things. Life is full of hilarious moments, if you just look around. Earlier you asked about influences; one of those is Marilyn Kallet, whose poetry has the same quality of humor that my grandmother used to deliver. Marilyn’s mother was from the South, so maybe there is some connection there. I often worry that people think poetry shouldn’t be funny, but that’s a mistake. The poems you mention take as their center points very serious issues, but I use humor to disarm the reader a bit. Humor doesn’t make a poem less serious, but it can make it more accessible. I’ve often heard that actors say it is easier to perform drama than comedy. I think the same might be said about integrating humor into poetry.

In the 2019 Jan/Feb issue of Poets & Writers Atlanta poet Mario Chard quoted fellow Atlanta poet Jericho Brown: “Real gratitude looks like responsibility.” How does this observation speak to you? What are your thoughts on poetry as an act of gratitude and prayer of thanks?

In the book, I have the poem entitled “Writing Poetry is a Luxury,” and I believe that the sense of luxury is reflective of Virginia Woolf’s arguments about the importance of resources and opportunities to write. By extension, every poem is a responsibility because you have been given the gift of time and place and opportunity to write that poem. For me that gratitude extends into my classroom when I work with student writers, and into the pages of Atlanta Review. Promoting the work of others, especially those who have less time, are in difficult places, and have few opportunities, is a responsibility that, executed thoughtfully, can change the world.

What is your take on the world of poetry publishing versus the world of poetry creating? Can you share some of your experiences in working with Iris Press?

 The presses that continue to publish poetry are to be commended over and again. It is laudable work that too often goes unacknowledged. No poetry press does this work for their bottom line; they do it because they are passionate about the importance of art. So many great presses, despite their commitment to poetry, have had to close their doors. Sales are too low for them to sustain operations. That’s why if you are a writer, you should advocate for other writers and their publishers. Do you buy books? Do you give books as gifts? Being part of the writing community means full engagement. This relates back to the notion that realgratitude is about responsibility. Iris has been wonderful to work with, and I am both honored and comforted by my experience with them. A publisher is a “home” for your work, and you want to feel that you are in a happy and nurturing home. I definitely feel that from Iris.

–Interview by Julie E. Bloemeke

(Karen Head’s photo is by Colin Potts.)

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