Sunday, September 27, 2015

An Interview with Poet Karen Paul Holmes

                               Winter trees reveal a drop off
                               inches from the road’s thin shoulder.

                               Some teachings call this universe an illusion:
                               We all share a dream, a nightmare really,
                               where we’re separate beings.

                                         - from "Scenic Bypass, Blue Ridge Mountains" by Karen Paul Holmes

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Karen Paul Holmes is the author of a poetry collection, Untying the Knot (Aldrich Press 2014). Formerly the VP of Communications at a global financial services company, Karen is now a freelance business writer, poet and writing coach. In support of writers and audiences, Karen founded and hosts the Side Door Poets critique group in Atlanta and Writers’ Night Out in the Blue Ridge Mountains. She received an Elizabeth George Foundation emerging writer grant in 2012 and has studied with poets Thomas Lux, Dorianne Laux, Joseph Millar, William Wright, Kevin Young, and Carol Ann Duffy, among others. Publishing credits include Poetry East, Atlanta Review, Caesura, The Sow’s Ear Poetry Review, The Southern Poetry Anthology Vol 5: Georgia, and Stone, River, Sky (Negative Capability Press). She grew up in Michigan and has an MA in musicology from the University of Michigan.

*   *   *
[This interview was conducted via email in August 2015.]

Tell us a little about your book Untying the Knot.

KPH: First of all, thank you for this interview, Nancy. I appreciate your interesting questions.

Untying the Knot is a memoir in poetry. Sometimes mad, sad, funny, and/or forgiving, the poems recount the sudden end of my long-time marriage and the healing process.

In Untying the Knot, what is one of more crucial or important poems for you personally? Why?

KPH: I find it extremely difficult to describe nature, and therefore not much of my poetry does this. I workshopped this poem with Dorianne Laux at the Sarah Lawrence Summer Seminar, which gave me the confidence to include it in the book. Lines in the poem came to me on a walk, and I really did get hit on the head by acorns. It was an unusually beautiful day but in the midst of the stunning beauty, I was stunned by sadness. That’s how grief works, doesn’t it? One of the reasons the poem is important for me personally is that it reflects my belief that joy can always be found in the present moment – uncovering it is not always easy but we always have the option of choosing joy, or at least peace.


Despite the wind
poplars hang on to their leaves.
They catch the light and flutter like gilded eyelids,
jiggle like coins on a belly dancer’s hip scarf.
Whitecaps jostle my dock,
lake darker than the sky.
Those distant mountains, dusty-red with autumn,
recall Sedona’s rocks,
but green grass and willows speak
of lush Appalachia.

Joy surges
mixed with the old longing: that need to share.
The cherry tree over there—blooming
and showing orange foliage at the same time—
must be as confused as I am
since the gusty lusty breath of Catherine
blew away the colors of my marriage,
forced the black and white of divorce.

Suddenly, a shower of acorns bounces
off my head, knocking me back
into the windy, sunny present.

When Untying the Knot was published, it being your first full-length book, were there things you thought would happen, yet didn’t? unexpected things that did happen?

KPH: I guess you never know how you’ll feel when you actually have the book in your hands. I’m a recovering perfectionist, and I tried very hard not to second guess myself about what poems should have been deleted and/or edited more, but I did do that a bit and even started to question whether the whole thing was crap.

I didn’t know how strange it would feel going public. I felt bare naked, and I still cringe a little thinking of how much of my personal life I revealed, and also that of my ex and his girlfriend. But people praised me for being so honest with my feelings. Because of that honesty and because most people have gone through some kind of loss, people really related to the book -- poets and non-poets, men and women. That reaction was a pleasant surprise. It was also an affirmation of my intent to write poetry that touches people in some positive way.

I see you have a degree in musicology. If you were a musical instrument, which one would you be? Why?

KPH: Could I be the tune instead? I’d like to be a melody that lingers in the memory… in a good way.

When do you remember first being interested in poetry? Was there a mentor who encouraged you?

KPH: In about 6th grade, I created an illustrated journal of poems I liked for a school assignment. I still have it. Richard Wilbur’s "Boy at the Window" is in it, and I remember being absolutely touched by the poignancy of that poem. Then in 8th grade, I won some sort of poetry contest. That teacher, Miss Darby, and also my inspirational 12th grade English teacher, Mrs. Schwartz, are my friends on Facebook so I’ve happily been able to thank them for their influence on my life.

When you write, do you imagine a reader? If so, what type of reader?

KPH: The angel on my shoulder imagines a sympathetic reader who feels just like I do about things. The devil on the other shoulder thinks about a strict critic who expects perfection. In my first draft, I try to keep that devil out.

Tell us about "Writers’ Night Out". Is it a reading series? What prompted you to start it?

KPH: Once I started reading my poems in public (the first time was in front of the then Poet Laureate of N. Carolina, Kathryn Stripling Byer), I became an open mic junkie. I live in Atlanta but spend many weekends in the mountains. Up there, I started attending a Wednesday morning “Coffee with the Poets” with open mic. I decided to start "Writers’ Night Out" to give working folks a chance to come, and also to make it more of a date night on a Friday night. In the small mountain towns, there are a lot of writers and also a lot of tourists looking for interesting things to do. It is a monthly event, open to the public. We feature a poet or prose writer for about 20 minutes and then an open mic. Audience size ranges from 10-35 people—couples and singles—from four counties. We get 5-12 people reading at the open mic, often including really good writers/readers in their 70s and 80s and sometimes college kids. Many of us meet for dinner beforehand. We have featured some pretty well known writers from North and South Carolina and Georgia.

What are you working on now?

KPH:I’m a little scattered. I’m writing miscellaneous new poems as the inspiration hits. But I’ve got two books about 90% complete and can’t seem to say “Okay, done, time to send to a publisher.” One centers on family poems about the melding of my dad’s culture (Macedonian) with my mom’s (Russian/Irish settled in Australia) in the U.S.

Finally, what advice would you give to an aspiring writer?

KPH: Keep at it. Share and get feedback. I wrote for years, but kept everything in a notebook for no one but myself. While that was satisfying, what really made poetry a special part of my life was sharing my work, having it critiqued, and working to make it better. My poet friends are now some of my best friends. There’s nothing better than being in a community of like-minded people. And that’s how I met you, Nancy. Thanks again for wanting to spend this time with me.

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