Friday Feature: Interview with Karen Schubert

Each week, the editors of Jenny Magazine sit down with either fellow literary magazine editors or past Jenny contributors for short interviews. This week’s interview is with Karen Schubert, a past contributor of Jenny Magazine.

Describe your first publication. Where was it, when, and what was the piece about? How old were you at the time and how did it feel?

My first publication was four poems in Penguin Review, 2003, the year I came to YSU to finish the degree I had started twenty-some years earlier. The poems are lyric reflections on domestic life.

I was ecstatic. It meant so much to me, and I know that was part of the pleasure of working on the Penguin Review staff in subsequent years, and Whiskey Island at Cleveland State, offering publication to other poets and writers.

I love being part of that conversation: submissions, acceptances (or rejections), publication. Even when I receive a rejection, I think it’s cool that someone in Alaska or Alabama read my poems, and as editor, I always did a little happy dance when there were submissions in my mailbox, that writers in Kansas and New York thought enough of our publication to send their work in.

What inspired your pieces in the Jenny?

It’s fun looking back at these publications. In both Penguin Review and Jenny, I was in such good company! I have four poems in this issue, as well. “At the Event Museum” was inspired by the idea that sometimes an event subsumes the place where that event happened. For example, Kent State: obviously, it’s a place, but sometimes when we say “Kent State,” we mean an event that happened there. I imagine a museum where every room is an event-place like that, like Hiroshima, Chernobyl, Gettysburg.

“Five Inches of Rain” is based on a flooded road my daughter drove into. I had been most worried about my son, who had a long commute that night, and he called to say he was home safely. I didn’t know my daughter planned to be out — and when she told me later what happened, I was really rattled.

I wrote “The Willing” after a number of kids in my kids’ middle school and high school died by accident or suicide. It was terrifying how many we lost — as many as twenty, I think. The kids in the community went to so many funerals, they began to compare them, as social events—who had balloons, things like that. I was so worried my own kids would normalize that. When we moved to the Lakeview school district, no one had ever heard of such a thing, and it was a relief, but also I think my daughter felt that it would be hard for anyone to understand what she had been through.

“Wake” came from an exercise I gave at a writing conference. We had to pull from a list of words the participants chose, and I just started writing. The restriction was interesting, and it was one of those rare poems I didn’t tinker with much afterwards.

What got you into writing?

I have always loved poetry. I’d forgotten that, and heard my mom telling someone a few years ago. Just now my mom is moving and is bringing me boxes from my childhood that have been in her attic. I sorted through one today, and it’s full of poems clipped from magazines, and some hand-written poems by classmates who, I now remember, would slip them to me like they were contraband. I wrote a few as well, the sentimental-philosophical verse of youth.

Right before I came to YSU, my life was changing dramatically, and I just began to write, that kind of urgency when you drop the groceries in the hall so you can run and get down the poem you started in your head at the store. I came to YSU with a handful of poems and luck would have it my first semester I had Dr. Will Greenway for Introduction to Literature. He pointed me to the Penguin Review and encouraged me to continue writing. I learned a lot about writing and publishing from Dr. Steve Reese and Dr. Phil Brady, as well. I stayed for an M.A. because I felt I couldn’t write if I didn’t know much about the tradition, and then pursued my M.F.A. in the NEOMFA.

What do you like writing the most? Is there a certain style you prefer?

I like mixing it up. My first love is poetry, but my first short story came out this year, and I also like creative non-fiction.

I like different styles of poetry, as well. The minimalist poem with the linebreak has its pleasurable challenges, in making each word carry its own weight, and using the breaks to create tension and timing. I also like the talkiness of the prose poem format, the way I can mess around with tone and narrative. I like to write in an emotional range, as well, using humor as a tool to prod and also to lighten, and I try to be unflinching in the face of dark matters.

What are your influences? Who are your favorite writers?

I admire and seek to learn from poets and writers who are great and intelligent storytellers, with a sense of control of language, and appreciation for the beauty of language. I’m thinking of James Harms, the way each poem contains a world. I am crazy about Nin Andrews’s latest book, Why God is a Woman, challenging gender roles in such an engaging way. Steve Reese’s American Dervish with its heels up movement. Ohio novelist Lawrence Coates, scenes I recall as if I’d been there. The mischievous wordplay of poet Katerina Stoykova-Klemer. Poets Campbell McGrath, Bruce Bond, Kimberly Johnson; novelists Orhan Pamuk, Barbara Kingsolver, Louise Erdrich; essayist Adam Gopnik.

What’s your proudest moment as an author?

Winning the Wick Poetry Center open chapbook prize for I Left My Wings on a Chair.

How has your writing developed over time?

I started out pretty autobiographical. I still process experience and memory through poetry, but I also like writing from other spaces, like art or culture. I Left My Wings on a Chair is a collection of prose poems, and several are imagined scenes that push against a cultural idea. For example, “Death Wish” takes a humorous swipe at the idea that we say someone died “doing what they love” if they fall out of the sky in an ultralight, but not if they die from too much chocolate cake.

Are you currently working on anything?

Couple things. I have been posting about books of contemporary poetry on a Lit Youngstown blog we’re calling Kickstand. It’s a poetry book conversation blog — books we recommend and invite comment on. When I read a great collection of poems, I want to talk with others who have read it, so that’s the impetus. I have been writing mimetics after these books, and I find it such a pleasure to go looking for the elements of another poet’s poems and to try and take them up, myself.

I’m also writing a few non-fiction essays, most recently on fear, another on posture.

I recently read Best American Poetry 2010 and there is an excerpt of a long poem called “A Jar of Balloons or The Uncooked Rice” by Matthew Yeager. It’s a series of questions, pages and pages of questions, that are deceptively evocative. So I’ve been writing a poem-answer for each of these questions, most recently a question about using the small or the large spoon. It seems like a small question, but it’s not.

What’s your writing process?

I don’t have a writing schedule, like many do, and I wish I had one. But when I look at my life, it fits a pattern. I tend to do things obsessively for awhile and then do something else, in a kind of loop, so I keep coming back to writing. I think with writing, I am often working out an idea in my mind, so that when I sit down to write about it, it’s well underway.

A few years ago I had a summer residency at Headlands Center for the Arts in the national parkland just north of San Francisco, and that was a luxury beyond belief; so few responsibilities and all the time in the world to write and to walk the coastal trails thinking about writing. I was surrounded the whole summer by writers and artists and our rich conversation also fed me. It was the most prolific I’ve ever been, finishing three long interviews, editing a chapbook, writing many poems and a short story, making good traction on my novel. By the time I left nearly everything was accepted for publication. But when I’m home writing slips back into the big swirl.

What are you currently reading?

I typically am in the process of a magazine, a book of prose and a book of poems. I’m nearly to the end of Sandra Cisneros’s Loose Woman, a fun and raucous book of poems of Mexican-American female archetypes. I’m also reading the novel The Time of our Singing by Richard Powers. It’s a compelling story about the three musically gifted children of an African American mother and a German-Jewish refugee father, who grow up in America in the 1950s. Where I am now in the book, the two boys have just left Julliard to enter important contests. Powers’s command of language is sublime. I sometimes go back and re-read a sentence just because it’s so gorgeous. Here’s a paragraph I read last night:

Sometimes he crawled down a well of despondence and wouldn’t come out, certain that every note coming out of him sounded like dried dung. He’d try singing into a corner. He’d life flat on his back on the wooden floor, singing to the ceiling. Anything to get his two hundred singing muscle groups to agree. He’d lie there after I stopped playing, crushed under an ocean of atmosphere. “Mule. Help. Remind me.”

Have you ever worked with a medium other than writing? Or collaborated with someone in another medium with your writing?

I haven’t, no; but Lit Youngstown is hosting a series of readings in the Jewish Community Center’s Thomases Family Gallery, and we’re inviting the writers to write ekphrastically, to write from the art. Additionally we’re working on a project we’re calling Words Made Visible, pairing writers with visual artists. So a writer might work with a ceramicist to create a mask or other object from a piece of writing, or work with a painter, graphic artist or sculptor. I think those collaborations are thrilling. Local graphic artist Michael Staaf asked me once why writers don’t see themselves as visual artists, and that really changed the way I think.

Are you a past Jenny contributor or an editor at a literary magazine and interested in an interview? Send us an email.


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