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Poetry Spotlight: Karen Schubert - Poetry of Hybridity (podcast transcript S2, E4)

Jeremy Jusek: Welcome to Poetry Spotlight presented by the Ohio Poetry Association. I am your host, Jeremy Jusek. And with us today is Karen Schubert.

Kare Schubert photo
Karen Schubert
Karen is an author, co-founding director of Literary Youngstown, and multi-genre talented writer who has published poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, essays, reviews, interviews, and any other views you might consider. She's published six books, and her prose poem collection I Left My Winds on a Chair was the Wick Poetry Center poetry winner. Her awards include the William Dickey Memorial Broadside Award, an Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award in Poetry, and has held residencies at the Headlands Center for the Arts and the Vermont Studio Center. To learn more about Karen, please visit karenschubertpoetry.com.

Karen, thank you so much for joining us.

Karen Schubert: Oh this is such a kick, thanks so much for bringing me on. I’m honored and chuffed.

JJ: Thank you! The pleasure’s all mine. Do you want to start with a poem?

KS: Sure, I’d love to. I’m going to read a poem from my collection The Compost Reader. This collection sprang from something that happened while I was in residence at the Vermont Studio Center.

[Karen reads.]

JJ: Thank you, that’s wonderful. So let’s start your work as a teacher and community advocate. You’ve built a skillset that’s highly effective at empowering others and promoting new writers. Could you please talk about your efforts a little, and what drives you?

KS: Thank you for that, for the generosity embedded in that question. And I really appreciate it. I feel like I want to tell you a little bit about my story. I washed up on the shores of Youngstown State as a nontraditional student to finish a degree that I had started in my youth, and then life intervened. Like in Virginia Woolf’s novel Time Passes. And, I was so lucky that I ended up in Will Greenway’s literature survey class and he's a poet so I asked him: “is there a literary journal on campus.” And he said, “Yeah, why are you writing?” and I had this little fistful of poems and I showed them to him, and he had some ideas for me and encouraged me to keep writing. And the poems were very amateurish, but I'm so grateful that he just encouraged me to continue exploring.

So, I finished my degree in three years and stayed in for a master’s for another two and then I did the NEOMFA. In those eight years I took creative writing classes all the way through. And you know I edited the literary journals at Youngstown State in Cleveland State, and that gave me a seat at the table for some of the visiting writers that were coming in. I got to meet some incredible writers who gave me phenomenal advice, and I've been to their readings and workshops and just had so many experiences and I had people along the way who answered questions about publication, and conferences, and all of those things.

And so those were so valuable to me that I wanted to create—to make those experiences available to those who are seeking them, right? I mean a community-based literary center is a little different from academia, because people come in with different motivations and some are writing for us, for themselves, someone to tell right their family's story—and some are really interested in honing their craft and publishing.

And I love to make a space for people to make their own goals, but I really love being able to offer those kinds of experiences that were so valuable to me to others it's just, it's just so fun! And of course by doing that I'm also making them available to me again right we've been able to bring in all these really cool writers and do lots of fun stuff so. So that's what I'm up to.

JJ: That's nice. And you had more of that space when—because you were in two different residences. So what are those residences’ details and what did you work on while you were there?

KS: Oh my gosh residency is, well, I used to joke that there's so much I could get done without it, adult responsibilities. What it is, right? It's such a generous space I mean the idea that you can just go there and create art all day and then show up for these meals that have been deliciously prepared for you and be completely surrounded by writers and visual artists and you're having the conversation of a lifetime every day. I mean, it's so, so wonderful.

And I've been wildly lucky; my first residency was at Headland Center for the Arts which is funded by the Ohio Arts Council. It was really a life changing experience for me. Because it was a whole summer I was able to work on so many projects, too. I did some interviews and writing all kinds of different things and I was editing and submitting for publication. And then in the afternoon, walking these paths along the shore and San Francisco and, oh my gosh, it was pretty amazing and I made some lifelong friends.

And same with Vermont Studio Center, although I was there in January so it was a little bit different but—that was a month, so I had a project that I wanted to start and I just came with tons of notes so that I would be able to find my way in, but in the morning I would get up and read a whole book of poems, and then write, go to lunch, write, walk, and then have dinner. Sometimes they had programs in the evening. You just essentially stay in that writings zone, the whole time. It's pretty amazing and whenever I start thinking “oh, I'm so busy I'll never wrote another poem again!”, you know I just try to remember that I'm just busy, you know as soon as I make a space for that, you know and be able to do those things again. Yeah.

JJ: Is that zone hard to obtain? You know, is it easy to get into? I know I need to have some stability. You know, mentally—I just, I have to be in a good space.

KS: Yeah, I hear you I mean, yeah, I, when I was a student, I would be writing and in my mind, in all of those empty spaces, you know, driving class or whatever. But that space is full now. It is really tricky. It's been concerning me that I'm not writing as much as I want to. I did set some goals for myself and it helps to—usually I have some kind of idea in mind before I sit down and so I'm facing the blank page, in my mind, out in the world, before I sit down and face the blank page.

For example, we are leading some monthly workshops that we're calling poetry and tenses. They meet once a month, and in the afternoon we're having a different workshop leader come in and give a mini craft talk. And then we look at everyone's poems through the lens of that element. Okay. So Mary Biddinger will be coming in next and she'll be talking about the strangeness of imagery and language and poetry. And so we'll be looking at all the poems to see where the strangeness is or could be.

I was thinking about that and the other day I was thinking to myself like “I hate the way Facebook tracks us.” And I have Firefox and I have this little Firefox tracker so that whenever Facebook is trying to follow me around, I get this little icon—so that I know when to be annoyed.

It was amusing me though too because I was thinking I bet Facebook doesn't even know what to advertise to me because my searches are so odd right because I'm reading stuff and I'm like… the other day I was reading the short wonderful short story by John Edgar Wideman. And there were all these references to Freddie Jackson the singer, and I'm like “oh, Freddie Jackson who is that?” so I'm looking at them, reading that and then, then I did a search on bursitis because my shoulder is bothering me a little bit, and I'm like “I wonder if that's bursitis!”, you know, or “why is my cat shivering?” When I watch these movies, and then I was wondering if they'd won any awards. So, I thought “oh that'd be kind of a funny poem like the, the ads that are showing up on my Facebook wall.” So, that's kind of one way to do it—is just to have some ideas in mind so that by the time I sit down I've got some jumping off place.

But if I really, if I'm really stymied a sure way in is reading. I read at least a book of poetry every month, and right now I'm working on Hanif Abdurraqib because my book queue is sort of like my Netflix queue, like everything goes in the back and I pull from the front so it's never new, right? But this is Hanif Abdurraqib’s very first book, The Crown Ain't Worth Much. Oh my God, what a wonderful, exquisite, amazing book, and every poem of his is so vivid and reminds me of so many things. So, I feel like that's always a great mini prompt is just to sit down with somebody else's wonderful poems and write your way out of that space.

JJ: Yeah. Do you get inspired [after] reading? When I read poetry, I want to write as soon as I'm done reading it, you know?

KS: Yeah, I feel that. Yeah, exactly.

JJ: Cool.

So how did you get involved with prose poetry? You have a full collection. And I'm wondering what advantages and disadvantages did you notice while working on that project for an extended period of time.

KS: Um, I'm a big fan of prose poetry. I think I first learned about it in a class I took on writing and form, but maybe was just sort of osmosis because it's kind of out there, you know? I mean, don't you love writing now where form is just one of the things that are going on that are shaping a poem, and you know, it's not like we have to like pretzel up our syntax to make ‘moon’ and ‘June’ be in the right places, right? I really love that. And I have some favorite prose poets—I mean Lynn Andrews, a dear friend and I've read everything. Kathy McGookey—I was in an online workshop with the two of them for a while, and they're just masterful in the use of the prose poem. And I love how hope talky it can be, how narrative. I love being able to mess around with tone and persona.

But I don't actually start out writing a prose poem. I always start out with line breaks. And at some point I think to myself, “there's something about this phone that isn't working” And maybe I'll try some different forms. Like maybe there's a not enough white space, maybe it needs long lines. Short lines. And then sometimes I'll put it in the postponed format and as I'm going back and forth, you know… it's such a great way of editing. You find the spongy spots. You find the leaps of logic that aren't just playful but they're illogical. They’re leaps of logic, you know, and then sometimes it just lands in a prose poetry form. And then I realize it has this voice, and it just—it wants to be a little story. I love how prose poetry doesn't have like the demands of fiction, like I don't have to explain what's going on. It's a poem, right? It just jumps in and then it jumps out, and, and I think that's really fun too.

JJ: Cool, cool, cool. So, I want to talk about critiquing because you're an ardent reviewer, and I've read some of your interviews—they're great. I mean, the critique work is admirable I mean your essays in interviews, your languages is real specific, you're aware of where the heart of the poem is. And I want to know how did you get so good at this? I know it's a skill you can practice, but how do you practice something like that, besides just doing it?

KS: Thank you so much. I think it was at the end of grad school, and the first few years after grad school, including my residency had headlines when I was interviewing poets I really admired that, whom I had met and heard read and love their work so much—and I love doing it—but it was terrifying—they're brilliant you know it's, there's a real responsibility to it. You can't pitch a dumb question, you know, I mean we set it up so that we could do some post-mortem editing if we needed to make it worthwhile. You want to give them a platform for expressing their elegant beliefs. It’s just so much fun.

So that’s way I would do it: I would read all of the books they had read, and just make lots of notes, and always asked if this poem is making me feel something? And how does it work? How did the poem do that? And then try and bring the poem into that space, you know? Show me like—sometimes there's a lot of tension in a narrative because the poem ends at a moment and hints at what happens next, but the tension is still there. I remember asking James Harms, you know, when to hand it off to the reader.

I think part of it too is I spent some time studying journalism. And it helped me understand that language that narrative has a structure. Right, so both at home and a news article are delivering information. And the way it delivers information is just as critical as what that information is, and it just made me aware of that, I think, that there's this beautiful economy of language to it. And I really love that I'm going in and taking out every word that isn't carrying its own weight and seeing how other people are doing it. And I took a little bit of linguistics just a bit, but maybe that's part of it too. Poetry is so much about language, right?

JJ: Yeah, that's its core. Yeah. So how would you recommend that other people talk about poetry, whether it's in a newspaper, review or, you know, you're just giving a workshop and you're talking to people who are interested in the craft but don't know much about it. What's the best way to approach it, do you think?

KS: That's a great question. I hope someday… I would really love to someday have a column, a newspaper column. Sort of in the flavor of Ted Kooser’s American Life in Poetry. I would like to feature Ohio poets.

JJ: That would be awesome.

KS: Just tell a little bit about them and two sentences of lead into this poem. Lik,e this is a poem about this or look how this is working, I think. I mean, there's this sense—you hear people say, “no one reads poetry”, but then as soon as you get into the poetry world you realize everyone's in here. Right? So, that isn't really true. It's just that before you're all the way in, maybe sometimes there's a feeling that poetry is trying to pull a fast one or something, you know, and maybe that's because we read poetry in high school that was really iconic and pushing the movement forward in a really important way, but it doesn't necessarily represent contemporary work.

JJ: I've long thought that the poetry education needs updated.

KS: I mean, yes, bringing people to the present, but also there's a more accessible past as well. For example, here in Youngstown there was an Irish immigrant in the late 1800s named Michael McGovern—he worked in the Ironworks. He was a poet they call them the puddler poet, because that was his job was, was a puddler and Iron Works, and he was a labor poet, and he had a national following. So, I think that there has have been a lot of times in our history when people just carried poems around, you know, that's where The Broadside came from. It was small enough to just stick in your pocket.

JJ: Okay. That's really interesting.

All right, let's turn to your work because there's a there's a lot to unpack there. I think the two biggest things that struck me while reading your work is one humor, and two empathy, you really use those. I consider those like crafting techniques for you, you employ them very deliberately and very effectively.

So let's start with humor. Where do you come up with your witticisms and how does that play creatively? Are you just a really funny person—which I imagine you are—but I guess what I'm really asking is how much of that just comes out in editing, and how much just flows onto the page when you start?

KS: I don't think I started out with humor in mind, I just start writing this story maybe but then the humor becomes apparent because it's absurd. You know, I think part of it is being self-conscious. I'm always listening to the things I'm saying and thinking, “oh that doesn't make sense” or things out in the world that are contradictory, or ironic. The way we use language and culture—you know, if we took it apart and really looked at it right the things that we say every day are odd.

And so I'm interested in that stuff. I think about and play with language and rage humor. Just the contradictory weird stuff in life, but I would say if I sat down to write a funny poem it probably wouldn't work. Sometimes I want to write about something as if it were true, but obviously the reader sees that it's absurd.

JJ: Yeah. Yeah. And that's, I think that's a thing that a lot of people voice when they tried to write humor, it comes across like you're trying too hard. It's easier to let it be what it wants to be, I guess.

KS: Yeah. It's like a little stone for the reader to turn over.

JJ: Yeah. An additional clue you can find if you're looking hard enough.

KS: Yeah, exactly.

JJ: When I said “empathy” what I meant by that is, the poems—not only are they deeply empathetic from the speaker’s point of view or the subjects in the poem, but you also cover a huge range of social issues. I mean, you've covered everything from racial segregation to poverty and families and community development. So where does empathy fit in for you, and how does advocacy work for your writing? Is that a deliberate thing?

I'm assuming, you know, more deliberate then perhaps writing jokes.

KS: Yeah, right. Right! Yeah, it really is, and you know that can be really hard because a heavy-handed poem just doesn't work at all.

I'm reading the next book in our book discussion is Begin Again: James Baldwin's America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own by Eddie Glaude. And I was reading this part where James Baldwin was so affected by this iconic photograph of Dorothy Counts, who was attempting to desegregate her high school in Charlotte, North Carolina in 1957. And she was walking pretty much unguarded by herself, and the people around her these white people are just out of their minds with rage. They were spitting on her, there were blobs of spit hanging off of her new dress. And when James Baldwin saw this photo, the way he remembers it is that he was in France and he thought to himself, “I can't stay here in this beautiful world, I have to go back. We can’t let this happen—that a 15 year-old-girl is carrying this burden by herself.”

And so I was talking to my mom about it and she's like, “My God, I know people are like this today, too, but how can anyone be like that?”

So I think that, you know I had a tough, my childhood was tough. Hers was as well, and my own kids’ was tough. So, I think that we all came through trying to see for ourselves how, you know, how experiences are. How they could be better.

I think it was one reason why I was a Christian, too. I was a very passionate Christian in high school, and I think I was drawn in by that message of caring and kindness. I think all religions have that at their core, right? Just like “Hey, hey, if we treated each other better this place could be great!”, right? That's sort of the core of religion. And so, I think I do try to write about that, but sometimes I just need to write it down and get it out of my system, because that poem just isn’t going anywhere. I can't write a poem like that and have it be a successful poem.

But if I can leave a little bit of that in, or maybe it can be a collection about Youngstown where there are some things maybe give me an editorial framework to talk about some things.

JJ: Does having that conflict to make it easier to compose the writing?

KS: I mean, no. It's hard, I'm always trying to just trying to step back from all the moralizing. Like, just tell this in images. Image, Image, Image. Then that's another stone for the reader to pick up how to feel about it. And if I can paint the picture maybe that, you know...

JJ: Yeah, it sounds like that journalist side coming out where you're like, “I'm giving you the facts and you make up your own mind.”

KS: Yeah, I think a good poem does that, it doesn’t tell you what to think. That It’s there for you to discover. I just think that's a lesser pleasure and I don't really like reading poems that are aggressively moralistic like that, for myself. It's not art, even if it's important. Then it should be an essay.

JJ: Sure, sure.

KS: They're right ways to do it. It should be a film, but not a poem.

JJ: Yeah.

Building off that last question—because your styles feel… you merge things when you're writing. But you yourself are a hybrid person. I mean, you take this introspective craft like poetry and you open it up for other people and you make it public. And you have every bit as much, like you're an academic but you're also an educator. I ask because people are often either really good at teaching or really good at studying, but you have both of those things and I'm wondering where that hybridity comes from.

KS: Thank you so much. I'm just I'm just all over the place. I mean, the women in my family, they are finishers, they are list-makers and they get things done and that gene skipped me so hard.

I am just, I'm just a starter. I don't even, I'm not even simultaneous right? I've just got all these things open, 20 tabs open, and I'm reading five books at the same time. And even when I’m working on Lit Youngstown, I'm working on 17 different things in a day. Going from thing to thing, that's just you know, I pick out the books in our book series and they are about, oh, different styles and, everything! I'm curious.

I think maybe I got some curiosity from my dad’s side of the family. I'm told my dad was very curious. But that's just kind of me, and I thrive in an environment where there's like a lot to think about, a lot of problems to solve… it's different every day. There are a lot of people other than me, there are interesting challenges—it's wide open, it can go so many places and you never reach the pinnacle, right? Not to say that everything works, but there's so many different things to try so um.

So my challenge really is to just to make sure that I'm upping my follow through game, and just making sure that all of those details are cared for and that all the people are cared for. There's a lot of responsibility in at least in at least organization.

But for writing I love trying all kinds of things. I mean I've got a novel—who doesn't—but I've got a novel writing fantasy like everybody, right? You go in the room and you come out, there's all these Chinese carry out boxes all around and you're all haggard. And then you've got the thing, the finished product. I want to try more creative nonfiction. Some essays and it's just, it's so fun. It's all so fun.

JJ: How do you stay focused on a project? Do you write and then you look at your stuff and say, “Oh, you know I'm three quarters of the way to the finish line. Let's follow it across the finish line,” or is it—because you're pulled in so many directions. I mean, it's got to be tough knowing which objective to pick out.

KS: I'm working on my first poetry project. I mean before that I just collected poems that existed and seemed to go together. But this is a project of prose poems that are centering around my childhood experiences in the late 60s, early 70s in transient suburbia. I remember debates of James Baldwin on TV I remember sitting by myself on the floor. Watching on a black and white TV, James Baldwin having these really spirited discussions. I was probably 10 or something. And I really made a lot of progress at Vermont Studio Center, and I've sort of limped along a little bit.

But this summer, I set up a little mini residency with a few friends. My goal is to see if I can complete that project. I feel like it's really close, I just need a few connectors. I think maybe what takes me across the finish line is that I do have wishes to publish. I mean, when my first full length book came out, it made me so, so happy. And so I do want to have those kinds of experiences and participate in those conversations. So, I think probably that's a big motivator.

JJ: Nice. Where did the residency project come out of?

KS: Um, you know, I think because my family was so much in transition, and so was the country. I mean, everything was going on, then. I mean, there were riots in the cities. The women's movement. Civil rights. And I remember those years, three or four years, more vividly than any other time in my life, and even high school, and so it's sort of been in the back of my mind. And I wanted to write about it, and I didn't really know how. I think I started an essay and I've written, and I've woven some of that stuff into a few poems, but it just seemed like so much material was there that I just wanted to give it a try.

JJ: And how's the residency going to work when you guys get together? Is it a residency for other people are you guys doing like an incubator?

KS:  There's like five of us in this, some may call it a cabin, it's like a palace in the woods and the Mohican State Park! It looks gorgeous, I'm so excited. For about five days we'll take turns cooking, you know. Of course, I didn't make up this concept and I've been so jealous to see my friends posting their DIY residencies, and I'm like all right this year we're going to make this happen. Plus it seems safer right, just a few people. I don’t know yet. We haven't gotten that far because it's upcoming up in the summer. But I think we'll probably share work with each other. I have a manuscript to share, I bet some of them will as well. Most of this group are retired and that's like a permanent residency, right? That’s really fun!

JJ: For the second time in five minutes, I'm envious.

KS: I know, right??

JJ: Do you consider yourself a poet first or an educator?

KS: I think right now I have to see myself as an administrator, because that's really taking up most of my time. And that can accommodate that. Um, so just between you and me I will tell you a secret.

JJ: That no one else will hear.

KS: Exactly. Whenever I feel like I'm not doing something as much as I want to be doing, I start program and that makes me do it. So, I felt like I wasn't making enough time for reading, for example, because I was just working so much, so we started a book discussion. And so, the poetry intensive didn't come from me. We did a community survey, and some of our writers were saying, “hey, you're doing great with a lot of stuff that skips along the surface. There's a workshop here and workshop there, you've got this great festival.

But there's nothing that really ties it together. There's no depth and continuity. And so I thought, well, well, let's try this all-day workshop. We'll do it for nine months. And then also PS Karen you can pony up a little time to write a poem.

So I can get that stuff in there. Occasionally I can teach as well, like I'll be—I'm so excited about this. We have a wonderful museum. An art museum that is part of the Youngstown State, and they brought in an incredible photography show by the Cleveland photographer Don Black. Donald Black Jr, pretty sure that's the right name. And so I'll be leading an ekphrastic workshop for kids.

JJ: Oh, cool.

KS: Yeah, students in 5-8 on these photographs. And the photographs are absolutely exquisite I mean, just, the photographs are what a good piece of writing should be. They are so specific and so elegant and perfectly described, and so unique, you know, just, there's all this tension and movement and emotion. I'm really excited about talking to the kids about that.

So, my role as an administrator can accommodate those other things as well.

JJ: How has Lit Youngstown been? Because you've been with it for, since the beginning?

KS: Yes, yeah I started it, it was my idea. We started in 2015.

JJ: Nice. And how has that gone since then? What do you guys, I mean, you guys are getting big and it's awesome. I want to get to a couple of your events this year.

KS: Oh good, I'm so glad! Well, so we are putting together the fall Literary Festival Planning Committee, they're going to be meeting soon, and we will pick a theme for the festival, and then we'll put out our call for submissions so I hope you consider submitting. I could see a talk on creating a podcast or you could read your poems. Talk about starting a literary arts nonprofit, I mean so many things. That's been a real high spot for me. These conferences are just so much fun.

I mean, last year we had been solidly east of the Mississippi River in the last year. We had people fly in from California, writers I admire, I mean just such a thrill.

JJ: Oh, that's fantastic! So if I'm looking to go to the festival this year, what can I expect?

KS: So we have an evening. This is how it has been: we have an evening gathering in, which is just a meeting with tacos and an open mic. And then two days of five concurrent sessions, all day both days, and then an evening reading evening readings on Friday and Saturday. This year, it'll be a little bit different because we're bringing in the filmmaker, Carla Murphy, created a film on Youngstown.

I think the heart of the film is when a place, suffering so much, what makes young professionals stay? The title of is The Place That Makes Us. And so, because of the pandemic there hasn't been a community-wide screening of the film. So we're going to do that as part of the festival so we'll show that film at night and then we’ll talk to Carla and bring some people from the community into talk about the story. The story of Youngstown, the story of filmmaking.

Joy Priest is a poet from Houston, she's coming in, and she's from Louisville getting a PhD in Houston. Kelly Fordon from Detroit is coming in as a fiction writer, and also screenwriter and film scholar Laura Beadling of Youngstown State.

JJ: Okay, cool. That's October 20th through the 22nd?

KS: Yes.

JJ: Okay. All right! Well would you like to read a second poem before we wrap up?

KS: Yes, please. I'm going to read the title poem from the combo straighter. And I do kind of remember the day I was like I'm a very enthusiastic compost composter. And I remember the day when I was looking at my compost thinking, what could someone know about me from looking at this compost or what if there was like a professional compost reader that you could bring in to tell you about yourself like you know like upon read or write.

[Karen reads.]

JJ: Love the imagery!

KS: Thank you.

JJ: All right, well, this has been Poetry Spotlight, a production of the Ohio Poetry Association. Please follow the OPA on Twitter @OhioPoetry and on Facebook at facebook.com/ohiopoetry. A transcript of this episode can be found on the OPA blog. Visit ohiopoetryassn.org for more information.

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