GALLIPOLIS — Poetry, like life, is a process.
For Gallia County native Karen Craigo, poetry has been a large part of her life for some time but these days, it’s officially her job and it comes with a prestigious title – Missouri Poet Laureate.
She was appointed earlier this year by Missouri Governor Michael L. Parson for a two-year term. A press release from the Missouri Arts Council states, “The Missouri Poet Laureate enriches Missourians’ lives throughout the state by fostering the reading and writing of poetry, through public appearances, readings, workshops, and digital and social media. ‘As Poet Laureate,’ Ms. Craigo says, ‘I am making it my mission to bring out the poetry of everyday life in our beautiful state.’”
Of course, Craigo’s home state is Ohio and her hometown is Gallipolis. She is a 1987 graduate of Gallia Academy High School, daughter of Elsie Craigo (who still resides in Gallia County) and the late Donald Craigo, Sr.
The Gallipolis Daily Tribune asked Karen a few questions about her recent appointment and the mission and meaning of poetry. Here is Craigo’s story, in her own words.
How does one get from Gallia County to Poet Laureate of Missouri?
I ask myself that almost every day! While I was growing up, I loved writing — loved my English teachers, loved working on the yearbook, loved reading everything I could get my hands on. I got serious about it in college, at Morehead State University, where I learned to turn a critical eye on my writing and use feedback to improve it.
After leaving college, I hung out for a bit in Missoula, Montana, a first-rate literary town, and then I came back to Ohio to do newspaper work in Kenton, Ohio. I went on to get my Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from Bowling Green State University in 2000, and I began teaching writing full-time at the university level.
In 2012, I moved to Missouri. My husband, Mike Czyzniejewski, is a fiction writer, and he got a professor job at Missouri State University. I taught a little before landing a job as the editor and general manager of “The Marshfield Mail,” a small Missouri weekly.
I was surprised to be chosen as the Missouri Poet Laureate, because I’ve always felt like an Ohioan, through and through. I love my new state, though. It’s beautiful, and we love to explore it, with hikes almost every nice weekend. I’m qualified for the job, with two books, three chapbooks and lots of individual publications to my credit, and I actually have a national reputation as a literary editor. Still, I have to admit, it was a bit of a shock to be selected.
What was your first thought when you were told you were chosen as poet laureate?
The position has an application process, which includes the submission of poems and a description of a project to be completed during the two-year term of office. I was informed when my application was declared a finalist and forwarded to the governor’s office, so I had an inkling this might happen — that email was the biggest surprise of my life!
I had proposed an ambitious project for my two-year term, and when I learned I was to be the new Poet Laureate, my very first thought was that I was going to have to hit the ground running with it. Missouri has 114 counties plus St. Louis, which is an independent city, and my proposal was to collect a poem from each county to feature on a blog. Mind you, poems are easy to find in larger cities, like St. Louis, Kansas City or Springfield, or in university towns like Columbia, home of the University of Missouri. But it’s a taller order in places like the Bootheel, that little spur that sticks down in the southeastern part of the state. Are there poets in Dunklin, Pemiscot or New Madrid Counties in Missouri? I don’t know the answer any better than you do — but I intend to find out. In those places where I can’t find poets, I’ll help to make them, with workshops and other events. Sounds like a lot of work, doesn’t it? Maybe one of my first thoughts was, “What have I gotten myself into?”
What do you hope to accomplish as poet laureate?
My overarching duty and goal is to promote poetry throughout the state — and that’s also my great pleasure! People like poetry more than they realize. They usually receive it through songs. Who hasn’t been comforted by a song like “Amazing Grace” at a funeral? “Twas grace that brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home” — I think we all need to hear words of comfort like that sometimes. If you have ever claimed a song as “our song,” I doubt it was the melody that made you choose it; it was the lyrics — the poetry.
Incidentally, an exploration of my state’s poetry is also a wonderful opportunity to explore lessons of geography, history and general literacy. I’m a teacher, so you just know I’m going to jump at the chance to use it for its maximum educational benefit.
Was being a poet something you aspired to or something you fell into via a love for writing?
I have always identified as a poet — I didn’t aspire to it; I just was it. I do love writing. It’s my most comfortable means of expression. Sometimes I open my mouth to explain or express something, and what comes out is entirely wrong. Writing lets me make sense of the world.
I’ll tell you a secret about writing: If you do it, you’re a writer. You don’t have to earn the title. Mind you, you may be a good writer, a great writer, a bad writer, whatever — but if you are trying, you’re doing something vital and ennobling. You don’t need anything to claim your legitimacy — no degree, no publication, certainly no poet laureateship. Writing makes you a writer.
How do you describe your poetry to people?
I write contemporary free-verse poetry, mainly — you won’t find a lot of rhyme and meter in my work, though I go that direction from time to time. And I write about three things, mainly: motherhood, the spirit and money. I’ll bet the last item on that list sounds funny! But no one was really writing about that struggle to pay the gas bill or scrape together quarters for a gallon of milk. I decided that such a major part of my life was going to be fair game for poetry. If I live it, I have every right to make it lyrical.
Did Gallia County inspire any poems?
Gallia County is absolutely foundational to my work. First and foremost, my mom lives there, and if I think and write about her, that’s where I see her. It’s the place where the dearest woman in my life is sitting in her favorite chair with her dog, Buddy, right now, I’ll bet.
What’s more, I grew up there, cruising around the park, going to bonfires, looking over the city from Cemetery Hill, where my dad now rests. I identify as an Appalachian, and Gallipolis people are my people. I get them.
I have two poems from my series called “Ten Sources of Light.” Much of the light in the poem originates in Gallipolis. Here is an example:
When you drive at night you sometimes see a glow that is a town—everyone not sleeping finds a circle of light to read or sigh by. In my town, there is a hill that overlooks its four avenues. I’d sit there at night, choose a particular light and imagine the story beneath: someone cutting a body from a photograph, someone biting directly into a hot loaf of bread…
And another example:
For Jenny Holzer. A great artist came from my hometown and created this moment when art could be words crossing a sign. She’d say things like IN A DREAM YOU SAW A WAY TO SURVIVE AND YOU WERE FULL OF JOY or PROTECT ME FROM WHAT I WANT. I see her installations from time to time in museums and I know she walked the hallways of my school. Maybe we shared a locker, maybe I studied from her book. What we share now is the idea that words can possibly save us, so we light them up, set them marching.
Tell our readers something most people don’t know about you?
When I was a student at Washington Elementary, I was extremely tall, and by fifth grade, I was taller than many of the teachers. (I leveled out at 5-foot-8, so I’m no giant, but it was oddly tall for a kid.) I had a kind of grown-up coat, too — sort of a khaki trench coat. Younger kids used to come up to me on the playground to tell on each other — “He hit me!” they’d say. I tried to give teacherly advice: “Have you tried saying something kind?” or “Maybe you can find another place to play,” or, once, “Well, hit him back.” I wonder how many complaints the school got about fights I incited?
Why is poetry important?
Poetry is most important for me on a personal level. It’s how I meditate — how I pray. Sometimes when you work hard at writing things down on a page, you look at it and realize that the page has been writing back to you. There are discoveries to be made, messages to be gleaned; it feels, honestly, like a miracle.
Editor’s note: Karen has published two full-length collections of her works via Sundress Publications, Passing Through Humansville (2018) and No More Milk (2016). She is also the author of three chapbooks, the mini-collections Escaped Housewife Tries Hard to Blend In (Hermeneutic Chaos Press, 2017), Stone For an Eye (Kent State University Press, 2014), and Someone Could Build Something Here (Winged City Press, 2013). Her work has appeared in numerous journals, including Atticus Review, Poetry, Indiana Review, Prairie Schooner, Puerto del Sol, and The MacGuffin.
Beth Sergent contributed to this article.