An interview with semi-finalist Karrie Waarala

We recently released our list of 2015 Negative Capability Press Book Competition semi-finalists. We will be posting interviews with each of the candidates.

Karrie Waarala

Karrie Waarala

Karrie Waarala's work has appeared in journals such as Iron Horse Literary Review, PANK, The Collagist, Southern Indiana Review, and Vinyl. She is a poetry editor for the museum of americana and holds an MFA from the Stonecoast Program at University of Southern Maine. Recipient of the 2012 Pocataligo Poetry Prize, a Best of the Net finalist, and a multiple Pushcart nominee, Karrie has also received critical acclaim for her one-woman show, LONG GONE: A Poetry Sideshow, which is based on her collection of circus poems. She really wishes she could tame tigers and swallow swords.

SW:  Let us suppose we are somewhere chatting  -- so where does this interview take place?  In a coffee shop in some city?  In a hotel lobby in Paris? In your kitchen eating chocolate chip cookies? You set the scene. 

I once had the honor and pleasure of interviewing John Ringling North III of the famous Ringling circus family. We spent a good chunk of a summer afternoon sitting on a picnic table under a tree in a park in Ypsilanti, MI, watching the comings and goings of daily circus life unfold around us: elephants getting baths, the lion tamer going for a jog, an acrobat fixing his truck. It was a magical day, and I’d gladly sit on that picnic table again for this interview.

SW:  What are some of your influences – books, movies, music and / or whatever else – art, travel, etc?

So many writers, the first handful of which that come to mind: Anne Sexton, Lucille Clifton, Pablo Neruda, Patricia Smith, Thomas Lynch, Sandra Beasley, Tyehimba Jess, and on and on… The circus, of course, particularly the small one-ring shows, and carnivals, especially the ones that pop up overnight in parking lots. The artwork of Franz Marc.

SW:  How long have you written? A little history, here. 

I can’t remember not writing. I was always making up stories in elementary school, discovered poetry in junior high, and have kept on discovering poetry ever since. It wasn’t until I was finally able to fulfill a longtime goal of returning to school for my MFA a few years ago that I moved writing from its hobby/interest cubbyhole in my life into the more prominent place it really needed, though. Having the time, space, and freedom to devote to projects like this manuscript was a major game changer in how I viewed writing, both my own and that of others.

SW:  What is your job / occupation and how does it affect your poetry?

I teach writing at a community college, which I love. While devoting so much time and energy to my students’ writing has somewhat diminished the time and energy I spend on writing new poems myself, I find that it’s opened up my writing in a variety of other ways. I write along with my students, which means that I’ve expanded into writing more fiction and creative nonfiction as the class or assignment dictates. I’ve also been focusing more on going back to old poems than creating new ones these days. Allowing my students into my revision process, letting them see my work in its various stages and states, is a vulnerable act, but one that lets them see firsthand both how important the process is, and that we’re all in this together as working writers.

SW:  How do you describe your poetry—important concerns, themes, pursuits?

This particular collection of poems is all about dichotomies: spectacle vs. spectator, nature vs. nurture, chaos vs. order, female vs. male, freak vs. norm. The circus sideshow provided the ideal vehicle for these themes, and living and working with these characters in my head for a few years allowed me to grapple with these ideas from different angles than I would have working from my own point of view.

I think overall in the past few years I’ve tried to focus on ways to “tell it slant,” to tuck my truths in between and around and under instead of always taking the straightforward confessional approach – which is why persona and instructional poems have been so interesting to me.

SW:  What can you share about your writing process?

One of my MFA mentors once told me that I’m the type of writer who is writing even when I’m just staring out the window. Things percolate around my head for a long time, and when they’re finally ready to bubble over and out, they do so in a number of ways. If I’m working with persona, I often start with freewriting from the point of view of the characters I’m working with to try to really get into their heads before I presume to start pouring out of their mouths. If I’m returning to writing after a bit of a dry spell, or trying to tackle a slippery topic, I usually turn to form of some sort. Focusing on counting syllables or sticking to a particular rhyme scheme or using a particular set of words keeps my left brain busy and gets my internal critic out of the way to let my right brain muck about and get messy if it needs to.

SW:  Let’s say you are teaching a workshop; give us a sample exercise / lesson.

One of my favorite simple exercises to encourage new students to cut the fat out of their writing is to take a draft of their poem and eliminate the five least important words, and then five more, and another five… if it’s warranted, keep going until it’s getting uncomfortable for them. With what’s left, find the three most important words. Are they in cornerstone positions in the poem (first line, last line, crucial turning point)? No? Then rearrange what’s left so that they are. I love it when initially resistant students warm up to the task and start slashing and rearranging with gusto.

SW:  What are your thoughts on social media?  Do you have a website? A blog?

I have a love/hate relationship with social media. It’s a giant timesuck and a procrastinator’s perfect little devil on the shoulder… but it’s also the best way to get the word out about upcoming events and readings and the like and to stay in touch with a community that can be sprinkled all over the map. I respect writers who are able to use it diligently and to great effect in their careers – but I’m not one of them. I do have a website, though: www.poetrysideshow.com.

SW:   What are you reading at the moment?

I’m a restless reader and typically have about six things going at once. Currently I’m reading a couple of poetry books (Hum by Jamaal May and Space, in Chains by Laura Kasischke), the latest issue of a couple of journals (Creative Nonfiction and Teaching English in the Two-Year College), the latest collection of short stories by Neil Gaiman, and a stack of poems from my current creative writing students.

SW:  What is the view out your window?

Currently it’s a fat full moon pulling itself out of the fingertips of the trees and into the tide of the drifting clouds. A perfect Midwestern summer night.

SW:  Your turn – you ask the question – and you give the answer.

If you could run away and join the circus, what act would you perform?

So glad you asked! I’m not particularly graceful or acrobatic, which means so many acts are out. I’m too chicken to swallow swords or breathe fire, as much as part of me wants to try. I’d love to think of myself as the lion tamer or elephant trainer, as I’m so drawn to animals – but frankly, with a big voice and a tendency to boss around all these circus and sideshow characters in my poems, I’d probably end up a ringmaster.

Thank you for being a part of Negative Capability.