Navigating the Personal in Poetry: Glenda Council Beall in Conversation with Karen Paul Holmes
GCB: Thank you for taking time to answer my questions, Karen. I have known you for over ten years. We met at a writing workshop and worked together on publishing an anthology with our mentor, poet, Nancy Simpson. Reading your latest collection, No Such Thing as Distance, is like looking through your family album and putting faces to people I have heard about. It’s a different experience than reading poetry by a poet I don’t know personally, because I bring my knowledge of your voice and history with me, whereas other readers won’t.
Having known you all this time, I thought I had read all of your poems, but “What Do You Save” caught me off guard with the line, “the mattress with its imprint of the body of one I loved.” I am the person you mention in the poem who had to evacuate, and you captured the feelings I had when I knew I could not take all that meant so much to me, that devastating feeling of loss that causes pain.
Who did you want to reach with this book?
KAREN: First of all, thanks so much for this interview, Glenda.
My goal is to create poems that touch people in some way—through an aha moment, a connection to the subject or image, or humor, etc. By people, I mean anyone, not a specific audience. When I chose poems for this manuscript, I did have themes in mind, but hoped the book would appeal to a wide variety of readers. If writers share personal snippets of their lives, chances are, many readers will relate to something in their own lives. The interwoven themes in No Such Thing as Distance are family (especially Macedonian cultural traditions), music, nature, grief, and healing. I included a few traditional recipes at the back of the book, because the recipes themselves seemed like metaphors for my family’s connection to each other and our past, just as they do for many families.
It's interesting that you bring up the experience of reading a friend’s work. Before I sent the manuscript to publishers, a few of my poet friends looked at it for me. They had already seen individual poems in our critique group, but I wanted them to tell me whether the collection worked: Were the poems in the right order? Did any stand out as being weaker or not belonging in the manuscript? These editor-friends had some astute suggestions but mostly praise. I then paid a poet-editor (whom I didn’t know) to take a look. She had problems with the order. She felt it was too chronological and, therefore, the poems didn’t speak to each other as well as they might. For example, the poems touching on my mother’s life would be more compelling if readers knew from the beginning that she had died. I took her edits to heart and made changes. I submitted the manuscript to Diane Lockward of Terrapin Books who rejected it, saying the order still needed work. Once I revised again, she agreed to publish it but still asked for several edits and had some questions about content. My poet friends didn’t have those types of questions because, knowing me, they could fill in the gaps themselves.
All this is to say that each reader brings their own eyes, histories, and preferences to any book they read. Each person “hears” poems differently, just as we each hear music differently. A poet could get very confused by getting too many opinions, but I learned that having at least a couple of outsiders read the manuscript helped the collection reach a variety of readers.
GCB: I like getting to know your parents in the poems. I had the pleasure of meeting your mother when she came to my studio to take a class. That was the day my dog stole her lunch. She was a good sport. She must have loved your father intensely to leave Australia to marry him and live in the United States. In the poem, “Matilda Waltzing,” we sense she harbored homesickness, as any of us would likely feel. Did she tell you she was homesick and that she missed her family in Australia?
KAREN: It’s funny you brought up your dog stealing her lunch, because my dog stole her Angelo’s Coney Island hot dog once! That was my dad’s restaurant in Flint, Michigan, and the recipe for the secret sauce is in the book. Anyway, my mother always talked longingly about Australia, and she really hated Michigan winters. Once she moved to Florida, she felt more at home in the tropical climate, but she remained nostalgic about the home and family she left Down Under—she only returned twice to visit. My siblings and I would time how long it took her to tell a stranger that she was from Australia—usually under five minutes. To be fair, though, she still had her accent, and people would often ask where she was from. But when she answered, she made it seem like she was just visiting the U.S. temporarily.
GCB: “Confessions of an Ugly Nightgown” is one of my favorite poems. This is a persona poem. How did this idea come to you? Did your mother talk about what it was like to travel across the world as a war fiancée?
KAREN: That’s quite an old poem, perhaps the first one I wrote about my mother. The title came to me first, so then I had to try it as a persona poem, and it seemed to work. Because the persona has a somewhat humorous voice, it allowed me to tell the story without getting sentimental. My mother told us a few details about the ship, which was a converted warship, but did not talk about her fears in making the trip.
GCB: “Macedonian Bean Soup” surprised me. It hails back to your marriage, your ex-husband and your father. Food brings forth stronger memories than almost anything, and I enjoyed the image of your husband and your father cooking the soup. Have you made this soup?
KAREN: Yes, I found my ex’s handwritten notes and made the soup for the first time last year. The poem says “Perhaps one day, I’ll make it myself,” and so I thought, “What’s stopping me?” It was yummy and just like my dad would make. I’m kind of sorry some of the poems mention my ex, but certain events or themes always seem to slip into our writing, don’t they? So I just have to accept that. The 31-year marriage was a huge part of my life, after all, and affects how I am today.
GCB: Yes, we are the sum of our past experiences. You make poems from the most mundane sometimes. We see how observant you are of nature and the world around you. Tell me about your writing process for “Ant Fest.”
KAREN: My process is almost always the same. Something gets into my head—usually a line or a title—and sometimes that something just turns into a whole poem that might meander into an entirely different something, like how killing the ants turns into releasing frustrations for all sorts of past events. I think in this case, the ants’ drunkenness seemed funny and interesting to me, hence the first two lines, “Drunk on liquid bait, they stumble/ across the white bathroom tile.” If I remember correctly, those lines started out as the poem’s opening and remained through all my revisions, though often I move things around when editing.
GCB: I have always been drawn to looking into lit windows of houses as I pass by, where strangers live and families gather. Your poem, “Road Stories,” grabbed me, and I will read this one often. I was pleasantly surprised at the reference to Wizard of Oz, which is one of my favorite movies. What prompted this poem?
KAREN: I started keeping a list of road names that were funny or intriguing. I often wonder about how a road got its name, but like you, I also wonder about people inside, especially when it’s dark and the lights are on. So, I don’t know how, but the poem started emerging and then traveling to different places (which seemed appropriate for a “road” poem), ending up with Dorothy in Kansas!
GCB: I am always excited, Karen, to see your next book of poems. I value our long friendship and want others to read and enjoy your work as I do. Knowing your tragedies and triumphs, I am amazed at your creative use of language to transport the reader into your mind, your home and into your past, and therefore, into their own experiences. And that stands true for readers who know you and those who don’t.
Glenda Council Beall is a poet, blogger, memoirist and writing teacher. She’s the author of a poetry book, Now Might as Well be Then (Finishing Line Press) and a family history, Profiles and Pedigrees, Thomas Charles Council and His Descendants (Genealogy Publishing Co.). Her poems, essays, and short stories have appeared in Reunions Magazine, Main Street Rag, Appalachian Heritage, Journal of Kentucky Studies, Your Daily Poem, Wild Goose Poetry Review, The Southern Poetry Anthology: North Carolina, and many other places. Her poems have won awards in the James Still Poetry Contest and the Clay County NC Poetry Contest. Beall is the Program Coordinator for the western region of the North Carolina Writers’ Network and has taught memoir at John C. Campbell Folk School, Tri-County College, and Writers Circle. http://www.glendacouncilbeall.com/
Karen Paul Holmes has two full-length poetry collections, No Such Thing as Distance (Terrapin, 2018) and Untying the Knot (Aldrich, 2014). She was chosen as a Best Emerging Poet in 2016 by Stay Thirsty Media. Publications include Prairie Schooner, Valparaiso Review, Tar River Poetry, Diode, Poet Lore, and other journals and anthologies. Holmes hosts The Side Door Poets in Atlanta and Writers’ Night Out in the Blue Ridge Mountains. She’s a freelance business writer, teaches creative writing workshops, and is a regional representative for the North Carolina Writers’ Network. http://KarenPaulHolmes.com