JG: Although your book Untying the Knot is about so much more than divorce, the dissolution of a marriage is unmistakably at its center. Your poem “Suddenly, Old-Fashioned Words Apply to Me” highlights (among many other things) your awareness that infidelity and divorce are as commonplace as they are devastating. What did you do in your poems to keep the subject from becoming commonplace, or did you aim for poems that are universal, or both (and if so, what’s the difference between commonplace and universal)?
KPH: First of all, thanks for this interview, Jessica. You’ve asked such well-thought-out questions! I’d say, first and foremost, I wrote the poems for myself – they were an effort to explore what I was feeling – to get all that stuff out of my brain and heart. But in subsequently revising the poems, I also welcomed the distraction from pain: the focus on how to make each poem a “good” one – well crafted, interesting, clear, not commonplace. Making good poems was important to me even if no one ever read them, but I suppose in the back of my head, I also hoped they’d be poems others would get something out of – a good story, an aha moment, a “yes, I’ve been there” and perhaps even a little healing. With 50% of Americans divorced and others having experienced the loss of a partner, the story is automatically familiar, and in that regard, commonplace. And grief is universal – all grief has the same characteristics. Knowing someone has gone through something similar somehow helps us cope. An overall goal of the book was to share my story of devastation and survival in order to connect with people who’d experienced loss and also to give hope to those currently going through it.
JG: A number of your poems reference composers and even specific pieces of music, such as Brahms,Mahler and Prokofiev in “Prelude” and the William Tell Overture in “Teaching Mozart in Stone Mountain Prison,” so it wasn’t surprising to learn that you have an MA in music history from the University of Michigan. How does your musicality affect the narrative drive of your poems? Is there a tension between those two impulses, or do they complement one another?
KPH: I find that referencing music does different kinds of work in my poetry: Sometimes it references a particular sound (e.g., the blaring of a trumpet), an emotion or mood (peace, excitement, etc.), and sometimes it’s a metaphor for any number of things. For example, the last line of “Prelude” references the finale of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony: "to burst forth into my own Ode to Joy" stands for a joyful coming into my own. So, I’d say all those devices help to drive the narrative. Also, the language of music – terms, composers’ names, names of pieces—adds another element to a poem’s diction. I hope that my ear for music (I played French Horn, which requires a good ear) helps me create interesting sound and rhythm in my work. I also have fun exploring synesthesia.
KPH: Spoiler alert! This poem is near the end of the book, where I begin to heal. I got a kick out of writing it. You know how sometimes a song just speaks to you? Well, all the songs in my Zumba class were speaking to me, even though they were completely foreign to me –rap, hip-hop, and Latin pop. Each time I went, I’d try to remember the lyrics so I could put them all in a poem. I’d giggle just thinking about it. My original draft had actual quotes but due to copyright issues, my publisher wanted me to paraphrase the lyrics so I did.
A week ago, I didn’t know Lady Gaga
from Lady Godiva.
Now I’m stumbling through
a fusion of Latin, hip-hop, belly and pop
while Gaga rocks her lyrics right at me:
She still loves her Judas too.
After three Zumba classes I’m keeping up—
salsa, samba, and the Kumbia Kings:
Fuego! The roof’s burnin’ but we don’t care.
Bollywood, calypso, soca, reggaeton
(faster now; heart rate up!)
Step on the gasolina: My baby likes gasolina!
(or something like that).
I’m told some of the words are dirty—luckily
(or un), I don’t know Spanish, Arabic, Hindi
and can’t catch half the English.
Panting, we take it down a notch to the lyric
I’m lookin’ for a Jack who’s not a ripper.
Then: right foot cha cha cha
left foot cha cha cha
turn turn turn turn
swim, monkey, frugue, pony.
Our 20-ish teacher calls this one “the ’80s”
but I recall go-go boots in sixth grade, 1966.
Now it’s, “Bring out your inner Beyoncé!”
for Single Ladies, the only song I knew before.
More mambo, tango and a peppy meringue rap:
the guy has passion in his pants
and likes to flaunt it.
Miraculously, I can now shimmy.
Mirrors line one wall.
That’s me smilin’, sweatin’, hot
pink tank, black tights—
like the last song says,
I’m groovin’ my rock moves
and I don’t need
JG: You have a background in marketing communications for financial companies among others, which is a somewhat unusual path for a poet. How has this background influenced your poems and/or your writing practice, either positively or negatively? And which came first, the poetry or the career?
KPH: The poetry came in 8th grade, although I didn’t pursue it seriously until six years ago. I’ve always had a thing about precision – I don’t like waste. That’s what I love about poetry. Every word counts. And that’s why I’m pretty good at writing ad copy and headlines (which also employ creativity and wordplay), or any text that has word limits – brochures, web sites, articles for business magazines, etc. I recently had to write a 30-second video script for a client. She and the big wigs at her company loved the first draft, and she even said, “Karen, being a poet comes in handy.”
I thought I had the dream job – being able to write for a living. But when I started focusing my free time on poetry, I found it was what really fed my spirit. Yes, I enjoy the business writing and can lose myself in a project, but poetry is my soul-work. And my hosting of a critique group and an open mic also gives me a very satisfying opportunity to be of service to others.
JG: There is a lot of wordplay in your poems, such as “Beyond My Ken” to pun on ‘ken’ as both knowledge and the name of the errant husband (and perhaps knowledge that the husband has become errant), and Mrs. X and Mrs. Why as the names of the lover and wife. What was the impulse in using such wryly humorous touches in a book on divorce? Was it for the benefit of the reader or the poet, or both?
KPH: I’d have to say both. As in my answer to your first question, exploring different ways of crafting a poem was a lovely distraction for me in my grief. Even though I didn’t set out to write a book, I remember thinking, “No one wants to read poem after poem that are complete downers.” Mrs. Why was written within days of my husband announcing he was in love with someone else. I actually had the funny dream in the poem. When the idea of a Mrs. X and Mrs. Why popped into my head, I had to explore it. It was definitely therapeutic to write. And who knows where the “Beyond My Ken” poem came from? (I actually have never thought of that one as humorous though). I guess because I like language, I like the challenge of a play on words – it’s easy to become cliché though, and so that had to be avoided.
It’s human nature to find humor in unlikely places—there’s even laughter at a funeral. As I put the book together, I kept it in chronological order of the story, and I tried to scatter just enough humor and also enough variety in style (short, long, abstract, prose-like narrative, etc.) and emotion (fear, anger, forgiveness, etc.) to keep the book interesting.
JG: What kinds of poems are you writing, post-publication of Untying the Knot? Are they different thematically or stylistically from what you’ve written in the past? Although you didn’t begin Untying the Knot with the intention of writing a ‘project book,’ is your new work intended to be such a project?
KPH: I try hard not to mention divorce in my new poems, but it sometimes sneaks in. I asked a poet friend if I seemed too obsessed with the subject, and he said, “Poets are always obsessed by something.” And in a workshop with Dorianne Laux, she said it will always pop up in my work. I just wrote a poem about wisteria, and without my intending it, the wisteria became the other woman twisting her fingers, strangling everything in sight. Oh my! I’m not sure I even like that poem! I’m working on two manuscripts that you could call project books (a term I recently learned). One is focused on my family and growing up in the melding of two cultures: Macedonian (my dad) and Australian (my mom). The other contains poems about woman—fictional and real—tentatively titled Brünnhilde Speaks (after my poem about the Wagnerian heroine).
JG: After readers finish your book, what would you suggest they read next?
KPH: If they are helped by reading other people’s stories of loss and healing, then I’d suggest Donald Hall’s “Without,” about the illness and death of his wife (poet Jane Kenyon), and “Stag’s Leap” by Sharon Olds, who ends her story of divorce with graceful words of acceptance and forgiveness: I freed him, he freed me. These books demonstrate that poetry can make even ugly things beautiful.
Thank you again, Jessica. I enjoyed this time with you.
And for the rest of you, Karen's book is available here!