Let’s start with the book’s title and your cover image. How did you choose each? And, if I asked you to describe or sum up your book, what three words immediately come to mind?
First, Nicole, thank you for this interview and your great questions! The title comes from the book’s final poem, “Crossing the International Date Line,” though the words “no such thing as distance” are not in the poem exactly. As I considered titles, this one best captured the themes running through the book, which are immigration/cultural traditions kept alive in the US, family, travel/change, loss/gain, acceptance. For practical reasons, I chose a long and somewhat unusual title because it’s more likely that an online search for it will be successful. For example, I originally titled the book, “Crossings,” which seemed perfect because of its multiple meanings, but if you Google a generic word like that, my book might never come up. Because I’m also a marketing professional, I didn’t think that would be wise. However, I may have kept “Crossings” if I hadn’t found one that worked as well or better creatively.
3 words: Growth, Relationship, Spirit
My publisher (Diane Lockward) and I kicked around ideas for a cover image and searched through some royalty-free photo sites. Since I love original art, and two of my sisters are artists, I asked them whether they had anything that loosely fit the theme, and also was photographed with a high enough resolution to reproduce well in print. I chose a “mixed water media with collage” by my sister, Eileen Millard, because I loved the colors, the circular design, and the multiple ways in which it fit the book’s title, especially the vanishing point image, and the global/celestial elements.
What were you trying to achieve with your book? Tell us about the world you were trying to create? Who lives in it?
Hmmm, I didn’t set out to write this book exactly, but as I pulled together poems for it, multiple themes emerged. I mainly wanted to honor the story of my parent’s immigration to the US – my dad from eastern Europe before WWII; my mother from Australia as a war fiancée. The Macedonian traditions I grew up with added a richness to my life that I wanted to capture. That’s partly why I included recipes in the back of the book. I’m also obsessed with the intersection of spiritual philosophy with quantum physics, especially regarding the concept of time. So in these poems, directly or indirectly, I deal with this whole question of time and distance, and how that affects memory and loss and acceptance. Themes of music and dance are woven throughout, so I guess you could say the book is a sort of dance through time.
Can you describe your writing practice or process for this collection? Do you have a favorite revision strategy?
Each month, I attend a poetry critique group that I host and a free community workshop by Katie Chaple, sponsored by the program Tom Lux started at Georgia Tech. I find those invaluable for getting feedback on my poems. Because I’m a bit of a workshop junkie, other poems in this collection were workshopped with Tom Lux, Travis Denton, Laure-Anne Bosselaar, David Bottoms, Denise Duhamel, Cecilia Woloch, and Dorianne Laux. I also paid for a critique of several poems with Ginger Murchinson, and a full manuscript edit by Jenn Givhan. Once I have others’ input, I have to decide what makes the poem work for me, and I usually revise or tweak about a million times, trying to put the poem away for a while between revisions.
How did you order the poems in the collection? Do you have a specific method for arranging your poems or is it sort of haphazard, like you lay the pages out on the floor and see what order you pick them back up in?
At first, I ordered the poems in a somewhat logical order, but got feedback from a couple of editors that I shouldn’t frontload with childhood and parent poems, so I ended up playing with the order in a number of ways. Once I even did a spreadsheet that categorized poems by theme, point of view, etc. to make sure I wove those throughout the manuscript instead of clumping them together. I paid particular attention to the flow from one poem to the other – looking at how the last line of a poem worked with the first line of the next, and also paying attention to the “mood” of each poem. To avoid jarring the reader inappropriately, I didn’t want a funny poem to follow a dead-serious one or vise versa. The last poem remained the last poem throughout all these revisions, but I changed out the opening poem many times.
What do you love to find in a poem you read, or love to craft into a poem you’re writing?
A connection to the poet or the voice in the poem. I want to feel something when I read a poem – laughter, an aha, an empathetic cry, and/or a “yes that’s me, exactly!” If it makes me laugh, shiver and cry, I’ll dog-ear it in a book. I also appreciate sheer beauty and precision of language, but if a poem’s too abstract, I’ll turn the page without finishing it.
What’s one of the more crucial poems in the book for you? (Or what’s your favorite poem?) Why? How did the poem come to be? Is it the first or last poem you wrote for the book, or somewhere else in the process?
The poem, “Death Prefers Blonds,” springs to mind. It tells an unusual and true story, while capturing something of my mother and the idea that we are not really our bodies, but spirits. I’m not even sure how the writing of this poem relates timewise to the writing of other poems. There was a period where I was reprocessing my mother's death, and I knew she’d play an important role in this book but did not write the poem for the book. It was published in Pilgrimage Magazine in 2015.
Death Prefers Blonds
There was a wig mix-up
at Pavich funeral home.
We had a chance to switch
back to the gray bob—it had suited
Mother for doctors and church
those last few months. But
we knew she’d rather dazzle
everyone from her casket
as a stylish ash blond.
She looked 70 not 87
with the wrong longer hair
and undertaker’s make-up
that reshaped her
into Faye Dunaway’s.
One catty mourner hissed,
It doesn’t look a thing like her--
a boon to us: easier to let
that blond descend
into Madame Tussaud’s museum
while our real mother
joined us in prayers
carried on wisps of frankincense
past the gold dome of St. Nicholas.
Tell us something about the most difficult thing you encountered in this book’s journey. And/or the most wonderful?
Journey is a good word. When I first got word from Diane Lockward that she’d selected my manuscript for publication, a hurricane was ravaging the island of St. John, where my daughter had just moved to teach. So in the midst of worry, it was hard to feel the elation I wanted to feel about my book. (She ended up being safe and evacuating within a few days). Then, when Diane and I were working out last edits and cover design, my dog died. I had to take off some time before getting my head back into poetry business.
But the most devastating event was that Chris, my life partner died of an unexpected heart attack on December 2, 2017, a month before the book was to be released. He believed in me, and—not totally understanding how competitive the poetry world is—thought I was going to become famous. That faith in my work buoys me up as I try to find the energy to promote the book. He appears in a few of the poems, and I’m glad of that, but the release of the book (moved to February 2018) is bittersweet. I find it interesting that these traumatic events came about during this time, because through my poetry, I try to understand the balance of life, with its joys and griefs and interconnectedness.
If you had to convince someone walking by you in the park to read your book right then and there, what would you say?
You’ll laugh, you’ll cry. It’s poetry you can understand and relate to.
Are there other types of writing (dictionaries, romance novels, comics, science textbooks, etc.) that help you to write poetry?
Yes, I’ve been reading older novels like Moby Dick and The Great Gatsby and marking passages that are especially poetic (Moby Dick is now marked on almost every page). I also find that classical music inspires me to write poetry.
What are you working on now?
With Chris’s death, I’m obsessed with writing about him. I’m glad I have this form of therapy. I also just wrote a funny/serious poem about trying to live lightly in a heavy world.
What book are you reading that we should also be reading?
Rupert Fike’s new poetry book, Hello the House. It’s funny, and touching, and smart, and so very well written.
Without stopping to think, write a list of five poets whose work you would tattoo on your body, or at least write in permanent marker on your clothing, to take with you at all times.
Laure-Anne Bosselaar, Mary Oliver, Tom Lux – beyond them, I’d have to list about 10 others.
Purchase No Such Thing as Distance.
Karen Paul Holmes has two poetry collections, No Such Thing as Distance (Terrapin, February 2018) and Untying the Knot (Aldrich, 2014). She was named a Best Emerging Poet by Stay Thirsty Media (2016), and publications include Prairie Schooner, Poetry East, Crab Orchard Review, diode, Lascaux Review, and many other journals and anthologies. Holmes founded and hosts a critique group in Atlanta and Writers’ Night Out in the Blue Ridge Mountains. She’s a ballroom dancer, has a Master’s degree in music history from the University of Michigan, and served a long stint as a marketing communications executive in corporate America. Visit her online at www.karenpaulholmes.com.
Nicole Rollender is a poet, editor and seeker.