By Glenda Council Beall
Karen Holmes gave me an e-mail interview recently. I appreciate her taking time from her busy schedule to answer some questions for our readers.
GCB: Your book tells the story of someone who has suffered a tragic loss, the ending of a thirty year marriage. The poems are deeply honest and real. Did you set out to create an entire book of poems on this subject?
KAREN: Thank you, Glenda. In my grief, poetry just poured out of me, one poem at a time. I did not know it would turn into a book. I think I wrote “Help Interpret the Symbolism in Mrs. Why’s True Story” the day after my husband left. It was inspired by the dream described in the poem, which was actually kind of a funny dream, so the poem, even though written in the midst of such fresh grief, has some humor in it.
Most poems in the book were written while the topic of the poem was happening to me. I guess that’s why people say the poems are honest – they were written in the moment. Others were written later (but still while I was grieving) with notes from my journal, often jotted down in the middle of the night, when I’d wake up with sudden thoughts. Once I sat straight up at two in the morning and wrote, “I want to be married to a happy man for a change.”
It was quite therapeutic to write, to get all those thoughts and emotions out on paper. At some point, I had the idea of putting together an anthology of divorce poems. I knew how to do a call for submissions for poets around the country and how to get a book like that put together and printed. The thought pepped me up for a while, but then I realized I really didn’t have the energy to do it. After about a year, I was having lunch with poet Scott Owens, who was saying that it’s good for poetry books to be built around some sort of theme or story. I thought, “Well, I’ve got a theme, all right!” I went home and pulled together all my poems about my marriage ending—surprised to find there were about 60 of them—and realized I had a whole book myself. It was cathartic: to see something whole come out of my fractured life; call it a “work of art” or whatever, but it was a “something,” a “creation.” Whether or not anyone would ever read it, it felt good. I started playing with the order and sent an early draft to a non-poet friend just to feel her out. She called the next day, saying, “This needs to be on Oprah!”
GCB: The loss of a marriage causes a grief not unlike the loss of a spouse. In fact when the marriage is over, you have lost a spouse, but not from death. Mourning a loved one takes us on a journey with the deepest lows and the most difficult soul- searching moments. You lost your beloved mother, your husband and the life you had enjoyed for many years. How did you focus on writing poetry at that time?
My mother’s illness and my brother having cancer also piled on the distress. I wrote poems about them too.
I didn't set out to write those poems, nor most of the ones in Untying the Knot; they just happened. One of my friends said, “Oh now that you’ve had a tragedy, your poetry will get better.” I wince at that, but it’s probably true. My poems definitely got deeper emotionally and darker in tone. However, I also believe in trying to stay positive, so many poems have a positive spin. Some are even funny. Like I said, poetry was therapy.
When I kept writing divorce poems two years later, I said to a poet friend, “Oh no, another divorce poem,” and he said, “That’s fine. Many good poets are obsessed with one topic.” Then I read Sharon Olds’s Pulitzer Prize winner, Stag’s Leap, also about the end of a 30-year marriage. It blew me away with its grief and honesty, and it inspired a couple more poems, including “Telling My Mother.”
Even after my publisher had accepted my manuscript, I felt the need to add two more poems, both for my therapy and for rounding out the story. The publisher said okay. One was “And So It Comes to This,” which takes place sitting at the divorce table with Ken and the lawyers. That moment needed to be described. The other was, “Komodo,” a poem about forgiving the other woman. It was work-shopped by Carol Ann Duffy, the Poet Laureate of Great Britain, at the San Miguel Poetry Week in Mexico in January 2014. When I asked whether I should add it to my book, she said, “Absolutely. Many people will relate to it.”
GCB: Why did you feel you should publish this book, and who do you find to be your most appreciative readers?
KAREN: Many poets start out with a chapbook first, but I had had the thought in my head long before this book, that maybe I’d jump right in and try to get a full-length book published. So there it was: a book. Wow. Friends responded positively to it. It took on a life of its own. I submitted it to two contests but didn’t win. Then submitted it to a publisher who took it. That was very lucky. I’m happy to report that the book seems to be viable poetry that poets appreciate, while also being a story—simply and honestly told—appreciated by even those who think they don’t like poetry. It seems especially to touch people who’ve experienced some kind of loss of a beloved partner.
GCB: Every poem in Untying the Knot hits hard with the pain and uncertainty you went through. It is one of the most personal books of poetry I’ve read and I appreciate that because I am a believer of “bleeding on the page” in order to communicate deeply with your reader. Do you find discussing these poems at readings brings back the hurt you endured?
KAREN: No, I actually don’t think the hurt comes back in that way now. It took me a long time before I could read these poems in public. The book was accepted by a publisher about three and a half years after my ex left me. Knowing then that the poems were going to be out there in public when the book was published six months later, I decided to start sharing some at readings. I found audiences related to me more than they had when I read my other work. I believe that showing my vulnerability makes me more “real” to my audience, and thus they feel a kinship. People often approach me afterward to say the same thing (affairs or divorce) happened to them. Both men and women tell me this.
GCB: Was this book written and published out of spite or to get even with anyone? Did you think long and hard as to whether you should publish such an openly candid view of your divorce?
KAREN: I never had any thoughts of revenge or spite. My thinking was that the book might help people going through a similar situation. Also, by the time Untying the Knot was put together, I felt removed from the story, almost like it happened to someone else. The book became a thing rather than “my story.” However, once it was published, I suddenly got shy, thinking, “My gosh, I have opened my kimono to the world, and even if I close it back up, people will remember what they saw.” It’s an odd feeling knowing that your very intimate thoughts and feelings are out there in the world. When Poet Tom Lux wrote the blurb for the back of the book describing it as, “a courageous, deeply human book,” I thought “courageous?” but now I know what he means. I was naively courageous, I guess.
GCB: You and I were going through serious loss about the same time. My husband’s death ended my long marriage. We must go through various steps as we try to rebuild our lives. Is the finding of another person, who loves you and that you can love, a healing step in recovery?
KAREN: My prayer during the separation was, “Please help me end up with the man I’m supposed to be with, whether it’s my husband or someone else.” I knew I wanted partnership, but I also knew it had to be with the right person. I consider Chris an answer to that prayer. I knew him for about six months, but didn’t start dating him until just before the divorce was final. By that time, I was in the acceptance stage of grief. I had successfully put my life back together and was doing fine living alone. So I never felt like I fell into Chris’s arms on the rebound. Experiencing unconditional love from him made me realize that I’d never accept anything less again.
GCB:You seem to be happy these days with your new guy. Do you still have moments when you feel sad about the divorce?
KAREN: I’d say I feel sad about the loss of 31 years of life as I knew it and loss of my little family: me, Ken, our daughter and our two Welsh Terriers. In the end, I knew the divorce had to happen. I was ready to move on. But it is a sad thing to end a relationship, and I’ll probably always carry at least a smidgeon of that sadness of loss. However, I have a wonderfully fulfilling relationship with Chris now and do not harbor any hopes that Ken and I will get back together. He and I don’t communicate regularly, but when we do it is friendly, and I don’t feel sad.
GCB: You have been a loyal and active member of NCWN and Netwest for a long time. You were very involved in the publishing of the anthology, Echoes across the Blue Ridge. You began the Writers Night Out monthly reading and continue to facilitate that event. Your participation in the Atlanta literary community is extensive. Why do you continue to volunteer and support NCWN and NCWN West?
KAREN: For a long time, I felt a need to do volunteer work and did do some with the children’s hospital in Atlanta. But that wasn’t my thing. When I realized I could do something for writers and audiences, I lit up.
The NCWN, and especially Netwest, had helped give me the encouragement and know-how to become a published poet, and so I wanted to give back. While it’s not “charity” work, it is bringing people together. Writers so appreciate the support and connections: They are constantly thanking me. Yet I get support from them too.
In Atlanta, I missed the connections I had to other writers when I was in the mountains. So I started a poetry group in Atlanta, and most of us are now dear friends, just as I have dear writer friends in the mountains. Wonderful things happen when a group of like-minded people get together. Hosting the open mic gives writers a venue to read their work out loud and for audiences to hear the work firsthand. People are happy at Writers’ Night Out, and that makes me happy!
GCB: Tell us anything you want our readers to know, anything about your book that you want us to know and where they can buy it.
Karen: Untying the Knot is a memoir in poetry about the end of a long marriage and the healing. Most people recommend that the book be read cover-to-cover because it reads like a story. According to Poet Thomas Lux, “it is written with grace, humor, self-awareness, and without a dollop of self-pity.”
GCB: Thank you, Karen, for giving us this insight into your writing and for your genuine comments about how you came to write Untying the Knot.
Karen’s book, Untying the Knot can be purchased in paperback and Kindle at http://www.amazon.com/Untying-Knot-Karen-Paul-Holmes/dp/0615998984/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1407440890&sr=8-1&keywords=karen+paul+holmes.
Also available at City Lights Bookstore in Sylva, NC. Until Aug 21, you can enter to win one of 10 free copies on Goodreads. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/22599734-untying-the-knot
Read a poem from the book below:
Help Interpret the Symbolism in Mrs. Why’s True Story
She stares at a pile of her husband’s dirty laundry
while he spends a trial weekend with “Mrs. X.”
The wife has suddenly become “Mrs. Why.”
There can be a fine line between doing the noble thing
and being a push-over. Does she take this heap
of obvious symbolism, wash it, dry it, leave it
in a neat little pile for his return?
He believes Mrs. Why is a good woman.
That’s why he’s loved her for 31 years.
Now, she has bowed aside for this tryst, hoping
fervor will burn out. He believes it might,
but he’s not sure. X, by the way,
was Mrs. Why’s trusted friend until last week.
Mrs. Why feels a hurricane pounding her.
Knowing she should care for herself,
she blends a protein shake,
anger whirs on high as she tries to forgive.
Last night she dreamed of him with X:
He’s paying for a hotel, $500 a day.
Suddenly, Mrs. Why is on the toilet, but X demands,
Get up! It’s my turn. The bathroom fills with people;
Mrs. Why asks, Am I on Candid Camera?
Yes! And you’ve won fabulous prizes!
Months later, Mr. and Mrs. Why continue to receive
bags of onions they won. The promised cash
never comes. Of course, there’s allegory here,
but what do the onions mean?
An old and useful ingredient?
A taste that stays on the tongue?
—Karen Paul Holmes
from the book, Untying the Knot.