inner sanctuaries of blue collar life

Our poetry co-editor, Chris LaMay-West, recently had this exchange with Karen Weyant, our Issue #14 featured poet. Here’s what she had to say about her self-definition as a poet, from working-class to rural Rust Belt, and about the role of nature and salvation in her current work. 

 

There’s a lot of the natural world in your poems. Even poems that aren’t specifically about a “natural” subject, like “The Summer of Manmade Miracles”, prominently feature this. Has this always been a source of inspiration for you?

Oddly enough, no. When I first started writing poetry, I drew inspiration from the inner sanctuaries of blue collar life. Many of my first poems took place in factory settings, inspired from my own life and the lives of many family members. Some of these poems were published in my first chapbook, Stealing Dust. However, in the last few years, I have turned my attention to writing poetry from my childhood, and since I grew up in rural Pennsylvania, the natural world has invaded my poetry.

 

On the other hand, the natural scenes featured in your poems often seem ultimately to be about something else, as in “Muskrat Pond”, which deals with compassion and mortality. Is using natural objects to talk about wider subjects something that you consciously work into your poems? Or do you find that it happens on its own, and you become aware of it after?

I’m a poet who always starts with an image. As I write about this image, whether this image is from the natural or human world, the story (and the wider message) just evolves. I find that writing creatively is so different from the academic essay, where one starts with a thesis and then finds support for that thesis. When I write poetry, I simply sit back and watch, draft after draft after draft, as the deeper meaning arrives on the page.

 

“Collecting Caterpillars” has a kind of theme of saving, in this case against oncoming winter, but the same theme appears elsewhere–the insect in “Miracles”, the Father’s actions in “Muskrat Pond”, and the narrator’s impulse toward the calf in “Two-Headed Calf”. What does this theme mean to you? Do you see poetry itself as a kind of act of saving?

Wow. I never really noticed that my narrators are so hell-bent on saving the world! Still, now that you have pointed this out, I can see why salvation is so important in my poems, especially the ones published here, as they are inspired from my childhood. Growing up in the 80s was like growing up in a world that needed some kind of salvation. It was the end of the Cold War. There was a farming crisis. Indeed, there was a general job crisis, as the Rust Belt, with its decline in industry, was being born. Finally, in this decade, we were starting to stare down the millennium, so everyone seemed to have Apocalyptic fever. I guess we all needed saving in one way or another.

I’m not sure that I see poetry specifically as having a role in saving, although I know many people who would disagree with me. However, I do believe in the power of writing, in general. Writing can empower individuals to change the world.

 

I noticed that the narrator’s father plays a role in the background of “Picking at Dead Possums” and “Muskrat Pond”, and realized he or the mother appear in a lot of these poems. Could you talk about the role that intertwining natural history and family/personal histories plays in your work?

I have to put a disclaimer here: all the details in my poems aren’t necessarily one hundred percent true! I know this fact distresses some of my readers, but sometimes a character is a composite of several people in my life or a narrative story in a poem has been inspired from a specific scene in a memory.

In general, I think that I’m a natural storyteller (although the act of writing poetic stories is a little more challenging). No matter the subject, image or the story found in my works, I always hope that audience members can have empathy for what is going on in the poem. As for the natural history? Well, I also hope that there is education in what I write: that my readers may understand the plight of a thirsty muskrat, a two-headed calf or some other beautiful misfit that can be found in our natural world.

 

You’re often identified as a Midwestern poet or Rust Belt poet, and even describe yourself that way on your website. What does that mean to you besides the obvious geographic identifier?

For a long time, I labeled myself a working-class poet. However, I stopped when I realized that I wanted to expand my subject matter. As someone who lives and writes outside what appears to be the seemingly accepted norm of the poetry world (i.e., I don’t teach at a major research university), I felt that I wanted to belong to some kind of club, so I started calling myself a Rust Belt poet. I really should call myself a rural Rust Belt poet, as most people think of the Rust Belt as a series of dying cities, and I grew up in a small town of about 4,000 people. So, yes, there’s a geographic identifier here, but it’s also part of the sense of place that is so important in my work.

 

Speaking of your website, I noticed that it includes a lot of curating of the work of others– you have poetry reviews there, extensive annual lists of favorite book picks, and links to other poets and writing resources. I really loved that! What do you think is the value of using some of your space to talk about your tastes, and point people toward other authors?

Thanks for the compliment! I live in a rural area, far away, it seems, from what is happening in the writing world, so in order to network, I started blogging. Believe it or not, I met some great poets in this way. After blogging gave way to Facebook, I developed my own website (which is still a work in progress, by the way). I never wanted my website to be all about me, although I certainly do post personal publishing news.

I tell people that in many ways, I’m more of a reader than a writer, and I think it’s important to celebrate the work of writers, but especially poets, who are so under-appreciated in the writing world.

 

Following up on that, who are some of the poets you feel most influence your work? Or, for that matter, writers or artists in other genres as well?

This is an interesting question as many of my favorite poets don’t necessarily influence my work! Still, I would have to name contemporary poets Jan Beatty, Mary Biddinger, Jim Daniels, Todd Davis, Jeannine Hall Gailey, Julia Kasdorf, Sandy Longhorn, as big influences. Furthermore, I am always discovering new poets (or new to me, anyway!). For instance, I just finished reading Crocus by Karin Gottshall, a wonderful book!

However, if I had to describe the two most influential books, I would instantly name The Palace of Ashes by Sherry Fairchok and Incident at the Edge of Bayonet Woods by Paula Bohince. Both books make the Pennsylvania landscape, in all its rugged glory, beautiful.

As for prose writers? I really enjoy the prose of Barbara Hurd, Sheryl St. Germain, Jill Sisson Quinn, and Kim Todd. All of these writers balance sense of place with insights about the human condition.

 

What projects (writing or otherwise) are you working on now?

I have so much going on right now in my life. I’m working on my first full-length poetry collection. However, I’m also enrolled in an MFA program through the University of Arkansas at Monticello where I’m exploring the world of prose. I am a full time assistant professor at Jamestown Community College in Jamestown, New York, where I have a full teaching load (filled with lots and lots of student papers), so my schedule is always, always, busy.

Karen Weyant

Karen J. Weyant’s poetry has been published in Arsenic Lobster, The Barn Owl Review, Caesura, Cold Mountain Review, Copper Nickel, Harpur Palate, Hobart, Poetry East, River Styx, and Whiskey Island. Her most recent collection of poetry, Wearing Heels in the Rust Belt, won Main Street Rag’s 2011 Chapbook contest and was published in 2012. She teaches at Jamestown Community College in Jamestown, New York. In her spare time, she explores the Rust Belt regions of Western New York and Northern Pennsylvania.

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