Peninsula Poetry: Karen Nystrom

Karen Nystrom is a poet and playwright living in Ellison Bay. She has an MFA in writing from Vermont College. Her poems have appeared in 8142 ReviewThe Denver QuarterlyThe Harvard ReviewIndiana Review and Portage Magazine, among others.

Nystrom was an original member of the Chicago Poetry Ensemble. She taught creative writing at Indiana University and University of Tennessee. Her play SMOKE was produced by Three Brothers Theatre and she is currently looking for a theater for her most recent play, 7 TEETH: A Door County Farce.

What is your writing routine?

Being both a poet and a playwright, I often toggle between the two depending on the way the writing is going that day. There are also days where nothing makes it to the page. Then there are what might be called writing emergencies. Most writers probably have times when a tumble of thoughts, phrases and ideas just occur and getting them down, however raw, is key. Then comes the revising. I probably revise as much as I write.

What do most poorly written poems have in common?

First, I applaud anyone who is writing poetry to examine language as a means to communicate, either to themselves or others. Connection through that communication, however it occurs, can take time and practice. I would say that undeveloped writing can produce poems that rely mostly on clichés and connect less than poems that grab your arm and walk you down a lane.

What do most well-written poems have in common?

They connect. Even if the only reader is the writer. That connection can be emotional, intellectual, spiritual, musical or any number of ways a writer draws the reader into the poem. Very few poems come out perfect in the first draft, at least in my view. The revision process helps a poet get to the heart of why the poem was written.

Is it important to understand the meaning of the poem or for the reader to be able to ‘solve’ it?

Not always. Sometimes it’s good to just let poems descend on where you are in life. Sometimes they connect and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes the cumulative effect of the words in a poem, or a set of poems, can produce a response in the reader that doesn’t need to be solved. I’ve read books of poems in my twenties that seemed well-crafted and were hopelessly lost on me. Somehow, upon rereading them decades later, the writing is genius.

What are you reading right now?

I am rereading Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. Before that I read Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun.

Peninsula Poetry is a monthly column curated by the Door County Poets Collective, a 12-member working group that was formed to publish Soundings: Door County in Poetry in 2015 and continues to meet.

Fifteen Years Later

Fifteen years later and still 
no word. The uptrodden life 
plods on,
	curiously positive, the slippers
soft and dark smush over the boards
and the winter creak just a little
different than the summer creak.
Coffee, cigarette, coffee, a little 
ham for lunch, before the storm.

It always takes longer than it needs to,
the clouds to give open and spill
light onto the landscape, kids spinning 
plates on a frozen lake. There must be
sound rushing from their mouths
but the voices don’t reach the window.

There is night. And day. And night
again. There are books and cards
the mailman delivers with a half-smile
and backache. And snow.

There are stars and complete lives
lived away from the house. Bare branches knocking 
into other branches weighted by
the occasional jay or dark cardinal
no one thought would return. The single,
continuous joy, that somehow even
in the half light, in the dark,
in all the things we feel 
but do not say, we still try.

On The Occasion Of Gina And Carmichael's Wedding

We see a current 
in our eyes that reflects 
the wind outside, wordless thoughts 
and sleeves of usual days,
        as well as joy days, as well as pain days.

The current life finds us barefoot and facing 
each other, balancing on a slowly moving
orb. We remember how to bend and stretch,
to reach for the stars, even as we 
          swim in the usual day.
As we were taught 
to swim. 

We wake, we dress, we place ourselves 
in rituals and rhythms so exact we barely hear 
the tapping of our hearts that keeps us,
      and keeps us, and keeps us.
Here. Together.

In the wake of words so carefully spoken,
the holy space we have prepared,
             in the wake of souls 
in the pews and rafters
who attend to us today with a single love,
we say that we have already 
       loved enough to make this ritual true.

The scares and bright things and cornflakes
return tomorrow. In this circle, 
for this moment,

It is what we know.