Karen Rigby: Poet Interview

Publish date:

Please welcome Karen Rigby to the Poetic Asides blog!

Rigby is the author of Chinoiserie (Ahsahta Press, 2012), winner of the 2011 Sawtooth Poetry Prize, and of the chapbooks Savage Machinery and Festival Bone. She has received a literature fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, a residency at the Vermont Studio Center, and a grant from the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council. A graduate of the University of Minnesota’s MFA program, she currently resides in Arizona. Her work has appeared in Quarterly West, Meridian, Washington Square, failbetter.com, New England Review, and other journals.

Here's a poem I really enjoyed from Chinoiserie:

Dear Reader, by Karen Rigby

The mink shouldered out of its cage,
paced four meters square.
I admired the indexed spine. The guard hairs
slick. The mouth

The black eye trained against the water pump, the white magnolia--
what could I bring to the dooryard?
He wanted nothing of torn bread.
Nothing to drink.

One night the mink climbed my throat
and out of bone and grasping
a demon was born
to haunt the city of steeples.

It blessed the pedestals worn
by thumbprints. Leather Bibles. Rivers bruising
in their beds. Its jaw hung like a petal
darkening by the hour.

Dear reader: What I started to tell you
had something to do with hunger
but the mink was demon
turned bodiless terror.

It led me closer to the firs
where the dead wait for an answer.
All night the mink appeared
and disappeared. The demon wept.

Bodies lined up like blonde guitars
without their necks. Faces I loved thorned
in the trees. A tanager shone
like a pitcher of blood.


Karen Rigby, poet

Karen Rigby, poet

What are you currently up to?

At the time of this writing, I’m at work on a longer poem as part of the 2013 Flying House project, in collaboration with artist CJ Hungerman. Though I can’t elaborate until the work is shown in October, drafting this poem is proving to be a real shift.

Your collection Chinoiserie includes epigraphs for each of its three main sections—all three of them translations. Especially with the title of the collection, could you explain how much non-English language poems have influenced your poetry—if at all?

I was born in Panama City, Panama, in a household with both English and Spanish. I found my way toward the work of several authors—in their original language—through excellent teachers. Ana María Matute, Gabriela Mistral, Juan Ramón Jiménez, Rubén Darío, and Miguel de Unamuno come to mind. Fiction, mostly. Then Lorca’s plays. Poetry didn’t enter my imagination until later.

The line from reading in adolescence to writing Chinoiserie, however, is a spider thread. I’m not sure which, if any, influences remain. I do think, though, that everything absorbed eventually manifests in other ways.

In this collection, the poems often seem to use space as an asset. What are your thoughts on using white space as a poetic device?

White space is like breathing, always present. Consider a line break—is it a decision arising from meaning or music? A desire for emphasis or pause? Or is the line sculpting, interrogating, articulating the white space surrounding it? Or is it the other way—does the white space define the words? If an image is framed in white, deliberately made to stand apart, why?

Questions happen in the background, but when I write, the decisions are instinctive. Even as the words fill one side, I’m looking at the margin on the other side.

Before Chinoiserie, you authored two chapbooks: Festival Bone and Savage Machinery. Do you have a process for assembling a poetry collection?

All of these gathered poems on various topics —they were not written as part of an intentional series (a thematic project, for instance). Sometimes I went by the images, excluding poems that repeated too many of the same ones. Sometimes I arranged according to the last lines of one poem and the first lines of another.

Regardless of the choices made, in all three cases I printed everything and arranged the pages on the floor. I stood back to take in the different shapes. Lengths of poems, line-lengths, variety in the forms. Then I considered opening and closing poems, second and second-to-the-last poems, and so on, working back to the center. It is sometimes surprising what can stand out just from the visual survey.


Publish your poetry!

Learn how to get your poetry published--either individually in poetry publications or as a collection--with the 2013 Poet's Market, edited by Robert Lee Brewer. In addition to several articles on the craft, business, and promotion of poetry, the book includes hundreds of publishing opportunities, including listings for book publishers, magazines, journals, contests, grants, and more!

Click to continue.


Do you have any poetry pet peeves when reading poetry? Are there things you try to avoid in your own poems?

I don’t know. What I find myself drawn to changes over time—I also hesitate to set parameters. I can say, though, that more and more the poetry I like is poetry I remember, which has nothing to do with whether the work is actually memorable (in a larger canonical or historical sense, or more simply, to other readers, and has nothing to do with the complexity of the work). It takes a lot for certain lines to adhere, let alone haunt me, and not many poems do.

Lowell’s “a savage servility / slides by on grease” is one line that has stayed with me. In my own work, Pope’s “sound must seem an echo to the sense” is admittedly seductive. I try to avoid the larger clunkers, if I can.

Your best poetry experience to date. What is it and why?

The poem I’m writing now. What is currently on the table is what is best (even if time reveals it as otherwise), because that space is the active one.

Who (or what) are you currently reading?

Prose poems by Paige Ackerson-Kiely and Andrew Grace.

If you could share only one piece of advice for other poets, what would it be?

Words. Wonderment. Waiting.


Thank you so much for participating, Karen!

You can learn more about Karen Rigby, her poetry, and more at her website: http://www.karenrigby.com


If you're a publisher or poet interested in an interview on the blog or would like to propose a guest post related to poetry (the craft, the business, or the lifestyle), all you need to do to get the wheels in motion is to send me an e-mail with the subject line: Poetic Asides Blog to robert.brewer@fwmedia.com. Please be as specific as possible about your ideas, and then we'll see where it goes from there.


Check out previous poetic posts here:

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Set a Trap

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Set a Trap

Every good story needs a nice (or not so nice) turn or two to keep it interesting. This week, it's time to set a trap.

5 Ways to Add a Refrain to Your Picture Books (and Why You Should)

5 Ways to Add a Refrain to Your Picture Books (and Why You Should)

Children's author Christine Evans shares how repetition is good for growing readers and gives you the tools to write your story's perfect refrain.

From Our Readers

Describe the First Time a Book Transported You to Another/Magical World: From Our Readers (Comment for a Chance at Publication)

This post announces our latest From Our Readers ask: Describe the First Time a Book Transported You to Another/Magical World. Comment for a chance at publication in a future issue of Writer's Digest.

About Us: How to Handle Your Story That Involves Other People

About Us: How to Handle Your Story That Involves Other People

Your story belongs to you but will involve other people. Where do your rights end and theirs begin?

Identifying Your Book's Target Audience

Identifying Your Book's Target Audience

Editor-in-chief Amy Jones navigates how to know your target audience, and how knowing will make your writing stronger.

Poetry Prompt

Wednesday Poetry Prompts: 575

Every Wednesday, Robert Lee Brewer shares a prompt and an example poem to get things started on the Poetic Asides blog. This week, write a safe poem.


I Spy

Every writer needs a little inspiration once and a while. For today's prompt, someone is watching your narrator ... but there's a twist.

Brian Freeman: On "Rebooting" Another Writer's Legacy

Brian Freeman: On "Rebooting" Another Writer's Legacy

In this article, Brian Freeman, author of Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Treachery, discusses how he took up the mantle of a great series and made it his own.

Sole vs. Soul (Grammar Rules)

Sole vs. Soul (Grammar Rules)

Learn how to distinguish the sole from the soul with Grammar Rules from the Writer's Digest editors, including a few examples of correct usages.