A Conversation With
Karen S. Williams
Q. Write a bio about yourself.
Well, first I’m a native of Inkster, Michigan, a Detroit suburb that many believe auto mogul Henry Ford founded and developed as part of an experiment to create a model community for black Ford workers. But Ford didn't found the city. Inkster was settled in the 1820’s, and developed officially by its namesake, Robert Inkster, in the 1860’s. But later, during the Great Depression, Ford did try to make Inkster a model village for Black Ford workers. But that’s a whole story in itself. One I've been researching a great deal. It's very interesting. Anyway. I grew up in the ‘60’s with my dad, then a realtor/x-ray technician; my mom, a nurse; and my older sister. All of us were extremely close to my maternal grandparents who came to Inkster from Alabama in the 1930’s.
I spent a lot of my formative years at my maternal grandparent’s house. I credit a lot of my love of history and family history to them, and the many trips I took with them “down South.” My love of African-American history was fostered by my father who reared my sister and I in a highly Afrocentric church until I was 10-11 years old. My life changed drastically, though, when I contracted an abnormal case of the Chicken Pox. It left my skin extremely scarred, and bullying in my life extremely prevalent.
Q. Did you turn to writing to help you cope?
In a lot of ways, yes. Writing and reading became a critical form of articulation and healing for me, a life enricher and life preserver of sorts. Turns out my story was so interesting to some, the Free Press, a daily newspaper in Detroit, did a story on me and how the Chicken Pox literally changed my life. Click here if you want to read it.
Anyway, after the 6th grade, I left public school and transferred into private junior high and high schools. I entered college, journalism school, bent on becoming the next Jessica Savitch. But God had other plans.
Q. Do you have a favorite time to write?
My best times to write are in the morning. Especially after I spend time alone with God, and time in my journal. My gears are pretty “kicked in” by then.
Q. You write in multiple genres: poetry, fiction, essay, screenplays and a little magazine. Do you favor one genre over another?
Yes and no. Sometimes, the poems don’t or won’t come. I have to be in a certain frame to write poems. Or I have to had lived certain experiences to write them. Not so much to give me the credibility to write them because one can write about anything with the right research and impetus. But sometimes life has to give you the interest you need to write about certain topics. You have to have deeply personal inner experiences and knowing develop from them to draw on to help you write them. So some of the poems I write are very much in my blood, and at deeper levels than what may be obvious. Also, when I feel I need a certain kick to write, I love being part of poetry workshops. Writing on demand makes you stay on task, and dig deep. You don’t want to keep writing the same poem over and over again. Right now, though, I’m drafting more essays and magazine pieces. We’ll see where that goes. In any event, writing is pretty cyclical for me. I’ll stay in one genre a while, then move to another, then move back a previous one, then pick up another while working on another. It sounds crazy, but it’s a way of writing I’ve known for a while.
Q. When did you realize poetry would be a critical part of your writing life?
The answer to this question really isn’t one that I can give briefly. It’s going to take a bit of explaining. So I’ll do that.
While growing up, one of the most cathartic things I could do to relieve myself of the tensions I experienced due to growing up facially disfigured, I’d turn to the television and immerse myself in the Kung Fu films of my idol at the time, Bruce Lee. I always felt a rush of excitement when I watched him because he mesmerized me. I appreciated how he was good-looking, muscular, 5’7”, a weapon, a tight black blur, expanding, contracting, tasting blood, moving like water. “Empty your mind,” he said in a rare television interview. “Become formless, shapeless like water. If water is poured into a cup, it becomes the cup. If water is poured into a teapot, it becomes the teapot…”
Though Bruce in mid-fight seemed acutely focused on his enemies, I’d later learn that he, like me, was nearsighted. He could see things better closer than far away. And when I learned this, it occurred to me that his condition might have perhaps informed his intention to perfect the closer, more immediate and finer details of the fight to somehow fight or compensate for his vision.... An idea which ties into my realizing I had a gift for poetry. Like Bruce, I also am nearsighted. So I researched “Can an individual’s physical condition, or vision in my case, among other things, inform or motivate their artistic tendencies?”
During my research I located a very interesting book: The World Through Blunted Sight: An Inquiry into the Influence of Defective Vision on Art and Character by Ophthalmologist Patrick Trevor-Roper. I honestly believe God led me to it so I could learn more about how and why I "see" as I do as a writer. In it, Roper shared the sentiment that writers, particularly poets, are more often than not, nearsighted. And they instinctively develop their craft out of the need to achieve better physical, mental, spiritual and emotional focus, particularly their focus on the future. So after reading this, I realized, that even as a young girl, I had opted to use poetry, as Bruce Lee used his body and martial arts form, to not just move forward, but backwards and inwards to give flesh, bone and voice, power to feelings and experiences I was reluctant to articulate or was drawn to. This was particularly important because a lot of the time I felt no one wanted to hear the voice, story or feelings of a disfigured little girl. So when young, and on days my schoolmates teased me rather thickly about my skin or the anger I expressed about them doing it, or on days when I felt I was pelted with periodic doses of parental criticism I felt I had heard far too much, I’d retreat into my room and crawl into bed with my then favorite book, Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses. I dove into its delightful rhymes and colorful accompanying drawings such as “Travel,” “Happy Thoughts,” and my least favorite poem of his, “Good and Bad Children” which began “Children, you are very little/ and your bones are very brittle: / If you would grow great and stately. / You must try to walk sedately…”
Stevenson’s poems always transported me, albeit a bit tearfully, to a dusky terrain he crowned “the land of nod,” the vivid beneath-the-eyelid world of glittering twilight sleep. Within those twilight moments, his rhymes, those brief yet poignant meditations on his childhood, fired my youthful creative writing muse. It led me upon waking to lapse into my own world of some of the first poems I would ever write, wily and all too corny limericks.
Q. Did you make a conscious decision to write poetry or was it like a spring that welled and spilled over onto paper with little regard for your ambitions?
My preferring to write poetry more frequently was purely an occurrence in which I had little choice. In my high school years, though I enjoyed writing fiction, I sheerly enjoyed writing poetry more. And I believe that goes back to my being a writer who happens to be near-sighted. Poetry allowed me to reframe and analyze my many experiences into a fluid yet precise expression that was palatable to me, and edifying to me because it taught me about myself and informed my many interests. Writing poetry was also a purely cathartic act. I celebrated the freedom it gave me to be as terse or effusive as I wanted to be about the matters that caught my eye, and leaped about in my mind and heart.
Q. Are there any poets that inspired you?
As a new writer, or when I was as a young girl, I loved limericks and checked books on limericks out the library voraciously and read them. In my junior high and high school years, my poetry tastes matured and I began to appreciate a plethora of writers such as Nikki Giovanni, Christina Rossetti, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Countee Cullen, Richard Wright, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Ntozake Shange and others. Currently, after actively writing poetry, in one form or another, for over 30 years, my favorite and most inspiring poets include (and these are in no particular order): Marilyn Nelson, Pablo Neruda, Kenneth Rexroth, Robert Bly (particularly his What Have I Lost by Dying collection), Cornelius Eady, Sharon Olds, Toi Derricotte, Tim Siebles, David Mura, Allison Joseph, Patricia Smith, Rumi, Quincy Troupe, Mary Ann Wehler, Sekou Sundiata, and the Psalms of David.
Q. Can you remember the inspiration for your first poem?
I sure can. It was a limerick I either read or thought up. I can't remember for sure. It was so long ago. But part of it went: “Fishy fishy in the river, I stood by and watch you quiver…” It’s amazing what quirky bits of information your mind will retain.
Q. Regarding the words you use in your poems, do you pick them from a dictionary or do they flow from your subconscious or incorporated vocabulary?
Mostly, words flow from my subconscious and vocabulary. But I do love using a thesaurus and other tools to enhance context. Writers must be willing to move beyond the subconscious and their own knowledge bases to inform themselves of topic matter of interest to them. My father and I have a running quibble about this. He believes that writers should write strictly on what they know, whereas I believe writers should write about what they feel, about what touches them. And if that’s something that they know, then that’s fine. But if it isn’t, why not expand our minds a little?
Regardless of whether you are intimately acquainted with your topic matter or not, as a writer you are still required by your craft and your commitment to it to “do the work”… which means to research what you’re writing and how you intend to write it. Then you must “do the work” of writing it, revising it and sleeping on it a while before writing it again to your satisfaction. And if that takes two or twenty thousand rewrites, it doesn’t matter. Poetry is so fluid of an expressive art; the act of creating it is so fluid, that the fact that it is fluid, and that a poem is never really completed, never changes. A so-called “finished” poem, in my opinion, is nothing more than a poem that the writer has allowed to rest on the page or in their mind at a particular moment. Only when a writer has arrived at or has temporarily settled at a particular station of living and or writing experience, does he or she announce that the poem is finished. However, what many writers fail to remember is that the only thing constant is change. Undoubtedly, there will be instances when years or experiences will pass, and the writer of a so-called “finished poem” will look at their “finished poem” and realize “My God. This isn’t finished after all. I see things, it, the poem, the topic matter of the poem, so differently now.”
Q. Is your writing rooted in or driven by a personal philosophy?
I like to think of myself as a writer who is charged by God to create work for the following reasons. If you were to look a Plato’s idealism model, it proposes that “life is made up of ideas or truths that should be used for remodeling a less than perfect world.” Therefore, as a person who considers herself a spiritual person, I believe the gift of writing poetry or prose, the gift of writing period, both given me by God, is a way to help improve the human condition and ones own inner and outer condition. It demands we take note of the world around us and make comment on what we see, what excites and engages us, what disturbs us, what inspires us, what we want to change in it. To that end, writing as a form of human condition improvement requires me to do the following to best engage in the practice of it. I must be willing to:
- Lay bare my spirit and soul, what’s most important to me at a particular point in time;
- Remember that writing is a fluid form of creative expression that is shaped and altered by my changing experience stations or levels;
- Be careful to remember that writing, in some instances, is a therapeutic exercise that allows me to dredge up, “flush out”, and process what is currently capturing my attention or has done so in the past – something quite different in just merely laying bare the soul, as process, to me, requires research, inquiry, even a rediscovery; and
- take the experiences I've been given and process them through writing to help others grow, and become persons also committed to helping others.
. Have you considered writing a novel?
Actually more than that. I’m nearly done with one. It’s history-driven, too. About personal and spiritual transformation, the need for it, the need for us to be transformed and transformer in our respective circles, is a big motif in the story, and in a lot of my work.
Q. Any words for poets and writers just starting out?
Sure. First, expand your skills as writers and your definition of what a writer is. Poetry is a wonderful genre but it is not the only literary genre that exists. Be brave. Stretch yourselves and explore other genres. You may be surprised at your adeptness at another genre and may really appreciate the joy writing in it may bring you.
Second, don’t let poetry or prose, your writing of it, every become a trap or frustration. There are days or even weeks and months when you won’t feel like writing. And it doesn’t mean that your gift or poetic eye has absconded. If you haven’t written anything in a while, it’s more than likely that it’s because your gift needs rest. Too much of anything can overwhelm. And writing in moderation may mean not writing enough. The key is to follow your heart and writing rhythms. When you feel inspired, write. And when you don’t feel inspired, read another’s work. Let their muse fire something in you. In time, your muse will return, and you’ll be back in the habit of writing again.
Third, apply to a structured writing conference or workshop where you’ll be required to write on demand. When you are required to crank out six good poems within a six-day period, then you’ll know frustration. But you’ll also know extreme satisfaction when you’ve completed the task. Which is important. The muse sneaks up on you, you know. And when it knocks on your door, you have to answer it or the poem of your life may slip away. Learning to write on demand helps you appreciate those moments when the muse arbitrarily comes.
Fourth, take care with your words and what you write. Words are so powerful. They can be gifts or weapons, and carry within them the power of life and death. Meaning, consider what I said about my writing out of the Plato idealism influence. If you were to look a Plato’s idealism model, it proposes that “life is made up of ideas or truths that should be used for remodeling a less than perfect world.” Therefore if you use your gift to improve the human condition, and your inner and outer condition, you’ll be strategic, purposeful and intentional in how and why you use your words.
Finally, never let anyone define you as your writing. What you write is only part of who you are, of who you were created to be. I believe everyone reading this interview is a person with a foreordained purpose. And because the gift of life and the gift of purpose has been bestowed upon you, it’s crucial that your life be lived productively and constructively in a manner that facilitates your discovering and fulfilling what that purpose is. If you are member of a house of worship, talk to your spiritual leaders about it. Pray about it. Journal about it. Ponder the gift of your being here, because one day you’ll realize as time progresses, you are here for a reason. And because that is the case, you'll also realize that there are many people in your past, present, and future who are depending on you to serve their memory and history, and the present and future God has for you, well.