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.



 



Selected Portions of 2008 Poets and Writers Magazine Debut Poet Interview excerpted in the January/February 2009 issue of Poets and Writers Magazine article,
"First and Foremost".

Do you have a graduate degree in creative writing?

No. But I have two graduate degrees in literature-related fields: One, a MAT from Wayne State University in Detroit where I specialized in teaching Secondary  English Education. The second one is a MA in Health and the Humanities from Michigan State University’s Program for Bioethics, Health and Society in East Lansing, MI. My specialization area in that program was the history of medicine, and literature and medicine for racial and ethnic populations. In fact, I wrote a portion of Elegy... while in the Michigan State program. I wanted to make sure when I graduated from it I had two publishable manuscripts. One in poetry, Elegy..., and the other a memoir titled Chicken Pop Girl: A Memoir of Skin, Race and
Culture.

Does your day job allow for enough writing time?

Sure. Writers have to make room in their schedules to write. So I journal every morning upon waking, something I’ve done regularly for the past nine years. Plus, I always jot down poem ideas wherever and whenever they come to me so I won’t lose them. But dedicated writing time, time I spend solely on working on poems, really opens up when I attend evening poetry workshops.  


What is your favorite book of poems?

Actually, it’s not a single collection but a collection of interviews of poets and samples of their work. Bill Moyer’s The Language of Life. I just love the width, depth and breadth of the poets it and the corresponding PBS series
represents. 


What is your favorite book of fiction?

That varies with what I’m reading and why I’m reading it.  


*How long did it take you to write the poems in Elegy for a Scared Shoulder?

Four years.


How long did you try to find a publisher for your book before it was accepted by
Aquarius Press? I notice that the book was a finalist for an award back in 2004 -- did you continue submitting to contests after that?

No. The the Naomi Long Madgett/Lotus Press Competition was the only competition that I submitted Elegy… to. When the manuscript was named a finalist for the Award, I felt so honored and encouraged. But receiving that commendation also happened at a very interesting time in my life when I was questioning the writing life, rather my role in it.

When I submitted the manuscript to Lotus Press in 2004, I was really grappling with what extent I wanted to pursue poetry as a writer, student of it, and teacher. I had been part of the Detroit writing community since 1994, teaching and attending conferences and workshops. Plus I had received writing fellowships. But my interests veered from writing and toward traditional ministry. I questioned if writing and publishing could change lives the way I saw them changed weekly at the altar in the church I attended.

In fact, by 2004, outside of writing for work, I had pretty much stopped writing anything creative that wasn’t journaling, spiritual writing or autobiographical. I was seriously considering entering the seminary and becoming an evangelist. But by spring 2007, I felt strongly that ministry, as I had come to understand it to be at the time, wasn’t God’s plan for my life. There was another way he wanted me to serve. 

Shortly after coming to this realization, Aquarius Press contacted me. They let me know that they had been following my writing career and so believed in my future as a poet and writer that they wanted me to be one of the initial poets
that launched their poetry imprint, Willow Books. Could we talk? I leaped to talk! Their vision mirrored mine: to use the arts as empowerment tools. So with their support, the support of close friends, and that of other writers who knew
my work, I re-entered the literary world ready to write and teach history, culture, faith, and memory-drenched topics that are at once healing and liberating, even at microscopic levels.      

Was there anything unexpected about the process of publishing your first book of
poetry?

Not really. It was relatively painless.

What was my biggest surprise?

Based on my observing who approaches me at book events, that non-African-Americans openly express more interest in the book than
African-Americans do. Not that I’m indicting my community about this at all. It’s just been interesting to observe that non-African-Americans tend to stop and ask questions and express their excitement about Elegy... more. And their excitement naturally feeds into mine. But I get excited when anybody gets excited about Elegy..., race and ethnicity notwithstanding.  

What was my biggest concern?

Wondering how potential readers would view the cover. Because African-American history has been, in many instances, very painful, I understand that even the mere visage or guise of that pain on a book cover, may prevent a sale. But I really don't think that the cover of a book is an overwhelming reason a sale isn’t made. Most of the time it’s reader preference, though cover art can impact that preference. Still, with that knowledge in mind as well as the heart and passion with which I  researched and wrote Elegy…, I chose not to change the change the cover. It is what it is. A straightforward and arresting image that speaks to a straightforward and arresting history of a population that has known a great deal of pain.


What has been the most effective method of publicizing this book? Actually, it was my being featured on public radio’s “Weekend America” radio program in early August 2008. They produced a short audio memoir of me speaking about growing up as a facially disfigured child. The piece is titled “Scarred for Life.”

Within the first three days of the broadcast, my website received over 350 hits.I still get hits that can be tracked back to this piece. Interest in Elegy spiked to say the least. It even landed in the top 25 African-American poetry books sold list on Amazon.com at one point. Now what that says to me is that listeners and readers want to know who writers are. They want to know the story behind the story. 

If you could show a prospective reader a line or two from your book --- just a couple representative lines --- what would they be?

Dusk-flecked,/ the bird warns mourners,/ the fertile egg in its mouth,/ us, the rememberers/ to cry loud and spare not,/ never forget story. Sanctified,/these bones and earth.

Are you working on a third book of poetry?

I have a third manuscript, Inkster’s Daughter,  that's completed; a chronological self-portrait about growing up in a small Midwestern predominately Black town that used to be a stronghold of auto magnate, Henry Ford. From roughly 1928 to 1941, Black Inkster residents
who worked in Ford plants, among them my grandfather, were subjects of a unique
experiment Ford conducted. The book won’t cover the history of the experiment in detail—that’s a book in itself-- but more of how life and Black life in  Inkster, in my life and that of my family, unfolded out of this historic
prologue. There are also key projects I'm working on, too.    

Any advice you'd like to share with other poets who are trying to publish their debut books?

Pursue and sign with a publisher who believes in you and your work. If it’s a smaller house, then so be it. In the writing world, aligning with those who believe in you, first and foremost, is what makes the difference between a writer who lives to write, and one who lives, breathes, and evolves not just as a writer, but into the person they were born to be.

To me, writers who live to write, burn out. But writers who are mission and purpose focused, who desire to develop and give of themselves out of their total being; they refuse to let writing “work”, "pigeon hole" or “consume” them because they know there’s so much more.   

In hindsight, is there anything about the process of writing, editing, publishing, or publicizing your book --- anything at all --- that you would do differently?

Yes. I would have hired a book publicist. Public and media relations, especially with the advent of social media, are very time intensive. And as it is, you and your publisher, have only so many hours in a day to work on the book. Therefore,
the resources, insight, time, and skill a seasoned PR pro brings to your project
is more than worth it.

Lastly, we are planning a special theme of "Inspiration" for the issue in which this debut poetry feature will appear. I'm wondering if you could highlight one specific thing that inspires you -- a book or a CD or a painting or a place or person or ... anything.

My relationship with God; the way it informs my experiences, my total being. In my eyes, writing and publishing is an adventure in my life that God so graciously allowed. I’m tickled about that, excited about that, and can’t wait to see where this wonderful writing and publishing adventure takes me.