Monday, September 23, 2013

Life of a Poet~Karen of Keeping Secrets

"Country roads, take me home, to the place I belong........" Remember that song? I so loved it Back in the we are going to Almost Heaven - West Virginia - to visit Karen, who blogs at Keeping Secrets. I think this is our first visit to Virginia, but it wont be our last. It is very beautiful here. 

P.U.: Karen, your poem What It Is   really made me sit up and take notice, it is so powerfully true. I’d like to include it here, if that’s okay.

Me at Al Hambra in Spain

What It Is

Mornings, at the bus stop,
This one stands scraggly haired, and apart.
Solitary, sour at seven a.m.,

And I think, why not?
Poor thing, you're an American teen
Who has everything.

I'd like to hook my fingers
Through the holes in your jeans,
And plop you down in Kenya,

Where Awiti, just your age, sends one child
To the school that cannot meet
When it rains.

Or we could go to some war-torn land,
Or Haiti's slums...
But really, baby,

Everything is relative.
It is what it is, you stoically say,
Enduring your four bedroom life.

Your hundred dollar jeans
Are as full of misery
As the dust that settles

On the back of the boney cow
Herded through the dirt
By an African child.

Karen: Sure, Sherry! I wrote that one in my head on the way to work. This scraggly, disaffected looking teen stood apart from the others at the entrance of a neighborhood with half-million dollar houses. It's a wonder she was waiting on a school bus at all. Maybe that's why she looked so sour!

P.U.: I looked around your blog and couldn't find many clues about you. Would you like to give us a peek at your life today?

Karen: Even though the title of my blog is Keeping Secrets, my life is really quite open. I'm from West Virginia, in the United States. I am a product of the hills and hollows in which I grew. One of my grandchildren thought my name was actually West Virginia, since he lives in another state, and his mother would say, "We're going to West Virginia".

I share my life with my husband of forty years, (whom I married when I was just a babe, you know), two elderly but  fairly independent parents, my three grown children and three children-in-law, and my five grandchildren (one born, actually, since I started this interview!) I am also close with my siblings and their families. When everyone is here, we are wall-to-wall people!

Our newest grandchild

I live where a stream and a mountain are my companions. I never tire of the changing seasons. This is where I find much of my inspiration and where my soul finds rest.

Almost Heaven

Leave me on the hill,
for I have seen the 
great waves heave and fall,
pulling all beneath their salty grasp.
Let the briney deep 
keep her crusted treasure
whose sightless eyes she hides.

The earth abides. 

The rising hills
thrill me with their call.
All that I am belongs
in the song of wind
on tree and leaf.
Grief does not bear 
me there. 

When I am dead,
I pray you, softly 
lay my head upon 
the piney floor in sight 
of heaven's door.

Or what's a mountain for?

(West Virginia is called Almost Heaven)

P.U.: What a beautiful place, Karen! And the most wonderful poem! Would you like to share a favorite memory or story from your beginnings? Was there someone who was a special influence in your life when you were a child?

Karen: Believe it or not, I grew up in a town called Happy Town! Whether or not everyone was happy is certainly  debatable. One thing I know is that there were some zany characters who lived there. Think The Andy Griffith Show, Duck Dynasty, with a little bit of Deliverance, if that gives you any idea. I certainly grew up understanding diversity!

I guess the person with the most influence on me was my older sister. We shared everything, including a bedroom until she went away to grad school. As kids, we roamed the hills and explored caves, then at night in bed, we quizzed each other on authors and their works. I think you could say we had both great "normal" lives and intellectual lives. Even though she no longer lives near me, we still are closer than most sisters, I think. She is my chief travel partner, and we try to travel internationally every year. 

My sister and I in Ireland

Really, the whole family influenced me. My mother was a strong working woman (a nurse) who took care of everyone in the neighborhood. My dad was a happy-go-lucky, funny, fun loving, poetry reciting rogue. My sister was the smart one, my younger brother the charming one, and I just kept quiet and observed. 

Me at the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland

P.U.: What glorious scenery! Best backdrop ever! Have you always written, or did you come to it more recently? What is it about poetry that made you  choose it as your means of creative expression? What does writing give you that nothing else does? 

Karen: Sometimes it feels like poetry saved me. My living, working, and loving others provides me all sorts of fulfillment, but sometimes it feels like I don't have any of "me" left. Then I write. I tune in to the rhythms of just being, and expand beyond myself, trying to become the Emersonian "transparent eyeball" that soaks in this wonderful and impossible world. Writing poetry helps me remember it's not about me, but that I am one part of this whole. Without poetry, I think I would become lost in the busy-ness of life and forget to live. 

P.U.: I know exactly what you mean, and am sure all busy parents and grandparents can relate.

Bedtime story
Karen: I guess I've always written, but I never shared anything other than news stories when I was on a newspaper staff in high school, and while studying journalism in college. Today, I still write news stories, this time as part of my job.

I had forgotten that I wrote poetry as a teenager until I reconnected with an old friend who sent me a poem I had enclosed in a letter when I was fifteen. I was surprised to see that it wasn't half-bad, and even more pleased to see that it wasn't the usual teenage angst or rhyme.

I haven't really "come out" as a poet locally because I have a fairly public job, and frankly, I don't want people to connect my most private self to my public one. It's the same reason I don't friend locals  on Facebook. All writers know that writing is like cutting open your chest and exposing your heart to view. Besides,  it's hard for people to separate the writer from the writing and acknowledge that everything is not necessarily autobiography. Frankly, to quote an old song,"ain't nobody's business but my own!"

Part of my back yard and the creek I love so much-
digitally enhanced

P.U.: Your grandbabies are gorgeous! And your back yard and creek are glorious! Do you write daily? Are you satisfied with the amount of time you have for writing?

Karen:do not write daily, although I wish I did. I was being really disciplined about that for a while, getting up at 4:30 a.m. to have a little quiet time to read and write, but life got in the way. Now I write when something hits me. Unfortunately, and weirdly, this usually happens when I'm driving, so I either try to record the words on my phone or lose them entirely.

P.U.: Do you write prose as well?

Karen: I seldom write prose, although I’ve written a couple of pieces of flash fiction. Mostly, the prose I write is business related.

P.U.: Tell us a bit about your day job.

Karen: I work for the local school system as the curriculum and instruction director responsible for the elementary schools. That's my main job, although when the boss learned I can write, he made me the PR person for the system, as well. I do district newsletters and press releases, and that’s what I do when the stress of working with principals, teachers, parents, and the unbelievable number of state and federal regulations gets to me.

Happiest with arms full of my babies

P.U.: The Mary Oliver quote on your website is one of my favorites – “determined to save the only life you could”  – our own. That line has always really spoken to me.  I suspect there is a story behind why it is significant to you. But only tell it if you wish to.

Karen: Let it suffice to say that I was late in realizing my own value. Writing is one way I have decided to save the only life I can save.

P.U.: I think we all tend to figure that out later rather than sooner. Besides writing, what other interests do you enjoy?

Karen: I used to paint a bit, and I recently did a picture for my newest grandbaby’s room. It was such fun -- such release -- that I know I’m going back to painting again. I already have the picture I want to paint in my mind. It will accompany one of my poems.

P.U.: Tell us a bit about your travels, for the armchair travelers among us:)  Favorite trip ever?

Karen: I do travel quite a bit, mostly to Europe with my sister or my husband.  I neglected to say that when we travel, we plan our own itinerary and make all of the arrangements, so we really get to explore as much as we have time for.  My favorite trip had to be to Ireland, which surprised me. I didn’t expect to love it so. I do love Paris, though, and I’ve been four times, but I want to go back again with my husband. 

P.U.: Look at that happy, shining face!  What dream is still on your Bucket list, Karen?

Karen: I still have some places I’d like to go (Africa, for one), but you know, truly, if I kicked that bucket today, I’d have no regrets. All in all, it has been a wonderful life.

P.U.: Hopefully that's a long ways off! Was there a favorite book you read growing up that impacted you, made you think “I want to be a writer”? 

Karen: All I can remember is reading voraciously everything I could get my hands on. One of my favorite things to do was to go to the Book Mobile (check that out if you don’t know about rural living), and carry home as many books as I could. I never really thought I wanted to be a writer - just a reader.


P.U.: How has blogging impacted your writing? 

Karen: More than anything, blogging has kept me writing. Without the community of writers on sites like this one, I doubt that I’d produce as much or be as dedicated to writing.  I’m not thrilled with my progress, though, because I’ve been so busy that I’ve neglected the craft. Mostly what I post now is really draft form.

P.U.: I hear you. Blogging revived my writing, which had fallen by the wayside for lack of nurturing. Who would you say has been the single greatest influence on your writing?

Karen: My reading of the English Victorian and Romantic Period poets influenced me greatly. Today, I read Mary Oliver, Billy Collins (my crush), and Sharon Olds. My father, though, was probably my greatest influence, because he quoted and purposely misquoted poetry all of the time when I was a child. His word play, I think is what I inherited. 

P.U.: Do you have a favorite poet? A favorite poem of theirs?

Karen: Let’s go with Mary Oliver again. I am in love with these lines from “Wild Geese”:

“You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.”

She speaks so clearly of loving and forgiving oneself. I find that very soothing.

P.U.: That is the first poem I ever read of hers and I was instantly a convert. A favorite poem, written by you, that you would like to include here?

Karen: Sometimes I’ll fall in love with a line or two from something I’ve written, but I don’t really have a favorite poem. Whatever I’m working on at the minute usually becomes my favorite. Here’s one that I wrote several years ago, though, that probably explains a lot:

My back yard

All of My Life

All of my life I have been
               Sweet or kind or good

To someone else's thinking.

So I have lived these years
               Calling home, being fair, trying hard,

When all I ever really wanted

Was to take my selfish body
Into a field somewhere amid tall weeds
And gather fists full of idleness.

All I have ever really wanted

Is clouds of crickets that jump at my approach,
The feel of hard ground beneath my back,
A blanket of burrs to cover my legs,

And grass that whispers,
               “You are still okay.”

P.U.: Oh my goodness. This is the most wonderful poem ever!!!!! I'm so grateful you shared it. It is not to be missed. Anything else you would like to share with Poets United?

Karen: Thank you, Sherry, for this opportunity to share with you and others who share our love of poetry. I want to thank all of you for being such an accepting and encouraging (not to mention talented) group of writers. You’re great inspiration to those of us struggling to keep on!

P.U.: Thank you, Karen, for allowing us to visit your beautiful home and family. And for being a part of Poets United.

Wasn't this a lovely visit, kids? Every week, another wonderful poet's story, to inspire us with all of the possibilities there are for building a life with writing. Be sure to come back next Monday, because we have a special surprise for you. I am interviewing a Personage in the Blogosphere, and I am totally stoked that he agreed to take the time to visit with us. He is a busy man, with a big heart.......and you are going to love him even more after this interview!


  1. A great visit, Sherry. You sure know how to get someone talking. I will be watching for new poems, Karen. The poems here are very moving.

  2. wonderful peek into someone who shares my love of the hills and valleys...
    this says it all ...
    The rising hills
    thrill me with their call.
    All that I am belongs
    in the song of wind
    on tree and leaf.
    Grief does not bear
    me there.

  3. swear i left a comment for you earlier karen...i appreciate the nod to your sisters influence...and that you got married as a baby...smiles....the longevity of your marriage speaks volumes...and that first poem...very nice.

  4. Love the "arm full of babies" and your love for you beautiful state. I am glad to find out more about you - thank you both for an inspiring read.

  5. Karen, what a wonderful interview. Loved the poetry that Sherry highlighted. I like the idea expressed that writing is your way of saving the only life that you can save. I do understand that completely. Thanks, Sherry, for another great job!

  6. Wonderful to learn more about one of my fav poets and a fellow hillbilly at that!

  7. Thank you, Sherry, for the chance to reflect on my writing and my life. I am blessed and grateful to be part of this community!

    Thanks to all for your comments and continued support of poetry! As Brian has taught me to say...smiles!

    1. It was entirely my pleasure, Karen. I absolutely loved visiting you and hearing your story. I wish I could do so in person and sit in that wonderful back yard of yours!

  8. ...Almost Heaven --- a lovely, lovely piece, Karen... it gives so much pleasure to have read it... you have a beautiful family & life --- i can see & feel it through your words & photographs... thanks for allowing us to take a glimpse of your life behind keeping secrets.... smiles...

  9. Amazing
    Very Beautiful Blog
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  10. all the poems are so nice......specially the first one.......another great interview......

  11. Enjoyed this interview very much. Thanks, Sherry and Karen.
    What truly wonderful poems!

  12. Wonderful interview ladies!
    Karen thank you for sharing your beautiful offerings with us~
    Your poems have the inner wild nature, that I love~

  13. The poems inspire me now to read Karen’s work more. Thank you, Sherry and Karen for this wonderful interview. I love her pics especially her backyard with a creek! Wow.. :)

  14. Thanks to all, and especially to Sherry for all of her work in compiling this and all of the interviews of Poets United poets! I look forward to reading future interviews and poetry from you all!


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