In a world that tries to fence us in, to confine each of us with either the specialists or the generalists, Karen Craigo's work gently yet authoritatively rejects the nudge.
When Craigo looks in the mirror, she sees a writer above any and all other labels. Every molecule and motivation within her bends toward words — of all sorts — while remaining attached to a singular voice.
By day, Craigo is the editor of the Marshfield Mail, a newspaper in Southwest Missouri. By much earlier in the day, before many people blink their eyes awake, she moves an actual pen across paper in search and service of poetry. Craigo’s work in that lyric form, for which she has best known, recently earned her the title of Missouri’s fifth Poet Laureate.
The honor was announced earlier this month, but Craigo learned of her well-earned fate three months before. Keeping such a secret would challenge even the most tight-lipped, but Craigo especially struggled not to scratch that itch.
“Newspaper people — wow! We have a really hard time embargoing information,” she said.
Craigo moved to Missouri in 2012, and recognized an area with rhythms and peculiarities that resonated with the place-centered poetry she has been crafting for decades. She has penned two full-length collections — most recently, 2018’s “Passing Through Humansville” — as well as several chapbooks. Craigo applies her editor’s eye to more than newspaper column inches, curating poetry for Moon City Press and nonfiction for the Mid-American Review.
This work tunes a writer’s senses to what matters so, despite her status as a relative newcomer to the state, Craigo felt comfortable applying for the role of Missouri Poet Laureate. She witnessed a spiritual consonance between her work and the people, places and things that comprise Missouri.
Craigo’s verses invest attention in everyday occurrences, both naming them for what they are and elevating them to places of strangeness and significance. Earlier in her life and career, for example, she felt the weight of making ends meet. When bills came due, rather than simply wring her hands or absorb the blow, she chose to make the moment sing — even if it sang the blues.
“I always thought, ‘This is such a big part of my life. I think about it all the time — how am I going to shuffle things around to pay for this? Why not make it lyrical? Why not own that in my poetry too?’ ” she said. “Because I want every part of my life to be lyrical.”
Specific images and phrases command her poetic attention. The name, and spiritual center, of her latest book came while driving through while driving through the tiny Missouri town of Humansville, its name practically a poem unto itself. Craigo’s car “dissected” the day’s dense fog into ribbons, and drove her into a meditation on the world we’re all just passing through.
Often, however, Craigo finds a certain becoming in the act of doing. She will write what she calls “nonsense,” moving her hand across the page until an idea asserts itself. She retains a sense of humility — and humiliation — at these inauspicious beginnings, saying she scratches out these poetic doodles to keep them from meeting any sort of posterity.
“What if I die and they find this?” she joked.
The longer she writes, the more often a rare occurrence becomes a regular one. In the mere act of doing, she finds words she didn’t realize lived inside her.
“When you really are living right and being good and trying hard, sometimes it just gives itself to you as a gift. ... Sometimes the page just gives it back,” she said.
In one sense, Craigo’s day splits relatively neatly into segments. But to hear her tell it — and watch her back it up — journalism and poetry inhabit the same sphere, sometimes even sharing their bits of cunning and wisdom with one another. Every act of writing, Craigo said, is an act of clarity.
“All my writing helps me sort things out. In journalism, I’m sorting things out for my audience,” she said. In poetry, audience matters — but I’m really thinking about me, I have to admit.”
Clarity is the consistent desire — yet that desire manifests itself a little differently in every setting.
“It’s kind of nice how easy the journalism is, in terms of just one word after another. And it doesn’t have to be poetry,” Craigo said. “Poetry does have to be poetry — but sometimes it starts out as something different, and you meld it into poetry. But it’s nice to have something where you can just say it straight.”
Straight doesn’t necessarily equate to stiff or stagnant, however. Craigo believes journalists often underestimate their readers, who are willing to engage with greater themes and vocabulary. Applying poetic devices to her reporting allows the work to be both clear and beautiful. “A little lyricism goes a long way,” she said.
As Craigo prepares to live out the role of poet laureate, she returns to the foundations and feelings that come with pride of place. One of her aims over this two-year term is to create a publishing platform by which to amplify poets and poems from every single Missouri county. The name for this idea, and its animating impulse, come from a William Carlos Williams turn of phrase that naturally evokes the depth and breadth of Craigo’s work.
“It is difficult,” Williams wrote, “to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.”
Craigo lives and writes — and will interact with Missourians — from a surprising yet wholly natural space, where poetry gives us the news about who we are and the news never needs to sacrifice its rhythm or verve.