Christine Klocek-Lim received the 2009 Ellen La Forge Memorial Prize in poetry. She has four chapbooks: Ballroom – a love story (Flutter Press), Cloud Studies (Whale Sound Audio Chapbooks), How to photograph the heart (The Lives You Touch Publications), and The book of small treasures (Seven Kitchens Press). Her poems have appeared in Nimrod, OCHO, Diode, Riffing on Strings: Creative Writing Inspired by String Theory and elsewhere. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net anthologies and was a finalist for 3 Quarks Daily’s Prize in Arts & Literature. She is editor of Autumn Sky Poetry and her website is http://www.novembersky.com
GER: How would you describe your poetry and how long have you been crafting your work?
CKL: Describe my poetry? That’s an impossible question for a poet! Whenever I try to think of a pithy description, I stumble over what I’m trying to achieve with my words instead of what I’ve actually written. Every poem I create is a collection of imagery, emotion, and potential. I know what I want to do, but I’m never certain if I’ve achieved it. I aim for a kind of sensible surrealism weaved into a voice that speaks an emotional truth. How’s that for a non-answer?
I tend to try different things with my poetry. I’ve written free verse and sonnets, narrative poems and prose poems. I’ve switched up points-of-view. I’ve written collections about astronomy, ballroom dancing, parenthood, and supernatural visions. I have no idea how to quantify what I write, except to emphasize that I’m always exploring.
There is one concept to which I hold fast: it’s important to me to craft poetry that engages a reader either intellectually, emotionally, or pragmatically. I want my poems to make sense.
How long have I been writing? I began as a child, majored in writing in college (CMU), but I truly began the difficult work of intentional crafting fourteen years or so ago. In 1999 I joined an online workshop and realized very quickly how little I knew. By 2005, I could manage a poem that I wasn’t embarrassed to show someone maybe five percent of the time. By 2008 I’d managed to write poems that worked like I’d intended perhaps half the time.
GER: What poets have influenced you?
CKL: Oh, so many! Too many to name here, although there are a few that I still read over and over again: William Carlos Williams (when I first began writing poems in high school), Erica Jong, Carolyn Forché, and Jack Gilbert among others. I don’t ever put away Jack Gilbert’s poetry. It’s usually out on my desk.
I can’t talk about poets without mentioning individual poems. I have a bulletin board in my office that covers an entire wall and it’s completely filled with poems—I periodically take some down and replace them with new ones. However there are a select few I never remove: Musée des Beaux Arts by W.H. Auden, i carry your heart with me by E.E. Cummings, For the Stranger by Carolyn Forché, and two poems by Stephen Bunch: Arriving and Dying. I’d paste poems by Jack Gilbert up but there are too many favorites from which I’d have to choose.
GER: Your collection The Quantum Archives was a semi-finalist with Black Lawrence Press Black River Chapbook competition and you won the Ellen La Forge Memorial Prize in Poetry in 2009, for your collection, Dark Matter. Were you surprised and how do you feel about poetry competitions?
CKL: I was very surprised. I thought for certain I’d be adding a new slip of paper to my shrine of rejections. I’ve sent my Dark Matter manuscript into thirty-four competitions and it has made it to the finals or semi-finals eight times. The ten poems from it that won the Ellen La Forge Memorial Prize were published, but as a full-length collection it’s still hasn’t found a home. I’ve sent poems and other manuscripts to over forty other contests.
If you’re trying to make a name for yourself I think contests can be very helpful. If you’re trying to grow in your craft and explore the world as an artist they’re less than useful. It’s very easy to get caught up in the cycle of publish-or-perish and let contests convince you that they are the final arbiters of what constitutes good poetry. Contests are terribly subjective. Contests are also terribly addictive.
GER: You have written three additional collections. The book of small treasures (Seven Kitchens Press), Cloud Studies: a sonnet sequence (Whale Sound Audio Chapbooks), and of course, Ballroom – a love story (Flutter Press). Please describe your inspirations and how do the collections differ?
CKL: My first collection was How to photograph the heart (The Lives You Touch Publications). I’ve also written a collection of prose poems titled Glimpse (unpublished) and a new collection of poems that is a sequel to The Quantum Archives. I’ve written a series of haikus about bicycling (also unpublished). As you can see, I don’t lack for inspiration.
There is a secret I learned sometime in the last few years regarding the muse, the zone, the flow, inspiration, whatever you want to call it: it doesn’t exist. Sure, sometimes I get the urge to write and I find myself jotting things down, but more often I sit and just begin typing. I take ideas that interest me and expand on them via poetry: astronomy, science, trauma, dance, meter, rhyme, surrealism, etc.
The book of small treasures was written from my experiences as a parent. I know it’s cliché. I know a thousand other poets have written about their kids, but I don’t care. Becoming a mother was one of the most insane things I’ve ever done. Even now, with my sons in their teens, it still feels like I’ve jumped out of a plane. Will the parachute work? Will I plummet to the ground? No one knows: not me, not my kids.
I wrote Cloud Studies: a sonnet sequence because I wanted to learn how to write sonnets. The only way to learn something is through practice. Artists often do a hundred or more “studies” of a particular thing when they’re learning how to draw. I did that with the sonnet form. I focused on clouds and weather and tried to connect it to some sort of emotional foundation so that the poems would resonate with a reader. I love those poems. I love that the editor, Nic Sebastian, recorded each poem. She’s an incredible reader.
Ballroom — a love story was written last year during April’s National Poetry Month. Actually, most of my collections were written each April during National Poetry Writing Month (NaPoWriMo). The goal is to write a poem each day. Because my husband and I had been dancing together for a few years, I felt as though I knew enough about ballroom dance to describe what it was like to take those first steps until you learn how to move properly. It’s also a book about love: what it’s like to fall into it and keep falling, over and over.
GER: Many poets believe live readings of their work enhance their ability to create and edit work. Do you enjoy reading to an audience and what benefits is there to live readings?
CKL: Um, no. I don’t like reading to an audience. I kind of hate it, actually, though I force myself to keep trying. I generally do one reading per year, just to prove I can.
I think people who are naturally extroverted or interested in drama are excellent readers. I’ve heard some wonderful poets read their poems: Carolyn Forché, Heather McHugh, James Wright to name a few. I’ve also heard some truly awful readings by wonderful poets. There’s a particular sort of sing-song cadence that a lot of poets fall into that sets my teeth on edge. When I do a reading, I practice with the poems I’d like to read by recording myself and listening to the quality of my vocal expression. I want to be sure that I’m not speaking in a monotone or emphasizing the wrong syllables. I want the reading to be a dynamic oral interpretation of the poem, not a recitation.
Some readings I’ve attended have such good performers that I enjoy their poem all out of proportion to how the poem works as a text on a piece of paper. In other words, the poem comes alive through the poet’s voice. It exists as a verbal poem, an oral piece of art. When I read the poem later, it’s sometimes not nearly as dynamic or interesting. I tend to regard oral poetry as its own separate category.
GER: 23 Issues of Autumn Sky have been published in the last six years. The presentation and quality of work have always been outstanding. As editor/publisher of Autumn Sky could you describe the benefits of publishing a magazine and comment on interactions with poets who have been published by Autumn Sky?
CKL: Thank you. I appreciate your kind words regarding my journal. The benefits of publishing are mostly personal: I was able to read and publish the poems that I most loved—the ones that made my skin tingle. I was given the opportunity to promote formal poetry in an era where formal poems aren’t read much in the literary world. I met many wonderful artists and poets whose work and friendship I value.
Interacting with the poets I published was always interesting: some were meticulous, some were difficult, some were wildly enthusiastic, some were terse, some were young, and some were old. I could go on, but I think you get the idea. Poets are ordinary people who practice an art for which almost no one gets paid. One and all, the poets were incredibly generous for allowing me to publish their poems for free.
GER: Publishing a magazine is time consuming. What effect did producing the magazine have on your own poetry?
CKL: It squashed it like a bug. No, really. Before I started publishing Autumn Sky Poetry I wrote all year round. I had some prolific years and some when I didn’t write much, but I still wrote almost every month. Publishing a poetry journal meant that I spent a lot of time reading submissions. I didn’t have as much time to write. I mostly wrote in April.
GER: As a poet/editor/publisher what advice can you give to poets on submitting work to magazines or publishing houses?
CKL: You’re going to get the same old advice from me every other editor gives! Read the guidelines. I wish I was joking but I’m not. It’s incredibly annoying to receive submissions that didn’t follow the guidelines. Eventually I just started rejecting those without even reading the poems.
As a poet, my advice is to keep trying. I had to let some poems go not because they weren’t gorgeous, but because they didn’t fit in with the rest I’d already accepted for any given issue.
Last, please don’t use any fancy typefaces, flashing backgrounds, dancing bananas, or other gimmicks when sending in your work. The poem is the point.
GER: Six years is a long run for a literary magazine. Do you have any plans to bring on a new issue in the future?
CKL: I told myself to take an entire year off and then reconsider. I was seriously burnt out from reading submissions. It’s hard work. Next January I will let you know if I’m going to jump in the water again.
GER: What projects are you currently working on?
CKL: I’m working on a novel that grew out of The Quantum Archives (I’m revising it as we speak). It’s the first in a literary sci-fi trilogy set in the near future. I plan on publishing the first one in late summer, with the next two to follow several months later, respectively. The first novel contains the speculative poems I wrote for The Quantum Archives, one for each chapter. It tells the story of Eve and her sister Sarah who has invented a quantum imager, a device that allows her to mentally eavesdrop inside the mind of someone living in the past. Unfortunately, an obsession with the trauma of their parents’ deaths fractures Sarah’s emotional stability and spurs an unexpected enemy into fanaticism. Eve grapples her sister and the outcry surrounding the imager’s invention until her survival becomes more important than her need for self-denial.
I also plan on publishing another sci-fi novel in the near future: Who Saw the Deep. This manuscript was a semi-finalist in this year’s Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. Publishers Weekly reviewed it:
“This novel is well written, original, and clever. Noah Heath has just completed his doctorate in computer science and his father suggests he give himself a break and help a local senior citizen with some handyman chores. Amelia is a woman that Jaime Heath has known since childhood. On Noah’s first day of work, he notices a flash in the sky, a silver needle, but Amelia denies seeing it. Even so, he hears her call her daughter, Leah, saying, “it’s happening again.” When he returns home, his father starts telling him about the family “artifacts,” a few chunks of old metal. Noah starts to question, and more importantly, believe his father and Amelia’s tales of centuries old invasion and the part their forebears played in it. That the power of computers is limited only by our imaginations makes the tale convincing; the lack of little green men and the highly plausible abilities of the villains make it wonderful reading. It’s a pity to classify this book as science fiction; it reads more like the ancient myths, or even fairy tales. The author really knows his characters and uses them beautifully. Perhaps he’s had centuries to develop them.”
[Disclaimer: Publishers Weekly is an independent organization and the review was written based on a manuscript version of the book and not a published version.]
You can read the poetry of Christine Klocek-Lim in The Fox Chase Review at this link: 2012 SU