Meet Karen Skolfield, Northampton’s Poet Laureate

Poets Laureate Across Massachusetts

A note from the interviewer, Alice Kociemba

Poetry has become an integral part of the social fabric of Northampton and its surrounding towns. I had heard about Northampton’s local-poem-in-every-menu during restaurant week before Northampton’s current poet laureate, Karen Skolfield, reminded me of it.  Do we realize how poetry could be a part of our everyday experience? Poetry as an appetizer! Locally Grown Poetry! Could be a trend.

Karen Skolfield, presents her own imaginative and inspiring poetry projects that celebrate the everyday. By describing how writing an “occasional” poem helped heal a political divide in her hometown of Amherst, Karen underscores that poetry can have real impact in our civic sphere.

Meet Karen Skolfield, Northampton’s Poet Laureate

When did your city or town decide to establish a poet laureate position? Is there a length of time the poet laureate serves?
I’m the 9th poet laureate for Northampton. Usually, the Poet Laureate serves a two-year term, but I’ve been asked to serve an extra year. Hopefully that puts the world in a better place with COVID-19 and it will be easier to get a new poet laureate started.

What was the selection process like? (Who was involved, who made the decision?) Did the city/town have requirements and goals for the position? If so, how do they reflect your own priorities and initiatives?
Members of the Northampton Arts Council handle the selection process, with input from the serving poet laureate and a number of community members. I’ve only seen one end of the selection process so far but, according to the NAC, the selection process includes nominations; a review of a writing sample, bio, paragraph on the reason for the nomination, and links for more information on the poet; narrowing the choices to the top three; and then a final vote. In some years they’ve also asked for project ideas or proposals from the nominees.

The only requirement for the Poet Laureate is providing assistance for the Northampton Arts Biennial, which includes a poetry reading, poetry chapbook, and curated art show. Any other goals are at the making of the PL. That freedom allows Northampton’s PLs to follow their interests: past events have included martial arts and poetry performances, poetry workshops in prisons, poetry workshops for educators and students, after-school poetry programs, feature poems in local restaurant menus, poetry and theater collaborations, poetry slams and poetry as oral art workshops, literary translator events, readings of every stripe, about a billion poetry fundraiser events – and those are just the ones I know about from the past few poets laureate.

Among the national poets laureate, which initiative have you most admired?
The vibrancy and necessity of the projects coming from the more recent poets laureate has been breathtaking: Joy Harjo’s in-progress digital interactive map of contemporary Native poets, Tracy K. Smith’s visits and outreach to rural communities, Juan Felipe Herrera’s crowdsourced poem project. I think I’m most drawn to the projects using current technologies – not because it’s an area in which I’m proficient, but because I can imagine so many more people finding ways to engage with poetry.

Beyond the national poets laureate, one idea I’ve loved and want to see replicated is having a youth poet laureate. It makes so much sense to have someone young advocating and being a voice for poetry.

To what community organizations and facilities do you bring poetry (i.e., schools, senior centers, libraries, health, mental health, addiction and correctional facilities)?
Historically, I’ve been most involved in the schools. I’ve made poetry books with pre-readers using pictures from old magazines; we’ve invented poetry pets, written ekphrastic poems, written collective poems, freewheeled revisions, performed and presented.

What do you think poetry can do in the civic sphere? Have you written occasional poems for your city or town?
The more poetry we can get into our daily lives, the better. There’s so much that goes unacknowledged in daily living, the beautiful and terrible, the uplifting and the obscene, and I think of how poetry can make sense of it or acknowledge the senselessness. Poetry can shed light and it can heal; it gives voice. My life is so much better on days when I’m thoughtful and replace a good fraction of social media and news with poetry.

I’ve written one occasional poem for Amherst (where I live – Northampton does not require the Poet Laureate to live in the town). It was for the inauguration of the first Amherst Town Council, a 13-member replacement for our 240-member Amherst Town Meeting. The switch from town meeting to town council was highly contentious with a lot of anger and hurt feelings and a town-wide vote. I was approached and asked to write a poem for the inauguration that would help heal that divide. That’s a pretty tall order, but I couldn’t resist the challenge. I went to our local library’s special collections room and asked for help researching another traumatic event that eventually unified our town – the 1888 blizzard and subsequent fire that destroyed a portion of the downtown. The poem must have done at least part of its job, because I’ve never, ever had so many people reach out to me about poetry! Years later, someone local will recognize my name and ask if I wrote the blizzard poem. It’s not a poem I would have written without being asked, and it’s been gratifying to see it shared and remembered.

What events have you organized, physically or virtually? Do you find more engagement in your city/town with reading/appreciation events or writing/creative events?
I was part of the judging, organizing, and MC-ing for the arts biennial in 2019 and I’ll do it again in 2021. This year, I created a web page with poetry resources for the pandemic, including virtual readings, writing prompts, online workshops, and poetry databases. Any in-person events came to a screeching halt, of course – no poetry carnival, no youth poetry slam.

What is your favorite question that people have asked you about poetry?
I love being asked who I’m reading. It gives me a chance to lift up another poet.

I love being asked about – and even more, hearing other poets talk about – their writing process. Though I do have friends that write with me (Janet Bowdan, thank you!) and I’ve attended and occasionally led Warrior Writers workshops, it’s more likely that I write by myself, so sucked into the page that I can’t hear the music at Cushman Market, my favorite local café. I love hearing how other poets write – do they start by hand and only use green-ink pens, do they write before dawn, are they night owls, do they stuff poems in drawers for years, how do they revise? And, weirdly, talking about process makes me want to write, even though I can’t right now go to Cushman’s with its barn-board floors, scuffed from everyone’s boots and winter salt. Ugh, I miss that place.

Do you think your city/town has benefitted from having a poet laureate?
Yes! Poetry has definitely infiltrated many parts of the community that might not otherwise have been reached thanks to the PLs. And it’s great to have poetry as an expectation, a part of life in Northampton.

If someone in your city/town wanted to become more involved in poetry, what would you recommend to them?
Get on mailing lists for local readings: there are wonderful poetry series at libraries, colleges, bookstores, and elsewhere. Near me, there are readings at the University of Massachusetts, Smith College, Mt. Holyoke, Hampshire College, Amherst College, The Emily Dickinson Museum, Jones Library, Forbes Library, Amherst Books… you can attend a poetry reading most nights of the week if you have time. 

Read! Read what you love, and then branch out. If you haven’t read much contemporary poetry, start with our last five national poets laureate: Joy Harjo, Tracy K. Smith, Juan Felipe Herrera, Charles Wright, Natasha Trethewey. I’ll slip in another five: Jericho Brown, Ada Limón, Naomi Shihab Nye, Martín Espada, and Ross Gay.

Find poetry journals you love – there are so many, with many online.

If you also like to write poetry, consider local workshops and writing groups: Straw Dog Writers Guild and Pioneer Valley Writers’ Workshop are two groups local to me that do stunning work around assisting writers and building community.

Karen Skolfield’s book Battle Dress (W. W. Norton) won the 2020 Massachusetts Book Award in poetry and the Barnard Women Poets Prize. Her book Frost in the Low Areas (Zone 3 Press) won the 2014 PEN New England Award in poetry, and she is the winner of the 2016 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize in poetry from The Missouri Review. Skolfield is a U.S. Army veteran and teaches writing to engineers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst; she’s the poet laureate for Northampton, MA for 2019-2022.

Alice Kociemba

Alice Kociemba
is the Founding Director of Calliope Poetry for Community. She is co-editor of From the Farther Shore: Discovering Cape Cod and the Islands Through Poetry, which will be published by Bass River Press (an imprint of the Cultural Center of Cape Cod) in 2021.  In 2015 and 2016, Alice guest edited Common Threads, the poetry discussion project of Mass Poetry. She is the author of the poetry collection, Bourne Bridge (Turning Point, 2016).