Poet to Poet: Karen Head and Megan Volpert have a lively discussion on their new books

Karen Head (Photo by Colin Potts)

Poet Karen Head and poet/essayist Megan Volpert both have new books out this month. Head’s latest poetry collection, Lost on Purpose (Iris Press), is already gaining praise for its lyricism and pop culture sensibility, while Volpert’s Boss Broad (Sibling Rivalry Press) responds to Bruce Springsteen’s body of work with poems and essays. In the spirit of Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, Head and Volpert (who both happen to be regular INtown contributors) sat down for a lively question and answer session.

VOLPERT: Your writing has always been deeply interested in place. Lost on Purpose is all about landscape and travel. What’s up with that?

HEAD: Eudora Welty once said, “Art, though, is never the voice of a country; it is an even more precious thing, the voice of the individual, doing its best to speak, not comfort of any sort, indeed, but truth.” I think for a me, growing up as an Army Brat (10 schools in my K-12 experience), I’ve always had to focus on my “place in place” in order to survive. In what many people would call a “post-truth” world, I think the sense of place is increasingly important. For me the truth of where I am from is more fluid. I’ve spent so much time being the outsider, the foreign person, that I am probably more primed to be aware of what’s happening around me. That’s why the “truth” I am keen to share is about other places and the people who live there. Any hope we have for meaningful peace has to begin with understanding, and it is an artist’s responsibility to contribute to understanding.

Your writing has always been deeply engaged with pop culture. Do you feel that being a high school teacher has amplified this interest, or would it have happened no matter what your profession might have been?

VOLPERT: When I was a kid I wanted to do civil rights litigation. It’s probably more fair to say that pop culture led me to teaching, rather than the other way around. The interest in pop culture was there from the start in the form of teen magazines and mix tapes bootlegged off the radio. School was always a safer place for me than the house I grew up in, and I would pick up pop detritus at school and then use it as a shield to tune out what was going on at home. Teenagers are intensely ideological creatures and the popular arts are where they learn what ideas they prefer to wield. As a high school English teacher, my job is to help shape their interpretation and eventual application of those ideas. And of course, they keep me in the evolutionary loop. I’m constantly asking them, “am I being old right now?” Them telling me what I’m missing, culturally speaking, has become a valuable springboard in my writing process.

What’s your process? Do you write most this stuff while you’re traveling, or are these poems what you’re able to “recollect in tranquility,” as Wordsworth says?

Megan Volpert (Photo by Rob Friedman)

HEAD: Most of my work happens in reflection, but sometimes I do write in the place I visit. My third book, My Paris Year, was mostly written in Paris. Lost on Purpose was so long in the making (over ten years) that it is hard to remember the entire process of all the poems. I was also having to balance my academic projects, so poetry was something I often has to “squeeze in” when I could. Overall, I think the richness of the poems, from the figurative sense, tends to reveal itself after some distance from the actual experiences.

In an interview I read years ago (and I hope I’m not mythologizing this), Toni Morrison talked about the importance of a long commute to her work. She said characters and action would “play out” in the dark reflections in the window as she rode along. What role has commuting taken (beside being a topic) in the process of your book?

VOLPERT: I work more quickly than most people and I don’t edit much, so the commute (Decatur to Roswell five days a week) is crucial time for ideas for marinate. Nearly all of the Only Ride book was typed on my phone’s notepad in ten-minute increments while riding MARTA. For Boss Broad, I made a playlist of the five Springsteen songs that were to be translated in each chapter, then I’d play them on a loop for several weeks at a time until their rhymes and rhythms were muscle memory—made the translations spring out of me quite quickly every weekend, and the commute was key to keeping my wife from being justifiably annoyed at hearing the looping songs at home.

Lost on Purpose is also about marriage and even dedicated to your husband, Colin [Potts]. Does he dig his inclusion in your writing and the way you work through your relationship with him on paper?

HEAD: It helps that he is a photographer, and often I have to deal with being his subject, so we appreciate each other’s role as muse. I’ve never published a poem about any aspect of our relationship that might prove surprising to him. Positive or negative, I would never want to blindside him with my work. I also know that he would never (or at least he never has) ask me to change my work in any way. I think I create more trouble for him as a photographer because I have pretty strong feelings about appearing in his work. I’m fine with anything being in a gallery, but I am not always fine with photos appearing on social media. The book is also about finding each other later in life. Frankly, I don’t think I would feel the same freedom to write about our relationship if we were younger. Part of why our relationship is so solid is that we are both mature and confident as individuals. We also really like each other’s work, so that helps, too.

Lost on Purpose by Karen Head (Iris Press)

You asked about Colin, so I want to turn similar attention to your wife, Mindy. Both our spouses (who it bears noting, adore one another) share a love of a distinctive and sartorial sense of style. Can you speak about how Mindy’s exploration of fashion as a form of identity politics has informed your work?

VOLPERT: “Fashion” gets a bad rap as being the most vapid form of pop art, but it’s actually the most universal. Everybody gets dressed. Mindy (or @dappermindy, to the Instagram crowd) is indeed very thoughtful about what she puts on every day. Watching her think about style throughout the fourteen glorious years we’ve been together has really impacted my consciousness of how we sartorially rep for our sense of self. She’s a visual activist, creating delight and disturbance with the objective of connecting strangers in a peaceable way. Everywhere we go, people look at her. They wonder if she is “somebody” and secretly snap her photo, or they approach her to talk about her outfit and then we end up conversing about life for ten minutes. She’s an ambassador for queers and gender non-conforming folks, and really gets people engaged in thinking about that by literally wearing it on her sleeve. I’m impressed by her bravery, and my upcoming projects—editing RuPaul’s Drag Race and Philosophy (Open Court, 2019) and also editing Closet Cases: LGBTIQ Writers on What We Wear (Et Alia Press, 2020)are an unusually direct result of her influence. I’ve been writing about music for a long time, and our tastes there don’t line up so nicely as she’s thirteen years older than I am.

Both our books are about middle age. You’ve got about a dozen years on me, so I’ve always considered you part of my advance team. What do I need to know about facing my forties?

HEAD: When I turned forty, a friend told me to enjoy the next twenty years because it would be the only time in my life when I didn’t have to explain myself. The wisdom went something like, “Before forty people think you still need guidance, and after sixty people think you might be slipping.” I’ve found that to be true. As a woman, I felt a wonderful addition to this new sense of freedom when I turned fifty. It was like a switch flipped, and I really didn’t care what people thought about me in the same ways. I’ve always been eager to please, to be appropriate (whatever that means), but suddenly I just didn’t care if someone thought velvet floral combat boots where age-inappropriate. I also discovered an overwhelming sense of sanguinity. I think you will find the next twenty years enormously freeing. On a more practical note, watch the sugar—or be content with the need to buy bigger pants.

Flannery O’Connor often argued that her illness has no consideration in her fiction. You and I have both struggled with chronic illness. Do you find that your health has been a consideration in your work?

Boss Broad by Megan Volpert (Sibling Rivalry Press)

VOLPERT: I almost died from a colitis flare—spent two weeks in the hospital and lost a lot of my language from malnutrition. Only Ride was written to process the grief and joy resulting from that. I also once considered euthanizing myself to avoid the severe chronic pain of colitis, then wrote the anti-suicide book Straight Into Darkness to share the Sisyphean lessons of that. So illness does sometimes push to the forefront of my work in a way that I hope helps other people overcome similar challenges. I’m never afraid to talk about the hard stuff of mortality. It appears in Boss Broad very differently though, as this memoir spends most of its time considering the gap between my sixteen year old self and my currently almost forty year old self—the student and the teacher. It asks whether I’m a sell out or a hypocrite, whether I was ever cool in the first place, and things like that. I surprised myself by needing both my poet’s voice and essayist’s voice to explore it.

How it is that you’ve never strayed from writing in the genre of poetry? You’ve written a book for educators and some restaurant reviews, but are you generally not interested in book-length creative nonfiction or even doing a novel?

HEAD: I’m a crap fiction writer. Oddly, I’m an excellent fiction teacher, and my students have always won awards. While I am not above telling a lie for the sake of a poem, I am much more interested in the truth. That’s why creative nonfiction is appealing to me. My book about higher education isn’t really an academic book. It is a memoir intertwined with journalism—in line with the tradition of new journalism. I honestly don’t think I will ever write a novel, but there are many things I never thought I would do—and did anyway.

Hybridity of form is finally getting the attention it deserves (in my opinion). Can you talk about why you became interested in that approach? What do you gain? What do you sacrifice?

VOLPERT: I don’t like to be told what to do and I like to break rules. Most of my writing has been weirdly unclassifiable by genre—the uniting principle is just my sense of voice, my attitude. The freedom of it is wonderful during the writing process, but once the manuscript is complete, I do realize that I’m a publicist’s worst nightmare. I mean, there was a huge debate about how Boss Broad should be marketed because the book can’t be boxed in to some easy labels. Memoir / essay / poetry / music / education / pop culture? I contain harmonious multitudes! So I’ll never get to be a “famous” or “best-selling” writer this way, but that’s no big sacrifice. This is my eleventh book and I’m pleased to report that the aggregate effect is beginning to bear juicy fruits of cult underground iconoclasm that my sixteen year old self is beyond gratified by.

Lovely chatting with you, Karen. It’s been too long! Let’s go see that Fleetwood Mac cover band again soon and our spouses can playfully bicker about which of the two of them is wearing the finest jacket.

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