Local Poet/Journalist Named Missouri's Newest Poet Laureate

Nov 22, 2019

Newly-named Missouri Poet Laureate Karen Craigo and her family--husband Michael Czyzniejewski and sons Ernie and Keats--on one of their frequent camping outings.
Credit (Photo courtesy Missouri Arts Council)

Karen Craigo was heard on KSMU in our Sense of Community feature on the local Veterans Writing Workshop sponsored by Missouri Humanities Council, which aired in June 2018.  Craigo was the volunteer facilitator for the group.  She was in our studio this morning on “Arts News” to talk about recently being named Missouri Poet Laureate for 2019-2021 by Missouri Governor Mike Parson.

Well, it wasn’t that recent, she said.                                  

“I learned about three months before I could tell anyone! It drove me crazy as a journalist, not to be able to share the biggest news of my life.” But when Governor Parson made the public announcement a few weeks ago, it took Craigo by surprise. “For a while I was bugging them just about every week, like, ‘I’m ready… do you need me to do anything?’ And they did not need me to do anything. But then suddenly it’s like ‘go time!’

Craigo described the Poet Laureate selection process. Basically, the Missouri Arts Council called for submissions from poets around the state. “And I just ‘nominated’ myself. I thought, I love Missouri, l live here. And I really ‘do’ Missouri. My family and I, we go out hiking every weekend. So Missouri is central to my life, and I thought, ‘Well, I’m going to throw my hat in the ring.’ What you do is, you send a work sample, but also you describe a project you’d like to do. And I described my project, and I think I sold them on it.

“Here in Missouri I think we have 114 counties, plus the independent entity of St. Louis. So 115 entities. And my proposal was to have a blog where I featured a poem from every entity throughout my term.”  Craigo’s term as Poet Laureate runs through Missouri’s bicentennial year of 2021, and she said she “would like to produce an anthology of Missouri poets.” Craigo already writes a blog called “Better View of the Moon,” and she thinks the poems from all the Missouri counties will be published there as well. “I’m still talking to the Missouri Arts Council people about the specifics.”

Asked how she started writing, she said, “I’ll bet every poet out there will tell you the same story. When I started writing, I started writing poetry, just little rhymes. Language fascinated me. And I really got serious about it in college. I had a wonderful professor who later came to UMKC and became a fixture in Missouri—her name was Michelle Blesso, and she taught me how to not take what’s on the page so seriously, so I could just kind of laugh at my mistakes and make them better. So she really made a poet out of me.” We agreed that one can actually make good use of those “mistakes” on occasion. “I think so too, yeah. That’s where the magic happens a little bit, with the ‘accidents’.”

Craigo has undergone several “chapters in (her) professional life,” as she called them. “I was a journalist in Ohio. Then I taught for about 20 years. And now I’m a journalist in Marshfield (at) the Marshfield Mail newspaper in the Webster County seat. I’m the Editor and General Manager there.” She’s been at the newspaper for the past year and a half. She is also the Poetry Series editor for Missouri State University’s Moon City Press.

Karen Craigo has published Karen Craigo has published two full-length collections of her works via Sundress Publications: “Passing Through Humansville” (2018) and “No More Milk” (2016). She is also the author of three “chapbooks” or mini-collections of poetry.  She specializes in “free-verse contemporary poetry; you won’t hear a lot of rhyme in my work, although it’s there, subtly in places and less so in others. I write a lot about motherhood, and about (household) economics. I think that’s my unusual niche.”

During our interview Karen read us a poem from her first full-length collection, “No More Milk,” called “Rockabye,” and a poem about Joseph, husband of Mary, one of a series of poems she penned about the season of Advent—a poem a day for the entire month of December, all on the subject of “Advent.” She laughed about titling all 31 poems “Advent”—“which is really dumb, don’t ever do that if you’re writing a series of poems!”  She wrote about Joseph because “he’s a sort of unacknowledged hero of the Christmas tale.

So what are the Missouri Poet Laureate’s official duties? “The duties seem a little bit vague,” she admitted.  The Missouri Arts Council’s mission is to support the arts and strengthen the cultural and economic viability of the state. I buy into that, because I know arts are big business—and they enrich all of our lives. But I think I can do lots of things. I see my role as promoting poetry throughout the state of Missouri. I was an educator for a long time, so I also have a sneaky side mission of promoting literacy and promoting understanding of Missouri’s culture, geography and history, and all of those things too in the process.” In other words, the position didn’t really come with a “job description” per se. “You make your own way,” she said. “I’ve had four predecessors who each kind of did their own thing. My immediate predecessor, Aliki Barnstone from Columbia, is just this amazing person who reached out to older populations and incarcerated people. She told me she’d like to keep going and keep helping in those areas, and we kind of agree: once a Poet Laureate, always a Poet Laureate. We’re just going to hang out and do fun poetry stuff together.”

Craigo said there was to be what she called “an introductory event at some point, somewhere in the state” in connection with her selection as Poet Laureate. “I believe the Missouri Arts Council has recently come under the aegis of the Lieutenant Governor. So I think my ‘commander’ is Lt. Governor Mike Kehoe now, despite the fact that Governor Parson chose me. So there will be some kind of introductory event that will be associated with, I believe, Poetry Out Loud [the poetry-reciting competition for high-school students], and I’ll have a lot to do with that program. I’ve judged it one time and thought it was wonderful. But I’m going to get to know that a whole lot better.”

Regarding her plan to feature poems from every county in the state on her blog, she said, “I’d like to have workshops around the state, because I’m not sure all 115 entities have poets active right now. So I have to find them. It’s going to be a treasure hunt. And I might have to help make them, or help them recognize that they are the ‘Poet of (X) County. So I think I’m going to do a camping workshop where I go around, do some tent camping with some poetry writing.”

For more information on Karen Craigo’s appointment as Missouri’s Poet Laureate, visit https://www.missouriartscouncil.org/missouri-poet-laureate/. Find Karen’s blog at http://betterviewofthemoon.blogspot.com/.