Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Review of Karen Craigo's "No More Milk"





No More Milk


by Karen Craigo

Sundress Publications, 2016


ISBN: 978-1-939675-39-2

80 pages



__________

 Karen Craigo is the author of No More Milk (Sundress, 2016), and she has two forthcoming collections, due out this summer: Passing Through Humansville (Sundress) and Escaped Housewife Tries Hard to Blend In (Tolsun Books). She maintains the blog Better View of the Moon, which deals with writing and creativity, and she is also a freelance writer and editor.
_________

I've never met Karen Craigo in person. We're friends on Facebook, and she wrote a blurb for my prose poetry chapbook The Fire Circle (Blue Lyra Press, 2016). I believe I originally heard of Karen at least ten years ago, if not fifteen, when she was an editor for a literary journal I was dying to be published in. I so enjoyed her chapbook Escaped Housewife Tries Hard to Blend In (Hermeneutic Chaos, 2016), and I immediately ordered her poetry collection No More Milk. After reading the first poem, "Down Will Come," and finding myself in tears, I knew it was a book I wanted to review. (Read my interview with Karen Craigo here.) —Karen L. George
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Review of Karen Craigo's No More Milk

The poems in Karen Craigo's No More Milk are meditations, praise songs and prayers about love and loss, connection and separation, scarcity and abundance, resilience and vulnerability. They take place in a garden, a field, the woods, a hotel, a church, at an ocean, at home, in bed, in a car, at a grocery, and a food bank. They pay attention to the sacred and the messy as they examine the mysteries of motherhood, beauty, memory, imagination, and spirituality that fuel and transform us as human beings.   

The beginning poem, "Down Will Come," references a traditional nursery rhyme lullaby a mother sings while rocking her baby. The poem opens with the mother, the "I" of the poem, admitting, "I'm really not much / of a singer." I was struck by the matter-of-fact tone and plain language, and by how the line break adds a haunting meaning to begin the collection with: "I'm really not much" which for me vibrates throughout the collection in its images, themes, and tensions of scarcity vs. abundance.

The next lines establish the collection's intense feeling of intimacy, of a mother beside you, speaking directly to you:  "Tonight / I rockabye the baby." The poet uses a striking image to describe this rocking:

            the way you'd rock
            a truck from a snowdrift,
            grinding gears over
            lowest notes...
  
It's such an unusual pairing of rocking a baby to sleep with song, which the narrator says she considers "holy," and the above image and its suggested "grinding" sounds. This intriguing comparison establishes a tension in the poem that threads throughout this collection.

The poem continues with the intriguing question:

                      ...Was there ever
            such music as your own
            mother's voice, filtered
            through the drumhead
            of her sternum, growl
            of song and blood
            and breath?

The above breathtaking lines contain such longing and tenderness. They invite the reader to consider their own memories of their mother's voice, and how they might have heard it when they were being carried in her wombsuch a powerful image. The "growl / of song and blood / and breath" also presages other poems that sing of the body. And in the "growl / of song" there is again this unusual pairing that sets up a tension or rub that adds interest to the poem. It also echoes the earlier comparison of rocking a baby to rocking a truck from a snowdrift.

The poem ends speaking about memory and how it can transform with time, ending with an image inferring the vulnerability that memory opens us up to, and the vulnerabilities of babies, mothersall humans alive:

                             ...And even
            if it wasn't beautiful then,
            it is now, in memory,
            her real voice a bough
            breaking crisp on the phone
            hundreds of miles
            from where you fall.

One of the things I admire most about No More Milk is the way the poems connect to each other.  The title of the first poem, "Down Will Come," speaks to the second poem "Milk" by invoking the image of a mother's milk coming down. In "Milk" the mother is "a thousand miles away" from her baby, and is having a difficult time hand-pumping milk. She says:

            My baby and I are near the end.
            It's no one's fault. Each day
            I have less to give.

Such simple words that speak so eloquently, layered with emotion and meaningimply not just this particular narrator, her baby and a lack of milk, but how everyone in the world struggles with scarcity and regret. She opens the third stanza with "The world is dense with hunger" and the literal and figurative image of having to pull her baby's "fist from his mouth / just to feed him," and how "for some / hunger is a fist that never stops / being a fist." The fist suggests that hungerthe many desperate forms of lack and longing that exist in this world. The narrator also implies that sometimes all we can do is nurture ourselves:

            ...I couldn't dump that milk.
            For the baby in the courtyard,
            for my baby, for all
            the babies, I drank it down.

Milk is used as a symbol throughout these poems, as a source of sustenance, a gift a mother can give to her childthe first, elemental nourishment we give and receive as humansthe embodiment of love. In "Hours after Anger, He Wakes Me" a son spilling milk leads to anger, tears, a nightmare, regret, grace, and a prayer the poet describes as:

                             ...vague, no words,
            almost an odor of regret and shame.
            I stayed awake to write this poem
            and to draw a symbol on the fat
            wedge of my thumba secret mark
            that means Love the boy better,
            keep him, pin him to this Earth.

This poem speaks so intimately of love between a child and a mother and its inevitable failings and complications. In "Three Tips for Inhabiting Our Material World" the narrator also speaks of the sacred connection between a mother and son, by telling how he brings her feathers:

                       ...He smuggles
            these to me in secret,
            like the code
            to a lock, and I keep them
            in a vaseglorious
            tail feathers, pin feathers,
            scraps from a wing.
            He knows I love these
            artifacts of flight or battle,
            prismatic, pocket-bent
            or frayed.         

 It's significant that the poet describes the feathers as "scraps" which implies scarcity, and also as "artifacts of flight or battle," and not just "prismatic" but also "pocket-bent / or frayed." These words suggest the complexities and dualities of life that no doubt the mother and the son are continuing to learn and to teach each other. The poem ends with an intriguing and beautiful idea of the son "working on a notion / of placeabout where / we might settle together, / and with what / we may line our nest." This image of a nest echoes so many of the other poems in the idea of hungering for nourishment (literal and figurative), and longing to find a homeyour place in, and your connections to, a family, a community, and the world. The poem "Half-Buried" begins with the lines, "Eyes-down is how you see / the nests of things." In "Ars Poetica" the narrator says:

            I could feel all
            I was losing: I was
            a hollow tree, enough space
            beneath my sternum
            for a nest. There was no one
            to hold me but the world,
            the empty air.

There is such a sense of yearning in the above lines, of wanting to create and nourish, and to also find the sustenance to continue creating.

The ideas of lack and plentitude are also conveyed in poems about money. In "How We Save," parents teach their son about saving and thrift, give him "a dollar / for doing a household thing." But inside his piggy bank is also an IOU, "what it cost / to fill the car and take him / where he wanted to go." The poem ends with a visit to a park with a meadow where they lay in the grass, and the son "blessed / it with a namePlace of Fresh / Butterfly Milk."  I love that the mother in this poem teaches the child about finding abundance through being in nature, which mirrors the idea in the poem "Three Tips for Inhabiting Our Material World" of "working on a notion / of place" and creating a nest.

In "Special Money" the mother is forced to use saved Bicentennial quarters to buy a gallon of milk, giving the reader the powerful statement: "Nothing is so special it can't / be made bread." The poem "What it Means to Wait" contains a waitress whose purse is weighed down with coins that she counts out "for a jug / of milk." In "Offering," instead of money for the church collection, she offers stamps, "a gift card for ice cream," and "a poem." In "One Hundred Grand" she carries dollars "in this pouch I wear. / The thinking is that the law / of attraction will kick in, and soon / I'll be swarmed with greenbacks, ungainly as a mantis in flight."

Even though the title of the collection is No More Milk, and many of its poems examine scarcity, hunger, and need, they are also full of abundance and hope. "Naming What Is" imagines a scene such as the biblical Garden of Eden, where a man and a woman interact with the opulence of the natural world as they name things:

                                                   ...It was all
            so pure thenthey were incorruptible,
            and language moved between them
            like a beast, sweet and lumbering.    

The idea of "naming" in this poem beautifully parallels the son's naming a meadow in "How We Save," and also celebrates language, the spoken word, finding a voice, and creativityother kinds of abundance threaded through these poems.

Besides writing about connection and love between a mother and child, there are poems that feature love between partners. In "Scat with Mourning Dove" the "I" of the poem wakes to a dove's "syncopated song" and "a kiss, whisker sharp, a body / warm against mine." I love the way the poet pairs the feeling of a kiss (which I think of as soft) with "whisker sharp." This kind of duality, this acknowledgement of love's complexity, is reflected in the way the couple join in the bird's song, "yesterday's anger / reduced to syllables in the air."

In "Before We Try 'I Love You'" a couple is testing "the word obliquely. / On the phone, buffered by a dozen states..." The center of the poem contains such a striking image to convey the couple's conflicted feelings about making a deeper commitment:

                        ...But when we speak of each other,
            something catches the word at the trap door
            of our throats. It's like that egg
            the magician deposits in the cave of his ear,
            then draws whole from his mouth.

The egg is such a perfect image for the beginning of things, for nourishment, for everything elemental. In "Gathering Eggs" the narrator says "I'm here for their eggs, / a thing they give easily, / and I get it: some months / entire paychecks are taken / by snake-fingered hands." Such a powerful image of giving and takingthe exchanges we make in life. Eggs also connect to the nest imagery in several poems.

No More Milk contains a central long poem in parts, titled "Guided Meditation: Inventory" which is both an examination and a celebration of the body, what I think of as self-love. We move slowly from the ground up with poems subtitled "Feet," "Legs," "Hips," "Hand," "Arms," "Throat," "Head," and "Crown." The poems begin with a direct address to the reader (as "you") to "focus," "think," "consider," or "move your attention" to a specific part of "your" body. In "Feet" we see the poet's playfulness in the lines: "the feetstreet urchins / who cleave to you." These lines are also beautifully rhythmic, with the repeated long "e" sound. She expresses such reverence and tenderness for the body, as in these lines in "Legs:"
           
                 ...Let the ankles,
            graceful as the neck
            of the Madonna,
            flop outward in repose.

In the poem "Hips" she says, "They are broad," and uses longer lines to enhance this characteristic, describing the hips with the following exquisite lines:

            They turn slowly like a beam from a lighthouse.
            Imagine you can open them to the light. You can't.
            Your pelvis is solid, the body's firm cradle.

Such surprise and beauty in the first two lines followed by the startling statement, "You can't," which emphasizes the reality of the body's limits. And yet, at the poem's end, it reveals the comforting affirmation that "You can fill you. You can invite / others in. Any time you feel closed or hollow, / remember, there is a secret door, a room." This sense of wonder at what our bodies can be and do, continues in the poem "Arms" by simply stating, "Picture them moving / along the gantry / of your shoulders. / They're snapping / a bedsheet. / They're pulling two corners / together." In "Crown" she says, "I think / hope lives there, or love / things that have no place / near the body's rags and bruises, / its churlishness and fear."

Besides acknowledging the wonders of our bodies, these body inventory poems delve into the body's vulnerabilities. In "Feet" she states "True, / the world will give up / its carpet tacks, / its broken glass, / but promise the feet / you'll be vigilant." In "Throat" she delves into the body's complexities, describing the throat as "storehouse of the body's rage," and the stunning image of how from your throat "truth skitters like a mole rat." I'm reminded of the previously mentioned throat imagery in "Before We Try 'I Love You.'"

The vulnerability in these body poems is echoed and intensified in the poem "In Praise of the Body Broken in Two," where the narrator experiences three days of pain.  The poem ends with wonder, where she compares the body to a cathedral:

            ...the architecture of skin
            and bonesthe arches and rose
            windows, buttresses, crockets, cusps.
            This place is so holy
            you'd have to leave your shoes
            to step inside.

The poet's handling of the body's vulnerability goes even deeper, darker in four haunting poems in which she imagines ways of dying"by Bleeding," "by Bullet," "by Water," and "by Fire." "Death by Bleeding" opens with:
           
            You've thought of it, but no:
            the wrist is a narrow, helpless thing,
            and you have traced its rivers
            through the skin. All morning
            you've been flexing your hand,
            and you've seen in those cords
            a dear throat, clearing.

This image of the throat and its connection to our breathing, and our voice (especially relevant to a poet) was echoed in earlier described poems, effectively setting up a repeated pattern that resonates every time it appears. In "Death by Bullet," she says "Alive, we can only conceive / of the searing.../ It blooms there, sudden metal flower." "Death by Fire" opens with the chilling image "At the base of the flame / there's a blue answer."

Many poems speak of the natural world and its abundance and holinessright whales she imagines crossing her path, trees creaking in a way that she describes as hearing them grow, a goldfinch returning to its mate "in the usual undulating way: / some wingbeats, small plunge, // and again, again, again." In "Taproot" she admires trees' resilience: "If something blocks their light / they'll grow around it...They point themselves / directly at their need."

The collection's last poem, titled "Fruits," opens with the lines:

I want to say something
about the wild strawberries
how they were all along the patch
and seemed new.

She goes on to describe their beauty:  "so bright, unusually small. / We weren't sure what we were seeing / even after I kneeled to touch one / and noted the surface studded / with seeds." Then the poem turns, as the narrator reveals she's thinking about these strawberries while she's rocking her baby, who's been crying for two hours "a tooth is trying to bloom / in his inconsolable mouth." This baby, the mother rocking to console him, and his "inconsolable" need mirrors the beginning poems so perfectlyand these repeated ideas of abundance and scarcity, and of longing for beauty. The poem and the collection end with the surprising, exquisite lines:

            ...the baby flexes his back
            and lifts his mouth closer
            to my ear. The baby says beauty
            is ephemeral, and the earth
            rewards us when we pause
            before its fruits. Go ahead and write,
            he saystell the people
            what you know. It's entirely possible
            those berries are already gone.

Yes, the poems in No More Milk tell us what Karen Craigo knows of scarcity and abundance, giving and receiving, yearning and loving, vulnerability and strength, beauty and holiness. These poems celebrate and rant about the dualities and mysteries of being human. They resonate with genuine and complex emotional intensity, and an irresistible tone of playfulness, kindness, intimacy, and reverence. These poems will surprise, ground, and nourish you at every turn. 
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Karen George retired from computer programming to write full-time. She lives in Florence, Kentucky, and enjoys photography and traveling to historic river towns, mountains, and Europe. She is author of the poetry collection Swim Your Way Back (Dos Madres Press, 2014) , A Map and One Year, forthcoming from Dos Madres Press, and five chapbooks, most recently The Fire Circle  (Blue Lyra Press, 2016) and the collaborative  Frame and Mount the Sky  (Finishing Line Press, 2017). You can find her work in The Ekphrastic Review, Sliver of Stone, Heron Tree, and America. She holds an MFA from Spalding University, and is co-founder and fiction editor of the journal, Waypoints. Visit her website: http://karenlgeorge.snack.ws/





Interview with Karen Craigo



                                               
...Couldn't
it be love that makes
the cardinal stand,
a fresh wound against the sky?
Could love make you
sing like that
desperate, terrible?  
 from “Ars Poetica,” Karen Craigo







__________

Karen Craigo is the author of No More Milk (Sundress, 2016), and she has two forthcoming collections, due out this summer: Passing Through Humansville (Sundress) and Escaped Housewife Tries Hard to Blend In (Tolsun Books). She maintains the blog Better View of the Moon, which deals with writing and creativity, and she is also a freelance writer and editor. 
_________

I've never met Karen Craigo in person. We're friends on Facebook, and she wrote a blurb for my prose poetry chapbook The Fire Circle (Blue Lyra Press, 2016). I believe I originally heard of Karen at least ten years ago, if not fifteen, when she was an editor for a literary journal I was dying to be published in. I so enjoyed her chapbook Escaped Housewife Tries Hard to Blend In (Hermeneutic Chaos, 2016), and I immediately ordered her poetry collection No More Milk. After reading the first poem, "Down Will Come," and finding myself in tears, I knew it was a book I wanted to review. (Read my review of No More Milk here.) —Karen L. George

(This interview was conducted via Facebook messaging.)
__________

Interview with Karen Craigo

What inspired you to write poetry in the beginning, and have the reasons changed over the years?  

KC:  I think I’m like a lot of writers—I’ve always done this! It kicked in big time around fourth grade, when I became a more conscious human and simultaneously got a lot of encouragement from teachers. That’s about when you start messing around with tanka and cinquains and stuff like that, too! I think I was more into prose then. I distinctly remember my fourth-grade teacher reading my story “Gruesome Grizzly” to the class and feeling embarrassed and proud—the same way I feel when I give a poetry reading now!

I originally wrote poems because I had a knack for language and loved the way it felt to use words in a just-right way. I don’t think I’ve changed much in that regard. When I get it right, it’s very satisfying. These days I recognize a spiritual element in the act, too—something that was lost on me in the early going. Sometimes you write a poem and a poem writes back. Things show up you didn’t plan; sometimes you get insights that astonish you. Poetry’s a little like prayer for me, but unlike my experience with conventional prayer, poetry reliably answers, in real words—from time to time, anyway.


Which poets and/or particular books have been your poetry touchstones?

KC:  There are so many! As an editor of Mid-American Review for many years, I got into the habit of reading lots of poets all the time, both in the submission pile and in a dedicated effort to stay current with new releases. That makes it really hard to pinpoint books and touchstones.

The person who really opened my eyes to poetry is my mentor, Michelle Boisseau, who passed away recently. I’ve had her good poetic counsel in mind for decades. She was wise and funky and funny, and I’m just so sad she’s gone. Her poetry is important to me, too, although mine doesn’t strike me as very similar—she was so smart and so wise, and I wish I were more like that! I also love Louise Gl├╝ck, whose work has this controlled rawness, and Carl Phillips, who shares that quality in a totally different way. There’s a just-about-to-breakness in both of those poets, and the result is so honest and beautiful.


Do you write poetry with a specific reader in mind? What do you envision or hope will be a reader's reaction to your poetry?

KC:  I think of how my poems will be received, but I wouldn’t say I have a specific reader. Sometimes when I’m funny, I like to picture someone getting the joke and chortling a little—but maybe the person I picture is me? It’s not great composition advice (says the composition instructor), since audience awareness is the key to successful writing of any type, but I may just be writing for me and people like me. My poetry is kind of personal. The I is me. Karen Craigo is writing poems about Karen Craigo for, apparently, Karen Craigo. Everyone is invited to peek in, though. 


I've always been intrigued about how a poet's collection of poems takes form.  Whether they have in mind to write a book around a certain subject or idea, and begin writing poems with that idea in mind, or whether a poet discovers they've been writing poems that are connected in some way, and then begin to write more around that connection, or something completely different. Can you tell us about your process of writing "No More Milk?"

KC:  As the title sort of suggests, these are motherhood poems, inspired by all of the love I receive and all of the mistakes I make in the course of my life as a parent. I just naturally had a lot of those, so they worked nicely together and felt “bookish”—much more so than the scattered collection I’d submitted here and there over the years. Almost immediately after I put this manuscript together, I found the perfect home for it with Sundress Publications.

Once Sundress had it, my editor had a sense that something was missing—it was a little one-note—and I agreed. After a lot of thought, I removed about half of the existing poems and replaced them with a bunch of oddball poems I had about money. What I mean is that they were about, like, home economics—paying for a jug of milk by digging into your kid’s collectible state quarters, for instance. I was really happy to get those in there; they’re reflective of who I’d like to be as a poet. Someone has to be the poet of the gas bill, the poet of phone calls from bill collectors—that’s the stuff that has caused me the most angst in my life.


Do you have a favorite poem in your collection?  And if so, can you tell us why it resonates with you so much?

KC:  I’ll bet my favorites are obvious, because they hardly fit with the rest of the collection, but I just had to shoehorn them in—who ever knows if a second book will come? I have a set of poems about suicide, though, interspersed with some Old Testament material. They’re the four poems that begin with “Death by …” (“Bleeding,” “Bullet,” “Water,” “Fire”). My editor explained to me that those stuck out like a sore thumb, but I was really emphatic that I wanted to keep them in. Oh, spoiler alert: My editor was entirely correct. But I love those poems, for some reason. They get at something very authentic for me. I think I found the perfect vehicle to convey the specific pain I was writing about. I’m glad they’re in the book, even though they’re like showing up on a red carpet in torn and bloody jeans.


Do you have a poem in the collection that was the most difficult to write, and can share why?

KC:  I find almost all poems a little difficult in the sense that they’re trying to say something that’s hard to say. But that’s the job description, really—to express that thing that’s darned near inexpressible. A poem called “In Praise of the Body Broken in Two” posed an unusual challenge for me, because I was trying to precisely describe my relationship with pain from an injury I experienced. I labored to get it just right—that sense that pain makes you leave your body and stand beside yourself and just sort of hold it and honor its power. The poem probes the paradox that we so often try to be above our bodies—to transcend our blood and guts—but pain just makes you long to crawl back inside. I wasn’t sure how to say that. I’m still not sure if I did the idea justice, but it feels right.

I wanted to ask you about your poem “Rockabye," which I found to be an intriguing, haunting poem—one I read many times to discover connections and layers of meaning. It's the fourth poem in your collection, and it struck me as different from the preceding poems, which seemed to be about a more specific, intimate moment in time between a mother and her child, whereas "Rockabye" felt as if it addressed a world of moments that others might be living. It starts out as if the "someone" is the poem's narrator that is carrying a child within them, and the entire poem could be read that way. But it also felt like it could be read as speaking of all those who are experiencing similar circumstances. For example "someone tethered" I can also interpret as someone restrained in a variety of ways such as in a literal prison or imprisoned by some belief or disability. This interpretation also fits with the ending lines: "Someone's bough / can't bear his weight. / Someone makes ready to fall." The repetition of the "someone" rather than the "I" of the previous poems initially led me to these other interpretations.  Can you talk about why you chose to use that "someone"?

KC:  Thank you for your close attention to that poem! It’s one of those poems that I as the poet can come back to again and see it differently on different readings. The “someone” you mention probably gives me that permission to re-see my own poem. What I was trying to explore was that melding of mother and baby-to-be at the end of a pregnancy, where boundaries collapse and you can’t tell where one starts and the other ends. Who is tethered? Who is falling? Both, of course—beautifully, magnificently, terrifyingly. I wanted the rocking motion of the poem to help foster this back-and-forth of identity.  


What writing are you currently working on?

KC:  I just inked a contract for my third full-length poetry collection—both the second and third will come out this summer, and I’m over the moon. So I’m working on edits and revisions of the second book, Passing Through Humansville, also from Sundress, and I’m putting the finishing touches on a bunch of brand new poems for the third one, Escaped Housewife Tries Hard to Blend In, which had a brief life as a chapbook on a press that folded immediately. (I’d like to believe my poetry wasn’t what did it in!) I’m working with a press on a fourth collection, this one featuring American sentences, a quick, seventeen-syllable form, on the topic of gun violence. I’m also playing with an essay collection on body image, and I’m putting together a textbook for editing classrooms. I like to stay busy, although right now I may be a little too busy. My intention when the dust clears is to take a different approach with my work—to take time, to have singular focus, and to be more contemplative.


What advice would you give to a beginning poet about writing poetry?

KC:  Listen, this isn’t a fashionable viewpoint: I think poets should take more delight in creation. We focus too much on publishing too early in the game. I think publishing is very important, and work really isn’t done until it has an audience, but putting our poems in litmags shouldn’t be our main focus. We also focus too much on workshopping—everything’s a damned fix-it project. Poems may not be successful, but that doesn’t mean they’re broken, if you know what I mean. They’re imperfect artifacts of the spirit, and they always are exactly that—imperfect—even if they’re the very best poems they can be. I would have us listen to each other, and listen, too, to the voice that comes to us through the poem, whether that’s a deep personal intelligence, or a muse, or a god, or, as I believe, it’s the collective unconscious that we tap into from time to time, when we’re lucky. Partake in the mystery—then do all that busywork of workshopping, revising, and, finally, publishing. The mystery is what I’m here for.


* * *

You can read several of Karen Craigo's poems below, or visit her blogsite at:  http://betterviewofthemoon.blogspot.com/
   

Passing through Humansville in Terrain

Escaped Housewife Prefers the Term Cosmetologist in Poetry

Learning to Trace the Body in Atticus Review

         




________________________________________________

 Karen George retired from computer programming to write full-time. She lives in Florence, Kentucky, and enjoys photography and traveling to historic river towns, mountains, and Europe. She is author of the poetry collection Swim Your Way Back (Dos Madres Press, 2014) , A Map and One Year, forthcoming from Dos Madres Press, and five chapbooks, most recently The Fire Circle  (Blue Lyra Press, 2016) and the collaborative  Frame and Mount the Sky  (Finishing Line Press, 2017). You can find her work in The Ekphrastic Review, Sliver of Stone, Heron Tree, and America. She holds an MFA from Spalding University, and is co-founder and fiction editor of the journal, Waypoints. Visit her website: http://karenlgeorge.snack.ws/.