Siham Karami On Her Journey To Publication

Every writer's journey is different - but we can always learn from each other when we share our stories. Today, Animal Heart Press Managing Editor Amanda McLeod chatted with Featured Artist Siham Karami about her journey to publication and how she safeguards her creative time under the pressures of a busy life.

Photo by Alexis Brown on Unsplash
Amanda McLeod:  How did you come to poetry? Tell us your backstory!

Siham Karami: When asked as a child what I wanted to be when I grow up, I said an astronomer and a poet. My mother filled our house with poetry books. Her favorites were May Swenson, Theodore Roethke, Ezra Pound, and Elizabeth Bishop, among others. I recall being in 6th grade and taking out a library book titled The New Poets, and running about three blocks to my friend’s house out of sheer excitement. I could hardly contain my excitement. The same with art museums. If it was modern art, my parents had to literally drag me out. I would stand in front of each painting in total rapture. The same with music, when I played piano, guitar, cello and recorder, as well as singing and making up songs, music and lyrics. All forms of art move me; I live for them, and feel surges of love for the artists as well.
During the middle of my life, I became so involved in my family, children, and work, which involved writing contracts, advertising, even bookkeeping and taxes, that I had no time to even think, let alone write. There were also relationship difficulties I’d rather not discuss here, mental health related, a lot of suffering. But rewards as well. Later, as I became older, the hell mellowed out and I carved out a space for poetry, music, and art again, which I carry inside my mind as a place of healing, self validation, and fulfillment. And peace, after being at war for so long. So although there is still conflict, I return to these things and make it possible, with help from the poetry community, which is spectacularly helpful in hard times. Poetry expresses the inexpressible; maybe that’s why poets understand how to give other poets their space.

AM: Your first full length collection, To Love the River, was published in 2018. What was your journey to publication like?

SK: This book started out on a lark: to submit to a book contest, collect all my best poems and put it all together. It seemed like it would be easy, since the poems were already written. Hadn’t factored in that as a writer I’m an obsessive reviser. I started with a manuscript over 100 pages with section titles and yi jing hexagrams, was lucky to get expert advice on how not to do all the things I was doing, how to cut it in half, how to place the best poems and so on. The title kept changing. I submitted to that contest, then another, then another, revising every time, until I decided to just find a publisher. At the time, everyone I knew pointed to Kelsay Books as the best choice. And indeed, Karen Kelsay, the owner, is a dream to work with. She already had featured my work in her online journal Orchards Poetry, so working with her was a no-brainer.
The gorgeous cover is from a piece by Hilma af Klint, a Swedish mystic and pioneer in abstract art, and was the suggestion of Mary Meriam, whose advice and help were game-changing. She is not only a gifted poet but also a selfless mentor and hard-working friend to many poets, including through her successful imprint, Headmistress Press. The Eratosphere poetry workshop site has also been a life-changing place for sharing and improving my poetry, and meeting so many amazing poets who are also friends. Many of the poems in the book were originally workshopped there.

AM: There are themes of rebirth and renewal throughout a lot of the work you've shared with us. Where do you find your inspiration?

SK: This seems to be the theme of my life and vision. My childhood summers were spent in the Minnesota northwoods where my family had a cabin my father had built along with his college friends and a cousin who also had cabins there, all of whom were Lutherans and intellectuals. My father was a pastor, who had an open mind; he and his cronies would have long, smoke-filled late night discussions on philosophical and religious issues. So both a closeness to nature from those summers, and religious influences formed my outlook, although as the youngest of a large family, I tended to feel somewhat apart, and as an adult explored other religions, from Zen to Taoism (the Yi Jing was my bible for awhile) to psychedelics and occult sciences (my desire to be an astrologer was cut short by not-so-great math skills), and finally, after reading a pocket Quran and a book by Rumi, committing to Islam. My faith has always been non-dogmatic, focusing on common ground, common sense...and enlightenment. Or you could say rebirth.
Life intervened basically, and after living a rather harrowing but rewarding life, much of it right there on the edge of survival, I’m in a continuous state of finding renewal. It’s in the sky, it’s just behind the 7/11, it’s in the flightpaths of dragonflies, it’s there in your head while doing laundry, it’s on the ground beneath your feet, strange plants pushing through the soil, it’s an unexpected long conversation about everything. It’s pain relief, distraction from ugly situations, a place to hide or pretend to exist, it’s seeing the moons of Jupiter right after an argument that totally drains your energy. “After every difficulty, there’s relief.” But sometimes you have to work hard to find it.

AM: A lot of artists struggle to preserve their creative time in the midst of demanding lives, especially when balancing work and family. How do you protect yours?

SK: This is definitely a nonstop challenge. I refuse to let those who would not value or validate my art or poetry even sense that it exists, or is important to me. Art, whether writing, visual, music, or tactile, is sacred space. Period. There will always be negative influences. The key for me is to limit their access to the most vulnerable places, which for me is poetry. That way I can maintain those relationships without allowing an either/or situation. This may be unique to me. In terms of time management, I can’t count on schedules due to the people and circumstances I deal with, which includes being an on-demand caretaker for my husband who had a disabling injury. So I regularly, when conceivably possible, simply walk away from whatever I’m doing, even if it drives people crazy, and write/ work on poetry and art projects. I literally carve out bits of time, and have learned to string them together. I’m an obsessive person when it comes to art, and that allows me to tune out normal distractions. Sometimes that’s meant composing poems in my mind. I used rhyme and meter to help me literally remember it! I wrote a sonnet once in my head while in the middle of a boring conversation I couldn’t get out of. Usually though, I only work on small portions of a poem in my head, especially while doing mindless tasks. However, I can’t work at all under emotional stress, can’t ignore it. That is why I create a wall between those who could easily create such scenes, and my poetry in particular.
Photography began as something I could do spontaneously from my iPhone. It didn’t matter if I took pictures everywhere, because it looks like a normal activity. So I do this when I can get away and take walks through the local woods (where I might also write a poem in my head), or just when it strikes me wherever I happen to be. Unexpected beauty at the car wash, for example. Once, in a morning when we later called EMS for my husband, I went out to the front yard and discovered an ecstasy of butterflies. I began taking pictures, bursts, wildly excited by the many colors and types, flying, landing, it was unreal. This sustained me through his trip to the ER, which was quite terrifying when we realized what was happening. Two opposites, near-death and explosive life, almost simultaneously occurring. This is emblematic of my life. I have to keep fighting to find space and time in between. Last night I was driving and the sky was freaking gorgeous. So I took a some rapid-fire shots while waiting at a stop sign. The key is to always be alert and seize opportunities.
Thanks so much for this opportunity to share my ideas and experiences!

AM: You mention the impact of emotional stress on your creativity. It’s a common theme! How do you relax yourself back into that state of creative equilibrium when life gets overwhelming?

SK: This depends on the timing and nature of the stress. Often I’m entirely overwhelmed and can’t possibly write, so I just do something else and wait until I can get into that place again. Things like grief—my oldest brother died last December, for example (which feels like yesterday)—affect me in waves. His wife asked me to write a poem for the funeral, which brought out in me the will to write, which was helpful in dealing with the immediate impact. Later I found myself unable to write much of anything. Things like relationship issues can actually motivate me to write. Writing a poem can itself be therapeutic. When my older sister died years ago, she became my muse; I wrote a number of poems for her, including “Gently Still Finding You Between.” In fact, her death was the emotional impetus for my return to writing poetry after a long hiatus, enabling me to express a huge cache of suppressed emotions: sadness, love, loss, nostalgia, anger. Often when stressed out, I sit down with a blank mind and start writing; using poetic forms gives this process shape. And I keep writing obsessively until the emotions/ memories become encapsulated in a poem, taking years for some poems, an afternoon for others, some never finished. The poem builds a small world or place for these emotions where they seem so much smaller than they were before, amorphous and unruly.

AM: Who would you say are your greatest poetic influences?

SK: This is hard for me to narrow down because I tend to be influenced for awhile by one or two poets, then suddenly obsessed with another. That being said, I believe Shakespeare is in the back of my mind subliminally, because so often I write and even think in iambic pentameter, even when I was much younger and thought I was writing free verse. I tend to form ideas with an element of drama around a Shakespearean-influenced template. When I was very young, my mother took me to Shakespearean plays performed live at a small local venue. I loved them although I didn’t understand a single thing, just the sound of the words and the drama. Recently some literary historians are taking seriously the idea that Shakespeare may have been a woman, an idea I find plausible. I also loved Theodore Roethke, who was a local hero where I grew up in Seattle. He captured the sounds and feeling of rain and foggy landscapes plus greenhouses that are tied up in my own memories. Gwendolyn Brooks, Rita Dove, Alicia Stallings, and Emily Dickinson have had an influence, as well as Agha Shahid Ali’s work with ghazals, a form I’ve recently used rather obsessively. I would be unfair not to mention W.H. Auden, whose poetry I used to memorize. More recently, Mary Meriam has definitely had an impact, her amazing work expressing emotion in forms, including the ghazal. It’s hard to say if I’ve really been properly influenced by such fantastic poets, but it would be lovely if so.

Comments