“I started to compose poetry around the age of three – before I could even write,” poet Karen Poppy, 47, told the Blade in a telephone interview. “My Mom would write my poems down.”
“I had the good fortune,” added Poppy, whose first, full-length poetry collection “Diving At The Lip Of The Water” will be out from Beltway Editions, a Washington, D.C. area press, on May 1, “My Mom read poetry to me. The first poem was about a nightingale. Maybe she read Keats to me.” (John Keats was the 19th century Romantic poet who wrote “Ode to a Nightingale.”)
Poppy has written a book “that will rough a reader up and then wrap their scraps in silk,” poet Francesca Bell has said of “Diving At The Lip of The Water.” For Poppy, who identifies as queer, nonbinary, lesbian and an artist, coming out has been a lifelong process. “I’ve come out many times in many ways,” Poppy, who grew up in Foster City, Calif., and now lives in the San Francisco Bay area, said.
April is National Poetry Month. In every month, Poppy thinks often of Walt Whitman, one of the United States’ greatest poets. Thought by many to be queer, Whitman, a nurse in Washington, D.C. during the Civil War, is best known for his groundbreaking work “Leaves of Grass.”
Whitman comes to mind to Poppy when she talks about her identity. “As an artist,” Poppy said in reference to how she identifies, “I’m everyone and everything.”
When Whitman talks about the self containing “multitudes,” “He’s not just speaking of individuals,” Poppy said, “he’s saying that poets-artists enter into everything.”
“As an artist – a poet,” Poppy said, “I don’t like to be put into boxes.”
Poppy celebrates Whitman’s creative spirit, refusal to have limitations placed on him and, what she called, “his joyous experience of limitlessness and connectivity with everything.”
As a young child, Poppy sensed that she was different. “I knew very early on,” she said, “I wanted to be like my mother and my father.”
She wanted to be glam like her mom. “My Mom’s nickname for me was Miss America,” Poppy said.
She wore her Dad’s leather jacket, cowboy hat and cowboy boots. “Early on, I got in trouble for trying to smoke a cigarette,” Poppy said, “I put it in the wrong way. I was lucky I didn’t burn my mouth off!”
“I cut my mouth, trying to shave as a toddler,” she added, “I was already creating my own gender identity.”
At a time, when people were far less out and proud than now, Poppy crushed on her girl babysitters. “In kindergarten, I got in trouble with my best friend at the time,” she said, “because I told her that I was interested in her physically.”
“I think she was very kind about it,” Poppy added.
That same year, Poppy was reprimanded by her teacher for kissing a boy. “The boy and I were in line waiting to go back to the classroom,” she said, “he kissed me back.”
During that era, Poppy didn’t have the words to name or describe her feelings. “I have a gay cousin who’s older than me,” she said, “and a lesbian aunt. But because they weren’t exactly the way I am, I didn’t realize I was queer, too.”
In Foster City, when she was growing up, people didn’t talk openly about being queer. “We talked about it in euphemisms and negatively,” Poppy said.
A poem is never just the story of what happened or the recitation of fact, poet Sheila Black, a 2012 Witter Bynner Fellow, said in an email to the Blade.
Poppy’s poetry, like that of many poets, at times, channels her life. Though, it’s not autobiographical in a literal or linear way. Like Whitman’s work, it contains multitudes from individual and collective experience.
Her searing, moving collection “Diving At The Lip Of The Water,” unmasks society’s gender expectations and family systems. Poppy’s poem, “No One was Gay Back Then,” draws us into what it’s like to have to hide your sexuality. “We used to make fun of you/You, making out with Michael/in the grass. 5th grade recess,” the poem begins.
“Michael liked Matt. So in 5th grade,” Poppy writes in the poem, “already seeking cover-ups/Trying to convince everyone and ourselves./Our small town. No one was gay back then.”
As a tween, Poppy not only realized she was queer (though she didn’t have the word for it); she knew where she wanted to go to college. Poppy was determined to go to Smith College because Sylvia Plath went there.
“When I was 12, I started to read Sylvia Plath,” Poppy said. “Plath has been a profound influence on me throughout my life.”
“Because of her fearlessness in speaking her truth,” Poppy added, “and her high level of poetic virtuosity.”
Poppy’s dream came true. She earned a bachelor’s degree from Smith College in Comparative Literature and Spanish in 1998.
At Smith, Poppy began to come out about her identity. But, there were pressures. “I was pressured into cutting my hair short,” she said, “the feeling was if I kept my hair long, I wasn’t a dyke.”
Poppy cut her hair. “I did cry,” she said, “there was a pressure to conform to a certain aesthetic. You had to be super femme or butch.”
It was another box that she had a hard time escaping from. “I realized boxes are not for me,” Poppy said.
She wasn’t sure what she wanted to do after she graduated from Smith. After a short stint as a chef apprentice, Poppy could tell that being a chef for the long term wasn’t for her.
Like most poets, Poppy knew being a bard rarely brings financial stability. “I wanted to have security and I wanted to help people,” Poppy said.
“I went to law school and studied international law,” she said, “A lot of my early focus was on immigration and helping refugees.”
Poppy graduated from UC Hastings College of the Law (now known as UC College of the Law, San Francisco) in 2003 with a J.D. degree in international law.
Today, Poppy works for The Hartford in the area of workers’ compensation.
Poppy kept writing from her childhood into her 20s. “But then, somebody said something really cruel about my writing,” she said. “The ridicule chilled my creativity.”
For 17 years, because of this cruelty, she didn’t write. “I was in a creative silence,” Poppy said.
A traumatic event compelled her to go back to writing.
Since 2017, when her creativity was restarted, Poppy’s poetry has been published in literary journals, anthologies as well as the chapbooks “Crack Open/Emergency,” “Our Own Beautiful Brutality” and “Every Possible Thing.” She’s written three unpublished novels and short stories.
One of her writing projects is Whitmanesque in its intersections of identities.
Poppy is working on an opera libretto. “It takes place when Handel [the German-British Baroque composer] was alive,” she said.
It’s about a merboy who’s washed to shore. He’s young, Black and queer.
“A family takes him in,” Poppy said, “they want to make him a form of income.”
The family forces the merboy to become a castrato, Poppy said, “they make him wear a mask to hide his dark skin. When he’s older and has a relationship with a man, he has to be closeted.”
Poppy is looking for a composer to work with her on her libretto. If you’re interested, contact her through her website karenpoppy.com.
Poppy’s interest in immigrants is personal as well as professional. Poppy is Jewish. Some of her family were murdered in the Holocaust. “Others in my family left Europe before the Holocaust because of pogroms and poverty,” she said.
When her family came to the United States in the early 1900s, they were “very poor,” Poppy said.
Her paternal grandmother, Poppy said, told her to make sure her son always had food, “because hunger would make his stomach hurt.”
We’ve come to see that the American dream is in many ways an illusion, Poppy said. It’s not accessible to all, and it’s slipping away.
“Elizabeth/The fifth of ten children/Who crossed the border, then/Still a child/,” Poppy writes in her poem “Elizabeth,” “Only sixteen and wanting to stay alive/To be the breath that survived.”
Poppy worries about the rise of anti-Semitism. “It comes in waves,” she said. “We have to remind each other to make sure it never happens again.”
It’s important for artists to take care of themselves, Poppy said. To get enough rest between creative projects. To be an athlete. So their minds and spirits can be in top form.
Poppy does yoga and loves to run. “A poem is a short lap,” she said, “writing a novel is like long distance open water swimming.”
“We write out of our humanity,” Poppy added.
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