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Interview with Karen Schoemer (Sky Furrows, Jaded Azurites, Ivan The Tolerable)

Wreckless Eric and Karen Schoemer

I listen to a lot of music, all of which in some ways I connect to and feel things for. Rarely however is that connection and feeling so profound as when I discovered Ivan The Tolerable’s The Long Year, and perhaps more importantly; the spoken word of poet Karen Schoemer. Her words spoke to me the way few lyrics ever do, and so I had to know more about her and her work. I looked her up, and lo and behold she had done other spoken word music projects before in Sky Furrows and Jaded Azurites. Who is she? How did she become a poet? What records should we buy? We talk about all of this and more…

How have you been in these pandemic times? How has it affected your life and work?

The pandemic has been brutal! I broke up with someone in February 2020 and was living on my own for the first time in decades when the pandemic hit. I had moved into a cottage in a remote corner of upstate New York near mountains and farmland. I was next door to a tree nursery. I went from a pretty busy social existence to befriending chipmunks. As a writer I have a certain amount of isolation built into my daily routine, and I relish that, but I balance it by working or seeing friends or performing. All that external living disappeared, and it’s only partly come back. I’ve done a lot of writing these past two years which I hope to revisit eventually. It’ll be weird for sure. 

I was born in the mid-1960s, and my life until the pandemic spanned a time of relative prosperity and stability that I took for granted. A writer friend of mine wrote an essay about climate change where she said the biggest problem she had as a teenager was worrying about what color Levi’s cords to buy. Meanwhile the planet was starting to melt. I feel that way—like I’m soft and unprepared for the hardship we’re coming into. Even though I have problems just like everybody else, I’ve lived in a period of astounding comfort and security until now. 

I think this unease is active in everything I write now. I find myself questioning the relationship to my immediate surroundings: the house I’m in, the town, the local landscape. It’s as if I’m constantly putting a toe out to see if the ground is shaking. The area where I live is rich in industrial archeology. There were mills and factories in my town that are ruins or shells now. Railroad beds with the ties removed, leafy unmarked berms in the woods. So I’m around fascinating decay and a very loud, apparent past. That’s a weird overlap with unease about the future. 

Mike Watt and Karen Schoemer

Can you tell us about your background, where you grew up, where you studied, your current job…?

I grew up in suburban Connecticut, in an affluent white suburb about an hour from New York City. I was a sensitive kid, socially awkward, loved animals, loved books and reading, loved listening to the radio and playing my parents’ Beach Boys and Carpenters LPs. In 8th grade I had an English teacher who encouraged my writing and I’ve felt like a writer ever since. In high school I wrote a music column for my school newspaper, and in college (at William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia) I got involved with the radio station and discovered punk and post punk: the Replacements, Sonic Youth, Nick Cave, Robyn Hitchcock, the Feelies. I began writing for fanzines and after college worked at a variety of magazines—I was the record reviews editor at Spin in 1989 and the pop critic at Newsweek from 1994 to 1999. Then in 2000 I had a baby and cut back on journalism. I wrote book called Great Pretenders: My Strange Love Affair with ‘50s Pop Music, published in 2006. By then I was living upstate, raising my daughter, and transitioning to creative writing. I wanted to write a novel, but I fell in with local poets and began writing poetry as well. At some point I felt that the poems were better than the stories and the attempts at novels, so I began focusing almost exclusively on writing poetry. 

Currently I have two (three?) jobs: I work as a server at a restaurant in Hudson, NY called Café Mutton; I’m the office manager for a paint company called Liberty Paint in Athens, NY; and I help out at a used bookstore in the woods of Columbia County called Rodgers Book Barn. All small businesses run by wonderful, eccentric people. 

Sky Furrows

I write lyrics myself, but I have always been hesitant calling myself a poet, so I admire you being bold enough to do so! When did you know you were one? And what is a poet in your book?

I call myself a poet because I write poetry! And if you write poetry, you can and should call yourself a poet. Poetry belongs to everyone. Poetry is not locked in an ivory tower and available only when someone with a pince-nez and book of spells admits you. Having said that, it’s hard to write good poetry and I work very dilligently at the craft. I’ve done workshops with amazing poets like Bernadette Mayer, CA Conrad, Hoa Nguyen, Randall Horton, Fred Moten, Eileen Myles. I read poetry, I read craft books, I listen to poetry, I talk with other poets. In 2019 I got an MFA from a program called the Writer’s Foundry in Brooklyn and I continue to attend their lectures whenever possible. 

Great poets aren’t great because they woke up that way. They’re great because they have studied and consumed, they have clawed their way into knowledge, they have wallowed in Sylvia Plath and Gwendolyn Brooks and John Ashbery and James Schuyler and John Donne and Jack Gilbert and Derek Walcott. Anyone can write poetry, but I don’t know if it helps to write it lightly or casually. You have to be willing to put your neck on the chopping block, you have to rip through the many layers of protective psychological coating we all surround ourselves with, because bullshit feeling makes for bullshit poetry.  

Sky Furrows

Can you tell me about your spoken word and poetry works so far? What have been the highlights and proudest moments?

In the broadest way, I’m happy that through writing poetry I’ve been able to work with musicians. I never expected to or desired to perform—I thought of myself very much as a writer on the page. But I have always loved music and musicians and it’s mind-blowing to me that in my mid-40s I stumbled into these opportunities. 

Mike Watt has been a friend and mentor to me and without his encouragement I probably wouldn’t be doing it. About ten years ago, I was writing poetry and struggling with it because I could tell the poems were not very good, and I didn’t know how to break through my limitations and advance to better work. One day Mike and I were talking and he said, “I’m a Karen Schoemer believer.” That knocked me out so hard. His belief in me jarred me out of my feelings of failure. Not long after that, he was doing a project with Oli Heffernan, a band of Oli’s called Detective Instinct. Oli had given Mike some tracks and Mike was supposed to come up with lyrics. Mike said to me, “Why don’t you write the lyrics instead?” So I did, and Mike recorded the vocals, and Oli liked them as asked us to do two more. Those four songs became a Detective Instinct EP called Schoemer Songs that came out on Third Uncle Records in 2013. 

Then Oli gave Mike six more tracks, and Mike said, “Why don’t you write the words and record the vocals?” So I did, and that became another Detective Instinct EP called Falling into Lilacs

Wreckless Eric was a friend and neighbor—he and his wife, singer-songwriter Amy Rigby, had moved to the Hudson Valley. He helped me record the Falling Into Lilacs vocals at his home studio, and we ended up putting together a band called the Schoemer Formation that played around for a couple of years. Eric thought it was funny to name the band after the person who had no experience being in a band. Those were my first times performing live and I took to it, just loved being on stage while these brilliant musicians made a racket around me. Then Amy and Eric got busy with their real music careers and I didn’t want to give up performing, so I got in touch with musician friends from Albany and that’s how Sky Furrows started. We’re a four piece and we’re really loud when we play, everyone’s steeped in Sonic Youth and noise and psychedelia and New Zealand punk like the Clean. We released our first album in late 2020. The pandemic slowed us down, but we’ve started doing shows again and we’re hoping to record a new album next year. 

Some of the pieces I perform were finished poems before they were set to music. Jaded Azurites, my duo with Mike Watt, generally works as me giving Mike a batch of poems and he composes bass around them. Mike is an exceptionally brilliant thinker and he pays a lot of attention to line length, stanza, how the poem is organized, and composes with that in mind. He does this just by reading the piece on the page. Then he sends me bass recordings and I add the vocals and the result is a kind of marriage of the two. 

But sometimes I adapt writing that I have lying around to music that I’m given. That’s more how I worked with Oli on The Long Year. He gave me a batch of recordings and I looked for words that I thought suited them in terms of rhythm and mood and tone. The only piece on the album that was a finished poem before music was “The Night Hospital.” That’s a pantoum, a poetic form where the second and fourth lines of each stanza repeat as the first and third lines in the next stanza. The other pieces I tended to adapt writing into the spaces he gave me. I don’t really consider those pieces poems—they’re a hybrid of poem and lyric. They’re constructed to be experienced as music, and I don’t think they particular work as poems on the page, without music. 

I only very recently discovered you through Ivan The Tolerable And His Plastic Bands album The Long Year. Can you tell me about that project? Also; how does it work practically? Was the music already done, or do you “jam”? Will there be live performances?

Oli handled all the tracks and I know they evolved from the skeletal tracks he gave me originally. He’s a master at splicing different people’s contributions into a solid whole. I would love to perform with Ivan the Tolerable! Maybe someday Oli will invite me! That is a hint, Oli! 

I especially like the poem about the sunset in the song Indigo Blue, can you tell me about it? How did it come about?

I’m really glad you like that song—thank you for saying so. That piece developed out of a rudimentary poetry exercise, which is to personify an inanimate thing. The last hour of the day is my favorite—I love to be outdoors when the light changes. I did a bunch of writing on my porch in Hudson, NY during the summer while the sun went down. Somehow the sunset became an alcoholic who rages every night, passes out, and wakes up the next day to do it all over again. The last part of the song grew out of a visit I made to Salt Lake City, Utah in 2018. My daughter was living out there, and one day we drove to Spiral Jetty, which is a monumental work of land art from the 70s by the artist Robert Smithson. The Great Salt Lake’s waters are pink because of high salinity. It’s an extraordinary visual experience. I guess I thought, what kind of spurned lover would a raging sunset have? A pink salt lake.  

Can you tell me about your inspiration? How does your head work when forming these beautiful words and sentences?

Again, thank you for these kind words. I generally free write for 15-20 minutes a day or more. Sometimes I go to the same location several days in a row: my porch, or a meadow, or the Hudson River waterfront, or the ore pit pond in Taconic State Park. Then I transcribe that writing into the computer, adding more free writing at the beginning and end. I try to write unintentionally—that is, to write until I barely know I’m writing. Then I look for things I didn’t know I knew. Unexpected word combinations or unconscious expressions. I throw everything into the kitchen sink, then fish a few salvageable things out. 

Who are your inspirations? What other poets, spoken word artists, musicians do you admire? 

I love Bernadette Mayer and John Ashbery and CA Conrad. I love John Cale. I loved the Velvet Underground documentary because I could stare at John Cale all day and listen to his lilting Welsh accent. I love hiphop artists who are incredible poets and brilliant word stylists. Like Madlib. I loved the Paul McCartney/Rick Rubin documentary—I loved hearing those songs dissected. I try to read a lot of African-American literature because no one told me to read it when I was younger. Audre Lorde, James Baldwin, James Weldon Johnson. My favorite writer is Herman Melville

What are your immediate and longer term future plans? What are your ambitions as a poet?

I would like to publish a book of poetry eventually, when I have enough good poems to make a collection. In the meantime I am thrilled to continue collaborating with musicians. Wreckless Eric and I made an album together that I hope will come out next year. He did all the instruments, wrote all the music, recorded and produced it. I’m very proud of it and I tell Eric I think it’s a minor masterpiece. He says, “It’s good you think that because no one else will.” And Jaded Azurites hopefully will put out our five digital EPs as a vinyl album. 

What should Weirdo Shrine readers do immediately after this interview?

Listen to “White Light/White Heat,” make a cup of coffee or mix a cocktail, go outside into the sunshine or the dark night, eat Chinese food, read the first page of Moby Dick, pet the cat. 

One Reply to “Interview with Karen Schoemer (Sky Furrows, Jaded Azurites, Ivan The Tolerable)”

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