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Bridging the Connecticut River: Northampton’s new poet laureate, KatrenSkolfield, hails from Amherst

  • Karen Skolfield, seen here at Forbes Library in Northampton, is the city’s new poet laureate. In her newest collection, “Battle Dress,” she draws on her experience in the military for the themes and images of her poems. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Karen Skolfield, seen here at Forbes Library in Northampton, is the city’s new poet laureate. In her newest collection, “Battle Dress,” she draws on her experience in the military. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Karen Skolfield, seen here at Forbes Library in Northampton, is the city’s new poet laureate. In her newest collection, “Battle Dress,” she draws on her experience in the military. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Karen Skolfield, seen here at Forbes Library in Northampton, is the city’s new poet laureate. In her newest collection, “Battle Dress,” she draws on her experience in the military. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Skolfield’s first poetry collection, “Frost in the Low Areas,” won the 2014 PEN New England Award for poetry.



For the Bulletin
Thursday, May 02, 2019

Karen Skolfield has covered some varied ground in her poetry: war and its aftermath, motherhood, mortality, love. She’s won a number of awards for her work, and one reviewer, after reading her debut collection, “Frost in the Low Areas,” said this: “Karen Skolfield made me fall in love with poetry all over again.”

Skolfield, a lecturer and writing instructor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, recently added another distinguished line to her resume. She is now the ninth poet laureate of Northampton, following the tenure of the most recent laureate, Amy Dryansky.

In a recent phone interview, Skolfield said she’s excited to step into her new position and considers it an immense honor.

“It was amazing to get that tap on the shoulder,” she said. “The eight poets before me are amazing, and to be considered for the position and have that handed off to me, that is awesome.”

In the writing field, she says, rejection comes much more frequently than affirmation, so recognition like this is a high prize.

An Amherst resident, Skolfield joked about her Northampton title, saying, “I’m the poet laureate of a town I don’t live in.” (Most but not all of the previous Northampton poet laureates have lived or worked, or had once lived or worked, in the city, but that’s not a requirement for selection, according to the Northampton Arts Council, which appoints poet laureates.)

Skolfield says she understands why Amherst has no poet laureate, since a certain 19th-century writer is a tough act to follow. “Emily Dickinson was here,” she said. “There is no poet laureate after that. That is a mic drop.”

Skolfield, though, has been doing her part to keep up Amherst’s poetic reputation. “Frost in the Low Areas” won a couple of awards, including the 2014 PEN New England Award in Poetry (the PEN awards are made to New England authors or to books with a New England setting or subject).

Skolfield, a U.S. army veteran, has also published work in a wide range of journals and publications, and among her honors is a 2015 Arts & Humanities Award from New England Public Radio, which annually recognizes the contributions artists make to life in the Valley.

Her newest poetry collection, “Battle Dress,” won the 2018 Barnard Women Poets Prize and will be published in August.

Skolfield has been writing poetry for about 30 years, and really got her start as an undergraduate at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. She took creative writing courses that she says turned her into a better poet. She attributes her beginnings in poetry to one professor in particular, Christopher Buckley.

“He helped me turn what wasn’t very good writing into seeing the possibilities in a line of words and in every poem,” she said. “It’s his fault that he turned me into a poet.”

In 1998, she earned a masters at UMass in the MFA program for Poets & Writers. Today she works in the Engineering department, teaching writing to undergraduate engineering students.

Different kinds of service

An active member of the Valley’s literary scene, Skolfield has also volunteered at schools, especially elementary schools, and assisted with readings and festivals.

“For me, where I’m most comfortable [and] in my wheelhouse, is going into schools,” she said. “I’ve done a bunch of visits to classrooms in the past. We’ll do writing exercises or revision exercises or just have conversations around poetry.”

Skolfield has also assisted with the Amherst Poetry Festival in the past and been on the panel for the Juniper Literary Festival, an annual event at UMass.

Sharing time with other writers or hearing them read their work is vital to her. Danez Smith, one of the poets at the 2019 Juniper Festival, held in April, is an inspiration to her. Some other favorite writers — Jericho Brown, Jane Hirschfield — also had local readings recently. In fact, the number of poets who visited the Valley in April alone “was astounding,” Skolfield says.

In addition to organizing and attending readings, and supporting her students, Skolfield and her husband, Dennis Goeckel, who teaches electrical and computer engineering at UMass, created a joint scholarship to support UMass writing and engineering students. It began on their wedding day, when they requested donations instead of wedding gifts.

“We didn’t need a lot of stuff, so we thought, ‘What if instead of getting gifts from people, what if we set up a scholarship and people can donate to that instead?’ ” she said.

The scholarship is now endowed and recipients vary between departments each year, from an MFA poetry student to an electrical/computer engineering student.

In “Battle Dress,” her upcoming collection, Skolfield revisits her time in the  army (she served from 1986 to 1993, primarily stateside). The title refers to the battle dress uniform the army wore in the 1990s.

She’s focused much of her work on the culture of the military and what war can do to people, as in her poem “Double Arm Transplant.” She began pursuing this work in part due to the encouragement of one of her graduate advisors.

“When you get into a topic that deeply, it’s not like you can go ‘OK, well the book’s coming out now, I can just stop,’ ” she said. “You keep seeing your themes coming up all over the place.”

In a follow-up email, she said she enjoyed the physical challenges of the military, though she noted that military service is viewed as “foreign to many. It’s not often considered an option for middle-class or upper-class high school graduates, and since most of the military is male, I’m a little bit of an anomaly. And, sadly, we are very much a culture of war, so a book that looks at the culture of the military felt timely and worthwhile to write.” 

In one earlier poem, “Civil War Reenactment, Look Park, Massachusetts,” Skolfield writes about how her two young children view a colorful historical demonstration; she gently answers their questions about weapons like bayonets and explains that an actual war is not quite the same.

“The bridge needs defending, / choke point between swingsets / and water park. A gray soldier / tells me not to go beyond / the picnic tables. A stealthy / Union man checks his phone. / We’re front seat, lunch spread out, / and while the battle rages / I eat cold corn on the cob … ”

Near the poem’s conclusion, she writes “The children are not scared / and the children are not scared / and when I say you know this is not / what real war is like they say I know, I know.”

Skolfield marvels at the dynamic nature of poetry and the unlimited number of topics she can cover in her writing.

“I like the idea that poetry can encompass basically anything,” she says. “It can be very focused, it can be political, it can be wide ranging, it can be silly, it can be so many things — and I think that is certainly one of its strengths.”

Karen Skolfield’s website is karenskolfield.com.