Karisma Price is a poet, screenwriter, and media artist. Her work has appeared in Oxford American, Poetry, Four Way Review, wildness, Adroit Journal, and elsewhere. She is a Cave Canem Fellow, was a finalist for the 2019 Manchester Poetry Prize, and was awarded the 2020 J. Howard and Barbara M. J. Wood Prize from the Poetry Foundation. She is from New Orleans, Louisiana, and holds an MFA in poetry from New York University. She is currently an assistant professor of poetry at Tulane University. Her debut poetry collection, I’m Always so Serious, is out now from Sarabande Books.
FWR: There’s so much that I found remarkable about I’m Always So Serious, but I think one of the very first things I was awed by was the interplay between the natural and the surreal, and perhaps more specifically, the way in which the idea of transformation is operating–like with the marigolds that overtake a New Orleans mansion in the very first “I’m Always So Serious” poem. Especially given that this first section deals so closely with the event and legacy of Hurricane Katrina, how do you see poetic metamorphoses functioning in these poems, or what particular sorts of revelations do they allow for?
Karisma Price: Let me start off by saying thank you for these wonderful questions and I’m glad to be speaking with you. “Poetic Metamorphoses” is such a great phrase. I think these poems allow me to do the type of meditating on the page that I can’t always do in real life. Throughout the collection–but especially in the “Serious” poems–I wanted some of them to have a dream-like quality, because that’s what my anxiety feels like. As a neurodivergent person, my anxiety and OCD are such big parts of my life and affect how I navigate through the world. With my anxiety and certain compulsions, there’s always that “what if” aspect that tends to be a negative thought, and I know those feelings are directly-linked to and complicated by experiencing a disaster at such a young age. The revelation I had came not necessarily after writing the poems, but from talking to people who read them. I remember talking to a colleague who read an ARC of the book and telling him how I think family and music are two of the big themes in the book (which they are), but it wasn’t until we talked about growing up in New Orleans that I realized how much “hurricane anxiety” is just as prevalent.
FWR: Who were some of your major influences on this book, literary or otherwise?
KP: Oh, there are so many! Maybe too many to name. This collection is a very revised version of my thesis that I completed as an MFA student at NYU, so much of the inspiration came from the creative work I was exposed to in my classes. But, if we’re being specific about influential poets, Gwendolyn Brooks, Lucille Clifton, Jericho Brown, Natasha Trethewey, and Terrance Hayes are the poets I tend to think of as the close relatives on my poetic family tree. Definitely my kin. I love the way they write about family, Blackness, and landscape (both physical and emotional landscape). The last three poets in the list are also Black southerners. As a southern writer, I’m glad that they meditate on what home and the south mean to them. There are so many stereotypes about the South, and it’s very disheartening when non-southerners have a flat view of us and our history. I learned about these three poets when I was still a high schooler in Louisiana, who had no idea that you could major in poetry or that MFA programs existed. My English teacher taught us their work because they were from the South, they were ours. Brown is from Shreveport, Louisiana, Trethewey spent her childhood in both Mississippi and Louisiana, and Hayes (who became my thesis advisor) is from South Carolina but lived and taught in New Orleans for some time.
As made apparent in the book, music is also a big influence on my writing–particularly R&B and the blues. As poets, we have to be good listeners, and rhythm and storytelling is ingrained in our profession. I grew up listening to old school music (my parents controlled the radio in the car), so music also gives me that nostalgia. My memories are connected to certain songs and because poetry is such a meditative thing to me, it is helpful to understand which life experiences have brought me to this point in my life. Also, if you follow old Motown and soul drama, those songs are confessions! You’ll learn which singers were doing things that they had no business doing. There’s a similar (albeit not as scandalous) confessional aspect of poetry that allows the reader to learn about the writer, no matter if what they’re saying is “autobiographical” or not.
Movies and television are also big influences on me. I write scripts and studied creative writing in college (I also took several cinema and screenwriting classes in the film department), so storytelling and writing with visuals in mind is very important to me. It’s probably why I write a lot of narrative poems. Since editing my poetry collection, I’ve been reading more fiction and learned that I really like sci-fi and dystopian media, and I’ve started writing speculative short stories. With speculative fiction, there is an escape from the confines of our reality, but at the heart of it, the characters, no matter how flawed or human or robotic they are, they’re doing what they think is necessary and often it’s a critique of our current society and the social norms we have in place.
And, as always, spending time with my family and being in New Orleans are major influences.
FWR: What was the process of putting this book together like for you? What informed the collection’s structure? In the back matter, you mention that it took six years to complete. How does I’m Always So Serious as it now exists differ from how your imagination first seeded the manuscript those years ago? Did some poems or sections flow from you more or less easily or than others?
KP: The ordering of the collection changed several times from when it was a thesis draft, but I also had other poems that I started writing while I was still in undergrad (only two of those have survived. That is a good thing. Trust me). In early drafts, the “family” poems were much more scattered throughout the collection and even the book had a different name. Ultimately, I split the book into three sections to move the reader from an individual to a collective Black history. Throughout the collection I meditate on kinship that isn’t limited to blood relation. The first section is really family heavy and aims to establish the speaker’s background and origin. The second section is very music heavy and uses figures in media and history to further analyze kinship, and gives the reader a broader view of Blackness, history, and pop culture. The third section, hopefully, feels like a mixture of sections 1 & 2 and reunites the reader with the speaker from section 1 but is not limited to one voice.
The collection now exists with more experimental forms and fewer persona poems. I’ve always been a big fan of persona and when I first began writing poems, those were the only ones that I felt comfortable sharing with my undergraduate classmates. It felt weird to have people know things about me, but I’ve since gotten over that. I think the persona poems that I left in the collection are the strongest. After I took classes on learning form (and how to break them), experimentation with the page became something I loved to do, because I think there’s an endless number of ways for a poem to “be.” I never want to stop being playful.
FWR: The title of the book is also the title of several poems within the book, generally beginning each section. What inspired you to have “I’m Always So Serious” as a refrain, and how do you see the meaning of those words informing, illuminating, and/or evolving throughout the collection?
KP: So that series started out as me writing only one poem with that title, because people always tell me that I have a serious resting face. I don’t like to think so, but apparently some people believe that, so I decided to be very playful and mock that idea. It’s funny, because a lot of my friends who I told that story to and who read my work think I’m a very calm and funny person (you know, outside of the anxiety). The original poem that started this series did not make it into the collection, because I think it was the weakest out of all of them, but I also think its purpose was to try to figure out how to write a “serious” poem. The first “Serious” poem in the collection was the second one I had ever written and I brought it to a graduate workshop class. That poem was also much shorter than what it is now. Terrance Hayes (my workshop teacher/thesis advisor) asked me during the workshop why I was cutting myself off in that poem. An earlier draft had much shorter sentences and he encouraged me to use very long run-on sentences (I love a good run-on sentence) and just say what I needed to say. He also asked why I felt the need to try to say everything in just one poem. That made me start writing multiple poems on why I’m Always So Serious (cue joke rimshot sound effect). I definitely had more to say, so I ended up writing a lot of them. Overall, I feel that the strongest and the more creative ones made it into the collection.
Because the poems have the same title, I see the repetition of the phrase “I’m Always so Serious” change from moments of well, seriousness, to whimsical, observant, self-reflective, and pointing a finger at the reader. Repetition forces someone to look at the same word again and again and give it new meaning. I hope it makes the reader think about all of the reasons why a person needs to make such a declaration, but also, I hope it makes them think about all the times that they’ve needed to say something they felt was urgent.
FWR: To refer to the book as a “love song” to New Orleans–and Black New Orleans, specifically–would oversimplify what is in fact a profoundly nuanced relationship with the city. In a book so tied to questions of chance, fate, and injustice, how does New Orleans behave as not just a locus, but as a soul all its own? Do you feel like the process of writing this book in any way changed your relationship to New Orleans?
KP: Love has its nuances, so it wouldn’t be an oversimplification to call it a “love song” to New Orleans. One of the things that was really important to me when writing this book was to make New Orleans a speaker as well, and not just a city or an object being projected on. I think writing this book made me so much more protective of my city. I was already before I wrote the book, but the process of revising the book and returning home made me think about how much it takes to survive here. I love New Orleans for what it is but also know that we deserve so much more. There’s a term called “Katrina Kids” that describes a lot of young children who experienced the hurricane in their formative years, and I definitely view life and my memories from a pre and post-Katrina lens. The culture has definitely changed. There is so much more gentrification, and it is getting very hard to live here. I want this book to show a reader–whether they’re from New Orleans or not–an honest and deeply rooted representation that is not clouded by only thinking of what the city can do for you in terms of pleasure and entertainment, but what it really means to live here and how you need to sow resources back in to the city as well. It definitely made me think much more about climate change and how a lot of cultural bearers and their livelihoods need to be protected.
FWR: And related to the soul of New Orleans, the way these poems hold and cherish Blackness, and the emotional intricacy of these poems more largely: how do you see the blues behaving as a sort of emulsifier across the book’s arc, as that which has always been uniquely capable of holding both the love that’s in sorrow and the sorrow that’s in love?
KP: I think you’ve said it right there. I feel like life is a blues song. As humans, we hold both love and sorrow in one body, and those feelings often sit with each other, holding hands. The blues is very reflective and meditative, just like poetry is for me, and I really love moments in songs when an artist does an extra run, or pronounces a certain word a certain way when singing, or when a trumpet or a saxophone gets a solo. You can elicit love and sorrow in the blues by the way a singer makes a sound, and not simply just the sound itself, if you know what I mean. I hope the presence of The Blues can be seen as a speaker guiding you through all of these lived experiences with their hand held firmly into yours telling you, this is going to be a ride. But it’ll be okay because I’m right here next to you.
FWR: On the note of the blues–let’s talk about that astonishing middle section and the poems about the legendary pianist James Booker. How did you first encounter Booker, and what called you to place his story at your book’s heart?
KP: James Booker is one of my favorite artists and a New Orleans legend. I learned about him after watching the documentary “The Bayou Maharajah: The Tragic Genius of James Booker” by Lily Keber and then listened to many of his songs. In undergrad, I took a class on writing “The Diva” and what that word means. That’s when I decided to start writing persona poems about him and his life. He was described by Dr. John as “the best Black, gay, one-eyed junkie piano genius New Orleans has ever produced.” He has his own lore surrounding him and how he lost his left eye. He was larger than life, wore capes and costumes on stage, and called himself “The Black Liberace.” James Booker, to me, represents a piece of New Orleans that has always been here: complex, mythological, talented, and Black; however, despite all his talent, he was failed by a lot of people. He was a gay Black man in the South, growing up in the 1950s-60s. He struggled with drug addiction and mental illness and after the deaths of his mother and sister, he never completely recovered emotionally. He adored them and he always said his sister was the better musician out of the two of them.
Even the circumstances surrounding his death are somewhat unknown. He was dropped off at Charity Hospital in New Orleans but no one knows who brought him there or what was the cause of that emergency. He unfortunately died in the waiting room. I’d honestly like to write many, many more poems that highlight the genius and complexity of his life. He seemed like such a talented, yet troubled human who left this world too soon. There was something divine about him and I truly think he was able to tap into that divineness when his fingers hit the keys. I wrote this in the notes section of my book as well, but in an interview, Booker said, ‘…music is actually a divine product. So, whatever song I sing—I don’t care what the message is—it’s a product of my imagination and my imagination is the result of divine imagination.”
FWR: I’m fascinated by the way form is functioning throughout this book–how the beginning tends toward primarily more traditional forms, but with time we’re brought into collapse, collision, disjunction, and even highly visual poems in the style of Douglas Kearney. What brought you to the forms we find here, and what unique liberties did you feel that some of these forms allowed or roused for you?
KP: Like I mentioned earlier, I wanted to experiment with a lot of different poetic forms, because I don’t think a poem should exist only as a piece that’s lineated to the left. I also don’t want to bore myself because I know that means I’m probably boring the reader too. Just like anything else, poetry evolves and changes, and I feel that there are so many styles that can’t be confined to a page and some that have yet to be played with/invented. Because poems have an emotional truth to them–meaning there is a separation of the speaker from the writer, and not everything written down is exactly how things happened in real life–the truth should have room to be free. I often don’t know what form a poem is going to take until after I’ve started drafting it. I start all my poems by hand in a notebook and then bring them to the computer after I start scratching things out and drawing arrows everywhere. I noticed that when I’m drafting poems, I tend to use couplets as a default form–no shade to couplets. I love them–but it’s only after I have a solid draft that the poem begins telling me how it should look.
FWR: What poem or poems from this book would you say you were initially the most terrified or resistant to write, and why? Which, if different one(s), did the finishing feel the most fulfilling or necessary?
KP: I will keep that a secret =). The readers can guess.
FWR: These poems are about many things, but grief is certainly high on that list. How do you see the act of creation in relation to that? Do you see writing, for example, as a mode of processing, an act of transformation, a balm, a record-keeping, or something else entirely? What do you feel like your poems are able to reveal about the possibilities of art for writer and reader alike?
KP: I definitely see it as an act of processing. I feel that I am much more articulate on the page than in person, and allowing myself to write or type something means that I am relying on the body, and the body relies on the muscles, and the muscles rely on the fingers and the brain and so on and so forth. I hold on to a lot of things–a little too much for a little too long–and I view poems as a place where I can sit those feelings down and allow myself to explore thoughts without fear of judgment from others. I’m not looking for another’s response or validation. I get to check in with myself.
FWR: Bonus question: What might be a question that I didn’t ask, but that you wish that I had–and what’s your answer to it?
KP: If poets got to guest star in an episode of one of their favorite shows, which show would it be and who would you play?
I’d guest star in an episode of Abbott Elementary and play a visiting teaching artist who hosts a schoolwide poetry contest. Janine would, in an effort to help, accidentally destroy all the submissions, and the two of us would go around having the students complete the largest exquisite corpse poem (it’s not as scary as it sounds, non-poets), and then declare them all winners.
~after Jamaal May
My father’s voice after the cancer
has spread. A flip phone. A flag.
George Bush’s hands, as he pauses
his vacation briefly for thoughts and prayers.
My body next to the potted plant
after my father throws the wooden chair.
A cheaply made chair. A small stack
of clothes. A birthday card.
Milvirtha Hendricks under the American
flag 5 days after Hurricane Katrina.
Her face from the crease
made in her
obituary photo as we use
the newspaper to eat crawfish.
The wrinkles in her forehead.
through a broken levee.
My uncle’s hands
retaping the attic windows
after the flood water rises.
My cousins sleeping
in the attic because
no neighbor has a rescue boat.
Black people in distress.
They lay prostrate and call it
prayer. The blankets on my cousins’
shoulders days later, when rescued.
The National Guard’s smile as he carries
the neighbor’s dog from the flooded
living room. The dog’s body around
an upside down flag.