Following personal tragedy, a Seattle spoken-word poet returns and puts her emotion on the page.

It has been almost ten years since Karen Finneyfrock emerged on the Seattle spoken-word scene. A Maryland native, she spent her early years in Seattle developing a sharp wit, a sometimes caustic demeanor and a preacher’s command of a room, earning fans and accolades along the way. In 2004 she published her first collection of poetry, Welcome to the Butterfly House. Then tragedy struck: her sister died, taking Finneyfrock away from both Seattle and poetry for almost three years.

Eventually, Finneyfrock transformed her grief into art – and it has brought her success. Recently she sold her young-adult novel to Viking as part of a two-book deal, and last month she released Ceremony for a Choking Ghost, a collection of poetry. We connected with her to discuss these momentous accomplishments that mark her return to the literary life.

Karen Finneyfrock looks out the window at Richard Hugo House, where she has served as writer-in-residence since September. Photograph by Andrew Waits for City Arts.

You just received copies of your latest poetry collection. Are you excited? Excited and terrified, yeah. I can barely open it, which is silly, but it’s surprisingly tough.

This book is dedicated to “organ donors.” Why? I lost my sister about four years ago; she was only thirty-six. She was in the hospital for about four months, waiting for a heart transplant. During that time, I thought a lot about what it means to be desperately waiting for a transplant, because the implication is that someone else has to lose their life in order for her to be able to keep her life. It’s such a heavy thing to sit around and be wishing for. It’s a very complicated feeling.

One of the reasons the heart didn’t come in time is that there just aren’t enough organ donors. I wanted to raise awareness and encourage people to become donors.

After your three-year hiatus, did you find poetry to be a more powerful tool than you thought it was before? You know, I think I did. I’ve always loved poetry so much, but something really shifted.
It’s interesting; a friend of mine went into a program for thanatology – the study of death and dying – and she found out that a lot of people actually turn to poetry when they are experiencing grief, people who had never read poetry before.

What was it like starting to write again? It was very slow and very difficult. I actually have a file on the desktop of my laptop called “Just for Me.” This holds the poems that I wrote at first, which are too filled with sadness for me to show anyone, at least at this point.

Do your Southern Baptist roots still influence you? I do think that my storytelling ability is largely influenced by going to church every Sunday morning. Listening to sermons and the way stories are unraveled from the pulpit definitely made an impression on me.

Without that exposure to religion, would you still be a storyteller? I am tempted to say yes, but only because I read all the time as a kid. One time my mom told me I was reading too much and that I had to come out and do something with the family and get some fresh air.

Tell me a little about your young-adult novel. It is about a fifteen-year-old poet and her gay best friend living in Hershey, Pennsylvania, where they don’t fit in with anyone else in their high school. Celia is the narrator and she peppers the narrative with her own poems. It’s the first novel I have ever tried to write, and I am thrilled to say that it sold in an auction with five other publishers, which is just a jaw-dropping accomplishment for me.

How did you celebrate? It was a really funny experience; I was in the middle of a writing residency in Port Townsend at the old decommissioned military base, Fort Warden and teaching fiction at Blue Heron Middle School. I barely had Internet access, there was no cell phone reception at the school, my e-mail account was blocked on the school’s computers, and my agent and the publishers were all in New York, so they were a few hours ahead of us.

I think it was pretty shocking to my agent that, the day my book was being auctioned, I was barely available.

At one point he offered to call the school principal and explain that my first novel was being auctioned and maybe I needed to be on the cell phone.

Mostly I told the kids; it was exciting, especially for the eighth graders, hearing the developments every day.

It must be inspiring for the kids to witness that you can make a living as a writer. I hope it was. They seemed to feel that they had some ownership over it. They all really wanted to read the book. •

Read poems from Ceremony for a Choking Ghost