Karen Benke: “Spring Cleaning”


Spring Cleaning

I box up scarves and sweaters,
boots and shoes, the years
of dusty sadness piled on top.
With less it’s easier
to relax back into myself.
I take up hems, donate
a wool dress, keep the lace camisole,
fold turtlenecks, the frayed regret.
No more hiding—
though sometimes the old urgency
rushes back, come save me.
I sing to forgive everything, reach
past faded grief no longer in fashion.
This makes more space, a wider
opening to fill with a new find.
I slip on hat, sunglasses,
take one breath, then another—
hike a new path to the sea.


First published in West Marin Review (Volume 8, 2018) and reprinted here with permission of the author.

Listen to the poet reading her poem here.

Karen Benke is the author of a poetry chapbook, Sister (Conflux Press 2014), available for order here, and four books of creative nonfiction from Roost Books, Shambhala Publications, Penguin, and Random House. Her creative nonfiction books, translated into Chinese, Korean, and Russian, include Rip the Page! Adventures in Creative Writing, Leap Write In!, Write Back Soon, and Rip ALL the Pages! Individual poems are in various anthologies and literary magazines, including Ploughshares, Rattle, Poetry Daily, Hawaii Pacific Review, Rockhurst Review, and West Marin Review. Awards include four Marin Arts Council grants, a Mill Valley (Milley) Creative Achievement Award in Literary Arts, the Kathleen Scutchfield Fellowship at Djerassi Resident Artists Program, and residencies at Hedgebrook, The Moth (Ireland), and Numeroventi Design Center (Italy). A California Poet in the Schools for more than twenty years, Benke currently directs Creative Writing Adventures, a nonprofit CalPoets program that focuses on empowering girls’ voices through the written word. A fourth-generation Californian on her maternal grandfather’s side and soon to be a dual American-Italian citizen from her maternal grandmother, she resides north of the Golden Gate Bridge with her college-aged son and rescue dog and cat. Visit her at www.karenbenke.com.

Selected Online Interviews


Poet’s Note

“Spring Cleaning” arrived pretty much whole after a difficult couple of years during—and following—a difficult divorce. It originated from a little list I made one day after I was doing household chores, including cleaning out my closet while deciding what to keep and what to let go of—an activity I performed several times in one year after moving into two different houses. I just started to think about what we keep and what we must let go of. The other part of the poem’s process was in thinking through what it means to really, truly forgive forever: forgive ourselves, forgive another human. How it’s a gift for both people. And while rescue dog Raz doesn’t make an appearance in this poem, he was with me when I found that new path and emotional truth of an ending.


What did you want to be when you were a child?

As a child, I wanted to write picture books and run a school that didn’t teach math. My family lived in a large house with extra bedrooms that my parents rented out to an opera singer and an artist. There was one room left, and it was given to me to set up desks and run a little school for the neighborhood kids. I recall liking to give homework—something I never do now—and penning notes to the parents, explaining how “P. needs to spend more time reading her favorite books.” Another favorite part of my little schoolroom was a brass bell my father hung at the door. I was in charge of ringing that bell and letting everyone go into my backyard for recess. Surprisingly, I did make friends easily.


What do you remember most about learning to write?

I recall being asked to draw pictures first and then telling oral stories to a teacher’s aide who in turn wrote them down. I loved seeing the words from my imagination in those sturdy letters march across the page and then reading them out loud. I watched a friend from class hold her pencil with all fingers gripping up and down the yellow number-two pencil in an awkward yet interesting way and wondered if I should hold my pencil that way too. Around the time I was learning to write, my father took up the craft of calligraphy. At a low table he built from a large piece of driftwood, he sat on a cushion and made very impressive swirly-lettered signs for a yard sale. Oh, yes, I decided—I would learn to write swirly letters just like that. This started my interest in letter and postcard writing and leaving notes and poems around my grandparents’ house. I’d tuck them into the jackets of guests, imagining my parents’ and grandparents’ friends finding them after leaving a dinner party. I left poems under my mom’s pillow, folded into books, in lunch sacks. I was thrilled by the idea of my words being discovered…


Where do you do your writing? Tell us about your writing space.
Writing happens in different spaces and at odd angles. I always start a new book from a different spot. For two-and-a-half years, just before the pandemic, I wrote in Studio 824, upstairs at the Mill Valley Lumber Yard. I had an L-shaped, legless desk behind a wicker screen where I wrote poems and a picture book. Now, at home, I have a poplar-wood poetry nook on the other side of my bedroom where the only paper allowed to touch the surface can be poems and stories. No bills, no teaching materials, no student writing, no to-do lists, no phones. It’s a rule. I also write in bed. If I get up in the morning, the cat, the dog, the teen-being, the day’s business all start clamoring for my attention. One thing leads to another and soon I’m far from my poetry brain. Better to stay put and get the poems and picture books written under warm covers.


What is your ideal place for a writing retreat and why?

One of my favorite writing retreat locations is the Numeroventi Design Center in Italy. I like residencies and writing retreats in different countries where I can’t always understand what’s being said. Numeroventi is on several floors of a converted palace called Palazzo Galli Tassi, formerly owned by a man who worked for the Medici family. There’s an open-air courtyard and several floors of studios for artists of all disciplines. Artist pal Martino di Napoli Rampolla founded Numeroventi and has worked a kind of magic for creatives from all over the world who come to visit Firenze and make paintings, poems, and music in the birthplace of the Renaissance. I like traveling alone to Italy and living for a while at Numeroventi without any distractions, all while knowing the communal kitchen, my favorite piazza, and the best gelaterias are close by.


How has the pandemic affected your writing?

In the beginning, I couldn’t concentrate. At all. It felt like I was walking up a forceful river to get anything done. I had to really push myself, which doesn’t always serve me or my creativity well. But then the writing started to get a bit easier, with a productive day a week here and there. Given my entire schedule was upended—along with everyone else’s—I just felt like I was constantly doing the shimmy, shimmy, pivot, pivot dance. All planning was a joke. I had to transition to leading writing workshops from my garden and have now written through every season and in all kinds of weather with the most talented group of girls. In the winter, I swapped the sun umbrellas for space heaters. In the fall, everyone layered their clothing and arrived with shawls. I started to write when my students wrote. The pandemic has been a constant teacher concerning my writing life. I had to learn to be much less strict and much kinder to myself while cutting myself bigger and bigger slices of slack. I’m thankful to have the opportunity to meet with two groups of students every other week in my garden—masked, six feet apart, etc. The girls who attend my groups inspire me to unearth ideas for poems during our time together that I get to return to on those stay-in-bed mornings and, one day in the not-so-distant future, at Numeroventi again.


There are always debates about whether poetry matters. Is poetry necessary?

I think Amanda Gorman has answered that question for us forever. I know many people who have turned to poetry during this global pandemic year to make it through the dark. I certainly have. Poetry is a balm. It brings us together. It’s a container for anything and everything that doesn’t fit anywhere else. It’s portable. It’s forgiving. It wholeheartedly matters. Now more than ever.


What project(s) are you working on now or next?
I’m finishing several picture books. One is set in Italy—where I hope to move later this year—and is coauthored by a woman from Firenze whose grandmother, a painter, has a huge body of whimsical watercolors. She even has her first solo US exhibit in NYC opening in April at a gallery in Tribeca. Other completed picture-book manuscripts include a story about a girl and her dog who go missing and how the girl finds him with the help of onomatopoeia. In another story, a group of barn animals misread a broken sign, “o Wander,” and venture out into the wide unknown to get “there.” The picture book set in Italy is being shopped to both American and Italian agents and centers on the close bond between grandmother and granddaughter who, with the help of a magic pencil, go on dream-like summer adventures despite the granddaughter being skeptical about impossible things. Other projects include a twenty pantoum project that explores the small gifts that were unearthed during quarantine. Oh, and I just finished gathering all my ancestral documents to re-create my bloodline and become a dual Italian citizen. While not a poetry or fiction project, this was definitely a history project and a lesson in patience. My friends in Italy say with regard to getting anything official accomplished, piano, piano—slowly, slowly. Good advice for writing too.


You have a background as a teacher. Do you find that this background, with its training and experience, influences your approach to poetry? 

Absolutely. While I don’t have my teaching credential, I do have a Master of Arts in Writing that focuses on the teaching of creative writing. I also studied with some exceptional teachers along the way who one-hundred percent influenced the way that I teach. I’ve learned to call in the kindness and presence of the mind/heart of Jane Hirshfield, with whom I studied at the University of San Francisco. Naomi Shihab Nye, my teacher in Austin, Texas, reminds me of the importance of wrapping metaphorical arms around a group and encouraging even the shyest to stand up and read a golden line. I appreciate the humor of Billy Collins and his writing experiment: make a list of bare assertions without “committing any acts of poetry…” Molly Fisk, Kim Addonizio, Kate Brady, Natalie Goldberg, Carol Edgarian, and Tom Jenks are all generous teachers who in subtle and detailed ways influenced my approach to “teaching” poetry. My background with California Poets in the Schools for twenty-five years continues to be the biggest influence, and the children I was fortunate enough to spend several hours a day, four days a week with are the true masters. They taught me to use the dreaming, doodling side of my brain and to not forget about the power of the odd yet original detail in every line. They were also a lot of fun and oh so kind.


Tell us about the process of forming your poem collection, Sister. How do you decide what poems go into the book? How do you sequence them?
Sister is a twenty-poem chapbook that took twenty years to write! I approached it from every angle—I tried writing it as a novel during graduate school, a short story, a memoir. In the end, it was my poetry teacher at the University of San Francisco—and now friend—Jane Hirshfield who posed the question, “Why not try writing it as a sequence?” That one word, “sequence,” was apparently all I needed to hear. Once I had my form, I set about filling it. The ordering of a manuscript is what I always find to be a daunting task. I just finished ordering, reordering, and reordering yet again my first full-length manuscript, Balancing Across Blue. Every book’s order has a logic all its own, and it’s the poet’s job to find the secret code. In the end, even with my creative nonfiction books, I clear out a room and set about placing all of the chapters face-up on the floor. Then, I walk around shuffling and muttering to myself. I ask each poem, “Do you want to be next?” I sometimes imagine myself as a curator in a gallery who is ordering and hanging the art for a show; the poems have this call-and-response echo-y quality. It’s my job to get quiet enough to hear the echoes of what the trajectory of the narrative wants to be.


Who or what is your muse?

My son, Collin. Cat Clive. My childhood and my sweet, inspiring students.


What is the last poetry book you read? 

The Human Hours by Catherine Barnett.


The last non-poetry book? 

Under the Sicilian Moon by Barbara Palermo and In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri. Can you tell I’m ready to return to Italy?


If you could change one thing in poetry today, what would it be? 
Just one thing? That’s hard. I’d want to change people’s minds about the necessity of a poet in every classroom for the entire school year. In my humble opinion, every elementary, middle, and high school needs Poetry Writing on the curriculum and a poet-teacher permanently on staff.


This week’s column was contributed by Maxine Flasher-Düzgünes.

Maxine Flasher-Düzgünes is a hybrid artist from Northern California. Her poetry, fiction, scores, essays, and interviews have appeared widely in journals including Dance Art Journal, Samfiftyfour LiteraryMarin Poetry Center AnthologyGallatin ReviewOctober Hill MagazineLOCULUS Collective, Washington Square News, and VerbalEyze Press, where she published her first novella, through EileenShe is an editorial writer for inbtwn magazine and serves as Marin Poetry Center’s webmaster, excited to launch its inaugural Youth Poet Ambassador Program 2021-2022. Her ongoing project, strikethrough-score.org, is a digital platform where poets can generate choreographic scores for dancers is currently being exhibited at the Museum of Wild and Newfangled Art. Visit her at www.poeticabythebay.com.



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  • Meg McNeil Levie May 18, 2021 at 9:05 pm

    Just off a plane from the East Coast with its hard good-byes; back home in California with its own bittersweet hellos – finding this poem and interview as I sit waiting for the shuttle. Perfect, just perfect.

  • Maureen Cary May 18, 2021 at 1:29 pm

    Wonderful interview, Karen. Loved the poem. Something we can all relate to…many thanks, Maureen

  • Christa Santangelo May 17, 2021 at 2:23 pm

    This is wonderful! Karen is a super creative woman:) An inspiration for so many and a wonderful writer. So happy she is being featured and recognized. Kudos!

  • Sean May 17, 2021 at 11:10 am

    I thoroughly enjoyed this poem and the interview with the poet. A real treat to hear some musings from the person whose art I have enjoyed, like pulling back the shades on a sunny morning.

  • Dorothea Gingerelli May 16, 2021 at 11:27 pm

    As a retired teacher, Karen Benke struck a cord in me. Her insightful comment that students in schools need the exposure of poems that poetry teachers supply, is absolutely true. Our children are not exposed to this art, especially in low social economic schools. Poetry empowers thought and writing while encouraging students to discover their own voice.

  • Mary Lea Crawley May 16, 2021 at 8:39 pm

    Love this poem! The “frayed regret” so eloquently captures the perspective we glean as we grow wiser through experience and that tenderness that arrives when we begin to know ourselves better. Beautiful!

  • Victoria Mimiaga May 16, 2021 at 8:29 pm

    Do you ever feature fine artists? I’m a painter who for a short while shared a studio with Karen Benke. I’ve just been introduced to your publication, and love it, even if it’s just for poets.