After Lit Crawl last year, a friend reached out to me about an exciting new poet he saw at a reading. Did I know, my friend asked, that Karen Finneyfrock — you know, the great local young adult novelist — was a great spoken word poet?
I had to laugh. For as long as I've been covering Seattle's literary community, Karen Finneyfrock has been reinventing herself. I can remember when she published her first excellent collection of poems, Ceremony for the Choking Ghost. At that moment, Finneyfrock was transitioning from one of Seattle's very best spoken-word performers to a poet whose work lived primarily on the printed page.
And I can remember when Finneyfrock made the next transition — to writing novels for young readers. To date, she's published two such novels (The Sweet Revenge of Celia Door and Starbird Murphy and the World Outside) and she's hard at work on a third. Most writers would be pleased with any one of these careers, but Finneyfrock seems to always be reinventing herself into a completely different kind of writer.
"Sometimes it feels like I'm living two lives, or maybe three lives," Finneyfrock confirms to me over the phone. "I do have friends who are poets who only know me through spoken word, or friends who are fiction writers who aren't really aware that I write poetry at all."
All these reinventions aren't part of a grand plan, she says. "I would say I think it's probably unintentional." Finneyfrock attributes her creative restlessness to "naturally growing and getting interested in different subjects."
But it's important to note that Finneyfrock hasn't "moved on" from poetry, or abandoned spoken word, or given up on writing novels. She keeps active in all three forms of writing. What's the common theme? Finneyfrock says in all her writing, she's "figuring out what story is."
The biggest leap for her was moving from poetry to novels. She began with "a love of words and how they string together," and that still informs her writing. But she realized soon enough that the "big challenge" of novels is "realizing that it had to have a coherent plot underneath." Be it in fiction or in poetry, she says, "I do think of writing often as some sort of puzzle I'm trying to solve."
Finneyfrock's poetry has always had a narrative quality, but she says the difference is that her poems can "convey story" without "including a full narrative. There's a certain high wire act with poetry that I've always been really intrigued by."
At the moment, Finneyfrock is working on a "historical fantasy" novel. "I've never written fantasy before," she says, noting wryly that this shift in genre marks "another change" in her career. "I've been working on it for years, but it has made writing fun again for me in a way that I'm really enjoying."
When I remark that Finneyfrock's poetry has always contained a touch of the fantastic, she says she's been aspiring to fantasy for some time. "My first novel originally included some fantasy elements and my agent — I think really wisely — gave me the feedback that it wasn't working." So with this new book, she says, "it does feel like I am finally coming around to something I really, really wanted to do from the start. And that's exciting, but I also realize it's a lot harder than it looks."
Finneyfrock is grateful for Seattle's vast network of writers and booksellers for staying with her through all her permutations. "The community and the work has always gone hand in hand," she says. She gushes about local poets who have been doing exceptional work lately, mentioning Anastacia-Renee and Laura Da' by name.
"I moved to Seattle from the east coast and all these dreams that I had for my life seemed sort of big and unattainable," Finneyfrock says. Just the act of saying she wanted to be a poet "sometimes felt kind of ridiculous." But Seattle always took her seriously: "I really feel like this city gave me everything that I could have needed to help me along that path and I really feel deeply thankful to Seattle."
"I really have found so many wonderful community members and jobs and opportunities here," Finneyfrock says, her voice full of gratitude. "I'm overcome by it, sometimes."