Monday 30 May 2022

Four Prose Poems by Karol Nielsen

Southern Born

It never occurred to me that I was born in the South. I was born in Oklahoma while my father was stationed at Fort Sill, near the Texas border. He was sent to Vietnam when I was six months old and my mother, brother, and I moved back to Nebraska—my Midwestern parents’ home state where my older brother was born. After my father’s tour in Vietnam, we returned to Oklahoma for a few years while my father was still in the army. He didn’t like the politics in the army so he applied to the master’s in business administration at the University of Nebraska. We moved back to Nebraska while my father earned his degree. My father found his first job after graduate school in Ohio where my younger sister was born. Two years later, he was transferred to New York City and we moved to the Connecticut suburbs when I was in the second grade. My parents are still in Connecticut and I live in Manhattan. I think of myself as a liberal New Yorker with Midwestern roots. But the truth is I was born in the South Central part of the United States that fought for the continuation of slavery. I always associated with the abolitionist Midwest but I now know I was born a Southerner.


I started running with my father in the seventh grade and went on to finish marathons and Ironman triathlons. I started out in Sauconys, but for my first marathon, I wore a grey men’s New Balance shoe. An older man called out, “What’s up, lesbian?” during a training run in those shoes. I later switched to the women’s shoe. I went through updated model after model until one was too tight in the toe box. I went to the New Balance store on the Upper East Side of Manhattan for advice. The sales clerk suggested the men’s shoe. It was white with electric blue soles. I ordered the shoe and and took it home after it arrived at the store. I wore it on a long walk in Central Park and the shoes rubbed my ankles raw. I checked the online reviews and discovered it was a common complaint. I decided to order a bigger size in the woman’s shoe and it fit perfectly. It was egg shell blue and much prettier than the men’s shoe. I wore the sneakers on my walks without issues. I went to my parents’ house in Connecticut for the weekend and wore the shoes on the walk to Grand Central Station. On my way home to the city, I stopped by the restroom in the Connecticut station. As I sat in a bathroom stall, a woman called out, “I love the colour of your sneakers!” “Thank you!” I said.


I was so sensitive about rejections that I used to use my parents’ address for submissions and my mother collected the rejection letters and hid them from me. I was trying to get an agent for my first memoir—about my marriage to an Israeli man and the trauma of the Gulf War—and the rejections kept coming in. I finally found a prestigious agent through a travel writer’s recommendation but she didn’t sell the book. She wanted a big book deal and my literary memoir wasn’t generating that kind of interest. Finally, my mother said, Let me send your proposal out instead. In three weeks an editor requested the full book and a few months later she decided to publish it. My mother gathered all the rejection letters from the other publishers and kept them in a folder in her home office. My mother then moved on to my poetry chapbook. She submitted it to dozens of contests, and even though I didn’t win, a small press accepted the chapbook. I developed a thicker skin and began to submit my work on my own— sparingly. I had a few acceptances a year and many more rejections. But they no longer hurt. I mostly got form letters but occasionally an editor would personalize the note to say how much they liked my work even though they rejected it. My mother helped me find a publisher for my second memoir—about my father’s tour in Vietnam and our trip back together. Then I submitted my second and third poetry chapbooks to the poetry press that published my first one and both got accepted. During the pandemic, I began to submit my poems and essays to many magazines with calls for submissions. More than one hundred works have been published but many, many magazines rejected my work. Usually the no’s don’t bother me but once in a while they feel personal. Like when a journal asked for extensive edits to a prose poem about watching professional golf with my father. The changes would have turned it into an essay instead. I deleted the message and moved on.

Letting Go of My Stuff

My father asked me to clean out my storage in the attic. I had been accumulating stuff since high school. Every time I moved from one small apartment to another I offloaded more stuff and stored it in my parents’ attic. I took vacation from my job as an evaluation writer for specialty occupation visa applications and began to sort through 40 years of belongings: I had a full cabinet of papers and I found a passport, birth certificate, and Social Security earnings statement. I went through three cabinets of books and saved my favourites. I kept boxes of books I had published. I rescued my artwork from high school and college. I saved a box of photos but I tossed a big album chronicling my backpacking trip through South America. I found the flushometer we bought in case mine ever went bad. But almost everything else had to go: old clothes, household items, newspapers and magazines from my journalism career, college textbooks and even my notes, a box of hand-written journals. I carried load after load to the garage until my legs almost gave out. I decided to call Junkluggers to haul it all away. In an hour and a half, all my stuff was packed in a truck. I thought I would feel relieved. But I felt a weird sensation of loss, like a missing limb. I woke up the next day feeling lighter.

Karol Nielsen is the author of the memoirs Black Elephants (Bison Books, 2011) and Walking A&P (Mascot Books, 2018) and the chapbooks This Woman I Thought I’d Be (Finishing Line Press, 2012) and Vietnam Made Me Who I Am (Finishing Line Press, 2020). Her first memoir was shortlisted for the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing in nonfiction in 2012. Excerpts were honoured as notable essays in The Best American Essays in 2010 and 2005. Her full poetry collection was longlisted for the Terry J. Cox Poetry Award in 2021 and was a finalist for the Colorado Prize for Poetry in 2007. One poem was a finalist for the Ruth Stone Poetry Prize in 2021. Her work has appeared in Epiphany, Guernica, Lumina, North Dakota Quarterly, Permafrost, RiverSedge, and elsewhere.

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