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charles jensen

Poet Charles Jensen

1. How would you introduce yourself to a crowded room eager to hang on your every word? Are you just a poet, what else should people know about you?

Along with writing poetry, I am an off-and-on arts administrator, an editor for a small press, a writing teacher, managing editor for a sporadic online literary journal, an arts advocate on the local and national level, and a consultant to small arts organizations. I wear a lot of hats, but I don’t necessarily consider them mutually exclusive from being a poet. Being a poet makes me a more meaningful arts advocate in some ways–I can speak to the power of writers in the schools, for example.

2. Do you see spoken word, performance, or written poetry as more powerful or powerful in different ways and why? Also, do you believe that writing can be an equalizer to help humanity become more tolerant or collaborative? Why or why not?

I don’t like the limiting writing into discrete genres that are then put into opposition to each other. I think writing is most effective, most meaningful, when it cribs from many genres and traditions at once. To touch on the next part of your question, one book that had a profound effect on me and my writing was Claudia Rankine‘s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, which explores toxic culture, grief, and racism in America–but from a very personal, subjective perspective. If you’ve ever seen her read/perform from that work, you know it’s a multimedia experience with video, with her voice adding a significant layer of meaning to the work. How we can divide those impulses into camps? I prefer to look at the tools available to me and then choose which ones are essential to whatever project I’m completing.

I have written a lot of work about the American experience of gay people, partly in an effort to establish some understanding of difference. Is it effective? I don’t know. But it was work I felt called to do. On the flipside, not all writers need to take on this kind of burden–there are many stories to be told, many ways to tell them.

3. Do you have any obsessions that you would like to share?

I’m pretty sure none of them are secrets. I love some aspects of “low” culture like trash pop music. I aspire to find ways to sew that into my work as a poet somehow. I am also really connected to film, both as a narrative art and as a form. Physical aspects of film are closely related to the work of poetry for me. I give extensive thought to sequencing, montage, collage, and narrative. Any two things placed in juxtaposition create a narrative. There’s a great story of the Kuleshov Effect, wherein an audience’s construction of narrative changes when the same photo of a person (mostly expressionless) is interspersed with a shot of soup or a shot of a baby, for instance. In the soup narrative, the audience describes the man as looking hungry. In the baby narrative, he looks happy. That effect of context is something I carry with me–how do individual poems, individual lines, individual images speak to each other?

4. Most writers will read inspirational/how-to manuals, take workshops, or belong to writing groups. Did you subscribe to any of these aids and if so which did you find most helpful? Please feel free to name any “writing” books you enjoyed most (i.e. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott).

I think it’s hard to find good poetry manuals because so many of them use floofy platitudes to describe the work: “The poet is the person who hears the elephants coming and makes the graves!” “The poet must plug in the lamp and make it sing!” Etc. That’s why I think it’s more effective to look further, at other art forms. The language of design–line, color, etc.–were very instructive to me in thinking about the physical presence of a poem on the page. Film theory, as I alluded to above, was important too–ideas of subjectivity, the lens/the eye/the I, “suture” (editing theory)…

I think everyone should read “Ron Carlson Writes a Story” by Ron Carlson. He is brilliant and his enthusiasm for writing is entirely palpable in this how-to “manual” that deconstructs his writing of his story “The Governor’s Ball.”

5. Poetry is often considered elitist or inaccessible by mainstream readers. Do poets have an obligation to dispel that myth and how do you think it could be accomplished?

Poetry itself is none of those things. It is the attitude of the reader that determines what poetry is. The only way to dispel the myth is for people to encounter poetry on their own. I always liken it to television. If you had never seen television in your entire life and then one day turned it on, only to see Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, you might say, “Gosh, I hate television.” But most of us realize that television is a multi-dimensional form with various strategies aimed at different audiences. If you watch television long enough, you will find something that speaks to you. This is true, too, of poetry. But because the poetry world has a reputation of being closed, or because it is taught in high school as a “symbolic” art practiced by dead white people, it loses a lot of its contemporary allure. I think now, more than ever, poetry strives to be egalitarian in a lot of ways–people just need to look.

6. When writing poetry, prose, essays, and other works do you listen to music, do you have a particular playlist for each genre you work in or does the playlist stay the same? What are the top 5 songs on that playlist? If you don’t listen to music while writing, do you have any other routines or habits?

I almost never listen to music when I write. I have basically no routines or rituals, either. There is a great TED talk by Elizabeth Gilbert in which she describes how the poet Ruth Stone explained her inspiration to write, that she could hear it coming through the fields like a train rushing at her, and she would run into the house and grab paper and a pen to get it down before it passed. That is similar to my experience of writing. It’s not as loud or as obvious as a train, but I am sensitive to a change in the way my interior monologue sounds, and that moment is the beginning of a poem. If I write it down, I am generally rewarded with a complete poem. If the moment passes, it can’t be recaptured (not always a bad thing, in my mind, as many of those I do catch end up in the “circular file” anyway). I do tend to revise poems for a very long time, though–often for years, and I often work best on revision once the work has been placed in the greater context of a full manuscript.

8. How do you stay fit and healthy as a writer?

I find teaching is an essential way to stay engaged with writing on a level that is very enriching for me. For example, I confessed to a student recently, “I just don’t understand why people write in syllabics.” Four days later, I was experimenting with syllabics in a new poem. I said the same thing in a workshop but about iambic meter, and for three months wrote nearly every poem with an iambic meter–and really enjoyed it! In a lot of ways, teaching forces me to embrace and/or interrogate my own assumptions about poetry as I strive to encourage my students to make their own decisions and determinations. And oftentimes, our discussions help me see work in new ways, and for that I’m very grateful.

9. Do you have any favorite foods or foods that you find keep you inspired? What are the ways in which you pump yourself up to keep writing and overcome writer’s block?

I don’t get writer’s block. If I seem less inspired to write poetry, it is my creative brain telling me it is either time to revise old work or read books. Reading generally prompts me to write, and so does going to art museums (the Portrait Gallery is one of my favorites).

I cook dinner almost every night, which I suppose might be one of my few rituals. I have really come to enjoy it after years of feeling at sea or underprepared to complete new recipes. It has become a meditative time for me, and also a time when I become aware of the “physical making” of something, the hands-on work of bringing together various ingredients to develop flavors. I try to connect this to the practice of writing.

I also work out five days a week–a combination of yoga, cardio, and weightlifting. It’s a gift to myself, about an hour a day when my brain gets to check out while my body does the–forgive the pun–heavy lifting. That, too, is part of my writing practice. While my body exercises, I train my brain to associate and go off on its own to wherever it lands.

10. Please describe your writing space and how it would differ from your ideal writing space.

It is always a total disaster–I would change that! My apartment is very small and my desk is very big–about 30% of my living room. The window is behind me. The room gets almost no natural light. It is absolutely not my ideal writing space. In Phoenix, I had a loft apartment with 20′ ceilings, 17 feet of which were windows. My desk sat up in the loft area, overlooking the living room, facing all the windows and light. That was an amazing place to write. I miss it every day.

11. What current projects are you working on and would you like to share some details with the readers?

I have a lot going on! I’m putting the finishing touches on a new manuscript of poems and have been writing a few kinds of fiction–a novel for adults, a YA novel, and I recently finished a YA short story that will appear in an anthology for GLBT teenagers. I’m also very slowly writing new poems, but I feel like now would be a better time for me to read, so I have a big pile of books all ready to go!

Thanks to Charles for answering my questions. Please do check out a sample of his work below:

IT WAS OCTOBER
–for Matthew Shepard

I was love when I entered the bar
shivering in my thin t-shirt and ripped jeans
and I was love when I left that place, tugged along at the wrist
as though tied, with a man I did not know.

I was love there in the morning
when our sour kisses bore the peat of rotten leaves,
fallen October leaves. And it was love that we kissed anyway, not knowing each other’s names.

I was love in that bed
and I was love in the hall and down the stairs and into the freezing rain.

I was love with hands punched deep
into the pockets of a coat.
I was love coated in frozen rain.

Back home, I was love stripped of the cigarette-stung shirt, love pulling the stiff jeans from my legs.
I dried my hair and I was love.

It was October. What did I know of love that year,
shuddering in my nervous skin. Miles away, the boy was lashed to a fence and shivering.

Where that place turned red and the ground soaked through
with what he was, I was love.

What did I know of love then
but that it wasn’t enough.

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Charlie Jensen on DC

February 6, 2011

Charlie Jensen wrote a blog post about how to survive in Washington, DC during the AWP Conference. A few of his suggestions and comments are so 100% true that I find them hilarious.

Weather
Our weather is unpredictable, but one thing you can be sure of is that it will be unbearable. Be sure to pack the following:

Sweaters
Umbrellas (2–1 will fail due to high winds and/or be stolen)
A swimming suit or board shorts
A parka
A light cardigan/tank top set
A warm hat
Sunscreen
Crocs (just kidding–are you even reading this?)

Socializing with the locals
You can identify most DC residents easily, as they begin conversations this way:

“Hello! I am [DC Resident’s name].”
“Hi, nice to meet you.”
“Yes, it is. What do you do?”

Recommendation: do not reveal you work in the arts, are an artist, enjoy art, or advocate for arts funding. Instead, say, “I am a lobbyist.” This will make most people vanish into thin air.

Be sure to visit Charlie’s blog.

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As publisher of an independent magazine funded by subscriptions and my checking account, I wonder if it will be time one day to hang up the print and move to web. I’ve mentioned this in passing and people look at me in horror. Often, these people are not currently subscribing to the magazine. “I can […]

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Last Friday, I went with another poet to the Story/Stereo event at the Writer’s Center. The 150-person (or so) theatre was PACKED. Roofwalkers played music and everyone tried their best to stay in their seats as opposed to dancing like maniacs. Suzanne Frischkorn, whose recap is below, read poetry from Lit Windowpane. Chad Clark invented […]

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I’m delighted to be reading with Charles Jensen at the Fall for the Book Festival at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA on September 24th. See details below and please come by if you’ll be around. 12:00pm Poetry of Independent Presses Thu, September 24, 12pm – 1pm M&T Bank Tent, Outside the Johnson Center, George […]

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