Charlotte Pence is a prolific and award-winning poet, but she is also a writer unbound by genre classifications. Whether reading her poetry or prose, her critical works or her pedagogical essays, one is guaranteed an encounter with a lively intellect that is as generous as it is wily. Her poems conjure complex, lyrical spaces that demand, of even the darkest material, a universal accounting, a loveliness, and a lilt. Whether presenting a child’s emergent understanding of a parent’s mental illness, or imagining the very origins of language itself, no theme escapes the polish of Pence’s wrought and elegant language. Yet still, that is to speak only of her poetry, when there is, wonderfully, much more to discover. From her creative nonfiction, to her essays for teachers and students of creative writing, regardless of the genre in which Charlotte Pence works, her writing is rich with hard-won insight, as well as etched with the care and attentions of an artist at home in her craft.
Negative Capability Press is proud to welcome Dr. Charlotte Pence to the editorial board, joining our other advisory editors, Carolyn Haines, Roald Hoffman, Jasmin Jodry, X.J. Kennedy, Hank Lazer, Robert Morgan, Sena Jeter Naslund, Pat Schneider, and Vivian Shipley.
Charlotte Pence’s poetry, fiction and essays have appeared widely, in publications such as Alaska Quarterly Review, Harvard Review, Iron Horse Literary Review, Kenyon Review Online, North American Review, Prairie Schooner, Seattle Review, The South Carolina Review, The Southern Review, Southern Poetry Review, Spoon River Poetry Review, and Tar River Poetry Review, to list only a few. Her five books include Many Small Fires (Black Lawrence Press, 2015), The Poetics of American Song Lyrics, editor. (University Press of Mississippi, 2012), and The Writer’s Path: Creative Exercises for Meaningful Essays (Kendall Hunt, 2004). Dr. Charlotte Pence teaches at the University of South Alabama, where she is the Director of Creative Writing and Director of the Stokes Center for Creative Writing.
Lemons Are Not Nipples
Previously Published In Alaska Quarterly Review
The tip of a lemon is not a nipple. The spine
of a book is not the spine of a man’s back.
No thing is anything else. These are lies
a poet tells to avoid certain truths. The closest
I have come to holding a dying man’s hand
is witnessing a buffalo slaughtered. Blood
glugged out in rhythm with his tapering heartbeat,
but I couldn’t tell when life switched off. An hour
maybe before the animal stilled. I think of my father,
a man who must keep moving, who is never
without a suitcase or place to leave. It will happen
while he waits to cross the street, bag
in each hand. He does not notice the light
changing, blank-faced suits bumping his shoulders.
Curb empties in seconds, and he remains,
drivers at the red light marveling at such stillness.
Maybe not so much a man, one of them will think,
but a metaphor, pointing someplace else.
Among the Yellows, the Faces—
Previously Published in Rattle
My grandfather died
from slicing a hive in half.
A nest hidden in a log.
A blade thinned to a dead-
end. What followed
was a blur of bees. A man
running wild. Arms
twice as thick as normal.
Neck vibrating out
to in. He died before
my birth, which is why
I imagine this:
a hundred split hexagons
shining, licked gold,
stirring with eggs, drips,
Yellow slits, like lit
when darkness first creeps.
Inside, strangers stirring
about their lives. Who hasn’t
peered in past politeness,
hoping to see—what is
it exactly? Clicks and hums
humans make twirling
their lives into order? The circles
to scrub skillets. Figure-
eights to rinse toddlers’
hands. The curve to read
the news. Shapes and slices
of the living. Obligations
of the alive.
I’ve stood outside
looking in many times,
hoping for something—
and once it did happen:
a stranger suddenly rose
from his chair, mouth open,
arms outstretched as if
to catch whatever it was
he loved, whatever it was
that was falling.
Trying to reach what
was beyond both of us.
Trying to clarify with a honed
blade. A sure swing.
A clean cut into the
beautiful trudge of daily
duties, into that space
the hopeful once called souls.
INTERVIEW WITH CHARLOTTE PENCE BY BRAD NOLEN
BN: Here at Negative Capability Press, we often must conduct our interviews remotely, or via email exchanges, so we like to begin by invoking the imagination, asking, if you could choose an ideal location to have this conversation, where would it be?
CP: Well, if this is a trip via the imagination, I’ll choose Jupiter’s icy moon Europa where there is a subsurface ocean. I’d love to see what might be in that water—if these eyes could function there. How did Dickinson phrase witnessing the unknowable afterlife: “I could not see to see”?
BN: Having read extensively in preparation for this interview, I can say with certainty, and some awe, that you are a prolific writer. Although you primarily work in poetry, you have also published essays and even at least one short story, “So Far,” on which you collaborated with your husband. How important is it for you write in multiple genres?
CP: Very. As you know, I stress reading outside of my field—and writing in multiple genres is an extension of that. One of my friends recently said that I made it look easy—that switching of genres—and I loved that he believed that. But no, no, no. That illusion of ease is what we strive for in writing, but I think it can be misleading to the general public who might think writing takes little time. Although I enjoy writing in multiple genres, it’s incredibly challenging for me—especially fiction. As soon as I solve one problem in a story, I’ve gone and created another. Fiction is like a mess of slippery noodles—and somehow I’ve got to create the bowl to contain them all. Still, the challenges embolden me to try new things when I do return to my base—which is poetry. I’m sure I would not have taken on the challenge of a book of persona poems if it weren’t for my attempts into fiction.
BN: In the introductory remarks for your book, Many Small Fires, you speak of your trip to Indonesia and the ways in which that journey informed that collection. You also have an essay, “Teaching Travel Writing That Takes a Deeper Look: Ideas and Exercises to Help Students Sharpen Their Powers of Observation,” published with Teachers & Writers Magazine, which offers valuable advice to aspiring writers. Can you speak on the importance of travel to your writing practice?
CP: Some of the many jobs I toyed with as an undergraduate were car washer or travel writer. Once I realized the pay for both, I submitted my application to Rite-Aid, who didn’t hire me, by the way. Thinking about it, both of those other jobs were about movement. Creative Nonfiction just published an interesting essay on the connection between creativity and walking called “Contagious Empathy” by Sherrie Flick. She cites a few different studies, but they all noted that walking helps with brainstorming. While we know those facts, or intuit them, we can forget the importance of movement in the daily crush of duties.
I hear a lot of writers talk about how travel inspires them, but I don’t know if it inspires me so much as it forces me to disrupt my patterns—in a similar way that standing up from my desk and going on a walk can wonderfully disrupt my patterns, be it trying the same approach to a problem or obsessing about some award. (Yes, we all get jealous of other writers although I feel like it’s poor sportsmanship to admit it.) When I was in Indonesia, I did not know that I’d find that location so important to my book Many Small Fires. But when I visited Flores, the island where the fossil remains of the “Hobbit People” were found, I could see an entry into my book about my father that I would not have been able to conceive of sitting at my desk.
BN: I once read an interview in which the writer/interviewee was asked to opine on a theory that writers emerge from formative experiences where language was equated with power. Was this true, in some way, for you?
CP: My first impulse to this question was to say no, that writing for me was first associated with my lack of power. Growing up, I was the quiet kid in the corner who stuttered. My shyness tongue-tied my body—to the point that my older brother took it upon himself to pay me a quarter to say “hi” if we ran into friends at Kmart.
I wrote as a child and in high school because I did not feel confident to share my thoughts with others. But my notebook was always there with its accepting blank page.
Everything changed for me when I read Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons and “Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden as a sophomore in college. For the first time in my life, I saw a reflection of my life with that tense “blueblack” chill in Hayden’s home and poverty in Ellen Foster. The poet Lucille Clifton has talked about the importance of mirrors and windows in what one reads. Mirrors so that you can see yourself, and windows so that you can see the world, is how she words it. Her point is that people of color have not had enough mirrors in literature—in all of media from magazine ads to Hollywood blockbusters and everything in between. Growing up financially unstable with a mentally ill father, I didn’t see a lot of those issues reflected in what I read. And those texts did just that: gave name to a feeling I thought was mine alone. Immediately I wanted to write, largely out of the comfort those disquieting texts gave me. I wanted to speak of what we do not speak of enough.
BN: In the prefatory note to Many Small Fires, you characterize the poems in that book as “ecological,” in the sense that the book “considers the relationship of organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings.” Extending that thought toward a consideration of the poet as organism, how would you begin to imagine the role of the poet in her environment and community?
CP: I’m not sure of a singular role for a poet—as there are so many roles one can occupy—but I am more confident about the role of the poem: to be both an attitude and a prayer. I love the variety of contemporary poetry right now and find that despite poems’ differences, they are still rebellious, stout little acts of attention. Full-on attention. And that, in and of itself, is a defiant act these days. (Forget the burdens brought on by the 24-hour news cycle. We are all embroiled in the 140-character news cycle now.) So, to stop and steady the gaze. To pause. To consider. To reflect. And then to offer that reflection to the world as one would utter a prayer to a God, if one believes, or to a nameless reader. Neither God nor the reader may ever respond. Yet, the impulse to connect is too strong to stop making these offerings.
BN: In an essay, “Out-Of-Touch, In Touch, To Touch: The Role Of Sense-Based Poetry In The Digital Era,” for North American Review, you once commented on the stereotypical image of the passive poet, the “poet-sitting-under-a-tree thing,” finding it “more mythical than real,” while noting also that “myths are powerful, even necessary to social cohesion and well-being.” How is this image of the poet insufficient?
CP: I don’t know if it’s so much insufficient as it is dangerous. Inherent in that myth of the poet is the belief that the poet is wiser or more in tune with the world than his or her reader. And while the poet may have a greater faculty for word play or metaphor making, that does not mean the poet is necessarily wiser than others. Such a belief can result in specious poems that front a certain type of intellectual vigor that is more strut than walk.
But let me say it another way: shouldn’t the poet get out of his or her own way? Ultimately, the poem is not an outlet to prove the poet’s worth. That needs no defense. It is an outlet to prove life’s worth, which is uncertain at times.
BN: Remaining on the subject of the last question, you have a poem in The Branches, The Axe, The Missing that ends with the image of the protagonist sitting under a tree, except, there the tree is infested with poison vines requiring the protagonist to bring a plastic bag for protection, as well a knife. How does this image relate to, update, and/or refute the stereotype of the passive poet?
CP: Ha! That’s a great connection! So, in that final image to The Branches, the Axe, the Missing, the speaker has been consumed with the idea of home: how we create it as both shelter and community, how we include and exclude others from it, and how concepts of it have changed since we became a sedentary people 15,000 years ago. In that particular moment of the chapbook, the speaker is admitting to failure because, despite her multiple attempts, she cannot rid the tree of fig-sized poison ivy leaves. She also cannot rid herself of a sense of connection to her father, as one cannot disconnect from anyone with shared DNA. So, there is this attempt at the end to embrace what exists for what it is: poison ivy, enmity, and all that we have created (like the knife) and not created (like the tree).
BN: Sticking close to the theme of writerly community, you have recently taken the helm of the Stokes Center for Creative Writing at the University of South Alabama, here in Mobile, Alabama (where Negative Capability Press is located also). How do you envision the Stokes Center’s role in relation to the local community? What’s on the horizon for the Stokes Center?
CP: I am so excited about the creative writing program here at the University of South Alabama—and the Stokes Center for Creative Writing. They go hand in hand really. The Stokes Center for Creative Writing enhances the English department by sponsoring readings, lectures, community projects, and other events that are open to the public. It also supports students through its undergraduate and graduate awards, travel funding, summer funding, plus a slew of other professionalization opportunities. I want any writer we bring in to commit not only to giving a reading, but to interacting with our students. So, Jamaal May, who came in the spring, facilitated a poetry workshop and also spoke to classes at Murphy High School. Fiction writer Michael Knight read ten students’ stories in advance of coming and met with them individually. This sort of connection and feedback is tremendously important to writers, especially beginning writers.
I envision the Stokes Center as fostering a vibrant writers’ community in southern Alabama, one that showcases both local and national talent. And I hope to see some of our students go on to be national players in the literary scene.
BN: In another essay, “Poetry, Natural Selection, and Chance: An Essay on Teaching," for North American Review, you discuss the issue of poets “need[ing] to be more comfortable with chance;” the suggestion seems to recommend an openness to exploration toward uncertain ends. Can you relate this embrace of uncertainty to the building of a poetic practice? As a teacher of writing, how do you discuss the practice and the products of practice?
CP: Without a doubt, open inquiry is one of the most critical faculties a writer needs to develop—and it’s a difficult stance for many, especially in the beginning. I’m not sure if it’s because of the increased dependence on standardized testing with its goal-oriented mode of inquiry, or more of consumerist approach to higher education in which students want to know what a certain class—or degree—will get them. But those true leaps that writers, explorers, and scientists have made have occurred when the answer was unknown. When those small groups of humans left the African savannah, they had no clue as to what they would find. Or what about when Gregor Mendel, unsure of what he’d learn took copious notes on each pea plant and discovered the fundamental laws of inheritance...? When Thomas Edison was tinkering with tinfoil and a paper cylinder and somehow managed to record his voice....? Or when, to take it back to writing, Anne Carson mixed translations, etymology, and lyric poetry....? To approach one’s writing with a mode of inquiry is to open one’s writing to surprise—for both writer and reader.
BN: In The Poetics of American Song Lyrics, a book which you edited and contributed to, you have collected many fascinating essays exploring the literary nature of songs, the lyric. Did your work on that collection change the way you listen to songs?
CP: It did. The writers in that collection--David Kirby, Adam Bradley, Claudia Emerson, Kevin Young, Beth Ann Fennelly, Wyn Cooper, to name just a few--are knock-outs and know so much about the groups they wrote about. I ended up making a playlist of everyone’s chosen songs that ranged from Sam Cooke to Ice-T to REM. I found that I let myself appreciate the vocal quality—and reflected more on how much the voice is adding to the understanding of the song compared to poems. As Pat Pattison says in that collection, in songs, melodies act as nouns; chords are adjectives; and rhythm is the verb.
BN: I like that simile. You mention especially an increased appreciation of the voice in the song; there seems to be some performance advice for poets embedded in your observation, that is, to attend to the musicality of the vocal delivery of the poem performed. What advice can you offer for young or emerging poets?
CP: Read. Write. Repeat.
There can be so much self-doubt in this field that the writers who continue on are the ones who develop healthy practices for combatting rejection—and its cranky twin jealousy. I can’t say what might work for everyone, but I forced myself to act and then repack. What I mean by that is to not wait to feel good or certain before I turned in an application or resubmitted poems. If I waited for that moment, there would be way too much dead space. So, I’d tell myself, “You can curl up and have a pity party—but only after you send that batch of poems right back out.”
BN: What are you reading currently?
CP: So many good things. How I appease my muse is through cross-genre pollination. I’m reading A Crack in Creation: Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution by Jennifer Doudna and Samuel Sternberg. That book is about CRISPR, the new gene editing tool—and it relates to this poetic series I’ve been working on in which one of my character’s DNA is personified. I’m also reading Victoria Chang’s Barbie Chang and Neruda’s Book of Twilight that William O’Daly has just translated. It was Neruda’s first book—that he pawned a family heirloom to produce. This book has never been available in its entirety until now by Copper Canyon Press. And then I always have one book to read late at night when insomnia strikes. In Cold Blood is my midnight read at the moment as I’m trying to get to know more authors from Alabama.
Thank you very much for being one of Negative Capability’s featured poets.
Pence, Charlotte. The Branches, the Axe the Missing, New York : Black Lawrence Press, 2012.
Pence, Charlotte. Many Small Fires, New York : Black Lawrence Press, 2015.
Pence, Charlotte. The Poetics of American Song Lyrics, Jackson : University Press of
Pence, Charlotte. “Poetry, Natural Selection, and Chance: An Essay on Teaching" North American Review, 6 April 2017, https://northamericanreview.org/out-touch-touch-touch-role-sense-based-poetry-digital-era-charlotte-pence. Accessed 27 December 2017.
Pence, Charlotte and Adam Prince. "So Far." Sewanee Review, vol. 125, no. 3, Summer 2017, p. 506.
Pence, Charlotte. “Teaching Travel Writing That Takes a Deeper Look: Ideas and Exercises to Help Students Sharpen Their Powers of Observation.” Teachers & Writers Magazine, 24 July 2017, https://teachersandwritersmagazine.org/teaching-travel-writing-that-takes-a-deeper-look-ideas-and-exercises-to-help-students-sharpen-their-powers-of-observation-3878.htm. Accessed 28 December 2017.
Pence, Charlotte. “Out-Of-Touch, In Touch, To Touch: The Role Of Sense-Based Poetry In The Digital Era.” North American Review, 2 January 2017, https://northamericanreview.org/out-touch-touch-touch-role-sense-based-poetry-digital-era-charlotte-pence. Accessed 29 December 2017.