Friday, November 4, 2011

Charles Jensen on "Moratoria" and "The Year of Living Dangerously"

“Moratoria” and “The Year of Living Dangerously” are part of a larger manuscript of poems I wrote over several months in the fall of 2010. During that time, I was writing every day or almost every day, as much as I could for as long as I could. It was a unique moment; rarely in my life--working full time or going to school full time or both—have I had that level of productivity. For a long time, I let the poems sit, unsure of what to do with them, knowing many of them were, to put it kindly, awful.

Before my first collection, The First Risk, was published, I had written three other full manuscripts. One was my MFA thesis, which I promptly threw in the trash (except 2 poems that lived to see new life elsewhere). The next was an extended meditation on the rise of the AIDS crisis; it spawned my first chapbook Little Burning Edens and nothing else. My third manuscript was a complete sequence of poems; it gave rise to my second chapbook, Living Things. Then The First Risk came about, also made up of four discrete sequences.

In short, sequences were all I’d known for six years.

This writing jag wasn’t about sequence; it was just about writing poems. I wasn’t sure they would be a book or what the book would even be if they became one. In the past, the book, as a structure, served as a guide. I always knew what I was writing toward. Now I was in the dark.

After a few months went by, I dared to print the poems I’d written.

As I read them, I could feel the first tugs of the book. There were poems about money. There were poems about the ways our jobs define us.There were many voices, many perspectives, but they were creating a circle around a subject, a new experience for me. My other books chose their direction and plowed through. These poems had other plans.

It’s easier for me to edit poems when they are in a manuscript. I tend not to work the poems that don’t make it through this cut. Once the book takes shape, I work it and work it. I send the poems out. I read and reread. My most important task? Retyping the whole manuscript—at least twice—as though I were using a manual typewriter and not a sophisticated word processor. When faced with the daunting task of retyping any extra word, I am more than happy to cut out those not carrying their weight or to rephrase things more simply, more directly.

But these two poems have remained relatively unchanged since their writings. “Moratoria” is a litany poem using anaphora, possibly my most enjoyed and most frequently used tool in the poet’s bag of tricks. In some ways it responds to the limiting of our civil rights over the past ten years, but anyone who ever worked in a corporate or business environment knows that primary topic of communication is what you are not to do rather than what you are. This constant subtraction was the effect I was working toward here, and I think the litany of what is taken has a heavy cumulative effect I like.

“The Year of Living Dangerously” takes as its origin a small reality—making the difficult choice to go without health insurance in order to do other things, like pay rent and buy groceries—and tries to capture the sense of how even the mundane becomes burdened with risk and hazard in those circumstances. I remember when writing this piece, I worked very hard to keep a general word/syllable count for the lines and to focus my attention on starting and ending lines with hard or powerful words as much as possible. The mental work required to do that, to maintain the form, I think was beneficial. Rather than simply dump words on the page, I had to work against my instincts to phrase things in a way that would suit the poem.

The manuscript continues to evolve. It is now sitting with a few friends for advice—I always find this helps me view the work more objectively. I have a hard time doing this with single poems. But I believe the book must be alive, must have many moving parts, each one doing its share of the work. As with contestants on America’s Next Top Model, those poems unable to find the light are kindly asked to pack their things and leave the book. The others, little stars, shine on.

Charles Jensen is the author of "Moratoria" (p.101) and "The Year of Living Dangerously," (p.17) published in Poet Lore (Volume 106 3/4 Fall/Winter). You can purchase the issue here or procure a subscription to Poet Lore here.


Charles Jensen is the author of The First Risk, which was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award. He has also published three chapbooks and his poems have appeared in Bloom, Columbia Poetry Review, Field, New England Review, Prairie Schooner, and Willow Springs. He serves as co-chair of the Emerging Leaders Council of Americans for the Arts, the nation's leading arts advocacy organization.

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