Monday, April 13, 2009

Good Writing is Just Good Writing: An Interview with Charlie Jensen

Photo: Shyree Mezick.

You are the author of 3 chapbooks of poetry—The Strange Case of Maribel Dixon, Living Things, and Little Burning Edens. Your first full-length book, The First Risk, will appear this fall. How many of the poems in that collection have appeared in the earlier chapbooks? And for those readers who may be less familiar with chapbooks, how does a poet shift mentally from the chapbook to the book?

All of my chapbooks are excerpts from full-length manuscripts; in the case of my forthcoming book The First Risk, The Strange Case of Maribel Dixon serves as the fourth and final section, and I think any of the other sections could stand as chapbooks too, but taken together they have an emotional and thematic arc they lack when taken separately. I tend to write in longer forms—Living Things is part of a book-length series of poems, for example—so excerpting work into chapbooks isn’t too difficult for me. I feel almost as though I write chapbooks that build up to books rather than writing books that break into chapbooks, if that makes sense.

There’s a storyteller’s immediacy to your poetry. While reading The Strange Case of Maribel Dixon, I was pleasantly struck by how storylike the chapbook was. Can you tell us how you view “storytelling” in poetry?

By and large I prefer poetry that resists straightforward storytelling. I believe the poem is a made thing, a structured thing, and that’s one of the ways we set it apart from other forms of literature. Although The Strange Case of Maribel Dixon has a clear central narrative, it’s fractured, splintered, told out of order, so that the narrative isn’t the driving force of the book; the urgency is built through the reader’s desire to investigate, fill in blanks, draw conclusions. The form trumps its narrative. I don’t enjoy poems that just let a story unspool as if the story itself were poetic. It’s the job of the poet to use all the tools at hand—language, diction, rhythm, form, etc—to turn narrative into art.

In a similar vein as the last question, some of your recent poems concern real life figures (such as Mathew Shepherd). In telling their “stories” you employ the fiction writer’s tool of stepping inside the character. Of course, I don't mean to suggest this is solely the domain of the fiction writer. But for those readers out there who see poetry and fiction as relative opposites, you prove there is in fact overlap. What would you say, as a poet, to a fiction writer who says he or she doesn’t read poetry because he or she doesn’t write poetry?

A fiction writer who won’t read poetry is like a person who likes ketchup but won’t eat a tomato. I just don’t understand it. I read fiction so often, especially lately, and have found so much to love there—writers like Mary Gaitskill, Carole Maso, and Mark Z. Danielewski who are able to turn all my expectations upside down with gorgeous language and lyric narratives. I think fiction writers who resist poetry do so most likely because they’re just not familiar with it, don’t know what to read, etc.—or have read things they don’t like and therefore think “I don’t like any poetry” rather than “I don’t like this poetry.”

My poetry is much more informed by and influenced by cinema and film form than any other kind of art, which may be why you sense a connection to fiction and storytelling. I think people who like movies would like my work.

The online lit journal you founded, LOCUSPOINT, focuses on a new city each issue (the most recent issue is in New Haven, CT). What motivated you to this concept?

My working life has long focused on communities and community development, starting back in college when I was a resident assistant. As a poet in my MFA program, I came to depend on my “in-person” community of classmates and colleagues a great deal. When I graduated and started blogging, I got connected to poets around the country in a different way that was also helpful. LOCUSPOINT bridged those two interests—on the one hand, I really wanted to know more about the connections among poets in different cities and regions around the country—like how Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton both workshopped with Robert Lowell at one time—and how place affects us. And on the other hand, I wanted to help communities by bringing people together, identifying resources, educating and inspiring people to get involved…LOCUSPOINT for me really brings together the solitary art of writing poems with the collaborative act of fostering an arts community, both of which I would consider the overwhelming motivating forces in my life.

You’re a fan of television, and you’ve written about such shows as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Gossip Girl on your blog “Kinemapoetics.” What role could/does/should television play for the creative writer?

I think good writing is just good writing, and there’s a lot of innovative and interesting writing on TV these days. I’m a sucker for melodramatic storylines and operatic highs and lows (I think Maribel Dixon really demonstrates that affection) and draw that kind of inspiration from TV. LOST was a huge influence on me while writing Maribel Dixon.

But I also enjoy a lot of shows because they’re serial in nature—they build, over time, toward a massive conclusion, and I feel that’s a guiding principle for my poetic practice. I like to write in sequence and I’m kind of obsessive. I’ve seen Buffy about 7 times through now. Along with Gossip Girl, I love/have loved Veronica Mars, Arrested Development, Grey’s Anatomy, and The Hills. Right now I’m so intrigued by the lines we draw between “fiction” and “reality,” and that’s popping up in my poetry a lot—I’m writing in the voices of Dorothy Gale from The Wizard of Oz and Joseph Smith who founded the Church of the Latter-Day Saints in the same sequence—because in my mind, their concerns aren’t mutually exclusive.

Unfortunately, I’m not able to rationalize my obsession with America’s Next Top Model in poetic terms, so you’ll just have to trust me on that.

CHARLES JENSEN is the author four collections of poetry: The First Risk (Lethe Press, 2009) The Strange Case of Maribel Dixon (New Michigan Press); Living Things, which won the 2006 Frank O'Hara Chapbook Award; and Little Burning Edens (Red Mountain Review 2005). In 2007, he received an Artist's Project Grant from the Arizona Commission on the Arts. His poems have appeared in Bloom, Columbia Poetry Review, Court Green, FIELD, The Journal, New England Review, No Tell Motel, and West Branch. With his collaborator Sarah Vap, he published interviews with Lynn Emanuel, Beth Ann Fennelly, Beckian Fritz Goldberg, Frank Paino, and C. D. Wright. He serves as the director of The Writer's Center, one of the leading literary centers in the United States, and maintains a blog on culture, cinema, and poetry at kinemapoetics.


Anonymous said...

A really nice interview! It's particularly interesting to see how Charlie equates his interest in film and TV to his own poetics -- certainly unexpected (at least in my case and maybe by others too).

Looking forward to the new full-length collection!

Collin Kelley said...

Great interview with a great poet.