Interview with Featured Poet
Charlotte Pence


[TCP]: As a Ph.D. student in creative writing at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, you’ve had a lot of opportunity to observe the ins-and-outs of the academic workshop environment. Much has been written about the university creative writing workshop, both from positive and negative perspectives. How have you felt about your workshop experience? Has it led to a rushed manufacturing of poems for the sake of class, or has it enhanced your approach to craft?

[CP]: Workshops have become such the whipping boy—and in some ways I’m happy about that. We avoid fighting against each other by fighting against the institution—even though most people who talk about workshops have taken at least one and could therefore be considered part of the institution. And I’m no exception here.

Simply put, yes, workshops have led to me rushing out poems and also have enhanced my craft. These are not mutually exclusive ideas—and in fact might be necessary; I learned, and am learning, partly because of that “gotta make the poems” mentality. With each batch of poems, I hone my craft a little—and partly this is a numbers game. The more I write, the more I write, and the more I learn. So, workshops can expedite that process.

What people are often criticizing with workshops is the “workshop voice,” which is that sameness that does occur. To borrow an analogy from the sciences, this is inevitable, and a bi-product of the good. Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould writes about this generalized phenomena in “Full House” explaining that as a complex system matures (and allow me to assume that academia and writing is a complex system), “it equilibrates and variation decreases.” The system and the organisms (read poets) move toward a limiting wall of attainable achievement. Gould gives some examples about pro sports, citing how scores in games are now much closer rather than being blow-outs. Essentially, as everyone improves, standard deviation decreases. So, while I praise the democratization of academia—which in all honesty would have excluded someone exactly like me (piss-ant education, little social capitol, Appalachian background) eighty years ago, I am also fighting against the sameness that could happen.

Now, if I think about some recent first books—in particular by Gregory Pardlo and Jennifer Chang—one of the defining elements is that each of those books carries such a distinctive voice. Perhaps distinctive voice will become, if it is not already, the valued element in today’s climate, precisely because what’s rare is valuable. One example that shows how workshops can lead to success, at least in the sense of variety, is Donald Justice being the teacher of Mark Strand, Charles Wright, Jorie Graham, and James Tate—all writers who are quite different from one another. So, it can happen. In the end, it’s each poet’s responsibility to make the workshop an experience that hones rather than dulls.

[TCP]: Do you feel that the voluntary isolation of the self leads to riskier and more complex poems? That is to say, do you think that the poet must consciously and paradoxically distance herself from human activity to gain lucidity, and, by extension, the ability to render truer art?

[CP]: This dovetails with your last question because since I do often use workshops for readers, I balance that with periods of isolation which have coincided with aesthetic changes. I’m thinking about a couple of writing residencies at Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and at the David and Julia White Artist colony in Costa Rica. But I’ve also simply cleared my calendar and isolated myself at home. There were a couple of years when I lived in Nashville after my M.F.A. where my goal was to only leave the house two days a week. And I spent one month of isolation in Knoxville after my first year in the Ph.D. program. It is no coincidence that these periods of isolation followed intense workshop periods.

What I wanted was not actually time to write—I do that anyway—but time to write poorly. To try new angles. New forms. New tones. And with anything new, I needed the space to fail and not show anyone what I was doing. That’s the connection with workshops. When I have to write a poem a week to show others, the tendency is to write something accomplishable within a week. So, I became quite skilled at writing that 12-18 line poem with a couple of arresting images to jump start it followed by dash of meaning (often about the impossibility of meaning) and eureka, poem. Now, I’m being a bit flippant here and overly dismissive. But there is some truth to it. 

While I don’t believe that every writer needs to isolate him or herself to reach that sense of sublime or what-have-you, I do know that each writer has to figure out his or her weakness, and then set up an environment that counters that weakness. So, isolation is the counter I need, partly for the reasons I just suggested. One of the poems on your site here, “Variations on Penelope,” was written during a month-long isolation. I wanted to write a long poem, and so I wrote a section a day (first draft at least) for a month and required myself to not only use a different form with each section, ranging from open form to blank verse to a very loose cywydd, but to also write in different mental states. This meant that sometimes I set my alarm for 3 A.M. and wrote in that sleepy state. One day, I stayed in an art museum and stared at Rothko to get ideas for line breaks. Another day, I only read Lorca in Spanish. Does this create “truer art?” I’m not sure, but for me, the isolation balances out the normalizing tendency of the workshop.

[TCP]: You employ classical myth in much of your writing. Why?

[CP]: Yeah, I have played with myth in some of my work, and that stems partly from a love of retelling stories. And myths to me are stories that have been around a while because they communicate some type of truth to us.  Partly what draws me is what I imagine draws other contemporary poets such as Louise Glück, Anne Carson, Mark Strand to name a few, and that is juxtaposing the classical with the highly personal; connecting to universal emotions; layering thought; and retelling narratives from a non-patriarchal perspective. 

This “retelling” is key because Ovid, Virgil, and Homer ain’t so bad at telling us the myths. As contemporary poets, our challenge is to make them new, highlight the relevance and irrelevance, add perspectives that have been omitted, etc. For example, in “Variations on Penelope,” I find this whole notion of the virtuous Penelope waiting for Odysseus for twenty years (while he’s enjoying tryst after tryst) to be a bit propagandizing. It’s cajoling young men to soldier and risk their lives because in the end, all will be better. You will be honored and your woman will love you even more. Well, maybe. In my poem, I try to be more realistic and suggest that Penelope is sad because she’s been having an affair and longing for this other man. I also wrote a series of poems about Hera and Zeus’s marriage from Hera’s point of view. Often the myths present Hera as this snarky, bitter woman—but she isn’t given a voice to tell her side. So, I created a contemporary world, a neighborhood instead of Mt. Olympus, where Aphrodite and Hades and all the gang try and fail to get along.

[TCP]: Can you speak a bit to your feelings about poetic persona as used in your recent approach to poetry and/or in the poetry itself?

[CP]: I would love to talk a little about poetic persona because that’s what I’m playing with in my poems right now. Since the Romantics, with some earlier exceptions of course, we have been mainly writing from this expressivist tradition, meaning the writer expressing what is within, making the internal, external. (I’m taking this definition from M.H. Abrams’s book The Mirror and the Lamp.) And there’s been this poetic persona that has come about that Wordsworth describes in The Prelude: Or, Growth of a Poet’s Mind of the wise poet, the quiet poet, the poet who sits outside under a tree and receives epiphanies something like Buddha. And all of this is coupled with the poet navigating between autobiography and anonymity despite how we insist on the neutrality of the speaker. Granted, I can think of many examples that counter what I just described: Browning’s dramatic monologues and poems by Charles Bernstein and Paul Muldoon. Anyway, my new work is subverting that Wordsworthian persona partly because I’m finding this persona to be a bit sentimental in all ways that word suggests: easy, expected, more wishful thinking than reality. So, I’m exploring with more characters in my poems, using speakers who are not always kind or wise, questioning poetic concerns. “Salt and Light” and “Argument for Wonder,” both of which are published here with Town Creek, are new poems that are looking at these issues. We’ll see how it goes.

[TCP]: As with myth, you also employ the natural world in much of your work. Do you think that nature is an indefatigable motif for the poet, especially since many contemporary poets view the “nature poem” in terms of obsolescence or in the pejorative sense?

[CP]: I hate to admit this, but I didn’t quite realize this about my poems. It’s obvious now that you mention it, and that would make sense as the natural world is simply part of my knowledge system and how I make meaning. I didn’t grow up in urban areas, but in that un-named space between the rural South and suburban South.  We always had gardens and sometimes sold the vegetables at the Farmer’s Markets. When I visited relatives in Charleston, West Virginia, I found it so sophisticated because there was an escalator in the mall. Some people will talk of natural landscapes as a shared place, a common sense of history. While that may be true, it’s more private for me. Nature is a part of my interior landscape as much as it is my exterior.

So, it would make sense that I use natural images as my bridge into what I don’t know. And ultimately, my poems are all about exploring the unknown. I’m thinking about how Aristotle describes metaphor and simile as a way of learning what we don’t know. For example, if you don’t know how to swim, someone might teach you by saying, “Move your arms as if you are scooping the water away from you.” We learn the new through the known—and comparing and contrasting against it.

You bring up a good point that “nature poems” can be seen pejoratively. (And I think there is a distinction between the nature poem, one that begins and ends with an observation on nature versus poems that use natural images.) Since we have such a tradition of the nature poem—from haiku masters, to the Greater Romantic Lyric, to Mary Oliver—there is the danger in reheating up someone else’s leftovers. And this might especially be true with contemporary poets whose experiences with nature are much more limited than those poets before the industrial revolution—which creates a tendency to romanticize nature, anthropomorphize it, discuss it through second-hand experiences such as reading about it. The nature poem can be overdone, and I am certainly very tired of any poem about birds, partly because I’ve overdone it myself.  I guess they are outside of all of our windows. Still, as long as a poet makes it new, to quote Pound, then great. Robert Hass and Yusef Komunyakaa are two poets who do just that. No one would dismiss their work as simply “nature poems,” but their work is partly informed and complicated by their relationship with landscape.

[TCP]: Do you feel that the poet’s job is to usher readers into new awareness of the quotidian or to elude reader’s expectations completely?

[CP]: This is a great question, and how a poet answers, I imagine, is the core of his or her aesthetics. I don’t think we have a “job” in the sense of a contractual obligation to do any one thing. While people may complain about the lack of audience in poetry, there’s a beauty in the impossibility of selling out. 

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