Charlotte Pence – Interview

Charlotte Pence’s first book of poems, Many Small Fires (Black Lawrence Press, 2015), received an INDIEFAB Book of the Year Award from Foreword Reviews. The book explores her father’s chronic homelessness while simultaneously detailing the physiological changes that enabled humans to form cities, communities, and households. She is also the author of two award-winning poetry chapbooks and the editor of The Poetics of American Song Lyrics. Her poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction have recently been published in Harvard Review, Sewanee Review, Southern Review, and Brevity. In June of 2020, her next poetry collection titled Code will be published by Black Lawrence Press. A graduate of Emerson College (MFA) and the University of Tennessee (PhD), she is now the director of the Stokes Center for Creative Writing at University of South Alabama. 

February 11, 2020

Ashlea Hernandez: Thank you for interviewing with us, Charlotte. I loved your poetry collection, Code. What I really enjoyed most about it was Shira’s section. I’m a mom, and it really pulled on my heartstrings. But I’ll get to that later. What I wanted to ask you first was what excited you the most about this collection?

Charlotte Pence: Oh, that is a tough question. I don’t know if excitement is ever the right word when I’m starting a new book.

I think it’s absolute fear, and I mean that in a serious way. If I feel like I know what the book is going to do, or if I feel like I can easily pull it off, then I’m just bored by the idea, and I don’t want to do it. For this book, and the last one, when I got the idea, it was fear of  “I don’t know if I really pull this off. Can I really do a narrative sequence with 23 parts from the mother’s prognosis until her death and have that work through poetry and then have that work through science?”

So, I mean “fear” in a positive way. I’m not gonna say I was excited, but I was interested in exploring two questions for myself. One is, how do we live with grief? Not ‘get over it’ as I feel like is often the expectation with society. But how to cope with it in a meaningful way so that the person still felt with me. As I was looking into my friend’s story and seeing the links with inheritance, that’s when I got the idea of “Maybe I need to explore this question in terms of DNA.”

What would be DNA’s perspective on this thing that I really value, which is my life? Would DNA really care about my little discreet unit of time from birth and death, or does DNA only care about the longer lineage? 

AH: Absolutely. I see the interplay between science and life and this idea of, like you said, inheritance or I put it as ancestry. I loved how you incorporated that together.

You take these separate things like science and poetry in Many Small Fires and then you brought it forward into Code. I can definitely tell in your work that science is always personal. It’s every day. And I didn’t know if that was something that you really did consciously or if it just grew out organically.

CP: Yeah. Yeah, it’s both. I feel like there’s a long history in poetry of yoking together personal story with myth like how T.S. Elliot does.

But I’m more influenced by Louise Glück, for example, in Meadowlands. And a friend of mine, Brad Tice, does this wonderfully with the Stonewall Riots in 1969 and looking at it through Psyche and Cupid. For me, whereas some use myth, I use science to layer the personal story with the poetic project. 

I think it goes back to where are our obsessions? Where our passions? When I was an undergrad in college, I was in this program at the University of Tennessee, College Scholars, where they threw out all of the prereqs for you, which at the time I thought was the best thing in the world ‘cause I avoided anything I didn’t feel strong in and kept my high GPA.

And now, I feel like I missed out on some things. There’s a lot of positive results in doing something that you’re bad at. So, I think I started to teach myself a little more science, just trying to fill in a deficit that I felt like I had in my own education. And then I got really into it.

There was this point in a poetry workshop during graduate school where someone’s comment wrecked me for the week, but it actually was the best comment I ever received. And it was from a visiting poet. (Visiting poets, they can tell you the things that the other professors won’t tell you.) 

AH: Like the aunts and uncles of academia. They can get away with it.

CP: Yeah. ‘Cause then they’re out of there. They don’t have to deal with picking you up off the ground.

So, he said to me, “Charlotte, you would be a good poet if you would stop trying to have all your lines be so pretty. You need to think about the other parts of this world, which are the mechanical parts, the cellular parts, the ugly parts.”

And he was totally right. Of course, you know, that night he said that I was like, “Who does he think he is?” 

I was writing poems out of that same poetry pot that everybody goes to, you know, with the same modes of melancholy and awe and ire. And I was getting a little bored with it myself.

AH: So, I have to admit that I was completely blown away when you brought a quiz into the collection. I loved that. I literally laughed out loud when I saw it. So, I looked at the quiz and then particularly the one that really got to me (‘cause it was just so unexpected) was “DNA Knows Once You Say It, You Can’t Take It Back” where you show us the gene sequence. And it stopped me. I just sat and thought about it. Then, I came to realize that just one little tiny thing throws everything off. So, what went into your thought process to pretty much transform a gene sequence and a quiz into poetry? 

CP: In “DNA Knows Once You Say It, You Can’t Take It Back,” I’m just literally showing the nucleotides that code for three different diseases. I believe I put it in Huntington’s disease, Sickle Cell, and colorblindness. So, part of that just comes from me wrestling with the question of: How do I actually communicate information in this poetry book? That is the difficult aspect of bringing in science to my work. It’s because poetry is not a vehicle to explain facts like science. Essays are. That’s the genre that does that, but poetry is the mode that attests to experience. It doesn’t communicate factual knowledge as well as another genre. 

So, I was just trying to think of some different, more creative ways to help give the reader a sense of how DNA actually works with the four nucleotides. I’m assuming maybe everybody else skipped out on those classes like I did. So, the poem where I am showing the nucleotides, I just had to get it across. This is how life happens. When the general public talks about CRISPR, that gene-editing tool, they can sometimes get protective and upset thinking, “Oh, we can change eye color.” Actually, eye color is very complicated. The genes that code eye color are not in one place. CRISPR can edit when the disease is caused by repetitions or a single nucleotide switch, and that is what I was trying to show in that poem: these are actually just one or two nucleotides that have switched or that have just gotten stuck in a repeat loop, like with Huntington’s disease, when you can literally snip it out. And DNA will come back in and fuse itself back up together, and it will fuse itself back together correctly. 

With my poems, I try to think of ways visually, maybe not so much with words, but visually, how I can communicate what actually is happening in this translation process of building a body. 

AH: When I was reading “DNA Knows” along with Shira’s poems and her family’s experiences, I felt this overwhelming sense of inevitability, like destiny. DNA began to have a similar feel to how I think of antagonists in novels. Like DNA was this unconquerable villain that Shira, and well…all of us, must face. Like destiny, you can’t change genetics. But there’s also a sense of hope. So, how did you pull in the feeling of inevitability of the disease along with hope?

CP: Well actually, that is something that goes back to good old-fashioned fiction techniques. My husband is a fiction writer, and when I showed him my first set of the sequence, he made a great point that the poems didn’t travel enough, that they mainly were just like, “I’m sad she’s dying. And now, here’s another poem where I’m sad she’s dying.” And so, I had to really think of it much more in terms of tension. How fiction writers create tension is to balance opposing forces. And so, DNA in the poem becomes just one of those…one of those forces. And the mother who I call A, short for the nucleotide, she becomes the force of who wants to live.

And so now, they have a narrative connection and not just a personal connection or an intellectual connection. Now there are these two opposing forces: the mother’s will to live and her own DNA. And then I was feeling like it still was too simple because we know who’s going to win that battle: DNA. But then CRISPR started happening. And CRISPR gave a little bit of hope that maybe this is the thing that can change this mother’s life. So now, I felt like I had a better pull in my tension string, so to speak. 

AH: Yeah. And I think part of that tension is also bringing in the family. I feel like, whenever you have someone who has died or who is dying, the focus is on the person and not so much on the family. And here you have a husband and a daughter and which… Oh man, it just broke my heart. It was beautiful and heart-wrenching at the same time because…Well, the ones I’m thinking of are “T. Dresses Little U. for Her Birthday Party” and “T. Writes A Letter to A.” and I just… Yeah. Those losses. It brings up the idea of, like you said, this living with grief because it never goes away. So, how did you arrive at that and come at it from that angle?

CP: I guess it’s more, well…unfortunately, it’s all of them. Those aspects that you mentioned are just from what I witnessed by being a friend. My friend Shira was the sort of person who…what she wanted most out of life was to be a mother. I came to it with a lot of resistance and trepidation, but she was like, “That’s what I want to do.” When Shira and her husband were married, they had the expectations that she would be the caregiver, and he would work full-time outside the house. But life happened. I don’t feel like we think enough about health when we’re talking about raising children. 

We assume that the parents are going to be healthy as if the hospitals we see on our way to school are just there for scenery.

Both my mom and dad were very sick when I was growing up with different illnesses. So, that was also coming into play; sometimes health derails whatever plan you had for how you want to raise your kid.

AH: Oh yeah. I can appreciate that for sure. When I had my boys, I never felt my mortality until that point, you know? Yeah. I never understood that, and I was in my thirties. 

CP: Yeah, you’re totally right. I felt myself being more cautious after I had my daughter.

Like maybe I don’t want to go jump off that cliff for paragliding at noon today. 

AH: So, how did you decide to bring in her unpublished work? Because I mean, just reading her poems, I felt like she was just…very present in the collection. So how did you decide to do that? 

CP: Oh, well, not to get too kooky on you, but I felt like it was her idea.

Honestly, there’s that little essay, “The Codicil,” that comes in right before the narrative sequence in the book, and that was pretty much how it happened. I thought the book was done. I didn’t have her work in it. And then I was just unpacking my winter clothes, and I  found her thesis. I met her when I was at Emerson College in Boston, and she always was onto me about how awful my clothes were for the weather there. She’s like, “You just have to get some hats and scarves around your neck and stop wearing cute shoes.” So, there I was, years later, unpacking my winter clothes, and I found her thesis from our time at Emerson. And when I was reading her thesis…it was…I heard our conversations. When I was writing the poems, I was remembering our conversations along the way. But then I found her poems, like one called “This Cell,” where she was imagining her cells going on a rampage without her, like what happened to her mother. And I knew they belonged in my book, in our book. It’s remarkable she wrote them before she was ill.

The poems in her thesis were talking about her suspicion that she would die young like her mother did. When I am reading these poems again, I’m like, “All right, Shira. So clearly you need these in a book.” She never really liked publishing. She found the rejections just to be too much. And she was a much better poet than I was, to be perfectly frank. 

So when I found her poems, I wrote to her husband, and I asked, “Can I include them?” I just wanted to be with her again.

AH: I imagine that I’m probably putting myself too much on it, but I wonder how the poems are helping with the grief process. I imagine that when their daughter grows, being able to see her mom’s work might help to still solidify her in many ways. 

CP: I wonder about that. Shira had two boys, and I wonder if they’re going to, at all, be interested in reading poems. But for me, this is…this is what I was coming to.

This was the book’s question: how to cope, how to keep people with us when they aren’t with us. For me, this is my answer: to put her in the book along with me. That’s as close to me in some ways as I can get her. 

AH: That’s awesome. So, I’m going to switch gears a little bit on you because I have to say there were two places when I laughed out loud. One was with the quiz, and the other was when I read that the chicken is the descendant of the T-Rex. Yeah. And I love that. 

 So, the chicken and the T-Rex bring in these ideas of ancestry or inheritance. Along with that idea, you bring in the caves, Las Cuevas, where you talk about that handprint up there on the wall. And this idea of the past being a contemporary of the present and the future. That interconnectedness between past, present, and future. So, could you talk a little bit more about what went into connecting the idea of ancestry and the cave art?

CP: The motif of cave art in the book relates to ways to live peacefully with grief. As I mentioned in the book, my father-in-law passed away, and then some of our friends lost their sixteen-year-old daughter. It was all within a very small amount of time.

And to be clear, a lot of people have lost way more than I have. At the same time, I still feel like that question of how to keep people close to us, when they have left us, is the heart of the pain. I was struck when my father-in-law passed away, how there was a lot of relief that came when people would tell stories about him. People would be smiling when they would talk about some things that he would do. But then I would leave this circle of the stories and I’d feel sad because I’d be like, “Well, once we’re done telling the stories, he’s really gone.”

And so, I felt the limitation of story. Which as a poet, that’s…We like to believe that literature can save us.  Then my question started to be what are the other ways that we have to preserve memory, to preserve what we know of people that we’ve loved, that isn’t dependent on words? 

I thought of fossils. I went on some little fossil hunting expeditions, and I’m a really bad fossil hunter is what I’ve found. 

Cave art, though, did resonate with me. When I was in the painted caves in Spain, I felt a connection. “I don’t know who that person was that painted the walls, but I have a sense of what that person was imagining, at least for a few minutes.” 

AH: That’s very cool. When you’re in the essay that you incorporated in that section, you really bring it to a personal, familial level. I can tell that you’re trying to work through that. 

CP: Oh, good. Good. Yeah. My husband was uncomfortable with that essay. He was like, “That’s getting real personal.” I’m like, “You’ve read my work, right? That’s what I do.”

AH: It’s supposed to be personal. No, but I thought it was really great to incorporate that because sometimes you forget that people came before you and you need that.

So, talking about the essays that you’ve incorporated, I’ve read that you fell in love with the creative nonfiction essay. So, what informed your choice to bring those into your book of poetry? Because most people would think, “Oh, you’re not supposed to have essays and poetry.” But you’ve done that. How did you come to that idea?

CP: I felt like they belonged in the book. I mean, I just love to build a book, whatever it might mean. If there’s gonna be a quiz in there, or if there’s going to be a genetic sequence, or if there’s going to be an essay, I don’t really care about the idea of what it should be. I just am trying to create more of a complex picture to whatever question I’m posing. So, I felt like the essays were giving more information that my poems just couldn’t. 

AH: Yeah. And it felt like they were just different artifacts, and that’s one of the things that I took away from it. That not everything, like you said, is the written word or story, how we expect it. Sometimes it’s a painting on a wall. It’s a handprint. You know, sometimes you have those…those different modes of communication. 

CP: That’s right. Artifacts. 

AH: So, in talking about the formatting and the use of different modes.

You do this with “Among the Yellows” and “A. Listens to the Evening” where you really use the visual. You add those spaces in and different shapes and everything. Anyhow, I was wondering how the visual plays into the meaning of your poems.

CP: I’m sure my students get so annoyed, but I probably say at least once per class: form follows function. The form a poem takes must reflect its content. When I know what the poem is trying to say, I then take a step back and ask, “How could I choose a form that highlights what the poem’s already wanting to do?” So, in “Among the Yellows,” that’s telling a true story of how my grandfather died by running from bees. He sliced into an old log, and there was a hive inside, and all the bees came swarming out. He died of a heart attack running away from them.

And so that poem, if you look at it, it’s mainly an accentual line of six beats to mimic the structure of the bees’ hexagon. 

In the narrative sequence, I gave each character a form that they would prefer.

For the husband, I gave him quatrains. He’s more of a straight-ahead sort of thinker. And I also thought the quatrain would speak to how he was wishing for that little family structure that he had imagined of the four people. 

And with the mother, I just gave her all strophes. She’s not wanting things to be broken up. She’s wanting to continue on. And then, as the sequence goes on, her poems get more air, more white space, as her thinking becomes more broken and stuttering. I just love looking at how I can have the form of the poem also help to communicate the tone. 

AH: So, you just blew my mind with the honeycombs. I was just thinking, “Wow, okay, I’ve got to go back.” 

CP: All the poems have a little reason behind their design. With the poems from DNA’s point of view, they are in tercets because the number three is critical to DNA because three nucleotides code for a single amino acid. 

AH: There are lots of little Easter eggs in there. So, my last question, to kind of wrap things up: what is the takeaway that you would like for your readers to have from Code

CP: Oh wow. That’s a great question.

I’m honestly hoping that the takeaway is some sort of peace for other people who have lost someone. And you know, if you haven’t, you’re going to, right? To be able to think of your own ways that can help you live with the grief and keep the person close to you. This book is my method, but I was hoping to open up the idea of…of the spectrum of life itself. DNA questions my concept of my life beginning with my birth date and ending with my death date. From DNA’s perspective, if DNA could have a perspective, one’s lineage determines if one is still alive or not. My life is a small part of a longer life.

AH: Thank you, Charlotte.

CP: Thank you for the wonderful questions.