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Charlotte Pence


Charlotte Pence

We didn't understand what we were holding,
but knew both penis and vagina on the piglet
meant something. We answered its squeals
with clucks and shush. Took note of its moonish,
hard belly. Sang "Twinkle, Twinkle" to distract
from the ear tag's needle and punch. My body
was not the body the piglet longed for:
no mother's teat, swollen and flabby, spritzing
milk; no fur slicked with manured hay to wallow
and warm. But song is song. Sailors, chain gangs,
boys with Corvettes and girls with Hondas-
we need song. I broke a flute once to get inside
the soft pads of each key. Found only metal and holes
and cold. That's the way with searching, isn't it?
We think we know before we know. In this world,
even babies hear their names before they're born.

Argument (1)

Wind bending a grove
Of bamboo. Thin-trunked.
Sound of an opening door.
I think of my father.

How through him-
          His Oreo-fat,
          His hardening cock,
          His long, curled lashes

I stutter-stepped into myself.
A woman
          In wonder.

Why do you write that stuff? my father interrupts.

What do you mean? About your cock?

No. That right there, he says, lifting his arms, glass of O.J. in one hand,
Little Debbie oatmeal cream pie in the other. He stands like a Lady of
the Scales statue-chewing a wad of snack cake.

What are you talking about? What's in my poems? How I see the world?

All of this, he says and circles his drink in the air. This house. Our family.
You and me. You think it's everything.
He nods toward the window. But
what's out there doesn't even begin it.

I answer: Yesterday I saw something I've never seen before: A canary-yellow
web that only one spider in the world can weave. What do you think about that?

He shrugs. Charlotte, that's yesterday.


Essay On Collective Paranoia

                Metaphors, like epitaphs, must be fitting. -Aristotle 

I. The Incident: A New Method for Death and Metaphor 1

Waiter carries a tray across the hotel
lobby to three men clustered in fat arm chairs.
Litvinenko 2 dunks in his tea bag. Brown-red
hovers then spreads like blood from a cut. L. sips,
nods Yes, yes, to men

he calls comrades. Someone has laced the water
or cup with Isotrope Polonium 210.
"The want of harmony between two things
is emphasized by their being placed side by side."
This is rhetoric,

according to Aristotle, and relates
to love, maybe marriage, and assassination.
Poison only effective if presented
harmoniously: old friends; damp, chilly day;
suggestion of tea.

Later, L. walks himself through the ER doors.
Doctors do not understand his sickness, so
the hospital charts resort to metaphor:
"His face is the color of the room's white wall;"
"Stomach a ping-pong ball

hit by a missile." 3 Metaphor is the mind
catching itself in a mistake, meaning we
learn the new through the known. We know hits, but not
like this hit. We know death but not like this death.
Metaphor-a bridge.

Tests come back clean. Still, L. insists: They are
killing me.
Doctors think: Metaphor; the pains
and exams are difficult.
Then, he is dead.
We loathe passive construction, demand subjects,
clear relationships.

So, next come questions: Whom did he meet? Unknown.
Tea? Darjeeling. Maybe they killed him when he said,
Please pardon me and left unaccompanied
his cup. L. had always feared walking
through crowded lobbies

under those recessed and shadowed ceilings. Air
cooler at his face than feet. Death and duty
merging in that air, the two terms indicating
"what is fair or what is foul." 4 In the end,
his fears accurate.

II. The Cause and Effect: Paranoia

Let us return to the lobby where L. sipped
his last tea, watched guests rush through revolving doors.
He suspected these moments of people coming
and going were significant. Lobby a place
to execute plans,

remake the self. Briefcases with proposals,
purses with passports, valises with garters.
Lobby carpet also loaded with design:
burgundy stars inside navy squares over
toast-yellow diamonds.

It is necessary, psychiatrists say,
to function by responding to fragments: "bits
of conversation, beginnings of actions...." 5
We live on pieces. And attempt to piece all
into place. Someone

should be snapping photos while hiding behind
an indoor palm, eating a slice of folded
pizza. We know the wrongs we've done, the meanness
we've thought. Who knows what others might do? This is
not paranoia.

P. 6 is akin to feeling loved. An attempt
at completeness. 7 Intimate friend, we tell P.
all fears. Who slighted us. How we deserved it.
And P. responds with: Yes, worry! Yes, you're doomed;
Then, we feel understood.

III. Conclusion: Security Is All False

Concern for L. is not why we detail his death.
It's self-survival. P. can't protect if P.
can't imagine the threat. 8 The world churns and purrs
by forecasting our demise and devising
grand pre-emptive strikes.

All loss can be avoided: right liquid ounce,
right sexual mount, right hedge shape, right help mate,
right gruel, right bio-fuel, right SPF,
right laws against meth, right sugar substitute,
right Buddhist attitude,

and right polonium antidote will save us.
Reports assure that L.'s poisoning is not
possible for mass killings. But look here, P.
whispers, tapping a story on page D7,
U.S.A. Today.

Men in hazmat suits carrying twelve-liter
oxygen tanks, radiation meters, screw
drills, deem a doorknob lethal, the door itself
a threat, and two hotel rooms unsafe for use.
They must remove bits

of the rooms, too: outlet plaques, curtain hooks,
the Gideon. Would have been covert except
for a snitch. Who took that picture of our charons
carrying a door through the lobby? A door walking
sideways through a door.


1.From the Greek. Meta is a prefix signifying change, be that of place, order, condition, or nature. Phor is the verb for carrying. Metaphor literally means to carry change, from one object to another.
2.Alexander Litvinenko served in the Soviet KGB and publicly accused his superiors of assassinating Boris Berezovksy and bombing apartments to blame on terrorists. On November 1st, 2006, he walked into a London hospital and shortly died thereafter from radioactive polonium-210 poisoning, the first death of this kind. In this poem, he is referred to as "L."
3.Direct quotes from the doctor's charts as reported by James Geary in "The First Assassination of the Twenty-first Century."
4. More of Rhetoric by Aristotle: "Both terms will indicate what is fair, or what is foul, but not simply their fairness or foulness." Shakespeare later used this line.
5. Quoted from Daniel Freeman and Phillipa A. Garety's The Psychology of Persecutory Delusions.
6. "P." stands for paranoia.
7. The idea from Plato that we were once joined as one, then split into two. And love is a process of seeking that other to complete oneself. Trying to complete fragments, however, can also lead to wrong conclusions. Hence divorce, paranoia, and/or both.
8. A.k.a. the "clinical relevance of persecutory delusions" according to Freeman and Garety.

                               -from Many Small Fires


Author of one full-length poetry book, two chapbooks, a composition handbook, and editor of The Poetics of American Song Lyrics, Dr. Charlotte Pence is an assistant professor of English and the chair of the Creative Writing Committee at Eastern Illinois University.

The commonality among Pence’s writing is a drive to find the relationships among seemingly disparate phenomena and connecting them, putting them all together in one room—or one stanza, since, ultimately, she believes, the art of poetry is the art of combination.

Her latest poetry book merges the personal with the scientific by engaging with current evolutionary theory. Many Small Fires (Black Lawrence Press, January 2015) explores her father’s chronic homelessness through the larger narrative of human evolution. The physiological changes that enabled humans to form cities, communities, and households are a way of triangulating her own personal story. Critic Erica Wright hailed the book as “astonishing” and observed that “… science augments rather than obscures the personal details, showing us what humans—not to mention Australopithecines—have in common.”

Other poetry books include two chapbooks, Weaves a Clear Night (Winner of the Flying Trout Chapbook Award, 2011) and The Branches, the Axe, the Missing (Winner of the Black River Chapbook Award, 2012).

Pence also wrote a handbook that merges creative writing with composition titled The Writer’s Path: Creative Exercises for Meaningful Essays (Kendall Hunt, 2004). While working on her Ph.D. at the University of Tennessee, she sought a book that treated song lyrics as literature. When she couldn’t do so, she created The Poetics of American Song Lyrics (University Press of Mississippi, 2012). This anthology, the first of its kind, considers song lyrics as appropriate for study in a literature classroom and includes essays by Wyn Cooper, Claudia Emerson, Beth Ann Fennelly, Peter Guralnick, David Kirby, Ben Yagoda, and Kevin Young.

Recent critical work includes an essay on the post-millennial concept collection featuring the poetry of Anne Carson, Natasha Trethewey, and Joseph Harrington. Originally published in Asheville Poetry Review, the essay is now available online at Wesleyan University Press’s site http://thingscomeonreader.site.wesleyan.edu/files/2012/04/AshvilIePoetryReview2015.pdf

Her writing has received awards and fellowships from the Tennessee Arts Commission, the Redden Fund, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Alvin H. Nielson Memorial Fund, the Discovered Voices Award, New Millennium Writing Award, multiple Pushcart nominations and many other honors. Poetry, hybrid prose, and creative nonfiction have been published or are forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, Epoch, Harvard Review, Kenyon Review Online, North American Review, Denver Quarterly, Passages North, Rattle, Tar River Poetry Review, Prairie Schooner, Southern Review, and many other journals.

In addition to directing the Lions in Winter literary festival and the Hennings Reading Series at EIU, she also serves as the editor of Bluestem magazine.


Why Does Poetry Matter? by Charlotte Pence, first published by North American Review

My poetry often siphons science for inspiration. Scientific American, Nature, “Best of” series all provide me with gifts like “humans taste brown” and “the measures we use depend on what we are measuring.”For the past five years, I’ve taken a special interest in human descent with modification, which has turned into an interest regarding literary evolutionists and what they have to say about why we spend so much of our time in the land of narrative. According to Jonathan Gottschall, author of The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative, if you add up all of our time watching TV, listening to song, day dreaming, night dreaming, not to mention actually reading, approximately 2/3 of our lives are spent in fantasy land. In an era of ever-increasing productivity, why has narrative remained such a central part of our lives? Neuroscientists and biologists tell us point blank: the mind is hard-wired for story. For example, if your boss gives you a wobbly smile in passing, you will have a hard time not wondering why the smile didn’t seem genuine. Is she mad at you? Is it maybe not at all about you? Is it that she knows you will soon have some work dumped on you? Whatever the case, the mind takes the fragments and attempts to create a narrative.

As an avid reader, I like that narrative is so important to our lives. But as a poet, I have a particular set of concerns regarding this sibling that everyone loves more than poetry. If our brains are hard-wired for story, what is the draw of poetry when narrative is sliced away? Is the lack of narrative in lyrical poetry part of what contributes to poetry’s small readership?

While it may be true that not everyone picks up a book of poems at the end of a long day (okay, hardly anyone), it is true that those who love poetry, really love it. Maybe the small, impassioned readership has partly developed because of poetry’s unpopularity. Whatever the case, poetry has its devoted following. But why? A recent article on memory, “Books on Forgetting: Why We Can’t Stop Writing About What We Can’t Remember” by Cara Parks jostled an idea for me about this love for poetry. In the article, Parks investigates unreliable memory. She quotes from Clifton Crais’s History Lessons: A Memoir of Madness, Memory, and the Brain. According to Crais, “The hippocampi play a central role in the creation of declarative and autobiographical memory, upon which we create the notion of our selves through the remembrances of life’s minutiae: the taste of bouillabaisse one afternoon in southern France, a lover’s smell, a child walking away to kindergarten. They account for the uncanny way a smell or a taste awakens lost time.”

Right there, I began to sniff out a poem. The taste of bouillabaisse? A lover’s smell? A child walking away to kindergarten? These are the type of images that begin, and have begun, many a poem. While it may be true that contemporary poetry is skeptical of narrative (that issue is for another essay), contemporary poetry embraces the image. I’m often comfortable with ending on an image rather than ending on a statement that might talk away its emotional complexity. Image – the right image – is central to a good poem. And it also appears central to how we form memory—specifically memory that helps create a sense of self and personal history.

Crais continues to explain that “this capacity to reflect on and organize experience in space and time—to recall the past, tell stories, make associations, create histories—is our brain’s most recently evolved memory system. Without it there would be no history, no art and literature, no civilization.” I would take it a step further and suggest that the definition of poetry is similar to his definition of memory: a way to “organize experience in space and time.” A way to leave behind narrative with its need for beginnings and ends and replace it with a slow record of middles, that once added together, start to create the semblance of self.


Poems - Bio - Essay - Reviews - Interviews - Reading

A Review of Charlotte Pence's Many Small Fires by Jessie Carty, first published at The Rumpus

When I read I tend to take notes. As I was reading Charlotte Pence’s first full-length poetry collection Many Small Fires I found that my notes kept coming back to how each individual poem in the collection responded to the title of the book. It became like a game – searching for the ways that fire is utilized.

To start a fire you work from a triangle of fuel, heat, and oxygen.  A fuel, as a noun, is a material used to produce heat or power, but fuel can also be a verb as it causes something to burn more intensely. A fuel can, therefore, start a fire, but it can also sustain or inflame it. How does Pence fuel her poetry collection?

The first poem in the collection is “Argument (1)” which is a conversation between the speaker and her father. The father wants to know why the speaker writes these poems which come, often, from looking back. He says, “Charlotte, that’s yesterday.” The collection will circle back to this question of why we write as it concludes with the poem “Argument (2)” which ties the poem’s speaker’s past to the “longer history” of the human race as epitomized by an archaeological dig Pence visited with her husband in Indonesia.

(At times I struggle with my pronouns while discussing this collection because I don’t want to say the speaker of every poem is Pence, but she is very open in her Author’s Note about her personal connections to her material.)

In “Argument (2)” Pence writes about the, “10,000-year-old dirt [that] …smells / like our dirt: ripe with ash and clay, sunning bone and lost rain.” The speaker/the poet wants her readers/her father to see these connections. I see this as the primary fuel behind the poems in this collection. Pence hints at this fuel in her Author’s Note where she addresses the lesser referred to definition of ecology, “the branch of biology that considers the relationship of organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings.”

Pence has the fuel (these subjects to consider, contrast, and combine) for this poetry collection, but what will ignite the fuel? Where is the heat? The obvious answer would be to think, again of a physical fire, but I want to dig a little deeper and think about the beginning. The sparks. The frictions. The actions that use the fuel.

For an example, I’d like to consider, again, the relationship between the speaker and her father the poem “My Father Speaks of Thieves.” This short poem of only 12 lines weighs the definition of a thief. The poem’s epigraph is Matthew 21:13 where Jesus says his house has been made a den of thieves, but the poem pushes against that quote; argues for, “A girl who sells rotten tomatoes / at the market for more money than the good ones,” because, “Need is not thievery.” Yet the next stanza will show a father asking his eight-year-old daughter for a loan, and the girl agrees. Says, “with interest,” but at the same time feels the accusing eyes of her, “stuffed / animals lined up like prisoners before a firing squad.” So who is in the wrong here? Who is the father? The holy father? The speaker’s father? The poet’s father? Who is the thief? The tensions in the poem are contained within these questions, and probably more that I didn’t even consider.

The fuel is there. The friction has been raised. We just need the oxygen.

We think of oxygen as air, but oxygen is also the most abundant element in the earth’s crust. Oxygen is also part of water which is another life giver. Water also puts a fire out. Oxygen, in the case of building a fire, allows the fuel and the heat to come together. Oxygen allows a fire to breathe. I’d like to be able to talk more technically about words like oxidation and such here, but while I love science, I’m not an expert so I’m working on a more basic understanding of reactions. What I am thinking of is how oxygen, to me in the case of fire, must take from the heat and the fuel and make something new. How oxygen, here, is another definition of metaphor.

Think back to your high school literature classes and the idea that a metaphor is made up of the tenor and the vehicle. That the tenor is the subject to which a new description will be applied and the vehicle as the object from which attributes are borrowed. It is, for me, a clunky way of explaining something we just implicitly seem to know how to do: how to name things in relation to other things.

Think of the fuel as the tenor and the heat as the vehicle. Think of oxygen as taking the fuel and heat and turning them into the metaphor of fire.

In the poem “Lemons Are Not Nipples” Pence argues about metaphor when she says, “The tip of a lemon is not a nipple. / . . . No thing / is anything else / These are lies a poet tells to avoid / certain truths.” And yet, by the end of the poem, the speaker will again describe the leaving father as, “Less a man than a metaphor, pointing someplace else.” The father is someone who can only be understood as something else because the father does not fit into the “normal” definition of a father. This is the only truth, the only oxygen, that the speaker can breathe.

Now that we have the fire I’d like to conclude by looking at the poem “Normalization of Deviance” which starts with a look back to the 1986 Challenger disaster.

While watching the news coverage with her family, the speaker notes, “Dad blinked at a break in the news coverage / walked out the door, leaving my brother and me.” The brother and the speaker (ages 16 and 10) get by until their father returns with money for groceries and heat: the necessities of food to fuel the body’s internal fires and the paid for heat necessary to keep a house, a hopeful home, warm.

These normal fires are ones that most children don’t have to consider. They are just provided. Pence deftly juxtaposes the Challenger’s small break from normalcy, “a single cut from a small piece of falling foam,” with her speaker’s own realization that it takes little to start a fire that can turn a family or a, “billion-dollar marvel…to dust over the Texas sky.” She knows that fire is a bringer of life, but also a taker.

Perhaps my attempt to understand Pence’s collection through this analogy of building a fire is, at best, clunky, but I wanted to do more than just write a review that said: this is a good book and here is why because I know I really like something when I want to respond to it; when I want to join in the conversation. If you’ll allow me a last, somewhat clichéd image, I want to sit around a fire with Pence (and anyone else who wants to joint us) to talk about metaphors, and poetry, and science, and everything that binds us.






An Interview with Charlotte Pence by Catherine Pritchard Childress, first published by North American Review

Catherine Pritchard Childress:  Will you comment generally about how you achieve balance between your work and home?

Charlotte Pence:  Honestly, not balancing everything and accepting that as one way to negotiate the addition of being a parent has been my strategy. What I mean by that is “balance” suggests that I have everything doled out in tidy portions. But I feel like that’s not quite possible with an infant. The first couple of months she received the bulk of my attention. Granted, I was still teaching three weeks after giving birth, so I was back in the classroom. Things just weren’t necessarily 50/50. But later, my husband and I did a book tour, and that took the bulk of our time. We took her along and she adapted to the road schedule and the new bed every night. I think these shifting priorities will continue based on what needs more attention at that moment.

The other strategy is to honor writing by hiring help for my writing time. Poetry is what I do. It can seem like a weird job to some, but it is my job, and like with any job, I need uninterrupted time to focus on it.

CPC: Do you have a particular writing process?  At what point can you say you have “honored” your work for the day?

CP: Being a poet and creative writing professor is one of the best gigs going. But the drawback is that there is no whistle at the end of the day that tells you it is time to put on your jacket and walk out the door. What I do is set a timer for one hour and fifteen minute intervals. No peeing, tea making, or web surfing—in other words—no nothing is allowed during that time other than poetry. I do a few of those sessions on my best days.

What makes me feel like I have truly honored my work is when that hour and fifteen minute session occurs without me feeling divided. And this sense of division is what parents have to really fight against—or what I have seen as my main challenge with the birth of my daughter. It was hard enough to tune out the outside world before the baby, but now I have a dependent creature that I also have to tune out. I know this isn’t sexy to talk about, but I feel like we need to have a bit more of these discussions for professional parents to learn how to cope. My husband and I just chose between a nanny and daycare. Same price, same hours, same quality, etc., but I knew I wouldn’t be able to hole myself up as well if she were with a nanny. So, we chose the less boujie situation of the daycare. Choices like that, from the tedious (stopwatch) to the banal (daycare), are some of the ways that I honor my writing.

CPC:  As you know, my love affair with your work began with your chapbook, Weaves A Clear Night, which is “set in modern-day Appalachia.” First, to what degree do you consider yourself an Appalachian poet and how do you think being an Appalachian writer means something different to our generation of writers than to the generations before us?

CP:  I was just reading William Wright (who is also a southern poet), and it struck me how much of his work concerns memory. What do we remember? More importantly, what don’t we remember, but intuit? For Appalachian writers, I think the land, and I mean this in the literal sense of the dirt we tilled and the creeks we played in, is a large part of who we are and where we belong. Granted, a big difference with this generation of Appalachian writers is that most of us no longer work the earth our whole lives like our families did. Still, as a kid, I was out there selling vegetables at the Farmers Market on Saturday, and visiting relatives meant playing in the barn and shrieking as the cows came too close.

Like Wright’s book, my past two chapbooks very much deal with memory and the slipperiness of it all, and in both books, memory is attached to something physical, be it fire, rivers, wood. I can’t quite get away from the physical landscape even when I am focusing on my interior landscape.

CPC:  I agree that as Appalachians we are bound, maybe inexplicably so, to the land.

In The Branches, the Axe, the Missing’s second poem you seem to connect this woman’s independence, maybe better her empowerment, with the physical when she

Grabs the branch by the base.

     Her hands slide down wet-slime of turkey-tail mushroom in


     She pauses. Decides not to wipe off her hands.

     Begins again.

     It takes five tugs, a deep drag. The moon seeps through to a shine.

     How long has it been since she has done something as

     fundamental as this?

     Cleared a path, been wet, been cold.

     Scent of wet dog shit limps over from the neighbor’s yard.  Their

     Windows are ice-black.

     Something about this feeling is honest.  Like nakedness.

Throughout this section, you give the sense that she revels in this physical act. You portray woman’s primal essence; present her as an individual, not just in terms of her relationship to the various men in her life.  As a woman is it important to you to thoughtfully represent women in your work?

Further, do you consider yourself a “woman poet?” In the past year, I have spent a lot of time reading Alicia Ostriker’s books, essays, etc.  She defines a very specific subgenre of poetry—women’s poetry.  She even goes so far to say that Women Poets should be its own category, similar to American Poets.  I have conflicting opinions, but I wonder how you feel about the label.

CP: Both of these questions hit upon similar topics, so I’ll address them together. The idea of being categorized as a “woman poet” or the idea that my work needs to represent “women” in some way is a bit dangerous. I understand and sympathize with the ideas behind such categorizations, but at the same time, I feel like my first duty as a poet is to the poem—not to an ideal. The idea of writing what one thinks one “should” write can produce some pretty stale work in poetry and fiction. (Other genres, however, do serve as better vehicles for writing about ideals.) Now, if someone wants to come along behind me and say, “Aha! That line smells like an Appalachian female poet looking at a snail with a sense of pastoral domesticity…” then fine. I just don’t want to sit down at my desk with a sense that my duty at that moment is to represent a group of people. One, I can’t do it. And two, I don’t think I should.

CPC: Clearly you don’t limit yourself or your writing based on regional, gender, or other designations.  Are there times when you may have been confined by others, or by the business, so to speak, because of these designations, or has it been your experience that the quality of your poems speak for themselves (as they should)?

CP: One of the aspects about poetry that I love is that there isn’t much money in it—and therefore you can’t sell out even if you want to. I lived in Nashville for eight years and saw first-hand too many songwriters starting to hate writing once they signed a publishing deal. They truly have to contend with being confined by an accountant looking over what they write. We don’t have those commercial limits as poets or those other limits you just mentioned. For us, we can choose our own boundaries.

 CPC: In both Weaves a Clear Night and The Branches, the Axe, the Missing you ground the story in history—the most ancient history. In Weaves… you make new, mythic Penelope’s story and in The Branches… you reach back to the earliest humans to make meaning of very contemporary issues.  Does it make you feel less vulnerable as a writer, as an individual, to deal with sensitive issues like adultery, divorce, even pedophilia in this way?

CP: You are right: I do reach back to the earliest of our kind in The Branches, the Axe, the Missing. I go back 5-7 million years ago to when the increase in brain size created australopithecines from forest apes. (“Lucy” is the famous member of that genus.)  And yes, you are also right to see that, in both works, I layer raw experiences with another subject. Eliot had a term for it: the mythical method. Well, he was mainly talking about bringing in myth, like I do in Weaves a Clear Night. Still, his ideas resonate for me. Eliot defined the mythical method as “manipulating a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity…. It is simply a way of controlling, or ordering, of giving shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history…”. In other words, layering one subject with another helps to provide both stories with a greater significance.

Furthermore, amidst the current fascination with recording private moments and distributing them to the public via Facebook, Twitter, wikis, and blogs, poetry that reveals personal details and conflates the identity between speaker and author can inadvertently be viewed as yet another commodification of the self. So, I do try to reach beyond simply telling my story. The layering of subjects suggests that the personal and political, the domestic and the international, and the private and public are not dichotomous subjects, but interconnected ones.  This sense that all spheres are connected encouraged me to find the connection between my family’s personal story and the human race’s evolutionary story, and by doing so, does it help ease me into tricky territory? Absolutely, but more in the sense that I can have one foot on stable ground—that of history—as I put the other foot on shaky ground.

CPC: Since we are on the subject of potential “shaky ground,” poem five’s ending, “Mercurial an SAT word. / She does not know / how to spell / schizophrenic. / Pedophilia she learned / in the third grade,” is incredible. WOW! Totally unexpected, yet it makes the poem. I have a feeling it may have been as much a surprise for you, the poet, as it is for the reader (Frost would approve).  Can you talk about your approach to individual poems?  Do they haunt you, as Louise Gluck says, until they are written, or happen organically as you sit down to write?

CP: It’s interesting that you quoted those exact lines because they were indeed a surprise to me. My husband, Adam Prince, is a fiction writer and is also my best critic. He read an earlier version of that section without the end: “Pedophilia she learned / in the third grade.” Actually, it was Adam who suggested that ending. I resisted it, saying it was too “in your face,” but he reminded me that poetry could sometimes use a bit of that blunt clarity. I tend to write “prettily,” as a workshop teacher once told me, and getting away from that is good for my work. I can describe flowers, wind, and logs all day long—but who cares? What is at stake? Sometimes, a blunt ending like that one is needed.

But to answer your question: I’m more in that category of haunted. Or hunted might be a better word for me. I feel rather stalked by my poems—and that we are in a fight over who is going to win. Sometimes, I just don’t want to reveal or do what the poem asks of me. But if the poem has its way, it happens, and is better for it.






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