#CrashawPrize The shortlist in profile: Charlotte Pence
This year, I received my Ph.D. in English with a creative writing emphasis from the University of Tennessee. It was a fabulous period of consuming as much poetry as possible and talking about it with other poets I admire. I also just published an anthology on the connections between poetry and songs titled The Poetics of American Song Lyrics (University Press of Mississippi, 2012). It’s one of the first collections of its kind that regards song lyrics as literature and that identifies intersections between poems and songs’ literary histories as a way to reveal the two genres’ connections. It includes essays by Claudia Emerson, Beth Ann Fennelly, Peter Guralnick, and a lot of other terrific writers. I also recently won two poetry chapbook competitions. Weaves a Clear Night, which was published in the fall, rewrites the myth surrounding the faithful wife of Odysseus. I set the story of her mythic waiting in Appalachia and give an alternative reason for why she sits by her loom every night. My second chapbook, which won the Black River chapbook prize, is due out in May from Black Lawrence Press. I also just gave birth to my first child, Esmé Eleven Prince, this past January. So honestly, it has been a pretty great, pretty hectic year for me.
In a bio, I feel like I should say “where I’m from.” The truth is that because of my father’s mental illness, we moved around a lot. So, I grew up nomadically, though Appalachia claims me the most. And that’s where I’m living now with my husband, fiction writer Adam Prince. In a lucky coincidence, his first short story collection is coming out from the same publisher and at the same time as my second chapbook, so we’ll do a book tour together this May.
So where did the book begin for you, how did the book come to be written?
The book is a combination of science and personal history. I discuss my father’s homelessness in relation to the latest discoveries about human evolution—specifically the physical and emotional changes that allowed humans to live within communities and family structures.
But wow—that tidy summary is far from where the book began.
The truth is that this manuscript, Spike, came about from years of avoidance. Two years ago, I was sitting at a traffic light thinking about a friend’s poetry book and how revealing it was. And then I asked myself: “Why was I willing to write about all kinds of stuff like sex but not about my father?” I had always told myself that it was wrong to do so. It would feel like I was capitalizing off his sad situation. Plus, I felt guilty that I had cut off contact with my father when I was eighteen in order to stabilize my own life. I knew, though, there was more to it than that. The fact that my father was homeless was something very few friends even knew. I mean, I don’t think I even used the word “homeless” in my own mind to describe him. I would think something like, “Oh, he hasn’t had an address for the last fifteen years.” Or “He just wanders from shelter to shelter.” Maybe delusion is what my dad and I do well. If you met him, you would not realize he is homeless at first; he wears suits, doesn’t drink or use drugs, and is initially quite charming.
What was going on in your life while you were writing it?
Too much. A solid draft of my dissertation was due as well an anthology, The Poetics of American Song Lyrics that I was putting together. And then I got engaged. We decided to have the wedding in three months to cut down on the wedding crazies and keep things “simple.”
It was right in the middle of all that when I started this weird poem on evolution. I could tell it wanted to be long, but I didn’t know what to do with it. Plus, there was not the time to finish it, as it deserved. So, I read about evolution for the next few months. I found myself drawn to questions of language acquisition. What changed in our world as a result of being able to name things, to ask questions, to conceive of this thing called “story”? I had a hunch this related to my father, whose name is Spike, but I didn’t know how.
And then I came across this book called Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human by Richard Wrangham. He talks about how everyone knows that eating meat advanced our brains and our bodies, but that had occurred 2.3 million years ago. Something else had to account for the other two huge spikes in our bodies and brains—and it couldn’t be the same cause. He argues that cooking advanced us from habilines to Homo erectus. It seems like a simple idea on one level. Cooking allowed us to eat what other animals could not eat—such as wheat and rice—giving us a competitive edge when food sources were scarce. Plus, cooking requires less energy by the body for digestion, which ultimately resulted in what we have now; highly complex brains that consume 20% of our total calories despite being only 2% of our body weight. Before, the gut required much of our energy.
But cooking required changes other than physical ones. Someone had to sit by a fire and cook the food. Someone had to have foodstuffs laid out during chopping and grinding. And someone had to make sure that no other animal stole the foodstuffs or the finished product. Hence, the family structure evolved. I’m simplifying here, but still. Interesting stuff.
Anyway, while I was thinking about all of this, I was on my 6-week honeymoon backpacking in Indonesia. We spent part of that time on a scuba diving ship sailing through the Komodo Islands. We had the ship drop us off on the furthest point out, which coincidentally happened to be the island of Flores. Flores is the island where archeologists have recently discovered the last species (known as the hobbit people) to have concurrently lived with modern man.
And then I understood. I needed to take what I was shopping around as my poetry book that had a few poems about my father and begin again—with evolution and my father as the central figures. When I returned from the honeymoon, I luckily began a month-long writing residency at Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. I wrote and finished that poem I had begun earlier on evolution—which ended up being an eighteen-pager and the first section of this collection. And four months later, that poem won the Black Lawrence chapbook prize.
What do you think were the real driving elements within the book — the things that moved it all forward for you?
My husband and I have actually talked about this question before—and disagree. He, being a fiction writer, thinks that the driving force is how this poetry collection is far from a victim story, which would be the more typical approach when dealing with an abusive father. Instead, the speaker and father do share a connection—as well as an adversarial relationship. There’s very much a contest for survival displayed here.
What I tell Adam is that the driving force is the weave of science with a personal subject. Part of my trepidation in discussing this topic was because so much of our personal information is out there now. A confessionalistic poem assumes little of the revolutionary stance that it once did, partly because of poets’ over-use and the public’s fascination with making private moments public through social media. So, for me, seeing how the science echoed personal emotions was not only exciting, but also liberating. It provided another way to speak about the self.
How long did it take to bring it all together?
I could answer this question in a few different ways and each would be the truth and a lie. I could say that the book came together rather quickly—in about fifteen months. I could also say that the book took four years since the beginning and ending poems were started in 2008 at a writer’s colony in Costa Rica. Those two poems cracked open the subject matter I had been avoiding. In fact, the opening poem even acknowledges that the bamboo trunks creaking in the wind sound “like the opening of a door.” I, however, wasn’t ready to fully push open that door until a couple years later. I also have the remains of many dead manuscripts that I decided weren’t quite good enough, including that MFA thesis that I was certain (at the time) would be published. Thankfully, it wasn’t. So, if I counted all the years of trying to write a manuscript, I could add another ten years to the speedy time frame of fifteen months.
Who was important to you in developing your writing life?
Poets James Wright, Anne Carson, C.D. Wright, Robert Hass…. And of course the many patient friends and teachers who have read and reread my work.
But my own misconceptions about the writing life greatly helped me out. When I first began writing seriously, I noticed how no one else took me seriously. If someone asked me to do something, and I said no because I wanted to write, I didn’t receive the response I thought I deserved. So, I created a fake job where I told people I was working. A candy shop. And I gave myself eight-hour shifts and a thirty-minute lunch break. Thinking about it, a candy shop is a great metaphor for someone who is first discovering poetry.
Where do you think you’ll go to next in your writing — what are you working on now?
All I know for sure is that the next book will move on to different subjects. If there is one commonality to my poems it’s that I’m always pushing them. Writers who repeat one form and subject not only bore me, but also frustrate me. With all that poetry can do, why not let it stretch to the point where it comfortably hurts?
Thalia Chasing Grapefruit
Previously published in Denver Quarterly
The grapefruit rolls downhill,
That motion June morning.
Fruit heavy with seven days rain,
Plump, white-veined seeds.
The wide paws of the golden spaniel
Flail after it, similar to a conductor criss-crossing his arms
In a final dare of energy.
Evolution, somewhere then and now,
Went a little manic, did a step-ball-change tap movement
And then the fish walked,
The seed split,
Wet, craving something more.
Take away agency.
The seed sprouted.
The sprout seeded.
There are limits to knowledge, limits to language
Describing the comedic effect of Thalia finally squashing her teeth
Into the fruit,
Flipping her head high and prancing by, drooling juice.
Sometimes it’s best a poem fails us.
Reminds us of limits. Of simplicity.
Like dog. Sunlight. Rolling grapefruit.
Discover more about Charlotte Pence
Below are some links to the chapbooks and the poetics anthology: