Dr. Charlotte Pence is an Assistant Professor in the English Department here at EIU. Last week, Dr. Pence agreed to sit down with me to talk about her upcoming book, Many Small Fires. We had a wonderful conversation, much of which is transcribed below.
On Thursday, Feb. 19 at 6:00 pm at the Doudna Lecture Hall, Dr. Pence will give a reading from her new book. The reading is open to the public, and everyone interested in the arts, culture, and supporting the wonderful faculty at EIU is encouraged to attend.
Is this your first book?
It’s the first full-length poetry collection. There are two chapbooks that came before, but I also have a composition text and an anthology I edited.
What’s the theme of the collection?
The book talks about how my father is a paranoid schizophrenic, and how he’s been homeless since I’ve been eighteen, through the larger evolutionary story of the human species. Questions about how we came to create communities and homes play out against more intimate questions of my roving home. As the book moves from my childhood in Georgia to my travels in Flores, Indonesia, we begin to understand a complex relationship between two people locked together by family, who sometimes understand, sometimes ignore, sometimes commit cruelty upon one another in competition, not just for resources, but survival.
What are you dying to say about this book?
I’m playing around a lot with form. There are a lot of disguised received forms as well as lines that use the full expanse of the page.
Why the focus on form?
You’re always going to choose a form. So, at least make a choice that helps you write the better poem. The more you have to say about a subject, try to limit yourself by finding a form that requires compression.
Your work is influenced by Darwinism and science. Why is science a place you go for inspiration?
For me, science serves as a good counterpoint to the material in the book, which tends to be emotionally charged, subjective, sensual. And I wanted something that pressed against that--to give it a more objective lens, make me look at it a little bit outside of myself.
I’m trying to find as many as I can because I want to have more conversations between poets that are doing this. I think this could be an anthology down the line. Robert Haas has talked about it. Brenda Hillman brings in some science as does Sarah Lindsey, for example.
Based on the genre, I use different techniques. Poetry allows one to communicate through juxtaposition, for instance, by presenting different ideas and images. Within the confines of the page, the reader tends to make sense of it and fill in the associative gaps. Other genres, for example, might ask for those connections to be made explicit. So, I will change my approach based on the audience’s expectations for the genre.
People criticize pop songs for using clichés. But you could argue that is what that forms calls for. You have three and a half minutes to try to make a case to tons of different listeners who are in their cars, eating a Big Mac, and stressed about getting to work on time. It’s what works in that genre.
Which one is easier?
I find writing poetry to be easier because that’s what I practice every day. I also bring in science as a way to challenge myself. How do I communicate knowledge and translate it into a lyrical line, a compressed line, within a matter of a couple pages?
You’re the poetry editor at Bluestem. When you’re reading poetry submissions, what’s the most common mistake?
There’s the cover letter mistake and the poetry mistake. In the cover letter, a telltale sign is when they’re worried you’re going to steal their poems or ideas. To suggest thievery is not the best way to begin a relationship. The other cover letter mistake is explaining your poetry.
The poem should do the work.
Yes. Sending notes or definitions about the terms. That sort of thing. Within the poems themselves, mixing around with fonts is a telltale sign. And then tons of abstractions usually separates the beginner from the more experienced writer.
What are poets doing to gain more readers in the digital age?
Of course, there’s slam poetry, and that appeals to a larger audience. Also, more poets are writing creative nonfiction, especially the lyrical essay, because there’s a wider audience for creative nonfiction. I’m doing more creative nonfiction, and I’m seeing how the lyrical essay is wildly fun for the poet.