Charles Jensen is the author of six chapbooks of poems, including the recent Story Problems and Breakup/Breakdown, and The First Risk, which was a finalist for the 2010 Lambda Literary Award. A second collection, Nanopedia, was published in 2018 by Tinderbox Editions. His previous chapbooks include Living Things, which won the 2006 Frank O’Hara Chapbook Award, and The Strange Case of Maribel Dixon (New Michigan Press, 2007). His poem “Tucson” received the 2018 Zócalo Poetry Prize. A past recipient of an Artist’s Project Grant from the Arizona Commission on the Arts, his poetry has appeared in American Poetry Review, Crab Orchard Review, Copper Nickel, Field, The Journal, New England Review, and Prairie Schooner. He is the founding editor of the online poetry magazine LOCUSPOINT, which explores creative work on a city-by-city basis. He lives in Los Angeles.
1 - How did your first chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Publishing my first chapbook was a shock. It won a contest the first time I sent it out. I was also beyond thrilled; it felt like confirmation I was onto something good in my writing. It’s hard to look back on older work with wiser eyes because I can see clearly where I needed to develop, what my blind spots were, and I think I’ve addressed the ones I’ve identified in more recent work. My poems have become more personal in some ways, more political in other ways, and, paradoxically, not about me or this world in other ways. I try to reinvent what poetry is for myself every time I work through a new manuscript, so my hope is that recent work will feel unique from older work—not an extension of it, but informed by what it taught me.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I was writing everything when I was younger. When it came time to specialize, I just felt like my poetry was stronger, so I dove headfirst into that. It was the area where I’d had the most mentorship and guidance as a teenager; my high school English teacher worked with me independently all four years on my writing, taking me to our nearby university’s annual poetry festival for teens. I placed in the festival’s competition those last two years, from among hundreds of young poets.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
Every time it’s a different story, really. In general, I tend to write a lot of drafts over a period of time, and then edit them for years after until they all work together. But my current project is moving very slowly, and I’m radically changing drafts from year to year. I usually have a curiosity about a subject that becomes a kind of intellectual obsession, and I just write and write around it until I have a shape of a collection. I also really enjoy writing long poems and sequences, so that focused attention tends to help out with work like that. I don’t usually work from notes; I move intuitively toward my subject and I trust that what I’m writing will either pan out in a collection or will just be another layer of sediment in my trash bin.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I used to work on books—projects—from the first moment. The First Risk, my first collection, started out as a book about hate crimes, but evolved to be a book about grief. In that way, the poems were offshoots of the overall idea. Another manuscript I’ve written, Career Suicide, I gathered from work I wrote over a year after leaving a difficult job. I hadn’t set out to write it, but my internal concerns were very apparent in the work, and they unified nicely into a collection. I would say a poem begins for me when I hear the first line in my head. Poems have a different sound than regular thoughts—they almost feel like they announce themselves!
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love reading, but I usually don’t like to read from works in progress because I know how much they will change before it’s all said and done. I much prefer presenting work that is complete and finalized, something that offers a complete experience for the audience and the reader.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I think my work seeks to answer the questions I have about living, about the world, about myself. I don’t know that I can or should articulate them, but when I am working on a project I do have a sense of seeking something, working toward something. I honestly don’t want to make it more known to myself than that.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
If I had to boil it down to one major role (and please know I do not want to, but perhaps think I can), it’s that the writer’s role is to give people opportunities to develop empathy. The applications of that empathy are broad and important. And I would say my most meaningful experiences have a reader have been those that have helped me understand experiences unlike my own, and I’m grateful to those writers for the opportunity they gave me to be a better human.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Ha! I love it. With poetry, I’ve been an editor and been edited. They are both challenging, but it is so great to experience your work through someone else’s eyes. It takes trust for it to work.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
I’ve been talking about this a lot lately, and I keep coming back to things C. D. Wright said in a brief workshop I took with her in grad school. My friend and classmate Caroline asked C. D. how they should respond to people who wanted to place them both in a “regional writer” box based on where they grew up and what they wrote about. C. D. said, “Don’t sign up.” Her words have resonated with me for so long that they’ve become general life advice. To me, she was saying two really important things. The first is don’t let people define you or your work. That seems pretty basic, but sometimes you need permission to do that work on your own behalf. The second meaning is deeper. Don’t let people define how you see yourself. As a queer writer, that permission was really important to me. I’ve let her words give me permission to evolve freely, to chase my own ideas, and to concern myself with only what concerns me.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to short fiction to essays to humour)? What do you see as the appeal?
I think this is all rooted in my basic belief about writing: every story chooses its own vessel. Form, for me, is one of the most meaningful aspects of any writing, and I love exploring the limits and opportunities in form. Some things can only be told using poetry, while others need extended prose. In that regard, it has been easy to take risks and try new things, though of course there has been a lot of failure. But every failure is an education.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
Well, that touches on the practical advice I love. I make time for writing every Monday-Friday. I wake up at 5 am, go exercise, and then set aside an hour to write, edit, make progress on my work—whatever that means. The hour is always there. It frees up a lot of my anxiety about getting things done, and the routine of it helps me buckle down and get to work right away. I only focus on that hour—not the entirety of what I need to do. I have a full time job, so that hour becomes very sacred. And my brain is mostly exhausted after dark, so working at night doesn’t really turn out well for me. I’m most alert in the morning, so getting to use that time has been a real gift. I also find that my creative mind/subconscious mind continues to do work on my writing throughout the rest of the day. Writing in the mornings keeps things present for me.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I usually have so many projects going on at once that this isn’t a problem for me, and the routine of my writing keeps me moving. There’s always something to edit if I can’t write! But I do find reading to be very inspiring, particularly a book that does something I haven’t seen before. Recent books that have stoked my creativity are Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties, Jos Charles’s feeld, and Chase Berggrun’s RED. I just love it when writers blow my mind.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
I don’t know if I could name just one, but some triggers are cut grass, evergreen trees, and cornfields. Corn plants have such a unique smell to me, and I grew up in a house surrounded by fields, so it was just a constant. We had over 100 evergreens in our backyard, which my family planted when I was a kid. And a huge yard. All of those smells I love.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
I owe a lot to film. I wanted to be a filmmaker when I was younger, and I majored in film studies in school. A lot of film theory has shaped my poetics. I still find film inspiring. Again, movies that play with form stand out to me: 21 Grams, Pulp Fiction, Memento, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The films of Pedro Almodóvar are particularly important to me too.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Mary Gaitskill and Jennifer Egan are two novelists whose work always makes me a grateful reader. I’ve also been reading The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina and Spider-Gwen comics because I love re-envisioning a familiar world like that.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
My goal is to write a book that isn’t bound, but still tells a story.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I know I am supposed to be a writer because almost every other career sounds interesting to me, and by being a writer I can experience (or imagine to experience) all of them. But honestly, if I could go back in time and start over, I would have studied dance. I just love watching it so much, and the classes I took in adulthood were so amazing. I really wish I could have dedicated the right years to it.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I had no choice, or surely I would have chosen something more lucrative.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Jos Charles’s feeld was the last great book. Truly exceptional, unlike anything I’ve read, and in this really amazing way it displaces the reader from language, which for me tied into the theme of the book as a whole. The last great film was Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse. It is perfect, and it has some of the most unique and innovative animation I’ve ever seen. More than that, it tells a powerful story, and it does it at an adult level while still speaking to kids. I was just blown away by it.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I’ve been working on two novels, one in the 11th draft and one in the first draft, and making progress on poems exploring the impact of dating apps on how gay men relate to each other. The portion I’ve done examines how apps become a “human vending machine” that turns gay men into a both a consumer and a commodity, and the ways that affects physical and emotional intimacy. I just started work on a really big erasure project as part of this, trying to pare back a text to see what it has to say.