Charles Jensen “Intimacy is a weapon against abusive power” — Frank Garrett

The pop culture-inflected poetry and experiments with form across extensive publications have earned Los Angeles-based queer writer Charles Jensen awards and high praise. While maintaining his own rigorous writing regimen, Jensen also serves the Southern California writing community as an arts advocate, educator, and administrator. Nanopedia, his most recent collection of poetry, was published by Tinderbox Editions in late 2018.

This interview was conducted via email during winter 2019.

Frank Garrett: A lot of your earlier work references films or events (the death of Matthew Shepard, for example), that ostensibly are outside your direct, immediate experience. I get a sense with Nanopedia that the poems are coming from a much more personal space, if not directly from personal experience. Is this a function of the collection’s logic, or has your poetic voice turned inward lately? To what extent are you now adopting a narrative strategy that at least more straightforwardly performs intimacy and personal confession?

Charles Jensen: If you want to place these poems on a timeline, it will be kind of a mosaic of moments from the past thirteen or so years. I wrote many of them in 2005 and 2007, which means I was writing them in earnest both before and after I wrote the majority of the poems that became The First Risk. The oldest poems, though, are from 2003 or 2004, and originally appeared in my MFA thesis, but came to Nanopedia very changed from their forms then. The most recent poems, from “Footnotes from the Complete Abridged History of America,” were written in 2011.

Nanopedia didn’t start off as what it is now. Originally, during a time between working on these other projects (thesis and The First Risk, as well as the interruption of writing the Living Things chapbook and its corresponding full-length manuscript The End of Metaphor, which is unpublished), I tasked myself with finding a word, a “luminous” word, that had a resonance, and when I got home I would sit down with the intention of writing a slant definition of the word in paragraph form. I probably wrote about 100 of these over the course of several months, and almost none of them have kept their original titles, which were the inspiring words themselves.

I was at the Katchemak Bay Writers Conference in 2009 working in part on these poems, trying to make them into something resembling a collection. They’d been resistant to cohering, and several past attempts were all-out failures. But at this conference, I remember vividly receiving the idea of the book’s conceit—an encyclopedia that embraced what felt like two uniquely American concerns: making things as big as possible and making them as small as possible. And so I started to shape the world’s briefest but most expansive encyclopedia.

I think this is why the more personal tone of the poems works, because it’s at odds with the scholarly impulse to depersonalize facts and knowledge, remove them from personal experience. But in personal experience is where all knowledge originates, perhaps? Some of the poems in Nanopedia are deeply personal and were plucked right from my lived experience. But like other work, many take inspiration from a more public realm. There’s a Matthew Shepard poem here, what I consider to be a B-side from The First Risk, and poems inspired by the film Psycho and other horror films. 

I like that you asked about the way the poems “perform” their points of view and confessional tones, and I think in general this is what they are doing: performing. They are aware they’re being read. They understand the work they’re doing.

FG: Your title choices ironically make use of certain buzzwords while the poems themselves deflect away from or subvert what those words connotatively mean, as if you intentionally contaminate the language of business, politics, and celebrity with the personal, something that doesn’t easily fit into a simple model of exchange. How do you understand the relationship between a poem and its title?

CJ: What was fun about this project is that the poem titles were very, very elastic as the collection changed over time. In some ways, they rely greatly on the Kuleshov Effect, which is really foundational in identifying how juxtaposition of unrelated items prompts a narrative in the observer. Kuleshov would edit together two filmed images, unrelated, and then screen them. A shot of a bowl of soup, a shot of a man; a shot of a baby, then the same shot of the man; a shot of a woman in lingerie, then the same shot of the man. When asked what the man was thinking, audiences would say (in order): he is hungry, he is happy, he is full of desire. Even though it was the same shot of the same man each time, they brought to his expression the narrative; they gave him an inner life. I think this is what happens in Nanopedia.

Several of the poems’ titles capitalize on recent political events; I was pleased to work “Alternative Fact” in to the collection. Some of the terms, like “Economic Bailout,” came from the recession era. Though most of the collection was written under Bush and edited under Obama, it’s frightening how relevant it remains now, under Trump—who in many ways embodies so much of the conceit of the book.

While I think the gaps between title and poem beg the reader to draw a conclusion, I strived to offer the right hints. One of the last poems I included in the collection was one I had worked and worked on for years before finding the right title/poem combo so that it fit, and that was “White Privilege.” “Identity Theft” for a long time had a different title, but this title does better work for that piece. Even “Millennials” had a different title for quite a while, but this one does the poem justice. I looked for words and terms that felt problematic, but that were still either coined or corrupted by American culture. I was partial to neologisms like “Frenemies” and “Geobragging,” and their poems capture the spirit of those terms.

FG: I remember gushing at some point after first meeting you that I thought “The Double Bind” (from your 2009 The First Risk) was some of the best film criticism I’d ever read, yet formally it remains a poem. What is your poetry’s relationship to film? How has that relationship changed since moving to Los Angeles?

CJ: When I was young, I wanted to be a filmmaker. I hadn’t considered “being a writer” in quite the same way. When I went to college, I took writing workshops, but I double-majored in film studies and cultural studies & comparative literature, which offered me a unique opportunity to study film from both an art history perspective but also from a cultural production and philosophical standpoint. So much of how I think about poetry is rooted in this education. When I earlier mentioned the Kuleshov Effect, that’s a direct correlation between film theory and my poetics. I wrote poetry in sequence for probably a decade, and it’s true that I still conceptualize my books as unique, discrete “experiences” from the moment the reader sees the cover until they reach the end.

Along with the Kuleshov Effect, another meaningful reading was Kaja Silverman’s essay on “suture,” which explores the impact of edited images on audiences. Silverman wrote about these minimoments of anxiety that occur every time film is spliced—the audience feels a moment of displacement, reframing, and finally reunification as the viewer puts together the connection between what came before with what they see now. For me there’s a direct correlation between this and the kind of “leaps” we ask readers to make across the gaps in lyric poems, or the way time moves in those works. If the gap is too wide, the reader stumbles into disorientation; if the gap is too narrow, there’s no excitement in the poem.

I used to write in my bios that “I make little films out of poems.” I stopped saying this because people asked me if they could watch my films, so the point was getting lost. But I do think of my work this way—that books are features, chapbooks are shorts—and that my responsibility as a poet is to build a world the reader can inhabit. I think this sometimes comes across as obsessive, but also I’m obsessive.

Los Angeles hasn’t yet had too much impact on me. I feel like my writing is at least five to ten years behind my lived experience. But I’m curious about Los Angeles in the way it stands in for everywhere else. Driving around and recognizing an intersection, a building, a restaurant from a movie or a TV show, like the strip club “The Seven Veils” from Veronica Mars sharing a name with an actual club in Hollywood, and the street DeLongpre, just blocks from that bar, the name of an important character on that show.

To live in Los Angeles is to live in a real place and to live in the imaginations of countless other writers and filmmakers. There’s a weird schism that comes out of it, and also a banality about coexisting with these imagined places. I haven’t figured it all out yet, but these ideas are swirling. Some of the new poems I’ve been working on explore ideas of isolation and connection, which to me feels very Los Angeles. It can be a hard city to adopt if you get here at a certain point in your life. It’s a city made for introverts.

FG: Can you walk us through your process as you’re negotiating between the impulses in your writing to both expose the personal and intimate while also speaking to the larger political climate?

 CJ: I think this is where my queerness starts to act on my poetry. I spent my teen years and early adulthood asserting my personal identity as a political act, and the years since taking political action on behalf of identities that power marginalizes. I know we have come a long way since I started writing and publishing, and the new generation of queer poets are such bright lights to me in the way they make their work a powerful political act. But I remember a time when just referencing queer experience was political enough, and sometimes controversial enough, that a poem might not get published.

As I get older, I understand more and more how intimacy is political. Power thrives through division, by isolating, by promising benefits to some if they will only forsake the rest. Intimacy—true connection—is a weapon against abusive power. And it is an expression of power. To be vulnerable is not to expose your weakness but instead to say, I am powerful enough to withstand damage. I think about these issues a lot. They’re present in Nanopedia, I think most clearly in the “Exile in America: A Bionanography” section, which not shockingly is also the queerest sequence in the book.

I’ve been active in arts advocacy since 2008 or so, and I’ve learned a lot about the power of the personal in moving the needle on political issues. For the last six years I’ve facilitated a training session on how language, the brain, and frames of reference often impair progress, and how advocates can harness language to help bring politicians to the right side of issues. We live in a time when the whole idea of what truth means is under constant attack. I don’t know how I write without fighting against that. 

As I get older, I understand more and more how intimacy is political. Power thrives through division, by isolating, by promising benefits to some if they will only forsake the rest. Intimacy—true connection—is a weapon against abusive power. Intimacy—true connection—is a weapon against abusive power.

FG: I think it’s fair to say that education plays an important role in your discipline as a writer. You completed an MFA in creative writing and maintain a solid writing regimen. You’ve also spent quite a lot of time in front of the classroom teaching other creative writers, and you currently serve as program director of the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, the largest self-supporting continuing education creative writing and screenwriting program in the world. What is the worst writing advice you’ve ever received?

CJ: I don’t know that I’ve ever gotten bad advice! If I have, I’ve erased it from my memory. I did have some contentious discussions with a writing mentor of mine—all I will say is those conversations hurt, and it took me several years to process a few of the remarks and move past them. That said, I’m not sure why those remarks were given to me; but I will say that the upside was I really investigated them and, by extension, came out with a greater sense of confidence in my own abilities.

As a teacher, I know how easily one can poke a writer’s wounds. I’m still trying to perfect my ability to be encouraging but honest, precise but permissive. I think it’s a delicate balance, and when I’ve seen writing teachers do it so well, such as observing classes at the Writers’ Program, I really understand that it’s a masterful technique.

I’m reminded, though, of the best writing advice I ever heard—which, by extension, is career advice, life advice, romance advice, and so on. The poet C. D. Wright led a workshop during my MFA program, and my classmate Caroline asked C. D. what she thought about people forcing them both to be perceived as “regional poets.” And C. D. just looked at her and said, “Don’t sign up.”

I still think about that comment so often, and as I’ve aged and peeled back the layers of it, it becomes more deeply meaningful. On the surface, it tells us not to accept things offered to us that do not serve us, but digging deeper into it, I think it also warns us not to let perceptions of us become our self-perception. That assertion of selfhood is so distinctly C. D.—she was always exactly who she wanted to be, and she showed how powerful it is to give others permission to do the same.

FG: What has been most surprising about the Los Angeles writing community?

CJ: Let me begin with an aside: I’ve lived on both the East Coast and the West Coast (and the Southwest and the Midwest). When you meet people on the East Coast, they want to know what you’ve done. Your education, your career, your accomplishments. In Los Angeles, people want to know what you’re doing. It’s just a nudge to the side, but the impact of that shift in perception is wild. On the East Coast, you represent your past. In LA, you represent your future, your potential, your possibility.

I think it would surprise most people in other places that there is a Los Angeles literary community, though a great deal of that is rooted in Los Angeles shaming, and I just don’t have time for that. People are so eager for Los Angeles to be a vapid, cultureless void that they easily miss the rich artistic, cultural, and creative activities that happen here. If that’s the case, I thank them for visiting and wish them well. This is not the place for them.

Los Angeles’s literary community is a reflection of our geography. Just as the city and the region themselves are mosaics of fiercely unique neighborhoods and cities, our literary communities are basically just overlapping Venn diagrams. For me there are some essential points of interest, like Beyond Baroque in Venice and Hank Henderson’s Homo-centric reading series at Stories Books & Café.

I volunteer on the steering committee for Lambda Literary’s annual LitFest, and that’s a region-wide festival that I think successfully plies LA’s geography for the greater good. We crowdsource event proposals from community organizers, and then for a full week, all of these amazing literary events happen all over town. I think that experience has been my greatest education in how vibrant the literary community is here. People really step up, bring groups together, celebrate each other’s work, and contribute to this larger dialogue about writing in Los Angeles that I find so inspiring—but also I’m not sure an event like this could happen anywhere else!

LA has a challenging event culture. There can be a high flake factor because traffic—and even the weather!—can be very unpredictable. I’ve found, though, that my individual relationships with writers here are very meaningful and important, more than showing up at events, and as an introvert I’m deeply grateful for that.

People are so eager for Los Angeles to be a vapid, cultureless void that they easily miss the rich artistic, cultural, and creative activities that happen here.

FG: You served as founding editor for LOCUSPOINT, an online project that focuses on poetic voices from specific American cities. And just this past year you were awarded the Zócalo Public Square Poetry Prize, given to a poem that best evokes a connection to place. Is place an important theme for your writing?

CJ: I don’t know if place is a theme or if it’s an inspiration, a formal restriction, a philosophy, or a mentor. But it’s important to me, certainly, and I think partly because of all the moving I’ve done in adulthood. 

I lived pretty much an interrupted childhood in rural Wisconsin (save for the one year I lived on an island in Green Bay). What I found when I moved to new cities is that it would take months after arriving for me to build that place in my mind. Like, I remember one day I walked up out of a Metro station in Washington, DC—I think the Farragut North stop—and I looked around and I had this moment where I recognized something down the street from walking up out of another Metro stop, and I almost heard this click in my brain when I was able to assemble the larger conceptual map of how it all fits together.

I had a very similar experience in moving to LA, but it’s an ongoing process here. I’ve lived in Echo Park, Highland Park, Pasadena, Mount Washington, Little Armenia, and Mid-City in my six years here, so I’ve relied a lot on GPS mapping to help me find my way around. I know a lot about the geography of Los Angeles, but I haven’t experienced all of it, and I think that’s such a palpable absence for me.

I don’t know how other people experience the place where they live, if they are as curious about it as I am. In the midst of responding to this question, At Length published a very long poem I wrote called “A Field Guide to the Natural Disasters of Southern California,”which…is deeply rooted in a place. So, I guess I have to say yes, place is important to me as a poet, but also I have no idea why or how it came to be that way. This is something I need to keep thinking about.

FG: If not place, necessarily, then what theme best defines your writing?

CJ: Eileen Tabios reviewed my chapbook Breakup/Breakdown and called me a “love poet.” Though it feels limiting, I admit this is accurate. I’m reminded of another thing C. D. Wright said in that workshop: “Your obsessions will always take care of themselves.” This is to say, I feel, looking back, my writing has recurring concerns—probably enough to call them obsessions—and though I hesitate to say “love” is one of them, what transpires between two people is definitely a thing I return to.

The First Risk, for me, is about grief, as is Living Things—death is present in both books, but the deaths are mourned by loved ones. Breakup/Breakdown examines the shattering of a romantic relationship, and Story Problems takes a bit more of a varied approach, but it does include consideration of intimate relationships. Even my very first chapbook, Little Burning Edens, is about desire and intimacy between men during and in the wake of the AIDS crisis.

Maybe Nanopedia is the most diverse of my writings, in part because the conceit of the book is amoeba-like, consuming anything into itself. I’m sure these impulses are wrapped up in growing up as a closeted gay person, the way in which that really changed the way I related to other people and to myself as a sexual, emotional being. And I think this is the door into my other ongoing concern, which is form. Just as my work interrogates the forms love takes, the forms desire takes, the forms we ourselves take, it pursues poetic form. What are the limits of form? What are the opportunities? I love revitalizing my relationship to my own work by expanding my perceptions of the form of my writing.

FG: What are you working on now?

CJ: I’ve been working on a project for a while—very slowly, which is not like me at all. Generally, I write a lot of work over a short period of time and then shape it and revise it for several years. I’ve been writing work that looks into the impact of app culture on the way queer men relate to each other physically, emotionally, and socially. The guiding idea for the first poems was the concept of apps like Grindr and Scruff as “Human Vending Machines,” even in the way their interface approximates the look of a junk food vending machine and how they promise the same kind of quick gratification of a desire. I have some base poems done, and I’ve been thinking about what other themes and elements should go into this project to make it a collection. I’m doing experiments toward that now. I think it may incorporate some of Breakup/Breakdown and “A Field Guide to the Natural Disasters of Southern California,” but I’m not sure yet. I’m still listening to what this work wants to be.

Beyond that, I’ve got three novel drafts done too, and I’ve been tending more to those than poetry lately. One novel is in its 10th draft (!!) and moving toward completion; the other two are first drafts. One of the first drafts is a hot mess and I don’t even know where to start; the other feels more fertile and I’m drawn to getting to that one next.

Working on big prose projects has made me realize how critical it is to be in my writing every day. I’ve loved it. I look forward to it. Editing is the hardest part of this whole process for me, but knowing I have a little time—an hour—each day that I can devote to it makes me a bit more savage in my edits and a bit less stressed about progress. I’ve struck a good balance. I’m willing to see where it leads me.

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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 by Tinderbox Editions. A past recipient of an Artist’s Project Grant from the Arizona Commission on the Arts, his poetry has appeared in American Poetry Review, Bloom, Columbia Poetry 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.

Writer and translator Frank Garrett lives in Dallas. http://www.mycrashcourse.net @limmoraliste