Charlotte Pence

The Branches, the Axe, the Missing (Black Lawrence Press, 2012)

Weaves a Clear Night (Flying Trout Press, 2011)

What are your chapbooks about?

The first one titled Weaves a Clear Night is set in modern-day Appalachia and recasts the myths surrounding Penelope’s fidelity to Odysseus. The poems follow the emotional isolation of a woman poised between two men, neither of whom can be a part of her daily life. The “you” in this collection is a secret love, the “he” is Odysseus, and the “son” is Telemachus.

The Branches, the Axe, the Missing is very different in terms of subject, but it is also one, long sequence with a narrative arc. This poetry, though, is not one thing. It bleeds out, branches off—into science and story and faux newspaper columns pitted with white space. The chapbook takes on both the evolutionary question of what it means to be human, and the philosophical question of what it means to be one woman in one particular family. The modern family unit has evolved over millions of years as a survival mechanism, but within those units, the poems remind us that the struggle for survival continues, between, say, a young, imaginative girl and a schizophrenic father. That girl grows up, marries, divorces. And now the father is homeless, wandering from city to city.

What made you decide to gather your pieces in a chapbook instead of another format? When did you realize you were working toward a chapbook?

Both chapbooks asserted themselves early in the creation process and insisted on their own space, their own spine, their own body. With The Branches, the Axe, the Missing, I wrote every poem after the first one in relation to the other poems. I even envisioned the layout as not one page, but two, meaning I imagined the book being open in a reader’s hands. So, the poems on the left side of the book tend toward a subjective account of evolution and family. The poems on the right hand side of the page provide more of an objective account on that subject. This isn’t always the case, but when the layout didn’t allow for that (or when a section of a poem went on past a page), I tried to denote the level of subjectivity by if the section was justified on the right or left.

How did you decide on the length, arrangement, and title of your chapbook?

Well, that process is similar to my writing process. I believe I know what is happening as I’m writing and then I set the work aside, reread it, and see that no, what I had intended isn’t quite the way to go. In the end, what I did with both books was post every page on a giant bulletin board. (I was at writing colonies where the studios came equipped with bulletin boards, but a closet door and scotch tape could work, too.) And then I shuffled everything about and tried a lot of combinations until I had a narrative arc that wasn’t so linear as to be boring, but not so complicated as to distract.

As for titles, old-fashioned brainstorming helped me to find them. I just wrote down about fifty bad titles first.

Did you submit your chapbook to contests, open reading periods, or both?

I only submitted to contests. Weaves the Clear Night took about a year, and The Branches was accepted after a couple of months.

In what ways did your chapbook change between the version you submitted and the final published version? Did you revise, rearrange, or make other changes?

In both cases, the suggestions were only minor ones. I think that’s more the reality of editing today. Publishers need a finished product to be able to compete.

What is your writing practice?

I just started my first tenure-track position at Eastern Illinois University, so my writing practice is not the usual, which is about two hours first thing in the morning. I’ve been trying something new this semester, though, that has worked wonderfully, given that I’ve been learning the ropes, renovating a house, and corralling a toddler. I’ve been simply writing 15 minutes six days a week. I break on Saturday, but otherwise the 15 minutes has to be done. What I have found is that every day, no matter how busy, can incorporate a 15-minute writing session. And what’s even more surprising is that a lot of progress can happen in that time because one, I find myself thinking about the work throughout the day, and two, I find that the 15 minutes often extends into 30. So, I would call that my base process.

Starting last week, I moved back to my longer sessions where the goal is to write a new poem a week. I turn this in to my husband, who is also a writer. If I provide four new poems in one month and on time (by Friday at 5), he buys me a treat: jar of artisanal pickles, bottle of funky nail polish, box of See’s candy…. Yes, this treat-system is juvenile, but it works for me.

Knowing what you know now, what advice would you offer to an aspiring chapbook author?

I think the chapbook offers such a wonderful opportunity for poets and fiction writers. To me, a poem is like a room. There can be a couple of doors there, but more than that, there won’t be enough wall space for what needs to go in the room, such as furniture. But a chapbook allows for more space than one room. It’s more like a long hallway with doors leading to other tones, other ideas, other stories. Yet, everything is housed under one roof. So, my advice to those working on chapbooks would be to use the format to its best advantage.

What question would you like to ask the next chapbook author featured at Speaking of Marvels?

Are there any chapbooks you like that aren’t tightly unified—or do you find that to be the purpose of the chapbook?

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Charlotte Pence’s first full-length poetry collection, Spike, will be released by Black Lawrence Press in 2014. A professor of English and creative writing at Eastern Illinois University, she is also the author of two award-winning poetry chapbooks and the editor of The Poetics of American Song Lyrics (University Press of Mississippi, 2012). New poetry is forthcoming from Alaska Quarterly Review, Denver Quarterly, North American Review, Prairie Schooner, and The Southern Poetry Anthology.

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charlottepence.com

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Section XV from Weaves a Clear Night

When he returned, my husband began searching
for his favorite pair of yard shoes.
He passed through the kitchen toward the yellow
back door. I stood at the counter,
swiping spilt pepper grounds
into a blue rag.
_________He stopped,
wrapped his arms around my waist
from behind.
_________Passion is the word for that,
but I don’t know the word for what else it is:
the web being hooked and crossed
in the basement while we sleep above.
_________One strand attached to the shiny
bicycle spoke, another attached to the rusted
nail head that juts from the basement post.

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