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Charles Jensen: California Poets Part 3, Four Poems

Charles Jensen

June 25th, 2021

California Poets: Part III

Charles Jensen

Three Poems

The Hotel Botched Seduction In the film’s first scene, the poet takes me to his room “to grab something [he] forgot”; once there, looks me in the eye. Holds my gaze like a ripe pear he can’t wait to devour. Then eyes the bed, sheets taut as sail. The whole movie is this scene on repeat, and you, like the main character (me), will wonder if I requested this. Deserved this. Said words as clues on the treasure map leading us here, where X is the final gunshot that ends the word sex. His eyes, my eyes. A bed that gazes into me. The mattress is an interview. This bed denudes itself, shows me bleached flesh. It wants my taste. He points to holy texts missionaries placed in drawers. He smiles. He laughs. Each sound disarms with shame he drapes over me like damp clothes until I can’t recall arriving, who cast me in this film. On the cutting room floor: saying No over wood-fired pizza, me apologizing like I’d lured him here to fell him like a Christmas pine. You won’t see his sweaty highballs at a club. How I sculpt lips in No, no, no. Won’t see me dodge his kisses amid twirled bodies jostling me in their sea. Won’t see the end. I leave him the street, taxi’s ass the only one I let him see. I thought I was a person, his friend but now I know a body’s all I’ll ever be.

Hollywood Walk of Fame Here they laid mosaic where grass was too much bother, a gray slab of rock a tombstone for something green. In seven years, palms planted for the World’s Fair will die of old age— Then what will Hollywood be? The junkie at CVS who begs to be acknowledged, the glass and steel high rise, a knife fight just about to break out, the wrecks of dreams, some stars scattered on the sidewalk with the names of those who died, as if that’s all they left behind.

Thirty-eight Postcards from a Vacation 1. Traffic flexing like a murmuration of starlings forming inkblots 2. Near death experience provided by Dodge Charger 3. Embracing in the cool air of the desert hotel room 4. His kiss 5. By the pool, the shock of light on water’s chopped glass 6. The shushing lips of misters blowing raspberries 7. He takes my hand across the dinner table 8. The flush in my face is a blossoming 9. Pointing out Orion’s belt above the condo complex 10. The perfect seam between our bodies in the bed is master tailoring 11. Vinyl records, the musty scent of other lives embedded in their jackets 12. Paloma’s tart bite chased by tequila’s medicine 13. Who am I after this—because of this—in spite of this— 14. He has perfect eyes; they invented a blue I’ve never seen before 15. Brunch in the modernist patio home—bacon brine hovering like gossip 16. The perfect chair exists and it has held me like a treasure 17. Louie the cat in my personal space, not a fear in this world 18. He holds my hand beneath the table 19. Toward Los Angeles, back facing the desert, just there-and-back 20. I wake up one year older; the earth shivers until one photo pratfalls on its shelf 21. Back facing Los Angeles, toward the desert some hours later 22. We embrace again in the cool air of another desert hotel room 23. He takes me to dinner and is the most beautiful person I can think of 24. The server placing a candle in the slice of cake 25. He says, make a wish 26. I know exactly what it is 27. I vanquish fire 28. He murmurs through sleep, I apply my body as a salve 29. I could lose this, which I do not possess, a fact I must accept each day 30. He does not want to leave and finds excuses to delay what we both know will pass 31. You want to grab a coffee? he asks, but it means, will you stay with me a little longer 32. I will stay with you a little longer 33. I will stay with you as long as I can 34. 35. When I drive away, I am certain I have left something essential behind 36. I long for it the rest of the day, curious as a tongue seeking a missing tooth 37. But I know he exists 38. For now that is all I need to know

Last Week in the United States I rushed through the week to get to Saturday, eager to forget what happened Monday. A hot bath, a cocktail planned for Friday. Promised myself extra sleep for Tuesday. Binged Netflix alone on Thursday. Someone bought a gun on Wednesday. Someone tweeted “It’s Hump Day!” on Wednesday A political sex scandal broke on Saturday. They passed a voter suppression law on Thursday. Someone bought a gun on Monday. Someone bought bullets on Tuesday. Someone planned a happy hour for Friday, over Zoom, not your usual happy hour Friday. Someone drove a car through a barricade on Wednesday. Someone bought a gun on Tuesday. A Black child was shot by a cop on Saturday. The protesters still walked on Monday. The protesters still walked on Thursday. It was a beautiful day for hiking the hills on Thursday. Someone bought a gun on Friday. Metal detectors went into the Capitol on Monday. The jurors went into deliberation on Wednesday. We hadn’t heard a verdict by Saturday. I made a casual dinner date for Tuesday. But he moved it to next week Tuesday. Someone bought a gun on Thursday. We were all so worn out by Saturday. We were all so worn out by Friday. We were all so worn out by Wednesday. We were all so worn out by Monday: There was a mass shooting on Monday. Another mass shooting on Tuesday. A mass shooting on Wednesday. Yet another mass shooting on Thursday. A mass shooting followed on Friday. A mass shooting Saturday. We grieved for Monday’s dead on Thursday. We grieved for Friday’s dead on Tuesday. We grieved for Saturday’s dead on Wednesday.


November 30th, 2021

California Poets Interview Series:

Charles Jensen, Poet and Editor

interviewed by David Garyan

DG: You serve as the Program Director for the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. It would be interesting to hear more about your role in this capacity—what challenges and rewards come with coordinating one of the largest creative writing communities in the US?

CJ: Fortunately, the rewards are many and the challenges few. UCLA Extension is an open-enrollment continuing education provider, so our focus as an institution is on working with adults who want to advance in or change their careers. The Writers’ Program has helped many newbie writers get their start on careers in both literature and screenwriting. I think what our students have in common is both that desire to express something important coupled with a pretty clear idea for how they want to do it. Most students come to us with a novel idea, a memoir concept, or a film idea—any number of projects, really.

I work with an exceptional program staff who are all writers in their own right and who understand how fraught it can be to reach out and say, “I want to be a writer.” We don’t tell our students what success is. We let them tell us, and then we help them figure out the best path to get there. We honor all writing goals, from wanting to write the Great American Novel to capturing memories for family members. Because our classes are online or at night, and because our students have busy lives—jobs, family, commitments, and so on—one of our biggest challenges is fostering community outside the classroom. We know these peer relationships will be essential to them in the future. We’ve piloted a few ways to connect our students both virtually and in-person (when safe to do so). Another reward is working with the instructors at Extension, all of whom would tell you first and foremost how much they love teaching and helping writers find their voices and stories. I believe right now more and more people are looking for opportunities to connect and express their stories—our program almost doubled in enrollment during the period of the pandemic.

Our most significant challenge has been reinforcing a culture of equity and inclusion. Writing is vulnerable work, often informed by the writer’s identity and lived experience, so our classrooms must always ensure respect and work toward shared understanding. Conflict is a natural part of this process—and we work to ensure any conflict in the classroom provides opportunities for learning, for empathy, and for growth. I believe these traits are elements of craft for all writers, but perhaps they aren’t framed that way as often as they should be.

DG: One of your firm beliefs is that writing should be brought into as many people’s lives as possible. In this respect, do you mean greater exposure for writers in any given community, or something more participatory—as in citizens of all backgrounds discovering the art of writing for themselves, taking up the pen to write about their daily experiences, for example, and how might such initiatives be initiated or look like?

CJ: Ideally, I’d support both, but I think the first outcome is naturally achieved by investing in the second. What I have learned in my many years of working in and around creative writing institutions is that a great many people feel an urgent desire to write, though few give themselves permission to do so. There is a barrier that exists for so many—they believe they aren’t good enough, or that it’s a waste of time, or that they’ll be rejected for their attempts. What’s true is that many writers are good enough, but they aren’t perfect on the first try. They don’t realize even their favorite writers also write messy first drafts, and that the time spent revising is what makes those writers great. Those who think writing might be a waste of time have fallen victim to the belief that only lucrative endeavors are worth their time, or that in order to make time spent writing worthwhile they have to have something to show for it—usually publication is what they’re thinking about. And for those afraid of rejection, their fears are justified—but rejection isn’t the end of the road; it is the road. I think we just need to broaden the conversation about why people should write and how it happens. I believe anyone can be a writer, a published one, if they put in the time and the work and trust in themselves. But I also believe that everyone benefits from writing no matter what their goal is in the long run. The worst case scenario is that we’ve taught someone to appreciate reading more, to support more publishing writers, and that will strengthen the entire writing ecosystem over time.

DG: The work you write has an edgy feel—it doesn’t shy away from speaking the truth, whether the matter is US politics, or our way of life in general. For us all, it’s tough to process many of the tragedies that occur on a daily basis, and it’s often impossible simply to watch the news. As a poet, does the writing in times like these come more effortlessly, simply because you’re trying to articulate for change, or is it, in fact, much more difficult to speak, mainly because it’s often hard to find the words at all?

CJ: I think there’s a delicate balance in holding one’s self accountable as a writer—sitting in the chair, creating drafts, revising—and allowing periods of silence to take the time they need from us. I try to honor both. I don’t believe in writer’s block; I think that difficulty is really the fear of writing badly and I’m sure many folks would agree I don’t have that fear (ha!). The creative brain is a complex system. It’s taking in information through our senses, forming connections in the background of our consciousness. It’s important to give it time and space. When I’m not writing, I think of those periods as times of receiving. Gathering. Developing. And in those times, when perhaps I don’t want to struggle to drop words on a page, there’s still plenty to do, especially with revision. I think connected to the question here is something a creative writing teacher once told a class I was in—something like “We don’t become the writers we are meant to be until our parents are dead.” My first thought was, “I don’t have time to wait.” I gave myself permission—along with writing trash—to write things I’d never have to show anyone else. I think that’s fostered an ability to write the hard truths. Once they’re down on paper, they don’t always feel quite as scary. There’s a different kind of ownership you get over those ideas when you shape them into something written. They lose the power to scare you. Of course, at the same time, some things are better left unread.

DG: One of your major interests is innovation and hybrid forms—more specifically, how these two are compatible with formalism; this is quite an interesting aesthetic. Although formal poetry does naturally require innovation and a unique voice, there’s nevertheless a greater degree of rigidity in its essence—a Shakespearean sonnet must have fourteen lines and follow a certain rhyme scheme; the Petrarchan one, meanwhile, divides the fourteen lines into two sections using a different rhyme scheme altogether. Villanelles are yet another story. How do you reconcile the often-strict character of not only these forms, but others as well, with hybridization and innovation?

CJ: At the top level, I think form is one of the essential considerations of poetry. Another teacher of mine said that the only quality all poetry shares, and what makes it distinct from other genres of writing, is that it is “shaped language.” The shape we bring to our poems, then, is as much the poem as the words, the images, the other familiar formal elements like rhyme and meter. When we talk about some of those traditional forms, they’re not only about shape. There’s often a rhetorical form as well. The sonnet is a form of argument, with a turn and a conclusion. The villanelle can’t help but mourn—it’s very haunted. As poets, we know this instinctively. Just as instinctively, I think we should let our poems take the shapes they need. My definition of poetry is broad, expansive, and inclusive when it comes to form, which is one of the reasons I’m very quick to slip into hybrid forms. What happens to the reading comprehension exam when we occupy it with poetry? What about the encyclopedia? So many forms of writing already exist. I like to hermit crab my way into them and see how they interact with poetic technique. Robert Frost said writing free verse was like playing tennis with the net down. What he meant is that tennis (poetry) is defined by the presence of a net (a rule). It doesn’t mean a game isn’t still being played when the net goes away. It means there need to be new rules. New shapes.

DG: In 2006, you founded the online literary journal LOCUSPOINT, with a wonderful tagline for the magazine: “The Place of Poetry.” On the homepage, before entering the actual website, readers are confronted with a map of the United States—there’s something utilitarian in situating one’s place on a map, but there’s also something inherently political in the process. Directing the discussion towards poetry, would you say that place ultimately influences poetic themes, or is it like Nabokov once said, that “Genius is an African who dreams up snow?”

CJ: I think you’re absolutely right that place is political. But place isn’t only that. Place is emotional (“home”). Place is spiritual (“heaven”). LOCUSPOINT wasn’t concerned just with geography—let’s call this just its original delimiter. Instead, it was focused more on community. The way people construct meaning in and around place. When I think about “home,” for example, it was always challenging for me to picture the place where I grew up, an environment I remember mainly as hostile toward me for being gay. So I never had too many of those warm, fuzzy feelings about “home.” My parents left less than a decade after I did, so now I never have to go back there, which, too, is strange. I’ve lived all across the United States since leaving Wisconsin, and had to rebuild “home” again and again—rebuild community in some ways, too. But I’ve always known that while writing happens in isolation, it thrives in a community, and I’m curious about the intersection between physical place and how that community forms. The networks among poets. The way we shape place in that way—and also the way a place shapes us—become natural poetic themes. Many poets write so powerfully about place, identity, and power, it’s difficult to extract those concepts from each other. I’m not sure we should try.

DG: Speaking of place, you live in one of most vibrant, eclectic cities in not just the US, but, arguably, in the whole world. What are the joys and difficulties of calling Los Angeles home, not just from a creative perspective, but also from a personal one, and does the saturation of writers and artists in the city ultimately add to the excitement of being here, or does the competition sometimes get in the way?

CJ: I don’t experience a feeling of competition in the writing world. The writing life is more like a marathon for me—I’m in my lane making progress at my rate, challenging myself to keep moving. My success (or failure) has no relationship to anyone else. It’s me against my potential, always. I’ve found many writers I adore in Los Angeles share the same philosophy. It’s one of the things that makes the writing community in and around UCLA Extension such a wonderful and nurturing environment.

Los Angeles is a concept that is difficult for people to understand if they don’t live there. Common complaints I hear boil down to “This isn’t what I expected it to be and it’s not what I think it should be.” But both of those perspectives fail to accept Los Angeles for what it is. Yes, it’s “72 suburbs in search of a city,” if you think there’s only one way to make a city. But it’s also a vibrant patchwork of fiercely self-determined neighborhoods whose characters are so palpable you can tell when you cross from one to the next. It sprawls, yes—horizontally. But New York, Chicago, other cities sprawl vertically. People complain about traffic, and yes, it can be bad. But Los Angeles isn’t a city you’re meant to experience as a whole. You develop a pocket that becomes your home base, and you venture out as you need and want to. You learn how to outsmart the traffic. That’s not to say there aren’t valid critiques about LA. There are many. We fail to serve the unhoused. There’s shocking income inequality across the region. We need a more robust public transportation system. What I love about Los Angeles is that it’s a place where you can become who you want to be. There’s so much creativity and innovation here. And the weather’s not that bad.

DG: Are you reading or working on something at the moment?

CJ: Always! I find it’s hard for me to revise work that hasn’t been put into a drawer for a while. I think of it like a pie. If I cut into it too soon, it makes a big mess. If I wait until it cools, I can make clean slices. So for that reason I don’t wait until one project is done to start new projects. And I tend to tinker a long time. The work of revision is by far the hardest part for me, and I know that I practice too much avoidance when it comes to cutting things that aren’t working. But I love writing first drafts! All the possibility, excitement, discovery of it all. I have a new book coming out in March from the University of Akron Press, Instructions between Takeoff and Landing. We just approved the layout and cover, so I’ve moved from excitement about it to absolute fear (which is normal). That process has also lessened my sense of urgency about other things, though. That said, I have a memoir I’m sending out, a novel I’m actively revising with a writing group, and a big sheaf of poems I need to wrangle to see if there’s a book there or if I should abandon them a little longer. Oddly, I’ve been writing more and more explicitly about Los Angeles lately, so my sense is that I’ll have a book with that as a thread. Meanwhile, I continue to listen to Louise Glücks’s insight from the preface to The First Four Books of Poems—to examine the work I’ve done, notice what I haven’t done, and lean into that to see what I can discover there.

Author Bio:

Charles Jensen (he/him) is the author of the poetry collection Nanopedia and six chapbooks of poems. His third collection, Instructions Between Takeoff and Landing, will be published by the University of Akron Press in 2022. He received the 2020 Outwrite Nonfiction Chapbook Award for Cross-Cutting, a diptych of essays that hybridize memoir and film criticism. The City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs designated him a 2019-2020 Cultural Trailblazer, and he is the recipient of the 2018 Zócalo Poetry Prize, a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prize, the 2007 Frank O’Hara Chapbook Award, and an Artist’s Project Grant from the Arizona Commission on the Arts. His poetry has appeared in American Poetry Review, Crab Orchard Review, The Journal, New England Review, and Prairie Schooner, and essays have appeared in 45th Parallel, American Literary Review, and The Florida Review. He founded the online poetry magazine LOCUSPOINT, which explored creative work on a city-by-city basis. He hosts The Write Process, a podcast in which one writer tells the story of crafting one work from concept to completion, and with Jovonnie Anaya co-hosts You Wanna Be on Top?, an episode-by-episode retrospective of America’s Next Top Model. He lives in Los Angeles and directs the Writers’ Program at UCLA Extension.


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