Saturday, September 19, 2009

risky business - an interview with charles jensen

Charles Jensen's first full-length book The First Risk (Lethe Press, 2009) is a rich, haunting collection of poems. Under an umbrella of grief, his subject matter ranges from the death of Matthew Shepard, Luca Cambiaso's paintings of Venus and Adonis, Almodóvar's All About My Mother, to Hitchcock's Vertigo. I asked Charles some questions concerning his new book & other things.

JB: You have published chapbooks but The First Risk is your first book book. What is the experience like to have this out?

CJ: To me, having a full-length out is pretty similar to releasing a chapbook. I started out excited and invigorated to know the work was going to have some readers, and then, as I sent off the manuscript and waited for the book to come out, my feelings turned to nervousness and dread. What if it's no good? What if nobody reads it? What if I just wasted the last few years of my life putting together something that, by the time it comes out, seems...already obsolete? I think I knew the stakes were higher with a full-length because there would be more PR, more distribution, and probably more readers responding to it. I really hope people enjoy the work, or feel moved by it, or are inspired by it. To me, that would be a huge success.

JB: I wondered about the order. The book begins with Matthew Shepard's murder, meshed with the myth of Adonis and Venus. The Shepard story is a brutal one to confront right off the bat and it lingered with me throughout the rest of the book. I was curious what your intentions were in section arrangement of this book. Did you change its order often?

CJ: Originally, the whole book was going to be about Matthew's murder, and possibly hate crimes in general. But in the revision process, a lot of those pieces changed and became smaller, more succinct. The rest of the work followed (except the Almodóvar section was written long before the rest). Why begin with Matthew? I've asked myself that question a lot. It probably would have been more compelling for the reader to start with Maribel Dixon. But at the end of the day, I wanted the book to have a transcendent arc, not a devolutionary arc. The book begins with a darkness that is threatening, murderous, and full of pain, and ends with darkness that is enveloping, comforting, and full of love. I'm often interested in relationships between first and last poems, so here you'll see that the book begins with a speaker who is pushing love out into the world ("I was love when I entered the bar," and the further iterations of that phrase) to a speaker who is a vessel for love, who is made whole by it ("You have no need for body / I am filled with you already").

JB: I am in awe with the way you link all the sections together and how we move from one "ghost-world" to the next. There's a playfulness to it but a seriousness as well. One way I saw its linkage was through masculinity (Shepard's, Adonis, and the questioning of Scottie's in Vertigo) and the objectification of the body ("What is a body but a tool? / in this case just a placeholder, / a cipher, / an empty place"). Can you talk about these issues and any other thematic arcs?

CJ: The body was definitely a link for me. There's all sorts of concern for the physical--Matthew's pain, Venus's immortal body, La Agrado's plastic surgery, Nina's addiction, Manuela's symbiotic relationship to Esteban (her son), Scottie's make-over of Judy and his own physical disabilities, and finally, Maribel's illness. Everyone in the book is wrestling, in some way, with changing their body, with perfecting it. I guess even I hadn't realized that until I just wrote it out.

The other arc for me is grief. Each section is built around a death--Matthew and Adonis, Manuela's son, Madeleine Elster and the filmmaker's lover, and Maribel Dixon. And each section, to me, demonstrates a different approach to coping with grief. The boy speaking in Matthew's section is paralyzed by sadness, fear, and survivor guilt; Almodóvar's women are all trying to define themselves in the absence of a relationship; Scottie and the filmmaker are both trying to rebuild what was lost but in doing so will ultimately destroy it again; and Edward Dixon is trying to bring back what he destroyed. In my opinion, only one of these endeavors comes close to any kind of success. But I'll leave it to you to consider which one.

JB: "I Am the Boy Who Is Tied Down" covers a lot of emotional terrain through rhythm, repetition and the shifting of identity. These lines stay with me: "I am the day before the boy is taken from the bar. / I am the last safe thought he had." I am curious about the construction of this poem in particular.

CJ: This poem, along with “Safe,” were going to be the core, the spines of the book I thought I was going to write. “I Am the Boy Who Is Tied Down” started out as an 80-some section prose poem. I think it stretched over 8 or 10 pages. Over the course of about a year, I worked that poem over and over. I cut it down, I cut out language, I rephrased, I rewrote, and finally broke it into lines and then into the smattering of text as it appears in the book.

I had been doing so much research about Matthew’s murder, about the days that followed, and about the trial and the killers. The whole story began to inhabit me in a very uncanny way and so I became the repository of all this horrifying knowledge and imagined experience.

The lines you picked out of it are, I think, two of the most important. I was stuck in Matthew’s shoes. I was stuck imagining what it must have been like to go from the moment of being myself to realizing, in a very real way, that I was about to be the victim of a crime. And because of how the events unfolded, I think he had to live with that knowledge for hours. And I wanted to the poem to point out that there was a moment when he was safe, and there was a moment when he was no longer safe, and that a reversal like that is unbearably traumatizing.

JB: When I think of Almodóvar and Vertigo, I think of carefully constructed artifice ("precisely the right lighting"), objectified bodies, masquerades, multiple identities. How do you think identity figures in your work?

CJ: I agree with you about the importance of artifice in that work. In the Hitchcockian sense, artifice is often used to mask the dark reality of the world, like Joseph Cotton’s close relationship with Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt, or the civility of the dinner party around the hidden corpse in Rope, or even Madeleine’s carefully pinned French twist mirroring Carlotta’s in Vertigo. For Almodóvar, artifice brings us closer to authenticity. If you were to make put them on a spectrum, Hitchcock would be on the kitsch side of things (lies that masquerade as the truth) while Almodóvar would be on the camp side of things (lies that reveal the truth).

All of these poems are persona poems, so I think your observation about the importance of identity is right on. I’ve become really interested in inhabiting different identities, trying them on, walking around in their shoes.

I think this book plays a lot with concepts of fiction and nonfiction a lot as well, which seems related to the idea of artifice to me. The most nonfictional section, “Safe,” can’t decide if it’s reporting a crime or building a mythology and is told using the least objective kind of narration. On the flip side, the most “realistic” section, “The Strange Case of Maribel Dixon,” is the only section that is completely fabricated. For many readers, it has fooled them into believing Edward and Maribel were real people. People asked me many times how I learned about them, if there were any other books they could read about them. It was the highest compliment I’ve ever received on my work.

JB: I was definitely turned on by what you work out in the Vertigo section. I love how you juxtapose the clinical, DVD commentary-ish bits about Vertigo with lyric storyboards. What drew you to Hitchcock and Vertigo in particular?

CJ: You know, I actually never really liked Vertigo all that much until I wrote these poems. I actually have no idea how I arrived at this concept. I sometimes feel like I have a poetry compass in my brain that has a good sense of magnetic north, drawing me toward things I need to write about. (The same thing happened with Luca Cambiaso’s work. I saw an exhibition of his work—an enormous collection—but couldn’t walk away from his Venus and Adonis paintings.)

I have been really fascinated by parallels between film and poetry for a long time. My bachelor’s degree is in film studies and, for most of my teen and college years I wanted to be a filmmaker. In my work, I try to use concepts of film form like editing, montage, shot composition, and so forth to see if I can build with words what a filmmaker builds with frames. We are both in pursuit of the compelling image and the way it tells a story.

But I’ve never wanted to give a film synopsis in poems. I wanted to use the film differently, not just as a source material, but as a kind of medium that could be repurposed. I’m still interesting in pushing these ideas even further in my work and I hope to stumble on some kind of new idea for working with film.

JB: What are some of your favorite Hitchcock films and why?

CJ: What’s funny is that Hitchcock films, for me, are memorable for their images. So I’m going to list some of my favorite shots and images from his films instead of picking favorites:
The Birds—the final shot where they leave the house and the birds very reluctantly move out of the way of their feet and the car’s tires.
Rear Window—Grace’s Kelly’s first appearance, when she leans toward the camera in close-up to kiss Jimmy Stewart
Strangers on a Train—naturally, the climactic carousel scene
Notorious—the crane shot in the party scene when we learn Ingrid Bergman has the key to the wine cellar in her hand
Torn Curtain—the farmhouse murder scene, where the housewife has to try five or six different methods to kill the spy
Psycho—the swinging light bulb in the shot when they discover Mother’s corpse

Okay, I’ll come clean. My favorite film is actually Rebecca. Joan Fontaine is just fantastic as the nameless main character, and Olivier is both incredibly sexy and incredibly broken as Maxim de Winter.

JB: Out of fragments (literally shredded pages) from different eras and perspectives, a strong love story narrative emerges in the last section, "The Strange Case of Maribel Dixon." This was originally published as a chapbook. Talk about the origins and inspirations for this "case" and its inclusion in the book.

CJ: Well, I’ve already let the cat out of the bag—that the section is fictional. But I can give you a little more background on it. I was in a long-distance relationship where our primary mode of communication was over the phone. It started to occur to me that our relationship, our love, didn’t even really exist in the real world, but in the realm where our voices were connecting in the air or in space or whatever you want to call it. And Montgomery Maxton asked me to be a “ghost blogger” for him on his blog, around Halloween, and in writing that entry I stumbled on the name “Ghost World” to describe my sense of it. Where did Edward and Maribel come from? I have no idea. I was doing dishes one night and my brain, of its own accord, stumbled upon the idea of a scientist, a machine, and a separation…and after that it really wrote itself.

JB: I saw Meryl Streep recently on Charlie Rose and she mentioned that some of her performances were difficult to get right and some, such as Sophie's Choice, came easy. I was curious if that happens with your own writing and if you experienced it with any of the poems/sections in The First Risk?

CJ: “Maribel Dixon” was super easy to write, once I had the initial concept in hand. The rest of the book not so much. Individual pieces, like “Safe” and “I Am the Boy…” were kind of obsessive for me, so I focused on them to the exclusion of all else for a while. I find that writing sequences and longer poems means that I can “get down to work” more quickly when I do sit down to write. I don’t have to reinvent the wheel each time. I know a lot about the form the poem will take, or the subject, or the voice, and that’s one less thing I have to consider when writing. I am becoming curious again about writing “one-off” poems, so I think I might try moving in that direction for a while.

I’m interested in the ideas Louise Glück describes in the introduction to The First Four Books of Poems, where she discusses how, after each project she finishes, she identifies what she has been resisting or doing to much, and then she moves in the opposite direction. I like that. It keeps my own writing practice fresh for me, and like Robert Frost said, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.”

JB: Who are some writers who have influenced you? Who are you recently into?

CJ: There’s a huge list, all of whom have pushed or contributed differently. Louise Glück, Beckian Fritz Goldberg, Jim Elledge, Juliana Spahr, D. A. Powell, Claudia Rankine, Denise Duhamel, Frank O’Hara, Richard Siken, Mary Gaitskill, Carolyn Forché, C. D. Wright, Ben Lerner, H. D., John Berryman, Chase Twichell, Beth Ann Fennelly, Tim Dlugos, Lynn Emanuel, Carole Maso, Rachel Zucker, William Carlos Williams, Langston Hughes, Mark Z. Danielewski, Douglas Coupland.

Recent folks? Brian Teare’s books have been really invigorating, and I’ve really enjoyed Sandra Beasley’s new work, Suzanne Frischkorn, Rose Solari, Christopher Nelson, Jehanne Dubrow, James Mathews, Patricia Smith, James Allen Hall, and my friends Meghan Brinson and Aimee Baker are both writing some amazing pieces. The more I read, the more humble I feel because there are just so many talented writers out there.

JB: Lately, what have you been working on writing-wise?

CJ: I’ve been alternating between two novels in progress, Like a Virgin, which is about a teen pregnancy that wrecks a marriage, and Musical Theatre in Hell!, about an insane actress whose desire for fame causes a college production to implode, and a book-length prose poem sequence called Nanopedia: The Smallest American Reference that, I hope, satirizes our American cultural moment effectively. And I’ve got another just completed drafty sequence of poems in the voices of Dorothy Eady, the most compelling evidence of reincarnation; Joseph Smith, who founded the Church of the Latter-Day Saints; and Dorothy Gale, from The Wizard of Oz.

JB: Who are your icons?

CJ: You know, I’m inspired by a lot of auteur-style filmmakers. Todd Haynes’s Poison was a huge influence on The First Risk, so much so that for a while I thought people would actually call it a knock-off. I also love Whit Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco, Baz Luhrmann, Nicole Holofcener, Sofia Coppola, Richard Kelly, Wes Anderson, Peter Greenaway… people who have distinct styles, who take risks, and who have a real vision for filmmaking. I also am inspired by people who don’t “sit down and shut up,” like Larry Kramer, and people who can combine art, function, and commercial appeal like Steve Jobs.

JB: What music are you into lately? What was the first music single you ever bought? Was it CD, cassette, 45?

CJ: Why is this question always so embarrassing?? The first single I ever bought myself was, I believe, “Kokomo” by The Beach Boys from Cocktail. It might have been Steve Winwood’s “Don’t You Know What the Night Can Do.” I can’t remember and they were around the same time. And man, I bought them as Cassingles. My first full-length album was by DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince.

I think 2009 has been a fantastic year for music. My top albums so far are Kelly Clarkson’s All I Ever Wanted, Gossip’s Music for Men, Franz Ferdinand’s Tonight: Franz Ferdinand, Amanda Blank’s I Love You, Cobra Starship’s Hot Mess, and Florence + the Machine’s Lungs.

JB: I know you are a lover of Gossip Girl. Please rank Chase, Ed, and Penn in terms of most hot to least hot.

CJ: To be honest, Carter was the hottest guy on the show, so I’m glad he’ll be on more this season. After that: Chace, Penn, Ed. And Jenny Humphrey is my favorite lady.

JB: One a scale from one to four stars, how many stars do you give your day?

CJ: So far, It’s a four star day. I stayed in bed until 10:30 (I never do that!), I played frisbee golf on Wii, I did this cool interview, and I’m otherwise enjoying a much-needed day of absolutely nothing!

Purchase Charles Jensen's The First Risk from your local independent bookstore or from Amazon.


  1. Great interview and I'm currently enjoying the book - nice all around.

  2. I just stumbled across this interview. I can't say enough how amazed I am by Charlie's work every time I see it. In addition, the way he talks about his writing and process fascinates me. I wouldn't mind crawling inside his head and figuring out how it all works in there. Thanks for this interview, and thank you Charlie for mentioning my work.