Five Questions for... Charles Jensen

The poems in your new chapbook, The Nanopedia Quick-Reference Pocket Lexicon of Contemporary American Culture, use political buzzwords to explore the country’s changed landscape, but they also feel deeply personal. How did this collection evolve? 
The earliest of these poems grew out of a writing prompt I gave myself in 2004. My assignment was to write a poem each day; the poem was to be titled with a word that I’d encountered that day that resonated with me in some way; my job was to “define” the world without writing a definition of the word. These poems sat for a long time because I couldn’t seem to find a way to make them collect and play nicely with each other. Meanwhile, America changed around me. Rhetoric became pliable, vocabulary was created and mobilized to further political and social agendas. The concept of the “nanopedia”—an expansive volume that contains all the information in the known world, but only in miniature—struck me out of the blue and, once I had that organizing principle in mind, the poems fell into place pretty easily. Just as there’s a lot of tension between the ideas of “complete” and “abridged” knowledge in the book, there’s also tension between our personal and public American identities. There are poems in Nanopedia that are deeply personal for me; many of these are in the full-length collection, although “Power Ballad” in the chapbook comes directly from life.

All of your chapbooks and collections have been published through small presses. Talk a little about the joys of working with a small press and why they are important.
Small presses are great for poets because we have small audiences, most of us. It doesn’t make sense for most of us to place our books with big publishing houses since our collections don’t fly off the shelves the way fiction and nonfiction do. In my experience, the small press affords more personal involvement on my part—the cover art for The Nanopedia Quick-Reference Pocket Lexicon of Contemporary American Culture is a photograph by Kevin C. Groen, my best friend from high school. Working with visionary people like Didi Menendez, publishers who are so passionate about promoting the work of writers at all stages of their careers, is also one of the joys. Of course, there’s no marketing department, no funding for ads (often), and a lot of the promotion and support falls back on the author—which, when you have a full-time job (or its equivalent in part-time work), is a lot of work.

Did you always want to be a poet? What other kind of writing, if any, do you do?
I have written poetry for a long time. I was fortunate enough at a young age to have teachers and mentors take my interest in writing very seriously and foster it, so writing in general and poetry in particular have been part of my life much longer than they haven’t been. Over the last few years I’ve tried to work on some fiction—short stories and a novel I am dying to finish (like everyone)—but what really has my attention right now is screenwriting, which I’ve recently started teaching. I completed a screenplay draft last year and am just about to start revising it; I have two more ideas rolling around in here as well.

You’re a long-time blogger and active in social media. How does this connectivity hurt/help your writing?
My relationship with blogging has changed radically since I started doing it in 2004, but technology and the world have changed significantly in that time. Part of that change—microblogging—I felt was a direct influence on The Nanopedia Quick-Reference Pocket Lexicon of Contemporary American Culture. I love Facebook for connecting me with writers all over the country and the world, people I am lucky to see once a year. Does it hurt? I’d probably be writing more if I weren’t on Facebook so often. But on the flipside, I wrote two poems this year prompted directly by things my friends have posted to Facebook, so I suppose it’s a trade off.

Name three poetry collections you’ve read recently that you can’t stop thinking about and would recommend to others. 
I know you just reviewed Steve Fellner’s The Weary World Rejoices and I would say that is definitely one on my list because it takes absolutely no prisoners, keeps nothing precious, and is delightfully/horrifyingly scandalous in its brutality. David Trinidad’s Dear Prudence: New and Selected Poems I felt are his best so far, a really intense marriage of the personal, the historical, and the cultural. And on the plane back from AWP, I reread Douglas Ray’s new collection He Will Laugh, which (full disclosure) I picked to be published by Lethe Press this year. Ray’s collection seamlessly merges high and low culture and ranges, like these others, from transcendence to brutality, often in the same line.

For more about Charles Jensen's poetry, visit his website and blog at For my review of Nanopedia, visit this link.


Shawnte said…
Thanks for this interview. You managed to cover a lot of ground in five questions. I was fortunate enough to take two of Jensen's sessions at the recent Desert Nights Rising Stars writers conference and they were among the highlights. He seemed like the kind of person/writer that you'd want to know more about. So thanks for confirming my suspicions.
Collin Kelley said…
Charlie is a fantastic person and poet. Anyone who gets to take a class with him is indeed very lucky. Thanks for reading the blog!

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