Charles Jensen is the author of three poetry chapbooks, including Living Things, which won the 2006 Frank O’Hara Chapbook Award; the founding editor of the online poetry magazine LOCUSPOINT; and the director of The Writer’s Center, based in Bethesda, Maryland. His new book and first full-length collection of poetry is The First Risk, a marvelous work that features four extended sequences, each with its own focus and identity and yet each resonant with the others on a number of levels. The first section, “Safe,” revisits the murder of Matthew Shepard in October 1998 and juxtaposes that crime with an exploration of the myth of Venus and Adonis as depicted in a painting by Luca Cambiaso. The central sections — “City of the Sad Divas” and “The Double Bind: A Critical Text” — respond to the characters, plotlines and persistent themes in two films: Pedro Almodóvar’s All About My Mother and Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, respectively. And the final section, “The Strange Case of Maribel Dixon” — previously published as a chapbook in its own right — explores the often chilling, ultimately heart-rending attempts by physicists Edward and Maribel Dixon to reach “The Ghost-World.”
Jensen read from the just-pubished collection in September at the Fall for the Book Festival and graciously agreed to a few questions here about how the book came together.
Art Taylor: Many of the poems in The First Risk respond to or are inspired by other stories, both real-life and fictional: the murder of Matthew Shepard, a Renaissance painting, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Pedro Almodovar’s All About My Mother. Does your work usually grow out of your “readings” of news stories or films or other arts? And to what extent do you anticipate that your own readers’ experiences will depend on knowledge of those sources?
Charles Jensen: While this book in particular is very ekphrastic in nature, I wouldn’t say that’s necessarily typical for me. I’ve been very interested in exploring voice in the last few years, trying on different guises. And I like blurring the lines between reality and fiction, which I think this book does extensively (the “real story” is murky with mythology, while the most invented story appears to be the most factual/documented). Since finishing The First Risk, I’ve been working on a sequence of poems in the voices of Dorothy Eady/Omm Sety, who was the most “reasonable” evidence for belief in reincarnation; Joseph Smith, who founded the Mormon Church; and Dorothy Gale, the protagonist of The Wizard of Oz. As a whole, the three voices are negotiating the relationship between faith and love, faith and certainty, and faith and reality. For this sequence, because the voices are so enmeshed in those ideas, I’ve included “historical notes” with the poems to give them context, but doing so makes me wonder if somehow the poems haven’t failed. I’m still working that out. I think a lot about what my reader needs to know when encountering the poems, and I’ve been trying to determine, particularly in readings from The First Risk, how to fill them in. I hope that readers can still enjoy the individual pieces or sequences without having ALL the background information, but I think knowing the stories behind the poems gives them added dimension.
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