Catalyst Events and a Time for Poetry: An Interview with Charles Flowers

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If memory serves, I first met Charles Flowers at AWP 2013 in Boston when we both participated in a marathon literary reading/off-site event called Queertopia. But I knew him by reputation long before that as a poet who advocated for other poets, both in his professional position as Executive Director of the Lambda Literary Foundation and well beyond it. I’m further delighted that it was Charles who shepherded to print my first creative nonfiction chapbook, Tremolo, in his role as the founding editor of BLOOM literary journal and press.

Charles Flowers graduated from Vanderbilt University and went on to complete his MFA at the University of Oregon. In addition to his past work with Lambda, he has served as an associate editor for the Academy of American Poets, the Deputy Director of Development at ACLU Southern California, and the Deputy Director of Arts for LA. In 2018, he was named the Poet Laureate of West Hollywood, and in 2020, A Midsummer Night’s Press published his debut poetry collection, The Idea of Him, which Joan Larkin described as an assemblage of “wrenchingly honest, beautifully felt poems.”

In this conversation, I had the pleasure of speaking with Charles about his imbricated journeys as poet, arts administrator, editor, and laureate as well as the dual obsessions that characterize his work—desire and loss.

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The Rumpus: What kinds of work have supported your poetry—not just fiscally but emotionally/spiritually and vice-versa?

Charles Flowers: These questions about work come to me at a time when I am in the midst of what I’m calling a “career challenge.” Thirty-plus years after getting my MFA I am facing the same question I faced then: How can I support myself fiscally, while leaving enough energy to sustain myself as a poet, meaning 1) finding time to write poetry, and 2) finding time to share my work with others, whether through publication or events?

Ironically, but perhaps not surprisingly, the work that has most sustained me as a poet has also drained me as a poet: my “paid” time at the Academy of American Poets and at Lambda Literary Foundation, and my “unpaid” time editing and publishing BLOOM. In each of these positions, I was in the center of a creative universe of poets and LGBT writers: reading work, learning about other writers, advocating on behalf of poets and LGBT writers, contributing to our literary community in real and tangible ways.

I LOVED each of these experiences. And yet, I didn’t write poetry during any of them, with a rare exception of being in a writers’ group, or responding to an anthology call. The “poet” hat was set aside, on a wig stand for the occasional use, while the “editor/advocate” hat was huge, like the Mad Hatter’s top hat, in daily use.

A few years ago, I stopped working full-time in development positions so that I could finish and publish The Idea of Him. In December 2019, I took a part-time retail job just before the pandemic, so that I could have some kind of stable income. I have continued to write grants in a freelance manner to support myself.

Now that we are emerging (we are emerging, right?) from the pandemic, I am job searching for a full-time development position so that I can better support myself fiscally. And to ensure that the work won’t drain me poetically/creatively, I’m not applying for “literary” jobs (although such jobs are few and far between in Los Angeles). When asked about a BLOOM resurrection, I face the same dilemma: Can I publish BLOOM without neglecting or sacrificing my own writing? I honestly don’t know. I want to be able to do both: contribute to our literary community in a meaningful way and at the same time, write poetry in a meaningful way.

Rumpus: What does being a poet mean to you?

Flowers: Clearly, I see being a poet as having two components: writing poetry and sharing it (which does not necessarily mean publication). As a high school student, I came to poetry through a huge amount of reading and studying, yet the catalyst for my own writing was an emotional turning point in a relationship. In tenth grade, my girlfriend (who wrote poetry) moved away to a city in another state, so we wrote poems and letters to each other. My poetry was awful, teenage yearning writ large. Yet I turned to poetry to express something I had never felt and did not know how to express any other way. I was also being taught in school the Romantics, and I fell in love with Wordsworth (“Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.”)

So the writing of poetry has always felt essential to me, and the sharing of it came later. I became a debut author at the age of 55, so perhaps I could have started sharing earlier, and yet I have no regrets for the work I’ve done in and for the literary community.

Rumpus: The experience you describe in tenth grade, that catalyst that led you to poetry—it seems to me, or at least it has been true for me, that we tend to have such catalysts throughout our lives.

Flowers: A word about catalysts—yes, definitely they can happen throughout a life—9/11 comes to mind (I lived in NYC at the time) and the death of each of my parents as well.

Rumpus: Who were the poets/what were the poems and poetry collections that inspired you to pursue your MFA? What kind of poet were you at that time? Over the years, doing so much art and advocacy work, what shifts did you notice in Poetry Land (my colleague Campbell McGrath’s term for the larger literary landscape)?

Flowers: After Wordsworth, the next poet to significantly influence me was Plath. In my AP English class senior year, I was introduced to an amazing group of poets: Rich, Sexton, Merwin, Lowell, etc. But it was Plath who cast a spell on me that lasted many years.

Separate from the personal mythology, Plath’s subjects (“Daddy”), metaphors, line structure, and intelligence all conspired to seduce me. I wrote a few poems badly modeled after her, but thankfully enrolling in Mark Jarman’s beginning poetry writing class my senior year in college broke the spell a bit, enough that I could appreciate and love other poets such as Jarman himself, Ed Hirsch, Philip Levine, Susan Wood, Andrew Hudgins, and of course Garrett Hongo, who became my mentor later at Oregon where I pursued my MFA.

From these early influences I firmly set my poetic flag in the land of narrative poetry, and I can’t see myself writing any other way. Poetry is story to me, and I want to be understood by my reader, a goal that some contemporary poets don’t seem to share. While I was working in the poetry community, there were two main shifts happening. One was the expansion of under-recognized and thus, under-funded and under-published voices—an expansion that began, at least symbolically, with the founding of Cave Canem in 1996. The achievement of Cave Canem extends beyond the absolute brilliance of its participants (Natasha Tretheway, Tracy K. Smith, Terrance Hayes, et al.) to showing the way for identity-based organizations and presses that followed (Kundiman, Con Tina, etc.) I consciously modeled the Lambda Literary Writers Retreat on Cave Canem’s Retreat.

The second shift that I witnessed was a movement away from accessibility (from my perspective), symbolized by the explosive growth of the Language School of poetry and other experimental forms of poetry. I don’t understand the appeal of writing in a way that cannot be understood by a general reader. I just don’t “get” poems that refuse comprehension—what’s the point? Again, I’m an old-school, narrative poet, so I can imagine someone asking what’s the point of my poetry. I believe in my kind of poetry because not all of our stories have been told and told to as many readers as possible.

So a narrative impulse drives much of my book, and the poems range over the course of thirty years, from poems written during my MFA program to poems written recently. Yet my hope is that the voice within those poems is consistent, passionate, and clear and that the stories I tell resonate with others.

Rumpus: I think the questions around accessibility in literature, particularly poetry, are really important to consider, and I often find myself torn between the enticing intimacy of a frank, confessional poem—the way I think of your poems in The Idea of Him—and how a more enigmatic, experimental poem engages me differently, teaches me new ways to interact with text.

Which poem from The Idea of Him do you consider the heart poem of the collection, or the one poem someone could read that epitomizes aspects of the book’s content, style, and form?  During what time in your life was it written, and what do you remember about the particular choices you made while crafting the poem’s story?

Flowers: I love the idea of a heart poem—what a great teaching tool. I would say that “The Way We Were” is the heart poem of The Idea of Him. It’s a special poem to me on many levels. After I graduated with my MFA in 1991, I didn’t write poems for five years, mostly because of life situations. My father passed away in January 1991, and my mother passed away in October 1992. I was twenty-five and twenty-seven, respectively, so the end of my twenties was filled with grief. Eventually, I joined a writing group with a few other gay writers and that enabled me to produce new poems, of which “The Way We Were” was one. Even though I wasn’t writing poems for those five years, I was reading tons of poems (Lynda Hull was a new favorite), going to readings, some journaling, and what I call, gestating. I can gestate on a poem for a long time, starting with an inspiration, an image, or a specific phrase. The actual writing of a first draft can happen quickly. So after five years of gestating, when I joined the writers’ group, the flood gates opened and I wrote many poems.

I applied for a 3-hour master class with Mark Doty at the New York LGBT Center, and that was the poem we workshopped. When I introduce the poem, I usually say, “This really happened,” because it did. I was living in the East Village, and I was in a laundromat when “The Way We Were” came on the radio. That was the poem’s “triggering moment” that Richard Hugo wrote about. When writing it, I consciously modeled Whitman by creating an array of people who might be in that East Village laundromat: gay boys, Indian waiters, a girl with green hair. The emotional reveal (my memory of wanting to be held by my father) was also a nugget of truth. Most of my poems contain a lived experience at their core, which I then expand and add fictional elements to. This poem really resonates with people and has always had a positive reception.

Rumpus: I’d like to ask about your relationship with prose. Do you write creative prose, and if so, how is that experience different from writing poetry? Based on your own reading and writing of narrative poems, what special powers, and also challenges, does a storytelling poet have within this genre that may be unique from stories written as fiction or creative nonfiction? In other words, why write stories as poems? 

Flowers: I do write creative prose, principally memoir but also essay. The biggest influence in that style of writing has been Joan Didion, whom I was taught in that same AP English in which I encountered Plath. Her essay “Goodbye to All That” influenced me profoundly, to the point that I quoted it in cover letters to get a job in publishing when I was twenty-two.

So my prose tends to be nonfiction rather than fiction. I haven’t really been inspired to write something completely imagined from scratch. I suppose if I focused on fiction it would also have a kernel of autobiography for its inspiration. Writing a story as poetry allows me to time travel with little explanatory context, such as the juxtaposition of moments from different parts of my life or history. Writing prose enables me to give more context and detail, more “this is what happened,” that might slow a poem down. Both genres beg for interesting word choices and images. I do love long, compound-complex sentences, and if I can hammer one into a poem, I love it.

Rumpus: You’ve put your finger on something I’ve been trying to articulate for a long time about the difference between writing poetry and what might be called a lyric essay or poetic prose. So often it’s the different cadences that inform the genres—not that all poems are “fast” by comparison to all prose, but they move differently and frequently, and don’t require that explanatory context you describe.

As the third poet laureate of West Hollywood back in 2018—what does that mean to you and what makes a good poet laureate? Why is the position of poet laureate—for a city, a state, a whole country—important, particularly in a culture and climate like ours that doesn’t value poetry (in my opinion) nearly enough.

Flowers: Thanks for asking about this because poet laureates across the country are thriving, especially those who have received funding support from The Academy of American Poets and the Mellon Foundation. Often, poet laureates are given limited resources to pursue any large projects that would benefit poetry and the public. In this program, each poet laureate selected is given $50,000 to “undertake meaningful, impactful, and innovative projects that engage their fellow residents, including youth, with poetry, helping to address issues important to their communities, as well as create new work.”

The need of a poet laureate, as you surmised, is critical in communities and cultures that may not value poetry as much as poets and their readers do. Poet laureates are not Eeyores, bemoaning the public neglect of poetry, but rather, cheerleaders with a variety of roles, though principally, they are presenters who are charged with getting poetry in front of as many people as possible, ambassadors of poetry to other segments of the public (youth, seniors, students, etc.), and creators of new work, (as in poems written for specific occasions, such as the holidays, or the construction of a new library, National Poetry Month). In West Hollywood, the poet laureate writes a few occasional poems and adds two poet banners each year to the city’s poetry banner project.

During National Poetry Month, the city puts banners on the streetlamps that feature the name and picture of a poet and some sample lines.  Forty-three poets have been recognized in this manner, and I think it’s really cool because people who are driving by can look up and get a reminder about poetry. I like finding poetry in unexpected places, like a streetlamp banner.

In my first year as Laureate, I added Robin Coste Lewis (Poet Laureate of the City of Los Angeles and National Book Award-winner) and Garrett Hongo (who grew up in the Gardena neighborhood of Los Angeles). My second year as Laureate was extremely limited since COVID arrived. No banners, no events. Eventually, Weho resumed its readings as virtual, but originally, no events were held. I had chosen LA native Morgan Parker whose book, Magical Negro, won the 2019 National Book Critics Circle Award, and Ilya Kaminsky, whose Deaf Republic won many awards.

Rumpus: In so many ways, you embody the ambassador role as a “poet for the people,” always amplifying the work of other poets. What kinds of poems are you writing now—and/or gestating? And in what ways has our current zeitgeist challenged (and rewarded, too, I hope) your relationship to poetry?

Flowers: When I was completing my MFA thesis, one of my advisors asked me what my project was—perhaps the question for poets beginning in the early nineties. I answered simply, “Desire and Loss.” She disagreed, suggesting it was all desire. I maintain that desire and grief are the umbrellas of my poetry, and yes, grief is a kind of desire, for wanting something, someone back.

My breakthrough poem was “Wanting,” written for my MFA final exam. The assignment was to write a poem that tells a secret, and in my poem, one secret leads to the telling, or suggestion, of another, darker secret. I provide this history in order to speak about my future.

My next project is also about desire, but a thwarted, warped form of desire: addiction. Both my parents were alcoholic; I am a recovering alcoholic. Over the years, I’ve been sober and not sober, but gratefully, more sober than not. I almost saved the first poem in my book (“Sip”) for my next book, which will be a series of poems about drinking, recovery, relapse, and yes, secrecy and shame (I can see the bestseller lists now!). I’ve been gestating on a piece called “Against Desire,” since the desire to drink, for me, an alcoholic, is a desire for death. So, to live, to choose to stay sober (getting sober is easier than staying sober) is to go against that desire. Poem? Essay? Not sure yet.

As political a creature as I am, my poetry is not explicitly shaped by current or political events, unless it falls under the “personal is political.” And at one time, writing about gay love, gay sex, gay shame was more of a political act, but it no longer feels that way to me. Consider: My coming out story has been told, but coming out is constantly changing and shifting and needs retelling, and each telling has value for a particular audience.

What I know for sure is the value and need for poetry are eternal. I was working at the Academy when 9/11 happened, and the public hunger for poetry was immediate and powerful. As a reservoir of human emotion and experience, poetry gives us something that few art forms can do as well, and people turned to poetry—for comfort, for comprehension—in the wake of that event. Again, it’s the idea of a catalyst that expands the audience for poetry.

 

 

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Author photo by Tony Coelho


Julie Marie Wade is the author of 13 volumes of poetry, prose, and hybrid forms, including the newly released poetry collection, Skirted (The Word Works, 2021), the book-length lyric essay, Just an Ordinary Woman Breathing (The Ohio State University Press, 2020) and the limited-edition, hybrid-forms chapbook, P*R*I*D*E (Vermont College of Fine Arts, 2020), which won the inaugural Hunger Mountain Chapbook Prize. A recipient of the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Memoir and grants from the Kentucky Arts Council and the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, she teaches in the creative writing program at Florida International University. More from this author →