Poet Charlotte Pence had other summer plans. Her latest book, “Code,” was a finalist for the Vassar Miller Prize and due for release in May 2020, so she was anticipating a public reading tour. She had responsibilities as a University of South Alabama professor and director of the school’s Stokes Center for Creative Writing. Her James Patterson Fellowship at Tennessee’s Vanderbilt University was squeezed in there, too.
Then came COVID-19. The book release was pushed to July.
“[For] my last book, ‘Many Small Fires,’ I did about 50 readings the first year. I might do one a month online now,” Pence said. “I tell myself that books have a long shelf life and there will be an end to this, right?”
Adaptation is Pence’s constant. Her youth was spent in flux, owing to parental health challenges and relocations.
“My mom had severe myasthenia gravis and had a hard time leaving bed, so my brother and I took on running the house. We sold from our large garden to make money. We did the laundry, took care of our own schooling, took care of the yard. We did it all,” Pence said.
Her college career was marked by the same flexibility. Pence’s early focus on international relations yielded to a professor’s recognition of her literary talents.
“I just have a curious mind. I cobbled together my own major from a 100-page thesis that connects all the classes I took in college. That worked great for me,” Pence said.
The decision has proven apt. After penning a college textbook, a pair of chapbooks garnered critical acclaim and awards. She edited “The Poetics of American Song Lyrics,” a compilation of essays from 24 writers that analyzed a panorama of musical genres.
An unexpected Christmas gift — an anthology of “Best American Science Essays” — lent new direction to her own work.
“I just fell in love with it. All these strange metaphors, like I remember reading one chemist who said human beings smell like the color brown,” Pence said.
Something of her own bubbled up: a signature view of existence shot through a lens shaped by science as much as emotional pondering.
“I like pretty things, but those poems are boring and the science for me brings in another element. My poems have pretty intense emotions and the science adds something to let it move into another intellectual realm,” Pence said.
It was 2015’s “Many Small Fires” in which Pence’s life experiences — her peripatetic youth led to adult adventures around the globe with her husband — crystalized on the page. Examining her father’s later ordeals with homelessness, she wondered about the concept of “homes.” Pence dove down the anthropological rabbit hole and laced together personal journeys from millennia of human history. The poetry compilation won Forward Reviews’ IndieFab Book of the Year Award.
“Code” employs similar alchemy. Pence creates an arc from Pandora’s box of genetic decoding that bends into life’s emotional pitfalls, no less troublesome despite intellectual awareness. It’s especially timely.
“I feel like we’re always faced with our mortality, but usually we ignore it. With the pandemic, we haven’t been able to ignore it. We are reading the stats every day,” Pence said.
She dismisses any anticipation of the morose. One review called it “surprisingly optimistic.”
“When I was writing these poems, I thought about how resilient we are as a species. Just that act of getting up every day and keeping it all going, some say that takes a tremendous amount of faith. Usually we accomplish it, right? And sometimes I’m in awe of that,” Pence said.
Traces of the unexpected are there. A smidgen of absurdist humor in a poem about a high-diving suicide pulled a quick laugh from this columnist.
“I’m glad you found that funny. I was hoping someone would,” Pence replied.
Keeping tabs on an 8-year-old daughter during the pandemic has seriously winnowed her writing time, no more than a half hour daily. She laughed about “composting” future material.
“I’m also telling myself that with a new book I would be out doing readings anyway and that throws off the writing schedule,” Pence said.
She is changing tracks again for her next project, looking back to her youth when she had to cultivate self-sustenance.
“This is going to be a memoir. I’m going to try writing in paragraphs, which is going to be fun,” Pence said.
If change is in cards, so be it. Pence can persevere.
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