Charlotte Pence – Many Small Fires
At the core of Many Small Fires (Black Lawrence Press) is a harmony, but not one we usually think of. Here, oneness is born not out of ephemeral ideas like peace and love, but out of hard fact: we are all of a singular species, one that evolution allowed to come together as our ape-like ancestors never had before.
Juxtaposed with raw, honest scenes from the speaker’s childhood, science and family diverge and reunite. Charlotte Pence teaches us that not much separates us from anyone else, be it a blood relative or a prehistoric ancestor. As she writes in “Architecture of the Veil,” “In each of us, a stray dog forgets / to ask for home; a pack of roving hounds guards the door.”
AMANDA MCCONNON: In “The Branches, The Axe, The Missing” you write, “Biological anthropologists are discovering that / ‘we were born from wood / and fire’ is less / figurative than it seemed.” How would you describe how biological ideas interact with spiritual ones in these poems?
CHARLOTTE PENCE: Those lines that you are quoting serve as the spine of the book. Many of the poems attempt to answer how that is possible: how were we—and by “we” I mean our species Homo sapiens—born into this world? How were we created, and in turn, what do we do with this life? How do we behave toward each other and ourselves?
But let me return to that passage. Wood and fire. Fire and wood. These we see combined most often now in campsites. Campsites were the closest our nomadic ancestors had to a home. About 15,000 years ago is the date of the first human settlement. Yet, so much had to happen before that for us to be able to live together in houses and communities—not only emotionally, but physiologically.
Around 2.3 million years ago is when the Genus Homo diverges from Australopithecines—bipedal beings, but ape-like in many ways. (That famous skeleton Lucy is from this genus.) A fundamental shift between these two groups is that brain volume increases 33%–and some evolutionary anthropologists argue that’s from eating more meat and learning how to process it with hammers.
The next huge spike occurred around 1.8 million years ago. Richard Wrangham posits that we must have learned how to cook—which contributed to a higher calorie diet than before that required less energy to digest and increased number of edible foods. And there are a number of physiological changes to correspond with that: reduction in teeth size, jaw size, and gut size as the knife and cooking pot externally do what our bodies used to have to do.
On the literal level, our brains were able to evolve—and our bodies—from our ability to control fire and then learn to cook. Spiritually, we were born from this act. Art, language, concepts of religion, trade—all of this was developed after we controlled fire. We were not us—that essence that you cannot name—until one of our ancestors could control the light in the dark woods.
AM: Fire, home, control, evolution—these ideas all play huge roles in the book. When and how did they begin to emerge in the writing process? What role did they have in guiding the creation of these poems?
CP: Very true—all of those ideas serve as motifs throughout the book, fire especially. The line that started the book is a line that appears now on page 44: “What small mammals / did we first roast in the fire?” I was in a graduate workshop listening to my classmates talk about Robert Bly when that line came to me. When I went home and started to follow that line of thought, I found myself thinking about all the ways our homes have these different types of fires—if one expands the definition of fire to be anything that generates heat or transforms an object by way of heat. So, we have heaters, of course, but also stoves, microwaves, light bulbs—fires were all around me, but in very controlled forms. I was also thinking about my father, worrying about him as I do whenever the winter approaches. He’s been homeless since I was about twenty and roams from town to town, changing places as often as every three days.
I found myself trying to finish that poem, but I couldn’t. I realized I didn’t have the knowledge about fire to write the poem, so I started to research the control of fire. And that led to two years reading everything I could about the evolution of our species. Frankly, when I was doing all the research, I did not know if anything would come out of it. I had no clue what the connections were to that image of roasting a squirrel, with my own life, with my dad’s life, with all of our lives. But I trust in the process, in that writer’s hunch. And so I just read and stopped writing on that particular poem until I knew the facts in the same way I know the shape of my thumb. The anthropological information needed to blend with my own personal information before I could continue the writing.
AM: I can imagine a kind of joy in that—in moments when your hunch led you to those connections that are so present in the book, even if they involved links that may be personally painful. Is joy how you would describe it?
CP: Absolutely! I still feel the joy from finally seeing how it all connected. But I do want to emphasize that there was at least one year of feeling as if I were just sifting through dirt crumbs. At times, I even wondered if I was working or avoiding work.
Just a few weeks ago, I finished reading The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA. And I found it refreshing how Dr. Watson kept emphasizing all the dead ends, all the doubts, all the fumblings at times without even the goal. The creative process—like the scientific process—is not simply one of progression, but finished products can give readers that illusion.
AM: In many parts of the book, you don’t just recall your father—you bring his words right into the poem in italics. What were some of the challenges of incorporating another’s voice into your own work? What were some of the rewards?
CP: I knew I needed to bring his voice into this book as a way to honor him and to challenge that stereotypical view of the paranoid schizophrenic. Yes, my father does find threats all around him, but what I hope I conveyed is a sense of a real person who, for the most part, is scared. Scared of his own lack of control, scared of his own beliefs, but ultimately scared of being left alone—which manifests itself as fear of being buried—physically and metaphorically.
The other reason, and perhaps the main reason why I have the father talk, is to challenge the narrative. At times, the father’s voice even indicts me. Relationships are composed of many things, but power is one of them. Who has the power, who abuses that power, who uses the power for everyone’s betterment…? The opening poem, which serves as a keystone, has the father interrupting the poet, questioning her way of processing the world—which is through writing. I’m neither the victim nor the perpetrator in our relationship or this text. Including his voice reminds us of this and helps to prevent him from being generalized into the dominant narrative we have about the homeless.
AM: That’s one of the things I admire about this book–the speaker’s refusal to take place as either victim or perpetrator. Her refusal to allow anyone appear less than human. It feels as if a good deal of time has passed since many of the scenes that are described in the book took place. What role has time had for you in processing the book’s events and ideas?
CP: Good question—and an important one for any writer beginning a project. Distance. Health. And synthesis. That’s what time, the great co-writer, gave me. I did a reading with a pressmate from Black Lawrence Press, Caleb Curtiss, and his chapbook features some poems about his sister’s death. In the Q&A, it came out that both of these events—his and mine—occurred about 15 years ago. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. I don’t want to speak for Caleb, but I wrote the book once I felt safe enough to do so. Once my life was calm. There’s that famous quote by Wordsworth that people use to define poetry. The first part is: “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings….” But the second part, which is maybe the most important part and too often cut is: “It takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.”
AM: Parts of this book were written while you were backpacking with your husband in Indonesia. Can you talk a little bit about what that kind of physical distance from home did for a book where home is so important? Specifically what about Indonesia made it a place where these poems came to be?
CP: Since homelessness is foregrounded in many of these poems, home becomes a physical construct that one has the key to. This, however, is not so easy to achieve. Many of us spend the majority of our week working in exchange for ownership of this key. Possessing a key, then, is an act that can connote safety, responsibility, and belonging. But, of course, not always. Too often there is abuse, irresponsibility, and detachment within those walls that makes us want to leave. To find what? A new key, a new home, a new belonging.
To feel as if one belongs might be a person’s greatest triumph. To sustain that sort of life, be able to cultivate it—and ultimately invite others into it.
Yet, not belonging is powerful too—and is how I felt while in Indonesia. Not belonging requires us to articulate how we are different.
When I was backpacking in Indonesia—I went there for two summers in a row, eight weeks each time—I was always a little uncomfortable. Dirty or hungry or confused as I didn’t speak the language beyond the most basic of phrases. Yet, articulating what the problem was, the exact sense of my disconnect, put me back on the path to where I wanted to be. In some ways, we are always on that path, be it toward a past home or a future one. Constantly traveling as my father does helped me to think about him and his own exile. Plus, Indonesia at the time was excited over the finding of Homo floresiensis—the last species, in our genus, to concurrently live at the same time as Homo sapiens. The skeletons were found on a remote island, Flores—where I visited. What is known is that this species lived 12,000 years ago, at the same time as modern man, but displays features that existed two to three millions years earlier such as large guts, small brains, and wrists typical to that of Australopithecines. As I wrote in the book, we thought we were alone, but we are never alone.
AM: In “AgResearch©” you write “That’s the way with searching, isn’t it? / We think we know before we know.” What did you know about what this book would be before it was written? What did you discover along the way?
CP: I knew that I was going to write what I had been afraid to write. I knew I was going to write about my father. And I knew I was going to write a concept collection, which is what I like to call project books. I prefer the term concept collection because it suggests a shared sense of history and purpose with musical concept albums. Prince Pauls’s epic A Prince Among Thieves (1999), Danger Doom’s The Mouse and the Mask (2005), Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City (2012), Eminem’s Without Me, Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon, Green Day’s American Idiot, Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs and the recent Reflektor. I could go on and on with the examples from musicians. Poets, like musical artists, use the concept album as a way to explore different themes, styles, and personas in a sustained body of work. Also, concept collections allow for the next collection to be radically different.
But I didn’t know that Indonesia would feature into it. I had gone to Indonesia to accompany my husband while he researched his novel. And I didn’t know that evolution would come into it although I suspected that it might. (I love how often in the creative process the writer is not in charge, but the subconscious is.)
I also didn’t know that the book would play with form as much as it does. Blank verse, accentual verse, plus a slew of created forms like the stair-stepped poem about Cinderella’s memory corruption and how she knew that she’d always divorce the prince…. In this book, form served as another way to apply pressure on the subjective content. I’d choose a form or create a form that echoed the poem’s content. And then the revision process ultimately was a cutting process: cutting dead beats, flabby lines, trinket-y words….
AM: In “Little Visible Sky,” you write “I worry about too many memories, less and less / space to see what’s in front of me—what’s not.” I feel that much of what makes these poems resonate (with me, at least) is that they feel as if they draw on a past while framing it in terms of the present. What is your advice to keep writers who want to reflect on their history but still keep connected with the here and now in their writing?
CP: It often comes down to articulating—or insinuating—what is at stake. How does this memory affect my life today? Is there something of consequence to the here and now? Time is one of our great co-writers. But so is the subconscious. Usually something in the present made a memory of the past occur. What is that? It’s the writer’s job to figure it out. There’s that instructive short poem by Robert Frost about a crow that bumps snow off a hemlock branch onto the speaker beneath the tree. “Dust of Snow” is the title. [See below for link.] When I’ve taught that poem before, the first reaction from students is usually one of non-reaction. Why does it matter? The crow accidentally knocked snow onto the speaker. “So what?” they ask. That’s such an important question. “So what?”
The last stanza answers the question: “Has given my heart / A change of mood / And saved some part / Of a day I had rued.” As the reader, we don’t know exactly “the way” the crow shook down the snow. Maybe accidentally, maybe purposefully, maybe playfully. But it resonated with the speaker who presumably was in a dark place by the poisonous connotations of a “hemlock” and this day that he “had rued.” (For the record: Hemlock trees are not poisonous but there is a perennial that grows by streams that is.) The incident with the crow connected the speaker to something other than darkness in his life—which was exactly what the speaker needed at that moment. And that is what’s at stake in this poem—and what makes the memory resonate.
Check out Robert Frost’s “Dust of Snow” here.
Order a copy of Many Small Fires from Black Lawrence Press.
Charlotte Pence’s poetry merges the personal with the scientific by engaging with current evolutionary theory. Her first full-length poetry collection, Many Small Fires (Black Lawrence Press, 2015) explores her father’s chronic homelessness while simultaneously detailing the physiological changes that enabled humans to form cities, communities, and households. A professor of English and creative writing at Eastern Illinois University, she is also the author of two award-winning poetry chapbooks and the editor of The Poetics of American Song Lyrics (University Press of Mississippi, 2012). Pence is the recipient of awards and fellowships from the Tennessee Arts Commission, the Redden Fund, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Alvin H. Nielson Memorial Fund, the Discovered Voices Award, New Millennium Writing Award, and many others. New poetry is forthcoming in Epoch, Harvard Review, and The Southern Review.
Amanda McConnon has an MFA in poetry at NYU. Her poetry has appeared in Best New Poets 2014 and others. Favorite books include Bluets, Stag’s Leap, and Life on Mars.