Charles Jensen is the author of three chapbooks, including Living Things, which won the 2006 Frank O’Hara Chapbook Award, and The Strange Case of Maribel Dixon (New Michigan Press, 2007). His first full-length collection, The First Risk, was published in 2009 by Lethe Press. A past recipient of an Artist’s Project Grant from the Arizona Commission on the Arts, his poetry has appeared in Bloom, Columbia Poetry Review, Copper Nickel, The Journal, New England Review, spork, and West Branch.  He is the founding editor of the online poetry magazine Locuspoint, which explores creative work on a city-by-city basis.

Q (Meg Pokrass) As a reader, which writers do you feel closest to?

The writers who really grab me do the unexpected. I really enjoy experiments with form, like Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves; experiments with voice, like Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End; experiments with lyric, like Mary Gaitskill’s Veronica and Carole Maso’s The American Woman in the Chinese Hat. But I think what I appreciate most of all is a clear, believable, compelling voice, which is the strongest aspect that can run through both poetry and prose. I love David Leavitt’s short stories and Jennifer Egan’s Look at Me for this reason. And I read most of Sue Grafton’s alphabet series because I like the voice of the main character so much.

As a teacher of writing, how has teaching influenced your own work… if it has?

Being a teacher is one of the greatest gifts. It’s almost as good as being a student. Teaching requires you to look more closely at a piece of work, to read it with a different kind of eye; you aren’t reading it just to enjoy it or to appreciate it, you’re reading it to anticipate what people will ask about it or say about it. You’re also looking for the work. Antonya Nelson once said (and this is probably a gross paraphrase) that if you want to be a carpenter, one of the best things to do is turn a chair upside down and see how it was put together, and if you want to be a writer, you do this with stories. You open them up, take out all their parts, and put them  back together again. I can’t say I do this when I read for pleasure because in those times I’m looking more for the kinds of things I mention above. And I think teaching is a great way to afford yourself some sense of surprise as well. Hearing my students’ responses to work we read can pull out things I would have otherwise missed. I take back all my questions, my close readings, my discussions of work from classes and it becomes a part of my approach to writing, I guess you could say. Those new ideas end up shaping my writing as I move forward.

At different points, have you had mentors? Do you mentor?

Absolutely. I can trace my love of writing back to when I was 13. Wisconsin has a Writers in the Schools program and a poet was sent to my school to work with us for a week. That was when I really began
writing in earnest, after that, after I realized that writing was something people valued. In high school, I had an amazing mentor who worked with me for four years, looking at just about every piece of writing I did and giving me great constructive feedback. Most of all, she encouraged me to continue, and I came to believe writing was something worth doing. Although it seems small, and I think most writers already feel that way, I think that little belief is one of the major differences between someone who writes and someone who WANTS
to write. I am only more than happy to work with other people who are looking for the same kind of support, but I think I can be a tough mentor. But there’s nothing greater than seeing someone you’ve worked with catch that spark and just explode with new writing, things they’ve kept in for so long, that they’ve always wanted permission to write.

How do you stay creative? What are your tricks to get “unstuck?”

Reading, for me, is the most important creative activity. Anytime I notice I haven’t been writing, it’s a direct result of having stopped reading. I feel fortunate that, for the last several years, I’ve gotten to work in the center of two unique literary communities and that the simple act of going to work has been an act of literary
engagement in some way, but even that can’t take the place of reading. I’ve always felt it was like filling a gas tank. If I pour in enough words, my engine will continue running. One thing I’m working on right now is trying to find a way to construct more reading time in my life because I’ve felt “stuck” now and then.

What are your favorite online lit sites?

For magazines, I love The Collagist, No Tell Motel, and Anti-. They all use their “internetness” in an interesting way and publish work based on their own goals and interests, which I appreciate. I have
also been fairly active in the literary blog community (if you can call it one) for about six or seven years now. Blogging was, then, such a great way to build a personal literary community, and now I’ve found that Facebook has been a great resource as well. It’s a bit lazier since, with blogs, you must seek out content, while Facebook constantly pushes content to you. But I find I get access to new sites and new opportunities through Facebook now. In fact, Facebook was where I first discovered Fictionaut!

What is happening? What are you working on? A general view of what’s up with you…

For about five years, I’ve been working on a collection of prose poems that has finally coalesced under the title Nanopedia: The Smallest American Reference. I have a sense that I’m only about halfway through it. The only consistent connection among all the pieces is that they must fit into a 3.5″ x 3″ “window” on the page. I have another poetry manuscript in progress that I think will end up exploring different kinds of faith, and I have been trying to get back to a novel in progress called Musical Theatre in Hell, about a college production of Jesus Christ Superstar that goes horribly (and laughably) awry. I’ve also been sketching out two other ideas–a book on management that uses pop culture as a teaching tool, and a book of personal essays. I
think I’ll have time to devote to all these projects later this year, so I’m excited to really dig in and get working!

A reading list?

Gladly! You should read these!

Dylan Landis, Normal People Don’t Live Like This
Mary Gaitskill, Don’t Cry
James Mathews, Last Known Position
James L. White, The Salt Ecstasies
Nicole Cooley, Breach
Mathias Svalina, Destruction Myths

The Fictionaut Five is our ongoing series of interviews with Fictionaut authors. Every Wednesday, Meg Pokrass asks a writer five (or more) questions. Meg is an editor at Smokelong Quarterly, and her stories and poems have been published widely. She blogs at

  1. Craig Laurance Gidney

    Great interview. I find Jensen’s influences, in the first section, to be intriguing.

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