Charlene Fix: A Witty Poet on Language, Poetry, and Teaching
Charlene Fix answers questions similarly to how she writes poetry: By being highly quotable.
After reading her most recent collection, Taking a Walk in My Animal Hat, (affiliate link) I wanted to see if Charlene would be up for an interview. She was game, and we’re the better for it.
Charlene is the author of three books of poetry:
- Flowering Bruno: A Dography (XOXOX Press 2006)
- Frankenstein’s Flowers (CW Books 2014)
- Taking a Walk in My Animal Hat (Bottom Dog Press 2018)
She also has two chapbooks of poems, Mischief (Pudding House 2002)and Charlene Fix: Greatest Hits (Kattywompus 2012). And Charlene has published essays on Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, and she published a book about Harpo Marx’s persona in the Marx Brothers’ films, titled Harpo Marx as Trickster (affiliate link; McFarland 2013).
Whether she’s talking about writing a poem, teaching poetry, or her dog, Harpo, Charlene Fix regularly tosses out witty, insightful answers.
Below is my interview of Charlene Fix, conducted over email. And at the bottom of this post is a poem by Charlene from her collection, Taking a Walk in My Animal Hat (affiliate link).
If you’re a published poet or author, you too could be featured on Bidwell Hollow. Reach out to me via the Contact form on this website.
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Q&A with Charlene Fix
How and when did you start writing poetry?
Poetry was perhaps writing me before I was writing poetry. My mother played the piano well, so I was bathed in music even in the womb.
Because I was part of the grand engendering after WWII—kids in almost every house on the block—I had many opportunities for mischief and fun. But the city was segregated, the culture reticent, and some friends’ parents had tattooed numbers on their arms, so I grew up feeling urgent about social justice.
I began composing poetry when I was eight, encouraged by my third grade teacher, Betty Acker. (Where are you, Miss Acker? I want to thank you!). I wrote my first poem under the attic’s slanted ceiling, lying on my belly, airborne on a ruby Persian rug.
I wrote during childhood, adolescence, and college, but stopped for ten years while raising three kids. When my youngest was five, I suddenly began buying reams of paper. It was as if the reptilian portion of my brain knew before the rest of it to prepare for the coming avalanche.
That was at least 30 years ago. I have written way too many poems since.
How do you approach writing a poem?
When I started writing again, I felt seized by the need to let things that occurred to me play out on paper. I was often preoccupied, part of my mind working on poems as I went about daily life. Each poem-in-progress was a magnet drawing images, figures, sounds, some gold laced with other metals.
I felt a physical compulsion to write, an insistent need that I obeyed. I did not necessarily know much about the what or why: an image, an idea, a glimmer, a memory would jog my sensibilities, loosening a language-spinning facility. I trusted poems to find their way on paper. Once I had a draft, usually a big messy one out of which I would lift the poem, it was like being in love, for I would think about the poem waiting for me and long to be with it again.
I still write that way—compelled by something perhaps I am only a conduit for, writing big messy drafts, chiseling out the poem. There is an essential mystery to writing poems, so I try to get out of the way to let the poem realize itself and assert its needs, including formal ones.
I don’t necessarily know when a poem is complete, but I know a few things: when it has not settled yet (which can, in some cases, go on for years), and when I am hammering the gold too thin and must pull back.
When the poem stops moving around, it is almost complete. Almost, which is as far, I think, as I can take it.
What was your process in compiling, Taking a Walk in My Animal Hat?
I gathered poems written over a span of years: some quite recent, some written years ago, some previously published. Because all of the poems harbor creatures great and small, the book already had a kind of cohesion.
In addition, the poems suggested thematic sections to me: “Journey Through Owl” (poems on transformation), “The Vexed Wind” (poems on struggle), and “Tongue Without Words” (poems on wordless communication). I am also grateful to Larry Smith, Bottom Dog Press’s editor, for nudging me to do some rearranging.
When a poet sends out a book, he/she/they faces a dilemma: front load it for contest judges who will not read far into the book if they aren’t hooked early on, or allow the book its organic shape, even if that means the best poems end up buried. The caveat to this is, of course, who knows, finally, which are the strongest poems in a book? Only time and the readers who ride it ultimately decide.
But let’s say anyway that I sent Larry a front-loaded manuscript, while he preferred to engage readers by opening with more down-to-earth poems. So I began to move poems around, preserving the general arc of thematic sections but loosening them up. Lo, the process made me see new relationships, rhymes, conversations, calls, responses, and reflections between and among poems.
I have heard many poets describe making such discoveries by spreading poems on a big floor, but it has never been easy for me. Nevertheless, it happened during the editing of, Taking a Walk in My Animal Hat (affiliate link), at a branch library close to Camp Bow Wow where my pup Harpo spent intermittent days. There, with me focused and free of interruptions, the poems clicked into place.
Charlene Fix on teaching poetry
You used to teach poetry at Columbus College of Art & Design, correct?
I taught for almost 30 years at Columbus College of Art and Design, poetry for perhaps the last 15 or 20, but also essay writing, introduction to literature, Film and Literature, American Literature, and some Literary Studies (special topics) courses I made up: The Artist as Protagonist, Word and Image, and Road Trip! The Picaresque Novel (and some Films). I also chaired the English and Philosophy department for a long time.
I felt lucky and humbled to be at CCAD, surrounded by artists and their daily struggles. Art and films entered my poems. A Fine Arts colleague, Anita Dawson, let me use her painting Tryst on the cover of, “Frankenstein’s Flowers.” A former student, Hannah Bess Ross, illustrator extraordinaire, provided the cover image “Wolfboy” for, Taking a Walk in My Animal Hat.
Before CCAD, I taught English at Bishop Watterson High School in Columbus, OH, for 10 years; I’m still friends with some of those students. Before Watterson, I taught freshman comp at Ohio State as a graduate student, and before OSU, I taught reading to adults in Atlantic City and math to heroin addicts at a drug rehabilitation center there. All of these gigs shaped me.
What are some lessons or insights that Professor Charlene Fix shared when she taught?
Before I taught writing poetry at CCAD, a member of the painting faculty asked me how one would teach poetry. I replied, “I don’t know.” But it turns out I did know.
I suspected it would be difficult to teach the pirouettes of the poetic imagination or stretch the musical lobe or deepen the soul’s capacity for empathy and insight, though I could try. I felt more confident that I could teach the craft side of poetry, hoping to broaden my student’s repertoire of tools and options—the correlative of the art tool boxes CCAD students carried around—so that when necessity, empathy, and insight called forth poems, they would be skilled.
So I focused classes on aspects of poetics: images, figures, sound, rhythm, the line, stanzas, closed and open forms, free verse, prose poems, voice, tone, persona, narrative, argument, the role of chance. We also played surrealist games, workshopped each other’s poems, even combined art with poetry by making broadsides.
I assigned essays about poetry and had them read lots of poems, from a big anthology as well as copies of compelling recent work I ran across. I tried to expose my students to life-changing poems, ones that demonstrated not only mastery of the aspect of craft we were investigating but also that which is harder to teach: imaginative leaps, precision, music, depth of feeling and insight.
Before every semester began, before I met my new writing students, I would repeat to myself the Hippocratic oath, the one doctor’s take, to “do no harm,” because poetry is a skittish ungovernable thing, and writers, especially those new to writing poems, might be vulnerable, their gifts fragile.
Do you think poetry has changed at all over the years?
This is a huge question! Suffice it to say that the superficial aspects of poetry, like clothing and hair styles, change.
Language has to change. Like water, it must flow, evaporate, fall to remain vital and not become stagnant. And if poetry, like its sister arts, exists to help us see, then in order to wash the gum from our eyes the artist/poet must make it new, make it strange, astonish us.
Yet even while poetry changes, what drives it: the need to hold in heightened distilled language some aspect of human experience or nature, to make sense or nonsense of it, remains the same. Add perennial themes like love and death and all that lies between, and you have the potential for immortal work.
Of course in the history of poetry, there have been some big shifts, like the shift away from meter and rhyme, pleasurable mnemonic devices made less necessary by the printing press; and the shift away from limitations on to who gets to write and publish poems. Now we are experiencing a great democratization, the inclusion of previously silenced or marginalized voices, an ever-expanding cannon that is exciting and gorgeous!
A related aside: Arthur Miller argued that Willy Loman, schlep that he is, is a tragic hero. It doesn’t matter that Willy wasn’t born into nobility, for social class is a superficial trapping.
When someone fights for dignity against forces that deny it, even if the battle can’t be won, the result is expanded stature. This, I think, is relevant to the democratization of poetry.
Poets, past and present, are talking to each other and dismantling walls. When we read poems from the past and present, we are listening in on the conversation. When we write poems, we are joining the conversation and sending flares into the future.
Who are some poets you admire most?
I implied once in a poem that (William) Blake is a divine intermediary while (Walt) Whitman is a Rabbi and (Emily) Dickinson a therapist. The latter two are also the father and mother of American poetry, showing us expansion and concision, ecstatic humane vision, courage, and wit. What more could we ask of the parents of our tradition?
Deeper in the past, brave Orpheus pit his art against Death. (William) Shakespeare covered a mind-boggling thematic and verbal scope. Where would we be without (Matsuo) Bashō and other haiku masters, or (Ranier Maria) Rilke, or (Pablo) Neruda?
We are nourished by poets from various times and places (and a hat tip to translators).
A list of my favorites? Impossibly long. But here are some favorites: Philip Levine, Galway Kinnell, Sharon Olds, Stanley Kunitz, Robert Bly, Elizabeth Bishop, Carolyn Forché, Robert Frost, Isabella Gardiner, Robert Hayden, Li Young Lee, W.S. Merwin, Stanley Moss, Denise Levertov, Gerald Stern, Ruth Stone, Richard Wilbur, Allen Ginsberg, W.B. Yeats, and the three Howes: Fanny, Susan, and Marie.
I’m probably forgetting some poets who are essential to me.
Charlene Fix’s current reading and projects
Have you read any good books lately?
Right now I am reading Stanley Moss’s fat, Almost Complete Poems, Adélia Prado’s, Ex-Voto, Federico García Lorca’s, Poet in Spain (I love reading Spanish with English on the facing page), and an anthology called, Holy Fire: Nine Visionary Poets and the Quest for Enlightenment, edited by Daniel Halpern.
I read literary magazines and listen to all sorts of poetry podcasts, like The New Yorker Poetry podcast, the Poetry magazine podcast, Poetry off the Shelf, especially while in the car or when dosing my eyes with medications.
I read all over the map, neglecting, as my husband often points out to me, the sciences.
What is Charlene Fix working on these days?
Currently, I’m working on two additional collections: On the Outskirts of Vertigo (a life-arc collection of poems–childhood, adolescence, marriage, parenting, aging parents, writing) and another titled, Jewgirl (song from the complicated emotional and political legacy of the particularity into which I was born).
On the back burner are more poems, a critical project involving a comic book character who fascinated me when I was a child, and my father’s letters to my mother during WWII.
I have a new dog, Harpo, an Australian Shepherd, who is channeling his namesake. We take lots of classes.
And where can we find your published work?
My first collection of poems, Flowering Bruno: a Dography, is currently unavailable (publisher’s website down), and my second, Frankenstein’s Flowers, is out of print (both, therefore, selling for ridiculous sums on Amazon), but I have some copies, so if anyone is interested in securing a copy of either, email me at cfix at ccad dot edu.
Thank you to Charlene Fix for this interview. You, too, could be featured on this blog. Use this website’s contact form to reach out.
My favorite moment in cartoons,
the one that makes me say yes! and yes!
is when the critter getting chased steps off the cliff
but keeps running on air,
remaining suspended and fine, fine,
even spry, until, of course, looking down.
Then descent is swift, breathtaking.
Want truth? I, for one, prefer lies,
the imaginative possibilities, the expansiveness,
hope, but mostly the scaffolding of lies.
Not life-sucking lies, not hate-driven
politico-military lies, but lies that make
a turf of air, lies that suspend the soul’s soles—
for if not for lies, we’d need wings to get the work done,
the kind of work that must be done
way way out on air.
– “Cartoon” from Taking a Walk in My Animal Hat (affiliate link). Copyright 2018 by Charlene Fix. Published by Bottom Dog Press. Used with permission of the author and publisher.