Charles Jensen on “The First Risk”

Charles Jensen is the author of three poetry chapbooks, including Living Things, which won the 2006 Frank O’Hara Chapbook Award;  the founding editor of the online poetry magazine LOCUSPOINT; and the director of The Writer’s Center, based in Bethesda, Maryland. His new book and first full-length collection of poetry is The First Risk, a marvelous work that features four extended sequences, each with its own focus and identity and yet each resonant with the others on a number of levels. The first section, “Safe,” revisits the murder of Matthew Shepard in October 1998 and juxtaposes that crime with an exploration of the myth of Venus and Adonis as depicted in a painting by Luca Cambiaso. The central sections — “City of the Sad Divas” and “The Double Bind: A Critical Text” — respond to the characters, plotlines and persistent themes in two films: Pedro Almodóvar’s All About My Mother and Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, respectively. And the final section, “The Strange Case of Maribel Dixon” — previously published as a chapbook in its own right — explores the often chilling, ultimately heart-rending attempts by physicists Edward and Maribel Dixon to reach “The Ghost-World.”

Jensen read from the just-pubished collection in September at the Fall for the Book Festival and graciously agreed to a few questions here about how the book came together.

Art Taylor: Many of the poems in The First Risk respond to or are inspired by other stories, both real-life and fictional: the murder of Matthew Shepard, a Renaissance painting, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Pedro Almodovar’s All About My Mother. Does your work usually grow out of your “readings” of news stories or films or other arts? And to what extent do you anticipate that your own readers’ experiences will depend on knowledge of those sources?

Charles Jensen

Charles Jensen: While this book in particular is very ekphrastic in nature, I wouldn’t say that’s necessarily typical for me. I’ve been very interested in exploring voice in the last few years, trying on different guises. And I like blurring the lines between reality and fiction, which I think this book does extensively (the “real story” is murky with mythology, while the most invented story appears to be the most factual/documented). Since finishing The First Risk, I’ve been working on a sequence of poems in the voices of Dorothy Eady/Omm Sety, who was the most “reasonable” evidence for belief in reincarnation; Joseph Smith, who founded the Mormon Church; and Dorothy Gale, the protagonist of The Wizard of Oz. As a whole, the three voices are negotiating the relationship between faith and love, faith and certainty, and faith and reality. For this sequence, because the voices are so enmeshed in those ideas, I’ve included “historical notes” with the poems to give them context, but doing so makes me wonder if somehow the poems haven’t failed. I’m still working that out. I think a lot about what my reader needs to know when encountering the poems, and I’ve been trying to determine, particularly in readings from The First Risk, how to fill them in. I hope that readers can still enjoy the individual pieces or sequences without having ALL the background information, but I think knowing the stories behind the poems gives them added dimension.

Thematic threads connect each of the sections of your book — and connect those outside stories (Hitchcock, Almodovar, etc.) as well: themes of love and obsession, for example, or of the body and changes to the body, or of death and grief. What concerns specifically drove you in composing these works? And why in these directions?

It’s strange, because I’d set out to write a book that examined hate crimes in America, beginning with Matthew Shepard and moving elsewhere. But I couldn’t leave Matthew. Then I thought the whole book would be about him. It had a lot of anger in it, and a good friend of mine, the poet Stephanie Lenox, suggested that the book was too one-dimensional, and that I needed to find some love in it. I really credit that comment with sparking the forward momentum of the other sections.

While the sections explore four means of coping with grief, the grief is always for a loved one. I like that you picked up on the relationship between love and the body, because the book begins with physical violence of the most atrocious kind and ends with a kind of transcendence of the physical body.

I think people who’ve read my earlier work, like Living Things, would conclude that The First Risk is a kind of sequel to those poems. That chapbook explored grief over a loved one’s suicide. And I’d say that is an extension of that work or those concerns because there’s a way that, even years later, some grief remains present and active, and I was curious about that, about how I was experiencing it myself. 

It was important to me that the book close with “Maribel Dixon” because I wanted it to be hopeful, optimistic, forgiving. I wanted the lovers to be united in the end, to have “no need for body,” which I think book implies is the only barrier separating two people.

The Vertigo section, “The Double Bind: A Critical Text,” and the final section, “The Strange Case of Maribel Dixon,” interweave several pieces that look suspiciously prose-like — critical commentary on Vertigo in the first place and fragments of manuscripts, diaries and interviews in the latter section. What prompted you toward this multi-textured approach?

I’m really interested in innovative narrative work, especially work that blurs genres. When I read Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, it totally changed the way I thought about storytelling. I used prose because I think when people look at poetry, they see “art.” But prose, because it wears so many disguises, doesn’t always look like fiction. I wanted to include prose that was “true” (the essay about the film that people would recognize as believable) and then follow it with prose that pretended to be true, and hope that it was believably so. A couple people who read “The Strange Case of Maribel Dixon” asked me how I heard about the story of Maribel, or said they didn’t find anything but my book when they Googled the names. It was then I thought I might have succeeded.

You’ve mentioned elsewhere that you once wanted to be a filmmaker. How have your interest in filmmaking and your study of films influenced your approach to writing — your style or your structuring of your own works?

Well, there’s the surface connection of using films as subjects, for one. But deeper than that, I like to approach poem construction in a cinematic way. Concepts of montage are deeply important to me, and you can see this in the way the work is ordered (and, in Maribel’s case, disordered) in The First Risk. Lyric storytelling is another thing I think cinema does very, very well — films like Memento (told backwards) or 21 Grams (told out of sequence) were very influential on me. And, of course, there’s always the relationship of image to narrative in both cinema and poetry.

Back to “The Strange Case of Maribel Dixon.” That final section of this collection was originally published as a chapbook in its own right. How has placing that chapbook within this larger context changed your sense of those poems?

Maribel was always part of The First Risk, actually, and her story always served, for me, to be the climax of the book’s arcs. I think all of the sections in this book could stand alone as chapbooks, but there’s something about Maribel’s story that is so much more self-contained, that creates a tangible universe with its own laws and conventions, and that creates and abides by its own logic. Plus, I think all of the omissions in the narrative encourage the reader to fill in the gaps themselves because they want to believe.

Okay — the secret? The structure of The First Risk was really inspired by the Todd Haynes film Poison. I wanted there to be rooms, discrete worlds, in which the reader could sit and spend time if they wanted to, but for those rooms to be linked by hallways, for there to be a way in and a way out. Maribel was just always the best way out of the book — because where else do we want to end up but completely enmeshed with the one we love? I think the book grants us that.

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