Charles Jensen: Queer Writers Are Visionaries

Photo of Charles Jensen
Charles Jensen

Charles Jensen, winner of the Editor’s Choice Selection in the 2020 Akron Poetry Prize competition, believes queer writers have much-needed words to share with the world. For his part, his third collection, Instructions Between Takeoff and Landing, will be published in 2022.

Winner of numerous other awards and accolades, including the 2020 Outwrite Nonfiction Chapbook Award for Cross-Cutting, a diptych of essays that hybridize memoir and film criticism, he’s also published work in American Poetry Review, Crab Orchard Review, Field, The Journal, New England Review, Prairie Schooner, 45th Parallel, American Literary Review, and The Florida Review. A previous poetry collection is Nanopedia.

Recently, I was lucky enough to learn more about the lenses Charles employs when writing, as well as when ensuring writing.

Todd Wellman: Much of your recent writing has been about revealing the gayness or queerness within everyday pop objects. What’s an example and what’s your inspiration to do this?

Charles Jensen: I love queer readings of pop culture–perspectives that force us to re-examine theoretically innocuous or ignorable cultural products and dive into how they support, oppose, or are in conversation with queer experiences and identities. I do this in part to reject the idea that queerness isn’t always all around us, and to invite people to think critically about things–especially movies and television–they may take at face value. Tied up in all of this, for me, are representations of masculinity and femininity (and spaces beyond and between). So when I write about the gendered villainy in Fatal Attraction or the gendered expectations of the characters in She’s All That, or how evil and queer coding are evident in Shadow of a Doubt, all of that to me is a way to create more space for queerness to exist, and for us to interrogate representations that fall short of our expansive nature. 

TW: When you’re thinking about writing a new poem, what subjects come to mind, and how do you hope to honor them?

CJ: I’m going to start by saying this is almost impossible for me to answer, because I feel the subjects of my poems choose themselves–or, that subjects bubble up from the subconscious mind and I trust that process. At times, I think I have a desire to hybridize the subject–such as in Breakup/Breakdown, where my lived experience and the representations of jilted women from movies and literature form a Venn diagram–and basically wear a kind of mask that helps me express a complex idea, or I’ll be more direct and occupy the role of the speaker of my poem. I think my next book, Instructions Between Takeoff and Landing, complicates the self/speaker relationship in a way I found exciting to write.

Thinking of ordering Instructions Between Takeoff and Landing or Nanopedia? Remember to care for our literary ecosystem by patronizing a store or library that supports local communities. Read more here.

TW: One of your jobs directing the Writers’ Program at UCLA Extension is to ensure that students receive quality writing education. But what does that even mean these days?

CJ: My top priority as the leader of a community of writers is to ensure equity and inclusion are at the core of every decision we make. A community that marginalizes potential members is a country club, and I have no patience for that in writing. I think my most important role in my job is to make space for people to give themselves permission to see themselves as writers. Until they do that, they won’t thrive. And to do that, people need to see themselves represented among the instructors, in the work they encounter in class, and among their peers. Aside from that, I look for instructors whose love of teaching becomes almost like a calling for them. I know these instructors get a lot out of the process of mentoring aspiring writers, and I think that contributes to greater success in helping those writers succeed. Lastly, we try to create a lot of courses in our program, staying on trend with publishing. We’re fortunate that our program can be very nimble and responsive to changes, and that we can stay focused on what we think the future of literature and screenwriting will be, and then build the curriculum that drives students into that future as prepared as possible to succeed.

TW: What is your hope for queer writers and writing?

CJ: Queer writers are visionaries, and our intersectionalities give us unique and urgent perspectives on so many things. I want queer writing to continue to push against the failures of normative imagination, and to demand a space where many things–even conflicting things–can be true.

This interview has been edited for clarity. Charles and I served as Lambda Literary Fellows together in 2019. Read more about my nonfiction writing here. Read more about the history of intersectionality here.

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