|Poet Charles Coe|
Poet Charles Coe: Forgiving himself. Forgiving his Parents. All Sins Forgiven.
Interview by Doug Holder
Poet Charles Coe has lost both of his parents, but he still talks with them through his poetry. In his new poetry collection from the Leap Frog Press: All Sins Forgiven: Poems for My Parents he writes about his parents with eloquence and insight. He has been around the block and realizes we are flawed, we love and hurt each other, we sin, and we forgive. In his collection he deals with the complex relations between parent and child in an evocative manner that only a skilled wordsmith could pull off. I spoke with Coe on my Somerville Community Access TV Show Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer.
Doug Holder: E. Ethelbert Miller, author of Fathering Words: The Making of an African-American Writer wrote of your work: "Here is a collection that captures the and intimacy within the black family that sadly goes unnoticed by much of America." Why are these qualities not noticed by society?
Charles Coe: I think a lot groups, cultural groups, ethnic groups, are portrayed by the media in pretty stereotypical ways. A lot of the time when you see a black family portrayed on a TV show or movie, you see them in the context of violence and gangs, domestic discord, sports and music. But I think there is not enough about ordinary life. A lot of the poems in my collection All Sins Forgiven are about ordinary family life.
DH: Your new collection is from the Leap Frog Press. Ownership has changed recently. Can you give me a brief history of the press and your involvement with it.
CC: Leap Frog was started in the 1990's by the marvelous poet Marge Piercy and her husband the novelist and writer Ira Wood. In 1999 they approached me to see if I was interested in submitting a manuscript for publication. A I was very excited to and we worked out a deal for my first poetry collection Picnic on the Moon. Because of my other writing and my full time job it took awhile for the next to come out All Sins Forgiven. Leap Frog was under new ownership when they published All Sins Forgiven.
DH: You have an extensive background as a jazz vocalist. Can you talk a bit about your influences?
CC: That would be a large task. But my platinum standard is Ella Fitzgerald. She is my alltime favorite vocalist.
DH: Do you ever do Scat singing?
CC: I don't focus on that as some jazz singers do. Scat is like peppering a stew. I think scat singing is one of the influences that Hip Hop artists look to for inspiration. I think in some cases the most creative writing around is Hip Hop lyrics.
DH: Your new collection deals with your late mom and dad. How has your view changed about your folks from when you were young to now in your 60's?
CC: When you are young it is very difficult to realize that your parents are actually people and that they are flawed and complex. When you are young they are viewed like your high school teachers. It is as though someone puts them in a closet and unplugs the battery, and shuts the door. And they are awakened just in time to teach the next class. The older you get you realize there are a million questions you want to ask: What were they afraid of? What were they sad about? What were they proud of? I can't have those conversations with them now because they are gone. My book is in a way a route to asking them those questions.
DH: I remember when I was writing my Master's thesis on food in the fiction of Henry Roth, my thesis advisor thought food might be a trivial theme. You use food through out your book: your father cooking pot roast, a Thanksgiving dinner, etc... Through your use of food in your poetry you really get at the texture of life.
CC: I really like to eat food. I love food...perhaps a bit too much. I think food is an incredible way to share time together--bonding, comfort and community. The knuckle heads that told you food is trivial don't know what they are talking about. They practice a form of literary snobbery. There is no subject under the sun under the sun that is trivial. The only thing that is trivial is the mind that approaches the subject. You know great poetry can make the banal profound. Bad poetry can make profound, banal. It is not the subject matter--it is the writer.
DH: Did this poetry collection give you a sense of closure?
CC: Yes and no. I am very glad that I wrote it. I wrote it to understand something about my parents. But it was not just through writing the book, but it was in the process of getting out there, plunging into readings and explore things through the questions people ask me. The idea that I came to some ultimate understanding of my parents is not the case. The people you are closest to can be the most mysterious. We are a mystery to ourselves.
DH: Tell me about your work with the Mass. Cultural Council.
CC: I have been with them for 17 years. I oversee a grant program that gives money to arts organizations. This is not targeted money. The money can be used for many things. This is the hardest money to get. Part of my job involves traveling around the state. I go around the Commonwealth to see what art organizations are doing. Porch sitting I like to call it.
DH: The title of your new collection is All Sins Forgiven. Whose sins are forgiven here?
CC: I am sort of forgiving myself for not helping them more and spending more time with them. But I am also forgiving them, for their shortcomings as well.
TEACHING MY IMAGINARY SON TO FISH
Never take fishing too seriously. Find a shade tree
by a creek bank to lean against on a sunny day with
a mild breeze blowing. Toss your line into the water
and set aside, for awhile, the cares of the day.
Never move too fast; in fact, try to move as little as possible.
And remembe...r; sometimes your best days fishing
will be the ones you go home empty-handed.
These are lessons my father taught me; not in words,
but in the way he’d whistle while unraveling a tangled line,
or laugh when some big catfish slipped the hook. I am
the end of my father’s line, with no one but you to teach
those things I am only now beginning to understand.
And I struggle with his final lesson, the mere fact
of his absence, an the idea that wriggles in my grasp,
like a worm I can’t seem to thread onto the hook. --- Charles Coe