Charlotte Innes is the author of Descanso Drive * (Kelsay Books, 2017), a full-length book of poetry, and two chapbooks, Reading Ruskin in Los Angeles and Licking the Serpent, both from Finishing Line Press. She has published poems in many U.S. journals, including The Hudson Review, The Sewanee Review and Rattle, as well as U.K. publications such as Antiphon and Riptide Journal. Her poems have been anthologized in Wide Awake: Poets of Los Angeles and Beyond (Beyond Baroque Books, 2015) and The Best American Spiritual Writing 2006 (Houghton Mifflin, 2006), amongst others. Born in Derby, England, the daughter of an Englishwoman and a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, she was educated at Bedford College (London University) and Columbia University in New York, where she received a master’s degree in journalism. A former newspaper reporter, she has also written about books for various publications including The Nation and The Los Angeles Times. She has lived for 30 years in Los Angeles, where she has taught journalism at the University of Southern California, as well as English, journalism and creative writing at high schools throughout the Los Angeles area.
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The High Window is pleased to include four new poems by Charlotte Innes. But first here she is in conversation with Wendy Klein, whose poetry also appears in this issue.
This conversation arose from an exchange of e-mails between the poets that began in November 2018, continued on and off since then, finally taking shape in March 2019. Wendy and Charlotte know each other’s work—and each other—quite well already. And since Wendy is an American-born Englishwoman and Charlotte is an English-born American, we thought that an exchange between the two might produce an interview with an interesting slant.
WK: Hi Charlotte, I’ve been thinking about the way we are in some ways the reverse of one another: you, English, with your poetry home in California and me, American, with my poetry home in England. In a way, that’s what comes up for me when I read your poetry. The earlier material is such a mixture of California-speak, with a back-beat of English formality, and the more English formality seems to emerge more and more in Descanso Drive as your authentic voice. I have a sense of you finding your English voice in Los Angeles.
CI: That’s such an interesting way to look at my work, Wendy. I’ve often wondered how much being English has nudged me towards form in my poetry. My default mode these days is definitely iambic pentameter—well, blank verse, actually. We read a lot of Shakespeare at school, and I acted in A Midsummer Night’s Dream when I was 15 going on 16. I played Oberon—this was a girl’s grammar school, back in the 1960s—and I remember just how delicious it felt rolling out that gorgeous language, and how exhilarated I was by the rhythm of it. And like most teenagers, I wrote poetry, although not in any sort of form—just instinctive stuff. I came to formal poetry much later. Well, I came to just about all poetry much later!
WK: When was that exactly?
CI: After my teenage efforts, I didn’t read or write poetry again until my late forties. And when I did, it was like music in my head. I had no real awareness of form at all—aside from an instinct to keep it tight, which I learned from journalism—but then I started to be curious about rhyme and meter. It was a mystery to me, and I wanted to understand how it worked. I wanted to learn the craft. I didn’t think of it as something that might be innate, or central to my being, or anything like that. Not at first. At any rate, I joined an amazing Internet workshop called Eratosphere. That must have been in 2011. It was partly amazing because so many good, quite well known poets were critiquing there for a while. Poets like Alicia Stallings, Maryann Corbett, Sam Gwynn, Julie Kane, Rick Mullin and the late Timothy Murphy, just to name a few. Also, they were from all over the English-speaking world, including quite a few from the UK—Ann Drysdale, for example, and John Whitworth. It was very tough and challenging—they kind of beat me into shape! I never rhymed much, though. At least not back then. And the last poems I posted there were starting to loosen up a bit, still in meter, but somehow more relaxed. I suppose I was beginning to feel more confident. Interestingly, some good formalists on the site liked those poems a lot, so I knew I must be doing something right, even if I wasn’t rhyming!
I also used to attend an annual poetry conference (which has an emphasis on form) at West Chester University in Pennsylvania where I took workshops with formalist poets, like Dick Davis and Timothy Steele. And I went to Spetses, an island off Greece, where I took a two-week workshop with Alicia Stallings who lives in Athens. (I was lucky enough to get a study grant to do this from the school where I was teaching at the time.) I learned an enormous amount about craft from Alicia. One thing that sticks in my mind is that tiny words like ‘the’ can be little engines that push important words along, or create emphasis. Duh, you might say. But again, the point is I started to understand why and how these small craft maneuvers worked, so my writing became a mix of instinct and craft awareness—more so than before. I also go to workshops fairly regularly here in Los Angeles, currently with Gail Wronsky, a poet and professor at LMU (Loyola Marymount University), and occasionally with David St. John who’s at USC (the University of Southern California). The other poets are almost all free-versers, but we understand each other’s work, and I get great feedback, from teachers and workshop members alike.
WK: I’ve noticed that recently you’ve turned to some fairly strict forms, like the sestina, the rondeau, and terza rima in ‘Near Clun.’ Why is that?
CI: I’m trying these forms for two reasons, I think. One is to challenge myself: what would happen if I wrote a rondeau, or a poem in syllabics, like ‘Sea Grass’ (see below)? The second reason is sheer panic that I haven’t written a poem lately. Ekphrastic poems can help there—at least you have a painting to inspire you—as in my poem ‘Umbral,’ also published below. Actually, come to think of it, there is panic in that poem! And its original title was ‘Try,’ as in, for heaven’s sake, try and write this bloody poem—although it sort of fit the subject matter as well. But seriously, choosing a form seems to help me tap into some deep concerns that need to surface. Form brings out feelings. Sounds weird, I know, but I think it’s inherent in the process. Because of form’s bottom-line requirements, especially in something as strict as the rondeau, I find that, as I search for words that will fit the meter, rhyme scheme, or whatever it might be, I’m pushed in new directions in terms of the ideas in my poems. I say things I wouldn’t have thought of, in ways I might not have thought of.
Is this my ‘English voice,’ as you put it? I think I would say, at least partially. I’m happy that you use the word ‘authentic.’ Because that’s what I’m aiming for above all. To be true to those inner complications where poems first take root. I have to add, I hate formal poems that sound overly rigid or too much by the numbers. My goal is to sound as natural as possible.
WK: That all makes sense to me. As for ideas, I see a huge arc of development from ‘Reading Ruskin in Los Angeles’ through Licking the Serpent, which makes a curious somewhat angry or rebellious bridge to Descanso Drive, which is full of resolution. You don’t need your ‘friend the philosopher’ any more!
CI: Thanks, Wendy! Yes, I think of Licking the Serpent as my ‘dark’ book, reflecting a few rollercoaster years in my life, you might say. The poems that feature ‘my friend the philosopher’ did initially stem from a relationship, long since over, which then morphed into thoughts in my head. Recently, and very briefly, I entertained the idea of bringing the philosopher back, but found I didn’t want to, except for the Roman philosopher Boethius who features in my sestina, ‘Sestina for Holy Thursday.’ I really got a kick out of his book The Consolation of Philosophy, in which the philosopher is a woman. What she has to say about evil, the nature of power and the possibility of happiness is so relevant right now. I also loved that the book alternated between poetry and prose, a form I was considering at the time.
As for ‘resolution,’ it’s true that some of the poems in Descanso Drive fumble blindly towards making sense of life. I don’t know if I’m there yet, or if I ever expect to be, but I’d like to hope that in my poetry I can or will be able to tackle some of what I call ‘ineffable complexities’—actually, I just made that up!—but it captures what I mean. Things that are barely describable that need to be said. One example is a pantoum I wrote recently, my one and only pantoum, called ‘This is Not,’ that I felt could best express my torn feelings about Palestine and Israel. My interest in that topic comes at least in part from my family’s Holocaust history and my father’s lifelong socialism. As you know, I grew up in a very political household. In the end, the poem ended up being a sort of anguished cry about all the extremist violence in the world. The repeating lines worked perfectly to convey my feeling of repeatedly bumping up against questions that seemed to have no answer. And that was something I didn’t choose. The pantoum just pushed its way in as I wrote.
WK: Quite a few of your poems are about your family’s Holocaust history. Is that what inspired you to write poetry?
CI: Good question. I don’t think of it that way, but in fact several of my earliest poems are about my family and the Holocaust. That includes my first published poem in 2005, the title poem of my chapbook, Reading Ruskin in Los Angeles. I was lucky enough to publish that poem in The Hudson Review, in an issue that included writers who had never been published before in a particular genre. It was a huge honor and gave me the confidence to think that I really could be a poet. The icing on the cake was that this poem was also reprinted in The Best American Spiritual Writing 2006. However, when I started the poem, I was not thinking about the Holocaust. I was looking out of my apartment window thinking about the light and the sun and the foliage in my neighbor’s garden, and this took me through a series of other thoughts that ended up with my reading passages in my grandfather’s early 20th century volumes of The Stones of Venice by Sir John Ruskin. These books, as I say at the top of the poem, are ‘my only tangible inheritance.’ My grandfather died in the Nazi concentration camp in Theresienstadt, a fact that ultimately crept into the poem. And more such poems followed. However, when I wrote these poems, I didn’t know why I was writing them, but I think I can now safely say they came from some deep feelings about the damage done to my family by the Nazis that has filtered down through the generations, as well as enduring questions about who I am and where I belong, and about identity in general. The poem below, ‘For a Moment, A Child’s Wonder,’ about my father’s death just over two years ago, addresses some aspects of that kind of emotional distress. Now I’m weighing the question of where I belong head on, as in ‘Near Clun’ below, which I actually wrote in England last year on a weeklong Arvon Foundation retreat in Shropshire. I kept looking at all the beautiful countryside around me and thinking: Is this me? Is this where I belong? Which sent me off to consider themes of invasion and immigration.
WK: So would you say your poems are becoming more political?
CI: Definitely, because of the times we live in. But I also think the urge towards social justice has been with me all along. I began with the Holocaust poems and now I’m writing about the environment.
WK: The importance of place again.
CI: Absolutely! But the shadow of Nazism keeps popping up, often unexpectedly, in what I write all the time. Oh heavens, I just remembered that my only decent teenage poem was about Auschwitz! I think I was 14 at the time, and my father had given me a magazine article to read about the concentration camp at Auschwitz. I wish I could remember which magazine that was. At any rate, it made a big impression on me.
WK: When you first started writing poetry weren’t you also a journalist? How did you go from one kind of writing to another? Why did you become a poet?
CI: In a very roundabout way. I took Latin and Greek in college. I remember my father asking, ‘But is that marketable?’ Of course not! I just loved ancient myths, which also haunt some of my poems. But I always wanted to be a writer of some sort, which is why I went into journalism. It was simply to make a living at first, although I ended up being fascinated by the detective aspect of reporting, of trying to root out what were sometimes difficult truths. That makes it akin to poetry, I suppose. But I actually had it in my head that I would write fiction because I loved to read novels and short stories. (Chekhov was and still is one of my soul-mate writers.) In my late 20s and early 30s, I tried and tried to write short stories, sent them out and got some good responses, although none were ever published. I stopped because I felt stuck. I couldn’t get beyond my own life. But I also got fed up with being a newspaper reporter. It was fun and I was quite good at it, but something was missing. I decided I would be a freelance writer and only write about books, which is what I did for about 10 years. By the time I was writing for The Nation, I think I was inching closer to being a poet. I realized that the books I liked the best had gorgeous language—Rikki Ducornet is one writer I loved back then, and still do—or surrealism, like My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk, in which a corpse speaks. I love that book! Interestingly, for both writers, social justice is also central to their work, so gradually, language and ideas have come to mean the most to me. My editor at The Nation, Art Winslow, encouraged me not only to dig deeply into the books I reviewed but also to write in a personal way. This was my first taste of having a voice of my own.
Teaching was the next step. I couldn’t make a living freelancing so I started part-time teaching then went full-time. While I was teaching Advanced Placement English Literature to high school juniors and seniors in the late ’90s, I decided I needed to know more about poetry so I took an Introduction to Poetry course at UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles). I absolutely loved it. The professor, Charles Lynn Batten, was a hugely inspiring teacher and very funny! He made poems come alive for me. We read poetry through the ages and I discovered John Donne and all the other greats. Lynn Batten also made us write poems. That’s when I thought, I’ve got to do more of this, and I took my first poetry workshop, with Suzanne Lummis, also at UCLA. I learned a lot from Suzanne, although it took me several years of writing rubbish before my poetry started to click. Another key teacher was Cecilia Woloch. I’m very grateful to both women, who are also fabulous poets in their own right.
Also, my life was changing. Just over 18 years ago, a relationship I was in fell apart, and I moved to the apartment where I still live. I remember feeling a tremendous sense of excitement. It’s a beautiful old building—old for LA!—built in 1927. I have a semi-circular living room, and the effect of the Southern California light coming through windows that curve around in a half circle was utterly transformative. I would lie on my sofa and feel pure joy. I wrote a lot of poems that way. Then of course life got complicated again, but, however bad things were, I always had that safe haven of light and all the trees I could see from my window, a sense of beauty. Recently, the street has changed. The old carob trees that lined the median became diseased and had to be cut down—I have poems in my book about that—and right now, the street is being dug up and totally revamped. At first, all this was heartbreaking, but I’m beginning to feel something might come of it eventually. Something related to my poetry.
WK: Were there any poets who meant a lot to you, who led the way in the beginning? What are you reading now?
CI: Well, in the beginning were all those classic poets I learned about from Professor Batten. In fact, two of the poems on the final exam made a lasting impression on me, ‘Design’ by Robert Frost and ‘The Colonel,’ a prose poem by Carolyn Forché. Interesting that one’s a formal poem, a sonnet, and the other isn’t, although it’s very carefully crafted. Mary Oliver’s work drew me in. That’s not uncommon for beginning poets, I think. Her work seems—is—simply written and quite beautiful. I also read Oliver’s books on craft. Very helpful indeed. ‘The Wild Iris’ by Louise Glück was important to me. I just stumbled on it in a bookstore—one reason bookstores are still needed!—got my mind blown, and have subsequently read a number of her books, each one very different from the last. I admire that. Elizabeth Bishop has been huge. I read ‘At the Fishhouses’ just before writing my poem ‘Descanso Drive’—which is nothing like hers, but her spirit was with me. In fact, there are hundreds of poets I have read with an almost despairing admiration—as in, wish I could do that! Among English poets, Edward Thomas has been important, both for his real, unsentimental takes on the English countryside, and the fact, that he was a formal poet who was nudging the boundaries of form in the early 20th century. I am also snowed under at home with numerous books by contemporary American poets. Right now, I’m reading The Carrying by Ada Limón, which I like a lot. It’s free verse, but I sense an undergirding of form. In fact, come to think of it, form-informed poets are among my favorites, poets who are not necessarily strictly formal, but they do know meter and understand the craft of it. I have to mention B. H. Fairchild here, one of my heroes. Some of his poems, especially those in The Art of the Lathe, I keep reading over and over, for his beautiful, loosely form-driven lines, and for his combination of gritty everydayness with a sort of Blakean spirituality. Great stuff.
WK: Where do you see your own poetry going?
CI: Oh that’s a tough one. The truth is, who knows? I go through periods when I wish I could write free verse, and perhaps I will keep trying. A very good contemporary American poet, Douglas Kearney, once said to me, why not try sprung rhythm, which I thought was a good idea. And I do love Gerard Manley Hopkins, for his gorgeous language, the over-the-topness of it, and his long lines, though I don’t think I have seriously gone in that direction yet. I’d like to try. What else? Right now, I have no desire to write a book-length poem—I tend to write very short poems on the whole—but honestly, who knows what obsession will pop into my head? In some ways, it’s rather nice having my poetry future be something of a mystery, just as individual poems start out as mysteries—and sometimes stay that way!
WK: Well, Charlotte, let’s finish with ‘mystery!’ It’s been lovely exchanging ideas with you, and I hope we can do more of this, by e-mail and in person.
CI: Thanks so much, Wendy. I hope so too.
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Charlotte Innes: Four Poems
Mid-morning, razzed by coffee, cake and fear,
I leave a table scarred by others’ rings
and stains for Radnor Wood, a hill quite near
this house where rhododendron flowers, spring’s
imperial purple, shrink to scraps of dusty
leather. Climbing the hill, some Iron Age king’s
unfinished fort, I hope to find—a rusty
nail, perhaps. There’s nothing much. A wreath
of nettles marks the ditch, and on the gusty
scarp, almost invisible beneath
a mass of close-packed pines, bracken, grass,
a glimpse of old stone wall gives—what? Relief?
Birdsong, celandine, sorrel, June at last,
and yet that sense of lack that sent me out.
I could be anywhere. These trees could pass
for German forests my father hiked, a scout
in the only troop who’d take him. Animal scat
recalls my city’s mountain lions, locked out
from wild terrain by freeways, killed by rat
poison, in prey, not far from where I live.
It’s been my home for eighteen years, that flat,
in its nest of streets, strewn in June—this gives
me vertigo—with jacaranda. A gloss,
another purple one, on home. Which is—
Here? Where I was born? I peer across
the valley at Clun’s cottages and castle,
and all the green. I lean away from loss,
maybe. I can’t name it. Maybe the parts
we love the best lose meaning if we choose
to leave. I think of the Iron Age king, startled
by armored Romans who put this hill to use,
a limestone quarry, leaving the fort unfinished.
I wonder, did he join them or refuse?
Maybe a lowering sky, the omens, diminished
his sense of home, so charged with violation,
he had to go. I think of him replenished—
renewed congruence with the sky, placation
of gods in a new place he knew was safe
and right. The lyric of hope. What hope for nations
always in flight, the Jews, the Syrians, strafed
by war and hatred, Armenians, who long
for home? What does it mean when those whose faith
in safety shatters—fathers jailed alongside
felons, babies snatched, children caged,
pregnant women shackled—when even so wronged,
they say, this is where we want to stay.
FOR A MOMENT, A CHILD’S WONDER
Before he died, unconscious from a fall,
my father smiled. At least, I think he did.
Hearing is the last to go, they told me.
Perhaps he caught my voice. Perhaps the smile
showed caring after all and that I shared it.
Or maybe, hearing me, his broken brain
unearthed his father’s voice, the slap of sail,
their time together before he fled—a Jew,
who froze at age nineteen until he died
at ninety-seven. Perhaps he thought, My daughter.
Nothing more. For a moment, I watch the rain,
a window pane filling up with dots
that lengthen into lines. As drizzle thickens,
a shifting smear of words, till some drops swell
and stick like certainties or frozen tears.
—inspired by The Night Herd
by Millard Owen Sheets (1907–1989)
Wild-eyed, ears back, mouths wide open,
the dappled horses race through trees
with rotten leaves and loosening vines,
and weeds, scarred black, as if the night
were oozing through them, root and stem.
Beneath a swollen moon, they falter
near an edge where green meets black.
When leaders fail, the weakest fault
their followers. This one turns
her blood-red neck and glaring eye
to scare the doubters on—but where?
All around them rising pools
of rainfall lick their hooves. The edge
is crumbling. The dark is absolute.
There is one dot of white that could be
meadows where the horses rest.
But that’s a picture from a child’s
coloring book. Chances are
they’ll head for splotchy black, the fumes
from cars and trucks, and yellow fog
where children cough their way to school.
I want to frame it—this bright tangled strand of sea grass
stowed away in my sunglasses case until I’m home—
but this evening, under glass, the grass becomes a worm,
and a little shell (silver-blue by day) a beetle
almost crawling. Before I sleep, I slip the shell out—
in pieces now—and pulling at sea grass, filling space,
I watch a lovely long-necked bird take shape, an egret,
born of a spirited dance between two hourglasses.
Or maybe a halved guitar, the neck both instrument
and egret, as if a song might turn the times around,
or beak bear scraps through blasted hours. My elegant bird,
your belly hides two crying children. Is this their blood?
Where in this broken shell and blackened grass might I still
find deviant light, for dowsing fire, reframing night?