Welcome back, Charlotte Pence!

This month we are celebrating the titles that we’ve acquired in the past six months. These manuscripts came to us through our open reading periods. Today we bring you Charlotte Pence, author of the poetry collection Code, which will be published in May of 2020. This will be Charlotte’s third title with Black Lawrence Press.

Have a manuscript you think we’d like? During our November Open Reading Period we are looking for poetry (chapbooks and full-length collections), short fiction (again, both chapbooks and full-length collections), novels, novellas, nonfiction (CNF, biography, cultural studies) and translations from German. Also, our Big Moose Prize for the novel is currently open to early bird submissions.

The Author

Charlotte Pence’s first book of poems, Many Small Fires (Black Lawrence Press, 2015), received an INDIEFAB Book of the Year Award from Foreword Reviews. The book explores her father’s chronic homelessness while simultaneously detailing the physiological changes that enabled humans to form cities, communities, and households. She is also the author of two award-winning poetry chapbooks and the editor of The Poetics of American Song Lyrics. Her poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction have recently been published in Harvard Review, Sewanee Review, Southern Review, and Brevity. In May of 2020, her next poetry collection titled Code will be published by Black Lawrence Press. She is the director of the Stokes Center for Creative Writing at University of South Alabama.

On Writing Code

Within two years, three people close to me passed away: my father-in-law, my friends’ sixteen-year-old daughter, and one of my former bridesmaids.

I was grappling with grief and frustrated by the lack of ways to deal with it, particularly since I’m not religious. I couldn’t journal my way out of it; I couldn’t exercise or temper-tantrum or pity-party my way out of it. Ultimately, I had to keep on going—and somehow move under the weight of knowing there was no consolation. What I wanted, what I really wanted, was to see all these people again. 

I was essentially asking myself how to keep close those who had died. My former bridesmaid haunted me the most. She died when her children were below the age of six and would have no memory of who this wonderful person, Shira Shaiman, their mother, even was. 

I found solace knowing that Shira lived on within her children’s bones and blood. Her DNA was with them and might produce that same smile, that same hopeful nature, that same spark for living. The thought of inheritance led me to thinking about other ways that we preserve what came before us, other codes. I visited painted caves in Spain, for instance. But my main interest was in DNA. I began reading everything I could on DNA—which eventually led me to CRISPR, a new gene editing tool that made spectacular news this November for its early positive signs in helping one patient eradicate sickle cell disease.

Still, I am a poet, not a science writer. So, the question became how to discuss the power of inheritance through poetry? My answer was one as powerful as inheritance itself for preserving history: story. 

At its center, Code features a narrative sequence with three fictionalized characters: a new father, a mother dying young from an inherited disease, and that mother’s own DNA.  The mother is a geneticist who is interested in using CRISPR to fight her inherited disease. 

The inclusion of DNA’s perspective opened up another lens through which to examine what constitutes life. If DNA could judge success, it would do so not on how long a person lived, but how long that person’s DNA-line lived. So, DNA counters the parents’ perspectives in the poetic sequence; it does not grieve as they are grieving. I think that perspective is useful, and true; Life need not be seen as some discrete unit of time, but a longer continuum. Ultimately, Code is a book about grief—specifically, how to accept it. These poems attest to how we preserve what is lost.

Advance Praise for Code

“In her breakthrough book, Code, Pence has enhanced the language  of poetry with the language of science.   Her poetry reminds us that even as we know more and more about who we really are, life itself remains beautifully mysterious.”
—Mark Jarman, author of The Heronry

Code is rich with urgent lines that pay close attention to the complicities of privilege and the need to shape the next generation’s social conscience. Through a voice both tender and bracingly honest, Pence has opened a new dimension for poems about the maternal.”
—Jane Satterfield, author of Apocalypse Mix

“Never have I encountered such tenderness and scrutiny in the scientific turned elegiac. Pence is capacious in her attention to life, calling on us to witness what tinkers above and below surfaces, to carry on the legacies of those lost to us.”
—Diana Khoi Nguyen, author of Ghost of, a National Book Award finalist