VIDEO TRANSCRIPT: Interview with Poet & Editor Charnell Peters
[Heads up! This transcript has been edited for clarity and ease of reading.]
Welcome to this week's video broadcast!
This week, I have the honor of sharing my interview with poet and editor, Charnell Peters.
Charnell Peters is the author of the poetry chapbook Un-Becoming from 30 West Publishing House. Her previous work has appeared in Foundry, Hippocampus, Crab Creek Review and elsewhere. She is the editor of Ruminate Magazine’s online publication The Waking.
I love our conversation here because we got to go deep into a discussion around craft plus very practical tips for poets and writers to overcome procrastination, perfectionism, and imposter syndrome.
In this interview, we touch on a few things like:
How to honor whatever emotional state you're in and write anyway
A brilliant and simple strategy for poets to outwit perfectionism, which I'm going to start using myself
How to think like a poet in daily life when you're out in the world
How new writers can manage the pressure of “creating a brand” and be content in the present moment, wherever they are in the process
Plus, Charnell shares a lovely poetry reading with us at the end, so be sure to watch all the way through
Last thing before we jump in: we’re writers, right? We do our best thinking by listening first and then writing our ideas down.
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Hop on my LitHabits VIP list below, and you'll get that worksheet straight to your inbox so you can get the most out of Charnell's wisdom.
It was such an honor to talk to Charnell about poetry and her process, and I'm thrilled to share this interview with you today. Without further ado, here's my conversation with poet Charnell Peters.
We are here today with Charnell Peters, and we're going to be talking about her lovely book, Un-Becoming.
Welcome, Charnell! I'm so glad to have you here. Can you tell us a little bit about your work and what you do as a poet?
I am currently a doctoral student. I study race and communication at the University of Utah. So that's most of my life.
But I do really like to write on the side. I like poetry, especially, and I've been doing it for a few years now. A lot of the things that I research are actually kind of what comes out in my poetry as well: themes of race and identity and embodiment, space and place, community… all those things come out in my poetry.
Wonderful. Charnell is also the editor of Ruminate’s online publication, The Waking, which I'm a contributor to. That's how we met and worked together. So it's been an absolute delight to work with Charnell as an editor.
That brings me to my question. What's one non-writing or even non-editing habit that's made a positive impact on your writing life and writing practice?
Yeah, that's a good question. Something that I enjoy doing is just finding other ways to flex my creative skills, my creative mind, and to be okay with failing at those things.
I started guitar lessons last week. I know a mean “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” and that's about it. I started painting last year. I really love tinkering on the keyboard. And I don't do any of these things extraordinarily well, but I do think that practicing being creative in other ways helps me write and helps me understand what a process it is to get to where you want to be.
Absolutely. I really believe that unless we're tapping on those other creativity centers in the brain, it's going to be really hard to draw from that creative well.
I love that you're learning guitar and you're painting. That puts your brain and your creative spirit into all of these different realms. Kudos to you!
What does your writing and editing routine look like and how have you cultivated the stamina to finish a longer work like a chapbook?
I’m not a really schedule regimented person in any aspect of my life, so definitely not my writing. But I do like to set really small, reasonable goals for myself.
Lately, it's just kind of been like, “Okay, by this month I want to have two packets of poems to send out to some journals.” That would be 8 to 10 poems that I want to finish in this amount of time. I work at things incrementally when I can.
I don't really have a set period of time that I write. I don't really have a set place that I write. I do all these things in between a lot of other things.
Maybe the way that I got to finishing the chapbook was just finding those times. Admittedly, sometimes in classes, I was scribbling things down or walking home or at night when I was done with work––things like that. Finding little pockets of time to fiddle with a phrase or a word or something like that.
I love that. I love that combination of goal setting so you're not just willy-nilly out there in the wind, but you’re also writing in the pockets.
Melissa and I chatted about that on our interview a few weeks ago… writing in the cracks of life. It sounds like you've got a good balance for that.
You kind of have to access this other consciousness. It's really important to just grab onto those [ideas] when they come. Right? Because it's almost like they're coming from otherworldly places.
When some of my readers sit down to write, they tend to feel paralyzed, like nothing's coming out. Or, like everything's been done before, and they're totally unoriginal, and “Who am I to write poetry, or who am I to write this short story?”
Or they'll end up procrastinating by doing more research or other “important things” like house cleaning or errands.
I find it interesting because with your book, I’d think there was a degree of research to it.
How do you kind of find that balance between all of that resistance? Have you experienced that resistance, and how do you move through it?
Yeah, I definitely think that I felt that resistance. I think that writing is risky and so it comes with all these emotions. You don't stop being a human when you sit down to write, even though I like to pretend sometimes I'm just like a robot, like typing things out when I'm doing academic stuff, but I'm not. I'm human.
So I feel all these emotions about a lot of things, right? Sometimes I sit down and I'm really eager to write, and sometimes I'm apprehensive and sometimes I'm... I just feel a lot of things.
Originally, when I began writing in undergrad, I thought I had to be in this particular state of mind. That I had to be feeling “this way.” I had to be thinking “this way.” I had to be in the zone. And that was what was going to make the writing really good.
That's where a lot of my resistance came from––trying to generate this state that I wanted to be in. And lately, in the last few years, I've been learning how to write from whatever state I'm in and acknowledge those feelings of “Maybe this has been done before. I'm doubtful that this is worth it. Or, I'm scared that this is not going to come across well.” Honoring those emotions and writing anyway.
I know that a lot of my resistance can come from that blank page and feeling like everything has to be generated right here, right now, or it's over. So there's a lot of pressure on getting things “right” and getting them right the first time.
A way that I work around that with my poetry is all the poems that I write in a year are in the same Word document. So if I'm writing on one poem and it feels like I can't do anything more with it, I can just scroll down to the next poem and see if there's one thing that I can work on.
So there are poems in there, and there are just kind of fragments and images that I might want to work with––poem topics that I might want to explore. There's always a place for me to go instead of feeling like everything has to be coming right now on this one thing. I can see connections in my work and that helps things come out a little bit easier.
That is one of the most brilliant strategies I've heard in a long time, especially for poets, and it could probably work for essayists or fiction writers.
I struggle with that too, that I want it to be the final draft on the first draft. That’s something I've always struggled with. I tend to get really angry at myself and I want to rip my hair out because I want [the poem] to be what it is in my brain. In my brain, I have a vision of what it's going to be. But we're humans and that's not how it works.
The idea of putting poems all in one document is brilliant because if you're in that space of “I want to work on something that's a little further along in the process, and I don’t want to feel like it's so rough draft-ty,” I can scroll down and do that.
Or if something is coming to me like a bolt from the blue, and it needs to get down, and I'm in this space to have something be raw and fresh and like a "shitty first draft", I can do that. Thank you for sharing that. That's super helpful.
I want to dive into your actual book. We were talking before we hit record about how I was re-reading parts of it in Central Park. It was such a lovely experience because, Charnell, you have a powerful way of coupling words and your word choice and your rhythm makes it hit like a pinprick to the heart… or maybe like a sledgehammer! Either one. It's so wonderful.
One juxtaposition that stood out to me was this alternating fire and water imagery. There are two poems right next to each other. And one is about water and the other is about fire. The first one is “When the Good Lord Willed the Creek to Rise,” which has a ton of beautiful and sorrowful water imagery. And then one next to that is “After the Mulch Fire in April, Southern Indiana,” which of course, like the title says, has a lot of fire imagery.
I was curious, was that intentional or something that bubbled up organically?
I think maybe both. A first, it was a little unintentional and then as I was working through the revision process, I was really trying to figure out: what is this about? What are these poems even about? As I was going through the revision process, I was able to see their repeated imagery and to lean into that and make it a little bit more prominent. Yeah, I think it was a little bit of both.
I was working with a lot of contradictions and juxtapositions and exploring identity through the kind of meshing of these things that don't always work together. What do you do when you have these parts of your identity that may or may not feel like they fit organically? I think the water and the fire imagery was a part of that process.
I was working with a lot of space and place about the Midwest and Indiana in particular and my hometown in particular of Bedford, Indiana, which is known for limestone and has this really big history of limestone, which came out of this water that was there millions of years ago, and the kind of rock formations that formed that. As I was leaning into that imagery of the limestone and the processes that made the limestone, I was able to draw those out in water imagery and other ways relating to the body, relating to other types of water, and connect those.
I love that. It worked so well. It created that powerful juxtaposition like you said. You did a great job.
And the first poem of the whole collection, “On Monday, I Decide to Eat Five Kiwi for Breakfast,” –– it jolts you awake, which is a really smart decision as a poet because sometimes we need to jolt the reader awake and be like, "This isn't just a poem! This is a jolt to your body!" I felt like, "Okay, I'm in this."
The stanza, "Once I learned I was black, I was growing into, was not one, but many millions of skins," was particularly powerful to me. It's a theme that's threaded throughout the book. Can you talk about that concept of not one but many?
Yeah, in exploring race, in particular, is really interesting because another way of thinking about this is that we are all disciplined into these racial subjects. We have no choice but to be raced and to then live in our race. And what does that mean for us? And all of that happens within community. And so I think that as an exploration of identity, I was really in these poems, exploring all the many communities that can form one person. Out of these many communities, whatever those communities are, that then forms these individuals.
We learn who we are through community. Other people––implicitly, explicitly, intentionally, unintentionally––narrate who we are, tell us who we are, and that's how we learn what it means to be a human and what it means to be a raced person, what it means to be black, what it means to be a woman, a black woman. All these things.
It was an exploration of exploring how these communities form individuals and all of the different ways that can look like, right? So it's not just the black community forms me as a black woman. It's being called the N-word as a 10-year-old in Southern Indiana, which also tells me something about what it means to be a black woman. All of these communities speaking into an individual, it's an interesting way to explore what it means to form a body, form an identity.
I love that. And it was incredibly powerful.
I'm always curious how poets dig up these powerful, unique word couplings and phrases. Because as writers, that's one of our ultimate goals, right? To not sound cliche. Everything was so fresh, so polished. One of the phrases that popped out to me as a really good coupling, and the alliteration was really wonderful, was "a trowel made of teeth.” So how do those couplings come to you, and what is your strategy for avoiding cliche (which maybe goes into your editing process), but how does that work for you?
Yeah, that's a good question. I think you're right. It is something that we really want as writers. It's like this desire to come up with something new, come up with something exciting as a writer.
So I'm not sure that I actually avoid cliches. Maybe I just edit out cliches. That that comes with trust in the process, as cliche as that sounds in and of itself.
I’ve done theater my whole life actually. In undergrad, I was part of this playback theater troupe, and it's improvisational theater. Our director, Tracy Manning, would say, "Your first choice is not always your best choice." The thing that you think to do in this improvisational situation… the first choice may not be the best thing you can think of. It's just the first thing that came to you.
I think that happens a lot in my writing. I have these first choices, and they're not fantastic and they're not super original. And maybe they are cliche. And recognizing that a first choice is just a first choice. It's not the last choice that I get to make. It's just the first thing that I'm doing. And it may be cliche, it may have been done before, but then I have the option to make a fifth choice and a sixth choice and a 20th choice. And suddenly it's not what it was in the beginning. That kind of process of revision is what keeps me coming up with fresh things or reworking things in a different way.
Another kind of practice I do to avoid cliches is letting myself think differently about things. And this is hard to do, right? Because we have so many other responsibilities. If you're not just strictly writing poetry for a living, you maybe have a family to take care of, you have bills to pay, you have a job. There's all these other things. So your mind gets trained to work in a certain way.
But I do intentionally make myself think poetically on a fairly regular basis. I will be walking to the bus stop and think: “You cannot think of anything that you are doing today for the next 20 minutes. I only want you to look at this grass or listen to the sounds around you or daydream about something interesting.” Those practices help as well.
That's so brilliant. And that goes back to the non-writing writing habits. You have to get away from your writing desk and go for a walk and think, "Okay, I'm only going to think like a poet right now." And not in a strict, oppressive way, but as an experiment. I love your process.
The other thing that popped out to me while reading your work is the impeccable rhythm you have. I'm a huge fan of rhythm. I try to work that into my own work. But sometimes it's hard. Language, especially now with social media and the internet, and we're bombarded with information all the time, it's almost easier for us to add in a lot of filler words and lose that tradition... That sense of rhythm that we hold in our bodies.
You've done such a good job of making your poems rhythmically pleasing. I wasn't tripped up once, which is very hard to do as a poet. What is your process for smoothing out rhythm, or does that bubble up organically for you?
That's a good question. I just talk to myself 24/7. If I'm washing the dishes or writing an email or thinking out loud. So naturally I also read my poetry out loud as I'm writing it again and again and again… every line. That's what helps me to hear the rhythm as I'm writing. And as I'm speaking it, if there's something that's tripping me up, then I know that it's going to likely trip a reader up as well.
Or maybe that's the purpose. If there's a purpose to a difficult rhythm or something that's difficult to get through, then maybe I will lean into that and make it more prominent or draw that out in a poem. Otherwise, if I'm trying to make something conversational or make it have a specific cadence, and I think that that does come out maybe because I'm always talking through my writing and then I can actually hear it, which helps.
I love that. That's a general good tip for all writers: read your work out loud! Especially poets because poetry is so sonically important. Unless it's a visual poem. At the end of the day, all of our poetry is audible and it's a full [sensory] experience.
You work with writers all the time at Ruminate, and you do such a wonderful job. What's one piece of advice you would give to aspiring writers?
That's a great question. I would say to take your time.
That's something I’ve learned along the way. It's not something that I believed in at first. I was in a writing program in undergrad, and it was very much about becoming a writer now and getting the publications now and developing a voice now and creating your brand now. I felt a lot of pressure to be a developed writer, very suddenly, you know?
That wasn't a productive way for me to think about my writing. It was very... It made me feel very apprehensive. It made me feel like a fraud and all these things. I would say to just take your time. That doesn't mean that there can't be a sense of urgency to your work because I do think there is a sense of urgency that I feel about my work or I wouldn't be doing it. But there's a balance between feeling a sense of urgency for your work and also recognizing that this is all a really long process. And you have to get through a lot of things to get to where you're going.
For me, a lot of times, I want to be the writer that I will be in five years right now. I want to be her, you know? The truth is: that's not possible. It's not possible for me to be that person unless I'm right here. Trusting the process, again, taking your time, and being okay with the cadence or the rhythm you're working in is really important.
And the rhythm, it may not be completely linear. It may not be me just incrementally getting better until I am at that five-year mark of whatever I thought that writer me was going to be like. Maybe it's more winding than that. Maybe I'm not going to be able to tell how I even got there.
Taking your time and balancing that with a sense of urgency is really important.
I love that. Oh my goodness. That's a great piece of advice. I completely agree with you, and I have to check myself so much because like you said, I want to be the writer five years down the line. Obviously, we all want to have that publication, right? Or that finished book. And we want to get there now.
If we do that, we're missing out on the whole reason we’re writers in the first place: to write and be in the process! So you might as well be where you are because five years ago, you wanted to be exactly where you are now.
It's such a great reminder. Thank you for reminding me of that.
Our culture does it to us too. We're constantly pushed to do more things, stay up later, get up earlier, get the book done, publish, publish, publish, publish, pitch, pitch, pitch. Sometimes it's like, "Wait, what are we here for again?" We're here to be in process, to be in communication. Thank you for sharing that. So wise.
Would you do us the honor of reading us a poem from Un-Becoming?
Yes, I would love to. I forgot my book, but I do have my phone.
I’ll read the first poem that you read a line from.
Charnell reads from Un-Becoming: “On Monday I Decide to Eat 5 Kiwi for Breakfast”
Lovely. Thank you so much for reading that and sharing your work with us. That was wonderful. Everyone, you need to get this chapbook. It's incredible. And read it in Central Park like I did. It's incredible.
What's next for you, and where can people connect with you and find your work?
What is next for me? That's a great question. Hopefully a PhD soon. Hopefully some more writing coming out in some places. I do have a Twitter account, so if you want to follow me on Twitter, @charnellpeters, just my name. You can follow me there.
I'm also trying to figure out what the next steps are for me. I'm excited to see what that is.
Yes, excited for the unfolding! I'm excited too.
I'm excited that we get to work together all the time. It's been such a pleasure. And it was such a pleasure to talk about your poetry and something outside of what we normally do together, so it was wonderful.
That was great.
Okay. Thank you so much Charnell.
Everyone, this book is amazing. Head over her website: charnellpeters.com. I'll post the URL below. Grab that book.
Hey there, it's Renee again. Thanks so much for listening to this interview. If you want to learn more about Charnell, head over to her website at charnellpeters.com to buy her amazing book and read more of her beautiful writing.
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