On Thursday October 26th at 7:30pm, Poet Charles Fort will be reading some of his work for the Fall 2023 Prout Chapel Reading Series at Bowling Green State University. The reading will be held in the Prout Chapel on the BGSU campus. The event is open to the public.

Charles Fort has preserved a decades long career that has produced 16 full-length books and chapbooks of poetry which include: The Town Clock Burning (St. Andrews Press) and We Did Not Fear the Father: New and Selected Poems (Red Hen Press). Fort’s poetry has appeared in countless literary journals and anthologies including The Best American Poetry 2001, 2003, and 2016 and is the recipient of numerous awards and honors throughout his career. During his time as a professor of poetry and creative writing, Fort held the Reynolds Endowed Chair of Poetry at the University of Nebraska-Kearney where he is now Distinguished Emeritus Endowed Professor. He received his MFA in Creative Writing from Bowling Green State University.

Fort’s poetry becomes a response to his lived experience and at times seemingly addressed to someone specific, as if the epistle is holy, or, perhaps, he makes it the holiest form in which his poetry can love. In “Prose Poem for Claire Fort” from The Town Clock Burning (St. Andrew’s Press), Fort addresses his daughter, remembering her birth. The poem opens with the date and time placing us into his world at 3:23am. Fort writes, “Winter brings my wife a child and your birth arrives with the morning tide like wings alive in a jar.” Fort’s poems feel like song, like something that must be taken care of, protected. A theme throughout many of Fort’s poems is family or parental figures. In his poem “We Did Not Fear the Father” from The Best American Poetry 2001, Fort explores a more complex relationship to parenthood and family dynamics. In the final line, Fort writes, “We did not fear our father until he stooped in the dark.” His work examines the complex nuances of these relationships and peels back the layers to understand each as honest and complete as any great poet does.

To find out more information, visit Charles Fort here: https://www.poetcharlesfort.com.

––Tyler Michael Jacobs, Blog Co-Editor

Assistant Editor Christopher McCormick conducted the following interview with Charles Fort via email.

Christopher McCormick: You famously wrote 300 villanelles. What was it that drew you to the form? Can you share any insights or discoveries you made while completing this project?

Charles Fort: I have now completed 500 villanelles. I believe I am finished. I started writing them 10 years ago. The subjects include: Stravinsky, Hendrix, Beethoven, Duke Ellington, Van Gogh, Beatles, Motown, Miles, Coltrane, Pinter, Manson, Charlie McCarthy, Robert Johnson, Woodstock, Coleridge, Little Black Sambo, Knucklehead Smith, Bergman films (complete catalogue) the Inferno, the ancestral Fort journey on the ship Golconda––A Villanelle Vérité Redoublé––On May, 14, 1868, the ship Golconda set sail from Savannah, Georgia to Liberia. The journey of 7 generations of Fort ancestors starboard…There is a city named Fortsville, Liberia, Stephen Hawking, others…

I was a member of a well-known weekly workshop in West Hartford, Connecticut (via Northampton, Mass. and Cape Cod) led by the former President of The Friends and Enemies of Wallace Stevens, once called the friends of Wallace Stevens until one member noted his scarred writing/comments on race. I credit Stevens for allowing me to disregard Ashbury and the Ashbury Jr’s that walked the halls of Bowling Green in 1975-1977. I introduced a new villanelle to workshop each week for years. The group nearly asked for reparations.

CM: “We Did Not Fear the father” is driven by two seemingly contradictory emotions: love and fear. Does contradiction play an important role in the shaping of poems?

CF: Was it Vonnegut who said writers observe the terror and absurdity in the world. I might add beauty to that paraphrase. Love, fear, and the fear of love. In an early draft of “We Did Not Fear the Father,” I called my father the scaremonger! I changed it to the honorific term: our provider.

CM: “Prose Poem for Claire Fort” begins and ends with the image “wings alive in a jar.” In fact, repetition appears throughout your work in very interesting ways. How does repetition factor into your creative process?

CF: I want repetends to dissolve the rivets of poetic forms. No matter the form, I want to alter tradition in subversive-hidden ways. At times, I create a narrative thread that allows for a contemporary sensibility inside a vessel overflowing—shipwrecked with coal and precious stones.

CM: Some of your poetry touches on personal loss, most notably your wife, Wendy Fort who passed from Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. What does it feel like to release such intimate work into the world?

CF: I wrote poems about my wife immediately after her passing into everlasting light. I felt guilty and torn between being a husband and father with two daughters. I was ashamed I was a poet. Had I taken advantage of such grief? I had to write about my experience and reveal it to the world.

CM: You seem to be equally comfortable writing in free verse, form, and prose. Are any of these favorites?

CF: In my Graduate Workshop and Seminar, in the first half of the semester, I introduced the sonnet, villanelle, sestina (using the six images within the line), prose poem, and a form I created I called a medievalist-echo-verse. The second half of the semester the students wrote whatever form or free verse they wished.

The aleatory nature of the creative process in the arts and sciences, the sullen craft. I paraphrase Stravinsky: The more one toils with the creative process, the more one is set free.

Typing poems was like playing my silver clarinet as a lad for ten years and a tenor saxophone for one. I remember the exact moment I went from writing in longhand in large artist sketchbooks to a computer. First drafts to eternal final drafts. One of my professors at Bowling Green spoke of the three conditions of language: Educated—job interviews, speaking to your parents, grandparents, asking for money: Colloquial—capturing the linguistic nuances of your birthplace: Jive—the polyphonic, street wise, warnings, and when to run fast. The writer might want to learn to master all three levels of language and write them into their work at the same time, following physics into the past, present, and future at the same moment.

CM: Do you approach writing free verse, form, and prose differently?

CF: No. I first begin all my writing in prose. As a lad, I wrote up to fifty pages on single-spaced 8 x 14 legal pads. I would capture the images, phrases, and lines that caught my eye, ear, and heart. The fifty pages might become one sonnet or many other forms. 

I write blues, jazz, poetry of witness, pastoral poetry, etc. I admire Hopkins and Etheridge Knight.

CM: What is the single most important attribute of a good poem?

CF: Tear away from the historical and cultural definitions of poetry until the center falls apart. There is good poetry and bad poetry. One needs an hourglass, compass, and the heart’s metronome to locate the best words in the best order.

CM: You have multiple poems that share the title “In a Just and Miniature World.” What is it about that title that captured your imagination? 

CF: If I may say so, I love its musicality and lyricism. I think of the child who walked into the wilderness and came upon a poem nailed to a birch tree. The poem was Loveliest of Trees. The child became a poet. I wrote In a just and miniature world decades ago in a poem titled “The Writer at His Desk” now called “The Writer”—the poem won the Randall Jarrell Poetry Prize judged by Fred Chappell. I read the poem outdoors wearing my father’s very old shark skin suit in front of the Jarrell or was it the O. Henry Sculpture? Maxine Kumin was the main speaker. I felt like Robert Frost reading trying to read against a strong wind. 

CM: Many of your poems combine images of the natural world with intimate scenes of family life. Does this suggest a special connection between the natural world and the human world?

CF: Yes! I attended the first Earth Day. As a lad, I read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. John Hersey’s Hiroshima. Observe and remove environmental racism! Save the birch trees! Save us from war!

CM: What role does American history, world history, and personal history play in your poetry?

CF: It is difficult to escape history. I try. Imagination is central to my work no matter the subject. Kafka knew there was no escape.

CM: You, along with your late wife, Wendy Fort, staged a performance, Afro Psalms: a Special Showcase in Ekphrastic History, with Charles Fort and Wendy Fort, that combined poetry with visual art and dance. How did you find these three mediums worked together to create an experience for your audience?

CF: I collaborated with my late wife with the dance she choreographed to my poetry. I wrote a libretto that was set to full choir and orchestra at Thalian Hall in Wilmington, NC. The poem went on to win the Poetry Society of America Prize for poem best set to music. I stayed at the Gramercy Hotel. The ceremony was hosted by George Plimpton across the avenue at the National Arts Club. Denise Levertov was the main guest. I sat in a rather elegant leather chair that once sat JFK. I sipped the rarest single blend scotch I could find.

I have read my poetry accompanied by nearly every instrument in the world. Violin to Piano to Double Bass to Saxophone. When the saxophonist was not available, I became the saxophone!


––Christopher McCormick, Mid-American Review