Catching Up With Charles North

Published September 3, 2023

Charles North is an American poet, essayist and teacher. Described by the poet James Schuyler as “the most stimulating poet of his generation,” he has received two National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowships, a Foundation for Contemporary Arts Grants to Artists award (2008), four Fund for Poetry awards, and a Poets Foundation award. Hanging Loose Press has published six of his twelve poetry collections. His What It is Like: New and Selected Poems headed NPR’s Best Poetry Books of the Year (2011), and his most recent collection, Everything and Other Poems, was named a N.Y. Times New and Noteworthy Book.” He lives with his wife, the painter Paula North, in New York City.

Hanging Loose Press: What are this year’s or past year’s accomplishments that you are most proud of?

Charles North: I’ve published a couple of things in the last two years, but what’s been most gratifying—I’m more comfortable speaking about gratification than about pride—is the little book of poems by Bob Hershon with art by his daughter, Lizzie, that HL published this year. Of course I can’t be certain, but I can’t imagine that Bob would mind my talking about its inception.

It’s been more than two years since Bob died. He was my friend and colleague (and publisher) since the late 1970s, when Paul Violi and I found our way to his Print Center office in Brooklyn and Bob printed our first Swollen Magpie Press book. (We stapled the spines by hand!) 

Bob, as those close to him knew, had a difficult time towards the end. He was in and out of the hospital, sleeping on a bed in his living room, very unhappy. We talked on the phone a good deal. He complained of not writing, and worried that he would never come up with poems again. Kidding around, I said I’d give him a poetry “assignment.” I can’t remember what it was but magically it worked. My friend, whose poetry I much admired and who had been writing poems for 60 years, wrote a terrific Bob Hershon poem. I proceeded to give him “assignments” from time to time, and he wrote more successful poems, which became the basis for Unveiling with Lizzie. The two had wanted to do a collaborative book for some time, and the poems he began writing led to others. It sounds like hyperbole, and I’m sure Bob couldn’t have had any idea, but I felt as gratified as I thought he did.  When I heard that his half of the book’s dedication was to me, I was honored.

I will mention one recent book I had a more direct hand in, which was also very gratifying. The painter Trevor Winkfield and I set out to do a collaborative chapbook of poems with art, which the art press MAB (PA) eventually published. I worried (as I always do) that the poems wouldn’t live up to Trevor’s fabulous art, and that in any case they would be dwarfed (in more than one sense, as too often happens in poet/artist collabs) by the artwork. But the book turned out beautifully, we both thought, and still think.

Sidenote: Unveiling by Robert Hershon and Elizabeth Hershon will be available this fall. Charles North and Trevor Winkfield’s En Face .

HLP: Any particularly difficult experiences/challenges for you this year?  And how did you work through them?

CN: I think the challenges for the past year (and the two prior to that) were the ones everyone was facing because of the pandemic. 

Portrait by Louise Hamlin

HLP: What are three books you’ve read recently that have made an impression on you?

CN: I loved Norman Malcolm’s memoir about Wittgenstein, the best such I’ve come across—but it’s old and not so easy to find. And I reread a few things which I had loved the first time around and which more than held up, among them the extraordinary journals of the English writer Denton Welch (who died in his early thirties in 1948) and the series of police procedurals by the extraordinary Swedish husband-wife team Maj Sjowall and Per Wahlöö, to me batting cleanup in the Crime Fiction lineup (these days, second or third).  

HLP: I love that you listed novels about police procedurals in your top three current reads.  What is it about crime fiction that caught your attention?

CN: Nothing new, or in particular—I’ve been a mystery (as they used to be called) fan for a long time, classics like Simenon, Rex Stout, Dorothy Sayers, newer people like the Sjöwall/Wahlöö team, Ian Rankin, Henning Mankell, Michael Connelly, S. J. Rozan, and others who aren’t coming to mind. I had read the ten Martin Becks (Sjöwall/Wahlöö) quite a while ago, but it was a treat to go through them again. Complete Lineups (HL!), my poems in the form of baseball lineups, has one of Mystery Writers, which includes other classic figures like Christie, Chandler, Hammett, Conan Doyle.

HLP: Any upcoming projects? 

CN: I have a book coming out soon from Black Square Editions, poems + selected prose. The title came from a tiny prose piece I did for The Brooklyn Rail a couple of years ago: News, Poetry & Poplars (poplars as in Gerard Manley Hopkins).  I’m also doing new (I hope!) things in my usual fashion. Scribbling a lot and putting the results into a file cabinet, thinking I don’t have anything, then at some point, without thinking much about it, “discovering” (if I’m lucky) that I do have some things I like, even if it’s only a few.

HLP: I just read a poem by Sharon Tracey, a sort of homage to Hopkins’s gift for uplifting the mundane.  Can you say if your upcoming book goes in that direction?

CN: The 30-page title poem in my last book, Everything and Other Poems, has some uplifting of the mundane—I like to think. Not sure whether the notion applies specifically to the new book. What’s new about this one is that it has prose as well as poems: interviews, essays, intros, smaller things. 

HLP: Can you flesh out this idea of “discovering” ?  It’s so elusive, this idea that you will uncover something, but you might be closer to it than the rest of us!

CN: Elusive is the word! I’m afraid I don’t have much to say beyond what I said above. I do a lot of writing, often without quite knowing what I’m up to; I try to let myself go. Later—sometimes a lot later—I take a look at what I’ve thrown into a drawer and (often) forgotten about. If I find something I like enough, I keep it. Sometimes I like only parts and fool around with them: combining pages that weren’t originally combined, changing a title, throwing away everything but the last line, giving the “idea” for the poem another go, etc. There’s no rule, which is what makes the entire process elusive! Discovery, for me, is just coming upon something I wrote which strikes me as successful, whether or not I feel I need to do more with it.