Charles Coe is a poet, author, musician and filmmaker. His most recent book of poetry is Memento Morie from Leapfrog Press. He worked with the Massachusetts Cultural Council for nearly twenty years, retiring as Program Coordinator in 2017. He still reads and performs around Boston and is an adjunct professor of English at Salve Regina University in Newport, Rhode Island, where he teaches in the MFA program.
What are you feelings about Black History Month as a writer and performing poet who has featured in Februarys past?
I’m always honored to be asked to read or speak a Black History Month event. But I’ll make the point that paying attention to Black history and culture shouldn’t be confined to one month. There should be emphasis all year long on acknowledging the struggles and accomplishments of people of color, women, and immigrants.
A while ago, you retired from the Massachusetts Cultural Council. What is the project you are most proud of accomplishing or helping to herald? Is there a project you never got around to but would love seeing someone pick up and run with?
I’m very proud of the year I spent as an Artist-in-Residence for the city of Boston. I did a project called “What You Don’t Know About Me,” where I combined photos of people who live and work on Mission Hill with excerpts from interviews I did with them. The intent was to combine text and image of each person to create moments of surprise, to undermine the stereotypes and instant assumptions we often make about each other. Viewers would look at the photo of one of the subjects, read the text and say, “Hmm…I would never have thought that about this person.”
There was one project I knew I didn’t have time to do but I actually got in touch with a few writer friends and bugged someone to take it on. Never happened. It would have been a biography of Frances Oldham Kelly, an administrator with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration who refused to authorize thalidomide for the American market because she had concerns about the drug’s safety. She was under incredible pressure from the drug lobby but held her ground and became a hero when the news hit about all the birth defects the drug had caused in Europe.
I came across a brief reference to her while doing research for another project and was intrigued and wanted to learn more about her. I was surprised to learn she’d never written about those times and that no one had written about her. She was apparently razor sharp until she died in 2015 at 101. I’ll always regret that no one took the opportunity to interview her and get the story.
What’s the most ridiculous criticism you received over any of your poems or books? Did it help feed your writing anyway?
I’ve been criticized for not being “political” enough as a poet. I do write about political and social issues at times, but I’m mostly a storyteller, writing about “ordinary moments” that can inform our understanding of the world if we slow down and pay attention to them. I’ll keep doing what I’m passionate about rather than try to imitate great political poets like Pablo Neruda or Martin Espada.
You’re written a book of self-meditations recently. You’re also written a book about your parents. In today’s political climate, where even families are fractured, what do you say to young writers struggling to write directly about family in these times?
If you’re writing about your family you first need to ask yourself why you’re doing it. Out of love? To get revenge? To sort out and make sense of your past? There’s no right answer but we do need to ask the question. My book All Sins Forgiven: Poems for My Parents was an attempt to make sense of my parents’ lives and the roles they played—for better and worse—in shaping my own sense of self. I tried to do what I urge my students to do, to be rigorous but fair when writing about people in your life. Show them as complex, fully dimensional beings, neither heroes nor heavies. As people who did the best they could.
Free-style question: What do you really want?
What I really want is to live in a society that’s driven by kindness and generosity rather than anger and fear. America has taken a lot of body blows these last years (many of them self-inflicted) but we still have so much going for us. I’d like to see us create a country in which nobody has to sleep on a piece of cardboard or go hungry or bankrupt from medical bills. It might sound naïve but I think the job of every artist is to help move society in that direction. As George Elliot said, “If Art does not enlarge men’s sympathies, it does nothing morally.”
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