Wednesday, September 6, 2017

TLY: Today, we are excited and pleased to have Charles Coe as our guest. Charles is a poet, jazz vocalist, and teacher. 

Thanks so much, Charles, for being here. You are an eclectic person and artist, both a writer and a jazz singer. Did you come from a family of musicians and storytellers?

CHARLES:  My mother and father dabbled in the arts when they were young. My father played clarinet with a little dance band in high school and my mother liked to sing and was always singing around the house. But by the time I came along neither one was really doing anything in the arts.

TLY: You grew up in Indiana but now live on the east coast. What took you from the mid-west to the north east?

CHARLES:  Wanderlust. I’d dropped out of Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana to be lead singer for a rock band based in Nashville. We didn’t do original music; we were a cover band that played night clubs and road houses and such. After the band broke up I went back to Richmond for a few months but soon realized that hanging out in the town of the college you dropped out of was the Mother of Nowhere Scenes. I had some contacts in the New York metropolitan area so I spent a couple of years there, and then pretty much on a whim came to visit some folks in Boston with the idea of doing music. That was in ’75 and I’m still here!

TLY: Do you ever get back to Indiana?

CHARLES:  My parents and my sister have passed. My sister’s son Bryan lives there still with his girlfriend and their three young kids. I get back every year or so to hang out with them.

TLY: Your essay “Hill of Dreams” appears in the anthology Inspired Journeys: Travel Writers in Search of a Muse, you write about your trip to the Soviet Union in 1988. What muse do you think you were chasing when you signed on to the trip?

CHARLES:  That was before I shifted my focus from music to writing. In 1988 I was invited to be part of an artist exchange program that brought bring Soviet artists to the states one year and take American artists to the Soviet Union the next. I wound up singing jazz with pick-up bands in the three cities we visited: Moscow, Tbilisi in Georgia, and Baku in Azerbaijan— about 150 miles from the Iranian border.

TLY: In “Hill of Dreams,” you write about a sense of being “blind” or lost as a traveler, although you traveled with a guide and according to an itinerary. In what sense were you “blind?”

CHARLES: Blind in the sense that there were a lot of political undercurrents I wasn’t aware of at the time, largely conflict between ethnic populations that the Soviet government pretty much kept under control because people were more afraid of the government and the army than they hated each other. But a few years later as the union was collapsing and the economy started to get in really bad shape, a lot of violence erupted. I was also “blind” in the sense that anytime you visit a place for a week or so you only have a series of snapshots based on what you experienced and saw. Like the old story about the blind man trying to describe an elephant on the basis of what he can touch.

TLY: There’s a lot of humor and irony in your stories. “Moonglow,” which appeared in Boston Literary Magazine, comes to mind. It’s about a group of guys who can’t quite figure out the distance from earth to the moon, and are even less convinced when the narrator supplies them with solid data. Do you think much has changed since you wrote the story?

CHARLES:  That question makes me laugh…I’d sort of forgotten about that. That was back in the ‘70s when the guys were hanging out and having the kind of argument you could settle with a smart phone in about twenty seconds. What’s obviously different is that we now take for granted that about every piece of factual info you’d ever want is available instantly on that little chunk of plastic in your pocket. What’s obviously the same is that guys hanging around arguing about something innocuous are usually still a bunch of knuckleheads.

TLY: Your book, All Sins Forgiven, Poems for My Parents, has been described by reviewers as intimate, tender and wise. E. Ethelbert Ebert Miller has written about the collection, “Coe is a witness to black life and black love. His book will outlive much of the poetry being written today.” What are your thoughts?

CHARLES:  Of course, I’m delighted when an American master like Ethelbert says that about my work. But I’m most gratified when people who don’t necessarily read a lot of poetry send me a note or come up to me after a reading to say how a particular poem made them think about their own parents, or helped them understand or make peace with something about their own past.

TLY: “Fortress” is a poem about your mother, which is included in All Sins Forgiven. It is a beautiful, poignant piece of writing. Could you tell us about it?

CHARLES:  When I was a kid, the shades in our house were always drawn. I could never have a pet, I could never have friends over. Last year when I had a gig in Atlanta I stayed a couple of days with my best buddy from high school, whom I hadn’t seen or heard from for more than forty years. We’d reconnected when he sent me a friend request on Facebook. He’d read that poem, and when we were having coffee in his kitchen one morning he said that he’d always wondered why I’d never invited him over to my house; he thought my mother didn’t like him. But when he read the poem he understood for the first time that it was nothing personal.

I didn’t realize as a kid that my mother was mentally ill. I think that’s true for a lot of people; all the odd things your parents did…well…that’s just the way things were. That poem and a number of the other poems in “All Sins Forgiven” are a way of talking about this, I hope with sympathy and without judgment.

TLY: Roberto Mighty uses “Fortress” as the inspiration for his film Peach Pie. You’ve had many poems adapted to music. Was this the first time a poem has been adapted for film? What changes does the poem undergo in the movie that may have surprised you?

CHARLES:  Yes, this was my first piece of writing that’s been adapted for film, and it was quite an education for me. When Roberto put out a casting call he copied me on the announcement, and he described the character of my mother as a widowed working woman trying to raise a child alone. I emailed him back to say, “Actually, my father was still living and my mother never worked a day in her adult life.”

His response was basically, “Thanks for sharing.” Then I got it; once an artist in another medium decides to use your work as the basis for another project, unless your advice or insight is requested, your job is to keep you mouth shut and stay the hell out of the way. The filmmaker wasn’t “filming my poem”; he was using it as a frame of reference, a point of departure for his OWN vision. When I saw the film, which is an absolute stunner, there was a moment of grace that never actually occurred in my mother’s life but fit the film perfectly.

TLY: Charles, thank you so much for your time. It Is greatly appreciated. Your work is amazing, and TLY thinks the world of it. Before we let you go, could you tell us about any future projects that you might have simmering?

CHARLES:  For the last year I’ve been an Artist-in-Residence for the city of Boston collecting oral histories in the Mission Hill neighborhood. I’m wrapping that up in the next month or so. Then I’ll continue on a third volume of poetry in progress, and later this fall I’ll get to work on a prose memoir about my family that will focus on my sister Carol, who died of liver cancer five years ago. I play and teach the didgeridoo, and had planned to be in Australia last February studying with aboriginal musicians, but when I got the Boston residency I had to postpone that trip. But I’m looking to go maybe next March or April.


Poet and writer Charles Coe is author of two books of poetry: All Sins Forgiven: Poems for my Parents and Picnic on the Moon, both published by Leapfrog Press. He is author of Spin Cycles, a novella published by Gemma Media. His essay Hill of Dreams, about his travels through the Soviet Union in 1988, appears in Inspired Journeys: Travels with the Muse (University of Wisconsin Press 2016). Peach Pie, a short film by filmmaker Roberto Mighty based on his poem "Fortress," is currently showing in film festivals nationwide.

Charles is the winner of a fellowship in poetry from the Massachusetts Cultural Council. He was selected by the Associates of the Boston Public Library as a “Boston Literary Light for 2014.” He in the second year of a three-year term as an Artist Fellow for the St. Botolph Club, an organization that supports arts and the humanities in Greater Boston. He has also been chosen as an Artist-in-Residence for the city of Boston for 2017. He taught poetry recently in Dingle, Ireland for the Bay Path University MFA study abroad program


For purchase All Sins Forgiven

For purchase Picnic on the Moon

For purchase Spin Cycles

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