“Charm Offensive,” winner of Sexton Poetry Prize is humanly rich and rewarding material

Author Ross White. Courtesy Ross White.


By Pamir Kiciman

No matter your level of poetry appreciation, Ross White’s new full-length collection, “Charm Offensive,” is an accessible volume containing poems that readily give the reader meaning and context for an insightful read.

White teaches creative writing and grammar in the English & Comparative Literature Department at UNC-Chapel Hill. His new collection is the 2019 winner of the Sexton Poetry Prize for the “best unpublished poetry collection by an American poet.”

Despite the book’s title, the poems in it aren’t necessarily charming. This is a good thing. They are in your face. There’s a bluntness and directness that sharpens the wit. The beauty in them is somewhat stark, though no less stirring.

Just because the poetry is approachable doesn’t mean the poems are simple or prosaic, or without layers of metaphor that make you stop and consider how to decipher them. White conveys thoughts worthy of further exploration, wrapped up in images that require open curiosity to arrive at what they may represent.

Often the consideration and deciphering linger even after a poem ends. That’s what you want in a volume of poetry; a landscape to traverse that the poet lays out in front of you, so you can discover all its subtleties.

White doesn’t describe feelings. Instead, he makes use of dense metaphorical images to bring the reader into his inner world: “I found I could not respond. / I had doves, like refugees / from a handkerchief / or false-bottomed hat, / in my throat.”

The jacket art for Ross White’s new poetry collection, “Charm Offensive.”

Similarly, “Second Love,” a poem that seems to inventory four different loves, opens with: “I took you nowhere, / still shellshocked from the carpet bombing / at the end of first love,”

Everyone can relate to the experience of being bottled up in the throat with feeling or the saturated drama of broken relationships that carry trauma into the next one. Human moments resound throughout the collection.

“Charm Offensive” is filled with poems that don’t finish the way they start. There’s always another layer, another twist or surprise.

In “A Shoebox,” White traces a line from a quote in the epigraph attributed to his father, to the shoebox triage of tending injured birds, to the heart-wrenching lines, “I sing the nightingale song of the damaged, / the torch anthem of the weak.”, to the candlelit tenderness his wife shows him, and ends in full circle with the lines, “& I know that our marriage bed / is the shoebox she set up for me,”

These aren’t fanciful poems of disconnected lofty heights — although there are hat-tips to the mythic; God, the sculpture of David, Rome, notes on divination — but poems closer to the ground and present in their immediacy, revealing the poet’s elastic imagination.

The narrator of these poems has suffered and yet still wants it all: “Why the / sport of hurt remains: what is beautiful / must be beaten beautiful.”

The refuges of memory are indispensable and of high value. As are noticing what’s here and what’s around you right now. Deriving meaning from these and using them to hold mortality at bay, while being fully cognizant of it: “We’ll end up in soil & wormbelly & root system / & eventually we’ll be in the fossil record”

“I Like Too Many Things” is the first poem in the collection. It’s a solid block of writing that sets the entire tone by listing what he likes in pairs at the beginning and then in typical fashion, it goes to those places White seems to prefer, places of everyday profundity, urgency and emotional depth.

Like the poem’s title, there’s a lot to like, even keep here. 

“Charm Offensive” is available for order here.

White is also a publisher and director of Bull City Press, a Durham-based, all-volunteer, small indy press that holds a reading series amongst other offerings. On August 26, Chapel Hill’s Alison B. Hart will be one of the authors, whose debut novel The Local Reporter reviewed as part of an exclusive interview.

The following interview with Ross White has been edited for length and clarity.

How do you begin to draft a poem? Are you working with fragments of phrases, feelings, memories, and experiences or does the process begin with a fuller idea or subject matter?

I don’t know that I have a consistent process for how a poem arrives, but I can say with certainty that I almost never start with a full idea or a set subject matter. I’ll usually start with an image and just sit with it for a while, to see what else it could suggest. Other times, I’ll start with a title that seems like it could be interesting. However the poem is initiated, it really begins in earnest with the first moment where I surprise myself by saying something I didn’t know I wanted to say. 

Do poems finish as a first version in one sitting, or does it take several sittings?

I almost never begin a draft without finishing it that day, but those first drafts are often unusable. If I’m lucky, what takes shape has a lot of the information (and the discovery) that will make it into the final poem, but my first drafts rarely find good metaphors and often don’t have much music to them, so I must work hard on those things in successive drafts.

What does editing look like? Do you obsess over every choice or is it more about the emotional truth of the poem?

I have a list of questions I ask myself before I know a poem is done, and when I’m revising, I’ll sit down to a draft with just one of those questions in mind. So, I might be looking solely at the poem’s rhythms on Monday and then challenging each of the verbs on Wednesday and ensuring the syntax feels muscular on Thursday. These days I’m probably averaging about seventeen drafts or so, which to me feels highly economical! 

What tells you a poem is done?

I start sending a poem out for publication when I run through my list of revision questions and don’t see any options that are clearly superior to what’s on the page. I don’t have a strong sense that the poems are fully cooked because I think the best poems retain an element of mystery, an element of uncertainty to them.

Is a poem a breathing, living entity? Does it tell you where it wants to go, or do you dictate it all?

I truly believe that poems are smarter than poets, so they guide us where they want to go. Which is to say, the best poems are the ones where the poet surrenders some part of the conscious mind and inhabits a space where they can discover some part of themself that they wouldn’t have access to otherwise. Are poems living, breathing entities? Yes, but in the same way that dreams are.

Talk about the arrangement Bull City Press has with UNC-CH where students can gain experience in editing, design, and publishing skills.

Occasionally we’ll take summer interns from UNC (along with other schools), but I’m more interested in embedding authentic publishing experiences into the curriculum. I teach a course in editing and publishing that gives students the chance to work with Bull City Press authors as both editors and book designers. I can point to several significant decisions in books that were made on the basis of feedback that students gave. I’ve been blown away by the number of students who have finished that course and gone on to careers in publishing, often because they made a valuable contact with a visiting editor, agent, or publisher.

Share This Article

Scroll down to make a comment.

Be the first to comment on "“Charm Offensive,” winner of Sexton Poetry Prize is humanly rich and rewarding material"

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.